The Sick Berth Branch of the Royal Navy is said to have originated in 1833 when an Admiralty Order in Council was issued to Commanding Officers to organize a “Sick Berth Attendant” category of naval rating in ships of 5th rate and upwards. They received no formal medical training and it was not until June 1883 that a Committee, known as the Hoskins Committee, after its Chairman, Rear Admiral A. H. Hoskins was formed to enquire into the organization and training of the Sick Berth and Nursing Staff of the Royal Navy Hospitals. The Committee, after visiting Naval and Military Hospitals as well as the larger London Hospitals reported their findings to the Admiralty in the autumn of 1884. The Admiralty gave their verdict in an Order in Council dated October 17, 1884. This Order authorised the establishment of a trained Sick Berth Rating Staff with the following Rates:
1st and 2nd Class Boys
Sick Berth Attendant
Sick Berth Steward 2nd Class
Sick Berth Steward 1st Class
Chief Sick Berth Steward
The Order also supported the formation of trained female nursing staff in naval hospitals, which in 1902 was to become the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service.
It was thought that boys from the Greenwich Hospital School, later The Royal Hospital School, would fill the vacancies. This proved not to be the case, so entry was opened to the Royal Marines and civilians.
In 1900, three new posts were created, known as Head Wardmasters, one for each of the three main hospitals.
In 1891 Sick Berth personnel received a new style of uniform. Instead of the blue serge jumper, blue cloth collar and bell-bottom trousers, known as ‘Square Rig, they received a single or double-breasted jacket and trousers with black buttons, red badges and a peaked cap. This was known as ‘fore and aft’ rig and issued to ‘all ratings not dressed as seamen. This uniform was also issued to tradesmen known as ‘Artificers’, who were collectively known as ‘Tiffies’. So it was natural that sick berth attendants were also known as ‘Sick Berth Tiffies’.
In 1920, the term Steward was dropped in favour of Petty Officer. Another major change took place in 1965 which affected the Royal Navy as a whole when the ‘Fore and Aft’ rig was abolished in favour of the ‘Square Rig’. Also in 1965, the Sick Berth Branch was renamed the Medical Branch and was sub-divided into Medical Technicians, those with specialist qualifications, and Medical Assistants.