Aged just 29, a widow and a single mother, Harriet Raven probably doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Florence Nightingale-style Victorian hospital matron. However in 1889 this was the young nurse recruited to be the first matron at the Cornelia Cottage Hospital in Poole.
The hospital had opened during 1889 without any fanfare, meaning no date is recorded. However on 4th July that year a newspaper report described the hospital, recording the staff as 2 nurses and a Mrs Raven – the kind and obliging matron of the Hospital.
Harriet Raven was not local to Poole – she was born in 1860 in Fillongley, near Coventry in Warwickshire, the daughter of farmer Charles Gilbert and his wife Elizabeth. Her future had looked as if it was to be on a farm when she married Henry Raven, a farm labourer, in July 1880. The 1881 census shows them living in the cottage next door to Harriet’s parents at Holly Fast Farm, with a baby son, Charles. But by November that year, Harriet was a widow. Henry had been killed in an accident while driving a heavily-laden wagon, reportedly drunk at the time.
Following her bereavement, it is not clear how Harriet made the move from farm girl to hospital nurse. Whilst it may have been natural to move away from the scene of the tragedy, she did have a son to raise. However by 1883 she was listed as on the staff of Tamworth Cottage Hospital, and in April 1884 Nurse Raven was reported giving evidence at an inquest. She presumably started as a probationer and was then accepted on the nursing staff. She then went on to make such a good impression and forge the reputation that persuaded Lady Wimborne that Harriet was the right nurse to be the Matron at the new hospital she was setting up in Poole. The Tamworth Herald reported:
The hospital staff suffered a great loss by the appointment of Nurse Raven to be matron of the Poole Cottage Hospital. Much as we regretted the loss of her faithful services, we could only congratulate her on gaining so well deserved a step in her profession.
Harriet was now a hospital matron, still only 29 years of age, and with just 6 years’ experience. But young Charles was only 9 years old – did she bring him with her to Poole? She may well have left him in the care of her parents back in Warwickshire – certainly the 1891 census shows Charles with them at Holly Fast Farm. In which case how daunting for her to be in charge of Poole’s hospital at so young an age and separated from her young son.
Despite her limited experience at Tamworth, Harriet now faced the practicalities of establishing the new hospital. Lady Wimborne funded it, but would hardly be involved in its running. There was no resident doctor – the medical superintendent, Dr Robinson, was basically a GP with responsibilities to the local Friendly Medical Society. So probably Harriet had to organise equipping the hospital and setting out the routines on the wards. She must have been in charge of obtaining and managing supplies of medicines and dressings, and in the voluntary hospital system she probably had to make decisions about who was eligible to be admitted. Then there was the 24-hour patient care, assisted by just 2 nurses, one of whom was basically a district nurse. It was not in a purpose-built hospital either, with 14 beds in 3 small wards split over several floors. Further, her role was by no means confined to working on the wards of the hospital in West Street. Her name crops up in the local newspapers in attending the homes of some of the poorer families to see the sick, and dealing with casualties of accidents.
But the challenges continued to confront her. After just a year or so in post, the West Street building was recognised as unsuitable for a cottage hospital. By May 1890 Lord Wimborne had bought the nearby mansion known as Sir Peter Thompson House in Market Street. This was an eighteenth century house in a grand style, now a listed building. It was up and running as a hospital within months – again no ceremonial opening is reported. This was a very different home for the hospital.
Having organised things as best she could in West Street, Harriet now had to work out how to run a hospital in what was a grand house, how to turn its large rooms into hospital wards. There were now 18 beds to manage. The 1891 census shows Harriet as matron, plus 2 nurses, a housemaid, a cook and a porter living in.
The respect for Harriet as Matron is shown by the tributes on her birthday that year. Strangely it was the Tamworth Herald again that reported it:
A Dorset contemporary says that Mrs H Raven, the respected Matron of the Cornelia Hospital, Poole Dorset, and who for many years was associated with the nursing staff of the Tamworth Cottage Hospital, has been the recipient of a handsome marble timepiece, a 5 o’clock tea service and a pair of valuable antique vases, presented to her by Dr McNicoll, on behalf of the medical and nursing staff, and past and present patients of the Poole Hospital, as a mark of respect and esteem. The presentation was made to Mrs Raven on her birthday, amidst many manifestations of goodwill and well wishes for a long and useful life in connection with the Institution, now so very admirably managed under her able superintendence.
But by the end of 1893 Harriet had resigned and left Poole.
The Nursing Record journal recorded in January 1894 that she had been appointed matron of the new cottage hospital in Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire. Harriet had returned to the Midlands, and presumably had Charles with her again. After her work in setting up 2 hospital buildings in Poole, she was well-suited to doing the same in Ashby. The hospital there was opened in March 1894, and this time there was a grand opening. Harriet is recorded as being at the ceremony as its matron. But again, as in Poole, this initial building was soon superseded by another, presumably better one, which opened in March 1898. However Harriet is no longer mentioned as matron, so perhaps she had left by then.
Her life certainly changed in Ashby, as she met and married a local butcher in the town, William Walker. They did not stay in Ashby, as by 1900 they were living in Croydon, with Harriet working as a Sick Nurse. Perhaps this move was linked to another tragedy, as her son Charles died in 1900, aged only 19. Harriet started a new family in Croydon with William, though again not without great heartache. Two children died in infancy, before the birth of William and Edith, who are seen in the 1911 census aged 7 and 5 respectively. Harriet was now working as a hospital nurse again. Unfortunately nothing further has been found on Harriet, although the death of a Harriet Walker in 1937 in Coventry is quite likely to be her.
Her personal life was anything but smooth, marked by frequent grief. But she certainly achieved much as a hospital matron. Her role in setting up Poole’s first hospital is well worth recording – perhaps the plaque in Ashby should be matched by one in Poole?
Sources; newspaper records, census reports, nursing directories and journals. Regrettably no image of Harriet has yet been traced.