Sylvia left school in 1944, and worked with children for a while before training at
the age of 18, as a nurse, and later on as a midwife, and finally as a health
visitor, and worked until she retired at the age of 60.
Could you tell us a little bit about leaving school and the sort of qualifications
you had and your first job?
I left school in 1944 when I was 16. My father didn’t want me to because he
wanted me to stay on and go to university. But I had school certificate with
matriculation exemption, so I knew I could train at a London teaching hospital.
I had wanted to be a nurse since I was about 10 and I have absolutely no idea
why. So I left home and worked in children’s residential nurseries, of which
there where quite a few about in wartime. The two I worked in were both in the
country. One was miles out, in the middle of nowhere. I had to cross a great,
long field with cows in it, after two bus rides from home to get there (laughs).
And I was actually rejected by two London hospitals, without interview, on
account of my height, or rather, my lack of it. But the matron at Charing Cross
Hospital, she was a dumpy little Yorkshire woman, and she knew perfectly well
that little people could work just as hard as big people (laughs). So I
started my training there in July 1946.
told me before that you had left school with school certificates. Would you
like to talk just briefly about that before you go on?
yes, I took school certificate, and when we took school certificate, if we got
high enough marks, you got matriculation exemption, which I suppose would be
similar to today’s AS Level. And that was the amount of qualification I needed.
I actually went to a grammar school in Bracknell, but for the last year I was
at school I went to a small, private boarding school [at Shepperton – on the Thames], but I went there because my parents
both might have been called out at night. My father was a Special Constable, my
mother was a VAD, and as we were only 30 miles from London, sometimes after the
raids, they took ambulances up and brought back some of the injured to our local
hospitals. So, I went to this small, private boarding school and the teaching
was absolutely excellent, and the classes were small. And so that was where I
finished school, where I took my exams.
1946 – training at Charing Cross hospital
thank you very much. And do you want to talk about now, taking up your nursing
training? Which hospital was that?
was Charing Cross Hospital, which was an old, Victorian hospital, on the Strand
in London, in those days. And we had a nurses’ home which was at Belsize Park,
so we had season tickets for the tube. We had to walk down to Chalk Farm
Station and get the tube to Charing Cross, and we started work at 8:00 in the
morning because we were allowed half-hour for travelling. Any of the staff
nurses who were living in at the hospital had to go on duty at 7:30 in the
morning. What else do you want to know?
okay, would you like to tell me about your training, your hours and the uniform
well we started training in the PTS (Preliminary Training School), which was
actually based at our nurses’ home, but we had to be in full uniform. One of
the first things we were taught, of course, was how to fold our caps, because
we were just given an oblong of starched linen, and we had to make it into a butterfly
cap (laughs), and that was most important, to get that right.
it a new cloth every day?
we didn’t have a new cap every day. When we were on the wards we had a clean
apron every day, but not a clean cap every day, no, I think we had a clean cap
probably once or twice a week. I don’t remember now. And in Preliminary
Training School, apart from that, we were taught things like bed-making, in
fact we had to make our own beds with the proper hospital corners and
everything. And Sister Tutor would go round and check them sometimes to see
we’d done them properly. I must tell you one thing about the nurses’ home: We
all had our own separate bedrooms, and I couldn’t get over the fact that I had
a wash-basin to myself! (laughs) Not en-suite like it is today. We had
our own wash-basins – I thought that was the lap of luxury. And, we were taught
all sorts of things, like as I said, bed-making, bandaging… One of the things
we had to do, which I thought I would never have been able to do, we had to dissect
a guinea pig, we had to learn anatomy and physiology, very thoroughly, as much,
of course, as was known in those days. We had to learn to give injections into
oranges and things like that. And we also visited the wards a few times, from
time to time. I can’t really remember much more about it. I think it lasted for
a month, but I’m not quite sure about that – it might have lasted a fortnight
or a month.
other thing about our hospital that was different to some other people’s
hospitals, whom I’ve talked to – we had a block system, whereas periodically
we’d have a week right off the wards, in block, to study. So we would get
lectures from Sister Tutor, and lectures from the consultants, and all that
sort of thing. So, we actually never had to have lectures after coming off
night duty or anything, which I know some of my contemporaries did use to have.
So that was considered quite advanced in those days.
On the wards – night
duty, uniforms, learning new skills
then, after that, we went on our first wards. My first ward was a women’s
medical ward. I can remember that. And the Ward Sister was quite a young Ward
Sister, and she was very pleasant. And of course, the first things we had to
learn was things like bedpan rounds, bed bathing, and especially, feeding
patients who were unable to feed themselves. There was absolutely no question
of no-one being fed, because the trolley of food came up to the ward, and the
Ward Sister (or if she wasn’t on duty, the staff nurse), dished out all the
meals and made sure every patient had an appropriate meal, and that all
patients who could not feed themselves, were fed. And, apart from an emergency
admission, feeding of patients was given priority, at meal-times.
what do you think of the situation today?
I don’t think much of the situation if patients are left without food. The
other thing is, I have heard, though I haven’t witnessed this for myself, that
nurses or carers will offer them food, and if they only take two or three
mouthfuls, they leave it at that. Nobody ever bothers to coax the patients to
take something that they might take. And that sort of bothers me a bit. On the
other hand, of course, we had patients for a far longer time than most patients
are kept in hospital these days.
as I said, I was on this medical ward to start with, and bed-making – I must
mention that, because every morning that was our job when we were on day duty,
to make the beds in the morning, one of the first jobs, and two people made
each bed because it’s much quicker for two people to make a bed. And then,
eventually, we were taught things like giving injections, and at that time
penicillin had started being used (it only started being used, I think, during
wartime). It had to be given by injection every four hours, which, considering
the needles were not nearly as fine as the needles are these days, and they
were re-used, they weren’t like today’s disposable ones, so they had to be
sterilised ready for the next injection – I should think it would have been
quite painful for those patients. However, once I’d got into the hang of giving
injections, if anybody, a patient, was due for an injection and they saw me on
the ward, they used to ask me to give them (laughs) so I must have been
reasonably good at it! (laughs)
also had to learn – and this was Sister’s job to teach us – we had to know all
about the diagnoses, and the treatment of each patient, and of course we had to
know each patient’s name. So, we were thoroughly trained – if anybody thinks we
weren’t trained in those days, I can assure you that we were. And the other
thing was, that when you got to be the Senior Probationer (because we were
called Probationers in those days) on duty, if Sister was off and Staff Nurse
had gone to lunch, Matron would always choose that minute to do her ward round,
because she knew exactly who was on and who was off when. And, you used to have
to stand at the bottom of the bed, and tell Matron the name, and the diagnoses,
and the treatment of every patient. And you had to know what you were talking
about because she asked questions during this as well (laughs). So that
was very good training indeed and of course, very occasionally at that sort of
time there might be an emergency admission were left to cope with as well,
which was also very good training.
the probationers went and did a three month spell of night duty once a year.
And when we were on night duty, we worked for 12 nights on duty and three
nights off duty. And, basically, there was one senior probationer and one
junior probationer on each ward. And if there was one probationer who was in
her second year, she alternated between being the senior on one ward and being
the junior on the other ward, so that all worked out. So there again you got
quite a lot of experience. The only really trained nurse in the whole hospital
on night duty was Night Sister, who used to do a round on each ward, and then
if there was an emergency of course, you called her and she came, and if there
were dangerous drugs, DDAs, to be given, she came up and supervised then. I
must say, on the whole, drugs were not looked after as carefully as they are
now, because we could, if we needed to, help ourselves to a couple of Codeine
or something like that, out of the drug cupboard, and nobody would have known.
But DDAs had to be given under Sister’s supervision. If there was a patient
that needed very special nursing that night, because we didn’t have intensive
care wards in those days, so if there was a patient who needed specially
looking-after, there was always a spare nurse around the hospital somewhere,
who was detailed to look after that patient all night long. We were supposed to
take a couple of hours off duty in middle of the night, the night being from
8pm to 8am the next morning, but, of course, we didn’t always manage to do so.
And I, myself, never did a third bout of night duty, because I simply couldn’t
sleep in the day, and the Night Sister was so worried about me, by the look of
me, that I think she left me off the list (laughs).
thing was that we had a hospital in Mt. Vernon in Middlesex. It was a hut
hospital that had been donated by the Canadians, and it was all like large
Nissan huts, the wards all were, and so was our sleeping accommodation. There was
a hospital there already, the proper hospital, a small hospital, and I think we
went in there to have our meals – I can’t quite remember now. We got to do far
more things there, because, at Charing Cross there were medical students, and
when we went to Mt. Vernon there were no medical students. So we had to do some
of the things that would have been done by medical students. I’m going a bit
ahead of myself now, but one of the things that sticks in my mind is that, when
we were there, we had to learn to take blood. We did not have phlebotomists to
take blood in those days – it was mostly medical students or doctors who took
the bloods – and so we got quite adept at it. So when I got back to Charing
Cross, I said to the medical student who was supposed to get up very early the
next morning, I said “You needn’t bother because I can take those bloods
for you.” And I came really unstuck because one patient’s veins were so
tiny I couldn’t manage to take the blood. Anyway, neither could the medical
student and I don’t know who did take it in the end, whether it was the
Houseman or whether it had to be one of the Registrars, I can’t remember, but I
came a bit unstuck on that one (laughs). But Matron didn’t find out so
that was alright! (laughs)
better talk a bit about our uniform. We had uniform dresses, and, as I say, our
caps. We had white starched aprons and every morning, when we’d made the beds
and all that, and we’d had a little break – we used to mostly have a cup of
coffee or tea and a sandwich, because another thing was that leaving Belsize
Park so early, breakfast there was very, very early, and some of us, including
me, couldn’t stomach breakfast at that time in the morning. So, when it was
coffee break time, I think all the ward sisters without exception, let you make
a sandwich and have a cup of coffee then. And then after that, we changed our
aprons and we put a clean apron on, because we used our day-before aprons for
any mucky jobs, and then we put clean aprons on for the rest of the day.
better say something about visiting hours in the hospital. First of all though,
I would say, that the patients had afternoon bread and butter and tea, and we
nurses used to have to go and cut the bread (there were no sliced loaves in
those days), and butter it, and tea. But, we had visitors twice a week on
Wednesdays and Sundays, and unless somebody was dangerously ill, they were the
only visiting times. A few husbands got special permission to come in in the
evening, obviously, if they were working all day. And on visiting days the
patients had cake instead of their bread and butter (laughs). I thought
that was rather funny.
the other thing is, that, in spite of the fact that this was a very old
hospital, and very difficult to keep clean, we didn’t have anything like
Norovirus or the winter vomiting bug. And some of the cleaning we probationers
had to do ourselves. Now, if by any chance we’d
had Saturday off, we were then given Sunday morning off, and we got an
extra hour off on Sundays, which meant that you could then go to first lunch at
12 o’clock, and then go on duty after that. And the first job we were always
given to do, was to wash all the window sills before the visitors came (laughs).
So, the wards were kept very spick and span, and, as I say, we didn’t have a
great army of cleaners to do it either.
wards were situated so that there was a 30 bedded male and a 30 bedded female
ward opposite each other. There was a kitchen in the middle, which was where we
used to cut the bread and butter and stuff, and where we’d go and have a drink
or something if we were on night duty. The surgical wards were slightly
different – I think they might have only had 28 beds instead of 30, I’m not
sure – but they each had one side ward that would hold two patients. We did
have private patients in, prior to the National Health Service, and the
preferential treatment that they were given, is they were nearer Sister’s
office, and they were given their lunch on trays. The rest of the patients had
their lunch straight on the bed tables, but private patients had them on trays.
Sister’s office – the bathroom doubled as Sister’s office. The patients did not
have baths very often and we did not have showers. Mostly, as they stayed in
bed a long time, they were given bed-baths. But, the bath had a big wooden
board over it and that doubled as Sister’s office.
do you think about the working conditions then, considering the Sister’s
office, and you cleaning the window sills and so on?
don’t know, we didn’t think anything about it because we didn’t know anything
different, and for anybody who hears this and thinks that was terrible, better
remember that the nurses who trained only a very short time before I did,
actually paid to do that training. Now, we, of course, had board and
lodging and a very, very small amount of money. We very often were walking
about round London with only tube passes in our pockets, no money whatsoever.
So, that’s just how nurse training was in those days, and we didn’t really
think any more about it. Obviously, as you got to a second year probationer you
did less of that sort of thing, as a third year probationer there still, and as
a staff nurse. We had to agree before we started training, that we would staff
for one year, so we all had the experience of being staff nurses, which is, of
course, when you really began to learn everything.
was decision-making part of that job as well?
Yes, because if Sister was off duty you had to make decisions for yourself.
When the National Health Service came in, I must admit that I don’t remember
seeing a great deal of change in our hospital, because anything that was
happening with the way that hospital was managed, wouldn’t have impeached on us
anyway – we wouldn’t have understood what was going on. I never did know how
patients came to be in the hospital, how they were selected to be in the
hospital. Obviously emergencies that were admitted into casualty, that was
quite obvious, but how other people came in through elective surgery or
whatever, I have no idea, because some of our patients were pretty poor
patients – we had a lot people like Covent Garden porters, the salt of the
earth. As well as, of course, being on the medical ward, I was on the surgical
always understood that people had avoided having surgery if they were unable to
pay for it, and when the National Health Service was introduced there was a
flood those people coming in…?
well, we only had as many people in as the beds would take, so I don’t know
about that. But I do think that they paid some sort of insurance scheme, where
they paid a very small amount each week, because I myself had major surgery as
a three-year-old, which was emergency surgery. And I never did ask my parents
when they were alive, how it was paid for. But that was in Windsor Hospital and
I have absolutely no idea how it was paid for, but I’m pretty sure there was
some sort of insurance scheme where people paid a relatively small amount of
money, and then they could have surgery. Of course, when you come to think
about it, a lot of operations that are performed now, weren’t even envisaged
then – certainly there was no keyhole surgery, or anything like that – it was
major surgery. And, as well as being on surgery wards, we also had ENT wards,
and children’s wards, and orthopaedic wards, and of course theatre. Now theatre
was up on the very top of the hospital, and in those days, in order to get air
conditioning we actually had windows open – we had no other form of air
conditioning. But when I was at Mt. Vernon, we had a brand new theatre complex
and it was absolutely wonderful because it was so light and bright, and it was
a wonderful place to work in, compared with our one on the top floor of Charing
Cross Hospital. I can remember several things about theatre, one is that there
was one orthopaedic surgeon who was well known for being rather difficult, and
he called all us probationers ‘Topsy’, and he would say “Topsy do
this” and “Topsy do that” and “Topsy do the other” (laughs).
But one day, when I was not in theatre, thank goodness, apparently he got
so mad he threw a scalpel out of the window. Fortunately it did not land on the
Strand – it landed on a little road at the back of the hospital and there was
nobody walking on it at the time (laughs). But on the whole, the doctors
and the consultants were very nice to us. I mean, the consultants were treated
as gods and when they did a ward round, they had in attendance, medical
students and Sister, or if Sister was off duty, of course, the staff nurse, and
of course, sometimes when they asked the medical students questions, it was
either Sister or staff nurse who could answer and the medical students couldn’t
(laughs). But the word I wanted was ‘courteous’ – they were, on the
whole, the consultants were very courteous to us. They never treated us badly.
did you think of the god-like status?
that again, was accepted at the time you see, because that’s just how things
were (laughs). We didn’t treat the housemen like gods and certainly
didn’t treat the medical students like gods (laughs)
course, we had the casualty department as well – forgot to say that. And when
we were working on casualty, there were certain things we had to do – we had to
learn how to stitch [I should have used
the word “suture”]. Mostly fingers and things, because we had a Lyons
Corner House, quite near us, and there were no dish-washers in those days, so
we often had the staff in with cut fingers and things, and we had to learn how
to stitch them. [Lyons Corner House –
i.e. restaurants – there were several of them in London, and they brought a bit
of gaiety into what was still a pretty bleak post-war period.] And then we
had to be vetted by the Casualty Officer and he said whether yes, you were
allowed to stitch, or you weren’t. I was allowed to stitch. And there was
another thing you had to be vetted by the Casualty Officer for, and that was:
there was a very certain way of bandaging a sprained ankle, and you had to do
it this exact way, and the Casualty Officer had to say that yes, you were
competent to do that (chuckles). But as for when the National Health
Service came in, I can remember one thing about it: on casualty we had an
American lady in who had broken leg, and it was set and put in plaster, and she
was so thrilled that she was getting this treatment free of charge compared to
what it would have been in America. We all had to sign the plaster! (laughs)
as I say, I’m not really sure how much difference it made because some very odd
things happened. For instance, one of my colleagues, she actually worked on the
midwifery department, which was something which we didn’t normally do as
probationers at all. And she fell in love with a medical student and they got
married, and she wasn’t even allowed to finish doing her training at Charing
Cross – she had to go another hospital. She did finish her training, and that
was at St. Mary’s, Paddington, which was a very good hospital anyway.
was the thinking there?
don’t know what the thinking was – that was just how it was, because they were
still operating as if it was their voluntary hospital, you know, their teaching
hospital, with their own code. Because it must have been, certainly, after
the health service came in being, obviously, another of my colleagues got
married when she would have been a staff nurse, at least, she got married after
she’d finished training and just as she was becoming a staff nurse, and she was
not allowed her hospital medal – we didn’t have a badge, it was a medal, a
Maltese Cross on a medal ribbon – and she was not allowed to have that because
she didn’t do her year’s staffing. So, there were some very strange rules (chuckles).
funny things that happened… This uniform thing – I forgot to say: we were
issued with coats as well, thick coats, because we had to travel on the tube.
Now, we could wear our uniform under these coats but no way were you to wear
mufti [civilian attire/ordinary clothes] under the coats. So, one day
when I had been out in the evening, and we hadn’t been back to the nurses’ home
first because obviously we’d been out in London, I came back to the hospital to
get my uniform to take back to the nurses’ home to put on the next morning, and
I put my uniform coat on, over mufti. I came down the stairs, and at the bottom
of the stairs was the Ass. Mat. (in other words the Assistant Matron), and she
hauled me by the collar into Matron’s office and said “Look what I’ve
found.” (laughs). Fortunately our matron had a sense of humour, but
even so, I had to go and change into uniform to put my uniform coat over it. And
the thing was, if we went out in our off-duty, even in a heat-wave in London,
we still had to put that uniform coat on – there was no way we were allowed to
just walk out in our uniform dresses. Our uniform dresses were actually striped
dresses, they had narrow, sort of mauvey-bluey stripes on them.
you see the changes in the National Health Service now, the amount of service
on offer across the entire range, and the medicines available, the operations
available, treatments available, what do you think about what’s on offer now,
compared to your time?
well, I think it’s obviously very much better, very much better in that
respect. Yes, because, what did me have? Appendectomies, hernias…Hernia
patients had to stay in bed for ten days, and one terrible thing happened when
I was on night duty – a very nice man, a very lovely man, who’d had a hernia
operation, was going to go out that day, had been discharged that day, so he
obviously wanted to go to the bathroom that morning, and of course, I said yes
because I knew he was going to be discharged, and as he came out, he dropped
down dead in the doorway. That was because we kept patients in bed to long – we
didn’t realise they should have been got up and moved about. That only happened
after I’d finished nursing.
the knowledge base has really moved on, hasn’t it?
knowledge base has moved on absolutely tremendously.
1950 – tuberculosis
then, after six years, I think we’re up to about 1952 now and you decided to
well, in the meantime, after I’d finished at Charing Cross, I did do one year’s
Tuberculosis nursing. And having been at Charing Cross, in the middle of
London, I was then plunged back into the country again, because that was
Peppard [Sanatorium] and it was right out in the Oxfordshire
countryside. Again I had to get two buses from home to get there.
remained in London to live?
I lived, well my parents lived in Bracknell. So that that was to get from
Bracknell to Peppard and Peppard to Bracknell. And, of course, I found things
so much better. To begin with, I forgot to say, that the food in London was not
very good at all, because there was still rationing in force, and whereas I’d
been used to living in the country – we managed to get plenty of fresh stuff in
the country – it was not nearly as good in London. But can I tell one more
funny thing about that before I go on?
some of us went to take an exam. It must have been an oral exam, at another
hospital. And we were so thrilled to bits when we’d taken this exam, that we
thought that we would go and treat ourselves to a meal Lyons’ Corner House,
with the orchestra playing, and the man in his penguin suit. So we went and had
this meal, and we’d had it, we all tipped our money onto the table, and when we
counted it up, we were sixpence short. And me, being the smallest one, was sent
to talk to penguin man about it (chuckles), and I just told him what had
happened – he did not say a word, he just he just put his hand right
down deep in his penguin pocket, and gave me sixpence (laughs). They all
knew who we were. And the only really
good meal we had at Charing Cross was on a Sunday lunchtime, and that was
donated by Joe Lyons, and that was chicken salad.
obviously had a high respect for you.
because you see, what little money we did have, if we were off duty in the
afternoon, we’d go and have afternoon tea in there, and you had to go upstairs
to get it, and there was the man in his suit, seeing people up, and he would
always put us ahead of the queue, because they knew we didn’t have a lot of
time. So we were treated with great respect by Joe Lyons’. Well, then when I
went to the sanatorium, of course I had very good food again. Very plain food,
but very good, because that was all part of the patients’ recovery – to have
TB very prevalent at the time?
was very prevalent at that time. In fact my own mother died of TB. So did her
mother. It was very prevalent at that time but we were beginning to
treat it with Streptomycin and something else that I’ve forgotten the name of.
We didn’t have gelatine capsules in those days, and it was in rice paper
capsule. And it was beginning to be treatable, providing of course, that it was
caught in time. My own mother sadly, she knew perfectly well she’d got it, and
she did not seek treatment in time. One of the things we did was sometimes
remove lungs – a whole lung could be removed, or part of a lung, or sometimes
they would just put air into the thorax and squash the lung down. And one or
two of the staff were actually having that treatment while they were staff on
the wards. I think hours were adjusted according to what was safe to work. But
when I was there we had much more time off and on night duty I think we only
worked five nights to begin with before we had about four off or something. So,
altogether the conditions were much better, and the other great thing was, as
staff nurses we were paid more than staff nurses in general hospitals – I felt
I was quite rich! (laughs).
that because you had additional training?
I think it was sort of, in a way, danger-money.
that was quite nice, but I didn’t like the way they looked after
children then, because we didn’t know anything about how to look after children
properly in those days. And the poor little things, they were only allowed
visitors once a month. Their parents could only visit them once a month. And we
were supposed to keep them in bed, still and quiet, and it was impossible – the
little monkeys used to get out of bed and dance around and I remember one
little boy managed to stuff a whole roll of toilet paper down one of the loos
one day (laughs).
there a school for them?
was a school for them, yes. There was a tutor for them and those that were well
enough, and of the right age, went to school. I never actually visited it
myself to see what they did but yes, they did.
the worst thing about that was of course TB meningitis, because they had to
have lumbar punctures, and oh, I can remember one little boy screaming himself
to death and that was really horrible. That was awful, that was how they gave
the Streptomycin, or whatever it was, into the spinal fluid. But apart from
that, that was a very nice year.
there any inoculation against TB?
not then, no that has come much, much later, BCG, that has come much later.
1952 – Call the
then, after a gap, when my mother was ill and died, I started my midwifery
training in 1952. And I went to Leicester. I think the hospital was just called
Bond Street, Leicester. Anyway, it was a
most peculiar hospital, because it was made out of several houses put together,
so there was a big, long corridor on the top floor (it was only two floors),
and it was all uneven – you went down slopes and up slopes, and all sorts of
things (chuckles). And we had a very nice nurses’ home but we didn’t use
that very much because a lot of us were house in another sort of old cottagey
complex, right by the side of the hospital, and only a very few people slept in
this nurses’ home. And, sadly, the matron who interviewed me, had died in the
meantime, before I took up my training, so the Ass. Mat. was in charge for all
the time I was there, and she really was a most horrid woman. And again, we had
rotten food. And I actually got a boil there – I’d never had a boil before in
my life. And then one day, one of my colleagues and I went out, and we bought
ourselves some salad and really good food off the market, and we went into the
nurses’ home, the proper nurse’s home, and we sat and ate it. And when the Ass.
Mat. heard about that, she said that we were never to do that again. So that
was pretty awful. But apart from that, I seem to remember that I quite enjoyed
long was the training?
months, that was six months. You did two parts midwifery training – six months
in hospital, and then I’ll come to the other six months in a minute. So, I was
there for six months, and yes, we learnt all the basics about childbirth and
delivery and everything there. I quite enjoyed it there really. And as I say,
after mothers had had a baby, we had to push them along this wonky corridor
back to their room (chuckles). And in those days people stayed in
hospital for about ten days after they’d had a baby. I don’t remember too much more
about that. But you then did six months second part midwifery training, which
you could do in hospital or on the district, and I wanted for some reason to do
it on the district. And Norwich was one of two places in the country I could do
that, so that’s how I came to Norwich, under the supervision of a very nice
midwife. The first thing she told me, when she met me was “Remember, when
we go into other people’s homes, we are always their guests.” and I have
never forgotten that in all the years I’ve been going in and out of people’s
homes. I think the very first case that I went out to, I got myself into a spot
of trouble from the doctor who was there, because it was a forceps delivery and
I was not used to having a doctor set up sterile towels and things in a small
bedroom (chuckles), so I managed to catch the corner of one (laughs).
He wasn’t that mad, but he just pointed it out that that wasn’t the right thing
to do. But, under [the midwife’s] guidance, I soon got quite comfortable about
delivering babies. So I did that six months.
think I can remember one funny thing that happened then was she was off duty,
and another midwife was standing in for her, and I got called out to a patient
who was very near to where our nurses’ home was – that was at 4 Earlham Road,
where the Plantation Garden is – well that house, there. We didn’t know
anything about that garden being under it there, that was all covered up. But
that house was our nurses’ home. We had a very good cook there too. And I went
out to this patient, who, as I say, lived very near to there. And the baby came
so quickly that I had delivered it before this relief midwife walked in. And
she walked in, sort of amazed, and sort of as if I ought to have held the baby
back ’til she came! I didn’t quite see how I could have done that! (laughs).
It was fine anyway.
I really enjoyed that six months working under her guidance. She obviously gave
less and less guidance as we went on. So, in the end I passed my midwifery
exam, I became a qualified midwife. And I went on living at 4 Earlham Road for
a bit. And in those days we were on call 24/7, and we had 24 hours off one
week, and 48 hours off the next week. And I think I should have mentioned
earlier, that when I was doing my nurse training, we probably only had a
fortnight’s holiday a year. By the time I was doing midwifery it might have
gone up to three weeks a year, I can’t quite remember, but it gradually went up
as I went on working, to a month, and then eventually to this marvellous six
weeks. Now, when we were doing midwifery, we did not get any time in lieu for
bank holidays or anything like that. We tried to work it out that if you worked
Christmas Day one year, you did not work it the next year, but you obviously
couldn’t always work that out, and I have been called out in the middle of my
Christmas lunch to resuscitate a baby. Fortunately by the time I got there it
didn’t need resuscitating (laughs). It was alright.
apart from that I really, really enjoyed it, because you really got to know people.
We got to know them antenatally – we had very good antenatal clinics. In fact,
I think in Norwich, we were far in advance of the rest of the country, with our
antenatal clinics. They came to several talks, antenatally as well. From when
they first booked, we saw them on a six-weekly basis, and then it got to
fortnight, and then when they got to 36 weeks, once a week after that. In those
days mothers could book a doctor if they wished, but they didn’t have to book a
doctor, so we did not always have doctors booked. So you could be out at any
time of the day or night, on your own, with the complete responsibility of the
two people’s lives – the mother and the baby. And, one thing we did have was
gas and air – right from when I first started training we had gas and air. We
carried the gas and air on the handle-bars of our bikes, and our big cases with
all the other equipment in (the forceps, and we used to give enemas in those
days too, to mothers before they had their babies if there was time, and syringes
and well, everything else we needed, kidney dishes and everything), on the
back. It was actually quite a heavy case, because it was a big leather case, a
very strong case in itself before you put anything in it. When we got home
after a delivery, no matter how tired we were, that all had to be cleaned out,
and we had to boil all the instruments up again at home, and put clean linings
in the cases. We weren’t responsible for the laundering of these linings or
anything like that, but we had to put clean linings in. We also boiled all the
instruments up in the patient’s house, before we delivered the baby, but of
course, they all had to be perfectly clean already, in case you didn’t have
time to do that.
read that one of the minimum requirements (particularly thinking of the East
End and the ‘Midwife Era’), was a useable toilet, and running water. Did that
apply in Norwich as well?
well, running water definitely, a useable toilet mostly, but we still had in
Norwich then, some back-to-back houses where they literally had only one toilet
for six houses. Now, I do not remember ever delivering a baby in one of those,
but I certainly went out to a miscarriage, in one of those one day. There were
all sorts of things that happened that are a bit strange, whilst you’re in
midwifery. For instance, the first thing I better say is, a lot of the GPs were
excellent obstetricians as well, and one in particular stands out in my mind,
who was absolutely brilliant. But there was another doctor, who was quite an
elderly doctor at the time, who we absolutely worshipped. His name was Doctor D.
And he was doing a forceps delivery in a house which was very old, and it did
have quite a big room in it, and I think part of it was a bakery. And, he’d
given the anaesthetic to this woman and it wasn’t her first baby either, so I
can’t remember why she needed a forceps delivery. [Actually I gave the anaesthetic under his supervision – chloroform I
think.] And I suddenly said “What are all those spots on her
arm?” and he just looked at me and he said, well, “Fleas.” And
I’d never come across fleas before (laughs). That was my first induction
to fleas! But she was a very nice person, yes, I enjoyed visiting her. But that
was just one of those things in those days.
I delivered babies in all sorts of houses, from quite wealthy people, to the
poorest of the poor. A lot of people in those days did not have central
heating, so we were managing with very smelly oil stoves, or sometimes in
bedrooms there was a little corner grate. I expect modern people haven’t seen
corner grates, but I know we have them in our house at home, and of course
they’re very small, so they don’t give out a great deal of heat. And, talking
about water, there was one time, and I was there probably in 1962, when they
say was the last coldest spell, when a lot of the taps were frozen, and people
were getting the water from standpipes. And, at that time we had to tell
everybody, when they were getting nearly to be in due, to keep their baths full
of water, so that we would have plenty of water to use, for the delivery. And
they did too, yes. I am now presuming that they all had baths – I can’t
remember what happened if any of them didn’t have baths. Because some of them
would not have done; they would have had tin baths still, even in that time.
But the majority had baths.
other strange thing about that time, is of course, they were building council
houses, and so quite a lot of people of these slum-clearance houses, into
council houses, but they had very, very little furniture to put in them, so
they looked extremely bare. And I can always remember, once being sent
somewhere right off my particular district, to a further away part of Norwich,
where there were new council houses, and they had no sheets or pillow cases on
the bed, and I’d never met anybody who hadn’t got that before. And then after
the delivery, the husband brought me a cup of tea – I mean, it was ritual to
bring the mother and the midwife a cup of tea after the baby was born – but he
didn’t bother to ask if I took sugar or not, and the tea – you could have stood
the spoon up in it! (chuckles) And of course, I don’t take sugar! (laughs)
But, on that occasion I couldn’t get the car to start, when I left. Now, not
only did that husband come out and give me a push-start, but men from all the
houses all round came out. They all gave me a push to start off the car. That’s
how people were in those days.
we were on our bicycles and when we were in our uniforms, we were completely
safe. We were totally, absolutely and utterly safe when we were in uniform. And
our uniform then, unfortunately in those days, we did not wear trousers, and we
only had these thin dresses, so we could get quite cold at times, but we could
have cardigans over them. And we had grey coats and grey hats, more like the
ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] hats, I think, in shape. And, it was
most essential that you wore your hat, and if I was caught by our midwifery
supervisor without one on, I was in trouble. And I hated wearing hats! (laughs).
the whole that was a very great time. There were some sad things that happened,
but mostly it was glad things. And everybody loves you if you bring their new
baby into the world, and you feel part of the family at that time, and I don’t
think there’s any better feeling on Earth than to deliver a fit and healthy
baby to parents. At that time fathers did not come into the room when the baby
was being delivered, but when I got towards the end of doing district
midwifery, this had started to change, and so one father was present at
one delivery. And, of course the doctor, who was present with me at that time,
thought that was a rotten idea, and this flipping father went and passed out (chuckles).
He gave the doctor a good chance to say ‘I told you so’! (laughs) But we
did have fathers coming to one of the antenatal classes by that time, so they
had a little idea of what was going on, so that they could support their wives.
We’d be talking early ’60s by now.
sad things – the worst, really awful thing that happened to me – and this is
where I think Miranda Hart was an excellent actress, where she did the bit with
the breach delivery on her own. It wasn’t a breach delivery when I came into
trouble. The baby’s head was showing, and the mother was pushing like mad, when
she suddenly collapsed. And, no telephone, no mobile in those days, no phone in
the house, so apart from trying to deliver a live baby, which I managed to do,
I had to get the husband to go and ring the doctor, who was not booked and therefore
might not have even known this person was pregnant, to come as quickly as he
could, without making the husband so scared that he couldn’t go to the phone.
Anyway, it worked, because I think it was the doctor’s lunchtime and most
doctors worked from their homes in those days, so he was there pretty quickly.
Meantime I just did exactly what we’d been taught, which was just to push on
the abdomen when the contractions came, to push the baby down, and I did
manage to deliver a live baby. And of course, I was very worried about the
mother, because we didn’t have oxygen or anything to give mothers. In fact at
one point we did start taking round tiny canisters of oxygen that we could give
a baby if we needed to but obviously not for the mother. And we didn’t have
paramedics or anything like that in those days. So the doctor came out and
assessed the situation, and then he called the consultant from the hospital,
and the consultant from the hospital came out. Her lung had collapsed, so the
consultant asked me if I would stay until the ambulance came, and of course I
said yes, I would. [She actually had a
pulmonary embolism.] So she went off to hospital and I think that,
probably, relatives looked after the baby. But, as I wasn’t her midwife, I was
relieving somebody else at the time, of course I didn’t know what happened
after that. But I did hear later on from her midwife that she did survive, so
that was something. But that was the worst experience I ever had. I think
Miranda played that brilliantly because you just do exactly what you’ve been
taught to do, you just don’t let any nerves or anything show at all. It was a
other thing that was a huge responsibility was that we used to have two things
drawn up; we used to have Ergometrine drawn up for the mother to give after the
baby was born, and we used to have vitamin K drawn up for the baby. And if you
were there, in the middle of the night, all by yourself, and perhaps had been
up the night before as well, it would have been very easy to give the baby the
Ergometrine, in which case you would have killed it, so it really was a
terrific responsibility. And when you hear these cases of the wrong thing being
given – I never did do that, but it wouldn’t have been that difficult to do.
The length of time you spent in somebody’s house varied tremendously, because
if it was a first baby, you might be there for quite a long time. Obviously in
very early labour you went away again and then went back later. But sometimes,
with some first babies, you were in the house an awful long time, maybe even as
long as 12 hours or more. And a lot of labours took more than 24 hours anyway,
and some of them had to go into hospital eventually. Most of that time you’d
have been on your own. Obviously it was the doctor’s decision to send the
patient into hospital.
two occasions I was accompanied to a confinement [the concluding state of
pregnancy] by the police. On one occasion it was because the mother was not
booked, nobody knew she was having a baby. And, the husband had delivered the
baby already and he’d even cut the cord. And the reason why the police escorted
me there was because, I’d gathered, that somewhere upstairs, in a bedroom,
there was a room full of furs and things, and the police were after them. And
the police said they’d got to promise that they’d give me free access whenever
I needed to call in the next ten days (because we used to visit for ten days
then). And the other, was for a brothel I had to go to. The first time I went
to this brothel was because one of the prostitutes had become pregnant. I mean
there was no pill in those days. I was greeted by the brothel owner – I’ll just
call her Kitty – and the first thing she said to me was that she’d eaten
midwives for breakfast! (laughs) I was a very young midwife in those
days, but even so, I was not put off by her. Eventually it came to this girl’s
confinement, and the baby was delivered satisfactorily, but soon after that it
was taken into care, so that was the end of that one. Well then, again, I was
escorted by the police to this brothel, and this same girl had had a baby,
which she said she’d had so suddenly, and it had been pushed out so quickly
that they couldn’t do anything about it. Well, when I saw the baby I just
didn’t believe it, because that baby was a beautiful little girl and she looked
as if she had breathed, I have no idea what happened about the inquest, or a
post-mortem or anything, I never heard anything about that. So, that was that
one. But then Kitty’s own daughter was expecting, I believe it was her third
baby. But whatever one said about Kitty, she loved her daughter and she loved
her grandchildren. And I actually spent all night with her daughter, having her
third baby. Well, after that, Kitty couldn’t do enough for me (laughs).
I was in her really good books after that! (laughs)
you think that Kitty actually had delivered some of the babies herself?
I think she probably had, I just don’t know. It’s quite possible that she had.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised. You see there was nothing these girls could do,
because there was no pill and their clients weren’t going to use a sheath, were
they? No form of contraception, nothing to save them. And this poor girl, I
mean, I’d gathered she’d been brought up in the gutters somewhere, in one of
the big towns up north, and she’d had no life at all. I don’t expect she ever
did have any sort of life. It’s absolutely appalling.
other thing is that I was too naive at that age. If I was called out for a
miscarriage, it never occurred to me for one minute that it might have been an
induced miscarriage. Probably some of them were. I do remember one miscarriage,
which is now rather awful when you’re looking at it in the light of today’s
advances, because this lady was not yet 28 weeks pregnant, and a baby was not
considered viable until 28 weeks pregnancy, and she might have been 25 or 26
weeks. And this baby, a long, skinny thing came out and he was breathing and I
put him in a kidney dish and we just watched him sort of gasp and breathe his
last. Whereas today she could have been in hospital and the baby could have
been in an incubator, and that baby might very well have survived. So that was
rather an awful thing. But most of the deliveries were a joy, and it was great
to be with the family at that time when they were delivered.
were you actually involved with the removal of children from young girls?
it was the health visitor and the social worker that would have been involved
with that. I’m sure the health visitor must have known beforehand that she was
expecting the baby. And the social services would have been involved with the
removal of the baby. Yes, that goes on to when I was health visiting. When I
was first health visiting, of course there were far more mothers at home with
their children than there are now. And they did a survey to find out who was
referring most children to the social services, and it was actually health
visitors who were doing it. And I don’t know what’s happened to the health
visiting service now, quite honestly. Don’t know how they’re trained or
anything. We had very close links with the social services; in fact the last
social worker I worked with was absolutely brilliant.
you can see, actually, some things haven’t changed for the better?
things have not changed for the better. I can’t say that mothers should
be at home, looking after their children, but I think if they want to, they
certainly should be able to, they should have enough finance to be able to
afford to if they want to if they want to look after their own children.
went back into hospital for three years during midwifery when I got too tired
on the district, and I didn’t enjoy that at all, because I felt it was like
battery hens actually. We didn’t know anybody before they came, we didn’t know
anything about them. And I did not enjoy that, and that’s why I decided to do
health visiting. Because when I was doing district midwifery, we had a very
good health visitor who covered the same areas as I did. And I realised she
knew far more of the background and the lives of the people than I did, so that
encouraged me to do my health visitor’s training.
Continued in Part Two.
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