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Villa Sans Souci
A Victorian Era Historical Fiction
By Maryann Ring Spencer Posted in Fiction 11 min read
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Villa Sans Souci

by Maryann Ring Spencer

available on Amazon


1856, Balmoral

When they arrived in the port of Dover, it was crowded with ships, some of which needed repairs. The area smelled strongly of sulphur from the smelting activities. A coachman and one of the Queen’s messengers were waiting for them. On their faces, their weariness from the journey, the restless nights, and what they had experienced at Scutari were evident. Their memories of the hell they had witnessed in the Crimea were still vivid. Both felt haunted and pursued by things that happened right in front of them. After all this hardship, it was now their responsibility to inform the Queen of these self-evident truths.  The testimony of Florence and Dr Pisani would confirm that the hospital systems were to blame for the high death rate.

They had a long journey from Dover to Birk Hall. To continue the journey, the coachman had to stop at inns to relax and change horses.  Florence and Dr Pisani, on the other hand, delved into their reports, statistics, and correspondence during each stop to ensure that everything was prepared to be presented to the Queen.

Along the way, they would discuss whether to include more notes in their reports; the plan was clear: they would request the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate the sanitary condition, administration, and organisation of barracks and military hospitals, as well as the organisation, education, and administration of the Army Medical Division.

Colonel Tulloch was to join Dr Pisani and Florence at Sir John McNeill’s home in Edinburgh where they were to stay first. For some time, Florence and Dr Pisani worked in the Crimea with Sir John McNeill, a surgeon, and Colonel Alexander Tulloch, a great War Office administrator who served as the regiment’s captain. They both reported on the setup and administration of the commissariat, the method of keeping accounts, and the reasons behind the delays in unloading and distributing clothing and other stores items sent to Balaklava. Therefore, it was crucial that they all get together before the meeting with the Queen to go through everything that will be presented.

A couple of days later, Florence and Dr Pisani left Edinburgh for Birk Hall, the Highland home of Florence’s longtime friend Sir James Clark.  As a highly respected physician, Sir James Clark was chosen to serve as the Queen and Prince Albert’s Physician-in-Ordinary in 1840, as soon as the Queen ascended to the throne. He was appointed the monarch’s closest medical counsellor. Florence and Dr Pisani once more discussed the presentation to the Queen with Sir James Clark.

They spent two days going over each note and report, the statistics, and the ideas being proposed.  Florence did receive some advice from Sir James regarding the presentation, and he also reminded them of proper protocol when they would meet the Queen.

Sir James Clark escorted Florence and Dr Pisani to Balmoral, in the quiet, tranquil valley of the River Dee in the foothills of the Grampian Mountains, for an afternoon conversation with the Queen and the Prince. In the breathtakingly luxurious drawing room, which was adorned with paintings from bygone centuries, everyone was welcomed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a charming couple who were already parents to eight children and two months pregnant.

‘Your Majesty,’ said Florence, bowing her head and curtsying.

Dr Pisani followed them, and they all sat down at the dark-oak dining room table. There, they spread out documents containing information about the hospitals’ structures, notes, statistics, and financial reports.

‘So, what am I to be aware of? Please explain thoroughly what these papers tell,’ uttered the Queen to Florence and to Dr Pisani.

With complete openness, Florence started outlining the statistics and reports on the operations, infrastructure, and systems of the hospital.

This informal meeting lasted more than three hours and was a great success. Florence won the monarch’s admiration. She had laid out all the flaws in the military medical systems as well as the necessary improvements.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were so impressed by Florence and Dr Pisani that they were summoned to Balmoral on two other separate occasions while staying at Sir James Clark’s mansion. They engaged in a wide range of conversation topics, including war, religion, metaphysics, and the pregnancy of the Queen. A friendly, trusting relationship grew. Dr Pisani and Sir James Clark were given permission to question Her Majesty on the pregnancy’s progress. Dr Pisani felt extremely honoured by this.

In addition, the Queen paid secret visits to Sir James Clark’s home. In the early afternoon, Florence spotted the Queen approaching in her little pony carriage. The monarch invited Florence on walks and afternoon tea conversations. Her bravery won the Queen’s heart.

This was only the beginning, though.  They realised that the Queen, in her position of authority, could only listen and accept, but she couldn’t act. They required the Ministers of the Crown to begin taking action on these ideas and proceed forward.

As it turned out, Lord Panmure was expected at Balmoral. He acquired the nickname of ‘the Bison’ due to his large head, which was covered with dense hair and which he tended to rock from side to side. During the final stages of the Crimean War, Lord Panmure served as the Secretary of State for War. He received harsh criticism for essentially doing nothing. His motto was ‘don’t initiate any action, so no consequences arise.’ Procrastination was his idol. This stolid Scottish nobleman was not someone who would easily be pushed. He was more than willing to accept the need for reform ‘in principle,’ but he lacked any internal driving factors and needed to be physically prodded into action. It was therefore an uphill struggle to overcome Panmure’s procrastination, but the Queen persisted, and she wrote to let him know that they would be meeting in Balmoral. Colonel Tulloch, Sir James Clark, and Sir Sidney Herbert all had doubts about Lord Panmure’s decision to adopt Florence’s suggestions. The meeting was scheduled for October.

Nonetheless, Dr Pisani couldn’t stay in the Highlands until October since Sir William Reid had notified him that his services were urgently required in Malta. During his last informal dinner with the Queen, Dr Pisani presented her with a gold filigree cross of the Knights of St. John as a token of his deep gratitude. It was a touching and unforgettable emotion to be a part of this outstanding initiative for all these health improvements that, hopefully, will be implemented not only in British military and non-military hospitals, but also around the world. In fact, Dr Pisani promised the Queen that once the Royal Commission gets underway, he will make it a priority to ensure that its changes are implemented in the Maltese health sector as well.

Dr Pisani yearned to go back to the Maltese Islands so he could carry out his work mission there. Florence agreed to write to him and notify him of the outcome with Lord Panmure. It was an emotional departure; the proposals they had made so far in the health sector were incredible accomplishments, but the meeting with Lord Panmure would be a watershed moment for what was to come.

The conversation with Lord Panmure took place at Balmoral on the fifth of October. The Queen, Prince Albert, Sir James Clark, and Florence were all present and seated around the table in the drawing room. ‘Lord Panmure.’

‘Your Majesty,’ Lord Panmure said, bowing his massive hair head.

‘I must clarify that the status of our hospitals is impracticable at the moment. Drunken staff members, prostitution, filth, sewage, filthy conditions, a lack of medical supplies, and other deficiencies should all be a thing of the past.’

‘Ma’am, I understand all of this.’

‘I anticipate that you will begin providing me with comprehensive briefings on the hygienic status and general condition of our hospitals in your capacity as Secretary of State of War. The findings of your inspection and opinions, as well as a list of everything that must be done, whether in the form of arrangement, a decrease in the number of patients in the wards, cleaning, disinfecting, or actual construction, in order to secure the major goals of safety and health, must be laid before Lord William Paulet, Admiral Grey, or Lord Raglan, as the case may be, or such individuals as may be appointed by them to that special duty, as soon as possible.’

‘I understand that my responsibility is to succinctly state whatever you believe will contribute to the preservation of health and life and to firmly recommend that it be adopted by the authorities.’

‘There is no more time to be wasted; you may postpone providing me with reports for now and instead provide me with a list of the immediate tasks that need to be completed. You will receive Florence’s statistics and reports so that you may better comprehend the urgent problems that require your attention.’

‘Yes, Ma’am, I will start working right away to address the urgent priorities, remove the inconsistencies, and adhere to the standards. Due to Florence’s extraordinary success, it was decided that the Royal Commission would be established by experts in the health field who had been given the go-ahead to implement the guidelines and regulations that Florence had established.’

Lord Panmure paid Florence a discreet visit in the late evening of that same day, while she was packing her bag to depart Birk Hall by morning. She was given the opportunity to address a report to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. The first general military hospital was also being built, and Lord Panmure pledged to send her the designs. He also encouraged her to make observations and said he would be happy to make any additional improvements she requested.

All in all, this was a victory for Florence. The incredibly laborious job finally appeared to be paying off. She boarded a hansom cab the following morning to travel south on her own. Her mind was racing with ideas, and her sleepiness had shown itself to the point that it was exhausting for her to clasp her fingers around a pen to write, despite the fact that putting pen to paper in a driven carriage was not an easy chore. Florence did, however, manage to jot down the names of those who would make up the Royal Commission. She had compiled a balanced list of commissioners, civilians, and military personnel. Leading sanitary authorities, surgeons, medical professionals, service members with experience in army welfare work, a pioneer in the field of statistics, and herself were all on the list.

Setting up this Royal Commission still required a lot of work. It was difficult to expect these people to devote their time to a commission that required many additional hours of work on top of their regular jobs. All of them needed to be persuaded to give their consent and share their information, as well as gain knowledge about the reforms that some of them were still unaware of and their significance.

During her travels, Florence continued working to set up the commission. She wasted no time. She understood she had taken a significant stride forward in the health sector in words, but there was still much work to be done to turn those words into action. Florence continued to push forward with her plans.

When she finally arrived at the Embley mansion, she was greeted by her parents and sister. Florence, exhausted and falling into her father’s arms, exclaimed that she was pleased with the reforms she was instilling in the minds of the leaders and authorities.

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