How working at Beech House led to a new career

Location : Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

I worked at what was then called Beech House at Gressenhall from 1956 until about August 1958. I was 20 years old when I went there, had come back home to live at Swanton Morley, and there was no work available of the kind I had been doing, which was horticulture, so I went to the local Labour Exchange in Dereham, and was sent to see the Matron at Beech House. They said she usually needed girls to work there. I had no idea what sort of work I was going for, but when I arrived for interview the Matron said “Oh, I think you will be suitable for the nursing staff”.

I duly presented myself for work, and was helped to settle in by one of the older . . we were called nurses, but in fact none of us were. I think we were still called “female attendants”, which must have been from the old Workhouse days, but we were called “Nurse” by the residents or patients. There were two trained nurses, J L and a K T, and a trained Sister. The Matron was trained as a nurse, I suppose, at that time. Most of the work which I did really involved cleaning. Each of the junior staff there, we had a room or a dormitory, which it was our responsibility to keep clean, so that once the patients were up and about we pulled out the beds, we swept and dusted, and polished the floors, and I think we did some provision of meals, or serving meals. Other than that I can’t really remember much else about the actual work.

Did you have to make beds?

We made beds, yes.

…. and sorted the laundry when it came back up to you?

I suppose we did . .. I really .. .this is 50 years ago! (laughs)

We were provided with a uniform. It was a proper nurse’s uniform really. We wore pink because we were the untrained people, and we had frilly cuffs and belts. Looked like nurses, and I’m fairly sure we looked after primarily the female patients. There were male staff to look after the men, and they were fairly segregated. Certainly the dormitories obviously were segregated, and I think the day rooms were too, if I remember rightly.

How many people did you look after?

I should think the dormitory, there were probably about 15 beds, something like that, and there was a male sick ward I can remember, but we had very little to do with that. The trained nurses dealt with that.

There was some sort of scandal involving the Matron when I went there, and I cannot remember her name, but she seemed to have left sort of overnight, along with one of the nurses, and I think it was a case of theft, and after that there was a temporary Matron, called Matron W and her husband were in charge, until Matron and Mr G were appointed, and they were very good and took an interest in the staff. A certain amount . .. there wasn’t much training went on. If there was any nursing to be done the trained staff did it.

There was some very bad weather when I was there. I know I had to stay overnight once, because I would have cycled from Swanton Morley to Gressenhall, and it was impossible to get home. So I know I slept overnight once, and there was no way of letting family know either. I suppose they just assumed I was all right and not in a snowdrift (laughs). We had no telephones. I can also remember having Asian ‘flu when I worked there and then being told off when I went back to work because I hadn’t let anyone know. But again there was no telephones. If I had been well enough to get to a telephone I was well enough to get to work, you know.

Could you sort of take me through a normal day? Did you work 8 hours or longer than 8 hours?

I’m pretty sure we had to be there at 7 in the morning, and it would almost certainly have been a 48 hour week. So we worked from 7 till 5, or we did the dreadful split shifts, so that we worked from about 7 till 12, and then came back 4 till 8 or 9. But I think that was fairly normal even in hospitals at that time. I know they were phased out quite a few years later, those sort of hours.

The patients were a really mixed bunch. There were those that were left from the old Workhouse days, I think. There were some quite young people, some of them with learning difficulties and epilepsy. There were then the normal sort of residents that you’d expect to find in an Old People’s Home. I think the youngest there were probably only about 20. There were certainly two there that I remember were very young, a boy and a girl. It was this fact really that in later years led me into a career in psychiatric nursing, because I found it all very interesting, but I didn’t know anything, and I felt pretty ignorant. Well, I was pretty ignorant! (laughs) But there was one nurse there in particular who was a trained psychiatric nurse, and she said to me many times “Don’t waste your time here. Go and get trained.”

Do you remember her name?

Yes. J L. She just died last year. She lived to 92. I could always remember how old she was because I was 20 and she was 40 when we were there. And after I came back to Norfolk I saw her quite a lot. She lived in Dereham and I did see her and we’d have a chat. She was a great influence, a good influence.

I can’t remember spending Christmas there. I suppose I did. Perhaps I had time off. I don’t remember anything like that.

I did some night duty. We had a little room in the block that now faces the Beetley Road. There was a little night duty room up there where we sat. I suppose there must have been the Sister or the Matron on call all the time. And there were bats that flew about the corridors. I can remember that! (laughs)

And did they manage to keep it warm? You’ve just been talking about the cold weather. ‘Cos the rooms were so high, weren’t they?

Yes. I think so, yes.

So can you remember .. . . could you run me through a day’s duty?

Not really. I can’t, no. I can just remember the cleaning of the rooms, but again that was pretty normal for junior nurses in any sort of establishment.

The food . .. I can remember bread and dripping. That sounds very workhouse-ish, but that was for supper. And these great cauldrons of soup which smelled absolutely delicious, and I think it probably was very nutritious that was served up. And some of the residents would go down to the pub, the local pubs, either Gressenhall Swan or Beetley New Inn, and there were occasions when staff would have to take a wheelchair because they were incapable of getting themselves home. (laughs) And I can remember there was one little resident, he was a dwarf. His name was F, and it was his habit, he would go into Dereham on Friday, which was market day, and spend his day in the pubs, and he invariably came back legless, really. And when I was on night duty once he came back absolutely fighting fit, and he wasn’t going to bed, and no so-and-so was going to get him to bed! And myself and the other nurse on duty we just sort of picked him up under the arms, and his feet didn’t hit the floor as we took him up the stairs! I can remember that very clearly! (laughs)

You don’t know his surname, do you?

I can’t remember! I have tried to remember his surname. He was always known as “Little F”.

Where did they actually eat? Because you said supper was brought up. Did they have specific dining room?

They had specific dining rooms, yes. I don’t remember having a great deal to do with that, except in the evenings, perhaps we did.

I’m not sure the care was that good. I suppose the nurses did the best they could. I mean, J, the psychiatric nurse, she was there in the same sort of capacity as we were as a nursing assistant or female attendant, because they didn’t recognise her qualifications. And the other nurse was an Enrolled Nurse, but I know in those days there was very little training involved in that. They could almost get signed up for enrolment on a doctor’s say so.

Just inside the gates there were the rooms for the homeless families.

Still being used?

Yes, I’m pretty sure they were still being used then, and they were pretty bleak, because later on I worked with a Social Worker who had been involved sometimes with taking families there, and he said how he hated leaving them in these sort of bleak surroundings.

Were you fed while you were on duty?

That I can’t remember either. I just cannot remember. Nothing comes to mind about that.

Can you remember any of the names of people .. . any of the staff you haven’t mentioned?

Oh yes. The enrolled nurse was K T. She’s now dead. There was J L, the psychiatric nurse. Matron Gand Mr. And the other attendants who were there were DH, D B, S B, D H, B A. And the men: there was a D S, BM, and a Mr S – I can’t remember his Christian name. And there was also a Mr and Mrs M. Mr M was sort of the maintenance man and Mrs M had housekeeping duties. They had a young daughter called E. They lived in, the Ms. Mrs M was very much involved with the laundry, the clean laundry and distribution, that sort of thing, housekeeping.

And how much were you paid?

No, I can’t remember that either! (laughs) I have no recollection of what we were paid.

And can you remember the names of any of the people you looked after?

I can remember . .. I’ve got a photograph of . . one or two photographs . .. .(shows photos) That one was an outing. We went to Yarmouth, 1957, and that was B A, was a care assistant. She was a patient, NM, that’s myself. . E – can’t remember her last name – E, and that was S and B M, they were the two men.

(Another photo) We went on an outing to Yarmouth and that was B A . .. B M.

(Another photo) And this is myself and D B. 1958, that was. That was the same outing to Yarmouth when inevitably it rained (laughs). I was sent back to the bus to get all the coats (laughs) for the people that we took.

I can remember another elderly lady. Her name was B M. Lovely Biblical name wasn’t it? And she used to embroider tablecloths and tray cloths and sell to various people.

And the elderly people who came in . . .. usually in those days they kept them with families if they possibly could. Did they not have relations, or could the relations not cope or …?

I don’t think B had any family. No, I think sometimes they … I can’t remember having many admissions really. I suppose I wouldn’t have been involved. What I do remember is that there was sort of an exchange of patients with Thorpe St Andrews, you know. So that if someone at Beech House became very mentally disturbed and someone at Thorpe needed a place, there’d be swaps go on.

And there was one or two little ladies that worked in the laundry, but again I think they had probably been there when that was a Workhouse. They either had learning difficulties or whatever else. It didn’t take too much to get in the Workhouse, did it?

No, it didn’t. Somebody mentioned a deaf and dumb lady. I don’t know whether you remember her?

I think that does ring a bell .. . yeah.

So was there only one female dormitory when you were there?

Oh no, lots. We had one each. There must have been four I should think and I can remember what they called the Male Sick Ward, but we didn’t have much to do with that, because the trained nurses looked after that. And I suppose there was the female equivalent as well, but we didn’t have anything much to do with the male wards really. The men looked after them, and got them up and bathed them and made the beds.

Did you have to bathe them as well?

Again I don’t remember, but I think we must have done . . . must have done. In the bathroom, not if they were ill.

And how often did they have a bath?

I should think that was a once a week job.

Yes I’m sure! (laughter)

Again, I don’t really remember, but I should think that would be about it.

And did they have their own clothes to wear or did they have clothes . . .?

I think some did. Some did, yes. Certainly the younger element would have had their own clothes.

And I know you said you didn’t think the care was brilliant, and you weren’t particularly happy with the place. Are you prepared to say anything about that?

Not really. As I said, it’s only with after.. . I mean, I had a long career in nursing afterwards, and when I think back .. . But then again when I think back to how things were . .. I worked at Hellesdon Hospital. I trained there, and when I think back to the early days there, my goodness, you know! Compared to what’s done now it was pretty horrific. So I don’t think it was any worse than anywhere else, apart from this Matron whose name I can’t remember.

The one who had to leave?

Yes. But I think that was pretty well hushed up probably. I think it was not ill-treatment, but theft of valuables.

And what about the treatment of you as a junior nurse? Were they reasonable?

Yes. Oh yes!

Even the one who had to leave? Was she . . .?

Again, there wasn’t that much direct contact really. I don’t remember much other than that initial interview (laughs).

What sort of questions did you get asked? Can you remember?

No. I can just remember her saying “I think you’ll be all right on the nursing staff”. I thought “Oh right!” You know! I wanted a job (laughs). I hadn’t a clue what I was going for really (laughs)

And you were just there for two years?

Less than that I should think. It was ’56 to ’58, but not the complete two years.

And you mentioned the outing to Great Yarmouth. Did you all go on outings fairly regularly?

No. I think it was an annual thing, but a lot of the residents went into Dereham, you know, and they could come and go.

And did you have a Christmas Party or anything like that? Did the staff have a Christmas party?

I can’t remember anything about Christmas there at all.

Were they fairly happy, the people who were there, or did they just accept that they were there .. .?

The residents, the patients? Oh, yes, I think they were OK, yes.

Did you have any husbands and wives who were separated?

No. That was the Workhouse, wasn’t it? But as an Old People’s Home, again as I said, they were such a mixture of young and old and learning difficulties, or what we now call learning difficulties, mental illness, epileptics and normal people.

I mean even that’s something, to know that epileptics were in that sort of place. Could the fits not be controlled in any way? Was there no medication in those days?

Oh yes there was medication, and they were partially controlled. That young person I showed you on the photograph, E, she was epileptic, and I mean she was only in her twenties, if that, so presumably she had no-one. (Indicating photograph) I’m fairly sure she was epileptic as well, but with other disabilities.

That was N M?

Yes. And there was a young boy there as well whose name I can’t remember. He was certainly epileptic. Again only in his twenties.

And the younger people, did they help out? I believe the deaf and dumb lady helped in the laundry. Did any of the other people help out?

Yes, I’m sure they did.

But you can’t remember what they did?

No, not specifically.

How did you address people then?

Oh yes. I do remember that! (laughs) My first day there and one of the patients said “What’s your name?”, and I said “A”, and it was Nurse D H who was sort of initiating me, and she laughed, because you were called by your last … surname. And she laughed and said “Nurse A!” And of course I was Nurse T. But the other staff, it was all surnames.

And the Sisters didn’t get called by the name of a ward or anything, like they used to be in the old London Hospitals?

No, no. Because there weren’t wards . .. well, they did have names to the rooms. I can’t remember what they were, but they did. It was T and H and ….

. .. .and Sister so-and-so, yes. (laughter)

And do you remember any particular smells or noises?

Not really. I suspect it was pretty whiffy in places! (laughs)

Who else was in the building besides staff?

Besides staff? Staff and patients.

Were they encouraged to have visitors?

Yes, I’m sure they were. And I’m fairly sure there were various bodies of ladies used to come and visit.

And did they still have specific visiting times, or could people come at any time of day?

I don’t remember, but I should think there were specific visiting times.

And can you remember any incidents, either funny, sad or frightening, or anything particular that springs to mind that happened while you were there?

Only getting F up the stairs to bed! (laughs) Not really. Nothing really comes to mind.

What do you think you enjoyed the most and what did you dislike the most while you were there?

I think all the staff there were really very good. The camaraderie was good, because we were all in the same boat, I suppose, and if there was dirty jobs to do sometimes, people got stuck in and did it.

Do you feel you’ve got anything to say, based on your experiences, to pass on to young people today?

(Laughs) That any job you can learn something from. It doesn’t matter how menial it is. You’ll get something from it.

Yes, and it’s amazing isn’t it, how often we bump into someone who changes our life’s direction, like .. . ..

Yes. It certainly changed my direction.

Have you got anything else you’d like to say at all?

No. I don’t think I have. That’s as much as I can remember. I expect there will be things that come to mind, but I can’t .. . no, there’s nothing else that comes to mind immediately.

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