Alicia Walton and the Role of the 19th Century Superintendent of Nurses

While looking for objects associated with Leeds General Infirmary in our collection, blogger Rebecca Fallas was drawn immediately to a picture of this kindly looking but clearly formidable woman.

She was identified as a Miss Alicia Walton the Superintendent of Nurses at Leeds Infirmary and a little research told me that my first instinct was probably correct.

A black and white full length photograph of a Victorian woman posing
Photograph of Miss Alicia Walton, Superintendent of Nurses 1869-1873 (Leeds General Infirmary), 1873 (1970s copy)

The first question I asked myself on finding the picture of Miss Walton was what exactly is a Superintendent of nurses? Essentially this was a Matron who oversaw not just a ward but the entire nursing staff (this title was only used between 1868 and 1940 with the role otherwise being styled as Matron). She then had an assistant superintendent (sometimes known as a matron) who would support the nursing staff and a housekeeper who looked after the domestic staff. The type of duties a superintendent was expected to perform are outlined in the advertisement for the position:

The General Infirmary AT LEEDS – Wanted a lady as SUPERINTENDENT of the NURSES. She will have the entire charge of the nursing department, and be responsible for the efficient discharge of its duties. Candidates must have been trained or had experience in some hospital and be thoroughly qualified to undertake the training of probationers. Salary £60, with board, lodging, and washing…

 Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Saturday 18 September 1869, pg.3

This was the advert that Alicia Walton would have seen and subsequently successfully applied for. So who was Alicia Walton? Well little seems to have been recorded about her personal life or background except that she came from Cheltenham. However, during her short tenure at the Infirmary which lasted only 4 years, she seemed to have made quite an impact. She took up her role in October 1896 and became the second Superintendent of Nurses that was employed by the Infirmary (the first, Clara Jones, had been dismissed after nine problematic months in the role but that is a story for another day).

A coloured lithogrpah of the new infirmary, from a birds eye perspective.
New Infirmary, Leeds, Yorkshire: bird’s-eye view. Coloured Lithograph by G.G.Scott, 1864. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Within two weeks of her arrival, she had persuaded the hospital board that patient’s breakfast should be served at 7:30am instead of 5am – which I’m sure was greeted with much relief from the patients – and ensured they would dine at 12:30pm.

During her time at the infirmary she also oversaw an increased intake of both fully trained and probationer nurses and began a more systematic training system which was lengthened to 2 years.

Perhaps another sign of her power of persuasion is from her salary. Although in the advertisement the salary stated is £60 a year her actual starting salary appears to have been £80 (roughly the equivalent of £6750 today) by 1871 she was receiving £100 a year (£8500).

I like to think that my first impressions of Alicia as a kindly woman were correct and this would have made her a great nurse but I think based on the rapid changes she made in her short time at the Infirmary she was also a strong-willed and efficient Superintendent and I would definitely not have wanted to get on the wrong side of her.


By Rebecca Fallas, Volunteer Blogger (@rebecca_fallas)

This post is part of a series celebrating Leeds General Infirmary, as they celebrate their 250th anniversary. For more of #LGI250 see


Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Saturday 18 September 1869, pg.3

Stephen Towers Anning, The General Infirmary at Leeds (2 volumes), Edinburgh and London: E & S Livingstone, 1963-66.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s