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Florence Elliott (1905 - 1996)

Florence Eileen Elliott was Lady Superintendent of Nurses - usually known simply as Matron - at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast - usually known simply as the Royal - from 1946 until 1966, a period of rapid expansion and development at the hospital, during which she skilfully and successfully guided the hospital nursing service into the complex and rapidly changing world of the new National Health Service (NHS), introduced in 1948 as a flagship project of the post-War Attlee welfare-state government. She became one of the most admired and distinguished figures in the nursing profession not just in Northern Ireland but in the United Kingdom as a whole.

Elliott was a daughter of the Duneane Presbyterian Manse near Randalstown, County Antrim. After a period of ill health, she trained at the Royal, qualifying as a registered nurse in 1930 and was Sister of Wards 7 and 8 before going to Edinburgh where she was a midwife and midwifery sister. She returned to Northern Ireland in 1943 to take up the post of Matron in Whiteabbey Sanatorium, which was in a rather depressed condition, after several forced resignations and with a major reorganisation being undertaken. Elliott played her rôle in this, restoring morale and with her innovative approach, introducing affiliated nurse training, in association with Belfast City Hospital. She was appointed Matron at the Royal, who regarded her as the obvious choice to succeed Miss Annie Musson who had held the post since 1922. Elliott was the first Royal-trained nurse to hold the post, and the first person from Ulster.

Generally accepted to be a person of great vision and sound common sense, as no guidelines were given to her on her appointment, she duly set herself to drawing up her own. Her predecessor, who privately was humorous and charming, but on duty could come across as aloof, Elliott was by comparison more relaxed and informal, tough this was counterbalanced on occasion by flare-ups, which combined with her general high efficiency, made people reluctant to question her authority.

Unlike her predecessor who whose acutely observant daily ward round had become rather monotonous and repetitive, say some, Elliott made it more informal. She would sometimes take as an escort, instead of the usual Sister or ward nurse, a (possibly apprehensive) junior, and question them about the patients. Following her favourite maxim that the patient must always come first, Elliott, when the system was instituted of providing her with photographs of all her staff, would memorise faces and names, and insist that her staff do the same with regard to every patient in the wards. (In her retirement years, she was still able to astonish many former colleagues and juniors with her almost total recall of names and faces.)

One of the advantages accruing to the Royal from the launch of the NHS was greatly increased funding; on the other hand, the workload of the Matron, which was a dual rôle of head nurse and housekeeper, was considered too much for one person. So a laundry manager and catering and supplies officers were appo9inted, and a domestic supervisor appointed to take charge of the domestic staff. Though these were all answerable to the Medical Superintendent, not the Matron, Elliott kept her eye on all departments. For example, when shorter sheets were going to be ordered, she intervened to point out that this would be false economy, as they would be less comfortable for patients, who might tug and pull at them looking for maximum comfort, which would make more work for nurses as the sheets would have to be tucked in more often. Elliott also was provided with a secretary - an NHS hospital meant much more paperwork.

Another problem Elliott tackled was the inadequacy of nurses' training. Nurses were usually appointed to Sisters' posts with only their own experience to guide them. Some were lucky to have worked with competent ward Sisters, some were not. Partly to address this problem, and partly to combat parochialism, Elliott used an annual £1000 allowance from the Hospitals Authority to send nurses to other parts of the United Kingdom on courses covering a wide range of subjects, including neurosurgery, plastic surgery, dermatology, and venereology, as well as courses run locally by the Royal College of Nurses. She was resourceful at tracking down bursaries and scholarships for her staff as far afield as Denmark, Paris, and even a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship at Columbia University.

Elliott also worked to reduce the domestic task workload of student nurses; tables covered with laminated plastic to reduce the need for time-consuming scrubbing, extra porters appointed as well as a theatre orderly and a ward orderly, with duties which included dusting, cleaning lockers and making beds. Labour-saving devices were introduced, such as centrally sterilised blood transfusion sets, while the Pharmacy provided prepared dressings for autoclaving, saving nurses the need to cut through layers of gauze dressing with scissors which would become increasingly blunt. Other improvements under Elliott's aegis (facilitated by NHS funding but also private financial support) aimed at improving the patients' comfort included more and more details making hospital conditions more like hotel conditions, from coloured bedspreads to individual trays; a full evening meal and later a cooked breakfast; curtains round each bed for greater privacy; extended visiting hours; and a night admissions unit to avoid the frequent interruptions caused by such admissions to the sleep of patients on the open wards.

On Elliott's retirement in 1966, described as a "momentous departure" by an historian of nursing at the Royal, the Editor of Nursing Times described her as "the greatest nursing leader Northern Ireland has ever known and one whose contribution to the nursing affairs of the United Kingdom was as valued ‘over the water' as at home." She was made a life Governor of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Having been the first nurse from Northern Ireland to be awarded the OBE in 1951, in 1967 she received an honorary MA by Queen's University, Belfast, the first time a nurse had been so honoured. In 1971 a new geriatric unit was opened, with four wards, two of which were named Florence Elliott House. In 1982 an annual Florence Elliott Lecture was instituted in her honour. Queen's University has two awards named for her: The Florence Elliott Prize for candidates for the BSc (Honours) or Diploma in Nursing Sciences was established in 1994 by the Executive Committee of the Florence Elliott Lecture Fund, while the Florence Elliott Scholarship Fund was established to assist members of staff in the School of Nursing and Midwifery to attend international conferences and meetings in order to foster and develop international links.

Florence Elliott is remembered personally as elegant and dignified, a tall, striking-looking lady who was reserved though essentially friendly, widely popular and highly respected in the profession. She lived for some years in Australia, where she was delighted to welcome visiting Royal nurses, medical students and doctors but returned to Ulster in 1990, where she died at the age of 90.

Born: 6 October 1905
Died: 2 August 1996
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann