Ethel Gordon Fenwick

The First Nurse 

This year (2019) marks the centenary of the Nurses Registration Act of 1919 which was only realised after a lengthy campaign. Ethel Gordon Fenwick nee Manson (1857-1947) was one of the leaders of this campaign and appears as Nurse Number 1 when the register opened in 1923. She played a major role in the history of nursing in the United Kingdom through her campaign to procure a nationally recognised certificate for nursing. Born in the Morayshire town of Elgin in Scotland, the daughter of a wealthy doctor who died before Ethel had turned one, the family moved to Nottinghamshire when her mother remarried. Her stepfather was George Storer (1814-1888), Member of Parliament for the South Nottinghamshire constituency. Ethel’s formative life was spent at Thoroton Hall, near Bingham in the Vale of Belvoir where the family resided. 

Ethel’s stepfather, George was the son of Rev John Storer of Hawksworth, Notts and the grandson of John Storer a leading physician in Nottingham and one of the founders of the General Hospital, the Sneinton Asylum and the Vaccination Institution in the town. In 1816 he was involved in the setting up of the Bromley House Subscription Library.

At the age of 21 Ethel commenced nurse training at the Children’s Hospital in Nottingham as a paying practitioner, and in 1878 she left and relocated to Manchester Royal Infirmary. She then went to London where she worked in hospitals in Whitechapel and Richmond. In 1891 she was appointed Matron of St Bartholomew’s hospital, a post she held until 1887 when she resigned to marry Dr Bedford Fenwick with whom she had one son. Ethel was instrumental in establishing the International Council of Nurses in 1899 becoming their first president, she also owned and edited the British Journal of Nursing up until her death in 1947 and was a founder member of the British Nurses Association, now the Royal British Nurses Association. Ethel was also active in the campaign for women’s suffrage and during WW1 organised Nursing Corps for active duty in France. Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s ashes are interred in the family grave at St Helena’s Church, Thoroton.

Ethel Gordon Fenwick’s association with Nottingham and Notts is not well known and  members of the national Ethel Gordon Fenwick commemorative project group are researching her early life and career. 2020 will be a worldwide commemoration of the bicentenary of Florence Nightingales birth. The aim of the ‘Year of the Nurse’ the term proposed by the World Health Organisation, is to help to raise the profile of nursing and midwifery and promote the recognition the profession deserves. Nottingham Women’s History Group will also be organising talks, walks and events to mark these centenaries.

Ethel Bedford Fenwick The First Nurse by Jenny Main published in 2003 is available in local libraries or follow events and comment on twitter- Ethel Gordon Fenwick @ethel_fenwick, a website will be launched late September 2019. Nightingale comes home for 2020 is a AHRC funded project at the University of Nottingham, reflecting her links to Derbyshire and the Midlands, details available at

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