Nurses' Uniforms at Barts

View day on Waring Ward
Recently I responded to a request to this website asking 'What was a Theatre Pink at Bart’s?'  This was from a daughter of a Bart’s nurse, whose parents had met at Bart’s when her mother was a Theatre Pink.
 
The following description of uniforms relates to those worn approximately between 1940 and 1985.
 
Nurses took a real pride in their uniforms and were expected to wear them correctly! Bart’s was no exception, and it was made clear at the Preliminary Training School that uniforms were to be worn 'in the correct manner'. Strict discipline was enforced on this, and we also took a real pride in wearing our uniforms.  On starting our training we were told that make up, nail varnish, wrist watches and jewellery were all forbidden!
 
I can remember being accused of shortening the length of my uniform dresses by an Assistant Matron. (I can assure you that I did not have the time or expertise to do this!).  I was informed that my dresses were to be checked in the linen room and were to be 11 inches from the ground (this was regardless of where my knees were!).
 
Black lace up shoes were to be worn with black stockings, and each day you put on a clean starched white apron. When you started training you were given a knee length cape, which was black with a red lining and two long red straps to cross over in the front to keep it on.  We were instructed to embroider our names on the collar of the cape.  Tradition had it that when a student nurse met a sister in passing in a corridor or The Square, it was considered to be a gesture of politeness to remove your cape as she passed.  I never actually did this - but I believe it was expected!
 
How the uniform changed with each year of training and then with promotion to more senior grades
 
The Basic Uniform:
This was a white and grey striped dress with a stiff belt (the colour of the belt depended on which year you were in training), a starched white apron and THE CAP! The cap started out as a flat starched rectangle of cotton material.  This square of material had to be magically converted into a nurse’s cap with the aid of safety pins and the use of a round shortbread biscuit tin, the size of your head, or something similar. Pleats were made on each side and somehow two dove tails were pulled through which stood up at the back!  The same style of cap was worn throughout your training and your 4th year on qualifying.
 
First Year:   Striped dress, with a stiff grey belt.  The nurse was referred to as a probationer nurse, or Grey Belt
 
Second Year:   Striped dress, with a striped belt.  The nurse was referred to as a Striped Belt'
 
Third Year:   Striped dress, with a white belt.  The nurse was referred to as 'a White Belt'
 
Fourth Year:   On passing your hospital exams, you wore the coveted belt made of navy Petersham and a silver buckle.  This was your staff nurse year and you were referred to as staff nurse or 'The Belt'. It was a tradition that the staff nurses on your ward would buy your Petersham belt and give it to you when the results were posted on a board. 
 
Fifth Year:  If you worked beyond your fourth year, your uniform remained the same except you wore a different cap.  This was a short starched voile cap, which was the short version of a long Sister's cap.
 
Junior Sister - or Senior Staff Nurse in Pink:  This role was graded as a senior staff nurse, but was counted as a junior sister. You were referred to as The Pink.  This was because the dress now changed and had stiff collar and cuffs with long sleeves and the material was no longer striped but a very pretty pink colour. Over time the stiff collars and cuffs were replaced with softer material. The white starched apron was only worn when undertaking ‘hands on’ clinical work - unlike the more junior grades, where the apron was worn at all times.  The cap was the same as the 5th Year Cap (short version of a Sister’s cap).  On promotion to this grade, you were referred to as 'going into pink’. As you were promoted to Pink and more senior grades, you were known as Miss and not Nurse! Ward Sisters were referred to after the name of their ward, i.e. the sister of Abernethy Ward was called Sister Abernethy!
 
Sisters:  The sister was in charge of a ward, outpatient department, operating theatre or had a specific role.  The dress was royal blue, with stiff collar and cuffs with long sleeves. Over time the stiff collars and cuffs were replaced with softer material. The voile hat was reminiscent of a nun’s habit. Tons of spray starch was used to make it stiff, and as a result irons were ruined! The belt was of the same blue material and a silver buckle was worn.  The apron was only worn when working clinically, when the sister would also 'roll up her sleeves'. When promoted to a sister, it was referred to as 'going into blue'.
 
Operating Theatres:  In the operating theatres there was no such distinction of colour in the dresses worn, but somehow you knew who was in training, who was in pink and who was in blue, i.e. the sister in charge!
 
In the period of time I am writing about, nurses put on their full uniform to go from changing room to theatres and then changed again into theatre dresses, etc.  Again they put it all on to leave the theatre; on reflection this was not a good use of time!!!  In theatres the dresses were clean each day and totally shapeless and a green cotton square (ultimately a disposable square of something similar to a J cloth dish cloth) was wrapped around the head with all hair being tucked in.
 
We wore our uniforms with pride and, on the whole, it was not easy to look untidy or dishevelled!  It reads like a long list of strict rules, and indeed it was, but we were compliant and this was not an era when we questioned too much. 
 
Alison Knapp. Life Vice President