A pilgrimage to Florence Nightingale’s burial place

This morning I went to see Florence Nightingale’s burial place at the church of St Margaret of Antioch in the village of Wellow in Hampshire.  When Florence, a national heroine, died at the age of 90 her relatives were offered a state burial in Westminster Abbey. They declined, preferring the parish church of her home.

Florence Nightingale’s memorial

My interest in Florence Nightingale was triggered by the book Spike Island by Philip Hoare. The book is an extraordinarily detailed account of the construction and subsequent operation of the grandiose Royal Military Hospital at Netley, beside Southampton Water.

The intention was that the hospital, Britain’s first royal military hospital, should be grander than any such establishment elsewhere in the world, a symbol of national pride. Unfortunately, it was also a symbol of architectural vanity at the expense of functional efficiency. Many aspects of the building’s design were so poor from a clinical viewpoint that they would work against rather than for the recovery of the patients.

Florence Nightingale c1850s by H. Lenthall, London

From her experience in the Crimean war, Florence could see many flaws in the proposed design of the Netley hospital. She took an opportunity to describe her misgivings to Queen Victoria herself and subsequently to figures in the government of the day and their advisers. At one point she set off from her home in Embley Park to nearby Broadlands to tell Lord Palmerston in person of her concerns. As a result, Palmerston wrote to his Secretary of State,  “It seems to me that all consideration of what would best tend to the comfort and recovery of the patients has been sacrificed to the vanity of the architect…Pray therefore stop all progress in the work until the matter can be duly considered.” This intervention by a woman came a hundred years before feminism and fifty before the suffragettes.

The Florence Nightingale of popular myth is a ministering angel patrolling the wards in the barrack hospital at Scutari. The reality was a woman of great intelligence and influence with overall responsibility for the military hospitals in Scutari.

The church of St Margaret of Antioch lies down a long and narrow country lane, well away from the main residences and limited facilities of the village of Wellow. The church is generally described as being in East Wellow, but there is no administrative distinction between East and West Wellow, which are both within the one parish boundary, so the distinction between them is confined to the OS map and popular parlance.

The church itself is attractively simple, though it has various features of interest, among them some faded and flaking wall paintings thought to date from the 13th century. The paintings were discovered in 1891 after being hidden for years under whitewash. The main figure is thought to be Saint Christopher, carrying the infant Christ.

Ancient wall painting rediscovered
Children’s corner

Inevitably, there is a good deal of Florence Nightingale memorabilia. At the west end, screen panels display various items relating to Florence, including a model of a fair-haired young woman holding a lantern, who bears no resemblance to Florence.

In the south aisle, a window sill is given over to photographs of her, along with a wreath, the original donated by the American Florence Nightingale society. There is also a memorial tablet set into the south wall.

Viewed from the south porch, the Nightingale family’s white marble memorial shines conspicuously among the lichened headstones of their less august neighbours.

The view from the south porch

Three sides of the memorial commemorate her parents and her elder sister Parthenope. Florence hated any form of publicity and longed for anonymity, which explains the brevity of the fourth side of the memorial, inscribed simply “F. N.  – Born 12 May 1820 –  Died 13 August 1910”. But her wish for anonymity was doomed: people from all over the globe still make a pilgrimage to this simple country churchyard to pay homage to her.


13 thoughts on “A pilgrimage to Florence Nightingale’s burial place

  1. when we were there last year, there were a number of small lanterns on the grave.
    but 2 weeks ago, I noted, it was was bare of all tributes.

  2. Beautiful photos Stephen. Made the memorials come alive. I agree simpler the better. What connection is there between Florence Nightingale and the “Been there, seen that tourist brigade”.

  3. Hello Stephen. It was interesting to read about Spike Island and Florence Nightingale – more particularly since we have a Spike Island here in Bristol. I wondered if there was any connection but our Spike Island is an area of the port of Bristol, adjoining the city centre.
    Spike Island was created by William Jessop in the early 19th century, when he constructed the New Cut, and converted the former course of the River Avon into the Floating Harbour. Until the Second World War, a lock connected Bathurst Basin with the New Cut, and Spike Island was a genuine island surrounded on all sides by water. However, fears that an aerial attack on this lock at low tide could lead to a disastrous dewatering of the docks led to the lock being filled in.
    Historically, Spike Island was the site of working quays, shipyards, warehousing, and other associated dockside industry. (nearly all above is a direct quote from Wikipedia)
    Now there is a building there called Spike Island, which is the home of artists of all varieties. We have a friend who sculpts in metal – Steve Joyce – who works there. One of his pieces is a large sculpture of John Cabot, which looks out across the docks.

  4. Thank you for this information. I am visiting England in May – June of 2013 and would very much like to visit Florence Nightingale’s grave. Can you provide any info on how to get there from London? thanks.

    1. JoAnne – You will need to travel by train to Romsey in Hampshire, and then by car (a taxi) from Romsey station to the little church at East Wellow where Florence is buried. The distance is about five miles. The church is too remote for any other method of transport to be a realistic option. I hope this helps.

      1. Thanks for the info. I assume that a cab driver will know the directions.

  5. I would hope so, but it might be sensible to check with the driver before entering the cab. If he/she doesn’t, I’d choose another cab. I’d also ask the price before making the journey. If you want to spend some time at the church, you’ll need to decide whether to pay the cab to wait or phone for another in due course.

  6. One day I hope to visit her grave. I came to be an auxiliary nurse in the town of Berwick Upon Tweed, Northumberland. Her life story has always been of interest to me for what she stood for. May God bless her.

    Andrea Bain

    1. I was able to see her grave 2 years ago. The people from the church met me and also gave me a tour of the church. I hope you were also able to get a tour of Embley Park (her family home) and her museum at St Thomas Hospital in London.

      Sent from my iPhone


  7. It used to be claimed that the famous lamp was kept in the boardroom of the Royal Hampshire County Hospital at Winchester, in which she had a large part in the original design, but I haven’t been able to verify this. A modern wing of the hospital is named after her.

  8. Just seen the film now I will visit the grave of this wonderful caring lady, lay flowers and remember how this lady has changed our world.

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