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Looking back with pride 1916-2016

The RCN celebrates its centenary this year. In the past century it has grown into a unique voice for nursing, as a trade union and a professional body for its 430,000 members. General secretary and chief executive Janet Davies is confident it will still be here in 2116, a powerful body for an irreplaceable profession.

‘To be able to move forward, you need to reflect on where you’ve been,’ says RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies, as the organisation gears up to celebrate its centenary.

‘When our founding group of nurses met in a room 100 years ago, they could never have imagined how the RCN would grow, and how much nursing would change,’ says Ms Davies. ‘At that time women didn’t even have the vote. They were really pushing against the grain. For me, that’s inspirational and very humbling.’

All of the RCN’s members are being invited to participate in a variety of centenary events this year, including a photography competition to capture images of nurses in their many different workplaces. ‘We’re trying to build a legacy,’ explains Ms Davies. ‘Anyone can take part, even if you only take pictures on your phone. We’re looking for a snapshot of nursing now.’

District nurse study day 1956

College hosts general election hustings, London 2015

RCN library as it once was

Janet Davies, appointed general secretary in 2015

Queen Mary opens the London HQ, 1926

Congress, Bournemouth 2015

Trevor Clay, general secretary 1982-1989

Mary Rundle, the college’s first secretary 1916-1933

Don’t Pay Us Peanuts campaign, 1979

Beverly Malone, general secretary, 2001-2006

Overseas introductory course, 1955

Nursing Standard, 1987

Dame Catherine Hall, general secretary 1957-1982

Launch of RCN Direct, 1998

Founder Dame Sarah Swift

Picture credit: Mike Wilkinson

Peter Carter, general secretary 2007-2015

Comedian Russell Brand joins a pay rally in 2014

The RCN grant of arms conferring the right to bear a coat of arms

Princess Margaret at an awards ceremony, 1992

The library today

The Royal Charter and King’s Seal

What if…? pay campaign, London 2014

Cavendish Square HQ, 1926

Christine Hancock, general secretary 1989-2001

In November, the RCN will host a two-day international conference focusing on the progress the profession has made.

Ms Davies says she is confident the RCN will still be here in another 100 years’ time. ‘We have our difficulties and there will be more to challenge us,’ she says. ‘But the compassion and care of nurses remain essential, and nothing can replace them. As an organisation, our power is not our leaders, but the 430,000 nursing staff who make up the RCN – that is our strength.’

Solid foundations

Founded in 1916 with just 34 members, the College of Nursing came into being when British Red Cross matron-in-chief Sarah Swift and MP Arthur Stanley invited hospital matrons to a meeting.

With the aim of advancing nursing as a profession, the need for a register of qualified nurses was high on the agenda. This was established three years later.

Other early priorities included standardising the curriculum and qualifications; emphasising continuing development; and positioning nursing as a credible career, rather than a stopgap for young, unmarried women with a calling.

By 1919, the college had outgrown its original London offices and moved to 7 Henrietta Place in Marylebone. Within two years this too had become cramped and so Viscountess Cowdray, a supporter of the college, readily agreed to provide a new building in nearby Cavendish Square.

Cavendish Square HQ today

Made up of several buildings, including an 18th century townhouse, the RCN’s headquarters as it appears from the street today was finally completed in 1934. The townhouse is listed by English Heritage. One of its most striking features is the baroque painted stairwell, which rises from the reception area, and has depictions of classical scenes.

‘Our power is not our leaders, but the 430,000 nursing staff who make up the RCN’

In 2000, interior renovations were carried out, including the installation of a glass walkway five storeys high, and in 2012 work began on a new library and heritage centre. The RCN library and archive collections are the largest of their kind in the world and house books and journals, alongside images, recordings and objects that document the history of nursing in the UK.

Timeline/key events

The library and heritage centre opened in August 2013 and hosts regular exhibitions and public events. Among them will be an exhibition – also viewable online – celebrating the history of the RCN as a voice for nursing. Another exhibition about all the college’s presidents opens this month.

Pivotal figure

The RCN’s third general secretary, Dame Catherine Hall, remains a pivotal figure in its history. She served from 1957 until 1982 and under her tenure, membership was extended to include male nurses, enrolled nurses and students.

Dame Catherine Hall refused to accept paltry pay awards for nurses

Picture credit: Mike Wilkinson

Throughout her career, Dame Catherine was adamant that nurses be treated fairly and paid a just wage. She said: ‘It is immoral to use the job satisfaction which nurses derive as an excuse for getting their services on the cheap.’ During the ‘Raise the roof’ campaign of 1969/70 nurses demonstrated in Whitehall for better pay. They eventually secured a 22% pay rise.

The RCN became registered as a trade union in 1976, quickly becoming the largest outside the TUC. Dame Catherine described the move as ‘essential’.

In 1982, Dame Catherine’s successor Trevor Clay was pitched into the centre of a long and bitter pay dispute with the government. He proved to be a tough negotiator. He was also adept in his handling of the press and developed a high media profile. The eventual outcome was an improved pay offer, alongside the establishment of the independent NHS Pay Review Body.

During his time in office, Mr Clay introduced the RCN to cross-party campaigning and appointed the first RCN parliamentary officers. Mr Clay retired after seven years due to ill-health, saying this was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make.

His successor, Christine Hancock, served until 2001. In 1992, a private members’ bill led to the primary legislation that allowed nurses to prescribe for the first time, some 14 years after the first report that advocated nurse prescribing. Since then, powers have been gradually extended.

In 1999, Ms Hancock described nurse prescribing as ‘common sense’ adding: ‘In many cases, nurses are the experts in the management of conditions such as diabetes and asthma.’

More recent campaigns include ‘Dignity at the heart of everything we do’. Launched in 2008, it came after a survey suggested more than eight out of ten nurses felt upset or distressed at not being able to give the dignified care they knew they should. The campaign lobbied for changes in the culture and practice of heath services.

‘Trade union work focuses on building a positive working environment for staff’

In 2012, the campaign ‘This is nursing’ aimed to show the day-to-day realities of the profession, with advertisements on 1,000 buses across the UK, a specially commissioned film and a website.

The then chief executive and general secretary, Peter Carter, said: ‘It’s time to celebrate the outstanding work nurses do on a daily basis, often in extremely difficult situations.’

Dual role

The RCN appointed Janet Davies as its new chief executive and general secretary in June 2015. Formerly the college’s director of nursing and service delivery, she said: ‘I’ve been an RCN member for more than 20 years and have been proud to work for an organisation that does so much to promote nursing and high quality patient care.’

In his 2013 report on the grave failings in patient care at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, Robert Francis QC suggested the RCN consider splitting formally its trade union and professional body functions. He had been critical of the RCN’s response to the scandal at Stafford Hospital.

In its response, the RCN argued against a decoupling of its functions, saying it was stronger as one organisation: ‘Trade union work is not simply consigned to fighting for better pay awards. Instead, it focuses on building a positive working environment for staff, and in health care that can have a direct impact on the quality of care delivered to patients.’

The issue was discussed at RCN Congress later that year, with 99% of delegates voting to retain the existing structure. The broad consensus was that the RCN is a more effective organisation because of its dual role.

One RCN member, Christopher Butler, said: ‘We have a long and proud history of balancing our respective roles. Dividing our voice will compromise our future’.

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