The mound-unmarked and common graves.
Photo by Leslee Barron-digital artist

Life story retold by Jan Clark

Dorcas Kimber was 57 years old in 1881 and working as a ward servant in the Royal Berkshire Hospital. She was one of six women employed in this role, their ages ranging from 19 to 66. Dorcas was the only one who was not born in Reading. She came from Easton Royal, a village in the Vale of Pewsey near Marlborough. She had a sister, Sarah, who was working as a servant for Abram Jordan, who lived in the almshouses in Castle Street. How the sisters came to Reading in their late middle age is not known.

At the time that Dorcas was working at the hospital there were also eighteen nurses supervised by the matron, Annie Barker and the housekeeper, Ann Fry. The servants were probably paid between £12 and £15 per annum plus their board and lodging and a uniform – approximately 5 shillings a week. (The equivalent is £1500-£1900 per annum today.)

In the hospital were 53 female patients. Of the single women, many were domestic servants, kitchen maids, nursemaids and cooks. At a time when outbreaks of infectious diseases were common, wealthier people were usually treated at home but may have paid a subscription to the hospital to enable them to send their employees there for treatment if they were sick, to get them away from the house and its occupants.

The married women patients were the wives of men working as farm labourers, carpenters, bricklayers, chimney sweeps and in the biscuit factory.

For all these women, illness must have caused difficulties both practically and economically, if not the threat of very real hardship for them or for their families.

The history of the development of nursing during the nineteenth and twentieth century has been written. However, little is known about the women like Dorcas who supported the nurses in their work on the wards. There are newspaper reports of ward servants contracting scarlet fever or typhus while on duty with fatal results.

During the recent pandemic, the courage and the dedication of nursing and medical staff was extensively documented. Far less was written about the hospital cleaners, the porters, the catering staff and others who kept the hospitals functioning despite the constant threat from Covid-19.

In her role, Dorcas contributed to the running of the Royal Berkshire Hospital, one of the anonymous and forgotten women who worked to survive. At some point after 1881 her employment came to an end, either through illness or for some other reason, and without her job she lost not only an income but also a place to live. Her life ended in the workhouse where she died aged 65. She was given a pauper’s burial in the cemetery on 8 March 1889 – one hundred and thirty three years ago today (2022) – International Women’s Day.

Buried in Section 25, mound