MY FAMILY HERO
Despite humble beginnings, Susan Rose’s great aunt Evelyn Pike made a real mark on the nursing profession
As a child, Susan Rose was fascinated by Florence Nightingale: the impact her pioneering work had on the soldiers she tended during the Crimean War and the profession she later helped to establish. “Little did I realise until researching my own family history that I would discover a great aunt who also had a very distinguished career in nursing. She, too, had to fight in order to be allowed to nurse, but in very different circumstances,” explains Susan.
Evelyn Pike was born in Rotherham in 1887 – one of 12 children. Life centred around the local pit where her father and brothers all worked. It was a tough existence, which was to stand her in good stead later. Having contracted rheumatic fever at the age of 12 and seeing how the medical team battled to save her, Evelyn vowed to become a nurse. However, left with a heart murmur after her illness, she wasn’t initially accepted for training. “She eventually secured a position in Galway, Ireland, assisting in nursing duties, until the Sister helped her enrol as a probationer at West Ham Infirmary, Leytonstone, where she trained until 1914,” adds Susan.
Nursing on the front line
With the outbreak of war came the opportunity to work as part of the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service ( Reserve). Previously, only nurses of ‘an impeccable social standing’ were accepted. By 1916, Evelyn found herself nursing on the front line and later at the 34th casualty clearing station – first at Bray-sur-Somme and then following the battlefields around Péronne, Abbeville, Doullens and Béthune.
“The more I researched, the more I was amazed by what she had done. The conditions off theh clearingli stationsi bbroughth home the stark reality of the war.
“The living conditions for the nurses were primitive, but for a woman who had lived without running water in the home and had used a tin bath in front of the fire, washing in a canvas bowl in cold water would have been easier for her to bear than for some of her more genteel colleagues.”
Under attack from the air
In July 1917, Evelyn became a Sister, and later that year moved to the 26th General hospital in Etaples. On 20 May 1918, an aerial bombardment destroyed parts of the hospital including the Sisters’ quarters. “Fortunately, Evelyn was not hurt, but there were two casualties in the nursing staff and it was a grim reminder that, in times of war, not even the nurses’ safety could be assured.”
After the war, she was recognised for the contribution she had made to nursing during her time in France, and in June 1920 was decorated with the Royal Red Cross medal (2nd class) by King George V at Buckingham Palace. Now also a qualified anaesthetist, she trained for, and passed, her midwifery exams that same year.
The second phase of her career began in 1922 when a short holiday to South Africa became a more long-term stay as she joined the nursing staff at the Port Elizabeth Hospital as a Sister. After working her way through the departments and learning Afrikaans, she became Matron there in 1932.
“In 1935, she was appointed Matron of Somerset Hospital in Cape Town and was instrumental in overseeing the monumental task of moving into the new Groote Schuur Hospital in 1938,” explains Susan.
During her administration, she pioneered the standardisation of practical nursing methods and made many other improvements. “On her retirement in 1945 she was awarded an Honorary MA by Cape Town University for her services to nursing education – quite an achievement for a woman who had left school at the age of 12!” She received many other accolades and in 1970 a bronze bust of her was unveiled in the Groote Schuur Hospital.
Evelyn died in September 1978. One of the doctors who paid tribute to her at her funeral said: “She’ll be remembered as one of the true greats in the nursing profession.”
Susan also has great respect for Evelyn: “She was a determined woman who achieved great things and devoted her life to nursing without any of the advantages of wealth or education.
“What really stands out about her life for me is the fact she coped very well in two very different nursing roles and never stopped rising to the next challenge and trying to work harder for the good of others,” she adds. “I don’t think she did anything for money or personal ambition. Despite her ordinary start in life she was never fazed by anything or anyone.”
SUSAN ROSE lives in Yorkshire. Recently retired from teaching, she began researching her family tree in 1995.
Evelyn Pike is pictured third from right, on the back row