Florence Nightingale Comes Home for 2020
This content is adapted from the Florence Nightingale Derbyshire Association’s Exhibition (2010)

The material in this section is not the result of research by the current project team, but rather is adapted from the Florence Nightingale Derbyshire Association’s 2010 Exhibition, which marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Nightingale and was displayed throughout August 2010 at the Gothic Warehouse, Cromford Wharf, part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site. An associated programme of music, dance, film and walking events were held throughout Derbyshire.

We would like to thank the Florence Nightingale Derbyshire Association for permission to reproduce these materials.


A Bird in a Gilded Cage 

The traditional role of a wealthy Victorian woman revolved around making a good marriage, being a dutiful wife, a generous mother, and perhaps doing a little charity-work in her spare time. Nightingale would never settle comfortably into this role.

She was intelligent, well-travelled and well-educated – perhaps too well-educated for the customs ofher time: “A capital young lady that,” said one acquaintance of her, “if she hadn’t floored me with her Latin and Greek”.

But this was a time when some pioneering women were making their name as writers, artists, explorers. There were a few callings which began to offer women the chance to work – and think – for themselves. Nursing was one of them.

I am up to my chin in linen and glass! ... Is all that china, linen and glass necessary to make man a Progressive animal?  


      - Florence Nightingale 



Key Events

Early Life and Education

William Nightingale taught his daughters Latin, Greek, and Philosophy. The family spoke French, Italian, and German, and often discussed politics and religion together. But Nightingale pleaded to be taught mathematics, which was normally taught only to boys.

This academic background was most unusual for a young lady of the day, and it proved the greatest benefit in the work that later became Nightingale’s life.

'Called by God'

Florence Nightingale was first ‘called by God’ when she was seventeen. This first mystical experience convinced her that God had important work for her to perform, but it was years before she came to realise what she was to do.

Instead she was drawn to working with the poor in the local area. She did some work in local schools, but, perhaps partly through the influence of a family friend who was head physician of the hospital in Salisbury, Florence began to see nursing as her life’s work.

As she travelled abroad in this period, in France, Germany, Italy and Egypt, Florence was always drawn to visit the local hospitals. Her learning about the practical aspects of nursing were complemented by the background reading she undertook – poring over the government’s Blue Books, full of statistical facts and figures on health and social conditions of the working classes. 

Watercolour painting of Florence Nightingale and her sister Parthenope as young men. Florence is seated, sewing, in a pink dress. Parthenope is standing, holding a book, in a yellow dress, with her face turned to look at the viewer.

‘Florence Nightingale and Frances Parthenope, Lady Verney’, watercolour painting by William White, c.1836. National Portrait Gallery, used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.


Finding Her Life's Work

In May 1850 Florence had written in her diary: 'I am now 30, the age at which Christ began His mission. Now no more childish things, no more vain things, no more love, no more marriage. Now Lord let me think only of Thy will.'

She spent time at the Kaiserswerth Institute in Germany, where there was a hospital, school, orphanage and penitentiary. Florence was there to learn: 'I took all the training that was to be had, since there was none to be had in England' and she left Kaiserswerth 'feeling so brave as if nothing could ever vex me again!'

In 1851, Florence’s parents finally gave in to her daughter’s wishes. Her father gave her an income of £500 a year, worth about £30,000 today, which enabled her to live comfortably and to follow her calling.

Her mother wrote: 'Yes, my dear, yes. Take time, take faith and take love with you, even though it be to walk in a path which leads you strangely from us all. I will do my best, I will indeed, to think you right, and let you follow the manner of man you are.'

In August 1853 Florence began work at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London. She wrote to a friend: 'I am living in an ideal world of lifts, gas, baths and double and single wards!'

Six months later Britain declared war on Russia. In September 1854, British troops landed in the Crimea.


Idealised oil painting of Nightingale from 1933. She stands facing the viewer and holding flowers, illuminated by a shaft of light.

‘The Lady with the Lamp’, 1933. Oil painting by Herbert Carmichael (formerly Herbert Gustave Schmalz). British Museum, used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.



In the early 1850s Florence Nightingale wrote a novel that many believe summed up her frustrations about women’s position in Victorian society.

'Cassandra' was a passionate cry from the heart. The heroine, Nofriani, rails against the idle lifestyle imposed on women who are desperate to be engaged in worthwhile activity. Her cries fall on deaf ears, and Nofriani wails: 'Call me Cassandra, for I have prophesied in vain. I have gone about crying all these many years. And no one has listened'.

Cassandra is a mythical princess from the story of Troy; the gods have blessed her with the gift of seeing the future, and they have cursed her, so that no-one ever believes her. In the book, Nofriani is thirty when she dies. Florence was thirty – and some believe she was suffering a breakdown and practically suicidal – when she wrote it. 

She later adapted the book, taking out details that made it seem autobiographical. It wasn’t published until after her death. But 'Cassandra' has lost none of its power. Today, it’s seen by feminists as a milestone in the long struggle for women’s emancipation.



Image of the blue cover of Nightingale's 'Cassandra' as published by the Feminist Press. The cover advertises the book as 'Florence Nightingale's angry outcry against the forced idleness of Victorian women, with an introduction by Myra Start and an Epilogue by Cynthia Macdonald

Nightingale's 'Cassandra' as published by The Feminist Press in 1987.


Next: Health and Hospitals

Florence Nightingale Comes Home for 2020
Email: nightingale2020@nottingham.ac.uk