Working Lives

How working at Beech House led to a new career (1956-1958)

Location: Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

Ann describes working as a ‘nurse’ at Beech House, Gressenhall and how that led to a new career in psychiatric nursing.

Working conditions

I started work at Beech House at Gressenhall in 1956 and was there till about August 1958. When I was 20 I’d returned home to Swanton Morley. I had worked in horticulture but there was no similar work available. The Labour Exchange in Dereham sent me to the Matron at Beech House saying ‘she usually needed girls to work there’. I had no idea what sort of work I was going for but when I arrived the Matron said ‘Oh, I think you will be suitable for the nursing staff’. I thought ‘Oh, right!’ You know! I wanted a job.

On my first day Nurse Dolly Howard helped me to settle in. One of the patients said ‘What’s your name?’ and I said ‘Ann’, and Nurse Howard laughed, ‘Nurse Ann!’, because, of course, I was Nurse Tye as it was surnames for all the staff. None of us were nurses but we were called ‘Nurse’ by the residents or patients. We were still designated as ‘female attendants’ which must have been from the old workhouse days.

We were provided with a uniform, a proper nurse’s uniform really. We wore pink because we were untrained, and we had frilly cuffs and belts. We looked like nurses and we primarily looked after the female patients. The male staff looked after the men, got them up and bathed them and made the beds. We didn’t have much to do with the male wards. I think we may have bathed them as well, in the bathroom, but not if they were ill. They had baths once a week. Some had their own clothes, certainly the younger element would have had their own clothes.

There were four female dormitories, each with probably about 15 beds, and I remember the male sick ward which trained nurses looked after. I believe there was a sick ward for the women as well.  The dormitories and the day rooms were segregated, if I remember rightly.

We had to be there at 7am and it was a 48 hour week. We worked from 7am till 5pm, or we did the dreadful split shifts, working from about 7am till 12pm, and then 4pm till 8pm or 9pm. I think that was fairly normal, even in hospitals, at that time. Those sort of hours were phased out a few years later. I have no recollection of what we were paid.

I don’t remember any particular smells or noises, I suspect it was pretty whiffy in places.

Staff and scandal

There were two trained nurses, Janet Lennon and Kathy Tuck, a trained Sister and the Matron who was a trained nurse, I suppose. There was some sort of scandal involving the Matron when I arrived, I can’t remember her name but she left overnight, along with one of the nurses, I think it was a case of the theft of valuables, not ill-treatment. It was pretty well hushed up. Matron Withey and her husband were temporarily in charge until Matron and Mr Gerrard were appointed. They were very good and took an interest in the staff. There wasn’t much training. Any nursing was done by the trained staff.

Janet Lennon, the psychiatric nurse, Matron and Mr Gerrard, and the other attendants were Dolly Howard, Doris Burton, Shirley Buck, Doreen Holmes and Betty Allen. Amongst the men were Dick Sillis, Bruce Moore and a Mr Springall – I can’t remember his Christian name, and also Mr and Mrs Mickleburgh. Mr Mick was the maintenance man and Mrs Mickleburgh had housekeeping duties. They had a young daughter called Elizabeth and they lived in. Mrs Mickleburgh was very involved with the laundry, the clean laundry and distribution, that sort of thing, housekeeping.

Spotless wards for a mix of residents

Most of my work involved cleaning. Each of the junior staff was responsible for cleaning a particular room or dormitory. Once the patients were up and about we pulled out the beds, swept and dusted and polished the floors, made the beds and I think we also served meals. I suppose we sorted the laundry but I can’t remember much else about the work, this is 50 years ago! I think the rooms were warm. I can just remember the cleaning of the rooms which was pretty normal for junior nurses in any sort of establishment.

The residents were a mixture of young and old. Some were left from the old workhouse days, I think, young people, some with learning difficulties, mental illness and epilepsy. There were also the kind of residents you’d expect to find in an old people’s home. The youngest there was probably only about 20. There were certainly two very young people, a boy and a girl. There was medication for the epileptics and they were partially controlled. That young person on the photograph, Eileen, was epileptic and she was only in her twenties so presumably she had no-one. I’m fairly sure Nora Mickleburgh was epileptic as well and had other disabilities, and there was a boy in his twenties, who was certainly epileptic.

One or two little ladies worked in the laundry, again I think they had probably been there when it was a workhouse. They either had learning difficulties or whatever else. It didn’t take too much to get in the workhouse, did it?  There may have been a deaf and dumb lady, that does ring a bell. Another elderly lady was Beulah Mallett, Beulah, lovely Biblical name wasn’t it? She used to embroider tablecloths and tray cloths to sell to various people. I don’t think she had any family and I don’t know about the others. I can’t remember having many admissions, I wouldn’t have been involved. There was an exchange of patients with Thorpe St Andrews. If someone at Beech House became mentally disturbed and someone at Thorpe needed a place, there’d be swaps.

Just inside the gates there were rooms for homeless families. They were still being used and they were pretty bleak. I worked with a social worker who had been involved taking families there, and he said how he hated leaving them in these sort of bleak surroundings.

Night duty and bad weather

I can’t remember Christmas at Beech House, perhaps I had time off.  I did some night duty in a little room in the block that faces the Beetley Road. The Sister or the Matron must have been on call all the time as well, and bats flew about the corridors! I can remember that!

One time, when the weather was very bad, I had to stay overnight because having cycled from Swanton Morley to Gressenhall, it was impossible to get home and I had no way of letting my family know. I suppose they just assumed I was alright and not in a snowdrift! We had no telephones. I also remember having Asian ‘flu and being told off when I went back to work because I hadn’t let anyone know. Again, there were no telephones. If I had been well enough to get to a telephone I would have been well enough to get to work, you know.

Food and drink!

I can remember bread and dripping. That sounds very workhouse-ish, but that was for supper, and great cauldrons of soup which smelled absolutely delicious, and I think it was probably nutritious. They had specific dining rooms but I don’t remember having a great deal to do with that, except in the evenings.

Some of the residents would go down to The 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. One resident was a dwarf called Freddie and he would go into Dereham on Friday, market day, spend his day in the pubs, and invariably  come back legless. 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! The other nurse on duty and I 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. I can’t remember his surname, he was always known as ‘Little Freddie’.

Making the best with little training

I’m not sure the care was that good. The nurses did the best they could. Janet Lennon, the psychiatric nurse, 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. 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.

However, having trained and worked at Hellesdon Hospital in a long nursing career, when I think back, my goodness, you know! Compared to what’s done now, it was pretty horrific but I don’t think it was worse than anywhere else.

I found it all very interesting but I didn’t know anything and in later years this led me into a career in psychiatric nursing. Janet, the trained psychiatric nurse, said to me many times ‘Don’t waste your time here. Go and get trained’. She died just last year at the age of 92. I always remembered her age because I was 20 and she was 40 when we were there. When I came back to Norfolk I saw her quite a lot. She lived in Dereham and we’d have a chat. She was a great influence, a good influence.

Outings and visitors

I’ve got one or two photographs, that one was an outing to Yarmouth in 1957, and that was Betty Allen, a care assistant, and there’s a patient, Nora Mickleburgh, and that’s myself. As far as I know Nora wasn’t related to the Mickleburghs. That’s Eileen – can’t remember her last name – and that was Springall and Bruce Moore. We went on another outing to Yarmouth in 1958 and there’s Betty Allen and Bruce Moore, and me and Doris Burton. Inevitably it rained and I was sent back to the bus to get everyone’s coats.  Outings were an annual thing but a lot of the residents could come and go into Dereham.

I can’t remember anything about Christmas there at all. I think the residents, the patients, were fairly happy there, yes, they were okay.  I’m sure they were encouraged to have visitors and I’m fairly sure there were various bodies of ladies used to come and visit. I think there were specific visiting times. 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 were dirty jobs to do, people got stuck in and did them.

Good advice

You can learn something from any job. It doesn’t matter how menial it is. You’ll get something from it. It certainly changed my direction.

Ann (b.1936) was talking to WISEArchive in Swanton Morley on 3rd February 2009.

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