This podcast explores the life and impact of Rose Potter Clarributt, who was Matron at the Radcliffe Infirmary for almost thirty years between 1849 and 1878. During this time, she helped attend patients injured in the notorious Shipton rail accident of Christmas Eve 1874.
Rose was born in Southampton in 1812 or 13. She was the daughter of Edward Clarributt, a Royal Naval lieutenant, and his wife Harriet, and had five siblings.
By the age of 28, Rose was recorded in the census as working at the Royal Hospital at Haslar, in Hampshire, a naval hospital which had opened almost a century earlier. The first nurses were sailors’ widows who lived in the local area of Gosport. In the era before Florence Nightingale began to reform the image of the profession, nurses were often seen as incompetent and untrained, even dirty and drunk. Haslar’s nurses were fined if they did not carry out their duties properly. It was not until 1884 that the Naval Nursing Service was formed, introducing trained nurses to Haslar and Plymouth.
Rose first became associated with the hospital through her father, though the nature of her involvement is unclear as she does not appear on the staff lists. Nevertheless, when she applied to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford in 1849, she cited her work at Gosport as evidence of her experience. She claimed that it had given her “every opportunity of acquiring practical knowledge of a Matron’s duty in all its branches” and referred to her “intimacy” with its matron. In her job application, she promised to fulfil her prospective duties at the Radcliffe Infirmary with “energy, activity, and faithfulness”. Rose’s application was successful and she was offered the position of Matron on a yearly salary of £42.
The Radcliffe Infirmary, which opened in 1770, was at the southern end of Woodstock Road on the western side, backing onto Walton Street. It closed to patients in 2007 and was redeveloped by the University of Oxford as part of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. It has been described as “Oxford’s first ‘modern’ hospital.” During the Victorian period it was supported through charitable gifts and subscriptions and operated for patients from the poorer classes.
In the 1870s the nurses were not trained but taken from what was known as the superior servant class. Despite some of the negative stereotypes surrounding nursing, evidence suggests that matrons at the Radcliffe Infirmary were highly regarded and held to a high standard. One matron was dismissed for failing to discover that a female patient had come in pregnant and concealed the birth. The hospital’s rules included prohibitions against swearing and playing cards. It is likely the atmosphere would have been quite a change for Rose after serving at a Navy Hospital, where the nurses were reputed to smuggle alcohol through the sewers.
The Matron was responsible for the domestic running of the hospital, and was meant to keep the environment spotless. She was also in charge of the nursing staff. She worked alongside the hospital’s house surgeon-apothecary – the fact they could not both be absent at the same time is testament to the importance of the Matron’s role. Between 1870-74, when Dr Palmer was house surgeon, Rose left the Infirmary only once, in order to give evidence in a police case. The matron’s 24/7 presence made her particularly vigilant and she was called to testify against a hospital porter accused of stealing.
In 1870, Dr Palmer described Rose as “a dear old lady, beloved by every one and deservedly so”. He portrayed her as a strong churchwoman, who could name all the bishops and parsons for miles around, and who was beloved by the clergy. He suggested she was “living for her work and nothing else”. Palmer also remarked that “[s]he was very very conservative and resented innovation of any kind”. The biggest change she introduced while at the Infirmary was employing younger women aged between 25-35 years as nurses rather than older women.
During Rose’s tenure one of the biggest incidents at the hospital was the Shipton rail accident of Christmas Eve 1874. The ten-oh-two Great Western Railway express train from Paddington to Birkenhead was involved in a crash near Shipton-on-Cherwell, not far from Kidlington, 15 minutes after it had left Oxford station. 26 people died at the scene and many more were injured, some of whom would later lose their lives. A local paper mill owner named Langton Pearson and his men were first to arrive on the scene, tending to the dead and injured in the snow. It took around an hour and a half for a doctor to arrive.
A special train was put on to transport the injured back to Oxford. Around 50 were taken to the Radcliffe Infirmary while others were taken to nearby hotels including the Randolph Hotel and Jones’s Railway Hotel on Park End Street (which was demolished in 1933 to make way for the Royal Oxford Hotel). Of those patients who reached the Radcliffe Infirmary, three died from their injuries while another who continued her journey died shortly after. In total, the death count from the accident was 34, making it the worst national disaster at that time. Two inquests took place to investigate the cause of the accident and major safety problems were identified.
Soon after the crash, a subscription was set up to support the patients. Known as the Shipton Fund, its committee consisted of representatives from the city and the Governors of the Infirmary. Donations came in from Queen Victoria and her son Prince Leopold, who would open the hospital’s children’s ward three years later. £150 was given by the Great Western Railway for the Infirmary’s permanent staff to distribute “in such proportion and in such manner as they may think proper”.
Rose’s role in tending to the injured from the Shipton accident was widely praised by her colleagues and the local community. Dr Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, would later recollect how, on visiting the hospital, he found that the patients were well-attended. He remarked that “[t]here was no bustle, no excitement; everything was done with a quiet gentleness and order by the nurses under our excellent matron”. “[A]ll staff assisted,” the Dean noted, “but the responsibility for organization fell upon the Matron, Miss Rose Clarributt.” He also recognised that the accident was “no slight demand on the resources of a Country Hospital”. The hospital’s governors praised the actions of the Matron and the hospital surgeon. Dr. Liddell told The Times “I should be glad to claim some acknowledgement for our excellent Matron (Miss Clarributt).”
When Rose died some four years later, her obituary in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, the local newspaper, suggested that “[m]any hospitals would, perhaps, have failed under such a severe trial. That the Radcliffe Infirmary did not was owing mainly to her promptitude and presence of mind”.
Her obituary also described her as a hard-worker who “never gave herself much time for rest or refreshment”. In the year of her death, it had been recommended that the matron be relieved of most of her housekeeping duties to concentrate on nursing. The obituary commented that she was “most conscientious in performing all duties” and that she did everything with a “bright and cheerful demeanour”. The obituary estimated that she had cared for “30,000 sick and suffering poor” during her time at the Infirmary. Although she would have received little training for the job, it seems that her attitude towards patient care was exemplary for her time. Fittingly, she died at the Radcliffe Infirmary on the 5th January 1879, in the place she had spent most of her working life. A memorial fund established after her death raised enough money to buy dedicated ‘wheeled litters’, an early form of stretcher, on which to carry injured residents to the Infirmary free of charge. A subscription was also set up to pay for a stained glass window in St Luke’s Chapel which survives today.
More information about hospitals in Oxfordshire can be found online at the Oxfordshire Health Archives.
“Death of the Matron of the Radcliffe Infirmary”, Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 11 January 1878.
Robb-Smith, A.H.T, A Short History of the Radcliffe Infirmary (Oxford: Church Army Press for the United Oxford Hospitals, 1970).
“Rose Potter Clarributt”, St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, http://www.stsepulchres.org.uk/burials/claributt_rose.html
With thanks to Lynda Haynes for advice via email.
Hannah Newson has recently graduated from the Postgraduate Certificate in Local History programme run by Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.