Sister Janet

Sister Janet

  • Author: Brian Best & Katie Stossel
  • Publisher: Pen & Sword
  • Price: 19.99

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

Expected Release March/April 2006


After the late Florence Nightingale, Sister Janet, as Mrs King was known, takes the premier place among the Red Cross nurses. Obituary of Mrs Janet King - The Chronicle - 1911.

The profession of nursing, as we know it today, is relatively new. During the early 1870’s the concept of young women of good background becoming nurses became more socially acceptable and so training hospitals and the Red Cross began to attract a growing number of dedicated unattached women to nursing. For the first time, women felt they could gain fulfilment by doing something that was both feminine and worthwhile. However, the strict training, based on Florence Nightingale’s system of cleanliness and scrupulous attention to hygiene, discouraged those who had a woolly or sentimental concept of what nursing was about. Nurses’ conditions were austere; working hours long and their training was rigorous and impartial. The early life of this remarkable young nurse is inextricably bound up with a number of vicious wars that raged across Europe as well as with the protracted development and establishment of the Red Cross, these are briefly discussed in the context of the life one of these fledgling nurses, Janet Wells.

After only a short period of training, Janet Wells, aged only eighteen, was to undergo a remarkably tough baptism of fire, firstly in the Balkans and then in Zululand, from which she would emerge as one of the nursing heroines of the late Victorian era. Like other young ladies of her class,

Janet Wells kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, photographs, sketches and pressed flowers, which chronicled her life on the battlefields like an illustrated diary. What emerges from the pages of her records and other contemporary material is the life of a young woman whose bravery, stamina and dedication to nursing were readily recognised by her peers and who, at the end of her all-too-short life, was hailed as an early nursing heroine alongside Florence Nightingale. During her nursing career, in which she saw action in two major wars whilst still a teenager, she would undertake major surgery, care for thousands of wounded, fall in love, and yet retain her gaiety, charm and her high personal level of professionalism. She would mix with soldiers, generals and royalty with equal ease. She became known as an ‘angel of mercy’ by many whose lives she saved. Hers is a story as unusual as it is dramatic.

 Janet was born in 1859 at Shepherd’s Bush, London, to a noted musician and his wife, Benjamin and Elizabeth Wells. She was the second child of five daughters and three sons. During her childhood the family moved to Islington. In November 1876, aged seventeen years, she entered the fledgling profession of nursing by joining the Evangelical Protestant Deaconess’ Institution and Training Hospital as a trainee nurse. On qualifying, she was immediately sent to the Balkans to assist the Russian army medical teams in the 1877/8 Russo-Turkish War. In the depths of a bitterly cold Russian winter she was thrust into an appallingly cruel war and required to treat many thousands of seriously wounded soldiers – frequently on her own and with scant medical backup or resources. In early 1879 she returned to England but was immediately requested to go to South Africa. Alone, she was sent more than 200 miles across wild and unpopulated bush to take control of the most distant British army medical post at Utrecht in Zululand where she cared for sick and injured soldiers from the savage Anglo Zulu War.

Following the peace declaration, she visited many of the famous battlefields, including Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana, where she administered medical care to the remaining British garrison. She also met and treated King Cetshwayo, then a prisoner of the British at Capetown. On 28th October 1879 she departed from Capetown for for the return journey to England; her intention was to resume her nursing career. She was not yet twenty years old.

In 1880 she met Mr George King, an up-and-coming young London journalist who was soon to become the distinguished editor of the Globe magazine and founder of Tatler. They married in May 1882 and subsequently had two daughters, Elsie and Daisy. Janet was widely recognized for her dedication to nursing; she received the Russian Imperial Order of the Red Cross for assisting the Russian army in the Balkans, the South Africa Campaign medal for her participation in the Anglo Zulu War and in 1883, by Queen Victoria’s command, she and Florence Nightingale were the very first recipients awarded the decoration of the Royal Red Cross for ‘the special devotion and competency which you have displayed in your nursing duties with Her Majesty’s Troops’. At the time, the Royal Red Cross was regarded as the nursing equivalent of the military and naval Victoria Cross. In 1901, Queen Victoria died and Janet King RRC was invited to the state funeral. Janet died of cancer on 6th June 1911 at the age of fifty-three. Hers is an astonishing story, of bravery and determination, which I commend to everyone who loves an adventure; it will especially fascinate students of the Anglo Zulu War Sister Janet Zulu War Nurse

From David Rattray Fugitives’ Drift Lodge South Africa

The Anglo Zulu War of 1879 caused many British soldiers and Zulu warriors terrible wounds, and disease was rife. Hospital care was in its infancy, especially in the British army, and so it is remarkable that in the midst of this terrible war a nineteen-year-old English nurse, Sister Janet Wells, was sent from London to take charge of the isolated and overcrowded British army hospital at Utrecht in South Africa. Already a decorated veteran of the 1878 Balkan War, she was highly experienced in treating war wounds. In her first two months at Utrecht she treated over 3,200 patients, both British soldiers and Zulus, many from the battles of Hlobane, Khambula and Ulundi. She performed numerous operations, tended the sick and wounded, and brought an air of discipline, tempered by her charm and femininity, into a chaotic and desperate situation. Towards the end of the war she was sent to Rorke’s Drift where she administered to the remaining garrison.

She walked the battlefields of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana where she collected flowers for her scrapbooks – already containing many sketches and photographs, which survive to this day. After the war she returned to her home and family in London, just in time for her twentieth birthday. Recognition by Queen Victoria followed, who decorated her with the Royal Red Cross, which was then the nursing equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The previous recipient was Florence Nightingale. Hers is an astonishing story, of bravery and determination, which I commend to everyone who loves an adventure; it will especially fascinate students of the Anglo Zulu War – to whom this factual account will come, I am sure, as something of a surprise.

David Rattray Zululand South Africa December 2005

Wednesday 25th of January 2006 05:00:12 PM

Review By : Lieutenant General Sir Michael Grey KCB OBE DL

Sister Janet

Her place in History.

 The ‘Maintenance of Morale’ is one of the Principles of War taught to all young officer cadets passing through the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The principles are not new to the profession of arms, indeed they were reflected in the writings of that ‘mysterious Chinese warrior-philosopher’ Sun Tzu, well over two thousand years ago. They were later extolled in the Military Maxims of Napoleon.

 In my experience, as a recent soldier, a significant factor that affects the morale of young men, going into battle, is that medical orderlies and nursing care will be available if they are wounded. They fear death but they fear the agony of wounding even more. They want reassurance that stretcher bearers will be there to recover them from the battlefield. They then like to know that nursing care, with all that now means, will be close at hand, someone like Sister Janet Wells for example, to administer ‘Tender Loving Care’.

 Such expectancy is comparatively recent. Before the Crimean War, battlefield nursing care was non existent. It was only in the late 1800s that the Red Cross and Florence Nightingale, in particular, introduced the disciplines of nursing care to the modern battlefield. The strict training of ‘dedicated, unattached women’ as nurses in hospitals, close behind the ‘front line’, gradually became commonplace and was well accepted by 1914 when the First World War started.

Friday 17th of February 2006 10:17:38 PM