Contributed by Kate Fleming
1891 was a fortunate year for the inhabitants of Cuckfield; the talented, handsome William Herrington was appointed headmaster of the National School, and Nurse Mary Stoner fulfilled a ‘great and long felt need’ in becoming the first district nurse in the parish. Two remarkable characters working in parallel in the village, to educate and inspire, and to nurse the ‘sick poor people’ and ‘when not engaged in nursing the poor, … employed as a nurse by others’ as reported in the Parish Magazine at the time.
Mary Stoner was born in Mytten Twitten, Cuckfield in 1855. Her rural childhood was hampered by her Mother’s constant illness and inability to work, and determined by her Father’s employment as a farm worker with a gift for handling cattle and sheep. It was this expertise and experience that eventually landed him the enviable job of cowman for the Sergison family who lived at Cuckfield Park, and it was from here at the Old Mill that Mary Stoner had her schooldays and early adulthood.
In her diaries, she remembers her time at school with mixed emotions generated by contrasting relationships with her teachers. The governess in charge of girls, Miss Osbourne, found Mary Stoner challenging and resorted to the cane in order to improve her arithmetic and writing whereas teacher Sarah enjoyed the idiosyncrasies of this unusual little girl and contributed significantly to her development.
Like the majority of working-class girls in Victorian England, Mary left school in her early teens and went into domestic service in spite of a plea by the vicar, The Reverend Hollingworth, for her to continue her education. She had various jobs locally before she made her first trip to London to become a house-parlourmaid, but eventually, she had to return to Cuckfield to look after her ailing Mother.
After a year beginning to hone her nursing skills, Mary had her first working experience at Marshalls in the High Street, then and for many years after, the local surgery and home to the village doctor. Her stay was short however, and soon she was back at her childhood home Cuckfield Park as a housemaid for Major and Mrs Sergison. During this time they enjoyed a holiday on the Isle of Wight until the Major, his wife and twelve-year-old son ‘went abroad’ leaving the butler, cook, French maid, footman and Mary alone for two months with Master Michael and Miss Bunty, aged respectively six and ten.
It was during her next employment in London that Mary met her only true love. He was a boot-maker and mender who sadly died of consumption, now known as tuberculosis, a year after they had met and had fallen in love. This tragic death seems to have been a turning point in Mary Stoner’s life taking her back to her roots in Cuckfield and the start of a new vocation. As C.S. Lewis says, ‘Hardships often prepare people for an extraordinary destiny.’
She applied for a job as an assistant nurse at Cuckfield Infirmary, but the Victorian job description was misleading, requiring in reality limited nursing, ‘a few poultices on the old men in the morning’ and hours of sewing. Mercifully for Cuckfield, a local dressmaker was employed instead and Mary Stoner was free to accept the offer of district nurse from vicar The Reverend Cannon Cooper. Her interview for this life-changing job was simple and her response indicative of her approach to nursing in-spite of her diminutive stature. She was barely five foot tall.
“Are you firm?” asked Rev. Cannon Cooper. “Suppose the doctor orders a man three pills and he kicks and struggles over the first, would you say ‘Poor fellow’ and let him off?” Mary, without hesitation, hit back. “No, if the man were ordered six he would take them before I had done with him.” Indeed many men were to rue the day they chanced their luck with Nurse Mary Stoner.
During the next twenty-five years she became a well-known figure bustling around the village dressed in a black, serge skirt, cape and hat firmly tied under her chin, always carrying her little black Gladstone bag containing her white apron and equipment. Everyone knew her and she knew everyone, always greeting each one with a cheery word and a smile. Day and night, through all weathers, struggling with vicious dogs, bad-tempered, loud-mouthed husbands and heartbreakingly ill children, Mary Stoner cared constantly for the people of Cuckfield. Her commitment to nursing was total and although it seems inappropriate to compare the litigious and political 21st-century medical care with over a hundred years ago, having a nurse in residence today seems to be a luxury only accessible to the rich and famous.
Nurse Stoner however, moved in when the situation needed her all the time, and according to the rules and regulations of the Nursing Fund, ‘…when attending a Cottager’s wife the Nurse will do all that is necessary for the care of her patient’s family, except washing. The Nurse may receive no presents of money, and must not expect beers or spirits.’
Nurse Mary Stoner was much loved in Cuckfield by families rich and poor. The village showed their appreciation by subscribing to the Nursing Fund, the forerunner of National Insurance, to which they contributed according to their means with the rich supplementing the poor so that all could benefit from the skill and dedication of their beloved district nurse. Her newly-cleaned portrait hangs in Cuckfield Museum not only as a tribute to her special memory in our village history but also to the many Cuckfield nurses who have served us throughout the changing years with love and commitment to their remarkable profession.
“When you’re a nurse you know that every day you will touch a life or a life will touch yours”. (Anon)
Quotes are from the book “Nurse Stoner’s Diaries” available for sale online or at the museum, £2.00 Click here.