Working Lives

The nursing orderly (1950-1989)

Location: Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

Gladys worked in Beech House, Gressenhall, from 1950 to 1953. After she left, she worked in Heigham House, a private mental health hospital in Norwich, before going on to start a family. She gives an account of her duties, the friendships she made and the challenges she faced during her three years as a Nursing Orderly.

I got into nursing when I was twenty, after my parents had moved to Billingford and then to Rougham. I was after a job and there happened to be one going at Gressenhall. I think they were desperate for staff at the time because, when they interviewed me, they just asked me what my interests were and I was accepted. I was there from May 1950 to July 1953. It was called Beech House then and had been transformed from a workhouse into a sort of living accommodation for the elderly. There were around a hundred and twenty residents when I was there and a lot of them were evacuated from Essex way. After the war, they were trying to re-home these people and we had several homes in Norfolk which could do that: Lingwood and Pulham Market and Beckham and such places. There were ten-twelve of us living-in at the time. Most of us lived up in the third storey, and of course all the other staff lived in the cottages and lodges. We had our own rooms for the most part, but there was three sisters who had to share.

My job title was Nursing Orderly and we did everything to do with nursing. We were responsible for waking people, washing them, and dressing them because a lot of them were bed-ridden. We gave them their meals and changed their bed sheets too. We had to clean the sheets before they went to the laundry. We never sent soiled sheets though, they were always sluiced – what we called ‘sluiced with a brush.’ It smelt terrible; the sluice room and we very often didn’t have rubber gloves.

After we cleaned the sheets they had to go in a basket and go to the laundry. Clean sheets came from the linen room where Mrs Stacey worked and, every other day, the beds had to be stripped and clean-sheeted. It was very well ordered. All the beds had to have hospital corners, which they taught me to do when I first arrived. We had four main wards with 15 beds each. 15 male and 15 female. Then we had the bottom ward and the top ward as well. A lot of the old people in those beds were very sick. We had one little lady who used to swear at the top of her voice. She didn’t realise she was doin’ it of course. I expect she was suffering from Dementia. Edith her name was.

There weren’t any doctors at Beech House, but there was a doctor who lived down just near the bridge – Dr. Purdy. He was on call much of the time. Of course, we did have senior staff. Everything went through Matron White. She was a nice little lady.

Our uniform was a cap and a starched white apron over a blue dress. We were issued with four or five each and a couple of dresses. Our working hours were 8.00 till 18.00, with a two-hour break, or 14.00 till 22.00. Night duty was 22.00 till 8.00. I used to do night duty every so often. In fact, I was on night duty the night of the floods of 1953. We had bad floods on the east coast and the girl I was on with was supposed to be in charge of me, but she spent most of the night under the table because she was petrified. We weren’t actually flooded, but we had winds and the storms. Thankfully, the residents weren’t scared. They were too elderly or too ill to know.

After our shifts we used to go to our bedrooms and read. I used to borrow other people’s water bottles because I was always cold. It’s a big, draughty old building and was much colder back then. There was no door by the main stairs when I was there, so people used to keep warm by huddling up with blankets.

I was paid approximately £4-£5 a month in cash and that was sufficient. We lived-in and had all our food given to us after all. Later on, I would have been paid up to about £11 a month. We looked forward to getting paid and, at the end of the month, I always went straight to Dereham to spend some of it. I had my boyfriend at that time, and he used to come to Billingford a lot on my days off. We had two days off a week, but sometimes they’d put them all together, so we’d have four days off – two for last week and two for this week. It was never a problem if we wanted to stay at Beech House on our days off. We had our own bedrooms, so nobody else went in ‘em.

We ate our meals in the dining room, normally with the residents. Of course, rationing was on then. We had our own sugar pots and butter dishes with our names on them because we only had 4oz of margarine and 20z of butter a week. Meat was rationed too, so we were only allowed a couple of rashers of bacon each. After our evening meal we had to stay awake in case anybody needed us. We’d be in the duty room and do hourly checks ‘round the whole building. I didn’t see the grey lady who was supposed to be on the stairs though. Everybody that worked there believed in her, but I never saw her. It wasn’t a scary place to work as long as you were with somebody. The building was a big rambling place and sometimes, on night duty, you’d be on your own and find some of the old boys wondering around. Being on your own and meeting somebody wondering around at night wasn’t very pleasant.

Sadly, because it was an old people’s home, people did die. If anybody died on the ward between 8.00 and 10.00, we had to get them off and down to the mortuary by 10 o’ clock at night. But if they died after 10.00 then the gates were closed, so they went down to the mortuary next morning. We simply had to leave them laid out on the ward. ‘For the soul to go to heaven’, they told us. My most embarrassing moment was showin’ a male orderly how to lay out a lady. It was a very embarrassing thing for a girl to show a man how to do, but he had to be taught. My favourite part of the job was probably bathing people and cutting their hair. I used to love makin’ them look nice. That was just me, but I think that went for all of us. We used to like making them comfortable.

Although, there was one lady who had been caught soliciting up at Sculthorpe Aerodrome. The police bought her in one night and of course every patient had to be bathed on admission, so I bathed her. But she was such a big lady, and she was so drunk that once I got her in the bath, I couldn’t get her out. So I had to pull the water out and cover her with a blanket until my partner come on at 10. I was only doin’ what I was told – bath on admission. I expect she had a cold bum by the time she got out of it. We had another gentleman who got bought in from Swanton Morley and he was so ill when he came in that he died in the bath. The shock of it killed him.

Although it was an old people’s home, we also had a maternity ward and a nursery. One morning, a gentleman came tearing’ up the drive with a lady who was very far into her labour. She came from Scarning and was under the habit of producin’ her children quickly. I remember the man’s words to her were ‘for Christ sake Mrs, keep your britches on. I don’t want that baby in my car!’ We had a lot of babies in the maternity ward. I was even godmother to one little boy.

We were very close with the residents and would sit and chat to them during our breaks. When we had a 14.00-16.00, I often used to go and have a game of dominoes with the old boys. There was one man called Freddie who came to my wedding. Everyone was very fond of him. We also used to have days out on the coast with the children from the nursery. We used to take twenty or thirty of them out in a coach and it was quite an event when we did. Especially if you happened to lose one of them in a crowd of people, which did happen. Then you had to go and find them of course.

It really was like one big family. I had my 21st Birthday whilst I was working in Beech house, so the staff gave me a party in the boardroom. I remember I had some lovely crackers, some of the most expensive crackers I ever had. I even sent some to my sister in Canada. On that occasion it was just the staff, but for the coronation in 1953, we hired a television screen so the patients and the staff could all watch it together in the dining room. We used to have dances and games of whist in there too and, on Christmas day, somebody always used to come over and carve the turkey for us. I never had Christmas off. I liked it.

I left Beech House after I fell out with the Matron who replaced Matron White. She said she was going to discipline all us girls because we didn’t know the meaning of the word. One of her rules was that no patient was to be given their sweet with their main course. Well, if you know Gressenhall Museum you’ll know that there’s a lot of stairs. The dining room was downstairs, so we had to go up and down the steps to the ward. One day, she caught me on the stairs with a patients’ meal with an apple on the tray. She called me over and asked what I was doin’ and she sort of fired me up and I fired her back, which was unusual for me. I said ‘Well, if you think I’m walkin’ up these stars twice for an apple, you can think again.’ And from then on, she had her knives into me. She would do anything she could to belittle you and upset a lot of people unnecessarily. We’d always done what we were told, but that was one thing I couldn’t stand. There was no one to complain to either. She was the head, you see. But another girl who I’d befriended must have been fed up too because when I said: ‘look I’m not takin’ this. I’m leavin’ she said: ‘well, if you’re goin’, so am I’. And we left and went to a private mental hospital in Norwich on Heigham road.

If it wasn’t for the Matron I wouldn’t have left. I got on well with the other girls and we’d become good friends, so I missed It. I still see some of them sometimes and, when we get together, we often talk about the old days. Like when the master went off with one of the nurses. Master White was his name. I was there when it happened and it wasn’t a big scandal or anything, but the boy this nurse jilted; I was with him last night. We go back a long way!

Yes, it was sad that I had to leave under a cloud, and I missed working there when I left, but my husband and I wanted a family. We got this house, married within six weeks and then had a little girl. I didn’t go back to work until my youngest one was 4. Then there was a job came up at Siemens. On the railway crossing at Elmham, there used to a big mill and silos and things, and I worked there. I did all sorts of jobs. In the end, I was payin’ cheques by computer – a million at a time. But of course, they closed that and went to Walsingham. I was 58 at the time, so I said: ‘No way am I doin’ forty mile a day. I’ll take early retirement please’.

It’s been a busy life and I’m still busy now. I never stop! But if I don’t live much longer, I shall have a had good life.

Gladys (1931-2016)  talking to WISEArchive in Billingford on 2nd December 2008.

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