Working Lives

The Children’s Nurse (2010)

Location: Ireland

Belfast in the 1890s

My parents managed the fee for me to go as a probationer to a children's and women's hospital in Belfast. It was a struggle to provide the uniform. I was to pay a fee for a year's training but to receive no pay.

It was quite a small hospital with about twenty children's cots and a small women's ward, outpatients' department and dispensary. We were exceedingly well taught: There were seven or eight of us and we were not overworked. I loved it there.

I was always interested in the "whys" and "hows", and on one memorable occasion, when Sister was off duty, persuaded another "pro" (probationer) to put atropine drops in my eyes to see if it hurt and what happened. Nothing happened at once, so I proceeded to put drops in three of the other "pro's" eyes. Soon none of us could see properly, everything was blurred. On Sister's return she discovered that none of us could see to read a thermometer. Murder was out! What had happened? Who had done it? I explained I had and why, adding "And it doesn't hurt." However I got a good scolding and was reported to Matron, who rang up the oculist who suggested other drops being put in now, and said he would like to see me in the morning.

The effect of the atropine soon subsided, but I felt a bit apprehensive of the coming interview, till next morning I heard loud masculine laughter coming from Matron's Office. I was called in and the oculist examined my eyes and gave me a rather mild lecture on unauthorised experiments, even on myself, but certainly not to be tried on other people to the detriment of my work and nursing. He didn't look very annoyed, and to my recovered sight I thought I saw a twinkle in his eyes. So all was well.

In this hospital I had many interesting cases. One I felt really thrilled about. A child was brought in with diphtheria and to have tracheotomy performed. I was not present at the operation, but was told I would be put on special duty that night in the isolation ward to nurse it. I was shown what to do, how to keep a steam kettle going, clean out the tube in the child's throat with a sterilised feather, and see that the tube stayed in place, feed the child and ring at once if the child showed distress in breathing.

I don't think I took my eyes off that poor child for more than three minutes at a time that night, and indeed for several nights afterwards. I can still see that small ward with the tent over the cot, the shaded light and the little child lying there, breathing sometimes easily and often with difficulty. How glad I was each time Matron herself, in a dressing gown, came in to see how we were getting on. No other nurse was allowed in.

I think I could still nurse a "trachy" case on the knowledge I absorbed then.

The children in the wards were in some ways little wretches, unless we checked them. They would boldly ask a new child "Are you a papist?", and according to the majority, which was generally Orange-minded in every cot, the papist would be stared at or the Orange-man treated like a brother. The hostility rarely lasted twenty-four hours unless the newcomer was of particularly sturdy opinion. The songs they sang were highly patriotic, though we nurses taught them nursery songs and songs of milder or no politics.

We loved the children: Some of them were admitted looking so thin and pinched, but they soon responded to the good food and care.

One little child caused me an awkward moment. Matron liked to see the ward very tidy each morning, every little patient looking most unnaturally good. She would speak to each one and they would be most polite. One day Matron was rather slower and carried on a longer conversation with one little girl, till, to my dismay, the child held out her hand and said "Goodbye Matron".

"Why! You are in a hurry to get rid of me" said Matron, "Do you want me to go now?"

"Yes" said little Maggie, looking at Matron with large blue eyes.

"Why is that?" said Matron, laughing.

"'Cos when you go Nurse will give me bread and sugar." said Maggie. Was my face red! Eating between meals was not approved of.

"If that's why, Maggie," said Matron "indeed you shall have it. Go and get it for her, Nurse, this very minute, a good big piece." ("Piece" in Northern Ireland means bread and butter).

Matron passed on, and I hurriedly got an extra sugared piece for Maggie. I had fully expected a reproof, but who could have refused those big eyes looking out from that little thin face? Not even a hard-hearted Matron, which she wasn't.

Incidentally, while nursing the diphtheria case we were not given masks to wear over our mouth and nose. We ran the risk all the time of contracting the disease from direct contact. I don't remember having any fear of it, or of the child coughing in my face, nor did anyone else seem to think of it either. It was our job and we did it.

Dublin 1899 – 1904

After a very brief interlude of a few months nursing in Essex I returned to Dublin to wait till I was old enough to go for training to a general hospital.

There I also had to pay an entrance fee of £10, and after three months trial the arrangement was that the nurses were refunded the ten pounds as salary over the next year.

The work there was terribly hard and the food scanty. We worked from 7am till 9pm with half an hour for dinner and tea. Twice a week we went off duty at 4.30pm. The discipline was very strict: no nurse was allowed to speak to a medical student unless on business – "pros" were "less than dust".

My favourite brother was student at this same hospital at the time and a Sister reproved me severely for talking to him till I told her he was my brother. That didn't altogether please her. Still she rather enjoyed talking to him herself, so it didn't matter much.

Whilst there I got scarlet fever, and on recovery had an idea that I would be told I was not suitable for a nurse, so, mindful of the remains of my ten pound fee, I determined to find out if this was so.

At the correct time for interviews with Matron, a truly formidable woman, I presented myself. She looked at me with a stern eye. "Well, Nurse, what is it?" I said I wished to know if I was to be kept on and sign the agreement for my training. She looked at me and I don't think she liked what she saw. "well, Nurse, your three months in the wards is not up, but since you've asked me I don't think you are suitable for this Hospital."

"If that is so" I said, "when can I go and can I have what is left of my probationer's fee returned please?"

Never before or since have I seen anyone look so shocked. "Really Nurse, that is a most unusual request" she said. I looked at her and said "I have to earn my own living, Miss X, and cannot afford to do without the money, and I would like to leave today."

She produced the balance (not much) and bade me a chilly goodbye. I left that afternoon. After all, why should I work under such dreadful conditions and pay for it, and no certificate at the end?

After a few days I dressed myself in the Belfast hospital's uniform, took my training certificate and went and called at one of the best known private nursing homes in Dublin and asked to see the Matron. She received me most kindly, read my certificate and Matron's testimonial etc from Belfast. "Where have you been since?" she asked. I told her. "Why did you leave?" I told her I was not strong enough for the work and that they would not keep me. "Well, I think I must have a letter from Miss X. However, just wait a moment. I'll see if I can get her on the telephone."

"Oh dear" I thought "Now it's all up. She'll never take me if she talks to Miss X." However in about ten minutes she returned. "Well, Nurse, Miss X does not give any testimonials except the Hospital Training Certificate after four years." I prepared to say goodbye. "Wait a moment, Nurse, I am prepared to give you a trial." I breathed again.

She arranged about salary, uniform etc, and asked me to get some letters of reference. If these were satisfactory I was to come back in a week's time when she would let me know. She had a kind face and a keen eye and she shook me by the hand. I walked home on air. I felt I would like to work there for her.

I did, and I worked and loved my job for nearly four years.

Incidentally, I heard soon after I had left the – – – Hospital that there had been an enquiry into hospital conditions, food etc. Many things were improved. That was good anyhow. My brother was well-known by the medical staff and they asked him why I had left. He told them with such good effect that conditions were improved, as also the food.

We got a good training and much experience at X House ( the nursing home). It was a joy to nurse there. There were no students, so we nurses did what normally would have been the students' jobs – dressings etc.

The trays of meals we took up to our patients would have tempted anyone. Also the linen and general equipment was of high standard. A patient's bed could be put where he or she wanted it, by the window or near the fire, his bell pinned to his pillow. Bells must be answered promptly, that was the rule.

Matron impressed on us that a good nurse was never too busy to attend to a patient however trying, and if off duty time came before we were ready, we showed no sign of haste – that rule was very strict. If we were delayed getting off duty at night, Night Sister would appear smiling, the patient would be delighted and flattered to see her and the nurse would quietly disappear.

After I had been there a year I was unexpectedly sent with a surgeon to the west of Ireland to attend an operation and remain in charge. Matron said "I'm sending you down with Sir W. to an appendix case. There will be a local nurse to help. You will be in charge." So that was that and off we went.

Arriving at a county town we were met at the house by two local doctors. They had a consultation on a boy of about sixteen with acute appendicitis.

Sir W. turned to me and said "Get everything ready, Nurse. We'll operate here and now."

He and the other doctors went downstairs. I looked round the room: It was full of furniture. Fortunately the patient was not in the big double bed, but in a small one. There were many statuettes and holy figures and pictures, and one good size table. The local nurse was most helpful. Together we got the table ready and put a large kettle on the open fire to boil. The statuettes worried me. I did not wish to hurt the mother's feelings, so I went out to her on the landing and suggested that perhaps she could make a little oratory or chapel in the next room and move the statuettes inn there where she could pray and wait and be near her boy during the operation. She responded magnificently and soon had it done, while nurse and I got on with the more or less grim preparations.

We had to boil the instruments in a saucepan and arrange the sterilised dressing tins on a table covered with clean towels. How we worked! – the patient watching us with anxious eyes.

The doctor returned. "All ready, Nurse? Plenty of boiling water? Any cold?"

I said "Not really cold, but plenty of it." I had kept a terrified maid running up and down stairs with boiling water, buckets and basins.

Soon the patient was asleep and everything began. The mother and father retired to the "chapel". It was all very quickly over and the patient back in bed. The doctors went downstairs and nurse and I tidied up.

Sir W. came up presently to see the boy, bade me goodbye, and left to catch his train. I wondered if he would come from Dublin again, or if the local doctor would finish the case by himself. All went well and Sir W. did not come again.

When the patient was convalescing I often joined the family in the evenings downstairs. They were most hospitable and very disappointed because I would never take a glass of wine or whisky. I explained that it was against the rules.

After I had been four years at the Nursing Home one of the doctors asked me had I got my training certificate. I told him I hadn't and explained that I had been unable for the work at the General Hospital.

He said that was a pity and what would become of me if the Nursing Home closed down and I had no certificate? I said I realised that but what could I do? It would be very difficult for me to get trained. No General Hospital would take me. "If the hospital where I am on the staff would take you for training, would you go?" he asked. I thought a while and said yes, but added that I didn't think they would.

In a few days he told me that if I was willing and could face it he had asked the Matron of the X-X-X Hospital to give me a trial. It meant four years of training and beginning once more at the beginning. However, without a certificate I knew I would never get very far, so I thought it over and said I would. He would arrange the interview with the Matron of the X-X-X Hospital.

1904 – 1908: Training at the X-X-X Hospital

My four years training in the General Hospital were undoubtedly hard work. It was not easy to adjust myself. After the period in the private nursing home where I had been a senior and trusted nurse it was very difficult to begin once more as a probationer at the X-X-X Hospital. Miss M., in my first interview with her, left me in no doubt about this.

"You must, of course, begin at the beginning here." she told me. "My Sisters are in their position because they are good nurses and have been through their training here. Whatever your past nursing experience may be you will be under them for training. You realise all that?"

I said I did, but without a general training certificate my position would never improve, and I was willing to go through with it. (My mother had just died, a terrible grief to us all.)

It was a great change, that I realise din my first six months. Long hours – 7am till 9pm except on two afternoons a week when we got off duty at 4pm; three hours off on Sundays.

On many days I was too tired to do more than lie on my bed when I came off duty, but I gradually got used to it.

Other more senior "pros" who knew that I had had some training before, and in a private nursing home, were inclined to regard me as only fit for "smoothing pillows and sprinkling eau de Cologne". But gradually that was forgotten. I did my bit. They were just as tired and over-worked as I was.

The food was plentiful but very plain; it was much better than at the other general hospital where I had failed. The home conditions also were very much better, though almost convent-like in their austerity. Gradually my "murky past" was overlooked, even by the Sisters. Could and did work. It was very hard. The Matron made no difference between me and any other "pro", indeed I think she was often harder on me, except in one way – she never put me on duty alone in the very heavy wards. But rather the reverse. Sometimes she used to pay me her favourite reproach to erring "pros". She would say "I'm shocked, pained, grieved and disappointed in you, Nurse So-and-So." It was rather a joke with us, and we would grin and say to each other afterwards "Yes, shocked, pained grieved and disappointed!!"

Some of the Sisters were happiest when they had their "pros" in tears. They never succeeded in wringing any out of me, and one or two, after having let fly at me, would look at me in a puzzled sort of way when the scoldings made no impression.

One of the things that I found most trying was the scarcity of linen supplied for the beds. The tricks we were put to to make the beds look clean. Often if a bed was vacant we would make it look all right with only one sheet, hoping no new patient would be admitted till we had wheedled some clean ones from Sister. We were never issued with replacements of dusters and cleaning materials till we produced the old ones. To get new bandages we had to wash the old ones and take them to the out-patient department where we got new ones in exchange. It was a fairly easy matter to smuggle the old washed ones back again, and repeat the process next day. I expect the Sisters knew: They had, most of them, done their training there. We had to replace any broken crockery out of our own money unless we could say it was broken by a patient. The amount discharged patients were supposed to have broken was considerable!! Still, it made us careful!

The work was interesting, but it was hard not to be able to give the patients the luxuries that I had been accustomed to give the patients in the Nursing Home. Few of them had much luxury in their own homes, so perhaps it wasn't as bad for them as I felt it was.

The men's wards were the easiest to work in as the patients there were glad to help to make the beds and polish brasses. I've sometimes had all the beds made forme in a morning, long before the authorised time, 7am for that operation. The women I never asked to help, as for many of them it was the one time in their lives they had a rest. They would often sew and do our mending for us, though.

After my first year I was unexpectedly sent for and told that I was to go to a case in the country with the same surgeon with whom I had gone to operations from the Nursing Home. I was very surprised as I was not due to go out nursing for another year. However, there it was. Matron saying she had no available nurse on the staff. This, I believe, caused some indignation with my contemporaries. However, I didn't know that till afterwards. I was just glad of my luck to get away from the grind of ward work.

Whilst at X-X-X I only "went sick" badly once, when I had been on night duty in a heavy ward and had had very bad cases and several deaths. One morning I was completely bowled over and collapsed. I was warded and nursed and, I believe I slept for three days and nights, till the doctors got a bit puzzled, as, apparently, I had nothing wrong with me except that I said I was tired and promptly went to sleep again.

But it wasn't all work and no play. We nurses often had jolly times together. As at the other hospital, the rule about talking to students except on business was fairly strictly enforced. As it was a teaching hospital there were plenty of medical students. The fact that we were forbidden to talk to them made it much more interesting to do so, otherwise I don't think we would have bothered much with them. But even the plainest student, as forbidden fruit, had an attraction for us. Perhaps it cut both ways. Also some of them were very interested in their work and cases, and glad to talk about their work and explain to us what was being done, and us to help them in many ways.

Medical students' bandaging is notoriously bad, but some were willing and anxious to learn. I've often taught them how to make difficult beds, and lift patients, and showed them how to apply hot fomentations without scalding themselves and the patients. They, in return, often let me do difficult dressings that were usually only done by the doctors, and told me about new treatments that were being tried.

I got diphtheria badly in my last year, while I was in charge of the children's ward. Several nurses got it, though it was a surgical ward, and finally the ward had to be closed. I suppose there was a carrier there. Anyhow, several of us were very ill. But the antitoxin treatment had been discovered and we did not have to go through the horrors of tracheotomy which I remembered so well.

Sometimes I was on duty in the out-patients department, an old and poorly equipped place. There I attended on an ear, nose and throat specialist who was very keen on his job, but had a hasty temper. Poor man, he had much to try him there; such a dingy place it was and overcrowded with patients.

Often he would, as they say, "use language" when things weren't going to his liking. I didn't like that, but discovered a way to avoid it. We had a very noisy cold water tap, and when he got worked up I used to turn this tap on and let it roar. One day he looked at me and grinned. "You can turn that tap off, Nurse, I won't swear any more." We were on the best of terms always and I really think he tried not to swear after that. He would always just look at me after the morning's work and grin.

While at X-X-X I renewed a friendship with a student whom I had known before I went nursing at all. We didn't see much of each other, but it was whilst there that we both realised that we did like each other and when my training was over and he was in the R.A.M.C., we decided that we would like to be more than friends for always.

To my great surprise, Matron, when I told her before I left, congratulated me warmly and wished me luck, and told my fiancé how pleased she was. She gave us a wedding present, embroidered by herself, and quite forgot, I'm sure, how often I had "shocked, pained, grieved and disappointed" her.

Officially that ended my nursing career, complete with training certificate at last, though unofficially it has never ended.