A century after her death in August 1910, interest in Florence Nightingale, surely Hampshire’s most famous woman, is as strong as ever.
Florence Nightingale was born, in Tuscany, at Villa Colombaia, in the city after which she was named, on 12 May 1820. She was the second daughter of William Edward and Frances Nightingale, who had married in 1818 before departing upon a protracted honeymoon tour of Europe. Their elder daughter, Frances Parthenope, had been born in 1819 in Naples (Parthenope was its Greek name). Whilst she was to be known in the immediate family as Parthe or Pop, Florence was equally predictably saddled with Flo’.
Florence’s father was actually born William Edward Shore (1794-1874). He came from a relatively prosperous Sheffield banking family. As a young man he spent time at both Trinity College, Cambridge and Edinburgh University. In 1815 on the death of a great uncle, he succeeded to a fortune, equivalent in today’s values, to several million pounds. He duly took the Nightingale name by royal sign manual. Three years later he married Frances Smith (1788-1880), the fourth of the ten surviving children of William Smith, M.P. for Norwich, of Parndon Hall in Essex.
Though Florence was eventually to outshine both her parents and sister, they were more influential or distinguished than is generally recognised. Parthe, for example, was to work selflessly on Florence’s behalf in the wake of her Crimean fame. In 1858 she married Sir Harry Verney of Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. As Lady Verney, until her death in 1890, she wrote five novels as well as essays on social and religious questions.
Embley was the main Nightingale home after 1825, though the family continued to spend the summer months at Lea Hurst in Derbyshire and shorter periods at rented addresses in London. Their existence was essentially a peripatetic one as they did the unending round of visits to friends and relations.
Florence is sometimes said by her biographers to have been unhappy at Embley. This is by no means true of the young girl, though her letters do betray a precocious, even bossy, temperament. Before the age of ten, she was conscientious in her studies in poetry, French and religious studies, but it is equally clear that she also enjoyed playing and devising word games, music and needlework.
Florence was tutored largely by her father in his library from about 1831, an enlightened approach which was to hone her mind far more than was common amongst young women. What William Nightingale did not bargain for was that his younger daughter, unlike himself, was not content with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake: it had to be put to some practical good. Specifically, as Florence later recorded, “On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service.” Local oral tradition has it that she was under one of the cedars of Lebanon at the time: far more probably she was in her second floor bedroom.
From September 1837 until April 1839, the family was on an extended European tour whilst Embley was refurbished and extended. Florence was initially and generally pleased with her father’s creation, but the brilliant, overwhelmingly male, gatherings which assembled in its Drawing Room in the early 1840s, stimulated in her only mounting frustration and resentment. Determined now to nurse, and reading voraciously to facilitate it, her parents, aghast, tried unsuccessfully to divert her by sanctioning extended trips to Rome (1847-8), Germany, Egypt and Greece (1849-50). It was in Athens that she acquired her pet owl, Athena, in 1850. At last, in 1853, William Nightingale granted Florence an allowance of £500 a year, and in August she was appointed Superintendant at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London. Effectively, Embley now ceased to be her home.