Finding Florence

My name is Beth Robinson and in 2018 I completed an internship at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead as a student of the Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies from Sydney University.

Working alongside members of the Heritage Committee, I worked on the collection management of the archives in the basement. These archives date back to the late 1800s when The Sydney Hospital for Sick Children first opened in Glebe. The archive is large treasure chest of information and as I began to make my way through some of its contents, I found Florence!

She was waiting patiently in the safe under a neat pile of manila folders in a near-empty folder that contained a plastic sleeve, inside of which was a small piece of browned paper about the size of a photograph

The date on this unassuming note reads 30th October 1863 followed by the address 33 Priory Road, Landsdowne Road Clapham S.W printed in blue ink in the top right corner. It’s written in pen and ink in a difficult-to-read cursive script. However, quite legible on the reverse of this letter at the bottom right is the signed name: Florence Nightingale.

As you would expect, my supervisor Carole Best and I were excited to find Florence, but at the same time inundated with questions.

  • How could we be sure this was a letter from Florence Nightingale given the 1863 date on a note precedes the 1880 foundation of the hospital?
  • How did the note find its way into the Hospital archive?
  • Who was she writing to, and why?

To answer the first question, we compared the signature on the letter to examples of Florence Nightingale’s using this online archive of her letters. The examples we found appeared to match the signature on our note providing near certainty that it is indeed a genuine letter from the one and only, Ms Nightingale!

With some difficulty, we then transcribed the letter to read

“My dear Mr/s [name illegible]
I received your note this morning, prey do not be uneasy about the loss of the paper as it is not at all a serious one, I have no doubt I can surely obtain another, so please tender my forgiveness to baby [name illegible] and accept the same for yourself.
Yours very sincerely
Florence Nightingale”

On the reverse of the letter written in black ink is: With Mrs [initial illegible].F. Litchfield's Compliments. April 12th 1934

Unable to read the name of the recipient of the letter, I began my search with the name of the person who had donated the letter to the hospital, Mrs Litchfield. An initial search of the surname in Trove (National Library of Australia database) brought up the name Dr W.F. Litchfield, a well-respected doctor who was on the Board of Management of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children.  

As a well-loved doctor in the Glebe area, much was written about his family and his legacy after his untimely death in 1922. I thought perhaps his wife had donated the letter after her husband’s death as a tribute to his memory, but in all the articles about Dr Litchfield, the name of his wife was never mentioned. So the only firm connection I was able to make was a small mention of Dr Litchfield’s father-in-law, the “late Rev H.T.R Robjohns.” 

This turned out to be an important piece of the puzzle. It became clear that the recipient of the letter I had previously been unable to identify was in fact a ‘Robjohns’. Knowing Mrs Litchfield’s maiden name, I found the wedding announcement on Trove for Mr William Litchfield and Miss Ethel Robjohns.  

A small piece written about the engagement party stated that there were a number of “nurses and sisters from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital present” (The Sydney Mail, 1896). This led me to a Royal Prince Alfred Nurses Register which determined Ethel Robjohns had begun nursing there in 1891 where her sister Nellie joined her, also nursing, in 1894.  

It is very likely this is how Ethel and William met. Dr and Mrs Litchfield had six children together, two daughters and four sons, all of whom could have inherited the letter from their parents and donated it to the Hospital. Frustratingly, this information doesn’t clarify as to whether, or how, Ethel knew Florence.  

So, I went back to the beginning. Now that I knew the note was addressed to a Robjohns, I directed my attention to Reverend H.T. R Robjohns. He was born in Taviscot England in 1831 and information from the 1871 census concluded that he was living and working as a minister in Newcastle-on-Tyne at this time. The family did not immigrate to Sydney until 1883.   

It could be argued then if Henry was in England in 1863, he could be the recipient of the letter. According to several biographies, Florence Nightingale was also in England during this time. But why would she be writing to him and what papers was she referring too? Which Mrs Litchfield passed on this letter to the hospital in 1934?  

And so the quest for answers continues.  

Needless to say, if you know anything about the letter or about Florence’s connection with the Robjohns, don’t hold back—let us know.

In the meantime, view a bigger image of Florence's note.

Bethany Robinson.

The sources I used are listed below.