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.
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.
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.
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.
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.