Working Lives

My life as a nurse (1965-2009)

Location: Norwich

Sue trained as a nurse in the 1960s and retired in 2009. During this time she worked in many different areas of nursing. She describes her training and various roles, including working on medical wards, being a nursery matron, working in general practice and the early days of NHS Direct and comments on how things have changed.

From a very early age I only ever wanted to be a nurse. I remember visiting my granddad in hospital as a child and getting really excited about seeing him, mainly because I just loved the distinctive smell of hospitals. I also looked forward to Sunday nights when a group from my church would visit the local hospital to sing hymns and talk to the patients. I loved watching the nurses at work and I used to admire their uniforms with the black stockings, hoping one day I’d be like them. I think I was also influenced by my grandmother who wasn’t a nurse, but she is the kindest, most gentle woman.

I grew up in Oldham, which is now part of Greater Manchester. I didn’t particularly enjoy school and by the end I was counting down the days until I could leave. I left at 15, with no qualifications, and in January 1965 started working in an office, but this was just a planned short-term job until I turned 16 and could start as a cadet nurse. I was determined to become a nurse.

Before starting properly as a cadet we had to have an appointment in the hospital sewing room to be measured for our uniforms. The required length of our dresses was the most talked about issue. This was the 1960s, the peak of the miniskirt, but ours had to be two inches below the knee. At the beginning of each day we all had to file into the assistant matron’s office to sign a register and we were told our dress was too short if our stocking tops were visible to her when we leaned over. We were not allowed to have our hair tucked in the back of our collar. We had to learn how to fold our new starched caps which was incredibly difficult. Earrings were not allowed except for sleepers and neither were rings, wristwatches or necklaces. We had a fob watch. Shoes were regulation with laces and rubber soles and they were the most horrid shoes you could imagine. Only one shop in Oldham sold them and we only had two choices. All our dresses were laundered on site and we never wore our cadet uniform outside the hospital.

I worked as a cadet until I was 18. My wage was five pounds a week. Our week consisted of two days at the local college and four days working in the hospital, with Sundays our day off. My first allocation was orthopaedic outpatients and then I went to the physio department before progressing to a medical ward. The wards were what we would call Nightingale wards; long wards with about 20-25 beds with a locker at the side. As a very junior cadet you started with the cleaning. This meant water in a bowl with a cloth on a trolley. The bedside locker had to be wiped down, rubbish removed from the locker top and ashtrays empted – yes, patients smoked in bed. Then we started on the beds and all the surfaces underneath the beds. When we’d done approximately 40 beds and lockers we took the trolley away, cleaned it and then went into the sluice to start on the flowers. Many years ago flowers would be removed from the ward overnight so my job was to sort them out, put fresh water in the vases and push them out onto the ward for patients to tell us which were their flowers. After a coffee break it was back to the ward and into the dreaded sluice again, cleaning and sterilising bedpans and urinals. The steriliser looked like a deep chest freezer. It was filled with water, switched on and it boiled away. There’d be steam everywhere. I got quite a nasty injury from it and was taken to casualty. We were also worked like runners for the sister and the staff nurses. We were never allowed to refer to our colleagues by their Christian name; it always had to be Nurse Whoever. We had to serve the food and drinks to the patients which meant we got lots of patient contact and time to actually chat to them which is so important. The food would arrive on the ward in a heated trolley and we had to serve the patients with the plate on the tray.


In May 1967 I finished as a cadet and started my three year training to be a state registered nurse. This meant another visit to the sewing room to be measured for our student nurse uniforms. This time it was green and white fine stripe, very thick cotton, with short sleeves where we had to fix hard, starched high cuffs and then a loose separate starched collar which was fixed with collar studs front and back. My granddad gave me the studs and I still have them. I had a permanent red line on my neck as the collars were so stiff and uncomfortable. Over the dress we wore the starched white apron. Our starched cap would be fixed on with white grips. My favourite item was a wonderful blue wool cape with red lining; it was so warm. Our uniforms were made for us individually and each item had our name stitched inside. We were allocated ten dresses, ten aprons, collars and cuffs and a very large linen laundry bag. Dirty dresses and aprons were put in this laundry bag, collected and laundered on site. We stored our uniforms, handbags and outdoor coat in lockers as we were never allowed to take any personal items with us onto the wards. All our meals and drinks whilst on duty were free. Throughout my training I lived at home with my parents and I travelled to work on the bus. There was a nurses’ home at the hospital, but most of my colleagues were also local and living at home, although there were quite a few Irish nurses.

As a student nurse I worked 42 hours a week and my salary went up to 26 pound a month. The first eight weeks of the training were spent in the classroom where we were taught about ethics, about nursing, feeding, washing patients, dressings and how to make a hospital bed properly, including the hospital corners. We had two practical rooms in the school which were like mini wards where we took turns in being the patient lying in bed being washed, turned and questioned. Our tutors were very straight-laced and humour never came into our training whilst in the classroom!

In Oldham there were two hospitals. There was the Oldham Royal Infirmary, which was very old, and Oldham and District General Hospital, but they were run as one. Certain specialities were at one hospital, certain were at another. The first ward I was allocated to was a medical ward. The sister was so scary. You did as you were told and whatever they asked you to do you just had to do it. I was put in theatre during my first year of training and I was petrified. In all my years of nursing I never hated anything quite as much because you just stood at the back and picked up bloody swabs and hung them on racks. Then there was orthopaedics. I found the eye ward interesting. The treatment in those days was so different to now. Following many eye operations, patients had bandages covering their eyes, and, for this reason, this was the only ward in the hospital which had dark green venetian blinds. We had to tip-toe around the ward and whisper to patients so as not to startle them. Many patients also had to be fed their meals.
The children’s ward also looked quite different to the others. It had really high ceilings. A grey lady was alleged to be on the children’s ward which was where I usually did all my night shifts. I was on my own looking after about 30 children and I often wrote the notes with a baby sat on my lap to keep it quiet. One patient stands out more than any other. A man who was a long-distance lorry driver took his little girl with him one day and she opened the door of the cab, fell out and he drove right over her left side. This was on Saddleworth moors, about ten miles from Oldham, but he put her back in the cab and drove to the hospital. He walked into casualty carrying her and then he collapsed. She had a leg amputated and part of her arm. She had three cardiac arrests, but she survived. I can remember her coming back wearing a prosthesis and she was so happy. She was just two years old.

I did a short spell in geriatrics, then to obstetrics. I’ll never forget the first baby I helped to deliver. His name was Philip. Another one that stands out is a lady who had her 13th baby which popped out like shelling a pea and then discharged herself the next day. Part of this role was to go out with the district midwife. We went to houses that were boarded up at the front windows. These were houses waiting to be demolished. In one call there wasn’t even a bar of soap in the house and you could hardly see the baby in the cot because there were so many blankets and things piled on it. It was filthy. Not even a bar of soap in the house and stone floor, no carpets. Another house we went into the mum was resting in bed. The midwife went upstairs first, followed by me, followed by the lady’s husband, and all the time I was walking up the stairs the lady’s husband’s hand was up my dress. I had to keep quiet because I wasn’t allowed to pass any comments at all.

All my night duty was done at Oldham Royal Infirmary. Patients slept all night in those days. We didn’t interfere with them at all so we would sit on the corridor between two wards, but we had to sit with our feet up on the chairs because mice would run along the corridors round our feet. Sometimes we’d go to a patient and see cockroaches crawling up the curtains. It was horrid really, but that was the norm then.

The different ranks in hospital have changed too. There would be an auxiliary nurse – which they now call health care assistants – and then first, second and third year student nurses as well as pupil nurses. Then there would be staff nurse, junior sister, senior sister and matron. There was only one matron for the whole of the hospital, not about 50 like there are now. In the dining room we had to sit on specific tables: student nurses together, staff nurses together, ward sisters on their own, matron and assistant matron and home sister on another table. The wards would have a ward clerk and a permanent cleaner. I would never have dreamed of interfering with the cleaning. Medical secretaries were part of the team, but they were together in an office away from the wards.

I was involved in the consultant’s ward round. It was the big event of the week. The ward doors had to be closed. We had to check there was a new bar of soap on the sink and a clean towel. The doctor would start at the first bed on the left and there would be about ten staff around the bed. I would be the next bed along opening the pyjama tops of the men so that the consultant could move along. There was no faffing about and we had to be silent. Patients had to sit upright and the sheet had to be folded back over the counterpane. The poor patients couldn’t relax at all.

One memorable moment in my career happened while I was a student nurse. A young girl came in via casualty after taking an overdose of pills. Patients who had attempted suicide were not allowed to have matches and cigarettes because it was a safety issue, but to keep her quiet and to keep on the right side of her every couple of hours through the night shift I pulled the screens around and gave her one of my own cigarettes. In the morning I wasn’t able to do this as I had other patients to care for and she wasn’t happy. She decided she would go home, but I managed to stop her in the corridor and said she needed to wait for the doctors to see her. She swiped me across the head, pushing me on the floor and knocking my cap off. I managed to get her back to the ward. She then floored me, pulled me by my hair and started punching me. I was shouting for help for all I was worth and eventually five of us managed to get her back into bed and she was given a sedative. The facts are she beat me up and that really is the only time I’ve actually been physically abused.

After 18 months we did an exam which we called prelims: the preliminary exam. You had to pass this to be able to carry on nursing and fortunately I did pass it. After the three years we had final exams. In those days there was a written and a practical exam. My first attempt I failed both parts. The second time I passed the practical, but I failed the written. On the third attempt I passed the written so I was finally a state registered nurse. A few months later my letter came through the post with SRN on the envelope behind my name which was wonderful. My grandmother who inspired me so much always promised me that when I qualified she’d buy me a silver buckle. Well, I wore my silver buckle with pride.

During my finals my father was ill and I was allowed to look after him. He was admitted to the ward that I was working on and I had special permission to nurse him. I didn’t have to look after any other patients on that ward; I just concentrated on my dad. He died and looking after him during this time was a privilege.

My first job as a staff nurse was on a medical ward. This meant another new uniform: lilac stripes this time with long sleeves. I loved it on this ward as there were loads of different types of patients. There were many people who had had heart attacks. In those days the treatment was to lie in bed still for six weeks which is the complete opposite to now. We had to feed them and we had to wash them and then eventually after about four weeks we’d let them sit out of bed.

After a year as a staff nurse I got a promotion to my first sister’s job in a small coronary care unit. This was very intense, but very interesting. One night we had to ring the fire brigade. On any callout for a hospital they used to send about six fire engines so the place was heaving with firemen. We had patients on monitors and continuous oxygen. There was a man in a corner bed who was a little bit confused and he kept saying ‘I can see firemen’ and I kept saying ‘No, no, you’re having a dream, it’s fine’. I had to get a tea trolley out and make cups of tea for all these firemen. Fortunately it was only two wires that had shorted and caught so there weren’t actually flames, just smoke.

My next job was a sister on a female medical ward which I enjoyed. I’d since got married and I was pregnant, but unfortunately I had my baby and he died. After this I decided to have a complete change and became a nursery matron. This was in Oldham where there were lots of cotton mills. One group was called the Shiloh Spinners and there was a children’s day nursery subsidised by the company so the mums could work. A van used to collect children from their homes, bring them in and we’d wash them, change them, give them breakfast and they’d be with us all day. Another part of this job was running drop-in sessions where I’d give simple advice to the mill workers each morning and afternoon and also had to deal with any accidents that happened in the mills.

I got pregnant again and had my daughter. I did part-time work in an orthopaedic ward which fitted in with having a small baby and my husband working. When my daughter was three we moved to Norfolk and I went to work at the West Norwich. I wasn’t very keen on working there so after three months I moved to Aylsham. I did two nights a week at St Michael’s Hospital which again fitted in well with family life.

In 1982 I changed direction yet again and became a practice nurse at a surgery in Reepham. This was a new phenomenon, bringing nurses into general practice. I absolutely loved it and I was actually there for 16 years. I specialised in women’s health and got certificates in women’s health, family planning and psychosexual health. I did a couple of days in the family planning clinic and three days at the surgery. We set up a travel clinic because as time went on more and more people were travelling abroad. I spent a year doing locum work around Norfolk which was a really useful exercise because you could see how other surgeries worked. I worked at West Earlham for a while where the type of patients were quite different to Reepham. They had many social problems such as drug addiction. It was quite challenging, but I enjoyed looking after them.

I then decided I would work at NHS Direct. This was when it was first set up and I worked four years there. We’d have regular callers ringing every single day with the same problem. During the night we had a lot of mental health calls. I have sat for forty minutes talking to people sitting on a windowsill about to kill themselves. There were also lots of worried mums who I felt an empathy for, having a child myself. It was interesting and I learned a lot, but the thing I missed was seeing patients face to face. It’s not the same talking to someone down a telephone. You can’t possibly give someone advice about a rash when you can’t see it. I had to go back to practice nursing because I had to see patients; having said that, I learned a lot.

I went back to practice nursing until 2009. It was not in my plan to retire at 60, but I had to because of my health. Since then I’ve done a couple of jobs. The first one was working for an agency in the flu season where various organisations around Norwich would pay for their employees to have flu jabs. I‘ve also worked for a care agency. One man I looked after was recovering from a severe head injury. I found out he liked gardening so I used to take him out to gardens or for a coffee somewhere and one day we cleaned his garage out. This was more social care than nursing.

I’ve stopped working altogether now, but friends and neighbours will often come to the door and ask me questions. I don’t think I’m ever going to take my nurse’s cap off and I don’t really think I want to. I’ve loved almost every minute of my nursing career. I’m very proud to say my daughter has followed me into this profession and is now wearing the silver buckle my grandmother gave me with the same pride as I did. My nine-year-old granddaughter also wants to be a nurse.

sue williamson
Sue Williamson (b. 1949) talking to WISEArchive on 5th April 2016 in Taverham.

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