Sister Dora – the first female statue?

Sister Dora ©Derek Bennett/ © Copyright Derek Bennett

Sister Dora                                                       ©Derek Bennett

The first public statue for a woman in Britain turns up in an unlikely place.

Walsall is an industrial town in the Black Country north of Birmingham. I have a lot of affection for it – it’s where I did a lot of my growing up and its grammar school taught me how to spell korrectly.

Pride of place in the town centre is a statue of a nurse, Sister Dora. She was born Dorothy Pattison, a clergyman’s daughter  at Hauxwell in North Yorkshire, taking the name Dora when she joined the Anglican order, the Christ Church sisterhood.

She arrived at the cottage hospital in 1865, aged 32, and developed an exceptionally close bond with the Walsall people. Her nursing and medical skills, self-sacrifice, and personal devotion to the welfare of her patients became a legend. She was there for everyone and everything –  working alone in smallpox epidemic, horrific factory accidents and a pit disaster at Pelsall.

Her life was cut short by breast cancer which she kept quiet about. She died on Christmas Eve, 1878, six months after the opening of the new hospital she had campaigned for.

Sister Dora

Dora was also remembered in a series of postcards

The whole town turned out for her funeral – her coffin was carried by railway workers.

The statue by Frances John Williamson was unveiled in  October 1886. It seems it was the first statue in the UK for a non-royal female and may be the world’s first statue for a nurse.  If you know of any other contenders, please let me know via Twitter or the comments section below.

America’s first statue for a woman appears to have been in 1874 for Hannah Dustin in New Hampshire, famed for her escape from native Americans.  But she’s a bit dodgy – having slaughtered several of her captors (men, women and children) in the process of escaping, and later collecting a bounty for their scalps.

Dora had wanted to joint Florence Nightingale in the Crimea but this was vetoed by her family. AG Walker’s statue of Florence Nightingale in London’s Pall Mall came much later.

Dora’s legacy went well beyond a statue. It included a fund for sending convalescents to the seaside (1880), a stained-glass window in St Matthew’s, the parish church which overlooks Walsall. And at least two railway locomotives.  What makes her truly remarkable is her power to inspire devotion in successive generations – in 2014 new awards in her honour were inaugurated to inspire the next generation of local student nurses.

Would she have wanted all this stuff? Probably not. But it does raise the broader question of how to commemorate a life. Another lump of stone – same as all the men have?

District nurse Elizabeth McPhee 1926

The Clan Macrae Society thought differently after World War One  providing a district nurse in the parishes of Kintail and Glenshiel  rather than “wasting money on bricks and mortar.”  By 1926 nurse Elizabeth McPhee (left) fulfilled this role – complete with BSA motorcycle.

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals also took a different view about their founder, Elsie Inglis. The Edinburgh hospital they built no longer exists.

The digital era offers new ways of capturing memory beyond stone age statues.

Meanwhile, full marks to Walsall. It has blazed a distaff trail which other towns and cities, who think themselves much grander, are now seeking to follow more than a century later

More information:

There is a fine DNB piece on Sister Dora by Susan McGann, historian of the Royal College of Nursing and its former archivist. And a great wee YouTube short here:


Categories: case studies, history on the web, medical and nursing, nursing history

Tags: , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Loved this article! I am writing something about women honoured with statues in the UK and your piece has opened a whole new perspective for me! Thank you – there is clearly a love of both history and your own heritage in your writing!

  2. Nice piece! I’ve just been writing the entry on Sister Dora today for the Oxford DNB! I hope you are interested in joining the Public Statues and Sculpture Association which I co-founded. Go to:

    Mark Stocker (Christchurch, NZ)

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