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.