Nurses have always played a crucial role in the Essex County Hospital, formerly known as the Essex & Colchester Hospital. On its opening there were only a few nurses working at the hospital and each one was assigned to a ward. They were also housed there, living in rooms on the side of the ward to ensure they could fulfil their responsibilities for patient care and ward cleanliness. Before the hospital appointed a night nurse in 1877 on a salary of £20 per annum, nurses were expected to be responsible for their wards 24 hours a day.

The hospital was also keen to recruit and train new nurses. This was done through a probationer system, in which trainee nurses would learn on the job without pay (although their other costs, such as washing, food, uniform and housing, were covered). This unpaid period lasted around 6 months, followed by a further 6 months of paid work at the hospital at a rate of £12 per annum. On completing probation, wages increased to £14 if the nurse continued her employment at the hospital.

The criteria for joining the hospital as a probationer were quite strict. For example, applicants had to be 20 to 35 (the ideal being 23-30) and also prove they had good morals, education, fitness and health. Their working hours were strictly regulated, with a relatively generous 2 hours’ free time per day and 2 weeks’ holiday per year.

Nurses were expected to be on their best behaviour at all times, and there were numerous rules to which nurses had to adhere. Talking back to authority, stealing, wasting resources, negligence and drunkenness were all grounds for dismissal. The rule-book, which was created when the hospital opened, highlighted the subordinate position of nurses to senior staff, most of whom were men:

“That the Nurses and servants obey the APOTHECARY as their Master, and the MATRON as their Mistress.” [1]

Since that rule-book was written, the status of nurses has changed considerably. But their role even then was vital to the smooth running of the hospital, especially in its early years.

By Jasmine Moran, Heritage Project Officer


To find out more, see John B. Penfold, The History of the Essex County Hospital, Colchester Previously the Essex & Colchester Hospital 1820-1948, (Sudbury; 1984).

[1] Rules of the Essex & Colchester General Hospital, 1822, p. 22.