Sister Janet Wells: the ‘Florence Nightingale’ of the Zulu War

Adrian Greaves reports on a Victorian nurse who served in the Russo-Turkish and Zulu Wars – earning both an Imperial Red Cross from Russia and a Royal Red Cross from Britain.


The profession of nursing, as we know it today, was relatively new. During the early 1870s, the idea of young women of respectable background becoming nurses became more socially acceptable.

Training hospitals and the Red Cross began to attract a growing number of dedicated, unattached women who could gain fulfilment by doing something that was both ‘feminine’ and worthwhile – though conditions were austere, working hours long, and the training strict.

Opposite The Zulu War wounded arrive at the British military hospital at Utrecht in Natal [main image]. There was a lone nurse on duty: the 19-year-old Sister Janet Wells [inset]. right A wartime sketch of Sister Wells at work during the Zulu War.
The Zulu War wounded arrive at the British military hospital at Utrecht in Natal. There was a lone nurse on duty: the 19-year-old Sister Janet Wells.

One of these fledgling nurses – Janet Wells, aged 18 years – was to have a remarkably tough baptism of fire, from which she would emerge as one of the nursing heroines of the late Victorian era.

Like other young ladies of her class, Janet Wells kept a scrapbook of ephemera – newspaper clippings, photographs, sketches, and pressed flowers – that chronicled her life on the battlefields like an illustrated diary.

What emerges from these pages and other contemporary material is the life of a young woman whose bravery, stamina, and dedication to nursing caused her to be hailed, at the end of her all-too-short life, an early nursing heroine to rank alongside Florence Nightingale.

There was a lone nurse on duty: the 19-year-old Sister Janet Wells.

During her nursing career, when she saw action in two wars although still a teenager, she undertook major surgery, cared for thousands of wounded, fell in love, and yet retained her gaiety, charm, and professionalism. She mixed with soldiers, generals, and royalty with equal ease. She became known as an ‘angel of mercy’ to many whose lives she saved.

A life in nursing

Wells was born in 1859 at Maida Vale in north London to a noted musician and his wife, Benjamin and Elizabeth Wells. She was the second of five daughters and three sons. In November 1876, aged 17, she entered the new profession of nursing, joining the Training School of the Evangelical Protestant Deaconesses Institution as a trainee war nurse.

Wells was sent to the Balkans to assist Russian army medical teams in the winter of the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. In mid 1879, she returned to England, but immediately put in a request to go to South Africa.

She was then sent more than 200 miles across wild countryside to take control of the most-distant British army medical post, at Utrecht in Zululand, to care for sick and injured soldiers and Zulus.

A wartime sketch of Sister Wells at work during the Zulu War.

Following the declaration of peace, she visited many of the famous battlefields, including Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. She also met and successfully treated King Cetshwayo, then a prisoner of the British at Cape Town. On 28 October 1879, she departed from Cape Town for her return to England, fully intending to continue her nursing career.

In 1880, she met George King, an up-and-coming young London journalist, soon to become the distinguished editor of The Globe newspaper. They married in May 1882, and she later had two daughters, Elsie and Daisy.

Janet Wells was widely recognised for her work: she received the Russian Imperial Order of the Red Cross for assisting the Russians in the Balkans, the South African Campaign medal for her participation in the Zulu War, and, on Queen Victoria’s command, the new Royal Red Cross decoration for ‘the special devotion and competency which you have displayed in your nursing duties with Her Majesty’s Troops’. Initially, the Royal Red Cross was regarded as the nursing equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Sister Wells RRC was invited to the state funeral.

Wells herself died of cancer on the 6 June 1911, at the age of just 53.

The Anglo-Zulu War

Wells’s time in South Africa, one of only six Stafford House nurses, is especially interesting, as she was the only nurse to get as far as Utrecht, in the north of the British-controlled area of Natal. In July 1879, the battle-weary British forces at Utrecht received her very warmly. She was lodged with the only English family in the hamlet.

The arrival of a pretty 19-year-old nurse caused an understandable stir, and the length of the daily sick parade multiplied into a column of soldiers with sudden ‘headaches’ and ‘tummy upsets’.

During the evenings she often sat with the seriously ill patients and quietly read requested passages from the Bible. The not-so-ill patients would also try to persuade her to sit and read to them, but it was definitely not Bible stories they were interested in.

Despite the recent defeat of the Zulus at Ulundi, the hospital was still full of soldiers suffering from battle wounds and a variety of medical conditions. These men had been fighting during the hot, rainy summer months; many had been affected by dehydration and heat exhaustion, made worse by unsuitable uniforms.

Blisters caused by marching in heavy steel-shod boots affected the efficiency of just about every soldier, and blisters frequently became infected. Wells and her orderlies regularly deroofed the blisters, and cleansed and dressed their suppurating sores with salt.

Soldiers were amused by Wells’s cure for the fungal disease (‘athlete’s foot’) that affected their feet, a scourge of soldiers campaigning in hot climates. She instructed them to urinate in their boots each evening, then let the boots dry out overnight. Wells knew urine contained an agent (urea) that would kill off the fungus; to the soldiers, it seemed a miracle cure.

An admirer’s view of Sister Wells at work in the British military hospital at Utrecht. This drawing was pasted into her scrapbook.

Marching through torrential rainstorms, wading across swollen streams, and sleeping in wet clothes led to an enormous increase in the number of soldiers suffering from rheumatism, for which there was no treatment; many men were crippled and discharged as ‘medically unfit’.

Poor human material

When recruited, the average British soldier was not a physically impressive specimen. Despite the Cardwell Reforms – designed, among other things, to improve soldiers’ condition – the standard of recruits continued to fall.

The average height for a soldier was 5 feet 8 inches in 1870, which had dropped to 5 feet 4 inches by the outbreak of the Zulu War in 1879. The poor physical condition of many of these men resulted from the grinding working-class poverty of Victorian Britain, and it left them prey to tropical disease.

Common day-to-day illnesses that afflicted British soldiers included influenza, which, if it developed into pneumonia, could be fatal. The only treatment available for bacterial or viral pneumonia was excellent nursing care and the application of a native plant, the khathazo, which was found to be useful in treating both influenza and pneumonia, acting as an expectorant that eased lung congestion.

Wells experimented with other local remedies, too, treating severe sunburn, for example, with a generous application of the juice of the local aloe plant.

She not only had to look after the camp hospital, but was also required to ride out to the outlying camps, often inside Zululand, to attend the sick and wounded.

On one occasion, a scout had raced to the hospital with the news that marauding Zulus had attacked his patrol and there were several severe casualties in a cave near the Ntombe River. Though no doctors were available to go with her, Wells packed a medical kit and, with an orderly and an armed escort, set out to help.

Several anxious faces greeted them as they rode up to the cave. Most of the wounds were superficial and not immediately life-threatening. The orderly cleansed and dressed the wounds, while Wells attended to the one severely injured soldier.

A few hours later, a relief party arrived from the hospital with a cart, and Wells was able to transfer her wounded soldiers to the safety of the hospital.

Press notice

On one occasion, Wells and her guide, already late returning to camp, realised that a party of possibly hostile Zulus were resting between them and the camp. Unnoticed by the Zulus, Wells and her guide were forced to hide in the bush.

They curled up in a donga (a dry, deep riverbed) full of rough scrub and large rocks. By the following dawn, the Zulus had already moved away, and Wells and her guide were able to continue on their rounds.

With her cheerful efficiency, Sister Wells became a firm favourite with her patients. She was generally and affectionately referred to as ‘Little Sister’. She also enjoyed attending the officers’ mess for dinner and was filled with pride and pleasure when every officer rose to his feet as she entered. In fact, it took no time at all for the pretty young nurse to overcome any resentment that may have lingered about civilians being foisted on the military.

The Daily Telegraph correspondent took up her Utrecht story when he made his report, no doubt to the delight of Sister Wells’s family back in England. He wrote that

After the parade of 11 September, of the 24th Regiment, at which the Commander-in-Chief [Garnet Wolseley] affixed the Victoria Cross to the breasts of Major Bromhead and Private Jones for their share in the defence of Rorke’s Drift, his Excellency visited the hospital, and made a minute examination of the condition of the patients, at the close of which he expressed his satisfaction to the medical officers (Somerford and Fitzmaurice) in charge, and exchanged a few words with Sister Wells of the Stafford House Committee, whose care and attention to the sick are well worthy of notice, and have been gratefully appreciated by those among whom she has been ministering. 

Wolseley was not just being encouragingly polite. Sister Wells had become something of a local celebrity in a region conspicuously lacking in women. Her no-nonsense dedication, coupled with her strong religious principles, had gained her much respect, and there were no instances of her being propositioned or molested.

When Wolseley planned a campaign against the Swazi chief Sekhukhune on the Transvaal frontier, he especially asked Sister Wells to travel to Standerton and accompany the expedition. In the event, the weather intervened and the expedition was postponed until the end of the year.

above This painting by Wells herself was titled ‘Our Mess Hut at Rorke’s Drift’.
This painting by Wells herself was titled ‘Our Mess Hut at Rorke’s Drift’.

Rorke’s Drift

Sister Wells’s work was not yet complete. She was instructed to visit the small British outpost at Rorke’s Drift, scene of the now-famous battle; the fort was on her route back to Durban, and no doctor had visited the reduced Rorke’s Drift garrison for many weeks.

Wells was soon busy. Within a few days of arriving at Rorke’s Drift, she had managed to examine all the 35 British soldiers at the outpost. Most were in rude health, though the majority suffered from abrasions and sores. The ubiquitous stomach problems that had bugged the whole invasion force from its outset were still the main medical problem.

One of her first acts was to demand that the fort’s daily drinking water was collected upstream from the river and then boiled. Under her direction, cooking utensils and cutlery were sterilised by boiling after each meal. Within days, the men’s health improved.

A laundry was also set up to wash the soldiers’ bed linen, under-clothing, and shirts. Eight sick men suffering from ‘fever’ were confined to two tents outside the small fort so as not to spread infection further.

As she expected, her arrival had a noticeable effect on the men that included a daily queue of curious soldiers suddenly possessed of a variety of non-life-threatening complaints that included septic blisters and incomprehensible ‘headaches and sprains’.

The young nurse’s straightforward approach was noticeably effective as, within days, she managed to get most of the sick men on their feet and fit enough to resume their duties.

The sight of the young English nurse flitting between her nearby hut and the fort also worked wonders for morale. Even the two remaining fever cases responded well to her treatment. Both were soon able to eat solid food and gain their feet.

Wells also demanded a complete ‘tidy up’ of the fort area and all litter was burned. With the fort less of a health hazard, and with the men taking a modicum of pride in their appearance, she turned her attention to the immediate area around the fort, before departing for Durban and her ship home.

Sister Wells returned to England to much press acclaim. •

Adrian Greaves is a retired police superintendent, a battlefield guide, and a prolific author of military history specialising in the Anglo-Zulu War. His best-selling books are Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana, and Forgotten Battles of the Zulu War.