Working Lives

The Care Assistant (1967-1974)

Location: Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

Barbara gives a vivid account of working as a domestic and as a carer at Beech House, Gressenhall from 1967 to 1974.

Starting as a domestic

When I was 21, in 1967, I started working at Beech House. Everybody in Gressenhall called it The Spike. I don’t know why. I was brought up with it, with my parents. When I was interviewed by Mr and Mrs Gerard they were desperate for any carers or domestic people. My mother was working there so that helped. I can’t remember the interview, only that we went to the Matron’s quarters. I was applying for a job as a domestic, a cleaner they called it at the time. I was paid about £8 a week, about the same as I was previously earning at the factory.

We worked where we were needed in the female quarters. Today that’s the research end of the Museum. That was the Ladies’ end. We worked 42 hours a week, shift work, mainly 8am to 5pm with an hour for lunch. On my first morning, being 21 and stupid, a gentleman was brought down to the bathroom in a blanket. He’d actually got faeces squeezing out of his toes and in his hair, and I didn’t laugh at his face, but that made me smile for about six months afterwards. There’s people like that, out in the community, through no fault of their own. I don’t know what it was called then. I call it dementia, old age, and you’re very fortunate if you go through old age without any of those problems. I did the Assistant Matron’s quarters on a Sunday morning and the quarters in what is now the Old Cottage where the Deputy used to live. Her name was Carter. She was a retired nurse and I believe she had a son.

Six months after I’d been there they were asking for carers. My mum said I wouldn’t stick it but I applied for the job and obviously they already knew me so they took me on as a carer.  We had about 70 women and 60 men and they ate and slept either end of the building. I was responsible for the male sick ward where there were eight beds.

As a carer I worked the same hours, five days a week including Saturdays and Sundays. We could work from 8am till 8pm, or from 8am till 2pm or 2pm till 8pm, with dinner and tea breaks. The pay was better as a carer but I can’t remember by how much.

A carer’s daily routine

The carer’s job was to do anything you were asked, if they needed a fire lit, anything like that, and covering for holidays or people off sick. Matron was in charge and there were two other ladies, Sister Reynolds and Nurse Tuck. Sister Reynolds was a very experienced nurse. She was a Gressenhall lady and when her husband went out to Aden she went with him. She was very strict but very lovely. She really was! It was very good training, it’s made me a better person, I know it has. She kept an eye on you and kept you on your toes. I’m not sure if Nurse Tuck was a proper nurse.

Male carers generally looked after the males but occasionally the women carers would go across and help out. We’d sign in at the General Office, just inside the main gates, to show we were on the property and on time. We’d go up to the staff room in the main building to leave our coats and bags. No lockers in those days. We started at 7.30am and the two night staff would finish at 8am so there was a half hour handover. There used to be only one night staff for 110 residents in the whole of Beech House, until the law changed. After the handover we would get people up if the night staff hadn’t already. We would get the elderly up at 6am so about three quarters of them were up by 8am. Then they did their various little chores or whatever they wanted to do. We’d wash and dress them, eight to ten sharing rooms. We had two small rooms for two people, no screens, one washbasin. You could have two or three carers on in the same room dressing individual people. We would try and make some beds before breakfast which was at approximately 8.30am. We had to go to the main kitchen, which is now a machine room I believe, and get the porridge. One of the residents used to get up at 5am and make it. She absolutely loved doing it!

Bathing the residents

After breakfast we’d go back to bed-making or to collect the washing which would be taken  down to the laundry. Some of the residents worked there. Some would do ironing, some used to work the big machines and some of them did a little bit of general mending. We did have a sewing room with two ladies who worked in it. Mrs Mickleburgh will probably tell you about that, she’s still about, bless her. They did have automatic washers though that’s not what they looked like! Then it would be bath time and we had the odd day care coming in to help. We had 70 women to bath each week. Some had to have a bath every day because of incontinence problems. The bathroom was two baths in a room with a partition down the middle. We had one getting undressed, one in the bath and one getting dressed in one cubicle one side and three ladies the other. We didn’t have any hoists. We had wheelchairs at the end of the bath and would slide them in and manually haul them out. I don’t remember having any lifting aids at Beech House, not until we moved to Costessey in ‘76, so it was all done with muscle. You had ten minutes tea break and if you were more than ten minutes you’d have somebody knocking on the door wanting to know where you were. The Matron or the Deputy had to segregate the male staff from the female staff at one time, for obvious reasons. Wherever you go relationships build up, and that obviously had to be stopped!


Lunchtime, the dinner would come down from the main kitchen on a trolley and we would serve it, a main course and a sweet, and then they’d have cups of tea. Then it’s toilets after each meal, a normal thing to do, and then you weren’t disturbed, hopefully, by somebody wanting to go. They did have bells they could ring, but in those days they could be ignored. Upstairs, near the Duty Room, there was a bell board. There was a red disc over the room number and if a care assistant didn’t hear it, didn’t look up at the board, or didn’t happen to go past it, that person could sit there an hour or whatever. Nowadays the bells continue ringing until you go to the point and switch it off.

The ladies ate in the main dining room, a big room with about eight or ten tables. There were about 60 women at one end and ten others went to the men’s dining room, ‘cos there wasn’t enough space. The ratio of the men and women could go up and down. They say women live longer than men and we usually did have more women. The big dining room was across where the entrance to the Museum is now. It had a hard wooden floor that my mother used to scrub regularly. We did have big buffers. As carers we had to do a certain amount of domestic work. My main room was the male sick ward where we had about eight to ten beds. In the winter it was my job to light the coal fire and keep it going. I had to go down and get buckets of coal. On the odd occasions we had younger, strong, residents who would come in for whatever reason and were given little chores like that to do. In those days they got a little pocket money but that was stopped. All to do with the laws of the land.

Handing over at the end of the shift

After lunch we would finish the shift at 2pm. Taking the ladies to the toilets, we had three-door toilets in one room, now a public toilet. There was one urinal in the corner that the men used during the day, but not at meal times when the ladies used it. The ladies would be going in and out of the toilet and we had commodes in the room near the washbasins. We’d go in one door, put somebody on the toilet, take somebody off the toilet and go out of the other door, so it was a bit repetitive and not very private, but that was the thing in those days. Somebody would come on at 12pm or 1pm and before the end of the shift we would hand over, letting them know if there were any problems to be dealt with, whether somebody was not well or on their last legs or whatever, or whether they’d been moved. We had a single sick ward and if we thought someone was passing on, as most people know, it could be tomorrow or it could be in a month, we would sometimes move them there. It depended on how disruptive they were to the others. Some people can be quite noisy, with dementia, as well as before you pass on. They would put them in the room we called the Doctor’s Room. We had a board with all the named wards on. I think the Doctor’s Room comes from when it was a workhouse.

We could test urines and, years ago, we were allowed to give insulin. We also had to put a lead-weighted tube down one lady’s throat to open her airways. She used to try and feed it in and we had to supervise her so she didn’t choke herself and then she’d obviously pull it  out quickly. None of us were trained. Well, we had one trained Sister but obviously she wasn’t on duty 24 hours a day, but the only training we had was as we went along on the job.

Sometimes you did a 9am till 5pm shift, but very rarely. The afternoon shift started at 2pm and finished at 8pm. It was mainly bathing again or cleaning out their false teeth mugs, and we’d have to clean the lockers out ‘cos some of the patients used to take food and you could find a bit of a hoard, as if they’re not going to get the next meal. Some who were incontinent tried to hide it. You only have to have a nose to pick that up, you don’t have to see it. So we used to clean out lockers, the urinals, the commodes and the men’s bottles.

Tea time, the same meal routine, more or less, and the same in the evening until 8pm. The night staff came on at 7.30pm and we handed over to them.

If we had a problem, and we had several, we could go to Matron to discuss it privately, whether it be between staff or residents. Obviously you don’t always have the same rapport with everybody so it had to be discussed and they would try and sort it out.

Dealing with death

If you found somebody you thought had passed away you were never allowed to say so. We told the most senior person on duty who informed the GP who would come and confirm the death. The families were informed and we would lay out the body. I don’t think  it was discussed with the family before it was taken to the undertaker’s. These days the undertaker does this kind of thing but then we had to wash the resident, put them in their pyjamas, and cut the toenails, fingernails, tie the toes together and pack certain parts of the body so there was no leakage. Some of them were put in white plastic shrouds which did not smell very pleasant, and we would then label them. The male porters had to measure the body with a special long ruler. They measured the length and crossed the arms across the body and measured from side to side. The measurements were for the coffin.

As there were eight to ten people in a room if somebody died during the night they had to stay in the bed with a portable screen round them. If possible, if we thought the time was near, the patient would be moved into the Doctor’s Room so as not to upset the old people. When everyone was at breakfast or in the sitting room in the afternoon, the body would be taken down to the mortuary, a building covered in ivy where the children’s play area is now. The body, covered in black with a purple cross, was taken there on a trolley. Makes me hate purple now. When I first went to Beech House there was only one night nurse on duty. They had to call the Matron or Master to help take the body down to the mortuary. It wasn’t always very pleasant because the roadway was very bumpy, not very level, and sometimes they would slip off. Not completely, thank goodness, I never had that happen. Then they would be left there until the undertaker came.

Sorting out the laundry and bedtime

I remember Jill Rix and Ruth Smith, a resident? Names have all gone. The residents used to go down to the laundry after breakfast for a couple of hours, and come back for lunch. They wouldn’t go down in the afternoons. We used to strip the beds, tie everything up in sheets, put them in the boiler house and then a gentleman, I think he was a groundsman, would take them down to the laundry, and collect any clean laundry and the care staff would put it away. As there were 110 beds all over the building we had different laundry cupboards. If anybody wanted draw sheets during the night because somebody was incontinent, they didn’t have to run the whole length of the building for them. They tried to keep the worst cases of incontinence in the same room as, obviously, it’s not very nice being woken up in the morning with somebody’s backside with faeces everywhere. The men’s wards were Kerry’s Ward and Yard Ward. I can’t remember what the ladies’ ward was called.

We had communal clothing. You could open up the wardrobe and you’d have dresses, vests, knickers, pants, stockings. The majority of ladies didn’t wear corsets because it was difficult for the staff to put on if a resident couldn’t do it, and also, if you washed them they were difficult to dry. Corsets were quite unpleasant to wear then because they’d got steel whatevers in. We used to go in and say, for Mrs Smith, we’d pick up a dress and petticoat that were slim, and a pair of pants that were slim. Some ladies insisted on wearing certain underwear. If they were incontinent of faeces they would want knickers with elastic in the legs so it didn’t drop out walking down the corridors. So you tried to accommodate them. The stockings were those big, old thick ones. I don’t know what they were made of, not the nice nylon stuff you have nowadays.

We would help whoever was putting them to bed. We used to roll up their dresses, put a clean nightie on the end of the bed, all ready for the carer. We started putting some of them to bed at 5pm. If you had 70 ladies and only two of you, you had to start early. Those who could help themselves would probably be up till midnight watching telly in the big sitting areas, but the majority of them had been up since 6am and were glad to go to bed early. Sometimes they didn’t have much choice. If too many chose to go to bed late the night staff wouldn’t manage looking after 110 residents while trying to put some of them to bed. Some had to be bathed before bed.

A carer’s ‘uniform’

We weren’t given uniforms, we had overalls which we brought home with us. We wore them to work and had to wash them at home. Previously they did wash some overalls but it was the staff’s choice to do it themselves, especially the men whose overalls were white nylon, because we didn’t want them going into the same wash as possibly 30 incontinent patients’ washing. There was no sluice room but there were facilities to take the worst off before you sent them down to the laundry.

Carers’ and domestics’ overalls were different colours. The style was changed, whether it be nipped in at the waist or straight down. At one time we were allowed to wear belts, similar to a nurse’s belt and we were allowed to wear fob watches which were worn on our overalls, not on our wrists, to avoid catching the residents when you were lifting them. We did wear white arm bands but they stopped that because they said we weren’t nurses.  Then we weren’t allowed to wear fob watches so if you had a wrist watch you just took it off and put it in your pocket and hoped you didn’t drop it in the bath when leaning over. Then they changed the way of lifting. We’d used various methods but, fortunately, now they all have hoists. It’s all changed. In recent years you’d go on lifting courses and computer courses!

Bring your own tea bag!

We weren’t provided with any food, all we were allowed was milk. We took in our own tea and coffee and had a cupboard to store them in but one member of staff used to ‘borrow’! So then you would carry it in your bag. If you hadn’t any tea or coffee you couldn’t borrow a teabag from the kitchen.  All the tea and sugar was weighed out in tins to prevent anybody stealing it! How you measure out tea for 70 people I don’t know!  So you’d either borrow from a mate or go without. We took our own sandwiches. We never had food there.

We used to have a Christmas party but we never had alcohol. We did have alcohol in the staffroom ‘cos at one time we were allowed to accept gifts from relatives. If we had a bottle of drink or a tin of sweets or whatever, it was taken to the staffroom and you could have it there. Occasionally people coming on duty at 7.30am. might have a couple of glasses of sherry and then, of course, weren’t fit for work and it became a problem so they stopped that. Instead they’d be kept for a while and we’d draw a number out and if it was on the bottle or tin of sweets you could have it. Then you weren’t allowed to accept gifts at all. If somebody had dementia you could take their box of sweets and they wouldn’t know any different. You could say they’d given it to you, so it had to be stopped.

We had a party once a year in the main dining hall. Joan’s son used to do the disco. I can’t remember who provided food, if we had any. I can remember a packet of cigarettes, that could have been a Christmas gift. We didn’t have Christmas bonuses or anything like that. The Council never gave us anything.

Odours and noise

In the morning going into the staffroom the smells from the gentlemen’s Yard Ward were absolutely horrendous! The stairs have actually been removed now. They had very incontinent people with faeces who would plaster it all over the walls. You could go in and find handprints on the wall. That was horrendous. It opened into what is the exercise yard.

Most of the noise was dementia patients. They’re not a danger to anybody but they develop a habit of screeching at the top of their voices, which could be very frightening. One lady used to say she was ‘having things that you shouldn’t talk about’, meaning her periods, and she would sit on the floor, curl herself up in a ball and scream. I don’t think she was very old, probably in her 40s. She never used the word ‘period’. She shared a room with another lady and we had to lift her up and carry her to her room and she’d calm down. She’d got the attention, I think that’s what it was, attention seeking. She was a pleasant person. She would go round cleaning the brass door knobs and polishing. She didn’t have to do it, she wanted to. She’s the first one I remember up at Beech House. She would stand at the window and go ‘Psss, psss, psss’ all the time. She’d be looking at her polished fork or her polished bit of brass. She’d be round the door knobs. We had a Matron whose little boy went up and down the corridor on his bicycle. He was about three years old and would smack this lady on the backside as he went past and make her scream all the more. He used to look out the door, put his head round the corner and shout his name and sort of laugh at you as much as to say ‘I’ve done it again’.

Frightening moments

There were some frightening times. A lady smacked me across the face one day. She’d gone into the ladies’ dining room where the bread and butter was on the tables, ready for the residents. They were allowed a mixture of three brown and white half slices each. They would know 4.30pm was teatime, so quarter past four, twenty past four, they’d start coming in. This lady, a biggish lady, came in, grabbed a handful of bread and butter and off she went. I called her name and she turned round and whacked me across the face. That hit me hard! Being hit that hard you don’t feel it, but that really frightened me. She said she was going to get me and for weeks afterwards I imagined her standing round the corner with a knife or something, but fortunately it never happened.

I did have a man dive at my throat once. I’m not sure what was wrong with him but he used to walk on his toes, and we were encouraged to try and get him to walk down on his heels. I asked him to do it once and he put his hand round my throat. Fortunately for me he fell to his knees. Because he walked on his toes it caused him to release his hand. That did frighten me but I went away and had a good howl and I was all right then.

I can’t remember what I classed as sad. We had young people come in and they were very abusive but we didn’t see that as sad. I’ve always said that you have to be a special person – I don’t mean I’m special – I don’t know if it’s brain dead in certain areas but death never bothered me then. It does now. You could have three, four, die in a day. I think I cried once. There was a gentleman, a youngish man, 45, called Victor. I’m not sure what was wrong with him as we weren’t told the medical side of the clients. He couldn’t speak very well. He wasn’t in bed very long and he would get bed sores which were horrendous but he could say thing like ‘That’s better’. You could understand that’s what he was saying. I suppose that made me sad but otherwise you just seemed to get immune to all that sort of thing.

There were funny incidents. We had a little miniature man, as I call him, whose name was Fred. He used to go to the local pub, Beetley New Inn, and get drunk. As you had to have a carer in the home at all times the Manager or the Matron would go and pick him up in a wheelbarrow, which, you wouldn’t believe, he absolutely loved!

Short-term residents

A young woman who’d been picked up off the streets by the police came in and was given a bed in a single room, the Doctor’s Room. She wasn’t very pleasant, wasn’t very clean in her personal things. She was very abusive, didn’t appreciate what we were doing for her. I didn’t like that very much. We weren’t allowed to say anything to her at all. We also had families come in and they slept in the rooms where the blacksmith is now. It used to be one long building. There was a washbasin at one corner and they were issued with beds, bed linen, some of them with clothes, pots and pans. I don’t know if there was any electricity in there. I can’t remember. They’d been turned out for not paying rent or whatever. If they just had the clothes they came in, we gave them what we called ‘dead stock’. Clothes that were given to us by relatives after their mum or dad had died, if they’d got any decent clothes, shoes, pipes, anything we could make use of. These families perhaps stayed for a week and then they’d get up, do a midnight flit and take the lot. When they move on you don’t know there they’ve gone. If a resident came in in a terrible condition they were issued with boots, shoes, gloves, hats, whatever from the ‘dead stock’.

We had a pregnant lady whose husband was in the Navy and when he came home, I don’t know whether he didn’t know she was pregnant or what it was, but she got kicked out. We did have one family, a lady and three children, who stayed in what we called The Lodge,  just inside the gate on the left hand side. We would have to go down to the kitchen, pick up a tray of food, take it down to The Lodge, knock on the door, go away and go back two hours later to collect the washing up. Of course, we also had the odd tramp in, flea-ridden or filthy dirty or whatever. His clothes would be in a state and they would issue him with clothes and he’d go off the next day to wherever. There used to be one or two places open then but they’re all shut now, I think.

Enjoying the company, never alone

Every client I looked after, in the eight years I was there, appreciated everything that you did for ‘em because they came from worse conditions in the outside world into what they called better conditions. They had company, the main thing they wanted, and company at night because they shared a bedroom with from two to ten people, and during the day there could be up to 20 people sitting in one room so they could communicate or swear at each other. The majority hadn’t got family so they would share people’s visitors, and they honestly appreciated everything you did. My Nan went there for a week’s respite care while my aunt had a holiday, and she wouldn’t come out! She enjoyed it that much because she was living with my aunt and, no disrespects to my aunt who obviously had to pop out to the shops, by my Nan felt she was on her own for hours. There she had company all the time, whether it was getting out of bed at night for the toilet, when there was always somebody about, or if she didn’t feel well she could just shout to Mrs Jones across the room or ring for the nurse. The bells were situated over the top of the beds with cords laying in front. If they were able to use their limbs they could ring them and if not they would shout to somebody else to ring for a nurse.

Highs and lows

What I most disliked was getting up at 7am. I was at work at 7.30am so I didn’t have a lot of time for a wash and breakfast.

We were once accused of scalding a lady. Miss Barratt’s family complained that we had scalded her. She didn’t speak very well but in her way she communicated to her relatives that we had scalded her so we got into trouble and, as in a shop where the customer is always right, they were right and we were wrong. However, it was proven that we didn’t scald her. Different people bathed her and she’d got psoriasis badly on her legs and we couldn’t always tell what water temperature was right for her. She couldn’t get into the bath by herself so we were lifting her in and out and if the water was too hot she couldn’t tell us. We didn’t have thermometers to test the water, it was a case of sticking your elbow in and if it was right for your elbow it was right for your client. Some could tell us ‘Oh, that’s too hot nurse’ or ‘That’s too cold’. They called us nurse but latterly they were not allowed to because obviously we weren’t nurses but they couldn’t remember all our names.  We used to call them ‘Darling’ like you do in any conversation. Whether you’re talking to the elderly or to a child you’d say ‘All right my darling’, but you’re not allowed to say that now, but you were then.

I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed all my time there though it was absolutely hard work. I was a lot younger and a lot stronger. I could lift an eight-stone person. The beds were that close together, there’d be two carers but not a lot of room, maybe a foot in between the beds in some rooms, and I could lift a smaller person up and sit on the bed behind me, like a baby, while the carer stripped the bed. I can’t lift a loaf of bread sometimes now! I didn’t even mind the incontinence. I’ve never had a problem cleaning it up. I would much rather have a bucket full of human faeces than go into a butcher’s shop and pick up a pound of liver. I only felt sick once when someone had a big boil on their back, we called ‘em ‘pushers’. There’d be sputum and all sorts. But thankfully none of it ever bothered me.

Words of advice

I would say to young people today ‘Listen to the older folk. Believe 75% of what people say and just sit and listen, and sort it out in your own head. Think, “Well, yeah, maybe they could be right”’. I used to answer my mum back as a child. Not as they do now!  Sister Reynolds taught me to respect the older folk and made me a better person, in that I was tidy. We had iron bedsteads then and she would kick the wheels straight. Folding up a blanket neatly on the end of the bed. When you’d done your ward you had to mop the floors. We had big electric polishers to go over the floors, and we cleaned the basins out. When you’d done your room you could look back and think “That looks better”. It’s made me respect the elderly. I still get annoyed with them as I’m sure I get annoyed with young people, over silly things probably. But it definitely made me a better person.

I was very upset when Beech House closed. We didn’t understand why. Can now. All the old people appreciated everything we did.

Barbara (b.1946) was talking to WISEArchive on 19th March 2009 at Gressenhall.

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