The role of the Alexandra Nurses during the First World War

The Alexandra Nurses

The role of the Alexandra Nurses during the First World War

SSAFA, known then as The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association (SSFA) established the Nursing Branch in 1892 to provide qualified Nurses (CMB Certificated) to attend to the wives and families of soldiers and sailors in large garrisons and seaport towns. By kind permission of HRH The Princess of Wales (later Her Majesty Queen Alexandra), President of SSFA, the nurses employed were named ‘Alexandra Nurses’ in her honour.

Was this the beginning of ‘district nursing’ as we now know it?

The National Health Act 1947/8 heralded the provision of a District Nursing Service for all civilians in Great Britain. The service provided by district nurses corresponds almost exactly to SSFA’s ‘Nursing Service for Service Families Living in Quarters.’ SSFA had provided this service, a nurse with bike or car, since 1895.

The establishment of Alexandra Nurses not only met the need for care and assistance in the wider Forces community; it was also a way of uncovering where care was required.


The role of the Alexandra Nurses in the First World War

Injured service personnel in the UK were looked after in Military Hospitals and by Volunteer Aid Detachments - then moved to convalescent homes run by the Red Cross and the Incorporated Soldiers and Sailors Help Society.  No Alexandra Nurses went to France - although there is evidence that one nurse was given leave of absence to serve in France.

The Military Families’ Hospital provided for the families of soldiers but there was no such provision for the wives of sailors of the Royal Navy, Royal Marine Light Infantry of Naval Reservists. Loneliness became an added horror – for which cheerful companionship and skilled nursing would help greatly.  

It was evident that a Maternity Home was urgently required for sailors’ wives. The Devonport and Plymouth Nursing Branch approached Lord St Levan and asked for the use of a large untenanted house in Stoke.  He granted permission to use the premises and paid for the necessary alternations to make it suitable for its new purpose.

The home and care had a direct impact on birth mortality rates – due to training on health and hygiene that the nurses provided – thus preventing the spread of infection. Sir George Newman, Medical Adviser to the Government Board was quoted in the 1916 annual report as saying that if he had an Alexandra Maternity Home in every town he would solve the question of infant mortality.

Soon after the opening, yet another urgent need was identified. This time for a home for motherless children under seven, and children whose mothers were in the Maternity Home. Within a few months - after some zealous fundraising - a Children’s Home opened in 1917 to accommodate children whose mothers had died in childbirth, were in hospital, an asylum, or in the Maternity Home.

An outbreak of influenza kept the Nurses in Limerick and Colchester busy in 1918 – It was reported in the Annual Report that medical officers eulogised their work.