A Kind of Immortality

Published by: AlanP on 18th Mar 2017 | View all blogs by AlanP

My mother worked at a supermarket in Walsall, Staffordshire as it was then, County of West Midlands as it is now. Both of my parents worked on Saturdays. My father’s place seemed to be on a permanent six day week – those were happier times. When I was very young I used to stay with my grandmother on Saturday, but as I got older my mother used to take me to work with her. I was allowed to help out at the back of the store, fetching stock etc. Again, happier times.

I also used to wander outside a bit. In the middle of the town there was, and still is, a statue of Sister Dora. I asked my grandmother who Sister Dora was. All she said was that she was a great lady, perhaps that’s all she knew.

So, who was Sister Dora? She was born Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison on 16 January 1832 at Hauxwell, North Yorkshire. The 11th child of a brood of twelve. Her childhood was, apparently, one of gentle neglect as was the way in Victorian times, happy enough as these things go. Back then children were not the centre of everything quite as now. Engaged twice both engagements were broken, I don’t know why but I assume that one way or another men disappointed her, at least as romantic prospects.

She left home to become a teacher in Buckinghamshire. Subsequently she joined the Christ Church Sisterhood, becoming a kind of Anglican nun (I don’t know how these things work) and came to Walsall to work at the tiny little hospital. She would have gone to the Crimea with Florence Nightingale’s lot, but circumstances, principally her father, prevented her.

She had found her place, it seems in Walsall. The rest of her life was spent there. With all Victorian industrial towns there was no shortage of accidents and injuries and at the heart of the Black Country Walsall was a prime example. In particular there was a steady stream of injured railwaymen, although no single major incident. When the pit flooded in Pelsall, a great mining disaster, she was there working tirelessly and was credited with saving the lives of some of the few survivors.

The railwaymen came to love her unreservedly, they always did better with her. They clubbed together, raising £50 to buy a pony and trap so that she could more easily get about the town to visit the sick and housebound.

She believed in nursing as the way to recovery and was as dedicated as they come. For a time Walsall boasted a better recovery rate than the big hospitals in London. Another disaster, a furnace explosion at an iron foundry produced several men “covered in molten metal”. The ward was so dreadful, with the stench of charred flesh and screams of pain that most of the staff couldn’t bear it. Except Sister Dora, who simply upped herself to 24/7. I don’t know if any of the injured survived, but she must have made their passing easier.

There’s no doubt that she was deeply religious and prayed a lot. But unlike some of that persuasion she didn’t leave it up to god. There’s a story of a young man, his arm crushed in some industrial incident. The doctor wanted to amputate yet she refused; physically blocking the doctor. She nursed that arm, changed the dressings and fought off the infection. The arm was not only saved, it worked again. Throughout his life he referred to it as “Sister’s Arm”.

Near to where my grandmother’s house was, there’s a street called Hospital Street. It was previously called Deadman’s Lane. It’s where Dora set up an isolation unit during a smallpox epidemic. She was the only one who willingly entered the place. In a year some 12,000 smallpox victims passed through. Yet she was never infected. The strain of this might be what triggered the breast cancer that eventually got her. I suspect the name change had something to do with her, but I don’t know that.

She planned and caused the building of the Walsall General hospital, later called The Sister Dora. It’s gone now, but my father had surgery for his stomach ulcer and celebrated the first of his heart attacks within those walls.

That statue, apparently it was the first in Britain to be erected to a woman that was not in some way royally connected. Originally of marble, it was later replaced by the cast bronze that stands today.

The railwaymen. When she died, Christmas eve 1878, she was carried to her final resting place by 18 drivers, porters and guards all in uniform. Thousands lined the streets as her coffin passed. And they weren’t finished. A locomotive named Sister Dora (a Precedent Class 2-4-0, No 2158 – for the rail enthusiasts among us) ran between Derby and Walsall from 1895 until around 1906. Apparently the loco was scrapped in the 1920s. The driver's name was Charles Sayer and they say that he wouldn’t let anyone else near her, even to the extent of eating his lunch at the footplate rather than the mess at the Rycroft sheds. And again in 1988, over a hundred years after her death, they were at it again. A committee was formed to get a new loco named after her. This was successful and a class 31 diesel locomotive rolled around the country bearing her name for another while.

For me, the most remarkable thing is this. My mother died in the Manor hospital in Walsall. This is the newer hospital that replaced the Sister Dora. Even there, there is a unit named for her. The Manor did not have a good reputation and it was known as a place to die. Many people were happy when it was eventually demolished and rebuilt, taking away whatever incipient infection ailed the place.

But what I remember is waiting in the corridor for visiting. People were discussing how Sister Dora had watched over the old hospital and that things were never the same since they closed it. This was 2007, 129 years after Sister Dora died!

If that’s what immortality is, then fair enough.



  • Jill
    by Jill 1 year ago
    Alan, a lovely read and tribute to Sister Dora, who seems to have been a remarkable woman and to have given so much to her community. Your words are measured, but reading in between the lines, I am sensing much personal emotion surrounding your parents. Whatever one's age, the loss of parents leaves a big hole, doesn't it? Thank you for posting.
  • bazbaron
    by bazbaron 1 year ago
    Wonderful. Al, I do love these snippets of a forgotten or rather obscure point in time. Call me morbid if you like, but, on my quest in family research, I can often be found in cemetries studying headstones. I often ponder the who, what, where, when's of names I come across and as with your story, the old addage of,'everyone has a story' is so true. Thanks for the enlightenment. A pleasure to read.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 1 year ago
    What an amazing woman. I am, as you no doubt know by now, one of the 'railway enthusiasts among us,' and I first heard about Sister Dora in an old railway book I read many years ago. The author knew none of this background and only remarked that he thought it was an odd name for a locomotive. Nice to learn the story at last.

    Incidentally, if you're ever at the NRM, look out for a small, shiny black engine by the name of 'Hardwicke,' whose fame is due to its performance in what is known as 'The Race to the North' in 1895 - Crewe to Carlisle, over Shap Summit, at an average speed of 67mph, quite some going for the time. It is a sister engine to 'Sister Dora.'
  • AlanP
    by AlanP 1 year ago
    Thanks folks. I love these little histories. They are like itches I have to scratch. I worked most of this out some years ago. For some reason it just re-surfaced.

    @ Richard - I thought that little snippet might spark something with you. If can find it you would probably enjoy "‘2158 Sister Dora" by Jack Haddock. I can't find it, an extract was cited in one of the sources I used. Possibly it's an article from the Blackcountryman. Jack also wrote "Walsall's Engine Shed: Railwaymen's Memories 1877-1968". It's a bit expensive to buy. Next time I'm in York I'll look for Hardwicke.
  • Stephen Mark
    by Stephen Mark 1 year ago
    Alan. A wonderful blog. I would suggest that we might see more of its like here; but then, I was so moved - perhaps inordinately so - that I'm not sure my febrile emotions could stand it. A fitting tribute to a great lady who obviously believed that actions speak so much more than mere words. Our society could learn much from her sense of caring duty to others less fortunate. Thank you.
  • AlanP
    by AlanP 1 year ago
    Glad you enjoyed it, Stephen. She does seem to have been a formidable lady.
  • Giselle
    by Giselle 1 year ago
    What a lovely blog Alan, so full of warmth and history. You've just brought Sister Dora back to life for another generation. This would make a lovely plaque at the base of her statue, to answer all the other "Who was she and what did she do"s. Thank you!
  • Jenni Belsay
    by Jenni Belsay 1 year ago
    Fascinating. Thanks for enlightening us about a remarkable woman.
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 1 year ago
    Fancy that. I mean that quite literally. A poignant vignette of a remarkable woman I'd never heard of. Who'd have thunk it.
    Bring 'em on.
  • Janeshuff
    by Janeshuff 1 year ago
    Really enjoyed this, Alan. Quite inspirational.
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