Mary speaks to WISEArchive about working as a child during WWII picking potatoes and then entering a special programme for training young nurses. She recounts the time when tuberculosis was common and her continuing training at Charing Cross, London. Marriage and children followed and a career change to a more secretarial role after spending time in Italy.
I was about 10 years old during the war when I first worked for money. Mother saw an article where the government announced that children over 12 should be found work to help the economy. If you were in class and the only one, you were ostracised. Perth was highly agricultural so children over 12 picked potatoes and those over 15 would go to the harvest. I went to pick potatoes but we didn’t know what it was until we got there and then we found out! Fortunately I never had to use the machinery for threshing because they were quite dangerous. Safeguards were introduced to keep everyone safe.
For potato picking you got a bit of land the farmer measured out so everyone got the same. There were few tractors so a horse and cart came round with a digger fixed at the back. There was a metal pivot which went round and round lifting the potatoes out and you picked them into a basket. It was dirty work and we wore old clothes. We had half an hour for lunch. If you sat down to rest you’d get mud all over you. Mother wouldn’t let me in the house until I took everything off! ‘We’d just washed the floor. You stay out there and I’ll tell you when you can come in.’
The council provided a very old bus; it took us to the farm you would work at and took us home when we had finished and we were exhausted. Not everyone had the facilities to run people around Perth. We didn’t go to the same farm every time; we went where we were needed. We started at 7 o’clock. By October it would be very, very dark in Scotland.
At the time we thought we were providing cheap labour, but at the end of the week the farmer came to us with these packets. I got one and there was £3.50p inside. We didn’t know we would get paid and it was a lot of money at the time. The first thing I bought was a pair of white skating boots because I was very keen on skating at the ice rink or on the ponds in winter There were two or three small lakes where the council put up coloured lamps. It had to stop when the bombing started. I kept up skating because I liked it so much.
German prisoners were brought in to do the same work. There was a boy, probably less than 14, who was sent down with them. The German sergeant who was with him hated the British and wouldn’t let this boy do anything. He wasn’t allowed to join us. I understand now but at the time you thought he was really mean. We have very close friends who owned a farm near Perth and we went there for breaks. We found German prisoners were there. We would climb the struts of wood in the barn above the door and wait until the sergeant came along and push over the stacks of wood to land on him.
You can do a lot with a potato and picking them was for a short period. About two years later all the potatoes we stopped picking potatoes. We were impressed that we contributed to the food during the war. Everybody went to work and was paid for it. It was absolutely super. I would continue at school before my next job.
I left school at 17 and could have trained as a primary school teacher, a secretary or a nurse. You had to pay to go to commercial school in Perth to become a secretary. My two oldest sisters were both legal secretaries but I wasn’t really interested. I couldn’t understand shorthand to begin with so I wouldn’t have been much good. My sister trained [as a nurse] in Edinburgh but I didn’t want to go there for some reason. I wanted to leave home and do things. Mother saw an advertisement in a local paper for young ladies of 17 prepared to go into special nursing. You couldn’t do general nursing until you were 18 so a lot of people entered orthopaedics or nursing sick children. I thought it was a good idea. So she took me to the Bridge of Earn Hospital and I started a two year course. It was quite good; I liked it very much and was happy there.
At the Bridge of Earn Hospital you looked after people with broken legs. A lot of people had tuberculosis which was very common in Perth at the time. You could align it to cancer now, but there was nothing you could take that could relieve it. Whole families died from it. Scientists produced PAS, I think, which had some healing powers so most went on it, but for many it was too late.
Tuberculosis was so slow, you couldn’t do anything quickly for the patients. Some did get better but not many. I was walking past the tuberculosis wards – the doors were wide open – and I saw a girl from my class at school. I asked ‘what are you doing here?’ She said ‘I’ve got TB; my mother and father have both died.’ It was dreadful. People with TB would be in hospital for three years at a time; children similarly. You got to know your patients, whereas with other conditions you couldn’t because they didn’t take so long. I enjoyed doing orthopaedics which I used during general nursing.
We learnt about anatomy and muscles. I still remember the anatomy. I don’t know if it would do me any good now. We had a separate school room with a sister tutor. She taught us and we’d sit our exam two years later in Edinburgh to get our certificates.
When my time was coming to an end I wanted to go to London. I had only been to London once with father who went several times a year on business. He was in the clothing industry. I had to tell my parents but father said ‘no, definitely not. You’re only 19. You’re not going to London.’ Cousin Alec was in medical school at Charing Cross and father spoke to him. If I went to London Alec was to look after me so I wouldn’t get into any trouble. Father eventually agreed I could go.
Alec met me at the train station and took me round the hospital and showed me things. He had actually been in that hospital; he was wounded in Greece and he was shot in one foot. He was rescued by a village shepherd who took him to his cavern. Some British soldiers put him on a stretcher and got him back; otherwise he would have died.
I started the course in January 1948; the same year the National Health Service began. I knew what it was for and what it stood for. My family used to pay weekly subscriptions which covered the whole family. If we had to go to hospital or have anything done you didn’t pay for it because you were saving towards it all the time. It was a useful thing. Once the National Health Service began you got all your treatment for free. It was very good.
We had to study and there were certain days at school with a sister tutor who gave us notes so you could write up your book with things you might not have considered. As a first year nurse you weren’t allowed to be in charge of a ward – there were 30 people to a ward. I looked after a ward at 17 on my own because we were so short. It was hard going but the men were always easier to look after than the women. The men would try to help you and so forth, whereas the women wouldn’t. We gave out medication in the morning.
The patients we had were mainly from London. Those who had been in the war had their own hospitals; Bridge of Earn was one. People recuperating would go up to Bridge of Earn and stay there. They were much kinder in Bridge of Earn than they were in Charing Cross. The food was quite good. I suppose a lot of it came from local farms; they could get it. It made it better for the nurses and the patients didn’t do too badly.
Other nurses came from England; none came from Scotland. Most lived near Charing Cross because it’s easiest. You had to be there all the time; you had to sleep in. So travelling from home every day was something you weren’t allowed to do. Night duty was 12 nights on and three or four nights off. At Doughty’s they have four nights on and three nights off. The first break you got was the first day; you couldn’t do anything because you were so tired. You were probably alright by the middle day but by the end of the third day you knew you had to go on at night so you tried to sleep first. You couldn’t go away for three days [for a trip]; you’d be thrown out.
Our uniform was a blue dress with a white collar and a white apron over the dress. You made yourself a hat from a piece of material like you were making a napkin. You had to gather it all together at the back, put it at the back of your neck and put a pin in to hold it. It was quite big and ridiculous. I can’t see them using it now because of infection. It’s all about infection now, isn’t it? If we weren’t dressed properly we would lose time off. Instead of taking the afternoon off you had to go in for the afternoon instead. Discipline was strict at Charing Cross and at Bridge of Earn. You couldn’t have alcohol or smoke, [matron] would disapprove.
Funnily enough, I think matron came from Orkney. She was very keen on sport but didn’t have the figure for it. She arranged a hockey match between us, probably all 17, and the WAAFs nearby [at Leuchars airdrome] where young men were taught to fly. One afternoon we went and got ready, then waited with our hockey sticks. The door of their utility bus opened and about 12 large ladies fell out of the door. The match started and I hadn’t been on the field for ten minutes when a ball knocked out three teeth. I think the match was abandoned because I bled all over the pitch. That was rather unfortunate. We never played them again. I was very glad, I didn’t know what would be next! It was so funny when I realised these really robust looking ladies were playing against thin and skinny 17 year olds; lack of food after the war, I suppose.
Some things were still rationed when I finished my two years but there was some relaxation. Every week you got a jam jar with a piece of butter or margarine in it and a bit of sugar too. It had to last a week. Occasionally you got a big pot of jam [in a metal tin] and when it was left in the middle of the table you could scrape a bit and take it to your room.
We were provided meals but if the nurses today were served the awful meals we had there’d be questions in the House. The nurses had a section in the dining hall and the sisters a smaller section by the wall. They made us plates of bones, some watery custard and a potato. The sisters would have lots of meat stuck to the bones on their plates. I don’t know why we stayed when we were really badly treated but we did. When we were paid we’d go to Lyons Corner House and have a meal. You then had to last until the next payday because you didn’t have any money left.
Working in London was great. I went to the nurses’ home in Hampstead. We received train tickets which lasted a month. You had to be in at 9 o’clock which was difficult because we got lots of free tickets for all the big shows like Carousel. We would go to them and be late getting back. A man was employed to sit on the other side of the door in a chair so no-one could slip past. We all contributed to give him two bob so he wouldn’t write our names down.
I would go to the museums especially the National Art Museum in Trafalgar Square because Charing Cross was just round the corner. If we had the afternoon off we often went to the milk bar in the street. It was owned by a chap who made a fortune from opening big places for eating; Forte’s I think. After a coffee, if we had some money, we’d have a doughnut too.
Then we’d go to the National Gallery. I especially liked Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. They had a chair in front of it and I sat there looking at it for ages. It’s very blue; it was really lovely. Then we’d go round the National Portrait Gallery. I got quite a good education from these places. They opened the big music hall across the river in 1951 during the Festival of Britain and we went there several times. It was very nice, very lovely.
Alec took me to every dive in London, mostly by the river. There was a pub that Charles Dickens wrote about in one book, the Bunch of Grapes. It was a good old pub to go to. There was another very famous pub but we couldn’t get in the door because it was so popular.
I was in London for two years but I didn’t complete my certificate. I met a medical student and we married in January 1950. He was a medical student and I was a training nurse. I gave up work and had my first son the following September. I couldn’t go home because I’d leave my husband who was still training. We managed alright in the end. I went to live with his parents in Wanstead, London. His father was a GP so he sort of looked after me. My eldest son was born in Charing Cross. I went to Bury Street Clinic within the sound of Bow Bells so my son is Cockney, I think. He’s 62 now. Can’t believe it!
I stayed with his parents for a long time. He was very ambitious and didn’t take to having a wife and two children by his side all the time. Eventually I divorced him. There was a lot of animosity between us but eventually we were good friends. I remember when he was with his fourth wife; he seemed to like punishment!
My parents-in-law and I had been on holiday to Italy. They met a very nice Italian accountant and invited him to come and stay in London. My mother-in-law had a shop, a children’s boutique, so she couldn’t take him about so it was left to me to go up to London with him. At the end of it I left London for Italy with the children and stayed there for seven years.
I had two more children; another boy and a girl. The children went to the international school in Milan. There was no continuity for their education. The teachers would be there for a year to see the sights and then leave. I decided to go back to London.
My parents-in-law were very good. They wanted us back and they accepted the other two children as their own. I don’t know how we’d have managed without them. Back in London I took the children to school and my father-in-law paid their school fees at a good school. It was out of London and we had to take two buses to reach it. It wasn’t convenient but I wasn’t working so it didn’t matter. I sometimes helped my mother-in-law at the shop.
I didn’t return to nursing because there were too many shifts to work. I couldn’t leave the children unattended. In the 1960s I worked for a company in London. It’s gone now. They sold their work to another company but kept their research and development after I left. I worked for a couple of years at the main buildings before I went to where the research department was based. I moved closer with my children. They gave me a very good salary considering I never did it before; I didn’t tell them that. I had to learn from the beginning by going through the old forms (a lot were kept) but I learnt quite quickly.
It took seven years to create a drug and get it to the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in America. It was so important to keep all the necessary information which would go to the FDA. Everything had to be correct and available at an instant. Their inspectors could come without any warning by walking through the door. I only experienced one inspection like this. They knew the company would be good with maintaining records they required and they wanted to see my book where I registered everything. A lot of food had to be irradiated or you could use it but record the data, manufacturer and so on. I don’t remember them coming again and if they did I couldn’t have been there. They would’ve dealt with the boss and he’d take them around.
I was deputy manager of the research department. This was a more secretarial job. When the manager was ill for a time then I could decide. When I went down there my boss would still be the same. He said I could make decisions and he could arrange what I had to do. We did that. It got easier as the time went, I think most jobs do. I also dealt with the Home Office and the doctor in charge.
We created an asthma drug and put it to market first. My older son was asthmatic so it was very good for him. My daughter was only three or four when she developed appendicitis. She was taken to hospital and the clinic to have her appendix removed. It was quite bad because it had gone in the wrong place which is quite common now-a-days, I think. She eventually recovered and was alright after that. It was a very good company to work for. I was actually paid better there and they paid for private medicine for you and your family depending on your role and level.
I think at 56 I decided to give up work. They paid my pension immediately so I thought I’d have a rest for six months. It lasted three weeks: my old boss called me at home. He needed a job completed and wanted me to do it for him. He said it would only be a few weeks. I said ‘yes, of course.’ I was bored anyway. I worked in the library. We kept magazines on medicine going back to the 30s. They all had to go on fiche. There were several thousand and I had to go over them all. Funnily enough, he was from Perth too. We went to the same school. He told me my father sold him his first school cap – my father worked in the clothing industry.
Mary Dalrymple (b. 1931) was interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on 18th May 2016.
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