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About the Royal Red Cross

The Royal Red Cross is one of the very earliest awards from Queen Victoria's reign.

At the time of the first Anglo-Boer War of 1880-81 Queen Victoria was appalled that British army nurses had been killed during the fighting. She was concerned, too, that no official decoration existed to reward women who showed exceptional service and dedication in nursing sick and wounded servicemen, whether at home or abroad. She therefore persuaded her prime minister, W.E. Gladstone, to establish such an award.  

The Royal Red Cross (RRC) was formally instituted on St George's Day in 1883. The Cross could be conferred on women within the nursing profession regardless of their rank, though most awards went to those who served in senior grades between ‘acting sister' and ‘matron-in-chief'.   

Nurses and heroines

Florence Nightingale was one of the first recipients of the Royal Red Cross. By the 1880s ‘Nightingale nurses' had become matrons in several leading British hospitals. One of these, who also received the RRC in May 1883, was Mrs Janet Deeble, the Lady Superintendent of Nurses at the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, near Southampton. Netley was the first military hospital built in the UK, and with 138 wards was the largest military hospital in the world. Other early recipients were recognised for their work in Zululand, Egypt, the Transvaal, Cyprus and India.

First World War

One of the foremost organisers of the wartime nursing services was Miss (later Dame) Sarah Swift (1854-1937). Miss Swift was matron-in-chief of a 6000-strong military nursing staff, but soon recognised the need to standardise the disorganised state of nurses' training. In 1916 she co-ordinated the establishment of the College (later Royal College) of Nursing, and for this vital work was awarded the RRC the same year.

Modern times

Today the RRC and ARRC (‘Associates' Royal Red Cross introduced in 1915) continue to be awarded to medical personnel in the armed forces. Since 1976 men have also been eligible for the decoration, and recent awards have included men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.