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The role of mental health nursing in the trajectories of women's working lives. A comparative analysis of three institutions in York between 1890 and 1914.

Project: Research


Over the past decades, a number of studies have examined various dimensions of the 19th century asylum. Until recent years, less attention has been given in empirical research to the staff working in these institutions. Historians have broadly concluded that asylum nursing remained an ‘undesirable’ profession characterised by high turnover, poor pay and limited prospects. However, much of this research has been set in the early/mid 19th century and less is also known about how women’s experiences may have varied across different settings including charitable, private and public institutions. Moreover, many studies typically focus upon working lives in the asylum rather than positioning this occupation within women’s overall working lifetimes. This is important for understanding if the asylum functioned primarily as a source of local employment alongside other occupations (e.g. domestic service) or if nursing expanded vocational opportunities for both middle and working class women by the early 20th century. Staff registers maintained by asylums are a key source for understanding employment patterns, however, there are differences in their survival rates and if they record social and economic information. Record linkage between asylum records and the Census provides an opportunity to construct a more detailed picture of this workforce’s characteristics. Yet limited use of the census has been made in this field.

Aim/research questions:
This study aims to utilise record linkage to examine how nursing roles in asylums were situated in the trajectories of women’s working lives between 1890 and 1914.

More specifically, the research questions are:

1. What was the social composition of women employed as asylum nurses and
did this change over time?
2. What approaches were introduced to recruit, retain and professionalise staff
and did this vary by institution type?
3. Is there evidence that asylum employment increased vocational
opportunities for women, and if so for whom?
4. What are the lessons for using census record linkage in researching mental
health history?

Research setting
The setting is three institutions located in close proximity in York. The North Ridings County Asylum (NRA) opened in 1847. By 1890 it had a population of 600-800 predominantly working class patients. The York City Asylum (YCA) opened in 1777 with an average population of 150 patients by 1890. Between 1860 and 1906 it accommodated both private and pauper patients. After 1906 it accommodated private patients only. The York Retreat (YR) was founded by the Society of Friends (1796). Like YCA it remained smaller than the county asylums but as a charitable institution aimed to treat patients irrespective of income. As well as differences in the model of institution, it is evident from existing sources that there were variations in training opportunities as well as pay and working conditions for staff across the institutions.

The research plan involves the following stages:

Stage 1: Construct staff databases and institutional profiles
This will utilise asylum records (service/staff registers and wage books) to construct relational database(s) for each institution’s workforce between 1890-1914. The database will integrate variables (where available) for individual staff related to age/DoB and previous employment; date employment commenced; date of leaving and reasons; training completed; role(s) and promotion(s) and salary information.

During this stage, descriptive profiles will be constructed for each institution outlining pay rates and other emoluments, staff hierarchies, working conditions and training opportunities.

Stage 2: Record Linkage with Census records
Online census records will be accessed in two ways. (i) Institutional returns for each institution have already been collated for each census point between 1841 – 1911. The returns will be used to compare family background, age and geographical origins in a cross sectional sample of the workforce at each census point (ii) Secondly, a sample of women will be selected from the stage 1 database for linkage with census records. Criteria for sampling will take account of feasibility of record linkage and workforce characteristics/patterns (e.g. role and length of service). Searches will be run to identify the social and geographical origins of this group and any previous or subsequent occupations.

Stage 3: Comparative analysis and reporting
Analysis will address each of the RQs. Databases will be examined to identify differences in women’s backgrounds recruited to different institutions. The analysis will assess if other institutional factors (e.g. training offered) affected retention rates, progression/pay and occupational mobility within and beyond the employing institution. The analysis will seek to contextualise asylum employment within wider social and economic conditions by examining what other occupations women were engaged with prior and subsequent to their roles as nurses. This will identify if women moved to more senior posts or related roles in welfare or alternatively abandoned nursing, where they did not leave on marriage. For example, as employment opportunities for women opened up in the early 20th century, these may have offered more flexible working conditions compared to nursing roles.

The project runs from June 2017 to March 2018
AcronymMental health nursing in York 1890-1914
Effective start/end date1/06/1731/03/18