Nursing Queen Victoria
by Lizzie Love
This article was originally published in the July 1999 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
"All that stamping and heelclicking" said Auntie Mary. "Quite out of place in a sickroom". She supposed it might be good manners in Germany.
As a child in Clacton in the 1950s it was always a thrill to visit Auntie Mary. She lived in a small white bungalow, next door to my widowed Granny Soal, and was, in fact, my grandfather's aunt, a great‑granddaughter of Richard Soal and Sarah Boxall of the Sussex SOALs. She was old. She was frail. She was pure magic.
Inside the tiny sitting‑room was another world: genteelly scruffy and redolent of lavender. There were black velvet cushions embroidered with golden peacocks, a square table ‑ its green plush cover fringed with bobbles, and hanging above it, an etched glass lampshade of deep pink with a long brass chain to control the gas.
Auntie Mary, beside the fire, wore black as softly faded as the room, long skirts, little boots, and a short velvet jacket, fur‑edged, and closed at the waist by a single huge button of elaborately knotted cord. Beside her, in a cabinet, was a collection of Coronation and Jubilee china such as many people have. When she died in 1956, her life had stretched across five reigns.
Yet this was no ordinary collection. Between the mugs and trinket‑boxes were signed photographs in silver frames. A child with a toy boat. Two women in ermine signed "Beatrice" and in another hand "Victoria Eugenie" and on the wall, George V as a young man signed simply "George".
Sometimes we were shown other things: lace‑samples sent for Queen Victoria's jubilee gowns, a copy of The Strand Magazine, hard‑backed and covered in pale blue silk; a little piece of unfinished crochet that had been the Queen's. Auntie Mary spoke sometimes of the Queen's last hours when, as a nurse, she had kept watch with the family. "..... that poor old lady," she would say and fall quiet.
Of course we never doubted Auntie Mary's word, but it was only when I saw the published recollections of Sir James Reid, the Royal Physician, that I had documentary proof. His detailed account matched Auntie Mary's and even mentions "Nurse Soal seated on the bed ..."
VIGIL AT OSBORNE
Perched at the bed‑head beside the rounded pillows Nurse Soal had watched her frail frightened patient nearing the end of a long life. Her death would change the world for ever but in those last hours she was still Victoria, the Queen Empress.
Victoria was mother and grandmama too, her family coming and going through the short January day. Some prayed, some wept, and Willy paced nervously, greeting his relatives, clicking his glossy heels. He reminded Nurse Soal of a clockwork toy.
Mary Ann Seal, daughter of a Lewisham fruiterer, began training in 1889, at the Seamen's' Hospital, Greenwich. Several years as District Nurse in Wandsworth and Croydon followed before she began the four‑year course at the Royal Free Hospital.
We believe that Sir James Reid, the Royal Physician, spotted Mary Ann's skills and she found herself released at times to nurse Sir James's patients, including members of the Royal Household, and eventually the Family members themselves.
As Queen Victoria grew old her daughter, the Princess Christian (Helena), sought a nurse for a permanent post. She needed someone who knew the ropes, and could be kind but firm without overstepping the bounds of protocol.
At the end of her training, Nurse Soal won the gold medal for top student. Summoned to Matron's office she expected the usual promotion to Sister but found herself instead in a small black carriage, bound for St James Palace. There she was escorted to a room she at first thought was empty until she saw a tiny, tubby, black‑clad figure by the fireplace, almost lost in her chair.
Queen Victoria was under 5 feet tall, rather deaf and spoke with a slight foreign accent.
Her deafness and the need to sit close gave the interview an air of intimacy that put Mary Ann at her ease. It became her most treasured memory.
Mary Ann was dispatched to Osborn House on the Isle of Wight, where a small sanatorium was set up for the estate workers. There she was to live and work when not needed elsewhere. When word got round at the Royal Free, there was some gentle teasing from colleagues. A lot of bowing and curtseying went on and she was finally sent of beneath an arch of bedpans and surgical paraphernalia.
END OF AN ERA
It was a wrench to leave London but waiting two years later beside the dying Queen, she thought how happy she had been at Osborne.
By morning, it would all change, ".....for all of us," she thought, looking around. Darkness had fallen. Kaiser Wilhelm had ceased pacing and knelt beside his grandmother, supporting her with his good arm, Sir James Reid at her other side.
From where she sat, Nurse Soal thought the bed to be covered with hands. The Queen's lying small and frail, the doctor's fingers at her wrist; Kaiser Wilhelm's withered left arm upon the coverlet; the hands of a princess folded in prayer as her husband waited glumly for monarchy to descend on him.
Queen Victoria died at 6:30 pm, Jan 22, 1901 and history rolled on. The heads of state dispersed and Edward VII was King.
Mary Ann Soal nursed other monarchs, and tended officers during WWI. She nursed the haemophiliac sons of the Battenbergs, and accompanied them on holidays abroad. As an observer of history she commented only when pressed. "Willy," she said, in typical understatement, "always bit off more than he could chew."
Return to The Sole Society Home Page