Lives Remembered

Kathleen Robb: Last Matron of Royal Victoria Hospital made huge contribution to nursing

Kathleen Robb was the last Matron of the Royal Victoria Hospital

KATHLEEN Robb was the last Matron of Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital and went on to steer nursing services across the city during the height of the Troubles.

She has been described as one of the most outstanding and notable nurses that Northern Ireland has produced.

Born in Belfast in 1923, Mary Kathleen Robb began her nursing career in 1941.

Starting in the Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, because she was considered too young for general nursing, she later moved to the Royal Victoria Hospital to complete her training.

Following further training at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, and obtaining her midwifery qualification at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, in 1960 Miss Robb was appointed Matron of the City and Tower Hill Hospitals in Armagh.

Four years later, as Nurse Planning Officer, she joined the capital works team developing plans for the Royal Victoria Hospital site.

This was a departure: previously in Northern Ireland a nurse had not been directly involved in planning at that level.

The ‘Royal’ would be her professional home for the rest of her life: her devotion to the hospital and its nurses was profound.

In 1966 Miss Robb was appointed Matron of the Falls Road hospital, the last person to hold this prestigious post.

It was abolished in 1973 following a reorganisation of health and social care services and she was given wider duties as the District Administrative Nursing Officer for north and west Belfast.

This brought her responsibility not only for all hospitals in the area (including those on the Royal and Mater Infirmorum hospital sites) but also community nursing services in one of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland.

During the Troubles the Royal Victoria Hospital was not only a major centre for the treatment of victims, but it was frequently quite literally in the front line.

It is a tribute to Miss Robb’s professional commitment and leadership qualities that, in spite of the circumstances, standards of nursing care and of staff morale were maintained at a high level.

Her personal contribution was recognised in 1970 when she was created Officer Sister of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1973 when she was awarded the OBE.

Miss Robb was committed to ensuring that nursing made a full contribution to the planning and management of health and social care services at all levels, something that is now taken for granted.

During the reorganisation of the 1970s, however, she had to fight to make certain that this was achieved.

She herself played a major role in the profession beyond the immediate requirements of her posts.

She served on a range of official administrative and advisory bodies, including the Northern Ireland Council for Nurses and Midwives.

She was also a strong supporter of the Royal College of Nursing and was a board member for 20 years.

In 1977 her contribution to the RCN and to nursing more generally was recognised in the award of Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, the highest honour the college can bestow.

In 2003 Miss Robb was also given the RCN Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2016, she was centre stage when nurses were given the Freedom of the City of Belfast in recognition of their service during the difficult days of the Troubles.

Kathleen Robb was centre stage when the nurses of Belfast were awarded the freedom of the city in 2016. Pictured with her are former lord mayor Arder Carson and nursing leaders Fiona Devlin and Janice Smyth

Miss Robb was active outside the nursing sphere, supporting many community causes. For example she was on the board of Cooperation North (now Cooperation Ireland).

The daughter of a prominent Methodist family, she was governor of Methodist College Belfast from 1989-99 and an active member of the Methodist congregation at Knock, Belfast.

Although as a senior nurse Miss Robb had needed to show steeliness and determination, both in her public and private life she was noted for her loyalty, her kindness, her consideration and her generosity.

She had a great capacity to remember names and faces and was never happier than when bringing people together, socially and professionally.

She was devoted to her family and was like a second mother to her sister’s children who lived with her at different times when they were being educated in Northern Ireland away from their home in Canada.

Kathleen Robb died at the age of 97 on November 7.

She is survived by her sister Helen, nieces and nephews.

Brian White

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Lives Remembered