Working Lives

Tailoring to Occupational Therapy (1941-2008)

Location: Thetford

Vera recalls her wartime work as a machinist and welder, and later, as an occupational therapy aide.

A teenager in wartime London

During the war I lived in London and in 1941, at fourteen, I left school. My father always insisted his children should learn a trade. There were seven of us and my sisters were all machinists so I went into factory work. I had to do war work and became a machinist and began by making uniforms or parts of uniforms for the RAF. To begin with you just made the lining, under the supervision of another girl who was doing the same job. It was more trial and error during the war.

I was also a welder. Young girls like me were trained to do welding ‘cause most of the men had gone to war. I was about sixteen when I did steel welding and I thoroughly enjoyed it. That’s all I can remember, going back a few years. The factories I worked at didn’t have canteens so we used to go out or I’d take a packed lunch that my mum made for me. When I was in welding I worked near home and my mum always cooked a main meal at lunchtime. The conditions were alright, most were young ladies as the men were at war. Those who weren’t in the war were disabled.

We worked long hours, from eight o’clock ‘til about half past five. I used to go by bus which was about tuppence, and got back home about six o’clock. We were only allowed about one week’s holiday a year and we got the usual holidays at Easter, Whitsun, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and then you had to go back to work. I earned seven and six and my mum took some for my food. I can’t remember how much. My father insisted that I start saving and got me a bank book with a pound, which was quite a lot of money then. I had fun, I enjoyed my youth.

I don’t know if anybody else remembers this but during the war we had to join a club, it was compulsory, so we joined a youth club, which was good. Sometimes I went to local dances and the pictures. Coming from a big family I always had things going on. I often went to watch Leyton Orient with my brothers, I was a football fan. There was none of this pushing and shoving then.

My health was pretty good when I was young. I did have to wear glasses from a very early age. I used to have to go to the clinic because I had a squint and in those days they didn’t straighten them. I had a patch over one eye. Otherwise my health was pretty good. I was skinny as a child and was put on cod liver oil and malt, which I loved. My father would buy me a jar and I had it on my bread as well.

From London to Thetford and joining the NHS

After the war I became a tailoress, making ladies’ jackets and costumes. I got married in 1957 and had two children so I didn’t go to work then. I moved to Thetford in 1963/4 and went into the National Health Service.

In 1967 when my children started school, I started at St. Barnabas as an auxiliary nurse, which I really enjoyed. I worked five hours part-time, afternoons and evenings. I worked with trained staff and the hospital was spotless. We worked under a matron and a firm but fair sister who kept us on our toes. There were no bed sores. We rubbed backs twice a day, morning and night. I’m not one to go back in time but I wish hospitals today were run like yesteryear. Unfortunately St. Barnabas closed in 1970.

Working in occupational therapy

I then went to work in the first Day Hospital for the elderly in Norfolk, at the Thetford Cottage Hospital. It was quite exciting. I became an occupational therapy aide, working alongside the occupational therapist. I did my training in the old St. Mary’s Hospital in Bury St. Edmunds and at the West Suffolk Hospital. I did day release from Thetford and, after a year, did a 2½ hour exam. Occupational therapy is not just about cane weaving, knitting and painting. There was always an end product to whatever we did. We wove trays, made stools, painting and varnishing. We also put some patients on tandem cycles which strengthened their legs. Attached to the cycle was a fretsaw and a sander to cut wood and sand. There were also pulleys to strengthen arms. We all worked as a team. We had a staff nurse, nurse auxiliary and technical instructor. We treated the whole person, not just their disability limb. Most patients had had strokes, hip or knee replacements or had arthritis.

I did cooking and dressing practice with patients. They cooked their lunch for the day and I got a lot of tips from them. The nursing staff gave them baths and did their hair. Local GPs came twice a week and a geriatrician came once a month. In the afternoons we had quizzes and games. It is a shame there are no day hospitals now because people get well quicker when they are in groups.

Starting a day centre

In 1975 they set up CARE which means a Centre for the Activities and Recreation for the Elderly. When patients were discharged from day hospitals they went to CARE for about six weeks, sometimes longer. After a few years there were three centres: St. Cuthbert’s Church had two days, one in Magdalen Street on one day, and the youth centre. In 1991 I retired from the Day Hospital which was taken over by mental health three days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I was approached by a local GP and the chairperson of Care to start a day centre with a colleague. We got funding from West Suffolk after the Finance Officer came to see what we do – sewing, patchwork, rug making, painting, music and movement (passive exercise), discussions on daily matters and games to help mobility.

Then we had to leave the Cottage Hospital and, for some reason, it remained empty until it closed. In January 2001 we moved to Kings Court lounge and Age Concern took over CARE, funded by West Suffolk Hospital until the money ran out. Social services then funded it for six months but on 21 March 2003 we were told the service was folding because funding had been cancelled by social services.

Still going strong!

I would not give up easily! I gave up Fridays but am still going strong on Mondays and sometimes I get clients from social services. I’m helped by two members of staff who retired from the Cottage Hospital so I don’t have to do much.

 Vera (b. 1927) was talking to WISEArchive on 23rd April 2008 in Thetford.

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