The passing bell

Chapter Eight: The Passing Bell – Jessie Lennox

A chapter from ‘This is Not yesterday’ by Dr Peter J. Gordon

Written 29th March 2012

The Passing Bell:

To play this short film please click here or on the image above.

When I was just a scrap-of-a-boy my ‘Grumpa’ Rab Scott of Drumdruills gave me an envelope. Well Grumpa was very good at getting first-daycovers, typing up the envelope, and posting them on to little Peter. For a year or two I got a first-day-cover every other month. Inside were handwritten notes saying how he missed his little grandson and how he felt that he was getting older. These were special notes, which I now wish I had taken better care of.

Anyway back to that Envelope, for it was curious. It had no letter inside just a hand scribed address to a Miss Jessie Lennox, a Matron at the Children’s Hospital in Belfast.  Scribbled at the top of the envelope in pen was the following “This envelope received from Miss Lennox July 4th 1925 and the handwriting is Florence Nightingales. S.R. Scott.” How on earth had an envelope from Florence Nightingale come to the Scotts and who was Miss Lennox and where was that missing letter?


Figure 1: The Envelope of 1887

The clue to Miss Lennox came with the Rutherford letters passed on by Reverend Brian Holliday. For in the bundle of 19th century letters was a letter notably different. This was a notelet written in large, bold and flowing pen and it was dated the 9th February 1917. It was from Miss Lennox and addressed to her ‘dear cousin Janet.’ Miss Lennox gave her address as Morningside Edinburgh. The letter was one of sympathy to ‘cousin Janet’ expressing sorrow at the loss of her sister Margaret. This was all that I needed. Margaret was Margaret Baird who died in January 1917, the wife of Daniel McNeil Watson of Sunnylaw, who not so long before had celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. So Miss Lennox had to be a Baird on her mother’s side.

Cousin of Jessie lennox

Figure 2: Golden wedding of Margaret Baird (Sunnylaw). Cousin of Miss Lennox

Let us not be drawn further into the family tree but rather explore the life of Miss Jessie Lennox. I have called this chapter ‘The passing bell’ as this was the title given in her obituary as given in the British Journal of Nursing of February 1933. Were it possible, I have come to imagine that Miss Lennox passed her bell on to my mother who has since passed it on to my daughter. I have made a film to try and explain this. Jessie Lennox was born in the village of Bridge of Allan in 1830; Of her childhood virtually nothing is known but it is clear that Jessie’s mother and father died young and before the census poll of 1841. Her father Malcolm Lennox was a weaver and probably worked for John Ross McVicar at Keirfield. In the chapter ‘Ten summers fade’ you will recall that cholera was the Nebuchadnezzar of our village in the 1830’s. Thus one wonders if Jessie’s mother and father succumbed to the bacterium and as orphans Jessie (and her brother) were raised by her mother’s family the Bairds. If this was the case, then perhaps Miss Lennox’s nursing bell rang early indeed. Perhaps it was this early loss of her parents, before she had reached school age that gave her the ‘calling.’ As it turned out her life was to nurse children.

The caring ones

Figure 3: My mother Margaret, the Nightingale badge, and my daughter Rachel

In my life I have shared a few memories with old Edinburgh ladies, and in particular dear Mrs Picken of Redford Drive who handed me an apple each day as I delivered her evening paper. Sadly Mrs Picken started to dement though she always recognised me and our fondness for one another only grew stronger. In summer 1985 I went to university in Aberdeen and when I returned in autumn to visit her I discovered she had been admitted to a nursing home. I still, to this day, dearly miss Mrs Picken.

Mrs Picken (a 66s film):

Miss Lennox was another Edinburgh lady but before my time. Her story was recorded in the paper I delivered to Mrs Picken: the Edinburgh Evening News. The September 1924 piece had the headline EDINBURGH LADY’S MEMORIES: Knew Livingstone and Florence Nightingale and went on to say: “Edinburgh has one resident who had the rare dual distinction of friendship with each of those heroic souls. This is Miss Lennox, a lady who has spent practically all her life in service to the suffering.” If I had lived in a different time I would choose to go back and deliver a paper to Miss Lennox and ask her about her extraordinary life. I would tell her we had an envelope but no letter and that her family were still going in the village of Bridge of Allan.

With the persistence of a magpie I eventually found Miss Lennox letters and arranged for copies to be made. As early as 1856, when still a girl, Miss Lennox was in Natal, South Africa, engaged in missionary work under the direction of Archdeacon Charles Mackenzie, of Portmore. Jessie Lennox was the maid-companion for Ann MacKenzie the sister of the Archdeacon. In the diaries of the MacKenzie family it is recorded: “Alice has brought us a treasure in Jessie, who is the brightest creature I have seen for many a day talks quite naturally of doing things in her good and makes difficulties of nothing” and later: “Jessie is a perfect delight, so ready to make herself useful, and she has volunteered how very happy she is already.”

On one occasion Jessie was thrown from a horse and bruised her arm severely and “the fall gave her a shake so that she has been poorly again, and she told me today she was afraid she must give up and go home.” Jessie though recovered and stayed on as maid to Ann MacKenzie. Indeed Jessie was the most ‘stout’ of the missionary party and when she saw a cobra in her bed she took “an axe in the room which Skendi had left”, and “without disturbing anyone, she took it and cut off the snake’s head and showed us the trunk in the morning.”

In a letter home, May 9th 1859, Ann wrote of her maid, Jessie Lennox: “there is not her equal in Natal for truth, goodness and respectfulness.” So naturally on the second trip with the Universities’ Mission Jessie went out again to Natal with the Mackenzie siblings. This was in 1862 and she sailed with the Mackenzies on the newly built steamboat the Norman under the Captaincy of Captain Boxer. It was on this second mission that Miss Lennox met Dr Livingstone as she was with Mrs Livingstone and a party of other missionaries. They expected to meet Dr Livingstone at the mouth of the Zambesi. In accordance with a prearranged plan they sent up rockets to call the attention of the doctor or of those who were with him, but they got no response. Pursuing their search, they continued on a small steamer to Mozambique and were cheered to see a British man-o’-war. What a great joy and relief it was to see the British flag! The commander of the warship offered to take them back to Chendi, and it was there they met Dr Livingstone. Miss Lennox was brought into close contact during this time with Mrs Livingstone, and the gracious thanks of the doctor to the Scottish lassie who had been kind to his wife.”

While descending the River Ruo to meet Dr Livingstone, Bishop Mackenzie’s canoe was overturned and his quinine lost. A short sojourn on a swampy island brought on a fever, to which he succumbed on the 31st of January, 1862. The loss of her brother, Ann MacKenzie returned to London with Jessie, where she edited ‘the Net’ for thirty years before her death in 1877. I have since wondered what she would make of todays ‘Net’ the internet? A full length portrait of Colin MacKenzie (1770-1830) of Portree, hangs in Edinburgh’s Register House Dining room. He was the father of the Archdeacon and Ann. With a group from RCAHMS I was guest at Register House last year and I discovered that Colin MacKenzie was a friend of Walter Scott (the ‘Antiquary’), and Keeper of the Signet.

It was on the recommendation of Ann MacKenzie that Jessie Lennox, on her return from Africa, was accepted as a probationary Nightingale in the Florence Nightingale School in St. Thomas’ Hospital, London and became a close friend of Florence Nightingale, indeed Miss Lennox was frequently in her house, and on one occasion stayed overnight

Last Journal

Figure 4: David Livingstone and the words written in his Last Journals by Florence Nightingale

After her training in St Thomas’ hospital, Jessie Lennox was one of the first six Army Sisters appointed by the War Office to the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley. These Sisters were received by Miss Nightingale, that she might give them parting instructions, she lay in bed, pencil and paper always beside her, that everything of interest might be noted. Miss Lennox described her bedroom as a large, airy room “with plenty of ventilation, even in those days!” In giving the Sisters advice, Miss Nightingale exhorted them that they were never to say they were unable to do anything! Although filmed after Jessie lennox’s time at Netley I have recently seen silent black and white clips of war veterans being treated at Netley for shell-shock. The clips are shocking in themselves as they demonstrate how severe shock can induce horrendous psychosis in otherwise normal (and not ‘biologically’ predisposed) young men. In a world where the humanities have capitulated to strict biologism it seems dishonourable to these young men for us all to have lost sight of this.


Figure 5: Miss Jessie Lennox in 1885

Following her time at Netley hospital, Jessie Lennox was appointed Matron of the Sick Children’s Hospital in Belfast where she continued for 18 years. There is a photograph from this time when Miss Lennox was 55 years old. This was the year that Jessie stayed overnight with Florence Nightingale in London and the period from which extant letters survive. One dated 23rd Dec 1885 enquires after Miss Lennox’s ‘family’ (at The Children’s Hospital, Belfast) “after the boy who bought a pig for his family with the money given him for his wooden leg.” In the picture she is wearing a Red-Cross Medal and Khedive Star. The Khedive Star would suggest Jessie worked as a Military nurse in Egypt. My impression of Miss Lennox in this photograph is that she looks much younger than her years though concern for her children seems to carry.

Letter from FN

Figure 6: Florence Nightingale and an extract from one of her many letters to Miss Jessie Lennox

The letters fascinate: given the male dominance of the society in which they lived it is remarkable just how much Florence (and Jessie) achieved for nursing. Although the Belfast hospital had been born complete with medical staff; it had yet to find a matron: “Miss Lennox, a nursing sister in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley (a famous British military hospital), and a former pupil in Miss Florence Nightingale’s Nurses’ Training School in St Thomas’s Hospital, London” was selected by The ladies’ committee and “the gentlemen duly appointed her to be the First matron of the Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.” What I like about the story of the Belfast Hospital is that Miss Lennox brought changes that only a woman could.

The Hospital board decided to start with only eighteen beds. “Miss Lennox, on whom the burden of the move would fall most heavily” was given one week’s holiday in preparation, and it was arranged that “the three pounds reserved for her from Christmas” should be handed over to her beforehand. Early in 1891 Miss Lennox was obliged to resign on account of ill health; the board received the resignation with regret, and resolved that Miss Lennox “should not be allowed to leave without a substantial recognition of the valuable services she has rendered during the eighteen years she has occupied the position of Matron.”


Figure 7: Miss Lennox, Matron of Belfast Children’s Hospital

When the Scottish War Memorial was opened in Edinburgh in 1927, Miss Lennox was an honoured guest wearing a nursing uniform similar to the first issued to the British Army, and she was presented to the King and Queen and the Prince of Wales.

So that is the story of Miss Jessie Lennox: the envelope may have been empty but it seems that there was a lesson inside.

Peter would suggest that progress comes as much with care as it does with anything else. Here perhaps we should recall the words of Miss Nightingale in the preface to her book, Facts about Hospitals:It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as the very first requirement in an Hospital that it should do the sick no harm.’ At a recent job interview I was asked as the closing question by the Medical Director: “Dr Gordon if you were to stand up on a soap-box with a megaphone what would you say to those of us assembled here?” I replied that I would advise the medical and nursing professions not to lose sight of the patient. The Medical Director look surprised and replied: “do you think we are not already doing this?” My concern is that in a professional world where hospitals are heavily managed that compassionate care takes second place to targets and benchmarks.

The End of an Age

The chestnut they said had stood for seventy years.
Its whiteness in May, redness in September,
thin scrolls of long fingery twigs,
were things expected of it.
The tree was an obvious landmark like a hill.

The little people hurrying about the place,
their heads packed with intricacies,
their feet not in the habit of standing still,
slightly envied the tree
for adding such tiny cubits to itself.

At last, for safety’s sake it had to come
and, falling, for the first time became heavy.
A man with an axe sorting it all out
but making slow work
said, ‘A tree’s complicated when it’s down.’

Robin Fulton


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