16 Apr 2014
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Sister Dora - Victorian Walsall's Nursing Pioneer

Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison (1832-1878) was born at Hauxwell, Yorkshire, youngest daughter of the village rector. Dorothy wanted to join Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, but her strict father refused permission. In 1861, when nearly 30, Dorothy escaped her unhappy home life and began teaching at Little Woolston (near Newport Pagnell), where she took to visiting and nursing the poor and sick of the parish.

In September 1864, she entered the Christ Church Sisterhood, an Anglican convent at Coatham, near Middlesborough, adopting the name Sister Dora. She trained as a nurse at the Order's cottage hospital at North Ormesby.

Having no hospital, Walsall sent its many accident cases nine miles by cart to Birmingham Hospital. In 1859, the town sent the Birmingham Hospital a modest donation, which prompted the Hospital Secretary to reply, "The Hospital authorities would thank the people of Walsall to send more money and fewer patients". The insult was furiously resented. A hospital committee was formed and a small four-bed cottage hospital opened at 4 Bridge Street in 1863, in the charge of Sister Mary Jacques of the Coatham convent. The hospital was primarily an accident centre, and medical wards were not introduced until 1894.

Industrial accidents abounded in the area, which included clay pits, 13 blast furnaces, 39 collieries and 250 saddlery workshops. The hospital grew and by the end of 1864 had 14 beds. In January 1865, Sister Mary fell ill and Sister Dora replaced her on 8 January 1865. She returned north after two months, but was back permanently by November. In her first year, Sister Dora assisted in 1,156 minor operations and helped nurse 147 in-patients. The hospital was badly overcrowded and understaffed, yet the death rate among victims of serious accidents in Walsall Hospital was under 5%, compared with 6% at the big London teaching hospitals.

In 1867, the Hospital Committee converted a large house called 'The Mount', flanking Wednesbury Road, into a hospital, costing 2,000. Typical of Sister Dora's concern for local folk was her work at the Pelsall Colliery disaster in November 1872. Floodwater trapped 22 men for 5 days and eventually they died of exposure and starvation. During the week their women waited at the pit-head, Sister Dora lived among them, organising food, hot drinks, blankets and shelter for them and their children. Sister Dora did for the industrial workers of Walsall what Florence Nightingale had done for the military casualties of the Crimea. Their gratitude was expressed in June 1873, when a group of railway workers, all ex-patients, presented Sister Dora with a pony and carriage, for which the men had saved 50 from their small wages.

Smallpox, a great scourge of industrial areas, reached Walsall in February 1875. An epidemic hospital had been opened by the local Board of Guardians by 1872, but Walsall people were reluctant to go there because of its associations with the Workhouse and poor record for patient care and recovery. Sister Dora took charge so there would be more faith in the hospital. The local Medical Officer of Health later reported that only the work of the epidemic hospital under Sister Dora had kept the epidemic in check. The chaplain of the Sisterhood in Coatham objected to Sister Dora going to the epidemic hospital without informing him and so she resigned from the Order in the summer of 1875, to devote herself to the people of Walsall.

On 15 October 1875 an overloaded blast furnace exploded at the Green Lane furnaces of Jones and Son, ironfounders, and 16 men were terribly burned. As there were no spare beds, Sister Dora sent an entire ward home, scrubbed and disinfected it and prepared for casualties. Local doctors worked until four the following morning treating survivors. Three were killed outright and five were transferred to other wards. Sister Dora nursed the remaining eight hopeless cases for almost two weeks, until the last died. Due to infections from the burns victims, the old hospital had to be closed early in 1876.

Temporary premises were set up in Bridgeman Place while a new hospital was built, incorporating a specially decorated sitting room for Sister Dora. She was destined never to use it. In 1877, she discovered she had cancer and, although the new hospital opened in November 1878, she was then too ill to leave her bed to see it. After visiting Paris in July 1878, Sister Dora had gone to Birmingham, where she had collapsed. The following day she insisted: "Let me go back to Walsall, that I may die among my own people". The Hospital Committee provided a small cottage in Wednesbury Road, where Sister Dora spent her last days. She passed away on 24 December 1878.

The funeral, on 28 December, was attended by the Mayor and Corporation and clergy of every denomination, including two Bishops. The coffin was borne by 18 railwaymen to Queen Street cemetery. In silence the people of Walsall poured from their homes to pay Sister Dora a last tribute. A police cordon at the gates was powerless to stop them swarming into the cemetery to witness the burial.

A stained glass window at St. Matthew's Church in memory of Sister Dora was dedicated in 1882, and her statue on the Bridge was unveiled in October 1886, having cost 1,200, paid for by a fund which ran for seven years. The original white marble, badly affected by pollution, was replaced by the present bronze replica in 1957, and still gazes fondly down on the people of Walsall today.


Contact Information
For further information on Walsall Local History Centre please contact :-
Centre Manager
Walsall Local History Centre
Essex Street, Walsall WS2 7AS, U.K.
Tel : (U.K.) 01922 721305- (International) +44 1922 721305
Fax: (U.K.) 01922 634954 - (International) +44 1922 634954
E-mail:  General Information: localhistorycentre@walsall.gov.uk
Last modified: 03 August 2004