Working Lives

My nursing career and other distractions (1949-2012)

Location: Cheltenham, Norwich

After training as a nurse, June became an Army wife. She went on to have a varied career in health – nursing, phlebotomy and health visiting.  On retirement she took a degree in history and with her husband gives talks and  leads guided tours in Norwich and elsewhere.

 Nursery nursing and training at Hammersmith

I started work at the age of 16, as a Nursery Nurse – you did two years training for a Nursery Nursing Certificate, working three days at the day nursery. This is just after the war so there were day nurseries all over the place because they encouraged women to work. You had two days a week in college for lessons. They didn’t pay very much – about 35 shillings a week. Fifteen shillings went to my mother and I had ten shillings.

Then I worked as a Saturday girl in Woolworths in Twickenham, and there I got another ten shillings which I could keep. When the Scots or the Welsh were playing (rugby) they customers teased you and you ran up and down your little rat run to serve them!

Sweet rationing was still going on then and one day gave everyone the wrong quantity of sweets – those that got more than they should have had weren’t complaining but the others did.

So I did two years and got my Nursery Nursing certificate. Then at the age of 18 I left home and lived at Hammersmith Hospital where I did my three year  nurse’s training. Hammersmith Hospital was right next to Wormwood Scrubs prison, which was quite interesting because if you had bedrooms facing the prison and you forgot to draw your curtains you were soon let know by the inmates on the other side of the wall.

You worked 48 hours a week, you did night duty and so on, and you earned six pounds ten a month but you did get full board. Because butter and sugar was rationed they gave you two little plastic pots, quite solid, with your room number embossed on it and you had your sugar and your butter to take round with you when you went for your meals so you could have your ration. I never took sugar in tea or anything so I built up my sugar ration but butter used to go a bit soft in it if you had it in your pocket all day.

After my nurse’s training I got married to a regular soldier. After three weeks he was sent back to Germany and there wasn’t a married quarters straight away so I started doing my midwifery training. I was about two or three months into a midwifery training and he wrote and said there was a married quarter so I got on a train and went across to Germany, and when I got to the station there was all these blokes in khaki and I thought ‘Oh, God I won’t recognise him!’ They all had short back and side haircuts. Anyway I found him and we lived in Germany for about three years.

The Army wife and back to nursing

As an Army wife really there wasn’t anything exciting to do but I got pregnant! After three years he was posted back to Cheltenham, and we got what was called an Army hiring in the town of Tewkesbury. Tewkesbury was quite nice but we wanted to come out of the Army. If you got posted to Germany most people sent their children to boarding school. You never knew where he was going to be posted next. So we thought we’d save up some money and I started doing night duty at a geriatric hospital. I used to come down after a night’s duty on my bicycle down the hill, down to the gates, and he’d be revved up on his motorbike to go to work, and we would kiss at the gates and I’d go in and look after our daughter.

After three years we had a son, and moved to Cheltenham and I did night duty at Cheltenham General. I got ill for a while. There were a lot of head injuries and as a night nurse you had to keep them cold, that was the theory in those days. You kept them cold but you also kept the nurse cold. So I was getting cold, coming home, looking after the children, having a kip and going back on night duty. My thyroid went up the creek. So, I was off duty for a bit and when I went back I did some private nursing, this was 1963.

I think it was more fun then. Nursing was more personal. Nowadays you don’t know one nurse from the other. You don’t even speak to them. In those days we had what you call the Nightingale wards, which were long wards and people were in longer so you got to know them more.

If I did go back, I would go back to a medical ward, which I always liked. I like people to come in and out so I get to know them – you don’t cure them, you just treat them.

Then I became a phlebotomist. I worked in the path lab but every morning I would go out with my little tray and stab people and take their blood. Ward sisters said the doctors kept on ordering the blood samples to be taken but didn’t take them; the nurses said they didn’t have time to take blood samples, and the people in the path lab said they were too busy. So they made this one job as a phlebotomist.

Nursing in Norwich; psychiatric hospitals, Clare hospital and midwifery

After a while we moved to Norwich and I market research, knocking on people’s doors asking them what they thought. I did a traffic survey – the best bit of that was being in the Prince of Wales Road on the morning shift, standing on the island and the Police stopping the cars. Then you went over and said, ‘Where have you parked your car this morning and how far have you travelled? ‘ And we held up all the traffic. Christmas, I worked at Debenhams in the toy department which was quite fun because you play with the toys.

Then I got a more permanent job, when the children were settled, at Thorpe St. Andrew psychiatric hospital. Because they were short of staff I think they took me on 9.30 to 3.30 so it fitted in with the school hours. I’d never really had a psychiatric background at all and I found it strange. I was put on the wards for the female elderly – and there I found it was very basic. We had a lot of Filipino nurses.

Ward sisters seemed to be quite often people that had come over, after the war, from Eastern Europe, because in those days they could only work in factories, agriculture or nursing. The ones that came from nursing had worked their way up and were ward sisters by the time I got there. A lot of them often were Russian orthodox or Greek orthodox which was very good at Christmas, because their Christmas is different to ours, so we could each have our Christmases off. I did some night duty at West Norwich Hospital at some time.

Then I went as a Welfare Assistant at Clare School, which dealt with physically handicapped of various forms and it was there I became very interested in a group of children we had there that had muscular dystrophy. It’s something that I’ve kept up with even now. We go to a monthly meeting and raise funds for the charity. Some goes to headquarters and some is used locally.

I was there for about 18 months and then I decided I’d like to be a Health Visitor, but I needed to finish my midwifery training and did six months training as a pupil midwife – rather a mature one really – at the old Norfolk and Norwich.

Factory work – experience for health visiting!

To have more empathy for the people I would be working with as a health visitor I thought I ought to have a bit of experience working in factories. So I worked in factory for a week and then put my notice in and worked the other week and then went to a different factory.

I worked for Erie Resistors for a fortnight, Diamond H controls for a fortnight, Heron Books (packing books) for a fortnight and then I made plastic bottles in a factory down Fishergate … And snowballs, they made snowballs in plastic as well.

The comradeship in the factories was quite different. It was quite a jolly crowd down at Diamond H – although my hands got blisters when I was working on the machinery there. They played bingo every day, so every time you went for your lunch break, at least you had something to look forward to, you might win. But I was only there a fortnight!

I did my health visiting training down at Ipswich, I used to go by train every day.

I loved health visiting. I was always on the side of the mothers. Each mother has got her own way of bringing up a child and I always felt they were trying to do Dr Spock or whatever, and they needed encouragement to trust themselves. In those days we had baby clinics, and we used to weigh the babies in church halls. You had to drag all the tables out and all the weighing machines, and there was a lot of visiting at home.

As Army wife I saw that the girls in the married quarters had very little. They had a medical officer there, he would probably be alright in the Crimean war for cutting legs off and things like that, but when it came to child health he probably didn’t have a clue.

When girls wanted to go to hospital for their ante natal care in the Army they went on the back of a lorry. We didn’t have big barracks, so maybe we were just stuck in the wilderness somewhat.

I remember when I was an Army wife a couple of the girls wanted to discuss family planning and didn’t fancy going down to see the chap there; in fact if you had any family planning it used to come through the post. While you were overseas you couldn’t get things like Dutch caps and condoms – it was before the pill. And you got them through the post if you wanted them. In England you had your proper GP’s.

I retired at 55 after 15 years of health visiting . Partly because at that time the children had grown up but the elderly relatives were beginning to crumble. My husband’s father and mother were ill, then my father came up and unfortunately got dementia. He came to live with us, so I worked part time the last year or so.

The highlight was the babies. There’s nothing like a young baby; you get the warmth of their head. And the mothers, in the clinic, when they had all the babies crawling round on the floor and they were having a cup of tea and meeting each other and things like that.

Health education was quite funny because in those days, I suppose it was before the teachers started doing it, we used to go in and do some health education – which meant no smoking and no drugs and no sex. And we used to take dolls and a bath and show them how to bath babies and things like that. That was quite nice.

I did decide that nursing really wasn’t a career that fitted in with family, this was before I did the health visiting. I thought I’d have a change of direction. I went to the City College and did a further education teaching certificate, which I passed. My husband was in the Construction department and he got me some teaching practice. One lot was with bricklayers and I think we did first aid … and they tied each other to the bench. It put me off teaching for life!

The history degree and tour guiding

My childhood education was rather mixed, because my mother followed my father all around. I went to school in Malvern, Corfe Castle in Dorset, Shepreth in Cambridgeshire, and Castleford. Then back to Twickenham going to school while we were there, then we were off again within a couple of weeks. I got no O or A levels.

When I retired I went to the UEA and got a history degree. I had done O and A level history for fun. A lot of people could get a degree but they think it’s something special. Your tutors are there to teach you how to do it – you don’t have to know it before you go.

I took five years doing my part-time degree  – I was in no hurry! I always felt sorry for the other students who were worrying about their grades. I came out with a BA honours, a 2:2. University teaches you how to learn for yourself really. All our lives ever since then have been on a historic base, really. I think I finished in 1994. I started in 1989. I did medieval history and I did a minor in Landscape.

Now my husband and I give talks to the Women’s Institute or indeed anyone who will have us, on the Rosary Cemetery. It is the first non-denominational cemetery in the country, grade listed 2 with star. There’s also a group of Friends of the Rosary. We also talk about Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, where we went for a week so. And on war memorials. We’re members of the War Memorial Trust – my husband goes round and surveys war memorials, measures them up and take photographs and so on… Any fee that we get from the Women’s Institute talks and things, we give to the Muscular Dystrophy charity.

I did tour guiding but can’t walk so much. I can walk round the cemetery all right because I can sit on a tombstone if I want to, but not round the city. I can do a coach. Put me on a coach and I can talk.

Looking back over my career

Nursing is very varied; everyone thinks of a nurse as being in a hospital but nurses can be a practice nurse in a doctor’s surgery. Or private nursing, which is quite strange. I’d never done it before we’d gone to Cheltenham, but to nurse somebody in their own home gives them a different aspect of nursing altogether.

Midwifery is another section of nursing really, but it’s entirely different. Health visiting of course is still there, district nurses are still around. In our training every three months you changed wards –you did an orthopaedic, you did a medical, you did a surgical ward and so on; or you worked in theatres for three months. One of our friends when I was training didn’t like the sight of blood but she became a theatre sister afterwards – so it wasn’t the blood I think it was just that the patients were awake! She preferred them unconscious. If you don’t enjoy your career, you shouldn’t be there.

I think the highlight would be the first time I ever passed anything. My husband came with me to get my results from my nursery nursing exam. It was the first exam I’d ever taken and I passed. I was so amazed I couldn’t speak for about two hours. It really shook me .

The health visiting suited me because you had your own car and could drive around. could drive around. There wasn’t somebody looking over your shoulder all the time. You were out and about all the time. You weren’t in an office. But it is changing, you’ve got to change with it. You go in and have your baby and six hours later you have been discharged. I had one in hospital and one at home. I feel sorry in some ways that home deliveries are going out of fashion, because it was quite nice having my son at home.

June (b. 1933) talking to WISEArchive on 28th November 2012 in Norwich.

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