Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison was born on 16th January, 1832 at the village of Hauxwell, North Yorkshire, where her father Mark Pattison was rector of the village church. She was the eleventh child of Jane and Mark Pattison and lived in Hauxwell Rectory. There were ten girls and one boy. Another boy was born later.

Sadly she had a terrible childhood, blighted by the mental state of her depressive father, and seemingly unloved by her mother. Shortly after her birth, her brother Mark left home to become a student at Oxford University. Her father greatly resented his lack of promotion in the church, and couldn’t cope with the gap left by his son’s departure for Oxford. In 1835 he had a mental breakdown and was sent to an asylum in York where he was badly treated. On his return home his illness worsened, and his resentment turned towards his family, for sending him to the asylum. He was sometimes violent, but Jane, his submissive wife would always do his bidding, which included forbidding his daughters to marry.

The girls were not allowed any formal education beyond learning to read and write. They were left to find their own amusements, and for a time (until forbidden by their father) they ran the village school, and became involved in charitable activities such as distributing food and visiting the sick. Their elder brother Mark, a brilliant student, became involved in the Oxford Movement, a group of High Church Anglicans who wanted to reinstate lost Christian traditions and include them in Anglican liturgy and theology. They conceived the idea of the Anglican Church being one of three branches of the Catholic Church. Mark became Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford.

Under Mark’s influence, his sisters embraced the Oxford Movement, in face of their father’s fierce opposition. Dorothy became his favourite sister, and on several occasions accompanied him on holiday, which allowed her to escape from the terrible conditions at home. Unfortunately the close relationship did not survive. When she became a nurse a few years later, he was angered because he thought this to be an unsuitable occupation for one of his sisters.  They drifted apart, and when she died he refused to attend her funeral.


From an old postcard.

Whilst in her twenties Dorothy had a couple of affairs. The first was with James Tate, the son of the headmaster of Richmond School. The Tates were close family friends, and James soon fell in love with the attractive twenty year old. They intended to marry, but James easily gave-in to her father’s refusal, which greatly angered her.

At the same time she had a secret affair with Purchas Stirke, a young farmer’s son who she met while fox hunting with her sister Rachel. Purchas’s brother Robert fell in love with Rachel, and they were married. She was banished from her family home forever by her father.

Dorothy’s mother became fatally ill, and Dorothy became her full-time nurse. After her mother’s death in 1860 Dorothy decided to break-off her engagement to James, because, as she secretly admitted to Rachel, she preferred Purchas Stirke. This however was not to be. She decided to end the affair with Purchas, and with the ninety pounds left to her in her mother’s will, she decided to leave home and start a new life elsewhere.

She obtained the post of schoolmistress in the village of Little Woolston, Buckinghamshire where she taught the sons of the local farm workers to read. In November 1862 she took a holiday at Coatham near Middlesbrough to recuperate from an illness. While there she bumped into James, who again proposed, and she accepted. But the marriage was not to be because of a hostile reaction from his family.

During the following year she returned to Coatham to look after her sister Frances who was recovering from a nervous breakdown. While there she saw the work of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan Order and was greatly impressed. The sisters’ lives were devoted to strict religious observance, and charitable work, the things she aspired to, mainly because of her brothers’ influence and his work with the Oxford Movement.

Her sister Frances joined the order, and one year later, in September 1864 so did Dorothy. She took the name Sister Dora. The sisters’ duties included nursing patients in the Cottage Hospital at Coatham, and the Cottage Hospital at Walsall. One of Sister Dora’s heroes was Florence Nightingale and so the idea of nursing the sick must have greatly appealed to her.

Sister Dora’s nursing career began at Coatham. Nursing was under the supervision of Sister Mary Jacques who greatly influenced her, especially because she had trained at Kaiserwerth Hospital in Germany, where Florence Nightingale had worked. Sister Mary had been working in the hospital at Walsall until she caught scarlet fever and had to return to Coatham to convalesce. Sister Dora was hurriedly sent as a temporary replacement, and arrived at Walsall for the first time on 8th January, 1865. After staying for two months she returned to Coatham, and in November came back to Walsall, where she stayed for the rest of her life.

Sister Dora and Sister Mary were initially treated with suspicion, and even hostility by many local people. At the time anti-Irish and anti-Catholic feeling was rife in the town. Sister Dora soon caught smallpox from an outpatient and was confined to her room, in which the blinds were drawn. This led to a rumour that the room was an oratory containing a figure of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown. Stones and mud were thrown at the hospital widows, but the dedicated sisters carried on caring for the sick as usual. The hostility gradually faded as people came to appreciate the sisters’ devotion to duty and their difficult undertaking. They also worked in the community visiting outpatients, some of whom were severely injured.

In 1866 she fell in love with a young surgeon, possibly John Redfern Davies. They were soon engaged, but this led to a dilemma, stress, and illness. He was an atheist, and she knew that she would have to choose between him, and her Christian beliefs, and charitable work. She decided that she could not give-up her work and so the engagement ended. She knew that she had badly let him down, which resulted in illness from stress.

In 1867 the Sisterhood was reconstituted into a proper religious order, and Sister Dora was given the opportunity to take vows. Instead she decided to stay in Walsall serving the local community, where her true vocation lay.


From an old postcard.


One of the reliefs on Sister Dora's statue depicting the Pelsall mine disaster of 1872.

In May 1868 when the new Cottage Hospital opened she was in sole charge of all aspects of nursing. She attended post mortems and dissections to learn new skills, and set about making the hospital the best of its kind in the country. She became an expert in the treatment of lacerations, at setting fractures, and treating eye injuries.

Other hospitals tried to tempt her away by offering a higher salary, but she was not interested, her devotion to duty came first.

The hospital’s new surgeon James MacLachlan was greatly impressed with her and tried to persuade her to train as a doctor, but Sister Dora’s commitment to nursing, and desire to help others came first. To give this up for several years whilst training as a doctor was very much against her beliefs.

She looked after her patients extremely well, and paid attention to the minutest details of their care. She insisted on high standards of comfort and care, rigorous cleanliness everywhere, and nutrition, supervising each meal herself.

She is particularly remembered for her valiant work and devotion to care after two serious industrial accidents, and a smallpox epidemic. The first accident happened at Pelsall Colliery on 14th November, 1872 when the pit rapidly flooded, trapping twenty two men and boys underground for five days. Sadly they all died before help could reach them, but Sister Dora lived with the waiting relatives, distributed blankets and food at the pithead, and did everything possible to support and comfort them at that terrible time.

The employees of the London & North Western Railway were so impressed with her efforts after the accident that they subscribed fifty pounds out of their wages (a substantial sum at the time) to present her with a pony and trap. The presentation took place on 20th June, 1873.

In February 1875 a virulent smallpox epidemic broke out in Walsall. Although the Epidemic Hospital in Hospital Street, built in 1872, had all of the necessary facilities, it gained a terrible reputation. Sufferers preferred to take their chances at home rather than enter the hospital.

Sister Dora knew that the only way to control the disease was to isolate the sufferers, and so she moved into the Epidemic Hospital on 28th February and took charge. Her reputation was such that people soon changed their mind and were convinced of the benefits of entering the hospital.

She was assisted by two old women from the workhouse to wash clothes and bedding and was visited daily by a doctor and the secretary from the Cottage Hospital.

She stayed at the hospital for six months until August 1875 when the epidemic was over.


Another of the reliefs on Sister Dora's statue showing her caring for the sick.

The relief on the statue which depicts the Birchills furnace explosion. There is no evidence to suggest that she actually went to the scene of the explosion.

The second industrial accident for which she is remembered took place on 15th October, 1875 at Birchills Iron Works.

A blast furnace exploded as it was being tapped, when a tuyère burst. The furnace workers were covered with molten metal and red hot ashes.

Three men died instantly, and twelve others, all with serious burns were rushed to the Cottage Hospital.

Sister Dora immediately took charge of the men and treated them alone, shutting herself up in their side ward, nursing them both day and night for several weeks. Despite all of her efforts, ten of them died from their terrible injuries.

At the time burns would often be infected and were difficult to treat. The men’s presence, and their infected wounds had infected the whole hospital with erysipelas, which meant that the wounds of new patients would also be infected. Contemporary medicine offered no solution, the only option was to close the hospital.

   
Read a contemporary account of the Birchills explosion
   

The Sisters of the Good Samaritan Order wanted Sister Dora to move elsewhere, but she refused. When asked why, she replied "I am a woman not a piece of furniture!" Around this time she severed her formal links with the Sisterhood, but retained the name Sister Dora.

While a new hospital was built, a temporary hospital opened in a house in Bridgeman Place, owned by the London & North Western Railway. It was far from ideal, only having ten beds on four floors. There was little space, and not even enough room to manoeuvre a stretcher between floors. Patients (alive or dead) had to be carried, usually by Sister Dora herself. Because of the lack of space many people had to be treated as outpatients. In 1877 over 15,000 people were treated in this way, usually by Sister Dora. The hospital was close to the railway and so patients were continually disturbed by passing trains.

The house was far from suitable for use as a hospital. In 1878 it became infected with typhoid fever and had to be closed.

Sister Dora refused the honour of laying the foundation stone for the new hospital, but was deeply involved in planning the new building, continually suggesting amendments to the plans.

During 1877 she began to suffer from exhaustion. This gradually worsened and so she consulted two doctors who both confirmed that she was suffering from breast cancer. Although a mastectomy was a possibility, the procedure had not been fully mastered, and often left the patient an invalid. Because of this it was seldom carried out.

She decided to carry on with her work, in the certainty that she only had a short time to live. She kept the disease secret and decided to treat it herself. After the hospital closed, Sister Dora visited London and Paris. While in London she attended operations conducted by the surgeon Joseph Lister, a pioneer of antiseptic surgery. She quickly realised its benefits and ensured that the new hospital would have the necessary equipment.

In September her health deteriorated. She returned to Walsall to inspect the building work, but felt too ill to look for lodgings. She returned to a hotel in Birmingham where she collapsed. She was given two weeks to live, and greatly wanted to return to Walsall so that she could die amongst her own people.

The hospital committee rented a small house for her in Wednesbury Road, where she arrived on 8th October. She was in constant pain, and found it difficult to breath, and couldn’t take solid food.


The final relief showing her caring for chidren.

It had been hoped that she could perform the opening ceremony when the new hospital opened on 4th November. Unfortunately she was too ill to be there.

She suffered for three months. The end finally came on December 24th. She asked friends and colleagues to leave her bedside saying “I have lived alone, let me die alone.” The end finally came at 2 p.m.

Her funeral took place on Saturday 28th December. She had wanted a quiet affair, but it was not to be. The coffin was carried to Queen Street Cemetery by eighteen railway workers, and watched by large crowds who came to pay their last respects. The crowd delayed the long procession from the Cottage Hospital. It included members of the police force, choristers and senior choir members, physicians and surgeons, clergy and ministers, mourners, the executor James Slater, the executive committee, the Mayor and Councillors, representatives of the press, the Governors of Queen Mary’s School, the Guardians of the School Board, old patients, and many others. The funeral was an elaborate affair. Sister Dora had chosen the words for her headstone herself. It simply reads:

In memory of Sister Dora who entered into rest on Christmas Eve 1878

She is remembered by a stained glass window in St. Matthew’s Church, and the statue on The Bridge. It was paid for by public subscription. The collection began in 1879, and the statue was unveiled on Monday 11th October, 1886. The unveiling ceremony was a civic affair, with a long procession starting at the hospital. Most of the town came to watch.

Even though she died over 130 years ago, she is still remembered by most people for her outstanding work and devotion to duty.


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