Agnes Jones, a nurse who strived so hard to improve the health of the inhabitants of Liverpool’s workhouse, died at the tragically young age of just thirty five years old.
Agnes was born in Cambridge on 10th November 1832. The daughter of a lieutenant-colonel in the Twelfth Regiment, she spent six years of her childhood on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. It was there that she became deeply religious, after listening to sermons from a French pastor. She also developed a desire to become a missionary, after hearing of the persecution of Madagascan Christians, many of whom fled to Mauritius as refugees.
At the age of eleven Agnes, her sister and her parents went to live in the Donegal Highlands, next to Lough Swilly. In 1848, aged fifteen, she was sent to school in Stratford-on-Avon, where she developed the skill of perseverance which would do her so well in future years. On the death of her father in 1850 she returned to Ireland to live with her mother, this time in Dublin where she began teaching in a local ragged school.
On a visit to Europe in 1853, Agnes was invited to the deaconess clinic at Kaiserswerth, where she was impressed by the work and passion of those who attended and vowed to return one day. She spent the next three years in Dublin, but her mother then moved back to the shores of Lough Swilly in 1856. Agnes by now had a reputation for being able to dress wounds in a firm but gentle fashion and she was often sent for when local children were injured. The treatment of burns was her speciality and she would also read the bible to the injured if their parents allowed. She would rise at 5am to do domestic chores, then be out treating the sick and injured, whether they be Protestant or Catholic, until after dark.
Agnes finally returned to Kaiserswerth in the autumn of 1860, initially intending to remain there for a month. However such was the impression she made on the pastor that she sought permission from her mother to remain longer. The institution provided help both in house and by way of visits to discharged prisoners, orphans, hospitals and lunatic asylums. The deaconesses were trained in nursing, domestic chores and religious instruction. One of her first roles there was to take charge of fourteen sick children, some of whom were well on the road to recovery and needed tasks to do whilst not resting in bed. Agnes took all this in her stride and gave lessons in English, as well as becoming fluent in German herself.
Towards the end of her stay at Kaiserswerth Agnes was superintendent of the boys hospital, a role she did not think she was suitable for as she had no experience of governing. She needn’t have worried though and despite the less sick boys often being rowdy and rebellious she maintained firm control. One of the boys who touched her most there was called Otto, who had terrible sores, a bad back and cough. He would only let Agnes tend to him and on the night before he died, he said to her ‘I will only pray now that Jesus may take me to heaven’. He passed away with his cheek touching that of Agnes as it made his less painful.
After seven months in Kaiserswerth Agnes considered going to Syria where nurses were needed for the English hospital. However she decided against this given how far away she would be from her mother. Instead she went to London and consulted with Florence Nightingale, who had studied at Kaiserswerth in 1851. Respecting her mother’s wishes that she did not work in a hospital, Agnes joined Ellen Ranyard’s London Bible and Domestic Female Mission. She spent her days tending to the sick at their homes and teaching the bible in some of London’s poorest areas. Her knowledge of German was invaluable too when it came to treating immigrants.
Agnes was trusted so much that when Ranyard needed to go to Switzerland, she was allowed to run the mission. She did so for two months but her work then came to an end when she received a telegram telling her to go to Rome where her sister was extremely ill with a fever. On arrival she found her sister on the road to recovery but that her cousin was now struck down. Agnes remained to tend to them both for a few months, then returned to Ireland via Switzerland, where she visited several deaconesses institutions.
Despite her mothers reservations, Agnes’s passion was for nursing and she gained her consent to write to Florence Nightingale requesting a position at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. She spent a year there, mainly on the wards and she also established bible classes for fellow nurses. Agnes then became superintendent of a small hospital in Burton Crescent and then the Great Northern Hospital. The inexperience of her staff paid its toll on Agnes, who found herself nursing the most critical patients night and day. She resigned her position towards the end of 1864 and spent the winter recuperating with her mother, preparing herself for her next big challenge in Liverpool.
It was in Spring 1865 that Agnes, on the recommendation of Florence Nightingale, was brought to Liverpool by William Rathbone. Conditions in the workhouse were atrocious. There were frequent fights, intoxicants were freely available and those running it were often paupers themselves. The committee knew that change was needed, but there was no desire to fund it. However when Rathbone agreed to fund a scheme of trained nurses for a period of three years they agreed to the plan. Agnes was installed as superintendent with twelve nurses being recruited from St Thomas’s Hospital.
After making a full recovery from her exertions in London, Agnes took up her new role on 31st March 1865. Her first impression was that the conditions could have been far worse, as there were plants in the wards and pictures on the walls. The team of nurses were still being trained at St Thomas’s so for the first few weeks Agnes read the Bible to patients, bringing them comfort in their last days.
It was in the middle of May, with the arrival of the trained nurses, that the real hard work began. Her day began at 530am when she unlocked the kitchens, then until 11pm she would be going around the wards supervising nurses, speaking to patients and ordering supplies. Agnes never once thought she was hard done by, being only happy at seeing how others lives were being made better by her work. Patients were now being treated far less roughly than previously; They were tendered to slowly and quietly, they had books to read and there were fresh flowers every day. Agnes was a great believer in nature being able to help make people better.
Agnes began to give Bible readings on Sundays. These proved so popular that she started to hold the sessions every day, with up to one hundred attending. Visits for patients were also made more accessible and Christmas became a time of celebration.
Some of Liverpool’s roughest inhabitants were in the workhouse hospital, but Agnes had the respect of every one of them. When she did her rounds of the wards eyes lit up and patients looked forward to what she had to say. She eased their pain and for those who were near death, had assured them they were on a journey to eternal life which was a gift from God. The police were astonished that Agnes and her team of nurses and managed to instil such compassion into people who they had previously felt unable to be tamed.
It was not just the patients who were inspired by Agnes, she had the full collective support of her team of nurses too. She supported them both as a group and individually, taking time when necessary to discuss any problems they were having. In addition to the twelve nurses from St Thomas’s, four ex paupers were being trained and these proved very challenging at times as they threatened to return to previous drunken habits. Agnes persevered though successfully. The workhouse committee were so pleased with the new system that they confirmed a year before the end of the trial that they would be adopting it on a permanent basis.
By the beginning of 1868, things were taking their toll on Agnes, who was working eighteen hours a day and taking very little time off. She was a long way from her family and rarely had anytime on her own. Liverpool was in the grip of a fever outbreak and when one of her nurses was struck down with illness, Agnes gave up her own bed for her. Agnes slept in her sitting room but developed symptoms herself. Initially she showed signs of recovery but she then developed inflammations on both lungs, causing much anxiety from nurses and patients who witnessed her life ebb away.
Agnes passed away peacefully in the early hours of Wednesday 19th February 1868. Two days later her coffin was moved to the main hall, with many patients coming off the wards and watching the solemn occasion from the landings and stairways.
The legacy of Agnes continues in Liverpool. There is a stained glass window dedicated to her in the Lady Chapel at Liverpool Cathedral, while the former Women’s Hospital, which closed in 1995, was named Agnes Jones house when it reopened as student accommodation. Her grave though is in the churchyard at Fahan, within sound of the waves of Lough Swilly which she loved so much.
Agnes features in Michael Kelly’s book Liverpool – Irish Connection, available on Amazon