Category: nurses

Nurses on the march 1968-1970: Sister Patricia Veal and the United Nurses’ Assocation

As a historian of the left it’s always intriguing  to come across campaigns that you have never  come across before. In this case my interest was sparked   by a reference  in Black Dwarf  to a Sister Patricia Veal speaking at an Equal Pay Rally in London in  September 1969. I  had never heard of her  so I  followed  up this mention and  discovered that she had been  leading a campaign  for nurses for about a year. I  have now   found some additional information  in the press and thought it would be useful to put  this  into this post in the hope that it may lead to more information  about Patricia and the campaign coming to light.

Sister Patricia Veal worked as an administrative sister at South Western Hospital in Stockwell, London. In July 1968 she had read about nurses lobbying MPs over pay, went along  to the House of Commons but found no other nurse there.  So hhe  decided to organise  a march herself  and spent £6  on sending letters  to every hospital in the country.

According to Patricia,  some letters were intercepted by matrons. “I had one letter from a matron saying that she wouldn’t let her nurses read such stuff. We’re going to frame it.”  She also said that the whole edifice of nursing was tottering. “Florence Nightingale would have  50 fits if she saw how nursing is now.” Patricia was critical of the Royal College of Nursing which she said was  “all talk and no action”  and “not for the ordinary nurse.”

Her  efforts paid off.  On 15 August 1968 Patricia  led a  march of 1,000 or so nurses  from Marble Arch to  10 Downing Street where they delivered a letter to the Prime  Minister Harold Wilson. They include nurses  from nine London teaching hospitals as well hospitals in Sussex, Surrey and Derbyshire.

Some hospitals had tried to stop nurses attending by refusing them  time off.  In some cases nurses had been forbidden to wear their uniforms, but  many  marched in the uniforms they used for private cases.  Some marched barefoot: one   nurse from India  marched in her sari.

Patricia told the press: “I’m a new type of sister. I always used to be criticised for the amount of make-up I wore.  People say: ‘Look at those  false eyelashes and all that hair.’ But I think that a nurse’s  private life is no concern of the matron. If a nurse  wants to come in at four c’clock in the morning, that’s up to her.”

The nurses marched six a breast down Park Lane  under the slogan “Unite and Fight” and  carried banners that said, “There’s a curse on the purse of every nurse” and “Wait till you get a hernia – Mr Wilson”. They  sang songs about bedpans and bad food to the time of “John Brown’s Body”. Passers-by often applauded as they passed.  In Whitehall the march paused while Patricia  fixed her hair. Finally,  on arrival at Downing Street,  the letter was delivered by Patricia,  along with two colleagues from the same hospital,  Sister Tina Stone and Sister Mary Chundee.

The letter  said: “We are dissatisfied not only because of  the latest salary increase which was comsumed by the latest increases in board and lodging , National Health contributions, income tax, and superannuation but  we are equally concerned over working conditions resulting in the loss of so many nurses. We believe that the National Health Service is wasting money and that many departmnest need rorganising and streamlining.” They  called for an immediate increase in the nursing establishment in all hospitals and higher  pay.

After the march  Patricia said, “Now, there’s going to be no turning back. We’re going to form  an association to keep this up!” She  and a number of other nurses held a meeting  in one of their flats on 22 August and  set up  the United Nurses’ Association.

They told the press that they   had received many letter, both from nurses and the mothers of student  nurses  who complained about the treatment of their daughters by hospitals and the nursing hierarchy. Many of the mothers explained that they had been silent previously because of fear of repercussions.

The UNA decided to  follow-up the march with a “Unite and Fight campaign,” contacting hospitals with literature. Sister Jean Baxter, Secretary of the UNA,  said that she had been appalled to hear and see grossly understaffed  wards, a situation which led to overworked  student nurses leaving before they had finished their training. There were also situations where unqualified auxiliary nurses were left alone at night  in charge of wards. Above all, she said,  nurses must unite to prevent the vicious circle which caused chronic staff shortages.

The UNA’s   grievances included  plans  to make nurses “pay to eat,”  the working conditions of nurses – especially  student  nurses – who were often ordered to carry out cleaning duties,  overwork, poor pay and and the way that pay was negotiated. Their demands  included £11 a week for student  nurses with free meals and travel warrants. How many nurses actually joined  the UNA remains  a matter of speculation,   but it seems to have attracted particular support from student  nurses.  Other nursing organisations such as the Royal College of Nurses, dominated by  qualified nurses,  were far  from enthusiastic about the actions of the younger women, particularly when the UNA called for matrons to be sacked.

The UNA was angered by an article which appeared in Nursing Mirror headed,  “Let’s put  our student nurses on the pill”. Jean Baxter told the press,  “We are going to make an official complaint about the editor of the Nursing Mirror. We communicated with the Nursing Mirror about our march. The editor wrote to Patricia Veal…refusing to print anything about it as she disapproved of the march.  This has been  printed the day after our  march and is obviously  trying to do as much as damage as possible, both within the nursing fraternity  and with the general public.We are angry, disgusted  and  disturbed about this.”

In response Yvone Cross, editor of Nursing Mirror,  defended herself, “I did not print anything about this march because the nurses could not be specific enough about their reasons for marching at this time, or what they expected to get out of the march.”  She went onto say that the article was the opinion of a reader. “The article was scheduled long before the march took place, but even had it not been, there is no reason  I can see that I should have withdrawn it at that time.”

On 13 December 1968  Patricia and 14 other nurses went to  to the House of Commons. It seems very  likely that this  action  was  deliberately timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the General Election held on 14 December 1918 when some women voted for the first time. They arrived at 9.45am and, to begin with,   confined themselves to giving  out leaflets   which described small hospitals as being full of “antiques” like furniture, matrons,  ward sisters; senior administrators who lacked the courage to face reality; and unions who were trying to lower nursing standards; and unsatisfactory working conditions.   Patricia  told the press it was too cold to chain themselves to the railing so  they were going to go and tell MPs a few  home truths instead.”

The women  went inside to sit in the public gallery from where they heard  Jo Grimond  deliver  a speech about Shetland ponies. After he had finished Patricia  jumped up and addressed the Chamber for 30 seconds on their demands, very  reminscent of Muriel Matters,  who in October 1908  also made a speech to the Chamber after  chaining herself to a grille in the Ladies’ Gallery.  Patricia  shouted. “I want to talk on behalf of the nurses. The nurses want support. Listen to the nurses. The nurses want to fight for the patients of this country. Will MPs listen instead of talking about ponies?”

The nurses  also somewhat half-heartedly tried to emulate the suffragettes by tying themselves together with bits of string. The Serjeant-at-Arms, Rear Admiral A H C Gordon-Lennox,  took them  into custody  and they  were  detained “at the Speaker’s pleasure” in a small,  cold room.  They were eventually  let out at 1.30 pm on condition they did not cause a disturbance within a mile of Westminster. Patricia told the press that the MPs had been talking “a load of drivel about Shetland ponies” so when she had spoken “all the MPs woke up”.

Christine Doyle interviewed Patricia  for  The Observer  in April 1969, visiting her   in her small flat above a jewellers in Tooting Bec.  Patricia was 34.  She was from Cornwall with an Irish grandmother and agreed that she was “a dangerous Celt.” “But I  like cosmetics and beauty culture, I like perfume especially. I’ve got Tigress by Faberge. Quite appropriate”. Since her campaign had hotted up she admitted that she  was living mainly  on  scrambled  eggs and toast.  Patricia named her outside interests  as “Men. Church activities”.

The UNA staged another protest on 22 April 1969 outside the  Department  of  Health and Social Security with 150 nurses  singing “Why Are We Waiting.” Patrica told the press, “We want this system abolished. These girls are hungry.” After five minutes  the Secretary of State himself , Richard Crossman, came out to speak to them. He said that nurses had their own representatives who were negotiating on their behalf.He suggested that rather than stand in the cold wind, they send in a delegation.  This was done,  with  a small delegation going  in to speak to Lady Serota, a Minister, for an hour.  Patricia told the Minister that  some student nurses were  struggling to eat.  Most of the nurses present  were from London, Surry and Kent,  but they were joined by  a coachload  of 50 from South Wales who had set out at 6am.

On 15 May 1969 the UNA staged a series of protests against what they termed “an insulting offer” by the Whitley Council of  2s 6d “tea money” to student courses. In the rain  Patricia  and  a small number of  nurses  began outside the Royal College of Nursing  whom they accused of  “sweeping so much dirt  under the  carpets” and wielded a broom  and a carpet before the cameras of the press. The RCN responded tartly that,  “Cheap publicity stunts such as the demonstration by the United Nurses Association today are doing a great disservice to the nursing profession.” The nurses  then moved onto the General Nursing Council where they were admitted for what Patricia called “a sympathetic but sugary hearing.” She  said  that the registrar  and education officer “just passed the buck and blamed the troubles on the state of the country. I think it was clear that they are not doing anything.”

You can see a picture of this here

At the end  of May a new meals allowance for student nurses of £48  was agreed. Although this was initially  welcomed by Patricia,  who had been protesting outside the meeting with other nurses,  she became angry when she realised that  it would be taxed. Speaking to the press she waved a  copy of Minister  Martin Ennal’s statement   and said, “Why doesn’t he put it down here if it’s going to be taxed? That means it is not going to be a £1 a week How much is that going to leave us?”

In July 1969  Patricia issued a writ for libel  against the Sunday Mirror for an article published on 1 June entitled “Me and my clients – by Sister Veal”.

On 27 August 1969  the UNA supported a demonstration by striking  ambulancemen at County Hall, London.

On 12 September 1969 there was a rally in Conway Hall, London organised by the National Joint Action Committee for  Women’s  Equal Rights.  Established in the wake of the Ford Machinists’ strike for equal pay. it had had held  a march  in London on 18 May 1969.    Although  12 September had originally billed as a national Equal Pay Day   with 40 rallies around the country, it dwindled down to a single event, the London rally.  Patricia spoke about the conditions under which nurses worked. Student nurses earned £5.15 a week, a staff nurse £12.10.0  a week.   “Nurses are their own worst enemy, they  don’t realise how much they are being exploited.”

The UNA  was mentioned in a Times editorial  no lesson 3 November 1969 headed  “Justice for Nurses.” It said, “Nothing has happened yet, but Sister Patricia Veal’s United Nurses’ Association  has demonstrated  that calls for militant action do not go unheeded. Nurses’ problems are sufficiently serious to guarantee a ready response from a growing number.”

In January 1970 it was reported that Patricia was leaving South Western Hospital to set up a nursing agency She said “I feel that in the National Health Service I am wasting my time. We shall be concentrating on higher quality nursing. It will be a modern efficnet organisation run on old fashioned principles. I shall be in a better position to fight with the association to give student nurses status. We are not so much concerned with status now.” At the end of January.  the UNA again picketed the Whitley Council meeting which was discussing a 22 per cent offer. It ended with no agreement,

In March  1970 the UNA   urged nurses to leave the NHS  and work instead   for nursing agencies. This call came shortly after a fifth round of talks on nurses pay between the Whitley Council and nurses’ represenatatives  broke up with no agreement. The chair of the Whitley Council, Mr W R Griffiths,  said that there had been “fundamental” disagreements on grading. The lack of agreement meant that nurses would not get their promised 20% pay increase on 1 April.

After this date I have not been able to find any other references to Patricia Veal or the United Nurses’ Association.

This was not the first public protest by nurses. In April 1962  10,000 nurses, (about 50:50 male and female) protested over pay in Trafalgar Square, for instance.

However the actions of the UNA was the first organised protest by nurses over  the conditions of work of nurses and they were treated by those in authority above them . The profession was  highly hierarchical  and often very conservative with managers feeling entitled to pry into nurses’ private lives, for instance.  In this  sense the UNA was akin to many of the protests taking place across Europe and in the USA in the course of 1968. Whilst they had  different targets – the war in Vietnam, race,  male authority, etc  – they were united by a rejection of power, hierarchy  and tradition and  a desire to explore  alternative structures and  experimnet with different ways of living.

The UNA  also used the tactics of their contemporaries which were  designed to attract publicity. Although it was shortlived , the UNA  was regualrly in the headlines,  and  Patrica Veal was  frequently  quoted by the press, much to the anger I suspect of the traditional nursing organisations.

It pointed the way to the future. In the 1970s and 1980s nurses became increasingly militant, joining  protests in increasing numbers and even went on strike.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone with more information  about Patricia and the UNA. Please email;