Beginning with blackcurrants
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.
That was for beer was it?
I should imagine so, I don’t know really, I don’t think we ever inquired – as long as we got paid that was all.
Commercial course and the Accountant’s
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.
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 3then, to the bank which was up the road and round 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 De. with me for protection. De. being the junior in the accounts 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.
The Student Nurse
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 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. But anyway I began as a student nurse there and I really loved it. I did three years training, and then I became a staff nurse. I’m not quite sure of what to say about working there really. What sort of things you had to do?
Yes, you presumably had very long hours and shifts and things like that …
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.
I forgot to say about the other job, working in the office, that 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.
We only got one day off a week. I think it was something like a 44-hour week. Something like that – we got one day off and then we got a half day which could be tacked onto it so you got, sort of, one day in the morning or one evening and a day off. Or it could be separate from it so you only got one day off and the odd half day. 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.
You couldn’t go home?
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, I think it was three months – or was it six weeks? – anyway between six and twelve weeks, in school every year. So that was not like today’s nurses who do degrees, but 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.
Was that part of the hospital, the school?
Yes. I think it was called the nursing training school.
So you got practical training more than anything else?
Yes, you got training on the wards. You started off with three months which was theory before they let you onto the wards, so you did have a little theory. 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.
Midwifery training and going on the district
Then my friend W. and I decided we would go and do midwifery. I wanted another qualification, so we went off to do midwifery. At that time – it still is – midwifery was in two parts, part one was in a hospital and part two was on the District. So part one – we went to Leicester to do it, 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 Indians. And women who didn’t speak any English at all whose husbands had to translate their medical history and all their midwifery complications and what have you.
I remember there you had a period of training, probably about six weeks, and then 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. That 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, really. 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. For some reason we were transferred to Colchester because there weren’t enough births or something. Or there weren’t enough midwives … I can’t remember why. So 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 bike, a council bike, or if you had your own bike you were issued with an allowance for the bike.
You were on call I think every other week or something like that, but it seemed to be quite a lot. You were on call day and night so 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 were called out several times. You could be called out a number of times in the night. And then every so often … 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. And then you had to go and wake the person up with a cup of tea and tell them they were needed, or wake them up 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 at all.
So that would be about once a month?
Yes. More or less that, each midwife’s turn would come around every twenty fifth day.
We had really lovely meals -hospital food wasn’t very good in those days – but when we lived there we had really lovely meals, because we had a cook in residence who cooked really magnificent meals to give you the energy to get on your bike and bike up the hills. I had two other students with me on our little patch and we were assigned to two midwives. So two midwives shared three students. I remember my friend Jenny had a sign on the back of her bike saying “atomic powered, do not pass”!
You had this bag, a 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 round 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 you had to have a social reason, which virtually meant that if you’d 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, but 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 if they had any and things like that. 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.
I was going to ask you what you wore as a uniform …
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 cape, waterproof, 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. I was trying to remember what time of year it was. I think 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.
Staff nurse at the Jenny Lind children’s hospital
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 Jenny Lind hospital in Norwich, which was then in Unthank Road, the old Jenny Lind hospital. I got a job there on the surgical ward as staff nurse and went there. I suppose I was 22 when I went there, or 23.
You were already qualified as a midwife when you went there.
Yes, but I wasn’t qualified in paediatrics which you have to be now, but in those days you didn’t have to be. 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.
We had a really old fashioned 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. A lot of small 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 in those days, and pneumonia, meningitis and things like that.
After that I went to work in the outpatients and the casualty. Which was another really interesting experience. Children came 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.
Mr Martin: You don’t mean the child stayed there all day? You admitted patients from nine in the morning to nine at night.
Yes. 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.
So you didn’t have little vans zipping around?
No, no vans in those days. It would come by taxi if it was an emergency and go by taxi, the blood samples. 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 (if you couldn’t take it off), treat all sorts of wounds, poisonings. Lots of useful information. I think there was a sister in charge and I was staff nurse and there were two other staff nurses. We were all trained in there, we didn’t have any students. 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 were children seem to go absolutely mad and fall out of trees and run under cars and goodness knows what, break their arms.
I left there when I had my first baby.
When you had your first baby, did you stay at home?
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, A., then I had R. When R. 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. So you could say that 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].
Norwich Castle Museum’s access advisory group
Although since then one or two voluntary jobs, usually in disability charity work. But 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.
So that is the sort of thing I do at the moment. That involves the access, so 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.
So that is my working life essentially. A fair variety of things.
I can see I’ve done a lot of things. You sometimes think, I worked for a building society and an accountant, and was that a waste of time? But then when you get this kind of banking crisis you see it wasn’t a waste of time 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 – One Heart, One World
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 [my daughter] at that time was doing O-levels I decided to do first of all the Access to Art course which introduced me to textiles, and was a year long. So I did that, and then I went to the art school, I got in, and I 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.
Mr M. Apart from the artwork which has been round the world.
I took part in a competition for disabled artists responding to poems written by disabled people, so this was organized by the Japanese Broadcasting Company and I had to produce and 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 only stipulation was that – 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 it, 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 [my husband] and I went to the private view where we met the poet laureate, who then was … [Andrew Motion. Ed.] I can’t remember what his name was, sorry. Anyway, he was there and we saw all the other pieces of work which came from both Japan and America and England. And then it flew back to Tokyo for two years and then after two or three years it actually returned to me.
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.
[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. That is made in hand-made paper, silkscreen printing. So this is like 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.
You were saying about when you had to stop work.
Yes, did I say about the art degree? I did it 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 an art degree and did art history 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.
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