A Nightingale’s Thank You

Voluntary Action Leeds' Support Worker, Claire Graham, discusses Florence Nightingale's work and the current exhibition at Lotherton Hall, drawing parallels to our current socially distanced 'norm'.

As things ease slightly, pressure and demands on hubs are slowly decreasing, so it is lovely to have the time to witness some of the more creative partnerships that are evolving from months of front-line work serving local communities.  My plans for this morning were to pay a short visit to Mandy at Rothwell Live at Home hub and chat to some of the Community Care Volunteers that are deployed at Blackburn Hall to help run the food hub.  I did that, but I also got an added bonus insight into how schemes are partnering with other projects to bring art into the homes of local people and how Community Care Volunteers are helping.

Mandy introduced me to Stephanie Davis, a Community Curator at Lotherton Hall, near Aberford in Leeds, who is visiting today.

2020 is the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, social reformer and founder of modern nursing, so - funded through Arts Council England - Lotherton Hall planned to celebrate its connections with this iconic figure.  Up until a few moths ago, plans were afoot for a summer of celebrations and events at Lotherton. But our modern day practices around the control of pandemics (very much influenced by Nightingale’s discoveries) means that the detailed exhibition — plans for a nurses’ picnic and other gatherings, have had to be delayed or more creative ways to share them sought.

‘At the start of Covid we decided that we needed to digitise the exhibition’ explains Stephanie, ‘so myself and colleagues from LCC spent time creating an online exhibition that has gone down really well during lockdown’  https://museumsandgalleries.leeds.gov.uk/virtual-visit/florence-nightingale-online-exhibition/ .

Stephanie explains to me that people know Florence Nightingale for transforming healthcare systems worldwide, but she was also a huge social reformer.  The exhibition lays claim to a collection of letters between Nightingale and her cousin Marianne Nicholson, whose daughter, Gwendolen Gascoigne, lived at Lotherton Hall. The letters are from a young Nightingale and are an insight into her thoughts as a young woman and the formation of her values and ideas. Having come from a wealthy and well connected family, she exercised her privilege to campaign for reform of the poor law and wider social inequalities, Stephanie tells me.

Nightingale’s letter – concerning LGI, (William Copeland) 
Nightingale understood the need for social distancing a long time before it became a part of our daily lexicon. She campaigned for space between beds and spacious, well ventilated wards.

Nightingale, together with Sir Douglas Galton, Gwendolen Gascoigne’s father, created her ‘Pavilion’ design for hospitals. Leeds General Infirmary was the very first civic hospital built on this plan. At the time of its construction, LGI was considered the most modern hospital in the world and it became an international tourist attraction, visited by thousands of people.

Leeds General Infirmary

Similarities don’t end there either, Florence Nightingale understood the pains of isolation as well. As a young girl she became a committed Christian and intensely aware of her own privilege. These beliefs isolated her from her family support and she spent many lonely years in her youth witnessing the sickness among the rural poor and being able to do very little about it. Because of this she often suffered with depression. She said it was like being ‘a bird in a gilded cage’

On her return from nursing troops in the Crimean War after contracting what was thought to be brucellosis, Nightingale spent the rest of her life mostly bed-ridden. It was from her sickbed that most of her greatest work was done, Stephanie continues. Her ideas were commonly derived from some military focus and she saw an efficient way of thanking her (literally) front-line workers. ‘Nightingale would send ‘runners’ to hospitals to thank individual nurses who were having trouble at home or who were struggling in some way for their work. The runner would present them with a bunch of flowers’.

Inspired by this act of gratitude and kindness, Lotherton Hall had planned to host a ‘nurses’ picnic,’ asking local people and knitting groups to knit ‘little Florence Nightingales’ to be displayed at the venue with kind and supportive messages attached. ‘We are still going to do this’ Stephanie assures me, ‘but when it’s safe to do so. In the meantime, we are asking for contributions and have already been sent some wonderful dolls’. A chance again for people to say thank you to nurses two centuries after Nightingale did.


The Nightingale exhibition is engaging with local communities in other ways too, and similar to the dolls, they are suited to the current climate.  As with other food hubs in Leeds who have been sending out craft packs, Stephanie tells me that she is working with Rothwell Live at Home and Garforth NET where volunteers will help to send out craft pack to older people. They are working with elderly members of the SWIFT scheme, a frailty intervention program, aimed at 70 of the most vulnerable members of the two organisations.    


The packs contain a 30cm square piece of fabric and arts/sewing materials to create a ‘thank you’ message, highlighting individuals or groups who have cared for them over the lockdown period. Once members have crafted their square, they will be collected back in and carefully sewn together by volunteers from the Lotherton History Group to create a ‘thanksgiving banner’ which will be displayed at the Nurses Picnic next summer.  The day will include a gala/march, where banners will be carried by retired miners marking Hospital Day. Hospital Day was used to raise money for beds in hospitals for miners from the local villages, before the National Health Service was established.

Stephanie (right) with CCV’s helping make up the packs at Blackburn Hall Rothwell

Along with helping out packing and delivering food parcels, collecting prescriptions and making befriending calls - volunteers are helping to create and disseminate the 70 packs.  ‘I hope it will help people feel more connected and that, when it’s all over, local people will be able to visit Lotherton to see their creation and even march with their banner at the Nurses’ picnic’ says Stephanie.

To find out more about activities at Lotherton Hall, or how you can contribute to the exhibition, contact:

Stephanie Davies, Assistant Community curator. Lotherton Hall, Lotherton Lane, Aberford, Leeds.

LS25 3EB. Tel: 0113 37 82964 or Mob: 07712215124

Pictures with thanks to Lotherton Hall.  Nightingale ‘s letter with thanks to William Copeland, a Nightingale relative, letters are currently on loan to Lotherton


This post was written by Claire Graham

Voluntary Action Leeds

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