The Matron’s Assistant (1938-1975)

Location : Beech House, Gressenhall

Norah worked in Beech House from 1938 until its closure in 1975. She began as a nursery attendant but later became the matron’s assistant. Spanning World War Two and the introduction of the National Heath Service, Norah’s story gives a detailed account of working life inside the historic building.

I was born at Haveringland, near Norwich, and moved to Gressenhall with my parents in 1926. I shall be 88 on Sept 24th (2008). My father was the head gamekeeper on the Estate at Gressenhall and I went to the Gressenhall Church School until I was 12, when I went to the school in Dereham. I left when I was about 16 and, for a while, lived in London where I was a nursery maid to Viscountess Hitchingbrook. I was helping to look after Lady Sarah Jane. Montague was the family name. The Viscountess then had another baby, so I was there for about a year.

Beech House Gressenhall – workhouse to hospital

When I came back to Gressenhall in 1938, I started working at Beech House – that’s what the old workhouse used to be called before it was a museum. It had various names: It was a PA Institution at one time (Public Assistance Institution) and then I think it went from that to the Beeches and then to Beech House in the end. When I started work there, what is now the archaeological wing was a hospital. There was a place for men and the women who were mobile. Some of them were poor people without homes. I don’t suppose it was the Workhouse then as it had been in years gone by – paupers and all that.

The casuals, which were the tramps, used to come in every night at 6 o’clock. There was a labour master who would see after them. He would book them in, making note of where they came from and where they were going. They invariably came from Bowthorpe, West Norwich, which was a Workhouse at one time. Most probably they would be going either to Kings Lynn, or Gaydon or Wicklewood. They would have a bath, clean clothes and be fed, and the next day they would do a day’s work. The following morning, they would have their clothes returned, all laundered, and a lunch given them.

The hospital also had a nursery and we had children, sick children, so I was nursery attendant before I started nursing. Then, in later years, I became matron’s assistant. There was also a female casual ward, but we had very few females in. One of us had to attend to her if we did, so it was quite something if we had one in. On the sick ward we had two male wards, and we had quite a few coming from the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital those days, incurables. They would stay in till the end. You got several incurables those days, but we’ve come so far since then. We also had the maternity and labour wards, which had 6 beds each. We had mothers coming in from the locality and, during the war, we had one or two evacuees. I think they must have been evacuees because we had so many of them around here during the war. We had a lot come from Dagenham and they would either have scabies or head lice. We had to clean them up and gown them before they went to the billets.

The Laundry and living at Beech House

In the Laundry, we had a book. Every night, we done the laundry, listed it in the book and sent it off each morning. Then one of the able-bodied inmates delivered it back to the wards – or whichever department – the next afternoon. They also used to do the children’s home in Dereham, which was collected and washed in our laundry at Beech House. I should say about a dozen worked in the laundry in my early days and you didn’t have electric irons then. You had the flat irons, heated on a tall stove which was heated with coke.

Next to the laundry, they had a sorting house. I don’t know what it’s used for now. The laundry was sorted into piles: sheets, draw sheets, clothing. Then, it was all hand washed with soap. Of course, draw sheets had to be sluiced before they went to the laundry. The sheets were put through the colander, which was a big roller lined with something like felt. They had to go through three times and then they were aired three times. There were wooden racks where the sheets went which are still down the laundry now. They were called horses. When the driers were bad, the horses were pulled out and the sheets used to air out on there. I remember, things used to fall down, and somebody used to have to crawl right in to get them. Sometimes, the washing was hung outside in the laundry yard. If not, it was dried on the horses. There were also two or three washing machines and the big hydro (which was really a spin dryer). Once, the laundress went to a friend of mine, and she said to me, ‘when I get a home of my own, I’m going to have one of those.’

Of course, the nurses’ aprons were ironed, caps were ironed. Sisters had fancy caps, which were goffered in my day, so we had to use goffering irons on them.

Whenever I wanted anything, or if anything was lost, I used to go into the laundry and the atmosphere was very happy really. They all chatted to each other. Their hours were 8 till 4 and they didn’t work Saturdays or Sundays. In later years they got electric irons, so they did away with the stove. They were all employed. I don’t think we had any residents working in there.

I married an engineer in 1942. We had the flat which is now the marvellous museum restaurant. We were the last out in 1975 when Beech House closed. I had my daughter while we were there. I had a month off that’s all. You didn’t get time off in those days, so I was working right up to producing her. Then I was back. She had whooping cough at three months, so I went to see the Matron. I said I’d have to have time off. She said, ‘you can have your holiday’, so I went home to my mother.  I worked nights and my mother saw after her during the day. She was very, very poorly. Only had two weeks off. I think it got her over the worst. She was very poorly with that. Then it was back to work. I had somebody see after her because she was still not over it. I saw after her in between times. My husband’s hours, him being an engineer, would be 8 till 5, so he was there evenings and mornings.

My husband and I lived in at the flat, and the cook and porter lived at the lodge, which is as you come in the side door, that little lodge there. They were married, the cook and the porter. The laundress and labour master lived in Cherry Tree Cottage. He was called the labour master because he saw after the tramps, but then he saw after the gardens. We grew all our own vegetables, of course. It was all kitchen gardens then, but now it’s been taken into grass. The matron and superintendent were in charge overall. They were a married couple too.

To do our own laundry, we had to do it on Sunday night and take it down on the Monday morning. We had to do them in a separate laundry book. I never took my own. I always done my own smalls and things. We had to pay for it of course. It all came out of our emoluments, you see. We paid quite a bit really.

I couldn’t tell you what sort of wages my husband and I got, but I remember we came under the 1938 Superannuation and we could have opted out in 1940-something, but we opted to stay with the 1938, which didn’t work out. It would have been good if he had lived, but he didn’t, but we didn’t know that. Therefore, when he died after 38 years, I lost his pension. He died in 1976 and we had left in 1975. He took early retirement at 63. But I got another job. I went nursing at Etling Grange in Dereham. Nine years. They kept my job open and I was just glad to get back to something to do.

Matron’s assistant

My last job at Gressenhall was as matron’s assistant. In 1948 we went Part 3 when the National Health Service came in. We had our own Dispensary. Everything was done there, but they done away with that because they said we could have everything on prescription. It didn’t work out though. Too many patients. So, we didn’t have a Dispensary, but we did have a medicine chest. Before the NHS we got quite a few from the Norfolk & Norwich, men and women who were incurable, and the elderly. It was geriatric nursing really.

Looking back, it wasn’t easy. We never had disposable syringes. Everything’s disposable today. We had one or two, but they were, I can remember, in little glass containers with the methylated spirits and, if we were on night duty, we done the swabs and they went into drums and they were sterilised to give enemas. I can remember all this tubing. It’s a very different world today, nursing. We didn’t have drugs in those days. We did have morphine, which was in a tablet form. The sister used to do it between two spoons, dilute it, then draw it up in a syringe. Everything had to be made up.

You hated being in the sluices what with the bedpans and the bottles and everything, but you thought nothing of it. We had rubber mats on the bed, which were kept on a pole in the sluices. When a bed became empty, we had to carbolise it, which was to wash it all down – springs and everything. The matron used to do her round about 11 and run her finger along to check it was clean.

Norah (1920-2017) was talking to WISEArchive in Beetley, Norfolk on 11th June 2008.

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