Roger has almost finishing transcribing the letters of Florence Nightingale to Crich doctor Christopher Dunn and will be researching some of the patients she cared for. Here is another instalment from Roger about the letters, and one patient in particular… “little Lee”.
The letters are predominantly about the health and welfare of individuals living in Lea and Holloway. From the letters emerges the particularly poignant story of a young boy, often named in the letters as “little Lee.” Charles Henry Lee, known as Harry, was born in 1875. His family were living in Lea or Holloway, his father, Andrew, being a hosiery factory worker. Florence’s letters indicate that Harry had a deformity of the spine, and it seems reasonable to assume that this condition was present from birth.
The first reference to Harry in surviving letters is found in a letter written in October 1877, when Harry would have been two years old. Taken together, one letter held here at the record office and one at Boston University, USA (see both via the Florence Nightingale Digitization Project website), indicate that Harry was about to be taken from his home to St Thomas’s Hospital in London. Florence asks Dunn for assistance in preparing for the journey:
Could you kindly give directions for someone as to the “small padded board” for the child: & charge it to me? I am ashamed to trouble you but the parents are too stupid: & I have no one here who is clever about these things.
At the last minute, however, Florence learned that Harry was showing evidence of fresh inflammation. She needed Dunn to see the boy to confirm that he could make the journey. First she tried to contact him by word of mouth:
I sent 2 or 3 messages into the village yesterday to ask you, if you were in Holloway, to be so kind as to go & see the child.
When this failed she wrote to Dunn asking him to see the boy immediately. Approval must have been given for the journey.
Andrew Lee’s child will go up to St Thomas’ on Friday. The “board” for it is come: & I will send it to Andrew Lee’s to night [sic]. Could you be so very kind as to see the child tomorrow, Thursday – look at “board” & child, & tell me whether both will “do.”?
Within a few days, at the end of a long letter about other matters Florence assures Dunn that the boy is safely and happily housed at St Thomas’s Hospital.
It is not clear how long Harry Lee remained in hospital. In a letter written in January 1879, more than a year after his admission, Florence reports that Harry was no longer in need of hospital treatment but was being cared for at a convalescent home, Ascot Priory in Berkshire. There can be little doubt that this provision was made at Florence’s initiative: she knew some of the nursing sisters at Ascot Priory from when they had served with her in the Crimea. Later in that year the sisters reported Harry Lee to be a “peculiarly happy child”:
He is quite “master” at Ascot; and he objects to another patient being called “little man” [saying] ‘He is only a little boy: I am the man.’
By early in 1880, however, Harry Lee was in hospital again. Florence reported to Dunn that although the Mother Superior at Ascot Priory saw Harry Lee to be happier she was concerned about his increasing deformity. John Croft, the surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital was also concerned:
You will be sorry to learn that little Lee has now a very large abscess connected with the disease of the spine. This makes the case much more serious. The parents ought to know that the chances of recovery are less than they were.
At this time Florence was living at her London house. She asked Christopher Dunn to visit Harry Lee’s mother and father:
When you are going Lea way, could you be so very kind as to inform the parents of little Lee, because you will be able to answer their questions as a Medical Authority; & neither unduly to frighten them nor to flatter their hopes.
In April 1880 Florence relays a further report from the surgeon John Croft. A long stay in hospital was predicted:
I wish I could give a more hopeful account of little Harry Lee. The new jacket had to be taken off. The abscess is discharging freely still. He is very thin & weak.
Surviving letters from Florence to Christopher contain no subsequent reference to Harry Lee. But Florence writes at length about him in a letter (original is at Boston University) written in August 1880 to Miss Mochler, a Nightingale family assistant living at Lea Hurst. Harry Lee was about to leave hospital and to return to Ascot Priory. The improvement in his condition led to him being called “a little miracle”:
He is now able to wear his new splint – a much better one than he has ever been able to wear before – he can walk a little and there is very little discharge now.
Florence was thinking about the advisability of arranging a visit by his mother. She was cautious about the risk of raising his mother’s hopes about his prospects: his mother would probably think him looking worse that when she last saw him. Despite the improvement “he is not better and never will be.”
In the absence of any further references in Florence’s letters we rely on other sources of information. When a census was taken in April 1881 Harry Lee’s family, his father, mother and three sisters, were at home in Lea. Harry was at Ascot Priory, the youngest of 23 patients and one of only four patients of school age. Harry Lee must have died in the following few weeks: his name appears in the list of deaths registered between April and June 1881.
A year earlier Florence had written of him:
“Poor little man! But few well-to-do children could be so carefully nursed and attended.”