When Heaton History Group’s Ian Clough was researching the names on Heaton’s many WW1 church war memorials, one name stood out, that of Matron L Atkinson RRC. Few females are listed on first world war memorials but it now appeared that we had another Heaton woman to commemorate alongside that of Kate Ogg, who had grown up on Bolingbroke Street and given up her life in the war effort when she caught influenza from the servicemen she was nursing. But who was Matron L Atkinson and what did RRC stand for?
Matron L Atkinson’s name appears on two WWI memorials associated with Leighton Primitive Methodist Church which then stood on Heaton Road.
A broad search of census information did not bring up any L Atkinson living in the Heaton area and without any idea of her birthdate, there wasn’t much more to go on and Ian had hundreds of names to research so he called on Heaton History Group’s research team for assistance and Arthur Andrews helped unravel the mystery. After some time researching variant spellings of both first name and surname, Arthur managed to get to the nub of the problem: it turned out that although she was always known as Lily, our WW1 hero was officially an Elizabeth. It helps to be psychic to be a local history researcher!
It could now be established that Lily (ie Elizabeth) was born in 1874. For many years the family lived at 24 North View, a terraced house with 7 rooms, in Heaton, overlooking the railway cutting, where the Newcastle to Edinburgh steam trains would rush by. Lily’s father, Ralph, was a butcher, and later an insurance agent. Her mother was called Catherine. The 1911 census tells us that there were ten Atkinson children, two of whom had already died. There were, at this time, at least five living daughters and three sons.
Nothing more is known of Lily’s childhood or whether she had any other jobs after leaving school but by 1901, aged 26, she was working at Carlisle Infirmary as a probationer nurse. By 1909, the Nursing Register indicates that Lily had become a certified nurse, working at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle and by 1911 she had been promoted to hospital sister and moved to Liverpool Infirmary to take up the post of assistant matron. By 1915 she had moved again to take up the post of matron at the historic Northampton General Hospital. Here she became responsible for the nursing of many badly-wounded soldiers and she also had links with the nearby Duston War Hospital.
It was for her outstanding WWI nursing work at Northampton that Lily was awarded the Royal Red Cross (RRC). The award, established by Queen Victoria in 1883 and awarded by Royal Warrant, is still made to ‘a fully trained nurse of an officially recognised nursing service, military or civilian, who has shown exceptional devotion and competence in the performance of nursing duties, over a continuous and long period, or who has performed an exceptional act of bravery and devotion at her or his post of duty.‘ The first recipient was Florence Nightingale and the award was so prestigious that it was often presented by the monarch at Buckingham Palace. Sadly, this was not to be the case for Lily.
Lily’s Royal Red Cross Register entry, pictured below, does not give the date the award was registered and Lily’s name appeared in The London Gazette only on 9 April 1919, almost 5 months after she died. In the register it is noted that she was ‘deceased 22.11.18’ and that the medal was sent to her mother on 3 March 1920. (In fact, Lily’s mother, Catherine, had died in 1914).
Lily herself passed away in her prime on Friday 22 November 1918, during her tenure as Matron of Northampton General Hospital. She was only 44 years old and the cause of death was registered as breast cancer with other complications. Three of her siblings were with her at the time: Miss Annie Atkinson, Mrs Mary Smallwood and Mrs Margaret Shuler.
A short obituary appeared in the Northampton Daily Echo on 22 November 1918. Another, more informative, obituary appeared in the Northampton Mercury a week later.
It was reported that as war work increased, Lily’s nursing and organizing abilities and devotion to work not only maintained the efficiency of the hospital but she was ‘rapidly establishing its reputation as one of the leading, provincial institutions in the country’.
It was also reported that ‘deeply moving scenes’ were witnessed when her body was removed to the railway station, for cremation at Leicester. A brief devotional service was performed by the hospital chaplain. Nurses lined the corridor singing ‘On the Resurrection Morning’, as the coffin was carried by Hospital staff. From the main entrance to the gates, an avenue was formed of 24 wounded soldiers and many other staff, who then followed the cortege to the station and lined the platform until the train left with Lily’s coffin and many wreaths.
Other members of her family met the train at Leicester. After the cremation, Lily’s ashes were taken back to Newcastle. They were buried in the family grave at All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond, after another well attended ceremony. This was reported in another obituary in the Newcastle Daily Journal on 29 November 1918.
We join Lily Atkinson’s contemporaries in celebrating the short life of a highly respected matron from Heaton, whose professionalism and devotion to duty made a great impact during hard times.
Can you help?
If you know more about Lily Atkinson or her family or have photographs or anecdotes you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Written and researched by Arthur Andrews, with additional research by Ian Clough, both of Heaton History Group. Thank you also to Sue Longworth and Julia Corps, Northampton Hospital archivists.
National Archives, Kew
National Newspaper Archive