A forgotten heroine of Army nursing

Many of us will have heard the names Nellie Spindler and Edith Cavell but British nurse Ethel Rosalie Ferrer McCaul has to a certain extent faded into obscurity over recent years. In 1914 however, Ethel was one of the most prominent and influential voices in Army nursing and a key figure in the reformation of battlefield healthcare.

An experienced nurse, Ethel had established a private hospital in London towards the end of the 1890’s and became acquainted with eminent surgeon Sir Frederick Treves. In 1899, Treves was one of a handful of civilian surgeons recruited to work alongside those of the Royal Army Medical Corps in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. Rather than relying on the supplies of the British Army, Treves elected to take his own equipment, transport and theatre nurses with him – one of these would be Ethel (the other, Royal Red Cross nurse Alice Tarr).

Ethel would go on to be awarded the Royal Red Cross decoration for her work as a frontline nurse during the conflict, but this did not reflect the over all performance of the Red Cross. In fact, the South African War was to become a watershed moment in the Red Cross’ history, as failings in the care provided to British troops would not go unnoticed. On returning from the conflict, Ethel became a key voice in the campaign to reform and improve the medical services offered to men on the front line and those convalescing, as she wrote in The Daily Chronicle:

‘The impression left on my mind after visiting the Base Hospital was that of inefficient and want of readiness, and I felt sad that such want of good nursing and organisation could be possible in these days of advanced nursing.’

A year later in 1901 an article was published in the highly esteemed periodical ‘Nineteenth Century’ in which Ethel put forward detailed recommendations on the reformation of Army Nursing. This included the creation of an independent corps of Army Nurses, centralised government funding and improved training, among other things. Sir Treves happened to be the personal surgeon of King Edward at the time therefore it is not surprising that both the King and Queen Alexandra had taken a strong personal interest in the improvement of voluntary aid following his encouragement. Sister McCaul became the obvious choice to explore the organisation of the much admired Japanese Red Cross Society and so in 1904, Ethel along with another nurse (Sister Elaine St Aubyn) were sent with Royal backing to Japan and Manchuria to gather first hand knowledge of the JRCS. Ethel recorded her findings and recommendations in a book which was published later the same year.

‘Under the Care of the Japanese War Office’ praised the unified approach taken by the Japanese War Office and Red Cross Society. Ethel was also impressed by how the Red Cross had utilised the generosity and emotion of the public in times of war to support the organisation and further its cause. Together with William G MacPherson of the RAMC, McCaul advocated the creation of an independent corps of Army Nurses and was vital in the reformation of the British Red Cross.

But Ethel’s concern for the welfare of the average soldier reached far beyond the battlefields. Since 1903 she had been running events up and down the country to fundraise for a separate project – the formation of a club for servicemen below commissioned rank, giving them somewhere comfortable to stay and socialise in London, something which Ethel felt was deeply lacking. In 1907 the Union Jack Club was formally opened by the King and Queen and remains a firm favourite for veterans, serving members of the Armed Forces and their families (myself included) providing a ‘scrap of comfort’ as described by Lawrence of Arabia, in the hustle and bustle of the City.

In 1914 Ethel offered the British military the use of her nursing home in Welbeck Street. Here, she would continue to push the boundaries of nursing and healthcare and The McCaul Hospital for Officers would be among the first in the country to contain a therapeutic ‘Colour Ward’. Designed by specialist Mr Howard Kemp Prosser, the ward was painted in hues of yellow, spring green and blue to soothe and comfort patients. Soft furnishings were chosen to match and even the crockery on which meals were served were a shade of primrose yellow to re-enforce the ‘positive’ colour scheme. The idea was simple enough – giving patients the illusion of space and freedom and removing tones which may denote death and decay in order to uplift their general mood. The ward was a success and proved incredibly useful in helping to treat men suffering from ‘shell shock’, so much so that in 1918 a similar ward was established at the Maudsley Neurological Clearing Hospital in Denmark Hill.

Ethel McCaul’s lifelong passion for the welfare of soldiers in the British Army cannot be overstated and her contribution in improvements to their comfort over many decades resonates strongly, even today. Every time I pop into the Union Jack Club at Waterloo, I glance over at the portrait of this remarkable woman on the wall and am inspired to ensure her story is not forgotten.

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