From Plants to Patients (2009)

Location : Norfolk

I was born in Swanton Morley in 1936, and I went to school in Swanton Morley and East Dereham High School for Girls, which is now Netherd High. My first job was in Horticulture, and I worked at that for about 5 years until circumstances led me back to Swanton Morley and back home, and then I worked at Beech House as a care assistant for two years.

After that, with the encouragement of colleagues at Beech House, I applied to Hellesdon Hospital in Norwich for student nurse training to become a Registered Mental Nurse, as they were called then. I started there at the end of 1958. I should have become a student nurse immediately but, such as it was, there was no Nurse Tutor. The tutor who was supposed to start hadn't started, and in fact didn't arrive until early 1959, so then training started in earnest. I lived in the Nurses' Home at Drayton. It was Drayton Old Lodge, which had formerly been a nice country house, but an annexe had been built, and I suppose there was 20 or 30 rooms there for student nurses, and Hellesdon Hospital was a mile or so along the Drayton Road, and we had transport there every day. The actual training school for the nurses was in the Nurses' Home. It was a very small affair. There were 12 students in my block, including three Spanish girls, who were training. The Medical Superintendent at Hellesdon Hospital used to go on a recruitment drive to Europe every year, and the year I was there it just happened to be Spanish girls. Previously they had been German and French. There were a lot of Spanish girls working at the Hospital, but only a few became student nurses when their English was up to standard.

The first year of training at that time was exactly the same as the general nurses. We learned all the same things, we took the same subjects and we took our exams all together at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

What did the training cover?

That was anatomy and physiology we did, hygiene, first aid, practical nursing skills and invalid cooking, believe it or not! We had a little kitchen, and we learned how to make egg custards and junket, and steam fish! (laughs). The initial training was 12 weeks. That was called the preliminary training school, and once we'd passed that – that was full time in school – and once we'd got through that then we were let loose on the wards.

There was a lot of cleaning on the wards. We weren't really allowed near the patients very much. There was floor polishing, cleaning windows, washing paintwork. I suppose just about everything to keep us busy, and we still had some days in the training school. I can't really remember how many, probably one a week, I think. Then, at the end of that time we took an exam, and if we passed that then we moved on to learning about psychiatric nursing in earnest for the second and third years. I worked at the David Rice Hospital, which was an Admission Ward apart from Hellesdon. It was about a mile away. There was a certain amount of elitism about the David Rice in that they used to say that one went there to have one's nervous breakdown, not any serious mental illness, and that was basically true really. There were male and female. It was a long, narrow low building and there were male patients at one end and female at the other, and in those days female nurses looked after the ladies and male nurses looked after the men, and there was absolutely no mixing at all. No. And it was the same at Hellesdon Hospital, in the bigger Hospital; segregation was such. In fact it seemed that the powers that be made determined efforts to even keep the staff apart, so that our shifts started and ended at different times, and our meal times were different just in case there was any hanky panky, I suppose. (laughs)

At Hellesdon Hospital there were geriatric wards, long stay wards, what were then called refractory wards, which were for the very badly behaved patients, which were mostly locked in at that time, and admission wards there too. I know I spent some time on night duty there, which was quite frightening really. There didn't seem to be that many trained staff. There were a lot of nursing assistants, a lot of the Spanish girls whose English was not really that good.

And then we spent time in the training school as well, and we had exams at regular intervals. I took my final exam at Severalls Hospital at Colchester. They just had one centre in East Anglia, and that year, which was February1962, it happened to be at Colchester and we all had to trail down there. There was a written exam and also a practical exam, and we were faced with what was called a practical room with everything related to nursing laid out on tables, and then the examiners asked us to do different procedures, and I know one I had to do was to get things ready to remove sutures from a patient. Nowadays everything comes pre-packed and pre-sterilised, but it didn't then and you had to find every little item that you needed and then go through the procedure. Anyway most of us passed and I then went back to the David Rice Hospital as a Staff Nurse, and there I stayed until I left to get married in 1964.

The treatment of the patients at that time. . . there was great changes afoot because new medications were coming on stream, the doors were unlocked, and it really was a dramatic change taking place within the system. There was a new Mental Health Act came out in 1959, which gave patients many more rights, and we had to be familiar with at least the aspects of the Act that pertained to our patients, so that we knew who was detainable, who wasn't and what we could do and what we couldn't do. So there was quite a lot to learn at that time, but it was a time of enormous change. There was quite a lot of E.C.T. – Electro-Convulsive Therapy – took place. Still does, I imagine, and in spite of what some people think, it was a very effective treatment for types of depression. In fact it was always said to be much safer than many of the tablets and medications that we used, and there were some dramatic results with it from, as I said, patients with very severe depression.

We had a mother and baby unit there for mums who had become ill with puerperal depression, so that we could, if it was suitable, have the babies there as well so there was no loss of contact. At that time I didn't like that very much. I didn't have much time for babies and didn't really know what to do with them, but (laughs) that changed over the years.

Also at Hellesdon Hospital there was a TB veranda, because, of course, having TB didn't necessarily exclude psychiatric disorders, and they were best taken care of in a psychiatric setting, so these poor people slept and lived on this veranda, which was absolutely freezing cold. This was the treatment of the time, as it was at Kelling Hospital and places like that.

I left, as I said, in 1964, and then I returned in 1972, when there was even more changes taken place. I couldn't believe it was the same hospital really because there were then mixed wards and that had been absolutely unheard of earlier on. I never did work on a male ward at that time, not at Hellesdon Hospital anyway. But when I went back to the David Rice and then latterly we moved to the Yare Clinic, it was in 1973 there were all sorts of changes going on. In the catchment areas previously there had been two psychiatric hospitals: Hellesdon was the City Asylum, Thorpe St Andrew was the County Asylum, and I think it must have been about 1972 that they amalgamated and all the acute admission work went to Hellesdon, and St Andrew's was left as long stay and psycho-geriatric for the elderly mentally ill. And that was when the Yare Clinic was built. It was thought that these smaller clinics in the grounds of general hospitals would get away from the stigma of the old hospitals, and the Yare Clinic was within the grounds of the West Norwich Hospital, and there were also Units built at Yarmouth and King's Lynn, and other places, I'm sure. The Clinic had 50 beds initially, male and female, and it was quite exciting going to a brand new place. I had applied to go there as a Ward Sister, but I didn't get the job, but I did go as a Staff Nurse so I was quite happy about that.

One of the consultants there was very interested in the treatment of alcoholism and drug abuse, so we did a lot of work with that, which was something new. It was a teaching ward for student nurses and the training, of course, had changed over the years, so there was much more teaching and assessing took place on the wards, and trained nurses did extra training, so that they were competent to do that. Initially we took patients within an age range from 16 or so to 80 … 90, but then new services came about for the elderly so then our age limit was 65 and we didn't take any patients over that age. In some ways that was a good thing, but in others we sort of missed the elderly, and some of the younger people, specially some of the difficult young people we had, they seemed to respond to the older patients, and it was not necessarily a bad mix.

But anyway, that was the way it was, and, of course, the community services were all expanding, so that our admission rate gradually dropped because treatment in the community was working. There were new drugs available, and our admission rate, as I said, gradually dropped, so our beds were gradually reduced and we went from 50 beds down to about 30, I suppose, over about the next ten years. And that is the way things continued. There were new services for the elderly, so that we no longer had dealings there, and then there were community services started up in Norwich for drug addiction and alcohol abuse, so we had less of that and really the patients that we did take care of were the acute admissions. As I said, a lot more people were being cared for at home in the community, and it was really only the very difficult people that we got, who needed inpatient care. And certainly toward the end – I retired in1996 – and at that time I really felt we weren't necessarily dealing much with mental illness. It was purely my opinion, but I felt it was more badness than illness at that time. However, that's the way it was, and at the time I retired in 1996 more changes came about and it was decided to move all the acute admission services back to Hellesdon Hospital and they built new wards there. The Yare Clinic was bulldozed and a new hospital called the Julian Hospital was built there for the elderly mentally ill. So that was the end of that period of time and care.

It was a wonderful place to work, the Yare Clinic, because we were away from the main hospital, although that's where our bosses were, but for the most part we were left alone and everything was there on site. We had an Occupational Therapy service, we had all the medical secretaries on site, we had psychologists there, and it was a good place to work. We also, gradually over the years, they developed a Day Hospital, a Psychological Therapies Unit. They looked after outpatients and day patients and the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and that sort of thing. That all moved back to Hellesdon. At the time it was quite sad, but it coincided with my retirement, so I didn't mind very much.

I think that's about the gist of it!

Can I take you right back? You said you did two years psychiatric training. What sort of things did you cover in those two years?

Well, we had to spend time on each type of ward, on a psycho-geriatric ward, on a long-stay ward and on a refractory ward, and on the admission wards, which was where I worked at the David Rice. That was my admission experience. We had to help with the E.C.T. There was no domestic staff on the majority of the wards. We did that sort of work. Once patients got up in the morning and sort of sorted out, then beds were pulled out, floors were mopped and polished. We looked after the meals, of course, bathing patients, keeping patients clean. I know we had an outbreak of head lice on the geriatric ward once. When we had new patients in – and with the geriatric ward we would have had new admissions – we were supposed to fine comb their hair, but I'm afraid that fell by the board a bit, and anyway we had an outbreak of head lice, and there was some noxious substance we had to put on the patients' hair and then they were tied up in torn sheets – the hair was tied up – for about 3 days and then it was washed. And I can see all those little old ladies now, sitting in bed with these turbans on!

And can you run me through a day in your final year as a student nurse and what was the difference when you came back as a staff nurse, because that's a huge increase in responsibility, wasn't it?

Yes, and yet at that time there were so few trained nurses that, as third year students, we were in charge of wards often, so there wasn't that much difference really. And especially at night, when I think back it was pretty horrific, you know, that we were left like that. And giving out medications. I can remember going on a – I mean the wards were enormous, there were 50 or 60 patients on a ward. On one ward there was 80 patients and I was on this ward – I was a third year student – and I had to do the medicine round, and I didn't know the patients and they couldn't tell . .. . I would say "Are you Mrs Smith?" and they didn't know who they were, and I didn't know who they were, and that was such a hit and miss affair! That I can remember!

I don't know how long Hellesdon had been without a tutor when I started. Certainly there was continuity after that, but there was still only the one tutor, and then he was helped in the training school by one or two Staff Nurses who were interested in the teaching aspect.

Can I go back to that ward of 80? How many people would have been on night duty?

Oh two, I expect. Only two. I mean, they were enormous wards. And I know there was one particular ward that I worked on, and when we left off . . .. we finished at 10 I'm pretty sure on an evening shift .. .. we locked up behind us. And these patients were actually locked in. It was in the main hospital building, but there was an upstairs dormitory and the door was locked. And there were single rooms on a corridor at the bottom and they were all locked. And the Night Sister did rounds. But an awful lot could have happened in between times.

Can you remember how much you were paid as a student nurse?

Yes! Yes, I can! I can remember as a student nurse it was £7 a week. What I can't remember. . . it was either £3 full board in the Nurses' Home and £4 left or the other way round, but I can't really remember.

One of the things I remember when we were training we had to study personal hygiene and. . .. public health was what it was . .. and we went on visits to the Waterworks in Norwich to see how the water was kept clean, we went to a cinema to study the ventilation system, to the Milk Marketing Board at Harford Bridges to see the sterilisation and pasteurisation of milk, and to the Sewage Disposal (laughs) at Trowse. That I remember very clearly. And the First Aid training when we had to learn all the bandaging and things like that. As I said today

everything comes in packs, but then we had to learn . . it was called tray and trolley setting, and you had to lay up a trolley for this or that .. for E.C.T. or taking sutures out, as I had to.

And you got provided with uniforms and you changed into them in the hospital? Because there's sometimes controversy about that now, isn't there?

Yes, yes definitely. I lived in the Nurses' Home anyway, so we changed in our rooms and we had transport up the road to the hospital. Oh, you never went out in your uniform. We were issued with navy blue gabardine macs, unlike the general nurses with their cloaks. We had these gabardine macs, which were much more useful (laughs). They were very good.

More like a Health Visitor.

Yes. Yes, that's right. Yes, they were very good.

And what about the rules in the Nurses' Home? Were they very strict?

Oh, my goodness! We were locked in at 10 o'clock, and by then … I was 22 when I went there, so at the end of my training I was 26 years old and, you know, to be locked in at 10 o'clock at that age was a bit much.

Did you have a handy window?

Yes! Oh yes! I wasn't going to mention that! (laughs). Yes, we soon sorted that one out. But some of the Assistant Matrons lived in there as well, so we had to be a little bit careful. But we were in what they called the Annexe, but they had rooms in the main part of the house, which were quite nice, and the Training School there. It was just as I was leaving in 1964 they were building a new Training School actually in the grounds of Hellesdon Hospital, so by the time I came back again it was all up and functioning, and now, of course, it's a vast affair and University based.

And when you said the David Rice, people tended to go in there to have their nervous breakdowns, I mean would that have been mostly due to depression?

Yes. Yes, we had the mothers and babies . . . only one mother and baby at a time. They tended to be more the solicitors' wives and doctors' wives. I mean, not all of them. There were others, but it was much more depressive . . . I don't remember anybody being too disruptive there, let's put it that way (laughs).

In the middle of the David Rice there was the E.E.G. Department. That was the electro-encephalogram which was used to diagnose epilepsy. I think that was the only one of its kind in Norfolk at that time, because patients seemed to come from all over the place. Technicians did that. It was quite a specialised technical thing. And that was one of my early memories, of the Ward Sister at the David Rice saying to me "Take Mrs So-and-so down to the E.E.G. Department", and thrust this sort of …. it was actually a padded spatula .. and said "You might need this". And I didn't know where I was going , I didn't know why I might need this thing, and I realised afterwards that was because the patient might actually have a fit, and I was supposed to put it between her teeth (laughs) Fortunately nothing happened!

Overall I have very pleasant memories of the David Rice. I said afterwards I think I washed every inch of paintwork and every window in the place (laughs) But again, because it was small and self-contained and we were away from the main hub, it was much more friendly. I think on some of the wards there were some Ward Sisters who were not so nice, who made student nurses' lives a misery (laughs). Anyway, of the 12 students I started with, we were 11 girls and 1 boy, but he didn't survive the course. I think he left quite soon, but I think there were about half of us passed our final exam the first time, and several dropped out along the way – got married or had babies or whatever.

But later on, particularly at the Yare Clinic, I enjoyed the training and assessment of the students as I think it kept us . . kept me anyway . .. from getting in a bit of a rut. While you've got young people constantly coming through you have to keep on your toes (laughs) And of course in 2000 – it was called Project 2000 – the training more or less came full circle, because in the interim it had changed and the student nurses for mental health no longer did all the general stuff. They no longer did anatomy & physiology, which I thought was a shame, because there's often a very close link between physical illness and psychiatric illness, so I always felt that you needed that grounding, that basis. But anyway in the year 2000 the training changed and once more all student nurses, regardless of what they were going to specialise in, did the same basic training again, although I don't think in as much depth as we did that first year. And then they branched out into their specialty. And of course Hellesdon Hospital . .. well, St Andrew's is now closed altogether and only Hellesdon remains, so that was the end of another era.

Can we go all the way back and talk a bit about your career in Horticulture? What made you decide to want to do that because I know you said you went to a house near Beccles and then to Tresco?

Yes. It was just that I always liked gardening, growing things. My original intention was to go to Horticultural College, and there was one at Burlingham near Norwich, but I think at that time you had to go off and get a year's practical experience under your belt, probably so that they knew you were serious about it. So that was really what I was doing, but in the end I wandered around and went to different places and thoroughly enjoyed myself, and never came back to Horticultural College. I can remember my father saying "I don't know what you want to go to College for to do the garden" (laughs).

And which house was it you went to first?

It was Redisham Hall.

And what did you have to do there?

I was the girl in the garden. I had to do everything. I became very good at hedge cutting with an electric hedge cutter, and severed through the cord several times, and then I wasn't allowed to do that any more. It was a really feudal sort of place. They grew vegetables for the house, which were washed and polished and taken to the cook at the kitchen door in the morning. There were ornamental flower gardens, there were wonderful greenhouses, which really became my interest. There was a peach house. I'd never seen peaches growing at that time. Peaches and nectarines, and a grape vine, and we grew tomatoes and cucumbers and melons, and flowers for the house. We worked Monday to Friday and Saturday morning, and every Saturday morning it was raking the gravel paths so that they were absolutely immaculate in case Madam took a walk in the garden at the weekend.

And you lived in the house, did you?

Lived in, yes, in a little attic bedroom. That was the servants' quarters and there was one other little girl. I was only 16, but she was younger than me, she was only 15. She was the maid of all work really, and lived in as well.

Can you remember what you were paid there?

No I can't. It was agricultural wages. So £5 or £6 a week, I expect something like that. I stayed there less than a year anyway, and I saw this job advertised at Tresco in the Scilly Isles, so I applied for that, in the sub-tropical gardens, and off I went. I was fortunate that I had an older sister living in London at that time, so I went that far and then my brother-in-law put me on the train to Paddington, and I went down to Penzanze and got on a steamer, the Scillonian, over to the Scilly Isles and landed at St Mary's, and then on a launch to Tresco, where I was met by horse and cart and taken to my digs, my lodgings. I lodged with a Mr & Mrs D (laughs). She was Cornish. He had originated from Kent, and they had two young children. It was lovely. I worked in the greenhouses there and they specialised in cacti and a lot of the sub-tropical stuff, and lettuce and things like that. I remember growing freesias, and they were grown for the Abbey, which was the house where Major Dorian Smith lived with his wife and family. There was a wonderful conservatory attached to the Abbey and that came under our remit as the greenhouse workers, so I used to go up there every day and tidy it up and dead head and dead leaf and water things. It was a lovely place because it was set into natural rock. The gardens themselves . . . have you ever been?

No I haven't.

It's terraced into the island, so there were all these sub-tropical palms, and it was just a wonderful place. And a full squad of gardeners of course, and everyone sort of had their department there. As I said, there was a couple of us worked in the greenhouses and the others had their specialties outside. Also while I was there I stood in for the dairy maid once when she went on holiday, and I went to work in the dairy and had to scald the cream, the clotted cream (laughs) That's about all I remember about that. And I stayed there, I suppose, probably not much more than a year. There was a wonderful social life for such a small place. We used to all pile into boats at the weekend and if there was a dance being held on a neighbouring island off we went (laughs). Came back, and I think there was a cinema show maybe once a week or something like that.

Did you lose interest? Did you have to come back home? Or . . . ?

Not at that time. I don't know why I left really. I got a job on the mainland of Cornwall near Truro, and that was a tomato and cucumber nursery. I stayed there a year and then I moved back up to Surrey and worked at a big commercial nursery, John Warterer, Sons & Crisp at Bagshot, and that was mostly shrubs and clematis and things like that. And it was while I was there that my mother died, and I didn't come home immediately, but the following year my dad was alone and he had a fall and broke his ankle and was bemoaning the fact that he had three daughters and none of them were .. . . (laughs). And being the youngest and unattached, I was the one who came home. But anyway that was no bad thing.

Did you regret giving it up?

No, not really, no. No. As I said, that led me to Beech House and onto a totally different career, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I really had no regrets about it at all (laughs).

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