Working Lives

Nursing, art and disability access (1953-2010)

Location: Suffolk, Norfolk

After beginning in office work, Margaret went into nursing, first in Bury St Edmunds where she became an S.R.N. She trained as a midwife in Leicester and then came back to East Anglia visiting mothers and babies in their homes. The next step was as a staff nurse at the Jenny Lind children’s hospital in Norwich. She became a permanent wheelchair user and had to give up nursing. Since then she has done voluntary work for disabled charities including the Norwich Castle Museum’s access advisory group, and exhibited her artwork.

Childhood and education

I first began working when I was about 10 or 11 just in the school holidays. I lived in Bury St Edmunds and we used to get on our bikes and bike out into the fields and pick blackcurrants. I loved doing it. I hated the taste of blackcurrants, I never ate any, so it was quite a lucrative thing for a child. You were paid by each basket that you picked and I can just remember being out there on lovely sunny days picking away at the blackcurrants with my brothers and earning enough money for one year to buy a pair of jeans – in those days my mother wouldn’t let me have jeans, the boys were allowed jeans but I wasn’t – so I earned enough money to buy a pair myself. Everybody was totally shocked.

That was the first thing, then we went on from there to working at the maltings cleaning out the barley floors. The malting floors were, I suppose about four feet apart, so they employed children to go around cleaning out the floors. All the barley had gone so they had these tiles – they were made up of tiles with rows of holes in and you had this tool, a wooden tool with spikes in so you went along and just stamped it into these holes and pricked them out and you got paid so much a row of tiles. That took about two or three weeks in the summer holidays. I quite enjoyed it and I liked getting the money – but it is really where I learned not to be scared of mice because as you walked up the stairs the mice would run down one side and as you walked down the stairs the mice would run up the other. I don’t think it was a very healthy environment for schoolchildren but there you are, I don’t think anybody took that into consideration in those days and I think they do barley by a totally different process now.

I did that from probably about 13 to about 15 and at 16 I left school. At our school we did a commercial course, in which you did shorthand and typing and accounts. I got five O-levels then, which held me in good stead for all sorts of jobs. I went out to work at an accountant’s in Bury St Edmunds, they were called Stephenson, Stacey and Co and they were also an agency for the Halifax Building Society as it was in those days, which is now HBOS – the Halifax Bank. I worked there for two years, from 16 to 18.

Halifax Bank

My job was to answer the telephone and take dictation, shorthand and transcribe it back … [laughs] …  which I was really bad at actually, although my typing was all right. We had to type out the accounts as well as typing out the letters; and also, the building society had a desk in the office, and we had to take in the money that people paid in and then we had to write it in the book. And if people came in wanting to withdraw some money from their account – I can’t remember how much you were allowed to draw in those days, this was in the days before decimal currency of course – we used to have to pay out the money. If they came in for £20, we would have to pay it out. At the end of the day you had to tally it up and hope it financially tallied.

Also, a part of my job was to take the money from the Building Society each day, at 3 o’clock, or before 3 o’clock because the banks closed at 3 then, to the bank which was up the road and around the corner. Remember I was 16 – and I’d got it wrapped in a blue bank bag under my arm; if I’d got more than two thousand pounds, I’d got to take Dennis with me for protection. Dennis being the junior in the account’s office. Because ours was a sort of typist-cum-building society office, but upstairs there was the accounts office. I suppose he would be about 18 or something like that and he didn’t look as if he would give much protection in the event of somebody grabbing the bag. I suppose it did worry me a bit, but nobody ever grabbed a bag and we did go up to the bank. Sometimes we did have more than two thousand pounds in it.

I didn’t really enjoy working there. I found it quite boring, typing letters and answering the telephone. It was one of those old-fashioned telephone exchanges where somebody rings in and you have to take the call. Then you have to find out who they want and then you plug into the socket, you wind the handle to ring the bell in the room they’re in and when they answer you have to say who it is… You always had to be very polite, I suppose it taught me about being polite on the telephone, you had to say ‘good morning’ and ‘can I help you?’. It also taught me about finance, about mortgages and investments and savings and interest rates and things that perhaps a normal sixteen-year-old wouldn’t actually learn. But anyway, I didn’t really like it so at the age of 18 I decided to go and train to be a nurse.

I got paid four pounds a week. Of which I had to give my mother two, so I ended up with £2. With the nursing, having paid my board and lodging which was deducted anyway, because you lived in the nurses’ home, I ended up with £9 a month, so I was actually one pound a month better off.


I went to the Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital as a student nurse. Because I’d got five O-levels … they would only accept people with five O-levels, so I could get in with my five O-levels which weren’t actually relevant to nursing, because they consisted of things like accounts and commercial subjects and economics. I began as a student nurse there and I really loved it. I did three years training, and then I became a staff nurse.

You had long hours. You started at half past seven in the morning and your working day finished at about half past eight, but you either had the three hours off in the morning, or in the afternoon, or in the evening.

We only got one day off a week. I think it was something like a 44-hour week. Of course, you worked Sundays and it was a rule that all the nurses had to work Christmas Day and Boxing Day all day from half past seven in the morning to nine at night or something ridiculous. It was supposed to be good fun, but I don’t think it was. There wasn’t any transport on Christmas day so you couldn’t have gone home anyway. No, you couldn’t go home – not the student nurses. You had to work even when the staff nurses had to work as well.

I worked on all sorts of wards. Orthopaedic, gynae, children’s, theatre – which I hated working in – general surgery, medicine, urinary, all sorts. And I ended up working as a staff nurse on the children’s ward because I really liked paediatrics. That was what I really liked.

We used to spend between six and twelve weeks, in school every year. Not like today’s nurses who do degrees, you went into the classroom and you worked nine till five, then. Just being generally taught. Not just theory but also anatomy and physiology and nursing practice, all about drugs and different diseases.

You got practical training on the wards. You started off with three months which was theory before they let you onto the wards. A lot of the students had been pre-nursing students and worked in old people’s homes or something like that, nurseries or children’s homes or something. So, they had more idea than I who had just come straight from an office.

It was a really good time. And because we were only 18 (and at that stage under-age – because you weren’t of age until you were 21), we were all locked in the nurses’ home every night at probably 11 o’clock. You were allowed one late pass after 11 and if you came back after 11 and you hadn’t got a late pass, you had to go and see Night Sister and she would come with the key to let you in and give a you a big lecture! There were stories of nurses climbing over the roof and entering through the window, leaving their windows open so people could climb in and things. But I don’t think I ever did that… I expect it was true some of it, because there were nurses who’d stop out a lot. But by the time you got to about 11 o’clock at night you were basically exhausted.

It was quite hard work. People said that nurses walked 15 miles a day. I don’t know if they did or not, but you were always on your feet. But I just loved looking after the patients. They were usually really grateful. Sometimes they would be really stroppy and then of course you always got those who died, it was my first experience of death. But it didn’t really faze me at that stage. I just took it in my stride, I suppose. Laying out the dead and talking to relatives and things like that – it was all a learning process really. But we had a lot of fun with the other student nurses and with friends and things, it was quite exciting.

I finished my training; I passed my exam and then I was a qualified State Registered Nurse. I worked on the children’s ward for six months; during that time my father died suddenly, which was a bit of a shock. I suppose it did affect me in my attitude to death and things really. It made me a bit more understanding, hopefully.


I wanted another qualification, so my friend Wendy and I went off to do midwifery. Part one was in a hospital and part two was on the district. We went to Leicester to do part one, which was quite a shock coming from Suffolk which was in those days a predominantly white society, going to Leicester, which was in hospital anyway, a predominantly Asian society. So, we had Indian people and women who didn’t speak any English at all, whose husbands had to translate their medical history and all their midwifery complications.

After about six weeks training you went onto the wards and then you were allowed to deliver babies, which was quite exciting. I think I delivered 80 babies while I was there, with the assistance of a midwife always with me. Because we were students again. There was the same long hours. We also looked after premature babies. We had a premature baby unit but, in those days looking after premature babies wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now and so a great many of them died. Which was quite sad. Even so most of the women came out with healthy babies, grateful and really pleased.

Then after that, we went on the district and we did our district training at Ipswich again. We went to Colchester and then after three months we came back to Ipswich and did three months. We lived in a big house somewhere in the centre of Ipswich. If you hadn’t got a bike you were issued with a council bike, or if you had your own bike you were issued with an allowance for the bike.

You were on call every other week or something like that, but it seemed to be quite a lot. They could ring you in the night and you had to get up if a woman on the district had her baby and if it was dark you were allowed a taxi to take you there and back. Or if it was light you had to go by bike. So, if it was light at five o’clock in the morning you had to get on your bike. You could be called out a number of times in the night. I think there were about 25 of us, so every twenty-fifth day it was your turn to answer the telephone at night, so you slept in what was known as the bell room and you had to take the telephone calls that came in. Then you had to go and wake the person up and tell them they were needed and make them a cup of tea if they wanted one. Then you’d go back to bed again. So, if you got a lot of telephone calls it was quite a disturbed night, but sometimes you didn’t get any calls at all.

We had really lovely meals – hospital food wasn’t very good in those days – but when we lived there we had really lovely meals. The cook in residence cooked really magnificent meals to give you the energy to get on your bike and bike up the hills. I remember my friend Jenny had a sign on the back of her bike saying ‘atomic powered, do not pass’! . I had two other students with me on our little patch and we were assigned to two midwives.

You had this blue bag with all your equipment in, swabs, scissors and sterile equipment and clamps, cord clamps and things for the baby and you had to bike off and go around the houses. It was quite interesting because in those days in Ipswich you had to have a medical reason to have your baby in hospital, or a social reason, which virtually meant that if you’d only got an outside toilet you could have your baby in hospital, if you hadn’t got an outside toilet and you had an inside bathroom and toilet you could have it at home. A lot of mothers had them at home. Some had very nice houses, some had very poor little terraced houses which still had a bathroom and toilet. They were usually very nice, and they’d always make you a cup of tea. Then after the baby was born, we had to go back for ten days to bath the baby and look at the mother and remove any stitches. It was an enjoyable time, although the weather would defeat you sometimes. We had these enormous waterproof capes which were also supplied by the Council.

We wore a navy blue gabardine raincoat and a uniform underneath and black shoes and stockings, and a navy blue hat. We were issued with this huge waterproof cape by the Council to put on if it was pouring with rain and a sort of a sou’wester that went with it. So, you’d be biking up the road in these in the rain. It was between January and July, so I think we probably started off in the bad weather and it gradually got better and better as we went towards the end.

Anyway, I passed both parts of that and had to decide what I was going to do next. I decided to apply for a job at the old Jenny Lind hospital in Norwich, which was then in Unthank Road. I got a job there on the surgical ward as staff nurse and went there. I was 22 or 23 when I went there.

I was a qualified midwife but not in paediatrics which you have to be now. I really loved it there. I suppose it was the best working time of my life really. I made a lot of good friends, and I met my husband there, on the ward. Where he was taking blood from various patients I presume.

Nursing at the Jenny Lind Hospital, Norwich

We had a ward sister who had really old-fashioned ideas. But she was really nice to the children. In those days free visiting for mothers was just beginning. Mothers being allowed to stay with children was just beginning, although it was frowned upon by this ward sister because she thought they got in the way of the routine. But I suppose it was better for the children if they were there, particularly the small children. I worked at the Jenny Lind until I had my first child when I was 29. So, I worked there for five, six years. Having worked on the surgical ward I then went to work on the medical ward, which was very different. Instead of having children with hernias and broken legs and appendixes we had children with leukaemia, cystic fibrosis – lots of children who were obviously going to die. So, it was a totally different atmosphere really. There were a lot of children who did die from leukaemia and pneumonia, meningitis and things like that in those days.

After that I went to work in the Outpatients and the Casualty. Which was another really interesting experience. Children came in from nine in the morning until eight or nine at night. In the night-time hours, if they were an emergency they had to go to the Norfolk and Norwich. So, they only admitted children in the daytime hours, that was the time the Casualty was open. At nine at night the children had to go, if they were an emergency they had to go to the Norfolk and Norwich and then be transferred to the Jenny Lind.

It was a really old-fashioned hospital with some very quaint traditions, such as the fact that if you wanted a pint of blood, which was in the fridge at the Norfolk and Norwich, the gardener had to get on his bike and go and fetch it. So, you had to summon the gardener… the gardener was a jack of all trades and he had to go and fetch the blood. Not in an emergency of course, in an emergency blood could come by taxi. It had to be authorized by the doctor.

No special vans in those days. The blood samples would come and go by taxi if it was an emergency. The gardener took off the plasters as well. Because they used to use an electric saw thing to take off plasters, and it was always felt it was too frightening for children, so he used a huge pair of plaster shears and he was the only person strong enough to get through the plasters. He would come and cut the plasters off.

In Casualty, I learnt to suture and put on plaster of Paris and get someone to take it off, treat all sorts of wounds, poisonings. Lots of useful information. There was a sister in charge, and I was staff nurse and there were two other staff nurses. We didn’t have any students then, so we were all equally qualified really. And then we had a nursing auxiliary to help us. At the same time, we ran the outpatients’ clinics so some days we were really busy. The busiest time was the summer holidays when children seem to go absolutely mad and fall out of trees and run under cars and goodness knows what, break their arms.

Becoming a mother

When I had my first baby I stayed at home. I wanted to go back, but since my husband worked for the path lab and was on call, I didn’t go back to work. We also lived right out in the country. Then I had my second baby, Angie, then I had Rachael. When Rachael was one, I became disabled. I had what is the equivalent of a spinal cord injury which paralysed the legs and then of course I couldn’t go back to work. Although I was bringing up children (which I do call work!) I think my working life as a nurse essentially ended then as I became a permanent wheelchair user from that time.

Volunteering in disability access

Since then I have had one or two voluntary jobs, usually in disability charity work. At the moment I am still employed by Norfolk County Council. I work for the Norwich Castle Museum’s access advisory group. We have one meeting a month to sort out the access, or try and improve the access, to Norwich museums. Not only for people in wheelchairs but for visually impaired and blind people and also for the deaf.  And for that we get paid the princely sum of £25 each month to cover our expenses. I’m going to retire from that in December, because I am 67 now so I shall be retiring from that and I don’t think I shall be working again.

It involves a meeting at the Castle once a month. Sometimes it involves visiting other museums, we’ve been to Yarmouth, we’ve been to King’s Lynn, to see what the access is like and how it can be improved. We look at new exhibitions to see what they are going to be like from, say, a blind person’s point of view, or a wheelchair point of view. We just see generally what can be improved. The group has been running about five or six years now. We have a team leader who is a paid member of staff and who is also a wheelchair user. And on that group, we’ve got three wheelchair users, and two people with walkers or crutches and then we have got a profoundly deaf lady and we have got a group of blind people who rotate. We usually have at least one blind person there each month for our meeting.

I’ve done a lot of varied things. I worked for a building society and an accountant. Was that a waste of time? But then when you get this kind of banking crisis you see it wasn’t – I learnt an awful lot about being careful with your money and mortgages and things. And as for nursing, that teaches you a lot about bringing up children. Although my children might deny that!

Art and textiles

While I was at home with the children, I went to Norwich City College and did A- levels. I started off in the little local art class and then I gradually progressed to Norwich City College and did A-level Art and then I thought I might as well do A-level art history and  then I thought, well I might as well go for the degree at the art school but because Rachael at that time was doing O-levels I did an Access to Art course which introduced me to textiles, and was a year long. Then I went to the art school and did textiles and art at degree level. I came out with a B.A. Honours in textiles and art. I loved it. It was really fascinating. Twenty percent was theory, so twenty percent was art history and 80 percent was practical and since then I have painted and done a bit of silkscreen printing and been in exhibitions and done things like that. Not on any grand scale and I certainly haven’t made a fortune. I’ve not a Damien Hurst shall I say – or a Tracy Emin.

My artwork has been round the world. I took part in a competition for disabled artists responding to poems written by disabled people organized by the Japanese Broadcasting Company and I had to produce an artwork in response to a poem. This was a haiku – 17 syllables and three lines – and when I got it, I thought, surely there must be much more to it than this! The Exhibition was called ‘One Heart One World’  and the artwork had to contain the image of a heart in some way. First of all they came and collected and it flew out to Osaka then it flew back to the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, and then it came to London where David and I went to the private view where we met the poet laureate, Andrew Motion. We saw all the other pieces of work which came from Japan and America and England. Then it flew back to Tokyo for two years and then after two or three years it actually returned to me.

[Shows the artwork.] This was framed by the people concerned. It was a three line poem so here are the three elements…

The poem went something like, ‘You have torn my heart from my sleeve and I now wear it in my boots’ or something like that.  One heart, one world. It is made in hand-made paper, with silkscreen printing. The Japanese handmade paper tradition. The first is made of stinging nettles, a garden with rose-petals in. The next is made from flax and the last one is made from clay and flax. (That’s the terracotta colour and the heart in it.) And it’s tied together with seagrass. It is just my interpretation. I don’t know what the actual poet thought of it, I didn’t get to meet him, he wasn’t at the private view – although I did hear some poets complaining that they didn’t like their artwork. It was a response to the artwork; it wasn’t meant to be a visual interpretation of it.

I was a member of Norwich Print Fair and I used to take part in their print exhibitions which they hold in September. I don’t do that now, I think gradually as you get older and you are disabled, things get more difficult to do.

I did the art degree more as something to do, because in those days there wasn’t this culture of, ‘Oh let’s get the disabled all back to work again, they’re all skiving, and lots of them could work.’ I have to admit that if I had had the right job, which would probably have been a desk job, I could have worked but I think that would probably have been equally as boring as working at a building society. So that is really why I went back to college and did the art degree and did print-making and paper making. I used to do that at home. But as you get older it gets increasingly difficult to do it. So, I now do more photography and make things like DVDs and collected together all the old family photos. My husband has got more than a hundred years of family photos. Collected all those together and made a DVD of them.

It was more something to keep my mind occupied and just an enjoyable thing. I am lucky really. I have done a lot of things that I enjoyed. Some people spend their whole working life in a job they hate, but I haven’t.

Margaret (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive on 22nd November 2010 in North Walsham.

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