Nightingale’s true love left for Canada

Florence Nightingale never married, but the Lady of the Lamp did have a lasting love– with a Canadian connection.

In the 1830s, Nightingale and her cousin, the Reverend John Smithurst, fell in love while still in their teens. However, since they were first cousins, their parents forbade them to marry. Nightingale is reputed to have told her cousin, “John, I would like you to be a missionary to the Indians in North America.”

Smithurst went to Lord Selkirk’s Red River Settlement, now Winnipeg, Manitoba. After 12 years, he returned to England still hoping to marry Florence, but the two families had not changed their minds.

A year later, Smithurst returned to Upper Canada as rector of St. John’s the Evangelist (Anglican) church in the picturesque Ontario village of Elora.  Florence made it known that if she couldn’t marry Smithurst she’d marry no one, and devoted herself to the study and practice of nursing.

Never met again
The two star-crossed lovers were never to meet again.

In 1852, before leaving for the Crimea with her band of nurses, Florence sent her lost love a silver communion service. On the underside of the pat is an engraved inscription in Latin, which says, in part: “To Reverend John Smithurst, a very dear friend, in grateful recognition of his many kindnesses. AD 1852.”

Shortly after the Crimean War ended, Smithurst retired to a farm near Minto, Ontario, which he named “Lea Hurst” after the Nightingale home in Derbyshire. He died in Elora in 1867. Florence lived until 1910. Neither ever married.

The communion service has been on display at St. John’s Church ever since, except for a month in 1991 when it was stolen, then subsequently recovered.

“We don’t use it now,” says Canon Robert Hulse, rector at St. John’s. “It’s locked in a velvet-lined glass vault for everyone to see, but not touch.”