Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Matron Charlotte Evelyn Nelson (1938-1954) and her portrait by Alice Burton

Frederick John O’Dell
Northampton, United Kingdom


Portrait of Matron Charlotte Evelyn Nelson
Miss C E Nelson, 1955, by Alice Burton. Northampton General Hospital private collection. Image photograph by the author.

Charlotte Evelyn Nelson (1894-1959) was born on 13 July 1894 in Hull. Before her sixth birthday she was orphaned, as the 1901 census lists her at the Hull Seamans and General Orphan Asylum, aged six and a schoolgirl. Later she was moved into service and by the 1911 census she was a domestic servant for Mr. and Mrs. Albert Bell, innkeepers at Chesterfield who kept the Devonshire Hotel on Mansfield Road.

During the First World War she became a Red Cross worker and helped to organize a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital for the aftercare of wounded soldiers. She undertook various roles in the Red Cross, commencing as a clerk in the Land Army Office from May 1916 to December 1918, and Magazine Secretary for the Land Army of East Riding and hospital cashier from April 1918 to November 1918. She was also part of the nursing team for the St. John Hospital in Hull from January 1918 to May 1919. It must have been this wartime experience that led Miss Nelson to commence nurse training.

From 1922 to 1925 Nelson undertook her training at Leeds General Infirmary, passing by examination and registering to practice as a nurse on 19 March 1926. She also studied midwifery at Leeds, qualifying and entering the Midwives Roll on 24 November 1928. By this time, she was living in Beverley and was still there in 1934, at which point she came to Northampton General Hospital as a Sister Tutor until 1936 when she left to work at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Swindon. She returned to Northampton in 1938 to take up the post of Matron. At the commencement of the Second World War in 1939 she was on the Territorial Army Nursing Reservist list.

She was keen to foster global ties in nursing and campaigned to raise the necessary funds to send a delegate from her hospital to the International Congress of Nurses. She was successful in this, as one of her nurses attended the congress in Brazil in 1953 and this was repeated in other years.

Matron Nelson was the founder of the Northampton General Hospital Nurses League formed in 1949 and served as its president until her retirement in 1954. She was a member of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and was chair of the Northampton Branch. She served on the Nursing Advisory Committee and the Nursing Services Committee with the Oxford Regional Hospital Board, work for which she was awarded the Coronation Medal. In addition, she was the County Nursing Superintendent of the St. John Ambulance Brigade.

In 1941 the Duchess of Gloucester visited the hospital. Her Royal Highness was guided around the resuscitation ward and the new chapel by Matron Nelson with some of the nursing staff forming a guard of honor.

In her final address as president, just before her retirement, she said to the Northampton General Hospital Nurses League members that on this centenary year of Florence Nightingale’s landing in the Crimea, her ideals were still our goal. Miss Nelson then quoted the Nurses Pledge:

“I solemnly pledge myself . . . to practice my profession faithfully. I will do all in my power to elevate the standard of my profession and hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping, in the practice of my calling . . . and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.” (Nelson, 1954, 3)

Charlotte Nelson retired from Northampton General Hospital and nursing in 1954, and enjoyed her retirement by tending her garden and playing tennis. She died suddenly at home on 14 May 1959 at the age of sixty-five.

Her colleague, Miss Darlow, made the following tribute to a much-loved Matron:

“. . . we remember Miss Nelson for her very great understanding of the nurses mind and temperament, if asked for advice or help Miss Nelson did not fail . . . [she] was direct and forthright in all things, going straight to the underlying issues in any question . . . After examinations there were no effusive congratulations for success, no stern rebukes for failure, but encouragement to try again in the tangible form of a little coaching outside the classroom from a Matron who had been a tutor . . . For her patients Miss Nelson wanted the best possible nursing skill and human understanding.” (Darlow, 1959, 9-10)

Alice Burton painted the portrait of Matron Nelson in 1955, the year after her retirement. The oil-on-canvas painting is rectangular and measures 75cm high by 62cm wide. It shows a woman who appears kind, understanding, sympathetic, and confident. The portrait was presented to Northampton General Hospital by Mr. and Mrs. Ross Phillips and was originally hung in the entrance hall of the New Nurses Home. It now hangs in the hospital’s board room.

Alice Mary Burton (1893-1968) was born in Nogent-sur-Oise, in the old region of Picardy in northern France, and was educated in England. Burton was a student at the Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole School of Art, now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and part of University of the Arts London, and also at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art, where she won a series of medals. She was particularly known for her charcoal drawings and exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1929–68. Burton also exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the Paris Salon, where she obtained an honorable mention. Together with fellow artists Agnes Tatham and Elsie Gledstanes, she ran an art school, the Unique Studio for Children in London. Burton lived in London for a time and then moved to the village of Silverstone near the small market town of Towcester, in Northamptonshire. In addition to her portrait of Matron Nelson, she also painted two contemporaneous chairmen of Northamptonshire County Council, Councillor Ewart Marlow, and Councillor William Bingham-Compton, 6th Marquess of Northampton.



  1. Darlow, TE. Miss C.E. Nelson – An appreciation. Northampton General Hospital Nurses League journal, 1959, 1(11): 9-10.
  2. Nelson, CE. Presidents Letter. Northampton General Hospital Nurses League journal, 1954, 1(6):3.



FREDERICK JOHN O’DELL studied Family and Community History with the Open University and holds a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science. He has written on: library use in the NHS, Dr. Gosset’s icterometer, early Northamptonshire neonatal pediatrics, invention of the lithotrite, Dr. James Stonhouse, William Harvey, William Money, and Bales and Parr—two very, very old men. He has presented at the universities of Birmingham, Oxford, and Northampton on medical history. He is a historical archive volunteer at Northampton General Hospital.



The author would like to thank the Museum and Archive at Northampton General Hospital for providing access to material for this essay, and also to Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust for granting permission to use the image of the painting of Miss C E Nelson.


Summer 2021  |  Sections  |  Nursing

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