Sylvia left school in 1944, and worked with children for a while before training at the age of 18, as a nurse, and later on as a midwife, and finally as a health visitor. She had a long career, working until she retired at the age of 60.
I went to a grammar school in Bracknell, but for the last year I went to a small, private boarding school at Shepperton, on the Thames. The teaching was absolutely excellent, and the classes were small. It was because my parents might have been called out at night: my father was a Special Constable, my mother was a VAD. We were only 30 miles from London, so sometimes they took ambulances up and brought back some of the injured to our local hospitals after raids.
I wanted to be a nurse since I was about 10 and left school in 1944 when I was 16. My father wanted me to stay on and go to university, but I knew I could train at a London teaching hospital because I had a school certificate with matriculation exemption – really high marks similar to today’s AS Level, I think. So I left home and worked in children’s residential nurseries, of which there were quite a few about in wartime. The two I worked in were both in the country. One was miles out in the middle of nowhere, where I had to cross a great, long field with cows, after two bus rides from home to get there!
I was rejected by two London hospitals, without interview, on account of my lack of height. But the matron, at Charing Cross Hospital, was a dumpy little Yorkshire woman and she knew perfectly well that little people could work just as hard as big people! So I started my training there in July 1946.
1946 – training at Charing Cross hospital
Charing Cross Hospital was an old Victorian hospital on the Strand in London in those days. We had a nurses’ home at Belsize Park, so we had season tickets for the tube. We had to walk down to Chalk Farm Station and get the tube to Charing Cross. Work started at 8:00am because we were allowed half-hour for travelling. Any of the staff nurses who were living in at the hospital had to go on duty at 7:30am. We had our own bedrooms, and even a wash-basin! It’s not en-suite like it is today, but I thought it was the lap of luxury.
We started in the Preliminary Training School, which was based at our nurses’ home, in our full uniform: uniform dresses with narrow mauvey-bluey stripes, white starched aprons and caps. We were taught how to fold our caps from an oblong of starched linen into a butterfly cap. It was important to get that right. When we were on the wards we had a clean apron every day, and a clean cap once or twice a week, I think.
We were taught things like bed-making and bandaging – we had to make our own beds with the proper hospital corners and everything. Sometimes the Sister Tutor would go round and check them to see if we did them properly. We had to dissect a guinea pig, which I thought I would never have been able to do, and learn anatomy and physiology very thoroughly as known in those days. We learnt to give injections into oranges and things like that. From time to time we visited the wards. I think it lasted a fortnight or a month.
We had a little break in the morning, mostly a cup of coffee or tea and a sandwich. Leaving Belsize Park so early, breakfast was very, very early, and some of us, including me, couldn’t stomach breakfast at that time in the morning. So when it was coffee break time, I think all the ward sisters without exception, let you make a sandwich and have a cup of coffee. And then after that, we changed our aprons and we put a clean apron on, because we used our day-before aprons for any mucky jobs, and then we put clean aprons on for the rest of the day.
Charing Cross Hospital was different to some other people’s hospitals whom I’ve talked to – we had a block system. Periodically we’d have a block – a week – off the wards to study. It was considered quite advanced in those days. We would get lectures from Sister Tutor, the consultants and all that sort of thing. We never had lectures coming off night duty which some of my contemporaries had.
On the wards – night duty, uniforms, learning new skills
My first ward was a women’s medical ward. The Ward Sister was quite young and very pleasant. The first things we had to learn were things like bedpan rounds, bed bathing, and feeding patients who were unable to feed themselves. There was absolutely no question of no-one being fed. The Ward Sister, or Staff Nurse if she wasn’t on duty, dished out all the meals from the trolley of food, and made sure every patient had an appropriate meal. All patients who could not feed themselves were fed. Apart from an emergency admission, feeding of patients was given priority at meal times.
I have heard, though not witnessed for myself, that nurses or carers now will offer food and if they only take two or three mouthfuls they leave it at that. Nobody bothers to coax the patients to take something they might take, and that bothers me a bit if patients are left without food. On the other hand we had patients for a far longer time than most patients are kept in hospitals these days.
So on this medical ward when we were on day duty we make the beds. Two people made each bed because it’s quicker. Eventually we were taught to give injections and penicillin had started being used which had to be given by injection every four hours. The needles were re-used so they had to be sterilised ready for the next injection, and considering the needles were not nearly as fine as modern needles I should think it would have been quite painful for those patients. However, once I got the hang of giving injections if a patient was due for one and saw me on the ward they used to ask me to give them. So I must have been reasonably good at it!
The Sister had to teach us all about the diagnoses and the treatment of each patient. Of course we had to know each patient’s name. We were called Probationers and when you got to be the Senior Probationer on duty, Matron would always choose to do her ward round. Because Sister was off and Staff Nurse had gone to lunch and she knew who was on and when. You had to stand at the bottom of the bed, tell Matron the name, diagnoses and treatment of every patient. You had to know what you were talking about because she asked questions. It was very good training and occasionally there might be an emergency admission we were left to cope with as well which was also very good training.
Probationers mostly did a three month spell of night duty, from 8:00pm to 8:00am, once a year. We worked for 12 nights on duty and three nights off. There was one senior probationer and one junior probationer on each ward, and if there was one probationer in their second year she alternated between being the senior on one ward and junior on the other ward. The only really trained nurse on night duty was Night Sister, who used to do a round on each ward. If there was an emergency you called her, and if there were dangerous drugs, DDAs, to be given, she supervised. If a patient needed very special nursing that night, because we didn’t have intensive care wards in those days, there was always a spare nurse around the hospital somewhere who was detailed to look after that patient all night long. We didn’t always manage to take our break which was a couple of hours. I never did a third bout of night duty because I couldn’t sleep in the day, and I think the Night Sister left me off the list because she was worried about me.
We had a hut hospital donated by the Canadians in Mt. Vernon in Middlesex. It was all like large Nissen huts for the wards and our sleeping accommodation. There was a proper hospital, a small one, where we went for our meals, I think. We got to do far more things because there were no medical students at Mt. Vernon unlike at Charing Cross. We did not have phlebotomists to take blood in those days – it was mostly medical students and doctors who took bloods, and we learnt to take blood and got quite adept at it.
When I got back to Charing Cross I said to the medical student, who was supposed to get up very early the next morning, they needn’t bother because I could take the bloods for them. I came really unstuck because one patient’s veins were so tiny I couldn’t manage to take the blood, and neither could the medical student. I don’t know who took it in the end, the Houseman or one of the Registrars, but Matron didn’t find out so that was alright!
The patients had afternoon bread and butter and tea – we used to cut the bread, because there were no sliced loaves in those days, butter it and prepare tea. Visiting times were only on Wednesdays and Sundays unless somebody was dangerously ill. A few husbands got special permission for evening visits if they were working all day. On visiting days the patients had cake instead of their bread and butter. I thought that was rather funny.
In spite of the fact that this was a very old hospital, and very difficult to keep clean, we didn’t have anything like Norovirus or the winter vomiting bug. Probationers had to do some of the cleaning ourselves. If we had Saturday off, we were then given Sunday morning off, and got an extra hour off on Sundays, which meant that you could then go to first lunch at 12:00pm, and then go on duty after that. The first job was always to wash all the window sills before the visitors came. So the wards were kept very spick and span and we didn’t have a great army of cleaners to do it either.
Wards were situated so there was a 30 bedded male and a 30 bedded female ward opposite each other. There was a kitchen in the middle where we prepared bread and butter and things, and where we’d go for a drink or something if we were on night duty.
Surgical wards only had 28 beds, I think, but they each had one side ward that would hold two patients. We had private patients prior to the National Health Service, and their preferential treatment consisted of being nearer Sister’s office and their lunch were on trays. The rest of the patients had their lunch straight on the bed tables.
The bathroom doubled as Sister’s office and the bath had a big wooden board over it. Patients did not have baths very often and we did not have showers. As they stayed in bed a long time they were given bed-baths. If Sister was off duty you had to make decisions for yourself.
For anybody who hears this and thinks that was terrible, the nurses who trained only a very short time before I did actually paid to do that training. We had board and lodging and a very, very small amount of money. We very often walked round London with only tube passes in our pockets. That’s just how nurse training was in those days, and we didn’t really think any more about the conditions.
You did less as you progressed to a second year probationer, third year probationer and staff nurse. We had to agree we would staff for one year before we started training, so we all had the experience of being staff nurses which is when you really began to learn everything.
When the National Health Service came in I don’t remember seeing a great deal of change in our hospital. Any management changes wouldn’t have impeached on us – we wouldn’t have understood what was going on. Emergencies were admitted into casualty obviously, but I never knew how patients came to be in the hospital or how they were selected to be in the hospital. Some of our patients were pretty poor – we had a lot of people like Covent Garden porters, the salt of the earth.
I myself had major emergency surgery as a three year old in Windsor Hospital, but I never asked my parents how it was paid for. I think there was some sort of insurance scheme where they paid a very small amount each week. A lot of operations performed now weren’t envisaged then – there was no keyhole surgery. The changes after the National Health Service meant things are much better. We had things like appendectomies and hernias. The knowledge base has moved on absolutely tremendously.
We also had ENT wards, children’s wards, orthopaedic wards and theatre. Theatre was at the very top of the hospital in those days, and in order to get air conditioning we actually had windows open. At Mt. Vernon we had a brand new theatre complex and it was absolutely wonderful because it was so light and bright. It was a wonderful place to work in compared with our one on the top floor of Charing Cross Hospital.
I remember one orthopaedic surgeon, who was well known for being rather difficult, would call probationers ‘Topsy’, and he would say ‘Topsy, do this’ and ‘Topsy, do that’ and ‘Topsy, do the other’. Apparently he got so mad he threw a scalpel out of the window. Fortunately it did not land on the Strand – it landed on a little road at the back of the hospital and there was nobody walking on it at the time.
But on the whole, the doctors and the consultants were courteous to us. Consultants were treated as gods and when they did a ward round, they had in attendance, medical students and Sister, or if Sister was off duty the staff nurse. Sometimes when they asked the medical students questions, it was either Sister or staff nurse who could answer and the medical students couldn’t!
When we were working on casualty we had to learn how to suture – mostly fingers and things. We had a Lyons Corner House quite near us so we often had the staff in with cut fingers and things – there were no dish washers in those days. The Casualty Officer vetted us for stitching, and bandaging a sprained ankle. You had to bandage a sprained ankle in this exact way.
When the National Health Service came in we had an American lady with a broken leg which was set and put in plaster. She was so thrilled she was getting this treatment free of charge compared to what it would have been in America we all had to sign the plaster!
One of my colleagues worked in the midwifery department which was something we didn’t normally do as probationers. She fell in love with a medical student and they got married. She had to finish her training at St. Mary’s, Paddington, which was a very good hospital, because she wasn’t allowed to finish it at Charing Cross. Another colleague got married after finishing her training and after the National Health Service came in. She was becoming at least a staff nurse and was not allowed her hospital medal, a Maltese Cross on a medal ribbon, because she didn’t do her year’s staffing. There were some very strange rules.
With our uniforms we were issued thick coats as well because we had to travel on the tube. No way were you to wear mufti – civilian or ordinary clothes – underneath. One day when I had been out in the evening I came back to the hospital to get my uniform to take back to the nurses’ home to put on the next morning. I came down the stairs and the Assistant Matron – Ass. Mat. – was at the bottom of the stairs. She hauled me by the collar into Matron’s office and said ‘look what I’ve found.’ Fortunately our matron had a sense of humour, but I had to go and change into uniform to put my uniform coat over it. We had to wear our uniform coat over our uniform dresses even in a heat wave in London; there was no way we were allowed to walk out in our uniform dresses.
Hernia patients stayed in bed for ten days. A terrible thing happened when I was on night duty. A very nice man, who had a hernia operation, had been discharged that day so he wanted to go to the bathroom that morning. I said yes because I knew he was discharged, and as he came out he dropped down dead in the doorway. It was because we kept patients in bed too long – we didn’t realise they should have got up and moved about. This only happened after I’d finished nursing.
Some of us went to take, I think, an oral exam at another hospital. We were thrilled to bits we’d taken this exam so we thought we would treat ourselves to a meal at Lyon’s Corner House, with the orchestra playing and the man in his penguin suit. After we had it we tipped out our money onto the table, counted it up and we were sixpence short. Being the smallest I was sent to talk to the penguin man about it. He did not say a word – he just put his hand right down deep in his penguin pocket and gave me sixpence! They knew who we were.
What little money we had we had afternoon tea there if we were off duty. You had to go upstairs and there was the man in the suit seeing people up. He would always put us ahead of the queue because he knew we didn’t have a lot of time. We were treated with great respect by Joe Lyons. So the only really good meal we had at Charing Cross was a chicken salad for Sunday lunchtime donated by Joe Lyons!
1950 – tuberculosis nursing
After I finished at Charing Cross I did one year’s Tuberculosis nursing. I was at Peppard Sanatorium right out in the Oxfordshire countryside. I had to get two buses from my parents’ in Bracknell to get there. In London there was still rationing, so the food was not very good at all. Back in the country I had very good food again. Plenty of fresh stuff, plain but very good. It was all part of the patients’ recovery to have plain food.
TB was very prevalent at the time. It was beginning to be treatable if it was caught in time, and we were beginning to treat it with Streptomycin and something else. We had rice paper capsules instead of gelatine in those days. My own mother and her mother died of TB. Sadly, my mother knew she had it and did not seek treatment in time. One of the things we did was remove the whole lung, or part of a lung, or put air into the thorax and squash the lung down. One or two of the staff had that treatment while they were staff on the wards. Hours were adjusted according to what was safe to work.
We had much more time off. On night duty we worked five nights to begin with before we had about four off or something. The conditions were much better, and as staff nurses we were paid more than staff nurses in general hospitals. I think it was sort of danger money, so that was nice.
I didn’t like the way they looked after children because we didn’t know anything about how to look after children properly in those days. The poor little things were only allowed visitors once a month; parents could only visit them once a month. We were supposed to keep them in bed, still and quiet, and it was impossible – the little monkeys used to get out of bed and dance around. I remember one little boy managed to stuff a whole roll of toilet paper down one of the loos one day! There was a tutor and those well enough and of the right age went to school. I never visited to see what they did however.
TB meningitis was the worst thing about, because they had to have lumbar punctures. I can remember one little boy screaming himself to death and that was really horrible. That was how they gave the Streptomycin, or whatever it was, into the spinal fluid. But apart from that, that was a very nice year. Inoculation, BCG, against TB came much later.
1952 – Call the Midwife!
After a gap when my mother was ill and died, I started my midwifery training in 1952 in Leicester. I think the hospital was just called Bond Street. Most peculiar hospital because it was several houses put together, so there was a big, long corridor on the top floor and there were only two floors. It was all uneven – you went down slopes and up slopes, and all sorts of things. We had a very nice nurses’ home but a lot of us were housed in another sort of old cottagey complex, right by the side of the hospital, so only a very few slept in this nurses’ home.
Sadly, the matron, who interviewed me, had died in the meantime before I took up my training, so the Ass. Mat. was in charge for all the time I was there. She was a most horrid woman. Again, we had rotten food. One day, my colleague and I went out bought some salad and really good food off the market. We went into the proper nurses’ home, sat and ate it. When the Ass. Mat. heard she said we were never to do it again. So that was pretty awful. I even got a boil there – I’d never had a boil before in my life.
Apart from that, I seem to remember that I quite enjoyed the training. You did two six months midwifery training. First, at hospital, we learnt all the basics about childbirth, delivery and everything there. After mothers had had a baby, we had to push them along this wonky corridor back to their room. In those days people stayed in hospital for about ten days after they’d had a baby.
The second six months training could be in the hospital or on the district. For some reason I wanted to do it on the district, and Norwich was one of two places in the country I could do it. It’s how I came to Norwich, under the supervision of a very nice midwife, (we called her Simmy) Simpson. I’ve never forgotten what she told me when she met me, ‘remember, when we go into other people’s homes, we are always their guests.’ I think I got myself into a spot of trouble at the first case from the doctor who was there. It was a forceps delivery and I was not used to having a doctor set up sterile towels and things in a small bedroom, so I managed to catch the corner of one. He wasn’t that mad, but he just pointed out it wasn’t the right thing to do. Under Simmy’s guidance, I soon got quite comfortable about delivering babies.
I really enjoyed working under Simmy’s guidance, and she gave less and less guidance as we went on. In the end I passed my midwifery exam and became a qualified midwife. I continued living at the nurses’ home for a bit. In those days we were on call 24/7 with 24 hours off one week, and 48 hours off the next. We had three weeks holiday a year as a midwife, and during nurse training it was only a fortnight. I think it gradually went up to a month and then six weeks.
When we were doing midwifery, we did not get any time in lieu for bank holidays or anything like that. We tried to work it out that if you worked Christmas Day one year, you did not work it the next year. You obviously couldn’t always work that out, and I have been called out in the middle of my Christmas lunch to resuscitate a baby. Fortunately by the time I got there it didn’t need resuscitating. It was alright.
Simmy was off duty, and another midwife was standing in for her. I got called out to a patient very near to our nurses’ home at 4 Earlham Road, where the house at the Plantation Garden is. We didn’t know about the garden because it was all covered up. We had a very good cook there too. I went to this patient and the baby came so quickly I had delivered it before this relief midwife walked in. She was amazed and it was, sort of, as if I ought to have held the baby back until she came. I didn’t quite see how I could have done that!
I really enjoyed it because you really got to know people – we had very good antenatal clinics. I think, in Norwich, we were far in advance of the country with our antenatal clinics. They came to several antenatal talks as well. From when they first booked, we saw them on a six-weekly basis, then fortnightly, and then weekly when they got to 36 weeks. In those days mothers could book a doctor if they wished, but they didn’t have to book a doctor, so we did not always have doctors booked. You could be out at any time of the day or night, on your own, with the complete responsibility of the two people’s lives – the mother and the baby.
From when I first started training we carried gas and air on the handle-bars of our bikes – and we used to give enemas in those days too, to mothers before they had their babies if there was time. Our big leather case had all the other equipment in – forceps, syringes, kidney dishes and everything else – was heavy and strong. When we got home after a delivery we had to be clean it out, boil all the instruments and put clean linings in the cases. We weren’t responsible for laundering the linings. We also boiled all the instruments up in the patient’s house before we delivered the baby, but they had to be perfectly clean already in case you didn’t have time to do that.
Running water and a useable toilet were minimum requirement, but in Norwich some back-to-back houses only had one toilet for six houses. I do not remember delivering a baby in one of those, but I certainly went out to a miscarriage one day.
A lot of GPs were excellent obstetricians as well; one in particular stands out in my mind and was absolutely brilliant. There was another, quite elderly, doctor who we absolutely worshipped: Doctor Day. We called him ‘Georgie Day’. He was doing a forceps delivery in a house which was very old, and it did have quite a big room in it, and I think part of it was a bakery. I gave the woman the anaesthetic, chloroform, under his supervision – it wasn’t her first baby – and she needed a forceps delivery. I said ‘What are all those spots on her arm?’ and he just looked at me and he said ‘fleas.’ That was my first induction to fleas! She was a very nice person and I enjoyed visiting her. It was just one of those things in those days.
I delivered babies in all sorts of houses, from quite wealthy people to the poorest of the poor. Many in those days did not have central heating, so we were managing with very smelly oil stoves, or sometimes in bedrooms there was a little corner grate. I expect modern people haven’t seen corner grates, but we have them in our house. They’re very small, so they don’t give out a great deal of heat.
It was probably 1962 when they say was the last coldest spell, when a lot of taps were frozen, and people were getting the water from standpipes. We had to tell everybody to keep their baths full of water, when they were nearly due, so we would have plenty of water to use for delivery. I am now presuming they all had baths – I can’t remember what happened if they didn’t. Some would have had tin baths at the time.
They were building council houses at the time, so quite a lot of people from the slum-clearance houses moved in. They had very little furniture to put in them so they looked extremely bare. I was sent to a further away part of Norwich, from my particular district, where there were new council houses. They had no sheets or pillow cases on the bed, and I’d never met anybody who didn’t. After the delivery the husband brought me a cup of tea. It was a ritual to bring the mother and midwife a cup of tea after the baby was born. He didn’t ask if I took sugar (I don’t), and you could have stood the spoon up in it! On that occasion I couldn’t get the car to start when I left. Not only did the husband come out and give me a push-start, but men from all the houses all round came out. They all gave me a push to start off the car. That’s how people were in those days.
We were completely safe when we were on our bicycles and when we were in uniform. We did not wear trousers and only had these thin dresses, so we could get quite cold at times, but we could have cardigans over them. We had grey coats and grey hats, more like the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] hats in shape, I think. It was essential you wore your hat, and if I was caught by our midwifery supervisor without one on I was in trouble. And I hated wearing hats!
On the whole that was a very great time; everybody loves you if you bring their new baby into the world and you feel part of the family at that time. I don’t think there’s any better feeling on Earth than to deliver a fit and healthy baby to parents. At that time fathers did not come into the room when the baby was being delivered, but towards the end of my time doing district midwifery this started to change.
One father was present at a delivery. The doctor, who was present with me at that time, thought that was a rotten idea, and this flipping father went and passed out! He gave the doctor a good chance to say ‘I told you so.’ But we did have fathers coming to one of the antenatal classes by that time, so they had a little idea of what was going on, so that they could support their wives. We’d be talking early ’60s by now.
I think Miranda Hart was an excellent actress where she did the bit with the breach delivery on her own. It wasn’t a breach delivery when I came into trouble. The baby’s head was showing, and the mother was pushing like mad, when she suddenly collapsed. No telephone, no mobile, no phone in the house. Apart from trying to deliver a live baby, I had to get the husband to go and ring a doctor, who was not booked and therefore might not even know this person was pregnant, to come as quickly as possible without scaring the husband. It worked.
Meantime I did exactly what we were taught: push on the abdomen when the contractions came to push the baby down. I did manage to deliver a live baby. I was very worried about the mother because we didn’t have oxygen or anything to give mothers. I think it was the doctor’s lunchtime, and most worked from home in those days, so he was there pretty quickly. The doctor assessed the situation then called the consultant from the hospital, and the consultant from the hospital came out. Her lung had collapsed (she actually had a pulmonary embolism), so the consultant asked me if I would stay until the ambulance came. Of course I said yes, I would. So she went to hospital and I think relatives looked after the baby.
I was relieving somebody else at the time, so I didn’t know what happened after that. But I did hear from her midwife that she did survive, so that was something. But that was the worst experience I ever had. I think Miranda played that brilliantly because you just do exactly what you’ve been taught to do; you don’t let nerves or anything show at all. It was a huge responsibility.
Another huge responsibility was we used to have two things drawn up: Ergometrine for the mother after the baby was born, and vitamin K for the baby. If you were there in the middle of the night, all by yourself, and perhaps been up the night before as well, it would have been very easy to give the baby the Ergometrine, in which case you would have killed it, so it really was a terrific responsibility. You do hear these cases of the wrong thing being given, which wouldn’t have been difficult to do. Luckily, I never did do that.
The length of time you spent in somebody’s house varied tremendously. If it was a first baby, you might be there for quite a long time, maybe 12 hours or more. Obviously in very early labour you went away again and then went back later. A lot of labours took more than 24 hours anyway, and some had to go into hospital eventually which was the doctor’s decision. Most of the time you were on your own.
On two occasions I was accompanied to the concluding state of pregnancy, a confinement, by the police. On one occasion the mother was not booked, nobody knew she was having a baby, and the husband already delivered the baby and cut the cord. The reason why the police escorted me was because somewhere upstairs, in a bedroom, there was a room full of furs and things, and they were after them. The police promised they’d give me free access whenever I needed to call in the next ten days, because we used to visit for ten days.
On another occasion it was for a brothel I had to go to. This time I was escorted by police and this girl had had a baby. She said she’d had it so suddenly; it had been pushed out so quickly they couldn’t do anything about it. When I saw the baby I just didn’t believe it, because that baby was a beautiful little girl and she looked as if she had breathed. I have no idea what happened about the inquest, or a post-mortem or anything, I never heard anything about it.
The first time I went was because one of the prostitutes had become pregnant, and there was no pill in those days. I was greeted by the brothel owner, who I’ll call her Kitty, and the first thing she said to me was that she’d eaten midwives for breakfast! I was a very young midwife in those days, but even so, I was not put off by her. It came to this girl’s confinement, the baby was delivered satisfactorily, but soon after that it was taken into care.
It’s quite possible Kitty delivered some of the babies herself. There was nothing these girls could do. No form of contraception – there was no pill and their clients weren’t going to use a sheath, were they? I’d gathered this poor girl was brought up in the gutters in one of the big towns up north, and she’d had no life at all. I don’t expect she ever did have any sort of life. It’s absolutely appalling.
Kitty’s own daughter was expecting, I believe, her third baby. She loved her daughter and her grandchildren. I actually spent all night with her daughter having her third baby. After that, Kitty couldn’t do enough for me. I was in her really good books after that!
One thing is that I was too naive at that age. If I was called out for a miscarriage, it never occurred to me it might have been an induced miscarriage. I remember one miscarriage, which is now rather awful when you’re looking at it in the light of today’s advances, because this lady was not yet 28 weeks pregnant. The baby was not considered viable until 28 weeks pregnancy, and she might have been 25 or 26 weeks. This long, skinny baby came out breathing and I put him in a kidney dish. We just watched him sort of gasp and breathe his last. Whereas today she could have been in hospital and the baby could have been in an incubator and might very well have survived. It was rather an awful thing. But most of the deliveries were a joy, and it was great to be with the family at that time when they were delivered.
The health visitor and social worker would have been involved in the removal of children from young girls. I’m sure the health visitor knew beforehand that she was expecting the baby. Social services would have been involved with the removal of the baby. When I was first health visiting, there were far more mothers at home with their children than there are now. They did a survey to find out who was referring most children to the social services, and it was health visitors. I don’t know what’s happened to the health visiting service now; how they’re trained or anything. We had very close links with the social services; the last social worker I worked with was absolutely brilliant.
I returned to hospital for three years during midwifery when I got too tired on the district. I didn’t enjoy that at all as I felt it was like battery hens actually. We didn’t know anybody before they came; we didn’t know anything about them. That’s why I decided to do health visiting. When I was doing district midwifery, we had a very good health visitor who covered the same areas as I did. And I realised she knew far more of the background and the lives of the people than I did, so that encouraged me to do my health visitor’s training.
Looking back some things have not changed for the better. I can’t say that mothers should be at home looking after their children, but if they want to they certainly should be able to. They should have enough finance if they want to look after their own children.
1967 – health visitor and school nurse
I started training as a health visitor in the autumn of 1966 at Leicester University and became a health visitor in the autumn of 1967. We had lectures from a sociologist and a psychologist. We had very good lectures from a woman paediatrician on child development; she had a young child so she understood children perfectly. We were also trained as school nurses so we had to be able to give talks to school children, and we were monitored doing it. I think a sociology professor, who gave us lectures, said we learnt more in nine months than a lot of university students learnt in two years. It was pretty hard going.
A friend and I lodged together in an old lady’s house, and we came home at weekends. We spent most of the weekend writing essays. We didn’t have the time off like university students. We either had lectures or went out with a health visitor one day a week. It was quite interesting in Leicester because I hadn’t come into much contact with the Caribbean/black population, so it was quite interesting to meet a more varied population. We came back to Norwich and spent three months working on the district under the supervision of a health visitor before we took our exam. We took all the written exams while at Leicester and then they say we were qualified.
I think we were employed by the local authorities, Norfolk County Council, for the first ten years. We were school nurses and health visitors, so I saw them when they were just ten days old and I knew some of them after they left school. If I met their parents I could ask how they were doing which was very, very nice.
Clinics were mostly in church or village halls with voluntary helpers who made tea for the mothers and us. As well as talking to us, the mothers had a nice little conversation; it was a little afternoon outing for them. We visit them at home first, and as often as they needed visiting. There seems to be too many laws laid down now about when they should or shouldn’t visit. We had some families who hardly needed health visitors; some I learnt quite a lot about bringing up children – tips I could pass on. Then there were totally dysfunctional families and they got more input from me and, I think, from my colleagues as well.
I did severely upset the doctor I was attached to, because I used to go to several of them on a Friday afternoon to make sure they had enough money to feed the children over the weekend. When it came back to him with something he said ‘why ever did you have to go on a Friday afternoon?’ Not many mothers went out to work or if they did they certainly didn’t go out so early. It was much nicer, you could see them grow up. I loved child development and watching children grow up. When I went to a health visitors’ conference, we were given one particular test just for fun. Somebody got up and stated exactly what a particular child do, and then we had to guess the child’s age. I was the only one there who guessed the child’s age accurately!
I can’t criticise today’s colleagues because I haven’t met them and don’t know their training, but some of the things my great-nieces and a friend’s daughter makes me think they make some very odd remarks. I didn’t tend to be too prescriptive about what they should or shouldn’t do, except for very definite things like immunisation and things like that. In my view all parents, babies and children are different to everyone else; you cannot make a law that says you’ve got to do this or that with your child; I just don’t think it’s right.
One of my great-nieces has a husband who comes in at a regular time every evening. They can get their little boy settled to bed at a set time and they have their evening meal afterwards. Another great-niece has a completely different routine. Her husband is a herdsman on a farm, and often doesn’t get in until 7:30pm. She sometimes helps him clear up, and leaves the little girl in her buggy whilst she’s doing it. She tells me on the phone that she can’t get into a routine like her sister, so I tell her she’s in a routine which suits her and you’re in a routine which suits you. There’s no one right way that suits every individual. The main thing is that the child is happy.
We had very good liaison with people like an excellent speech therapist. The doctor I was attached to at the time said middle-class parents didn’t need health visitors. I can assure you some professional parents did because if they had worries with their children, they wouldn’t want to tell their friends in case they thought the children were backward. But they would tell me. I remember one case – we referred a little girl to speech therapy, but there was nothing wrong with the child. She was three and hadn’t decided to speak yet. In fact, she was a very intelligent child who’s been through university since then. It was a speech therapist who found that out in no time at all.
In another case a speech therapist might have found out that the child was slightly deaf or something, and referred the child on. We did hearing tests when the children could sit up, not with modern equipment like now. We had the babies sitting up, one of us had a rattle, and one or two other things that made noises as well, sort of slightly behind the baby. Another would be in front of the baby distracting them.
One little boy was so bright he managed to out-manoeuvre us. It wasn’t until much later when he was about four, that he was discovered to be profoundly deaf. His parents and his brother were nearly going up the wall because they couldn’t work out what was the matter with him. I went and sat in his parents’ house one day and looked out of the window – he was playing on a tricycle outside, and the things he was imagining he could do with that tricycle, I thought ‘there’s nothing wrong with that child’s intelligence whatsoever.’ I referred him to the speech therapist and she very quickly got him on to an audiologist, and he was profoundly deaf. He’d been so clever – he’d defeated everybody. Even the teacher in school he almost defeated, because if she looked at him and said ‘Simon, go and close the door’, he would do it because he’d taught himself to lip-read! I did meet his mum a few times even after he was an adult, so I knew how he was getting on.
It was a very varied job, but if the education people take over at two years old I wouldn’t enjoy that at all. After health visiting the first ten years with the local authority, I then health visited with the National Health Service for another ten years. School nursing was passed to somebody else, and I enjoyed doing school nursing. When I first started we did do some nit nursing, it soon stopped. We had to teach parents how to do it; they could go to the chemist and buy something. If I was in school all day, and there were one or two health visiting visits which needed to be done that day, I was quite happy to go off and do them in my lunch hour. There was one school I visited where they had a very good cook, where they always invited me to stay for lunch, and that was lovely!
The health service then and now
When comparing my career to those now, we worked far more hours. I think it was much better because we had more contact with people as individuals. One of my great-nieces say she doesn’t see the same health visitor twice, so nobody can give her consistency. If that is really happening then, I’m sorry, I think it’s bonkers. So I think from that point of view we were much better. You have to remember there were not many married nurses or midwives; there were some married health visitors by the time I was health visiting. I do remember one married staff nurse, in casualty, when I was in hospital, and that was the only married person I knew. I don’t remember a single married midwife; they simply couldn’t have coped with a family with the hours we worked. That’s partly why so many of us haven’t got married, I think. Of course, after the war we’d lost several million men who would have been of marriageable age to us, but we didn’t worry about it. I’m quite happy to be an aunt, a great-aunt and a great-great-aunt!
Sylvia (born 1928) talking to WISEArchive on 4th April 2013 in Norwich.
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