How to look for records of... Military nursing
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1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide for advice on records of nurses who served with the British Army, Royal Air Force or Royal Navy, each of which had its own nursing service. The records of each service are found in separate and distinct series of records. The guide expands on the information in our three shorter guides, British Army nurses, Royal Navy nurses and Royal Air Force nurses and contains details of other records, not covered in those guides, of military nursing personnel or policy.
The National Archives holds no service records of Royal Air Force nurses.
Service records for military nurses serving after the First World War are still held by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). To find out how to request information from the MOD see the GOV.UK website. There is a fee for conducting a search. Amongst the records held by the MOD are:
- Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, 1939-1945
- Royal Navy service records from around 1920 to 1939 and sometimes later
- RAFNS service records
For Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, contact the Museum and Archives of the British Red Cross.
2. British Army nurses
The nursing branch of the British Army is Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC), though it did not operate under that name until 1949. The corps started life as Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), established in 1902, and its direct predecessor was the Army Nursing Service, the first service of professionally trained military nurses, set up in 1881. Prior to this nurses serving with the British Army did so either as recruits or volunteers for specific wars or military campaigns or as members of relatively short-lived medical service organisations. Even after the formation of the QAIMNS, Army nurses were not given official military rank until 1926 and did not receive commissions until 1941.
Before the 1850s, British Army medical services were organised on a regimental basis. Each regiment had its own medical officer and the male orderlies who staffed the regimental hospital were seconded from the regiment. The first instance of specialist civilian female nurses serving with the British Army was during the Crimean War (1854-1856), when Florence Nightingale led a group of volunteer nurses to Scutari.
The Medical Staff Corps, whose members were soldiers as opposed to professional nurses and medics, was created in 1855. This was reorganised in 1857, following the Crimean War, into the Army Hospital Corps and did include nurses amongst its workforce.
Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Reserve was formed in March 1897 and was disbanded in 1907 when most of its members became part of QAIMNS. In July 1908 the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) was inaugurated as a supplementary service to the QAIMNS.
On 16 August 1909 the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was formed to provide nursing and medical services at times of war. It was organised by the British Red Cross Society which had previously been known as the British National Aid Society.
It was not until the late 1800s that significant numbers of records or anything equating to detailed service records began to be kept.
2.1 Records of nurses who served in the Crimean War
|Letters of recommendation for nurses applying to go to the Crimea (arranged alphabetically in bundles)
|Correspondence and memoranda to, from and about nurses in the Crimea
|Lists of ladies, nurses and orderlies embarked for England from the Crimea
2.2 Records of nurses who served in the First World War
Our British Army nurses guide contains details of the British Army nurses’ service records that you can search and download from our website. The table below shows most of the other available records held at The National Archives.
Even after the establishment of the QAIMNS in 1902, the service is referred to in many of the records simply as the Army Nursing Service or ANS.
|Branch or unit of British Army
|Type of record
|Content of record
|Name, sometimes address, sometimes age, dates of pension commencement and ceasing, pension rate
|Name, address, rank (i.e. nurse, sister or matron), pension details, date of death (if applicable)
|Women’s services, including nurses and VADs
|Selection of medical sheets
|Name, age, rank and treatment
|No 34 Casualty Clearing Station, 2nd and 19th General Hospitals, 4th Stationary Hospital, Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital at Millbank and Catterick Military Hospital
|Hospital admission and discharge registers
|Name, age, rank, years of service, disease contracted/injury sustained, dates of admission and discharge
2.3 Pre- and post-First World War records of nurses’ pensions
Until the First World War very few nurses qualified for pensions.
|Content of records
|Royal Hospital Chelsea pension registers; the nurses are listed with the officers; the original document contains an index
|Name, age on retirement, place of work, length of service, date of death (if applicable), and pension details
|Royal Hopsital Chelsea registers; no index, but in rough date order
|Name, date of appointment and resignation/retirement, age on appointment; later entries give date of birth
|Nurses in the QAIMNS
|Name, address, rank (such as, nurse, sister or matron), pension details, date of death (if applicable)
2.4 Other records
|Branch of British Army
|Type of record
|Details found in these files
|Medical Staff Corps
|Mainly soldiers and orderlies but a few entries for nurses; date of death; cause of death
|National Aid Society; Army Nursing Service
|Name and seniority rolls; service records (the original document contains a name and place index)
|Date and sometimes place of birth; dates and places of service; awards and decorations; award of pension; date of resignation; sometimes date of death
|Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service
|Recommendations for appointment of staff nurses
|Name, date of birth, occupation of father, whether single or widow, where educated, in which hospital trained (with dates), places and dates of nursing experience, matron’s reference, appointment given
3. Royal Navy nurses
Until 1883 nursing in the naval hospitals was usually undertaken by ex-seamen or marines, who were recruited as required from the shore establishments and who held no nursing qualifications. The establishment of the Naval Nursing Service in 1884, at Haslar, in Portsmouth, and in Plymouth, was the first instance of a unit in the Royal Navy staffed by trained nurses. In 1897 the service was extended to Chatham and Malta and, in 1901, to all Royal Naval Hospitals. In 1902, the service was renamed the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS). There was also a QARNNS Reserve, of civilian nurses, for service in wartime only.
3.1 Records of Royal Navy nurses at the Royal Greenwich Hospital, 1704-1865
|Information contained in the documents
|Alphabetical lists of nurses
|Registers of service; all give name, date of entry and date and reason for leaving
|Name, age at time of entry, date of entry, where born, husband’s Christian name, husband’s date of death and in which service employed, amount of pension, whether husband hurt or wounded and on what service, number of children and ages at time of entry; details of husband and family are not completed for early entries
|Ratings’ widows applying for admission to Greenwich Hospital as nurses
|ADM 6/329 and ADM 6/331
3.2 Records of Royal Navy nurses, 1884 onwards
The names of matrons and head sisters can be found in the Navy List from 1884. Navy Lists can be found in The National Archives public reading rooms in Kew and in specialist libraries. They provide an official list of officers, their ranks and seniority and the ships on which they served.
Service registers of the Medical Department of the Navy are in ADM 104 and can be downloaded from Discovery as digital microfilm.
|Type of record, who it covers and how it is arranged
|Nursing sisters; the original document has an index
|Name, rank, date of birth, date of entry and discharge
|Annual reports of nursing sisters; for each year staff are listed in seniority order
|Name, age, hospital where they are stationed, dates of service and very brief comments on character and work
|Nursing sisters; arranged by dates of appointment; the original document has an index
|Name, rank, date of birth, date of entry and discharge, next of kin, annual report marks, sick leave, comments on character and ability, training qualifications, and medal awards
|QARNNS Reserves, signed up for wartime service only
|Name, date of joining service, civilian hospital in which worked, naval hospital in which stationed, date of discharge
|Nursing sisters’ and wardmasters’ establishment book; contains an index to establishment (hospital or barracks); staff are listed in rough date order
|Name, rank, date and cause of appointment, date and reason for discharge
4. RAF nurses
Proposals for the establishment of a Royal Air Force Nursing Service were submitted to the Treasury in early 1918, with the intention that it should last until the end of the First World War. Periods of appointment were for 12 months or the duration of the war if required, with six or 12 month renewable contracts after the completion of the first year. By January 1919 the nursing service was in operation. Matrons, sisters and staff nurses were appointed to an honorary military rank without command. The RAFNS was confirmed as a permanent independent service in 1921. In 1923 the service became Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service (PMRAFNS).
The National Archives holds no service records of RAFNS nurses. Such records remain in the custody of the RAF (see section 9). However, you can find the names of some of the first nurses to be recruited among the papers relating to the establishment of the service. The correspondence in AIR 2 is a major source for such material. For example, the setting up of the service is the subject of AIR 2/93.
5. Policy and administration records
These records include reports, official letters, rules and regulations, conditions of service for nurses and financial records, among others.
5.1 British Army policy and administration records
The principal record series codes for these documents are WO 32 and WO 33, though you will also find nursing policy and administration records in WO 30, WO 222 and WO 243. There are several ways to perform a search:
- Use the search box in WO 32 and enter either ‘Code 2’ (nursing services), ‘Code 182’ (medical) or ‘Code 68’ (women’s services) as your search term
- Use advanced search in Discovery, our catalogue, and enter ‘nursing’ as your search term, restricting your enquiry to search within any or all of record series references WO 30, WO 32, WO 33, WO 222 or WO 243
- Use the table below to locate specific document references (these are references that cannot be found using either of the methods above)
|Adjutant General’s papers
|Proceedings of the mobilisation committee
|Report on the nursing service in Egypt
|Report of the Royal Commission on care and treatment of sick and wounded during the South African Campaign
|Advisory Board report on military hospitals in Great Britain: printed
|Papers relating to medical services
|QAIMNS and Queen Alexandra’s Military Families Nursing Service: establishments
|Advisory Board minutes
5.2 Royal Navy nursing policy and administration records
For material on the history and development of the service, search record series ADM 116. This includes the reports of the Committee on the Organisation and training of the Sick Berth Staff of the Navy and the Nursing Staff of the Royal Naval Hospitals 1883-1884 (ADM 116/220) and the Committee on the Training of Medical Staff 1899 (ADM 116/1243-5).
5.3 RAF nursing policy and administration records
The most useful record series for files that cover a wide variety of administrative and policy matters in the RAF is AIR 2. It covers rules and regulations, conditions of service for nurses, financial matters and so on. For example, the establishment of the RAF nursing service is the subject of documents in AIR 2/93, while the future of the service after the First World War is covered in AIR 2/155.
6. Further reading
Ruth Cowen, A Nurse at the Front: The Great War diaries of Sister Edith Appleton (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Ian Hay, One hundred years of army nursing (Caszell, 1953)
Juliet Piggott, Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 1990)
William Spencer, First World War army service records (The National Archives, 2008)
William Spencer, Medals: The researcher’s guide (The National Archives, 2006)
Anne Summers, Angels and citizens: British women as military nurses, 1854-1914 (Threshold Press Ltd, 2000)
Nicola Tyrer, Sister in Arms: British Army nurses tell their story (Phoenix, 2009)