Several people have helped to illustrate this review: our own contributing photographer John Salmon took the picture of the church; Derek at "Musings of a Curious Individual" kindly sent in photographs of Sister Dora's monument, including some from his Walsall page (offsite here); and photographer Steve Wilcox, some of whose photographs are to be found offsite here, kindly contributed the picture of Sister Dora's grave. Many thanks to all. Click on the images to enlarge them, and for more information about them where available. — JB

A bare recital of some of the facts suggests no good reason for reading this biography published as long ago as 1971. Dorothy Pattison was born on 16 January 1832, the tenth daughter and eleventh child of her parents. Her father was the rector of Hauxwell, a parish with about 300 people scattered over quite a distance between lower Swaledale and lower Wensleydale. It was five miles to Leyburn and eight miles to Richmond. She had very little formal education. Partly because of her father's mental ill-health the family were exceptionally isolated even after allowing for Hauxwell's size and remoteness. She lived at home until she was almost thirty and then went to be a village schoolmistress in Little Woolston in Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire. She never married. In September 1864, at the age of thirty-two, she entered the only Church of England community for women in the north which was at Coatham about eight miles from Middlesborough. In response to an emergency brought about by the illness of a sister of the community who had been nursing at a new cottage hospital in Walsall, Dorothy Pattison, who had been Sister Dora for barely four months, was sent to Walsall in January 1865 to fill the gap. She died of breast cancer in Walsall on Christmas Eve 1878 having worked there mostly as the sister in charge for almost fourteen years. In reality this short account of her forty-six years does not begin to do justice to the compellingly interesting story of her life.

Sister Dora's Family Background

Hauxwell Church, where Dora's father was rector.

With nine older sisters ranging up to eighteen Dorothy did not lack attention and stimulation in her very early years although her mother, forty when she was born and quickly pregnant again, was already weary. In the middle of 1834 her father had a mental breakdown and was confined for some months in a "private madhouse" in York. Manton writes:

Unfortunate in his illness, Mr Pattison was supremely unfortunate in its timing. He was confined just five years before the general movement to abolish "mechanical restraints," chains, handcuffs, and straight-jackets for mental patients. "Moral treatment," that is to say kind treatment, was in the near future, but for the present the fashionable remedies were still those of blistering, cold douches, dark rooms and circular swinging with the patient strapped into a revolving chair until vertigo and vomiting ensued. [31]

Mr Pattison returned to the Rectory in April 1835 after a few months of confinement and more months in lodgings in York. For the next thirty years he retained the Hauxwell living although more and more of the work was done by others on his behalf. There were further episodes of madness although he remained at home. His family lived under the constant shadow of his unreasonable domination. He avoided spending money, tried to make sure that none of his daughters married — he had some failures but succeeded with most of them for many years — and cut the family off from society. The children were doubly unfortunate in their parents because their mother was no more able to assert herself against her husband's eccentricities than were his children. Her own religious upbringing which made her disposed to accept rather than challenge her husband's decisions was reinforced by her poor health. For her final few years her life was pitiable, but to the end she resisted her husband's pressure to remake her will to discriminate against those daughters that had displeased him, for example, by marrying. She insisted on leaving an equal share to all her daughters and the £90 that came to her from her mother's will was all that Dorothy had when she left home. The money was not so much the trigger for this brave step as her mother's death which relieved her of the task of constant nursing. Her mother's firmness about her will is completely out of line with her obedience to her husband on every other issue, however damaging to her children she knew his behaviour to be. Nothing better illustrates Mr. Pattison's extreme behaviour than his refusal to administer Holy Communion to his bed-ridden and dying wife unless she changed her will in accordance with his wishes. He also denied entrance to the house to a neighbouring clergyman who took many services in Hauxwell over the years, lest he responded to Mrs Pattison's urgent request to receive the bread and wine.

All the sisters for a time lived their lives by proxy through correspondence with the eldest child, Mark, who was an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, and a Fellow of Lincoln College, having been taught at home by his father. He was already at Oxford when his father was confined in York, and looked after him there during the Christmas vacation of 1834-35. Mark became much the best-known member of the family. Under the influence of Newman he moved from the evangelicalism of his childhood to Tractarianism which was sweeping across Oxford by then. He moved later to a progressively more liberal theology and died as an agnostic although he seems to have felt quite comfortable to continue to serve as an Anglican priest including celebrating Communion and preaching. The sisters so lived through Mark that they were as shattered as he was when Lincoln rejected him as Head of House (Rector) in 1851 in favour of a nonentity. Even his election to the post when it next fell vacant in 1861 did little to alleviate the pain of his defeat ten years before. Mark published extensively during his lifetime and there were one or two books published posthumously but he never completed the single big book which was to reflect his whole life of thinking and reading. This is partly why it has been argued by some that he gave George Eliot the idea for Casaubon in Middlemarch. Tractarianism influenced his sisters through Mark which merely exacerbated their relationship with their father. Mark himself failed to come home for years at a time.

Although he influenced all his sisters Mark had a particularly important, and generally beneficial, relationship with Dorothy. She was tall, pretty and intelligent. Her disingenuous flattery was probably more welcome than that of her sisters and she was responsive to his teaching and gained in social confidence from much greater exposure to cultivated society than was provided in Hauxwell Rectory. They had more than one long holiday together in summer vacations paid for, of course, by Mark.

Sister Dora's Emotional Life

Sister Dora, sculpted by Francis Williamson on the monument to her in Walsall.

There is plenty of evidence that Dorothy was attractive to men generally and in turn found men attractive. In her early years Manton must be right in arguing that Dorothy was naïve about sex and probably didn't understand her own feelings. She never married but had close relationships with at least four men. Some of those who saw her work in Walsall believed that she was happier nursing men than women though Manton believes that perception to owe more to the work of the cottage hospital she ran than to her own inclination. In the rather primitive Anglican sisterhood that she joined and from which she was sent away after a very short time she was not called on to take a vow of celibacy and did not do so.

For years before she left Hauxwell she was simultaneously interested in two highly contrasting men. James Tate was the clergyman son of a Richmond family whose home provided a refuge from time to time from the oppressive atmosphere of her own family home. In all, she was engaged to him three times. She broke it off twice (before she left Hauxwell) and he broke it off the third time after they met by coincidence while she was on holiday from her school teaching job and became engaged again. Manton is in no doubt that Dorothy liked Tate but didn't find him physically attractive. She was attracted instead, and at more or less the same time, by the brother-in-law of the sister, Rachel, to whom she was closest — Purchas Stirk. The Stirks were a Dales farming family and educationally and socially inferior to both the Pattisons and the Tates and that appears to have been the obstacle. Her feelings for Stirk seem to explain, at least in part, the on/off and prolonged engagements to Tate.

There is no doubt that she had a passionate relationship with a man soon after her arrival in Walsall. There is no firm evidence as to his identity but Manton has engaged in detective work and is in little doubt that it was a brilliant young surgeon called John Redfern Davies who certainly helped her to develop her skills as a nurse. Of the four relationships this was the one which combined physical attraction, social suitability and conventional compatibility of age. For her it was a choice between marriage and children on the one hand and continuing her work as a nurse on the other. She made her decision but was never entirely free from regret.

The fourth relationship covered the last three years of her life and was with a much younger man — Kenyon Jones, who was thirty in 1876 and a comfortably off Black Country businessman. The relationship was clandestine because by then Sister Dora, as she was always known in Walsall, was a celebrated local figure and Jones must also have been well known. We know about it because "during the 1930s a plumber and a decorator working independently in a large house at Highgate, Walsall, each found a packet of letters in Sister Dora's hand-writing. Both men took the letters home, and each eventually, after an interval of more than twenty years, offered them to the local paper for publication" (303). Manton quotes extensively from the correspondence which was published in the Walsall Observer in June 1952 and April 1966. The originals have been lost (318n.).

Sister Dora's Nursing Career

Three of the four bronze reliefs on the monument to Sister Dora in Walsall, showing her in some well-known episodes or settings. Left to right: (a) Delivering comfort and guidance when the bodies of twenty-two men, who had been trapped by flooding at the Pelsall Colliery in 1872, were being brought out on stretchers. (b) In the children's ward. (c) In consultation with a doctor at a sick man's bedside, probably when caring for the victims of the smallpox epidemic of 1875.

For some readers the last, almost fourteen, years of her life spent as Sister Dora nursing in Walsall will be of less interest than the account of her family life, the time she spent with her brother and her close relationships with four men; but there is no doubt that we would know nothing about her if she had not made such a deep and lasting impact as a nurse in Walsall. After her death a group of working men said that they wanted a statue of Sister Dora in the town. It took seven years to collect the money, twelve hundred pounds, mostly in very small sums from works collecting-boxes. A white marble statue eight feet tall on a plinth of similar height was unveiled almost eight years after her death. The people of Walsall readily subscribed for a bronze replacement in 1957 when the original statue had been eroded by pollution. Manton begins her book with an account of Sister Dora's remarkable funeral on 28 December 1878, attended by the local great and good, by choirs from all the churches from the Roman Catholic to the Unitarians but most remarkable of all by thousands of ordinary working people who broke down the gates of the cemetery to be there though they had been closed after the official procession had entered. They remained quiet and respectful.

There is no doubt that Sister Dora was an outstanding nurse. To begin with, she was not well-trained or knowledgeable even by the standards of the day but she was hungry to know more and to develop her skills to the end of her life. When she knew she was dying and was no longer fit to work full-time in her hospital she took the opportunity of being in London to understand Lister's latest thinking and practice in antiseptic surgery when it was still controversial. She was convinced and ordered all that would be needed to follow Lister's methods in the new hospital that was nearing completion in Walsall. The doctors she worked with were happy to train her to take on more of the work that would otherwise fall to them. The hospital was there chiefly to deal with industrial injuries which were common in a manufacturing area such as Walsall before the days of health and safety. She became in effect a house surgeon and was so competent that she was pressed by one of the doctors with whom she worked to move to Edinburgh where she could have trained as a doctor. She was particularly skilful at removing foreign bodies from eyes. Each day she ran a large outpatient clinic and dealt with many cases without reference to doctors. When circumstances required it, as with a smallpox epidemic in the town, she was prepared to switch from her normal nursing specialty. Her status in the town depended as much as anything on the universal belief that she had single-handedly stopped that epidemic from being much worse than it was.

In the early days the local working population were suspicious of the sisters but that was quickly overcome by Sister Dora's tolerance of their prejudice and her demonstrable readiness to nurse patients in need of her care, whatever view they took of what she wore or what she believed. After a relatively brief period of doubt, she remained keenly religious to the end of her life and prayed for her patients as well as nursing them, but she was determined not to use the influence given to her by their dependence to press her faith on them.

Many of her most effective qualities as a nurse were not to do with the direct treatment of patients. She was fanatically committed to cleanliness and pursued the cause with great attention to detail and seemingly with inexhaustible energy. She was very cheerful and positive and knew exactly how to relate to the working men who were normally her patients. She managed the whole hospital very efficiently and economically, drawing no doubt on her experience of having to make a little money go a long way in her private life. She was a leading figure in raising money for the hospital not least by taking on student nurses who were made to work very hard and to pay for the privilege. Relations between the doctors and the local worthies who provided formal governance for the hospital were never easy and quickly deteriorated after her death but, while she was alive, she had a genius for keeping both sides happy and enabling them to work together.

Sister Dora's grave, Queen Street Cemetery, Walsall.

Jo Manton, who had read history at Girton, published the first full biography of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in 1965. This biography of Sister Dora followed in 1971. Her later books on Dorothy Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy's second wife were written in conjunction with her husband, Robert Gittings. The extensive bibliography confirms the impression given by reading the book that she had read and absorbed all the available primary and secondary sources. Her material casts light on many aspects of mid-nineteenth century life — from what one would expect in the life of a daughter of a rector who entered a religious community and became a nun and then a nurse, to the less expected, such as the difference made by the railways to ordinary life and relations between the sexes and between different social classes. Manton combines her scholarship with a gift for telling a story that is well worth telling and that is as hard to put down as a good novel.

Related Material


Manton, Jo. Sister Dora: The Life of Dorothy Pattison. London: Methuen, 1971, and Quartet 1977. ISBN 0 7043 31616 / 978-0704331617. Out of print, but used copies are readily available.

Created 6 December 2015