Explore Your Archive: A First World War nurse's scrapbook

By Rosemary Collins, 17 November 2017 - 10:01am

Rosemary Collins talks to Molly Fennelly of the Royal College of Nursing Library about a First World War nurse's scrapbook

Mabel Pearce's patients wrote messages in the scrapbook. Credit: The Royal College of Nursing

Explore Your Archive is a campaign coordinated jointly by The National Archives (UK) and the Archives and Records Association (UK & Ireland), with and on behalf of the archives and records sector, across the UK and Ireland which aims to raise awareness of archives, their value to society and the impact they have, every day, on individual lives.

The campaign runs from Saturday 18 November to Sunday 26 November with archives all around the country putting on exhibitions, having open days, hosting seminars and talks and allowing communities to "explore" the amazing things they hold.

As part of the campaign, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine has teamed up with The National Archives to bring you a week of interviews with some of the archivists taking part around the country to discover just a few of the fascinating historic gems they hold.

Today, Molly Fennelly, heritage graduate trainee at the Royal College of Nursing Library, tells us about a scrapbook belonging to First World War nurse Mabel Pearce.

What gem have you chosen?

During the First World War nurse Mabel Pearce kept a scrapbook, collecting images and quotes from the people she encountered.

It is most likely Pearce passed the scrapbook around her wards, filling its pages with the entries of nurses and soldiers. The tone varies with each account. Some write in cheery lyrics whereas others talk of their experience fighting. One private describes fields “turned red.” A few soldiers choose to boldly pen Pearce love poems, a lovesick soldier pronouncing “her beauty makes me swoon.”

Entries like this build up an idea of First World War hospital life: both the horror and humour people faced. A nurse reports working night shifts in the “mud, rain or snow” and overseeing “lights all out for a Zeppelin raid.” Details of daily life like this are so important to preserve. They help us to remember the range of different experiences in wartime.

Why did you choose it?

Pearce’s scrapbook shows an experience of the First World War that is often overlooked.

Nurses like Pearce served throughout the war, posted in hospitals across the world. Like many others, Pearce was a nurse before the war and signed up to work in army hospitals. She even worked on two hospital ships – at great risk to herself.

The scrapbook she produced in the war highlights the importance of nurses’ work. For this reason the RCN is digitising it, along with nine other nurse’s scrapbooks, as part of our Service Scrapbooks project. This aims to make our collection more accessible to everyone, whilst celebrating the contribution so many nurses made to the war. Each book shows the amazing lengths these women went to in caring for the soldiers. As one soldier asks: who made him “quite forget Mons and Le Havre? Twas Mabel – Mabel Pearce.”

Nurses with a guy
A drawing from the scrapbook. Credit: The Royal College of Nursing

Tell us more about your archive...

Our archive holds over 100 years of nursing history. Our stores are filled with documents, including nurses’ personal papers and journals, like these scrapbooks.

The RCN has a changing programme of exhibitions in London and Edinburgh to display our collections. Here we highlight the personal items that make our archive so unique. Currently on display in our ‘Hidden in plain sight: Celebrating nursing diversity’ exhibition is a homemade Good Luck card alongside a first edition of Mary Seacole’s autobiography. Both show a completely different perspective on nursing.

We are always looking for more donations, so if you are a nurse or know a nurse let us know if you have something that should be kept for future generations.

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