Bagthorpe Isolation Hospital

“Heathfield Hospital”


The dictionary definition of a Matron is “The Housekeeper of a public institution.” Housekeepers of a public institution they certainly were. This is because nursing has its roots in the traditions of the Church and to a lesser extent the Army. Both traditions were strongly authoritarian and hierarchical and influenced the development of nursing long after it became a secular occupation. It is not surprising therefore that nursing still bears the vestular traces of both ecclesiastical and military organisation; the very title ‘sister,’ and ‘almoner’ stem from the Church whereas such terms as ‘duties,’ ‘rank’ and ‘orderly’ show the military influence.

The following example is a copy of the original text from the ‘Matron’s Minute Book’. The copy is of the matron’s own handwriting. The comments made in the book were dated 23rd October 1936 and form a report made by the newly appointed matron who took up her duties on 2nd October of that year. As you will see from the very outset report she had some very clear cut ideas on how she intended to run the hospital. With these ideas came authority. And no more is there a better example than in the opening of the report where she says: - “I have to report that I took up duty as Matron on 2nd October 1936. I am in the process of making a thorough investigation of the hospital’s services, which is my duty to control.”

It is of course authority and ultimately discipline that matrons are mostly remembered for. As it says in the job description of the matron: -“She shall have control of all nurses and domestic servants, and shall be responsible for the maintenance of discipline among them.”

Members of the hospital staff and patients looked on the matron in awe, with a sort of ‘reverential fear.’ The matron was a person who could carry more respect than in some cases a senior consultant and was seen as a strict disciplinarian. To give you an example of this sort of discipline it is better to quote an example from the book by James Macfie, which is, entitled “From Bagthorpe to the City.” “Discipline was strong and crimes such as addressing a medical officer or the matron without being spoken to first, or leaving a ward without rolling down sleeves and putting on cuffs, or being late on duty, usually meant a terrifying interview with the matron.”

The need to be a stalwart for authority and essentially discipline comes from the fact that the matron made it her job to know everything that was going on in ‘her hospital.’ It was ‘her’ job to know as it was she who was ultimately responsible for the day to day running of the hospital, and not just from a nursing point of view, as the following examples will show. One of the essential qualifications to becoming a nurse was that you had first of all to be single. So if a nurse was to get married, that was the end of her career. In the case of a matron marriage it was totally out of the question; they were married to their jobs and saw their positions in life as a ‘calling.’ They had long given up the idea of matrimony. Instead they settled for a life of public service, a life they were extremely proud of.

Alas, this position no longer exists in today’s National Health Service. The title and position of matron was abolished after the recommendations of the Salmon Report. After this report was published in 1968 matrons were replaced or renamed ‘Director of Nursing Services’ or ‘Senior Nursing Officers.’ Of course, there have been further title changes since that time. Instead of ‘Ward Sisters’ we now have ‘Ward Managers’ for example. People, especially of an older generation will lament the demise of the hospital matron and all that went with the title but into today’s modern hi-tech health service the idea of an old fashioned strict disciplinarian would look extremely out of place.

Bagthorpe Isilation Hospital