SSAFA Sisters 130

Celebrating 130 years of SSAFA nurses, midwives, and health visitors supporting Armed Forces families across the world.

SSAFA Sisters 130

Celebrating 130 years of SSAFA nurses, midwives, and health visitors supporting Armed Forces families across the world.

SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity has had many memorable anniversaries since Major James Gildea founded the-then Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association in 1885.

One anniversary that SSAFA is particularly proud to celebrate takes place in 2022.

This year sees the 130th anniversary of the inauguration of SSAFA nurses – then called the Alexandra Nurses. Established in 1892, they provided professional care to the wives and families of soldiers and sailors in garrison and seaport towns across the world.

Such was their success that the UK’s National Health Service adopted the Alexandra Nurses’ practices for the District Nursing Service when it was set up in 1948.

SSAFA nurses, midwives, and health visitors are still at work today as part of our Community Health Care Team. These dedicated professionals provide first-class nursing and midwifery services to British Armed Forces personnel and their families posted overseas in Cyprus, SHAPE, Gibraltar, Brunei, Kenya, and BATUS in Canada.

130 years of memories

It is an occasion that could not go unmarked, and earlier this year a letter from Sir Andrew Gregory was sent to all national newspapers in the UK, as well as regional and local titles, inviting readers to submit their recollections of SSAFA Sisters – whether as one themselves, as a relative of one, or as a patient of one.

Responses came from far and wide. All are personal, all give insight into a life and career that was not quite military, but not quite civilian. Some – especially those memories of an East and West Germany, and a Cold War in Europe almost immediately after the end of WWII – are of times in what is still relatively recent history, but seem a lifetime away.

Some of these anecdotes and experiences follow below, some with photographs.

All capture a time now gone, but record changes in society unthought of 130 years ago.

Male nurses? Well, the first male nurses were actually registered in the UK in 1922, so happy anniversary chaps! Male midwives, however, had a little longer to wait; the first UK one was registered in 1977, but a number continue this vital profession with SSAFA’s Community Health Care Team.

However, if societal changes for men were significant, the changes for women were monumental, revolutionary even.

The fight for women's suffrage was barely 10 years old when what became SSAFA Sisters was established, and the first nurses went overseas.

Women going overseas was not completely unheard of, but most females who did were missionaries – or their spouses or parents – the wives and daughters of Empire builders, nuns, and governesses.

The Singapore of the Straits Settlements (up until circa 1900) and the Egypt of the “Veiled Protectorate” (1882-1914) were far different places to today, and lone women – of all ages – travelling to these locations was a brave step forwards, and arguably spurred on the fight for the emancipation of women, and female suffrage in the UK.

Over time, more histories will be added to this dedicated webpage – launched on International Nurses Day 2022 – that honours not just the ground-breaking work of SSAFA Sisters in the past, but also their essential work today, and with a nod to the future, including SSAFA’s 140 anniversary in 2025.

 

Histories

S P Harris, SSAFA Sister and Health Visitor 1963 – 1965

"I arrived in [West] Germany in July 1963 on a flight from Gatwick to begin my career as a SSAFA Sister and Health Visitor; my first role was at RAF Gutersloh to relieve the SSAFA Sister there who was going on holiday.

"After her return, I was posted to RAF Laarbruch also covering RAF Goch, and working 24 hours on duty, and 24 hours off, in and around the married quarters as well as the privately let accommodation in nearby towns and villages.

"Back then, a trip to the maternity unit at the hospital at RAF Hospital Wegberg [motto: Inter Fera Salus ('in the midst of ferocity, healing'] with a mother in labour was an hour away by ambulance, and we accompanied them.

"I must admit that, when my tour was over, I didn’t miss the phone ringing at 3am during the winter, especially on freezing snowy nights!

"But it wasn’t all work. All us SSAFA Sisters held the honorary rank of Captain, and we – at Gutersloh at least – lived in the Officers’ Mess. We had a busy social life, although going to the camp cinema when on duty was a risk. Invariably, a voice would suddenly bellow around the cinema “Would the SSAFA Sister please report to Sick Quarters!”

"I never did see the ending to so many films…"

 

Dora Hartley, née Williams, posted to India in WWII (submitted by daughter, Caroline Scott)

"My mother, maiden name Dora Williams, was very proud to have been a nurse in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps [QAs] and was posted to India during WWII, serving as a Sister at 127 IBGH (Indian Base General Hospital) Trimulgherry.

"Like many of the nurses she married a serving soldier, and my father, Peter Hartley, was a Captain in the Royal Engineers attached to the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners. They married at St. Andrews Church in Secunderabad on June 2, 1945."

 

Penny Leggat, SSAFA Sister (Midwife) in Germany early 1990s, and a current SSAFA volunteer

"I worked as SSAFA Community Midwife in Germany in the early 1990s, and I continued in my midwifery role after retiring from the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps in 1991. I got married to an RAF officer serving in Germany in 1991.

"I worked very closely with the SSAFA Community team, while working as a QA at British Military Hospital (BMH) Rinteln, 1984-1986, and BMH Hanover, 1990-1991.

"My area was a large geographical area from Düsseldorf, Krefeld, Duisburg, and Mulheim. At times my visits could extend to a wider geographical area and many miles could be travelled at weekends and to cover absences.

"All mothers received similar care to that which they would have received in the UK. The biggest difference being often they were not supported by family members, so time had to be taken at the visits to support the new family with their new baby.

"These were the days before social media, mobile phones and only very limited internet. Many a time I was greeted at the door and presented with a screaming baby and parents who had not slept.

"There was no satnav, but a glovebox full of maps. I became an expert on the German road system, short cuts, diversions, road works, German Police hotspots and the location of the scattered married quarters and private lets across my area, sometimes using telephone boxes to call clients because there were no mobile phones.

"The early 1990s was the beginnings of change in Germany with the BMHs starting to close and family care being shared with the local German hospitals.

"However, in 1994, I benefitted in the service given by the SSAFA community team, safely delivering my son at RAF Wegberg!"

 

Mervyn Rees, RAF Veteran

"I can remember the wonderful SSAFA Sisters from when I was a young lad, around 10 or so, in 1945/6 and out and about in Aldershot. They were always so smart in their dress uniforms, and occasionally near the hospital when they were in their work uniforms with their fantastic large white working head-dress always very smart indeed.

"They were then, during and after the war a very highly respected, much-loved service as they still are to this very day. Treasures every one of them. God bless them all."

 

Sue Adams, a teacher with the British Army of the Rhine in the 1970s and now a SSAFA volunteer in Somerset

"SSAFA was a household name for so many aspects of social and medical support with military families and in particular, young children. I have even found a photograph, taken in January 1975 , of a SSAFA Sister carrying out head inspections in my classroom at Robert Browning School, Sennelager."

 

Elaine Ansell, SSAFA Sister and Health Visitor, 1978 – 1985

"I was employed by SSAFA from 1978 to 1985, working with Army families in Dortmund for two years, a posting to Berlin for three, then to Gibraltar for a few months, where I visited the Royal Navy and RAF families. families and the Royal Airforce families, before back to Hemer in [then West] Germany.

"Working with the Forces was a very new and exciting experience for me as my family were not involved with the Forces.

"It was also a very busy time. I had about 500 families on my caseload, which meant at least 500 children under the age of five whom we visited in each posting .We had just about visited all the families when either I relocated, or the families were re-stationed after two years!

"As far as social life was concerned, there were many outings and dinners and party nights . The Forces produced amazing meals, no-one can beat them!

"We went to concerts in all postings to see popular acts of the day, such as Queen and many other pop groups of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The opera and classical concerts in Berlin were superb; there was much to see and visit in Berlin: museums and art galleries . We could visit the French sector for dinner and their Economart, their equivalent of the NAAFI, but much larger.

"We could visit East Berlin, the Russian sector, in the evening with an officer from [our] Forces. They wore mess dress, and we wore evening dress, dining a very nice restaurant called Ganymed Brasserie.

"My time working with SSAFA was an experience of a lifetime."