Annabella Ralph

Annabella Ralph

Annabella Ralph, born Rothes, 13 July 1884; died Aberdeen, 28 June 1962.

Bella Ralph served in both world wars. She retired as Matron-in-chief of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service.

Bella, as she was known, was the eldest child of Jessie and Alexander Ralph. She was born at the family home in Old Street, Rothes. Bella’s father took work where he could get it, from railway carter to coppersmith’s labourer. The family grew rapidly; Bella had a least six siblings. They moved from Rothes to Alves, Duffus and Hopeman before returning to Rothes. They eventually settled at Easter Elchies Gardens, Craigellachie.

In 1906 she applied to The Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen, to train as a nurse. This seems a bold move for a girl who had had a disrupted education as the family were continually on the move. Annabella Ralph was accepted and spent three years at Woolmanhill, qualifying in 1909. She took a position as a private nurse at the Royal Northern Nursing Home in Aberdeen a year later. She did not receive official recognition of her achievements until 1923.

The contribution made by British nurses during the Boer War was recognized with the formation of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1902. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, 297 trained nurses had enrolled; Nurse Ralph was one of those; she enlisted on the first day of war, 4 August. She must have acquitted herself well at the interview. It was an exclusive service with all applicants required to be well educated, to have trained at War Office approved hospitals and be of impeccable social standing. Recruiting problems led to some relaxation of the rules but the insistence on the women being ‘well bred’ was strongly adhered to. It was felt they needed this social status to enable them to give orders to orderlies and sergeants.

Nurse Ralph served in most of the home naval hospitals and many hospital ships. She was posted to Malta in 1915. The island was known as the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’ because so many sick and wounded troops were sent there. Annabella was head sister on the St Margaret of Scotland for two years. This hospital ship was unusual in that all the staff including doctors, nurses and orderlies were Scottish. A flag day throughout Scotland raised £22,000 to equip her. These ships were painted in distinctive colours with red crosses prominently displayed to avoid attack. Despite this they were vulnerable. Hospital ships were mined or torpedoed fairly often; three were sunk in November 1916.

Annabella was posted to Hong Kong in 1917 where she was superintendent sister at the 200 bed military hospital in Bowen Road, Kowloon.

With grateful thanks to the contributors to, and editors of, Women of Moray: a celebration of the women of Moray and their contribution to history (Luath Press: Edinburgh, 2012)

Annabella Ralph
Annabella Ralph (Royal College of Nursing)