Florence Nightingale's Lost Diaries

There was excitement a few years ago when a previously unknown diary written by Florence Nightingale in 1850 arrived anonymously in the post at Claydon, the former home of her sister where many family papers are kept.  Everyone wanted to know whether the diary shed any new light on her private life.  Anti-climactically the diary turned out to contain mundane details of her European travels in 1850.  More personal revelations of that trip had already been published in a transcription by Michael Calabria (in his Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece) of a different diary kept by Florence at the same time.  But there may yet be discoveries to be made, or rather rediscoveries, because a large quantity of Florence Nightingale’s unpublished diaries vanished between 1937 and 1943. 

The lost diaries cover the years before Florence Nightingale went to the Crimean War in 1854, aged 34.  Some manuscripts that could be described as diaries or journals from that period are safely in publicly accessible collections, as follows:

  • A “commonplace book” of 1836, containing facts and figures that the 16-year old Florence was learning (In the British Library);
  • 162 pages of private notes on personal matters, many dated by Florence herself, from between 1845 and 1860 (BL)
  • The 1850 diary transcribed by Michael Calabria – a pre-printed diary with only a small space for each day (BL)
  • “Nightingale’s Journal 1849-50” (at Claydon, copies in the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine).  This consists of letters or travel descriptions intended for her family to read, and formed the basis for Anthony Sattin’s book Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile
  • The 1850 diary sent anonymously to Claydon in April 2000

If you were to judge from the above, you would conclude that Nightingale did not often keep a diary during her first 34 years.  But there is very strong evidence that the above list covers only a small fraction of the diaries that she left behind at her death.

The main evidence comes from Ida O’Malley’s 1931 biography of Florence Nightingale.  Nightingale’s family encouraged O’Malley to use diary material that E. T. Cook had only made limited use of in his 1913 biography.  In the bibliography of her book, O’Malley lists the following diary sources that have never been quoted directly by any writer since, and whose whereabouts is unknown:

  • An autobiography in schoolgirl French, entitled La Vie de Florence Rossignol started in 1828 when Florence was only 8 and continuing to 1830
  • A journal 1828-31
  • A journal 1837-39
  • A journal 1849-50
  • “Notebooks and papers from about 1845 onwards, containing miscellaneous entries, fragments of diary, recollections, political notes, extracts from books etc.”

You might think that the last two above correspond respectively to one of the diaries of the year 1850 already mentioned and to the British Library’s (BL) collection of 162 pages of private notes.  This is not true, however; the dated quotations in O’Malley are not to be found in either source.  We know from the two available 1850 diaries that Nightingale was quite capable of writing two diaries at the same time, so the existence of the third noted by O’Malley does not seem far-fetched.  And O’Malley’s reference to “Notebooks … from about 1845 onwards …” does not fit very well with the BL collection of private notes.  O’Malley also gave a physical description; she wrote that all of the now-missing diaries were in a number of notebooks or copy-books (we would say exercise books).  This type of item is conspicuously rare in the surviving archives.  It seems that the missing diaries were in a different physical form from those that are known to survive.  From the description given by O’Malley it would seem that there were at least a dozen notebooks, probably amounting to at least 100,000 words, bearing in mind that Nightingale constantly complained of being underemployed and bored before 1853.

What was in the missing notebooks, and was it important?  O’Malley’s quotations from the missing diaries show that they contained some of the most personal of all Nightingale’s writings.  They show among other things the young Nightingale’s precocity, the agonising guilt that she felt when she became aware of the plight of the poor in Victorian England – amounting almost to a hatred for her own privileged class – and the radical political opinions she began to harbour as she grew to adulthood.  Typical of the latter are an argument she had with her new High Tory friend Sidney Herbert in which she claims to have forced Herbert to admit that a republican government would be best for the country, and her fiery comment when the French were besieging Garibaldi in the liberal Roman Republic: “If I were in Rome, I should be the first to fire the Sistine, turning my head aside, and Michael Angelo would cry ‘Well done’ as he saw his work destroyed”.  The impact of this is all the greater if you read her ecstatic descriptions of the Sistine Chapel from earlier in the same diary.  Nightingale is often compared to her admirer Margaret Thatcher, but her politics appear to have been more in line with those of the renegade upper class radical Tony Wedgwood Benn.  O’Malley’s occasional direct quotations do no more than whet the appetite – for most of the period concerned she heavily paraphrased the diary entries and we must expect that her own and the Nightingale family’s prejudices acted as powerful filters.

After O’Malley, Florence Nightingale’s biographers have seldom quoted these lost diaries.  Nearly all of their untraceable quotations and descriptions can be derived from O’Malley’s book which itself is little read today.  One example is Woodham Smith, who researched her biography during the Second World War and published it in 1950.  Woodham-Smith has often been criticised for taking material from the 1913 biography by E. T. Cook without giving Cook sufficient acknowledgement.  No-one has pointed out that she took important material from O’Malley without even mentioning that author in her acknowledgements, as she at least did with Cook.  The neglect of O’Malley’s work is evident in Greenleaf’s 1959 article in Victorian Studies which criticises Woodham-Smith’s heavy reliance on Cook.  Greenleaf also accuses her of inventing material which on closer examination is adapted inaccurately from O’Malley, and credits Woodham Smith with some originality in identifying Florence Nightingale’s suitor (Richard Monckton Milnes) although O’Malley had identified him 20 years earlier.

Woodham Smith’s recycling of information from O’Malley without acknowledgement has made it appear as though Florence Nightingale’s diaries still existed when she was writing.  Only within the last 20 years have authors felt obliged to cite their specific sources among the huge volume of unpublished Nightingale manuscripts which are scattered around the world.  Within the last few years, the computerisation of many of the archive indexes has allowed a synoptic view of the collection which reveals that the diaries which everyone assumed were somewhere else are in fact nowhere to be found.

So what happened to the diaries, after O’Malley saw them?  O’Malley says that the 1829 diary was at Lea Hurst, the Nightingale family home in Derbyshire, in 1931.  The most recent record of the existence of one of the lost diaries concerns La Vie de Florence Rossignol, the diary in schoolgirl French that Florence began in 1828 (‘rossignol’ being the French for nightingale).  This was loaned by Louis Shore Nightingale, the owner of Lea Hurst, for an exhibition of Florence Nightingale’s manuscripts at the Nightingale Training School in 1937.  Louis Shore Nightingale was the son of Florence Nightingale’s cousin and was the heir to her father’s estate.  Louis died in 1940, and in his will he appointed trustees with a duty to see that his Florence Nightingale “papers and other relics” went into a suitable public collection. Unfortunately he had not prepared a list and a dispute followed between the trustees and the executors over what was covered by the trust.  The winners were the executors acting on behalf of the residuary legatees, Louis’s two sisters Rosalind Nash and Lady Barbara Stephen.  The sisters wanted to add Louis’s papers to their own and present the combined collection to what is now the BL.  The BL catalogue shows that in 1941, a year after Louis’s death, the two sisters presented a large amount of material which now forms volumes 12 to 92 of the BL’s huge collection of Nightingale manuscripts.  In 1946 and 1952 there were further gifts from the same source.  The lost diaries could normally be expected to be in one of these three gifts, along with other papers inherited from Louis Nightingale, but they are not. The most obvious conclusion is that either the diaries were retained by a family member because of their charm and personal content or they became separated and lost in transit, possibly because of their different physical attributes (being notebooks rather than papers).  1941 was not a good time for valuable papers to be travelling across Britain.  The diaries, separated, may have been caught in a bombing raid before they arrived in the BL’s care. “Destroyed by enemy action” is occasionally noted in the BL catalogue, but not against any Nightingale entries. 

When Louis Nightingale’s sisters died, in 1945 and 1952, their wills disposed of some Nightingale relics but no papers.  Many of Florence Nightingale’s papers have been destroyed by family members over the years, because of their alleged repetition or controversial content, but the loss of the very earliest diary seems to rule out such a fate.  There can hardly have been any of Nightingale’s famous indiscretions at the age of eight!

In the British Library’s internal archives there are notes showing that in the late 1940’s staff and researchers in the Manuscript Room began discussing the fate of the lost diaries.  According to one of these notes, Woodham Smith suggested to the BL (then part of the British Museum) in 1951 that O’Malley might have omitted to return the diaries to the Nightingale family before she died in 1939.  Woodham Smith’s suggestion, presumably based on the knowledge that after O’Malley’s death many of her friends were invited to help themselves to her possessions, is important although it seems unlikely to be true.  Woodham Smith had begun researching the manuscripts in 1943, three years after Louis Nightingale’s death.  Both Louis’s sisters were then still alive and had helped Woodham Smith to gain access to Nightingale manuscripts.  If Woodham Smith was aware that the diaries were missing she must surely have asked the sisters about them.  Subsequently she could think of no better suggestion than that O’Malley had never returned them to Louis Nightingale, so presumably the sisters had not been able to shed any light on the matter either.  This may indicate that they were not among Louis Nightingale’s papers when he died with his sisters at his bedside.

Woodham Smith might not have suspected O’Malley if she had known that Louis Nightingale had exhibited one of the diaries at the Nightingale Training School in 1937, six years after the publication of O’Malley’s excerpts from them.  This diary could conceivably have been returned to O’Malley if she needed it again for the projected second volume of her biography, but that volume was intended to cover the period after the diaries were written.  Woodham Smith’s suggestion that they were in O’Malley’s custody when she died therefore seems unlikely to be correct. 

All the most likely recipients of Nightingale’s lost diaries therefore appear not to have seen them after the death of Louis Nightingale in 1940.  There is no shortage of horror stories illustrating the way precious manuscripts disappeared in those troubled times.  There are just as many stories of surprising survivals.  And in the mid 1960s there was a sighting of something resembling one of these diaries.  In her Calendar of the Letters of Florence Nightingale, Sue Goldie refers to‘An exercise book, belonging to the Rev. Ernest Payne, M.A., D.D., LL.D.,  entitled Le Livre des Lettres: Florence Rossignol’.  Whether or not this document is part of the missing diaries, it is certainly something that has not been recorded since.  I asked Sue Goldie for more details of its owner, and her description that she met him at an office near the Senate House at the University of London confirms that he must have been the Ernest A. Payne who was President of the World Council of Churches.  When he died in 1980, dozens of boxes of his papers were loaned by his family to a specialist library, with instructions that they were to remain sealed for many years because of the revelations about Church politics that they contained.  Attempts by the library to contact the family at my request to ask for information have failed.  At that point, exhausted by the many hours of fruitless searching and following up minuscule leads, I gave up.  I doubt whether Payne owned the complete set of diaries, or that any Nightingale manuscripts that he did own are in the sealed boxes, but if his family can be traced then it may be possible that they have retained some interesting Nightingale material or just as importantly know where the Rev. Payne’s now-lost Nightingale manuscript came from or where it went.

So keep your eyes open.  We can only hope that in some neglected storeroom or attic there will one day be found a bundle of notebooks tied with ribbon, the little volume on top being a lined exercise book with pages 8½ inches high by 7 inches wide covered with large childish script:  La Vie de Florence Rossignol, Première Volume.

PS (2012). I now think that it is most likely that Louis Shore Nightingale destroyed the diaries. I base this on Gillian Gill’s observations on Florence Nightingale’s early sexuality and ‘dreaming’, her radical politics, and the fact that Louis had accepted that the papers should go to a public collection. It seems certain that he had strictly controlled what Ida O’Malley could excerpt from them, and he would not want them all to come out. But keep on looking, just in case!
© 2010 Hugh Small
I am grateful to the staff at the BL and to Ida O’Malley’s family for help with this research.

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