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Background to the RBNA

100th Birthday Party 1987

Miss Ada Ward and Dame Margaret
Burne Hon Secretary SRN Fever
Training President of Royal College of
Midwives President of RBNA

Hon Secretary

DameJosephine Barnes MA, DM, FRCP, FRCS, FRCOG 5th President of the RBNA and 1st female President for The British Medical Association

Mr Richard Bowden, MA Archivist (Catalogued the RBNA historical papers which researchers can view at Kings College London)

Mrs Patricia Methven Director of Archives and Information Management


The Royal British Nurses' Association (RBNA) was founded in 1887, the first professional organisation for nurses in the world. One of the main aims of its founder, Mrs Bedford Fenwick, was the registration of nurses and almost at once the RBNA opened its own membership roll and list of registered members. These uniquely valuable documents, which contain background details about every nurse listed, are still among its archives and can be consulted today but state registration of nurses was only achieved in 1919, when the Nurses' Registration Act finally became law.
Past President - Her Grace, The Duchess of Fife
Her Grace,
The Duchess of Fife
  The thirty years before 1919, and the years immediately after this, were a critical time for the nursing profession, with new ideas of all kinds being continually debated, often heatedly and acrimoniously, before being acted upon. A turning point came in 1916 with the opening of the College of Nursing. At first the RBNA gave it its support but in the end it strongly opposed it. The RBNA's archives shed fresh light on this and on many other events of this time, particularly the struggle for registration. As well as two virtually complete series of minutes, those of its General Council and its Executive Committee - starting with the two meetings in Mrs Bedford Fenwick's house at 20 Upper Wimpole Street in 1887 at which the RBNA was founded, and continuing to recent times the archives include a variety, of other working papers together with letters and personal papers from many 'Of the participants in these struggles, which should offer new insights into the early history of the profession.
The RBNA has always been aware of the importance of its history but in the past there were practical difficulties in allowing visitors access to its archives. During the 1980s, while Miss Ada Ward was President and Mrs Vorstermans Hon Secretary, the RBNA's attitude towards its archives gradually became more open and researchers began to be allowed greater access to them. The decision to make the archives fully available to the public for the first time was taken in 1995 by Miss H M Campbell, Vice-President of the RBNA, and her executive committee when the RBNA's move to new premises was being planned. Cataloguing the archives and extensive conservation work on the collection were made possible by two British Library Cataloguing and Preservation grants. Not surprisingly, with the passage of time the original arrangement of the archives had disappeared and in the process of listing them it became necessary to find a way of presenting the collection which would be easy to follow without imposing on it a completely new structure. So although the subject groups which have been introduced are artificial they were selected only because they emerged as natural and obvious ones.
It seems possible that the material from the British College of Nurses may have found a home with the RBNA after its demise in 1956. After all, the British College of Nurses was then at 19 Queen's Gate and the RBNA was a close neighbour at no.194. Mrs Bedford Fenwick seems to have used the British College of Nurses' history of nursing section as the most suitable place for some of her own personal papers - there are some specific examples of this in the 'Papers relating to Mrs Bedford Fenwick' section - and this may be how all these records reached the RBNA's archives.
Their subject groups could have been chosen, for example the Society for the State Registration of Trained Nurses. One wonders whether the sizeable number of papers from this organisation, with Mrs Bedford Fenwick as its secretary, found their way into the RBNA's archives by the same route. In the end the best solution seemed to be to limit the separate groups and make a chronological listing of the main series of papers. I am grateful to Dr Anne Summers for her advice at this stage. This meant for the most part that each document had to be described individually, but the size of the collection made it possible to do this without it taking an inordinate amount of extra time. It is hoped that the level of detail in the list will be helpful to people using the collection.
That so much has survived is due to the long years of stability that the RBNA enjoyed, with HRH Princess Christian as President from 1887 right up to her death in 1923, the active presence of Mrs Bedford Fenwick up to her death in 1947, aged 90, and not least the loyalty of Isabel Macdonald, who remained secretary of the RBNA from 1909 up to her death in 1964, aged 89. This also meant that for more than fifty years most of the RBNA's in-coming letters were addressed to her. In order to avoid repetition her name has therefore been left out of the catalogue entries where this is the case and the name of the recipient of the letter given only when it was not Isabel Macdonald. Similarly, Sydiley Pitt, of Pontifex, Hewitt and Pitt, the RBNA's solicitors, whose letters to Miss Macdonald continue over many years, is described in the list by name only.
Susan McGanns "The Battle of the Nurses", Scutari Press, 1992, has been invaluable, not least in compiling the selective chronology This is intended as a reference point for the flood of different organisations that were formed and the many events that took place within such a short space of time as nursing gradually established itself as a profession.
Every effort has been made to produce as accurate a catalogue of the collection as possible but if any additions can be made it was impossible for example to identify quite all the photographs - or if anyone using the collection notices any other ways in which it can be improved I hope that they will report them so that they can be included in any later edition.

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