Brenda talks about her varied career in nursing, from the early days in Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps in Singapore, the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society, Heathrow Airport and her experiences as a district nurse in Norfolk.
Early days and training
I was born in Lincoln on May 1st 1945, eight days before the official end of the World War in Europe. My father’s company had sent him to Hull to manage a shoe shop. In 1939 he was conscripted into the fire service and worked there throughout the war. Hull was badly bombed so Mother went back to Lincoln to have me and returned to Hull for the first three or four years of my life. We later returned to live in Lincoln.
When I was seven I was run over by a double-decker bus and spent several weeks in hospital having sustained a bad foot injury. I loved watching the nurses and decided I wanted to be a nurse. I was having such a nice time I didn’t want to go home. I was determined to be a nurse though my family thought I wouldn’t be particularly good at it. As an only child maybe I was considered to be a bit precious. However, when I was seventeen I got five GCE’s and started cadet nursing for a year and then as a Preliminary Training School nurse for three months. Cadets wore a brown uniform, and worked on the wards damp dusting, running messages, cleaning, washing up, bed pans, anything the senior nurses asked you to do. They’d shout ‘Where’s the brownie’ and you’d just appear.
Training was basic but has since been developed to degree level. It was possible to do a degree gaining points on the MB courses but I wasn’t interested. You needed a degree to get promotion but I was fortunate to get a post as a sister before that requirement came in. PTS nurses wore a green uniform. We didn’t wear caps at this stage. Students had a blue and white striped uniform and a cap denoting which grade you were. First year students had a flat cap, second year a pointy cap and third year students a pointed cap with a frill. We wore capes when in the hospital grounds and a navy gabardine with a navy gabardine hat when going out. It was very hierarchical and you didn’t mix with senior nurses who were considered almost godlike. You mixed with people you were training with, and maybe the set above. We walked to work or went by hospital minibus. I had a scooter later on. We lived in the nurses’ home and were allowed a late pass till eleven p.m. A home sister was in charge of everything. The hours were terrible. We worked a half-day, had a day off and started at one o’clock the next day, and we often did split shifts. Nights were eight p.m. to eight am and, as a student, you were in charge of a ward with a night sister overseeing you. It was a terrific responsibility. Sister would arrive on the ward an hour after you came on duty and would expect the name and diagnosis of every patient. If you didn’t know it you got a dressing down. Matrons and sisters were gods, as were the consultants.
There were no sterile packs so we had to boil all the instruments. Gauze and swabs had to be packed into drums which went off to the central sterilization area. It was very hard work. There were no disposable bedpans so we had to scrub them out with a brush with no sterilization, and put them back on the rack. No hoists or sliding sheets, no pressure relieving mattresses, no variable height beds. We used to do the Australian lift which is now illegal. It involved you having your back to the patient, sliding your arms underneath the patient’s legs with his shoulders and arms on your back. It was quite unsafe because the patient was hoisted into the air and then taken back but it was very effective. We did a pressure round every four hours to ensure the patient wasn’t getting sores. When dealing with a patient the curtains were closed around the bed and the sister would sit at her desk watching your legs to make sure they kept moving. Some nurses on the men’s orthopaedic wards could get a bit familiar with the young male patients. We did see some horrible sights, fungating tumours and wounds, black necrotic limbs, and there were some horrible smells. We supported each other as we were all in the same boat. The pay was very poor. I made all my own clothes as it was the only way you could get the outfits you wanted.
Lots of funny things happened when we were students. They regularly sent new student nurses to Casualty to get some fallopian tubes. My flatmate and I had bought a modern electric alarm and one time we both slept through it, woke up an hour late with the alarm still going. We had to run like mad to get to work. One nurse had had a nasogastric tube passed down into her stomach and suggested we should try it on ourselves. It was a routine procedure pushing the tube up the nose, down the back of the throat and into the stomach. I’d done it very quickly and efficiently before but we now knew how the patients felt I found I was pulling it out the moment they reacted. It probably hadn’t been a good idea. The surgeons in theatre were terrible and would just throw things around if you passed them the wrong thing. Once, during a round, a surgeon was cross and picked up a big pile of notes and threw them on the floor. It was a form of bullying. After training we usually spent a year on the ward as a staff nurse. I was lucky enough to spend a year as staff on a ward with a beautiful Australian sister who was married to an RAF officer. She was so flamboyant, and wonderful with the patients. I then saw an advertisement for Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps and thought, well, let’s give it a go.
Nursing in the Army
I was 22 when I joined the QA’s. I went for an interview at Catterick Camp, was accepted, got a commission and went in as a lieutenant, signing up, initially, for two years. The uniform was a grey dress, a little red cape with red cuffs and a big white triangular hat. If you were posted to the tropics you were given a tropical uniform and a dress uniform. Well, you were given the money to go to the tailors in London to get measured up. My first posting was to Millbank Military Hospital, next to the Tate Gallery (and now actually part of the Tate Gallery). When I arrived on the medical ward, on my first day, sisters were flying around saying they were really busy and had got a blood drip. I waited to hear what else was happening but that was it! I’d been on a busy NHS medical ward which was, invariably, understaffed and here we were definitely overstaffed. The hours were much better. You usually did seven nights straight off but when I was in London we did 14 nights straight off and then had a week off. However, you did feel disorientated and I think 14 nights was probably too much.
The rank structure in the army was very strictly adhered to. We were brigade strength so the most senior person was a brigadier, matrons were usually colonels or lieutenant colonels and majors were in charge of wards, then came captains and lieutenants. I eventually did four years and came out as a captain. We all lived in the officers’ mess attached to the hospital. The pay was very good and if you went overseas you had an overseas allowance and received a large gratuity when you left.
While I was at Millbank I did my Part One theory in midwifery, at the Louise Margaret Hospital, where I then gained practical experience in deliveries. We were required to do about thirty. One time I was talking to a mother who’d had lots of children, and I said ‘I’ll just go up the corridor’, I got halfway there, she rang her bell and the baby was in the bed! She’d been chatting to me two minutes before. We were either very busy or hanging around waiting for the deliveries to come. Rather than go on to do Part Two midwifery, I applied for a two year posting to Singapore and in February 1969 I flew out on a VCT 10.
The RAF fly you sitting backwards, an unusual experience but it’s meant to be safer though passengers don’t really like it. Singapore was a wonderful experience. Work came second to going out and enjoying ourselves. We had an overseas allowance, lots of ships’ parties, balls. As European women in the minority, we were very popular, and I knew two girls who got pregnant. We weren’t allowed to go out with other ranks and if they found you had, usually you both got posted, so it wasn’t worth it. I opted to work on the intensive care unit for two years and gained unique experience which I couldn’t have had in civvy street. The wards were full of soldiers too sick to stay in their billets, and there were also family wards. We nursed Ghurkhas who were quite noisy when they were ill. Ghurka wives would jump off the delivery tables and squat down in the corner of the labour ward, which was what they were used to. The Ghurka soldiers were a bit naughty when they visited their wives and the curtains used to go round the beds. We had to keep an eye on them.
We had some marvellous experiences. One time RAF officers took us up in a helicopter where we were strapped in with our feet hanging over the sides and flown all round Singapore, a wonderful experience I have never forgotten. We were able to mix with the local people and had an amah who did our washing and ironing and cleaned our rooms. We didn’t have to lift a finger, just lay out the clothes we wanted to wear for the next party. We did work from time to time. Every Tuesday they practised landing the helicopters on a big H. One time, when we were on nights, we all saw a dark figure appear at the window. but there was nobody there. We were on the third floor so we never worked that one out, it was most odd. On the intensive care unit we had deliveries of very premature babies. In those days they weren’t expected to live and were just left in a dish to die. It was really quite sad. I couldn’t bear it so I would line the dish with cotton wool to make them comfortable and some did live for a short time. The will to live was definitely there but there weren’t the facilities to keep premature babies alive. Driving standards in Singapore were pretty bad and we often had to deal with awful road traffic accident injuries. If the patient was on a ventilator they’d be kept on it till the relatives flew in. They seemed to arrive very promptly. I think they were put on the first plane available.
Back in Civvy Street
I decided to leave the army after four years and get back into civvy street. I had a series of unsatisfactory jobs and had almost decided to return to the army when I met my first husband. Having worked in intensive care in the army I decided to do a six month intensive care course in Southampton. Sadly the course was badly run, health and safety was appalling and when I pulled my back trying to turn patients who were unconscious on respirators I decided I wouldn’t go back. I was only there for three months. I do remember the night sister, Kate, who was smashing. She disappeared one night, we couldn’t find her anywhere and eventually found her asleep on the toilet. She was so exhausted. Intensive care is very demanding. I was then offered a job by a former army matron. She’d retired as a full colonel and was matron at Tyrwhitt House, an Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society charity, now known as Combat Stress. I took the job despite having no experience of psychiatric illness, which, in hindsight, would have been an advantage. It was an interesting experience. We didn’t wear uniform and we worked three days on and three days off. I lived in a bedsit at the top of the house. The cleaners were all from the local psychiatric hospital and had learning disabilities. They had terrible rows with each other, and you didn’t cross George because he would go for you if you did!
Eventually the matron married a Brigadier Perkins, an ENT consultant in the army. I was left with Miss Bonus, a sister from the psychiatric hospital, a lovely lady but as mad as a hatter. The new matron had worked in Uganda for years and she was terrible. She was only there to fill in the time. She would clear off home in the house car so I had to use my own car. Things went from bad to worse and I realise, now, that she was an alcoholic.
Doctor Blacker, a fascinating man, came from the Maudsley Hospital every week and we would provide him with lunch. Some of the patients were very sad, some were alcoholics, one had been a Japanese prisoner of war and would ‘see’ Japanese people looking at him through the window and would shout and scream. Most patients only came for six weeks to give their families a break but one was a permanent resident. He was very nice but was schizophrenic. He’d been an air traffic controller. When I visited the place 40 years later I saw a great difference. It had been extended, the grounds were wonderful and there were little gardens for patients to sit and meditate, and rooms for occupational therapy. When I was there the occupational therapy was run by Mr Blash, and patients also worked at the Goblin vacuum cleaners factory.
On my days off I did agency work in London hospitals. I often went to the Royal Marsden to do specials, very poorly patients who needed one to one nursing all night. We were all agency nurses on nights and the only member of staff was often the night sister. I left Tyrwhitt House after 18 months and heard that the place had closed down, the only way to get rid of the alcoholic matron. It reopened again later. I then got a very well paid job at Heathrow Airport working for the British Airports Authority. I was on two thousand pounds a year which, then, was a small fortune. We worked at the Queens building in the medical centre at Heathrow. My colleagues were all nice but I soon discovered that the boss was absolutely horrible and nobody stayed long because of her. It was an interesting job, dealing with the stretcher cases, a lot of them skiing fractures. When there was a problem with a plane coming in to land the red emergency phone would ring and we were put on standby for an emergency. You don’t realise how often this happens. We had to record all incidents in a book. Some of the girls had attended the Staines crash years before when a plane came down on the road outside the airport. They had to label people according to who needed treatment, who needed resuscitation and who was dead. This had to be done quickly so they could treat the injured promptly. I remember them telling me that they were all dead, still sitting in their seats with startled expressions on their faces. I’ll never forget that. Fortunately I was never involved in anything like that. I had an airside pass and would do medicals for new staff. My bedsit at Hounslow was directly under the flight path so I could see the undercarriage of the planes and the noise was astronomical. We would drive to car parks on the perimeter and were bussed in to the airport. I might have stayed in the job longer if it hadn’t been for the difficult boss. However, by then, I’d met my future husband who was living in Southampton so I joined him.
Difficult doctors, difficult dogs and lovely patients
I worked in Southampton as an agency nurse and lived with my future in-laws because they thought it inappropriate for me to join my future husband, a policeman, who was living and working in Portsmouth. That’s how things were in the early seventies. I also did a private job looking after the dowager Marchioness of Zetland. I can’t remember much about it except that she had chronic diarrhoea. I worked at the Royal Southampton on night duty and one night I was put on the high dependency ward, in charge of the drips all night. There were 16 drips and all I did was run round changing drip bags, making sure they were up to the regime. It was really hard work. We married in September 1973, rented a house in Southsea and I got a job as a district nurse, attached to a practice with six doctors, so I had a massive caseload.. My opposite number was attached to a practice with three doctors and would often help me out. I never got to see all the patients in the time I was there. A lot of them were on ‘bath list’. We were supposed to visit them but just didn’t have time. Each morning we would agree the workload and stock up with syringes and needles. It was quite stressful as I was adjusting to married life and had also taken on Tupperware evenings.
After a year we decided to move to Norfolk and I got a job as a night sister at Kings Lynn hospital, three nights a week. I did see some horrible sights in A&E but it’s part of the job and you just have to get to grips with it. When I became pregnant I stopped work at six months, and was back at work eight weeks after my daughter was born. It meant I had to stop breast-feeding which was very hard. They brought in a shift system which didn’t work for me so I was moved to Stow Hall Hospital, a convalescent hospital, in Downham Market. Surgeons would come out to do their rounds. One time someone from the records office asked to see a patient’s records, having shown me her identification. There had been a complaint against a particular surgeon and when he noted a sticker on the notes I explained the situation. He was livid and threw the notes all over the floor. My manager was very good, said he was totally out of order and that I’d done the right thing. It wasn’t very pleasant when it happened. I worked there till I was six months pregnant with my second child and went back to work when he was 18 months old which was just as well as he was a very difficult child. However, we were very short of money.
I got a job as practice nurse on £150 per month, mornings only. My son’s child-minder cost £50 so the extra £100 made all the difference to us. The doctors were interesting characters. Doctor One was very clever, a brilliant musician who would have succeeded whatever he did. At the end of surgery he played his trombone to unwind while I’d be labelling all my bloods up after the mornings’ work. Sadly he had an unhappy marriage which ended with his wife’s suicide. Doctor Two would walk up and down the row of patients waiting to see me, asking how long they’d been waiting. The problem was that I worked in Doctor One’s examination room and would have to move out if he needed to examine a patient. Doctor Three was very moody, wouldn’t speak for weeks and would suddenly greet you like a long lost friend. He was a very good doctor.
I’d wanted to go on courses but the doctors were reluctant to agree. District nurses would come in to discuss patients with the doctors and collect prescriptions. One day a district nurse told me there was a job going on district in Swaffham so I applied and got it. I worked nine till one, increasing my hours as the children grew up. They were a nice team and I’m still in touch with some of them. We wore little felt hats which would blow off in the wind, grey coats in the winter and a blazer in the summer. I eventually worked eight to five. The managers did rounds with us and we used our own cars if we wanted. We could use a crown car but only while at work which was a bit limiting. Equipment was basic. We had ripple mattresses which were like an air mattress but worked very well. It was like being a ward sister but your patients were scattered all round the villages. We had to get the patients to boil the instruments in a pan of water. We did have packs of gauze but no equipment for moving patients. Often the equipment was bought through fund-raising by voluntary organisations. I’ve got photographs of us being presented with a hoist. We worked from home and it was difficult taking calls with the children around. Eventually we were given a shed in the grounds of Swaffham Cottage Hospital. No water in it, no toilet, but it was properly lagged and we had desks and a telephone. The NHS was constantly changing depending on which government was in office. Paperwork was end of month returns and when computers came in I found it difficult to cope. We had palm tops and laptops and just before I retired a new system was introduced and was just terrible. All your work went through to a central computer. Goodness knows what happened to all the computer work we’d done before. I imagine it’s all been lost. We had answerphones and radios but not mobile phones at that time. I used my own which made life easier and saved time.
Working as a single parent
I was treating mainly elderly patients with leg ulcers, terminally ill, wounds, stitches, injections, sometimes fungating tumours, all sorts of conditions. By now I was a single parent so I often took my children with me when I had to work at weekends and had no childcare. They’d bring crayons and I’d give them money to get sweets from the village shop. The patients loved having them in the house and would let them go on their stair lifts and give them sweets and biscuits. It wouldn’t happen nowadays. Some houses were really filthy and some were pristine. You’d always work out which house you would take a drink from. I’d always got my excuse ready if the house was filthy.
We had to contend with all sorts of weather conditions. Cars weren’t air-conditioned and were very hot in summer and when it snowed in winter it was difficult to get out of the drive, let alone do your round. Eventually I moved to Litcham, a more rural practice with two GPs who were known to be tricky. They were religious and the senior partner was very pedantic and demanding. He would go through my list, discussing the patients and querying what I was doing. I was determined to get on with him and became quite fond of him. The junior partner was bumptious and arrogant but I liked him too though it could be challenging. I had an office in the surgery and a leg ulcer clinic once a week, which was interesting. I helped form the Litcham and Swaffham Home Hospice Group and was on the committee for several years.
Dogs were the bane of our lives. They would jump up and seemed out of control. I got chased by a dog once. One patient, a lovely man who lived in a little council house, would shut his vicious dog upstairs when he knew you were coming. One time as I shut the garden gate I heard a whooshing noise and realised the dog was loose. I immediately ran into the house, and discovered that the patient was down the garden, probably sorting out his vegetables. I was now trapped in the house with the dog right outside the door so I climbed out of the window, went back to the gate, shouted to the patient and explained what had happened. He was really upset. The dog had freed itself from its tether. I had one lovely patient whose son’s dog was very difficult. The son was unbalanced and made the dog vicious. He and I once got into an argument, he threatened to set the dog on me so I grabbed the patient and shut us in the bathroom as he was shouting through the door. The patient was crying and was very poorly. Eventually her son calmed down, backed off and removed the dog. I phoned the surgery to get help. After that experience I always had someone with me when visiting there. The son was a very disturbed man, he made his mother change her will in his favour. I visited her in a hospice where she told me she thought he would destroy himself, and he did. He spent all the money and eventually committed suicide. After his mother died he rang me to complain about his high electricity bill, blaming me for supplying her with a mattress to relieve pressure sores. After an hour I had to put the phone down. Relatives were often the problem.
‘..the social spectrum, from one end to the other’.
The patients, generally, were very nice. One lady with a fungating breast tumour lived with her husband in conditions that you wouldn’t believe – no glass in the windows of the cottage. It was very basic and when she became poorly I suggested he should get a single bed, and he got one off a tip. I built up a good relationship with them over the years but unfortunately I couldn’t nurse her to the end, having changed my job. Another patient with a horrible fungating tumour had a really rough family but the son-in-law looked after her wonderfully. When we changed the dressings her daughter would stand at the end of the bed going ‘Eurgh!’ One day her son-in-law was giving her liquid medicine by holding her nose and tipping it down her throat. I said ‘do you always that?’ and he said it was the only way she would take the medicine. At least she was being cared for in a rough and ready way.
I would look after Sir Peter Roberts overnight when Lady Roberts was away, but only when they’d agreed I could bring the children with me as I couldn’t leave them on their own. It was no problem so there I was in a mansion, with the children in the nursery, and he was delightful. I had to cook him a fried evening meal which he loved. He said I did the best fry-up. I didn’t have much to do and he never called me in the night. The children loved being there. Lady Roberts was excellent and would put a cheque in the post as soon as she returned. I dealt with all sorts of people. I went on travellers’ sites and they were always very good. The vans were very clean and the travellers would have a bowl, towel, soap and water ready for me. I had one patient who was a friend of the Queen Mother. Her husband trained the Queen Mother’s horses and they lived in a house on the edge of the Sandringham estate. One day I arrived to find her flapping around at the door, ‘Quick, quick, you’ve got to get my leg ulcer done quickly, I’m expecting the Queen Mother and I want you gone before she gets here’ which was a bit disappointing. On another occasion I was in the middle of dressing her leg ulcers when the phone rang. I answered it and Lady Angela, the Queen Mother’s lady in waiting, left a message for the trainer so say that the Queen Mother’s horse had won some race or other. We experienced the social spectrum from one end to the other. I once regretted sitting down behind an incontinent patient and had to drive back home to shower and change my uniform! I often took the kids in the car if I was working at weekends and when the schools closed due to bad weather. I couldn’t leave them on their own. If they were ill I stayed off work which wasn’t easy. They look back and laugh about it now, thank goodness.
We had to train students on district. They were all very nice but as the numbers increased I found it very hard work. You were in the car with them asking questions, and back at the surgery asking questions but you lost your thinking time. Driving in between the patients was your thinking time, what did I do there? Should I have done more? Should I ring so and so when I get back to the office? I would get home absolutely exhausted. I was given one student who had failed and they were going to get rid of her. She was wound up, crying and upset. I felt sorry for her but I think she’d been too outspoken.
Looking back I think I worked on my own for too long. I did get support from the Macmillan nurses who were good listeners and the doctors were quite supportive. When I turned sixty I decided to give up my area at Litcham. I took my NHS pension and state pension and I went on the bank, doing evening service from 5.30 to 10.30 as a staff nurse for five years, and I loved it. I was usually with another nurse, either trained or untrained. I had referrals from the day staff and the GPs. We had to do insulins, dress leaky legs and looked after palliative care patients. It was quite hard in the winter, driving on the dark roads but I got very good at it. When they brought in new working hours I was planning to move to Norwich and decided it was time to retire, after 30 years working for the NHS.
After I retired I went to a volunteers’ fair and enrolled as a volunteer at Oxborough Hall. I’ve been there as a room steward for the last nine years. I also joined Walking for Health which was just starting up in Dereham, and did that for six years. Since we’ve lived in Norwich I’ve joined the University of the Third Age and I’m now on the committee. I’m quite active and look after my grandchildren two evenings a week after school. There’s nothing more challenging than young children, as I’ve found out!
Brenda Barford (b. 1945) talking to WISEArchive on 8th July 2015 in Norwich.
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