Mrs. Selina Bracebridge had spoken of Florence Nightingale as a young person likely to make an exceptional record in the course of her life. Her mother, she said, rather feared this, and would have preferred the usual conventional life for her daughter. Her father was a pronounced Liberal and a Unitarian.
While we were still at Atherstone, we received an invitation to pass a few days with the Nightingale family at Embley, and betook ourselves thither. We found a final mansion of Elizabethan architecture, and a cordial reception. The family consisted of father and mother and two daughters, both born during their parents’ residence in Italy, and respectively christened Parthenope and Florence. Parthenope was the elder; she was not handsome but was piquant and entertaining. Florence was rather elegant than beautiful; she was tall and graceful of figure, her countenance mobile and expressive, conversation most interesting. Having heard much of Dr Howe as a philanthropist, Florence resolved to consult him upon a matter which she already had at heart. She accordingly requested him one day to meet her on the following morning, before the hour for the family breakfast. He did so, and she opened the way to the desired conference by saying, “Dr Howe, if I should determine to study nursing, and to devote my life to that profession, do you think that it, would be a dreadful thing?
“By no means,” replied my husband. “I think that it would be a very good thing.”1
Selina and Charles Bracebridge were wealthy family friends of the Nightingales. They were childless and travelled extensively in Europe, living in Athens for most of the 1830s. They owned Atherstone Hall2. Charles was a country gentleman, Poor Law Guardian, Justice of the Peace in Atherstone, member of the First Florence Nightingale Fund Council, amateur author and stalwart supporter of independent causes. Selina was an artist of renown, who trained under Samuel Prout and had one of her paintings displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum as recently as the 2020s, she was also displayed in Birmingham Art Gallery in 1998.
The Nightingales and Bracebridges
Both the Nightingales and Bracebridges shared a love of Italy and supported Italian independence. The Bracebridges even took part in a placard holding demonstration to support it. They had similar views on political refugees and other causes.
After Florence received her “call to nursing” in 1836 at the age of 16, the Bracebridges rescued Florence at several crucial points when her mental health broke down under her family’s continued refusal to allow her to act on her call to nursing. They took her on two long European trips and for her first visit to Kaiserswerth, Germany for nursing experience. They arranged other experiences including visiting Atherstone’s Workhouse, and her appointment as Superintendent of a nursing institution in Harley Street.
The Bracebridges supported Florence in her Scutari adventures and accompanied her to the Crimea War. They stayed for nine months during all the privations, opposition from the Army and turmoil caused by the arrival of 38 unwanted nurses for the first time in the war zone. On return they supported her and her family until their deaths. Florence described Selina as having “the most active heart and mind, the most buoyant soul that could well be conceived”
The Bracebridges were described by the Florence as the “creators of my life” and are unsung heroes. They are virtually forgotten in modern times for their significant contribution to the Florence Nightingale we are all taught about in schools, and who is much admired for her lasting legacy to the health of the nation.
1 Adelaide, Mary. A history of nursing ; the evolution of nursing systems from the earliest times to the foundation of English and American Nursing schools. New York ; London : G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907-1912
2 Demolished in the 1960s