Nellie Brennan – A Manx Heroine

Eleanor (better known as Nellie or Nelly) Brennan was the daughter of a laundress in Douglas whose sailor husband had died at sea a month before Nellie was born.  

Growing up, Nellie helped her mother in laundering and pressing clothes but when Nellie was 16, her mother died and so she carried on the business herself.

Nellie became a dedicated Christian who tried to reflect her faith in the way she went about her daily life.

In 1832 a Cholera epidemic hit the Isle of Man.  The worst-affected area was Douglas. The poor lived clustered around the Quay, Strand Street, and Lord Street – the area known today as Lower Douglas. In fact, it was so cramped that the area around Barrack Street was known as “Little Hell.”  The poor lived in small houses, often with more than one family to a house.  These back-to-back houses had very poor sanitation, often there was only one toilet to every forty or fifty people.

In 1830s Douglas there were very few doctors and even fewer nurses.  Poor people generally did not have access to medicine as it was necessary to pay for doctors, medical treatment and nursing. Nellie believed it was her duty to God to help the sick.  She was “dedicated to the sick, never hesitating to visit homes which were often ones of overcrowding, filth and squalor” and she did so for no payment.

Nellie became a Manx heroine during the cholera epidemic – ministering to the poor when nobody else would. She showed no fear and bravely nursed those with cholera. Nellie was a strict yet loving woman who made daily visits to the cholera hospital to minister the sick. She “won the hearts and respect of doctors of the poor, and the not so poor.”  This quote is from Labours of Love, the Nellie Brennan story – a book written by Bellanne Stowell about Nellie’s work.  Nursing during the cholera outbreak was not Nellie’s only work – she continued to nurse the sick through eight smallpox outbreaks, and a typhus epidemic in 1837.

In 1834 Nellie had been made laundress of the Castle Mona hotel, but gave this up by 1837 and moved to Shaw’s Brow, where she ran a lodging house. In 1840 she became matron of the new free-to-the-poor dispensary (chemist) in Strand Street (on the present site of Boots Opticians).  The dispensary also had two beds. 

In 1850 a hospital was added to the dispensary; she took on responsibility as matron of that as well.

Nellie had bought a plot of land in 1848 and had a house built for herself.  It was called Wesley Cottage, showing her strong Methodist Christianity.  The house is still there, now 3 Willow Terrace, off Rosemount in Douglas.

It is remarkable to think that despite her achievements, Nellie was unable to read and write .

Nellie was very popular both in her own time and after her death.  Her gravestone in St George’s churchyard – on the other side of the church to the Cholera mass grave – bears a memorial from the Society of Nurses.  A service is held in St George’s Church and a wreath is laid at the grave by the Island’s nurses every January.  There have been six books written about Nellie Brennan. The literature that exists about Nellie has helped to make her probably the most famous woman in Manx history!

Thanks to Culture Vannin for providing us with this info. Culture Vannin have a whole load of information in their archives about Manx legends like Nellie, as well as Manx history in general. If you found this interesting be sure to check out their website!

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