400x 198 WCON_Logo
Royal British Nurses' Association RBNA

Royal British Nurses' Association (RBNA)

The Princess Helena and Ethel Mary Fletcher Fund for Nurses

This fund was established from the merging of four former charities: The Ethel Mary Fletcher Fund, The Trained Nurses Annuity Fund, The Helena Benevolent Fund and The Royal British Nurses’ Settlement Fund. These funds were previously managed by the Royal British Nurses’ Association and have now been entrusted to the Worshipful Company of Nurses.

The Royal British Nurses’ Association

The Royal British Nurses’ Association (RBNA) was founded in December 1887. Dr and Mrs Bedford Fenwick met at 20 Upper Wimpole Street with a number of other medical men and matrons to discuss the founding of an organisation of nurses similar to the British Medical Association. Mrs Bedford Fenwick’s main aim was the registration of nurses. A council of Doctors, Matrons and Nurses was formed and drew up the constitution for the RBNA. Her Royal Highness Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein (the 3rd daughter and 5th child of Queen Victoria) agreed to become the first President.

In 1892, the RBNA received its Royal Charter. Princess Christian in her speech made it clear that the RBNA was working towards “improving the education and status of those devoted and self-sacrificing women, whose whole lives have been devoted to tending the sick, the suffering, and the dying”. In the speech, Princess Christian warned about the opposition and misrepresentation that nurses had encountered. Although the RBNA was in favour of registration as a means of enhancing and guaranteeing the professional status of trained nurses, the RBNA Charter allowed it to maintain a list, rather than a formal register of nurses.

Shortly before her death in 1923 Princess Christian, who designed the RBNA badge, told an officer of the RBNA, “I have loved the Association and I gave it my father’s moto - ‘Steadfast and True’”. So often she was heard to say of the RBNA, “The Association shall choose the course it thinks right and I shall firmly stand by it”.

In the 30 years between the formation of the RBNA and the Nurses Registration Act 1919 there was considerable controversy over registration of nursing even within the RBNA. It took five attempts 1904, 1909, 1913, 1914, 1918 before the Nurses Registration Act became law. Many at that time, including Florence Nightingale with her powerful influence, were concerned that organising nursing would lose the ‘Vocational Spirit’. Those supportive of this new approach included the Matron of St Bartholomew’s Hospital Miss Isla Stewart and Matron of Charing Cross Hospital, Mary Cochrane. The RBNA was certainly one of the first associations of nurses in the world and was the first body of women to receive a Royal Charter. It also held the first ever register of nurses. The RBNA was also the first to establish an examination for a Diploma in Nursing. The initial steps and plans for the foundation of the Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Reserve were made around the RBNA Council’s table. The RBNA also established the first Co-operation of nurses in order that in place of a salary, nurses should receive the full charges made for their services minus a small commission for working expenses.

Very early on, the RBNA set up schemes for the benefit of nurses in sickness and old age. For some years the RBNA managed a home for retired nurses but this was lost through enemy action in World War 2. In more recent years the aims of the RBNA were to administer four charities, the Ethel Mary Fletcher Fund, The Trained Nurses Annuity Fund, The Helena Benevolent Fund and The Royal British Nurses’ Settlement Fund.

Many of the original documents are still in existence. These include the approval of the RBNA Bye-Laws granted by the Lords of the Privy Council and the Petition from Princess Christian, asking Queen Victoria to grant a Charter of Incorporation to the RBNA. The RBNA archives hold the minutes of the meetings going back to 1887. The archives also hold other papers that describe some of the debates and struggles going on in nursing before the Registration Act. This is an invaluable insight into the early years of the nursing profession. Many other documents have found their way into the RBNA archive including papers from the Society for the State Registration of Trained Nurses and many of Mrs Bedford Fenwick’s papers. The Register, or the ‘List of Names’ as the protagonists preferred it to be called, is the most important document the RBNA held. It was restored at Windsor Castle in 1989 and contains 10,000 names.

Kings College, London maintains an extensive archive of the RBNA including other documents that relate to the nursing profession (http://www.kingscollections.org/catalogues/kclca/collection/r/10ro65-1).

The RBNA survived due to the valiant efforts of many but particular mention should be made of: HRH Princess Christian as President up to her death in 1923; Mrs Bedford Fenwick who kept in close contact with the RBNA up to her death in 1947; Isabel Macdonald who remained secretary of the RBNA up to her death in 1964; and Ann Campbell whose legacy is recognised in the Ann Campbell Royal British Nurses’ Association Award Fund administered by the Company of Nurses Charitable Trust. Richard Bowden should also be recognised for his work in archiving much of the RBNA material over several years.

In 2020 the RBNA donated funds for a bench to be installed in St Helena’s Churchyard, Thoroton, Notts in memory of Ethel Bedford Fenwick. The bench is situated near Ethel Bedford Fenwick’s grave. The inscription on the top of the bench reads: “Ethel Bedford Fenwick, The First Registered Nurse” with the RBNA logo.

The RBNA also provided the funds for the restoration of the grave of Annie Brewster in the City of London Cemetery which had fallen into disrepair. Annie was born in St Lucia and became a probationer nurse at the Royal London, 1884.

In 2023 the RBNA was dissolved as a company and the remaining operating funds it held were given to the Worshipful Company of Nurses. This donation was in recognition of The Company’s role in keeping the history and legacy of the RBNA alive.