Working Lives

Nursing: A good choice (1945-1992)

Location: Norwich

Audrey remembers her time as an evacuee during the Second World War and her working life as a nurse.

I was born in Hebburn in the North of England but in 1938 we moved to London where my father got a job in the aircraft industry.

During the war we experienced quite a lot of bombing because we lived near Wembley, quite near to aerodromes, and it was really quite frightening.

When I was 12 my two younger sisters and I were evacuated to a village called Brynsiencyn in Anglesey, North Wales. We went by train and it was a long journey. They couldn’t put the three of us in one home but we were within walking distance of each other. I went to a lady who had two small children. I didn’t really like her and she didn’t like me very much but I was useful to her because I was quite used to looking after small boys, which she appreciated.

It was a Welsh-speaking community; no-one spoke any English so it was very difficult. Nevertheless I settled down quite well and was quite happy after a while. We stayed there for a whole year until the war was over.

I knew that my father had been ill while I was away and when I got home he was in bed, very poorly. The front room downstairs was converted into a bedroom for my Dad and he had nurses visiting and I suppose that’s where I got the idea of nursing from. He died on VJ day, the last day of the war and it was all very sad but we coped. There were eight of us, and in those days the Widow’s Pension was very poor so my mother did all sorts of jobs, cleaning and working in the evenings, while us older girls (myself and my elder sister) would look after the children.

When I was 14 it was time for me to leave school. We didn’t really have any career guidance but we had to go to London for an interview and they asked us what we’d like to do. I hadn’t got a clue. but our next-door-neighbour was an upholsteress and my mother said this was a very good trade to have so I chose upholstery, although I didn’t know anything about it. The lady in the office sent me to Waring and Gillows, a very smart shop in Oxford Street, and I stayed there for three years.

Then I found an advert in a magazine wanting people to train as nurses and I thought I’d like to do that. I had an interview at the Royal College of Nursing and was told that it would be difficult to go to one of the big nursing schools because of my lack of education, but I could do a two-year course in orthopaedics first. Well I didn’t know what orthopaedics were but the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital was a bus-ride from my home so I wrote to the Matron there and went for an interview.

The Matron was a bit frightening and she told me I couldn’t expect to come up to the standard of other nurses, which I shall remember to my dying day. But I said ‘Well, I’m willing to try’, and I wanted to put my tongue out at that stage, but I didn’t…

I joined the nursing school in Stanmore when I was 17½ and spent three months there, then I went onto the wards. Eventually it came to doing what they call the first part prelim and the second part prelim which you have to pass before you can go on. The first part, which was written work, was rather hard and I had to retake it but the second was a practical course and I passed it with no problem.

Then it was time to move on. I knew I couldn’t go to one of the London hospitals as I didn’t have the educational standard but a ward sister that I worked with suggested I apply to her old hospital, the Norfolk & Norwich, and I was accepted.

After three months at the nursing school I went onto the wards. The first was a male surgical – the wards were segregated in those days. It was a 40-bedded ward and when they were full they’d have another line up the middle and you’d have 43 or 44 people. It was very busy and we did long hours (a shift system) but I enjoyed it.

We had what they called a hospital exam which you did in stages and you had to pass. After that you’d go onto a medical ward and the same principle there. There were lots of pneumonias in those days because there were no antibiotics (they’d only just come in) and the patients had to have oxygen tents. To have three deaths in a night was not uncommon in the wintertime.

Eventually it came to the end of my three years which meant taking the hospital finals, which gave us state registration. Our tutor hadn’t got any hopes for me ever passing but I did and I was over the moon.

After that I felt I really needed to go home so I went back to the Orthopaedic Hospital for a year, where I passed the ONC (Orthopaedic National Certificate).

By then I’d met Bob and we decided to get married. I had to find work and I wrote to St Mary Abbots in Kensington and got in there. I was there for four years, first in a surgical ward which I didn’t care for much, and later in a medical ward which was lovely.

I suppose I was earning about £5 a week by then. In those days £5 was a lot of money – Bob was only earning about £7.

Then I started having my children. I was always a bit afraid that I might be sterile because in certain gynaecological operations at the Norfolk & Norwich they used radium, which was kept in safes right down in the hospital basement. As a nurse in theatre you had to go down and prepare the radium, putting on big gloves and using forceps to take the amount you wanted and put it into little rubber covers and sew it up. Well the theatre sister frightened the life out of you if you were late and you didn’t hurry up so quite often we abandoned the forceps and put the radium in with our fingers. We were more frightened of the sister than we were of the radium! But I had my four children in five years so it didn’t affect me.

After my youngest child was born we came back to Norwich and I got a job as a practice nurse then later as a community nurse, doing things for people in their own homes that we did in hospital. It was lovely and I enjoyed it. I was sad when I had to retire at 60.

Audrey Camp (b. 1932)  talking to WISEArchive on 15th September 2016 in Norwich.

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