A career in caring

Location : North Walsham

janet munroI left school in the summer of 1958, I was 17. I’d always wanted to be a PE teacher, but there was no way my parents were ever going to be able to afford to get me through college. So I left school and I had no idea what I was going to do and quite frankly I wasn’t in the least bit bothered. I hadn’t been at home many weeks when somebody arrived to see my mother and before I knew where I was I was a housemother at Eden Hall School at Bacton. I can’t remember an interview; my job was to look after 15 very small boys. The youngest was about five and I think the oldest would be roughly about eight.

Eden Hall School was called a school for delicate children – children who had breathing problems, cystic fibrosis, asthma, and some with heart problems. These children came from various parts of the country, not just Norfolk. The reason they were there was because the air along our North Norfolk coast is supposed to be very good for people with chesty problems, and some of these children were really poorly little things. As a housemother my job was to care for them out of school hours – this was a boarding school – the children had to be got up in the mornings, they had to wash, dress, make their beds, have breakfast and then, during the week, they went to their various classrooms. I don’t remember very much of what I had to do, I was responsible for their clothing, which meant mending when necessary; the boys wore short, green corduroy trousers as part of their school uniform; for some reason the pockets were always needing repair and I was not a good needlewoman. I was very young to be doing this work and when you’re young you don’t take everything in, you just do your job to the best of your ability.

The staff consisted of a headmaster, matron, assistant matron, housemothers, cook, kitchen and cleaning staff plus a gardener. All the housemothers were called by their Christian names pre-fiixed with ‘miss’ – I was Miss Janet and there was a Miss Jean, Miss Jill, Miss Betty etc. I do remember the ‘breakages’ book hanging in the kitchen. One day an almighty crash came from the kitchen area and a bit later I read in the breakages book ‘Miss Pat, 19 dinner plates’. The pile of plates were wet and had slipped out of her hands.

This year, in June 2015, we had a very grand ‘get-together’. Lots of these youngsters are now grandparents. They just came to Bacton, and Eden Hall is no longer there; in its place there is a group of very nice houses. The residents had really ‘gone to town’ for us with food, drink and bunting hanging everywhere; a lovely afternoon ending with the unveiling of a plaque on the wall remembering all the children and staff who had lived and worked at Eden Hall in times gone by. I don’t remember many of the children I looked after but there was one little boy, Nigel (now aged 65) who was a proper little nuisance, always into mischief. One day at school Nigel fell off the swing and broke his arm. Once the arm was in plaster he used it as a weapon – thumping just about everybody in sight. He was a likeable lad and it was lovely to see him again after all these years.

Munro EHall plaque006

I stayed at Eden Hall for about three years and then I got myself a similar job in East Yorkshire, just outside Beverley. This was a school for children with learning disabilities – in those days they were labelled ESN, educationally subnormal. I worked there for one year and don’t remember much about the school except for a little lad called Alwyn. Nothing went right for Alwyn, he didn’t have much control over his arms and legs, he was always ‘all over the place’. We took the children on a day trip to Robin Hood’s Bay. The coach dropped everyone off at the top of the village and the children ran down to the beach. It was a very steep hill down to the beach; Alwyn couldn’t stop at the bottom and ran straight into the sea – oh my goodness. I stayed at this school for one year and then I got myself onto a residential childcare course at St Mary’s College in York.

This was a one year course and apart from the usual written work, lectures, and essays, three times a year the students were sent out on placements to various reception centres, homes, schools, etc. My first placement was to a children’s home in Leeds. I didn’t get a very good start; I had flu soon after getting there and was quite ill – the first and last time I’ve had flu. The matron was the most awful woman and I felt sorry for the children in her care. While on these placements we were supposed to learn as much as we could about the running of the establishment. One day I asked the matron if I could see how she did her housekeeping, ordering goods, and how she managed to keep within budget – the answer was ‘no’ and at times she was very unkind and nasty towards me. I didn’t say anything, I was only there for a few weeks so accepted everything she said – I wouldn’t accept it now. If I asked question I would expect a proper answer.

Following the Leeds trip it was back to York and some weeks later on to the next placement to a children’s home/reception centre in Bradford. Remember, I came from Knapton, a very small village on the North Norfolk coast and here I was in Bradford. The first weekend there I decided to take a bus into the city; a double-decker bus turned up practically full and I was the only white person on the bus. Quite an eye-opener. This is 1963, such a long time ago.

The head of the home was a Mr Johnson; both he and his wife were very nice people, and I enjoyed my time there. One day I had to go with another member of staff to collect two young lads who had absconded from the home and had been picked up by police in Manchester. I also had several visits to the Juvenile Court, something I found very interesting but also rather sad.

My third and final placement was to a group of Dr Barnardo children’s homes in Hull and my only memory is the fact that the children loved red gravy!! Powdered tomato soup added to a casserole made the gravy red – and it did taste good.

At the end of my year in college I appled for and was offered a job in a special reception centre run by Somerset County Council Children’s Department. The reception centre was situated a few miles outside of Taunton. This was a very large country house where children came to be assessed before moving on, maybe to be fostered or adopted. I remember two little children, a brother and sister aged two and four who were waiting for adoption. Then there were older children whose parents had split up or died, all sorts of reasons. It was called ‘special’ because we also took children who would otherwise have gone to Borstal. There were lots of drug problems with some of the older children. I worked there for almost three years and then someone from the Children’s Department of Somerset County Council asked if I would consider running a hostel for homeless families. I hadn’t got a clue what that would involve but agreed to visit the place anyway.

The hostel was a few miles out of Bridgewater in Somerset and once again was a very large old country house which had been converted into flats to take six families. Children’s Departments were obliged to find accommodation for homeless families but up until this time would only accommodate the mother and children. The father, if there was one, had to manage on his own. This hostel was one of the first in the country to take the whole family, so with six flat there should be six fathers – but that never happened – there were always two or three of the men in prison for something or other.

One family I do remember very clearly: mum, dad and five children. Dada was in and out of prison. There were two teenage children, then a gap (dad’s in prison) and two children aged seven and eight (dad’s in prison again) and then a baby. I had a flat upstairs in this hostel. The eldest boy came to my flat one evening and said “mum says could you come down please”. I went down, not knowing what I would find. The dad was out his wife was sitting in the corner of the room, one side of the fireplace, holding the baby on her lap. On the other side of the fireplace there was a cupboard, rather like a tallboy with the television standing on top. The cupboard had a drawer at the bottom and two doors which opened from the centre of the piece. I asked the mum what was the matter – she said – “just open that cupboard”. I had no idea what was inside, opened the door and out fell loads and loads of packets of cigarettes. We all knew that somebody had broken into a garage in Bridgewater the night before and stolen cigarettes; now we all knew who the culprit was. We put the cigarettes back into the cupboard, shut the doors and I said I would have atom ring the police. I said, “where is he?” His wife said he’d gone off on his motorbike. The dad had a motorbike which he brought indoors and slept with it at the side of his bed – what a family they were. I went back to my flat, telephoned the police and then waited for outcome. Not long afterwards the teenage daughter came to me and said “Can you come, dad’s home”. Dad was furious. I came down the staircase (remember this was a large country house and it had a beautiful wide sweeping staircase ending in a large hallway) and there’s the dad holding a carving knife. He backed me into a corner and held the knife to my chest. His children all disappeared. One man from another family poked his head out of his flat door to see what going on and had the wit to get back inside quickly. I later learned he also phoned the police.. After a while heard a van coming up the driveway. This house had a massive front porch with large double doors and then further inner double doors.

All this time I kept my eyes on this man with the knife and he just stared at me. The double doors opened; the police had almost backed the van into the hallway. The police came in and picked the poor man up and threw him into the back of the van as if he was a sack of potatoes. I’ve never forgotten that; it never crossed my mind that he would hurt me with the knife and I can still hear the thud when he was thrown into the van. He ended up in The Verne prison at Portland and I took his wife and children to visit him every few months. The family were eventually rehoused in Yeovil – I helped them to move in but never saw them again.

In another flat there lived a woman named Rosemary, and her partner and their two children; he was a strange person, much older than Rosemary; he was a really good cook. On Fridays the men who were living in the hostel had to go into Bridgewater to ‘sign on’ and collect their benefit money. It was my job to take the mothers into town and let them collect the money from their men; otherwise the money would be spent on drink.

The following day Rosemary’s partner went off to Bridgewater to buy a chicken and vegetables for their Sunday lunch, but he didn’t come home, he was away all night. The following morning the police found him, fast asleep, drunk in a ditch with his bicycle on top of him and on the handlebars of the bike was a carrier back containing one chicken and several vegetables.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a needlewoman but I did do my best to help the mums to do alterations with their children’s clothes, shortening or lengthening trousers etc. The six families had 35 children between them and there was a lady who came in from Bridgewater during the week to help run a nursery.

In 1969, my mother was very ill with breast cancer so I left Somerset and came home to Knapton and never went back. Following my mother’s death I began working at Rose Meadow in North Walsham, a residential home for the elderly. At the same time that I was working there a new home for the elderly was being built in Mundesley and I was asked if it would like to work there when the building was finished – of course I would and I became the only full time care assistant at ‘Munhaven’, working there for almost four years. This involved more training and I did a ‘day release’ course at the city college.

In amongst all this I got married. My husband worked in Bomb Disposal travelling all over the country, and although I continued working for a while it seemed more sensible to travel with him (we had a very nice caravan) so that’[s what I did – that was the end of my working life.

After four years of marriage we adopted a baby girl and another chapter of my life began.

Whilst my daughter was growing up I spent quite a lot of time looking after various relatives. I helped to look after my dad and following his death in 1980 carried on caring for an aunt and two of my uncles; this went on till 2000 by which time they had all passed away, in their 80s and 90s.

In 2001 my husband suddenly died, a dreadful shock – and I felt I had two choices: either give up, or what? My daughter was working in a school in North Walsham – just me at home – and one day whilst walking along the sea-front a friend of mine said ‘why don’t you come and help at the Museum, we need volunteers’. So that’s what I did and ended up as their secretary – and carried on for nearly 14 years. The Mundesley Coastwatch group have their lookout on the first floor of the Museum and while I was a volunteer at the Museum I also used to keep the lookout tidy and when Mundesley Coastwatch were awarded The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service’ in 2009 I was included in the award – what an honour.

At the same time I helped cooking meals at the Mundesley Free Church for the over sixties and disabled for almost six years.

I was a member of the Mundesley Coronation Hall committee, did their minutes for some time, am a member of the Mundesley & District Royal British Legion (women’s section) – even did their Minutes for a while and booked speakers for the meetings.

For several years I have been visiting Mundesley Junior School once a week to listen to the younger ones read. I was also a school governor there for two and a half years.

I also visit North Walsham Junior School once a week to listen to young readers there.

Volunteers will always be needed, everywhere. I do believe if all volunteers took a day off our country would collapse.

This has been a very interesting exercise. My memory is not too good, nevertheless, in reading this piece through I don’t feel as if I’ve wasted my life and I hope to go on caring and volunteering for many years to come.

Janet Munro (b. 1941)  interviewed in North Walsham for WISEArchive on 5th October 2015

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