Wearside Echoes: Brutal murder of Florence Nightingale’s god-daughter

HAPPIER TIMES: Florence Shore and Mabel Rogers.
HAPPIER TIMES: Florence Shore and Mabel Rogers.
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THE brutal murder of Florence Nightingale Shore – a Sunderland nurse and god-daughter of the famous Florence Nightingale – is back in the spotlight after more than 80 years.

Florence, who spent 12 years caring for the poor and sick across Wearside, died just days after being brutally beaten on a Sussex-bound train in 1920. Her killer was never brought to justice.

Now Rosemary Cook, director of the Queen’s Nursing Institute in London, has published a book on the tragic death of Florence – offering new clues as to the possible identity of her murderer.

“I first came across Florence in a 1920 copy of the Queen’s Nurses’ magazine, but there was very little detail – it just said that she had been found seriously injured on a train at Bexhill,” she said.

“I was intrigued, and started to do some research, to find out more about her and about her murder. This was when I discovered she spent most of her working life as a district nurse in Sunderland.”

Florence had been born into a wealthy family in Stamford, Lincolnshire, in 1865, travelling Europe as a young girl and studying at York-based boarding school Middlethorpe Hall.

Her comfortable life was thrown into turmoil, however, in 1881, when her father was declared bankrupt. Her mother was to divorce him just five years later, citing numerous affairs.

“Perhaps this turbulent family life gave Florence an unusual sense of self-sufficiency. Maybe she had strong sense of adventure, or perhaps she just needed to get away,” said Rosemary.

“One way or another, after completing her education in Belgium, she set out on an extraordinary adventure for a young Victorian woman – leaving England to work as a governess in China.”

Florence is believed to have spent “the best part of three years” in China, before returning to ‘Blighty’ and signing on as a trainee nurse at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary on January 1, 1893.

“For most of the 19th century, hospital nursing was the province of drunks and paupers. But by the time Florence began her training, her godmother had radically changed things,” said Rosemary.

“Nightingale made it possible for respectable women to become nurses, and opened up one of the very few alternatives for middle class 19th century women to marriage or spinsterhood.”

It was not easy work. For an annual salary of just £10, plus uniform and board, Florence was expected to work for weeks at a time on medical and surgical wards – with just three days leave.

“It was during Florence’s second year at the Infirmary, in April 1894, that Mabel Rogers came to Edinburgh for her nurse training, and the two women met for the first time,” said Rosemary.

“Mabel was almost exactly the same age and they reportedly ‘became great friends at once.’ It was a friendship that would last for the rest of Florence’s life, and see their two careers run inseparably.”

Florence left briefly in 1896, when she trained as a midwife in Dublin, but the pals were reunited in 1897, while studying to become district nurses at the Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute in London.

Mabel was then sent to work in Sunderland after she completed her Queen’s Nurses training, while Florence found herself in Berkshire. Within a year, Florence was on her way to Wearside. too

“Florence joined Mabel at Sunderland District Nursing Association, and they worked there together for most of the next 14 years, living at a nurses’ home in Murton Street,” said Rosemary.

A break of a few months was recorded in 1900, when the friends joined the Army Nursing Reserve and were sent to South Africa during the second Boer War – earning themselves campaign medals.

Mabel went on to become Assistant Superintendent of the Sunderland District Nursing Association at 28 Murton Street, while Florence ministered to many of Sunderland’s sick and needy.

“The work of Sunderland DNA – nursing, teaching, raising funds, assisting the doctors – continued to expand under Mabel’s and Florence’s leadership,” said Rosemary.

“But in 1913, both Florence’s and Mabel’s long service came to an end. Florence resigned ‘for home duties,’ to take her ailing sister abroad for treatment and Mabel retired at the same time.”

The outbreak of World War One just one year later saw Florence rejoin the Queen’s Nurses. Aged 49 at the time, she was sent to work under the French Red Cross at Ford Mahon.

“Florence’s war service took place in casualty clearing stations, hospitals and on ambulance trains. She went on to be awarded the Royal Red Cross medal, created by Queen Victoria,” said Rosemary.

Demobbed in late 1919, Florence would have little time to enjoy the peace. Two days after celebrating her 55th birthday on January 10, 1920, she was attacked on the train to Sussex.

“She stepped onto the train at Victoria Station for a holiday with friends at St Leonard’s, and was found barely conscious in her compartment two hours later,” said Rosemary.

Three railway workers – all platelayer labourers employed by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway – discovered the injured and bloody Florence in a third class carriage.

“In the days that followed she would require the best medical care that the hospital could offer as the staff fought to save her life, but she died on January 16, with Mabel beside her.” said Rosemary.

A nationwide hunt for Florence’s killer was launched by police – with a mystery train passenger in a brown suit, who left nurse’s carriage at the stop before Bexhill, named as the prime suspect.

At least two false confessions were made to the crime, too, and several bizarre theories were also put forward as to possible perpetrators – including life-long friend Mabel.

No-one, however, was ever convicted of the murder and Rosemary said: “My book uncovers the story of the investigation into the murder by three police forces.

“There was a lot of interest at the time about ‘the man in the brown suit,’ but the most exciting find for me was a witness who claimed to have been the first to find Florence injured,.

“He called himself John Smith from Brighton and could describe the scene in detail. Yet no-one else at the scene remembered him, and he was never called to give evidence at the inquest.”

Money from Florence’s will was later used to benefit the nursing profession, but Rosemary added:

“It is a tragic irony that the woman who had travelled across half the globe and served in two war zones should meet her death on a suburban train in southern England.

“It is also a sad fact that, had Florence Shore not been murdered, no-one beyond her family would have heard of her. She was a dedicated and heroic army nurse; but so were thousands of others.”

* Rosemary’s book, The Nightingale Shore Murder, is published by Shire Publishing at £8.99. It is also available as an e-book priced £6.99. ISBN: 978-1-926635-67-5.