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Swift, Dame Sarah Annfree

  • Susan McGann

Dame Sarah Ann Swift (1854–1937)

by Herbert James Draper

Guy's and St Thomas' Charitable Foundation

Swift, Dame Sarah Ann (1854–1937), nurse and a founder of the Royal College of Nursing, was born on 22 November 1854 at Blossom Hall, Kirton Skeldyke, near Boston, Lincolnshire, the second of the three children of Robert Swift, a landowner and independent farmer, and his wife, Mary Ann Lamb. She attended Cowley School (1860?–1870) at Donington, near Boston, and at the age of twenty-two went to the Dundee Royal Infirmary to train as a nurse (1877–80). The matron of the infirmary at the time was Rebecca Strong, who had reorganized the nurses' training in line with the latest developments. On completing her training Swift's first job was as sister-in-charge of the Home for Incurables in Dundee, where she remained for six years. She then worked briefly at the City Hospital North, Liverpool, and at the London Fever Hospital.

In 1889 Swift went to America to study nursing practices in New York, and later travelled to Constantinople, where she worked in the British Seamen's Hospital. On her return to England, in 1890, she went to Guy's Hospital, London, and after completing the one-year course for paying probationers she was appointed an assistant matron. The following year she was appointed lady superintendent of the private staff, and in 1900 she was appointed matron. Her years as matron (1900–09) were a period of achievement both for herself and for the hospital. Her administrative abilities and financial acumen served Guy's well at a time of great development in medicine and nursing, and when the hospital was expanding rapidly. She believed that nursing was a profession with great potential for women, and she worked to improve the status and working conditions of the nurses. One of her main concerns was the lack of pensions for nurses, and she became involved in several schemes to provide financial relief and retirement homes for nurses, including the Royal National Pension Fund for Nurses and the Nurses' Memorial to King Edward VII. She also established sports clubs and recreational facilities for the nurses and a Past and Present Nurses' League, which she used to develop professional awareness among Guy's nurses.

Although she retired in 1909, when the First World War started Swift offered her services and within a few months was appointed matron-in-chief of the joint war committee of the St John Ambulance Association and the British Red Cross Society (BRCS). During the war her department was responsible for over 6000 trained nurses, overseeing their selection and dispatch to hospitals at home and abroad, and also for interviewing VADs (members of Voluntary Aid Detachments who were employed as assistant nurses). Swift personally inspected the 1500 auxiliary hospitals administered by the Red Cross and the hostels and hotels used by the nurses in transit. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross, first class, in 1916, and in 1919 she was created dame grand cross of the Order of the British Empire and made a lady of grace of the order of St John of Jerusalem.

Although Swift supported the professional associations that were founded before the war, she had not taken an active part in the campaign for state registration of nurses: her character avoided publicity. However, by the end of 1915 her war work had convinced her that something would have to be done about the chaotic state of nurses' training. Knowing that the leaders of the campaign for state registration, particularly Mrs Bedford Fenwick, would oppose any attempt to introduce a voluntary system of registration, she approached Arthur Stanley, chairman of the BRCS and treasurer of St Thomas's Hospital, and asked him to help her organize a college of nursing. Stanley agreed, and they enlisted the support of Sir Cooper Perry, medical superintendent of Guy's, and several matrons of leading London teaching hospitals. The founders of the college aimed to standardize the training of nurses, with a uniform curriculum, examination, and a register of the names of those nurses that had passed the examination. Despite the irreconcilable opposition of the ardent state registration campaigners, the new initiative was well received by the majority of matrons and managers of the large training schools and hospitals in the country, and the College of Nursing was established in April 1916.

In 1919 the Nurses' Registration Acts established three new statutory bodies which became responsible for the registration of trained nurses in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. No longer responsible for the registration of nurses, and with a membership of over 17,000, the college was in a position to expand its role. Thanks to the foresight of its founders it became a successful professional organization, responding to the educational needs of nurses and providing leadership to the new profession. The achievements of the college were recognized in 1928 when it was granted a royal charter. However, it was not until two years after the death of Swift that it was given permission to use the prefix royal and became the Royal College of Nursing.

At the end of the war Swift stayed on at the joint war committee to help with the demobilization of nurses. The BRCS extended its charter to include peacetime health problems and Swift, a member of the council and executive committee, became very involved in this work. A League of Red Cross Societies was formed to carry out the peacetime work and she was appointed the nursing representative of the British society. She participated in numerous committees and international conferences throughout the 1920s and played an important part in setting up the first public-health nursing course in London for the league. This course attracted nurses from developing countries, who then worked as pioneers in public-health nursing in their home countries. The course was very successful and Swift took on the role of ‘mother’ to a generation of international students. In 1929 she was awarded the international Florence Nightingale medal for her distinguished contribution to international nursing. She also made significant contributions to developments that were taking place in nursing in Britain at the time, particularly in the care of the chronic sick and prison nursing.

Dame Sarah said that she was happiest when she was organizing and she never really retired from her work. In 1935, when she retired from the post of matron-in-chief of the BRCS, and was presented with a scroll acknowledging her years of service by the future George VI, she remained a member of the council of the society and on several of its committees. She was also a member of the council of the College of Nursing from 1916 until her death, was twice elected its president, then a vice-president, and an honorary treasurer. Her last public appearance was at the coronation of George VI. She died a few weeks later, after a short illness, on 27 June 1937, at her London home, 20 Melcombe Court, Dorset Square, Marylebone. Her funeral took place two days later at St Mark's, Marylebone Road, and was followed by a cremation service at Golders Green crematorium; a memorial service was held at Guy's Hospital chapel.

Swift was a very small, determined woman, about 4 feet 10 inches tall. Her whole life was devoted to nursing and her motivation was a genuine love of humanity. Her nurses knew her as a strict disciplinarian but were grateful to her for teaching them to accept responsibility. She was intensely private and disliked fuss. The many honours she received she accepted as tributes to her profession. She left instructions that on her death nothing was to be written about her.


  • Royal College of Nursing Archives, Edinburgh, Sarah Swift MSS
  • S. McGann, ‘Sarah Swift: a supreme organiser’, The battle of the nurses: a study of eight women who influenced the development of professional nursing, 1880–1930 (1992), 160–89
  • annual reports, 1898–1909, LMA, Records, Guy's Hospital, H9/GY/A94/2–4
  • matron's journals, 1896–1911, LMA, Records, Guy's Hospital, H9/GY/C4/1–3
  • matron's report books, 1899–1904, LMA, Records, Guy's Hospital, H9/GY/C5/3
  • nursing certificates and prizes, LMA, Records, Guy's Hospital, H9/GY/C16
  • nursing guide, 1911, LMA, Records, Guy's Hospital, H9/GY/C20/1
  • Guy's Hospital Gazette, [3rd ser.], 8–23 (1894–1909)
  • joint war committee minutes, 1914–20, British Red Cross Archives, London, J/WC/1/1/1–3
  • Sarah Swift, personnel records, British Red Cross Archives, London
  • College of Nursing Ltd, 1916–28, Royal College of Nursing Archives, Edinburgh, RCN/01
  • Nursing Times (3 July 1937)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Royal College of Nursing Archives, Edinburgh
  • British Red Cross Archives, London
  • Guy's Hospital, London


  • G. B. E., photograph, 1919, IWM
  • four photographs, 1925–9, Royal College of Nursing Archives, Edinburgh
  • H. J. Draper, oils, Guy's Hospital, London [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£8479 0s. 11d.: probate, 16 Aug 1937, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

London Metropolitan Archives