Pearl talks to us about her life, from her nursing training, raising a family, WI committees and markets, short term foster caring and fundraising.
I was born in Attleborough in 1944 and was named after a land army girl. I never found out why I was named after her but I knew that both my parents were very fond of her. I have been forever grateful to have been called Pearl and to marry a Fisher!
My parents were very unusual in that they were first cousins. They both had sheltered lives, didn’t have many friends as such outside of the family and were both very much involved with the family. They formed a union and got on very well and eventually married.
I spent the first four years of my life at Foulden near Thetford. I went to school there, and I was a very precocious child, frequently showing up my brother who couldn’t spell and I could! My father was a farm worker and he got transferred and we moved to Starston. Farm workers got transferred in the autumn, Michaelmas. So that’s where I spent my childhood really.
It was hard as we were not well off. We were not aware that we were not well off, it was normal to us. We had no running water, no electricity, no toilet. My brother used to have to help my father empty the pail onto the garden. Wonderful vegetables we had. We had a bath once a week in a tin bath.
Monday was wash day and when the water in the copper, outside in the yard, was still warm we would have another bath in the copper, and dad would come and wrap us in a towel and carry us all indoors. Lovely memories.
Starston School was a very tiny school, there were only 15 pupils, two classrooms and two teachers. It was a widespread community so children came from three miles away to the little school. The first classroom was for up to about six-year-olds. All of us in the senior classroom were being taught at so many different levels that it was amazing that we learnt anything at all. But I enjoyed it. I was just so lucky that I passed the scholarship and was able to go to grammar school. This was very unusual, the first time in years I think, so I felt very privileged.
My elder brother did not want to go to grammar school and during his test he just put his pencil on the desk and didn’t write a thing. The day I took my scholarship test it snowed. The rest of the school children weren’t there, it was just us so we played in the snow all day. We had a lovely time.
Going to grammar school
I had a choice of which school to go to. There was John Leman in Beccles, Wymondham College or Diss Grammar School. I didn’t really want to go to Suffolk being a Norfolk girl! Wymondham College was a no go for me because you had to board and I had the condition enuresis so Diss Grammar was the option for me.
It was quite a way away. I had to cycle two miles all the way to the top of Starston to get the eight o’clock bus to take me to school. I often didn’t get home until six o’clock at night so it was quite a journey. I had to cycle past a wood, which I was quite nervous about so my elder brother used to come and meet me and we biked home together.
I loved the experience of school, but I didn’t feel very bright with all the other, more well off, children. It was a bit of a struggle to get the uniform because we were not well off and couldn’t afford it. Fortunately there was a second hand clothes shop so I was kitted out to go, and once I went it was fine.
I actually got on very well at school. I started off in the lower class and then got promoted to the higher class. On reflection I think that I’d have been better off in the lower class; I did well, I passed maths one year early. I also passed additional maths as they called it, this included a lot of logarithms which I fail to see are any use today, but there you are. I never reached the dizzy heights, but I was happy as I only wanted to look after children.
All I was interested in was working with children, and that was the problem. As I was good at maths the careers advisors in their wisdom thought that I should work in a bank. This horrified me, working indoors, with paperwork, when I wanted to be a hands-on child carer. My mother was behind me and we were quite strong, and said no, that’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t get any further help from the careers advisor. My mother, bless her heart, was not very well educated herself because she had an invalid mother at home so didn’t attend school very much. But she was very very supportive and got the magazine The Lady. She found me a job in Ely, which was miles away as far as I was concerned.
A job in Ely and starting my orthopaedic training
I’d not travelled anywhere by myself. I was 16 and my mum put me on a train to Ely and it was an adventure. I used to come home once every two months or so.
It was a job that I thought that I would like as it was looking after handicapped, disabled, girls at a school. They needed someone to get them up in a morning, nurse them between lessons and put them to bed at night. You had to see that the laundry was done and see to their general needs medical or otherwise.
I did this for a year and by then I was 17 and I realised that this area, children’s disabilities, was one that I was very interested in and that it really fell into orthopaedics very nicely. I knew that you could start this training at 17.
We found out where you could do this training and one very well known hospital came to mind, Pyrford in Surrey. I applied and got in, one of the reasons that I got in was because I had had a grammar school education. So my schooling really really paid dividends.
Training in Surrey, interesting cases and having my wedding ring made for me
In 1961 I went to Surrey to do my two years of training. The idea was that if you did your orthopaedic training for two years then it would cut a year off your general training. You had to go to an affiliated hospital, and they were in London. I did not want to go to London. So I chose a hospital, St Peter’s at Chertsey, which was close to where I was and I did my general there. I chose to do all the three years so actually ended up doing five years training, which was really good and I don’t regret it one little bit. St Peter’s had a good name then and it certainly does now.
We had some very interesting cases, including the first thalidomide cases. It had an old TB ward so all the wards were open to the air so we could push the patients out in the summer and we nursed them out there.
There were quite a lot of aspects which were unusual. We had some of the first spinal fusions. Then as opposed to today the patients would have a plaster cast of their backs made before the operation, have the operation, and then they were six months on the plaster cast while we nursed them. You wouldn’t get that today.
Another stand out point was the fractures of the neck. When patients had traction you’d have pins put through the head with weights on the end to stretch their necks. They did the same with legs, to stretch legs. There were beds and beds of traction all over the place; again, you wouldn’t get that today. So, yes it was very interesting.
We were allowed to take the patients out, so we used to push them down to the local pub, have a drink and come back, great fun.
The nice aspect of that was that none of them were really ill. Having said that we had elderly people and I had my first death. Granny Anscombe, I can remember her today. Tiny little lady rolled up in a ball in a cot. They asked me to lay her out and I really got a lot of satisfaction from that. It was one of the last things that I could do for a person, make them nice and clean and look lovely.
The babies were heartbreaking in their little angelic shrouds. Many of the nurses didn’t want to do these things, but you know, it was one of the things that I felt that I could do well.
We had two or three private wards so we used to have celebrities there and we got to know them well.
I used to get given some lovely things, great big bouquets of flowers, all sorts of gifts, they were so grateful and we were allowed to accept the gifts then, I don’t know that they are allowed to so much today.
One of my patients actually made my wedding ring. He was a goldsmith and he said that he would like to make my wedding ring, would my husband agree? He did and I have quite a memento.
We had student accommodation, obviously; there weren’t that many of us as it wasn’t that big a hospital. But we had great fun, great camaraderie. No men of course, all women but we did mix with the doctors which was nice.
Our uniforms were very stiff and starched. But you sent your uniform away to be cleaned so that was okay. When I did my general nursing I had a hat with a big flounce on the back. When you were trained you were allowed to have a black belt and this signified that you had passed your general nursing. One of the things with the black belt was that you always had a nice buckle. So Terry, bless him, bought me my first buckle and I’ve still got it.
I had such a good time. We go to know each other and we got quite adventurous and one of the things that we did was go hitch hiking. It doesn’t bear thinking about these days. But we hitched all over the country, regularly hitching down to Portsmouth and over to the Isle of Wight and back again. I remember my first visit to the Isle of Wight, we hitched across and slept wherever we could. We found a field with cattle in and we slept on sacks of potatoes in a barn. In the morning we sort of washed ourselves in the cattle trough, and then we hitched back again. We had good fun, really good fun.
At the end of my training I got a certificate for ‘the care of cripples’ ‑ that would definitely be a no go today. I got a certificate for both orthopaedic and general nursing. After receiving that you were supposed to go on and earn, but I came home to be married. If I had one tiny little regret it was that I didn’t go on to do my midwifery. But I knew that if I had done that marriage would have been out of the question. And I knew that that’s what I wanted, marriage and children. Having had five years of nursing I felt quite satisfied with what I’d done. And it was good grounding for marriage and children.
Meeting and marrying my childhood sweetheart
Terry was my childhood sweetheart. I met him when I was at school so that’s actually one of the good things from my school days. After he left school he worked on a fruit stall on Diss Market. One of my friends had a cousin who was friendly with him and she had a New Years Eve party and we were both invited. So at the age of 16‑ I was15 when I first saw him ‑ we walked down the road at midnight and missed the midnight bells tolling and from then we went out. And 55 years later I’m still with him.
We did break up however, after I left the job at Ely. I was absolutely devastated but it did give me a bit of freedom for when I went to do my orthopaedic training. So I did that training being unattached so it was quite a free life. I was due to start my general training in the January and the Christmas before Terry got in contact with me to ask if we could meet again. We saw each other for a few weeks and he asked me to marry him, which was lovely.
I said yes, but that I was afraid that he was going to have to wait three years because I was going to do my training. He agreed and for three years we courted by letter. Terry is such a patient man and a one-off I think. We agreed that as we were going to be apart for quite a long time it was difficult to imagine not having a social life so we agreed that we would. Terry here and me away. I would go out with boys and he would go out with girls. But we set the record straight, that we were attached and would just have no strings relationships. That worked wonders, I had loads of boyfriends, no strings, just partied, it was wonderful. We used to go to London at two o’clock in the morning to go bowling and to the Purley ballroom, so I was lucky.
I think that being a country girl had an impact on my life. I had a good grounding. I had parents who expected high standards of their children. A lot of my friends had lots of boyfriends, went out with doctors and a lot got pregnant. I decided that I really couldn’t let my mother go down the route of me going home pregnant. So I was quite rare, and I never slept with anyone, I was very very true to Terry, I had very strong morals, so I felt that I was very strong in that regard. ‘Cause it could have been very different.
I finished my nursing career just before Christmas ’66 and our wedding was planned for March 1967. Terry had not been idle, he was a postman. His did not get a fantastic wage but he got enough and had enough gumption about him that he sourced a plot of land and built us a house. Which we are still in today.
It took a year to build and the night before our wedding I was sewing curtains and scrubbing floors. We got married, moved in and when we returned from honeymoon my nursing results were waiting on the mat. I’d passed so that was very lucky.
Next stage of my career
I knew that I wanted a family, that was utmost in my mind, to have children. I decided though that I needed to do something, and I thought that I might like to go on the districts, so I took driving lessons. Whilst taking my test I had to do a real life emergency stop as a child ran out in front of me. I say that I think that helped me pass my test. Unfortunately the next day I ended up in hospital with a miscarriage and I lost my nerve to get back in the car.
We talked about other nursing things but I was told that you had to put your career first and your husband second. That wasn’t in my book at all. So I said no, that wasn’t for me.
There was a chicken factory in Diss, Padley’s, and they wanted an occupational nurse. I thought that I could do that and it was local. They provided transport so I travelled in a little van with the factory workers.
I had a little hut in the yard just outside the factory, in between the factory and the canteen. There were all sorts of things to deal with, lots of deep cuts, gashes from knives, from the workers in the killing section. There were a lot of women who worked in the packing section who had menstrual problems, they’d come in for pain relief. The men on the lorries often suffered with stress as it was quite a stressful job. I had one or two who suffered with migraines so they used to come in and lie down, I’d give them some painkillers and see that they rested for a while. Of course there were office workers too to look after. If there was anything that I kind of diagnosed I would send them to the doctor.
I was allowed to fill my time however I wanted as long as I saw to the workers there. Obviously if there was nobody ill, nobody had cut anything, then there was a lot time on my hands. So, I took my sewing machine in and this was accepted. I’d sit and make clothes, some of the girls would ask me to turn up trousers and other things. It was the time of the flare and I made several pairs of those.
I saw an advert for a job as a nurse at Burston Rectory, which had only just opened, the vacancy was for a nurse for severely handicapped children. Children being my thing I thought that it was certainly an opportunity for me to go to a different place. So I applied and got the job. The children were mostly diplomats’ children who were hidden because they were an embarrassment to the family. They were virtually left there, with hardly any visitors. It was classed as nursing care but really it was more of a domestic role, although I did give medication. We kept the children occupied with playing, going out for walks, that sort of thing, getting them ready for bed.
My husband bought me a scooter and off I went and I loved it. We had about 15 children all with varying degrees of capabilities and ranging from toddlers to the age of 15. One particularly large boy who was 15, he was quiet and then all of a sudden he’d have a little fit or tantrum. One day I took him out for a walk round Burston and something must have spooked him and he pushed me in a ditch. It was fine, I got out and he was fine and we went back. It was never dangerous or anything like that, but I loved it. It was very rewarding, very rewarding and very satisfying.
Having a family
We were still trying for a family. In those days we used to have snow, real snow, big drifts. I was on the way to the rectory, I’d been told by the doctor that I wasn’t pregnant even though I thought that I might be, remember in those days there were no scans. The drifts of snow were so high that I had to abandon my moped and walk the quarter of a mile to the rectory. Going through the drifts I had a miscarriage. Going through this, getting to the rectory was one of the most traumatic things in my life and I ended up in hospital.
I ended up falling pregnant quite soon after and my daughter was born in January 1970. We had to give up work 11 weeks I think beforehand so I gave up late ’69 to start my family. My middle daughter was born on Boxing Day. My next pregnancy went almost full term and I gave birth to a little boy.
Things in those days were so different and I think that it is good to record the immense difference in having a baby then and having a child today. As I said we didn’t have scans, so I had no idea that there was anything wrong with my baby. When he was born he was severely disabled and he lived for one hour. I was asked if I’d like to see him, and I said yes, but then they wouldn’t let me as apparently he wasn’t very good to look at. We quickly had him christened and then we had to have a burial. My husband had to bury him, on his own, with the priest and the undertakers, while I spent my ten days in bed. This was a very unhappy experience for the both of us. Today I think that you would get counselling. I had no counselling from that day to this.
I had no certificates and this played on my mind. My eldest daughter, upset that I didn’t have any recognition of this baby, went to the offices and managed to find a birth and death certificate. I have these to this day, to say that he existed, a very poignant moment.
Earning extra money, WI markets and catering
Giving up work was financially challenging, but I had grown up in a challenging family with my dad being a farm worker. My mother was extremely thrifty and she taught me to be. We’d always had free food, gathering mushrooms in the field, fruit from the hedgerows that sort of thing. So I was very well versed in how to cope.
When the children were babies Terry had a strike at the post office; that was very challenging. He didn’t get any pay, the government paid for me and the children but Terry didn’t get anything. I always remember buying a pound of mince to eke out for the whole of the week and making it work. We managed, I always managed like that but having a family was more important to me.
I had three children under three and I decided to get a little bit of money. I had joined the WI and had heard of the WI markets, where you could earn a little bit of money. This was formed after the war so people could earn a little bit of money for themselves. So if you baked something for your family you made an extra one to sell at the market and this is how it progressed. I decided that it was a good road to go down.
No sooner had I got here, I was promoted to the committee and sort of ended up running it. It was a good time. The market was on Friday so I baked all day Thursday, up until midnight. We had to register our kitchens and the environmental officer from Long Stratton would come and ask questions. She made sure that we were cooling things down and carrying things in cool boxes, setting them out on the stall with ice blocks underneath. It was very strict, the regulations were very strict within the WI market. People still remember my baking today, I still cook Country pasties, I mustn’t call them Cornish pasties, for a lady in the village.
I also went to Norfolk section being on the committee and to National. I used to go to all the AGMs all over the country, wonderful. We went to Wales, London, the Albert Hall, over the place, so it was a good life.
A spin off from the market was that I did some catering for weddings and funerals. Obviously I couldn’t earn too much but the WI was very good at letting us know what we were allowed to do. I did funerals, mostly by word of mouth, you know people would just ask me if I could do, say, their dad’s funeral.
I preferred doing funerals to weddings. Funerals were always always more appreciated than a wedding, always more grateful. So it was a nice little earner and we had the odd little holiday from that.
Getting involved in the community and voluntary work
I started to play tennis after my children were born because I needed to get my body back into some sort of shape. No sooner had I started playing than, as per usual, I was co-opted on to the committee and I got very involved in fundraising. We desperately needed a new pavilion so we started to fundraise. We also fundraised for leukaemia, so did both side by side. We fundraised all over Norfolk and Suffolk. One of the ways we would fundraise was a roll six dice to win a car. Nobody would ever roll six dice and get six sixes so we didn’t feel too threatened. We went to Eye show and raised hundreds of pounds, but golly what a long day. The children would come with us, that was their weekend entertainment, but they would have rather a lovely time finding other children to play with. We raised enough money and in 1985 we built the pavilion. I was privileged to dig the first soil with the Norwich City football manager at the time, which was good.
I also went on the Parish Council. This was because my daughter had fallen into a ditch whilst taking a photo with her pretend camera. That ditch should never have been beside a footpath because so many people walked and children cycled on this footpath. So I went on the council to try and get it filled in. Twenty years later it actually got filled in.
Being on the council was good. I had been in the village for a few years and knew lots of people and, having children, I knew lots of parents. Not many people would speak out so I was always getting rung up about all sorts of things.
Sitting on the parish council was a bit of a headache for them because I was quite outspoken. At the end of each meeting they used to ask every councillor if they had any issues to bring up and they always used to leave me until last as they knew that I’d have a list. But I would tell them that that’s what their parishioners were complaining about. So it was quite a platform for getting rid of some of things that bothered me. I also became a Home Watch co-ordinator and again I would get phone calls about all sorts of things.
At that time lorries were coming through the village. The children had to walk down to the village hall for their canteen and the lorries were actually tearing the anoraks on some of the children, which was frightening. So we campaigned for a long time for a bypass. The line had been protected for 20 years before we moved into Scole, but did finally get a bypass.
Becoming a short term foster carer
This was a wonderful time in my life. My children were quite young, and I felt very privileged to have three very healthy children. I can’t even remember how I heard about it, but there was an opportunity to foster children for holidays. I applied and got accepted and started having children to come to stay. Two of my children had one bedroom and the other shared with whoever came along to stay. Because we had three girls, we were only allowed to have girls, no boys.
We had children who had got all sorts of problems. We weren’t told too much about their problems, just that we knew that they were in need of a holiday. We had children who were carers for their parents who came for a holiday.
We had one girl who was the most delightful girl. She was as bright as a button, hyperactive, and she was out on the bike with my girls as soon as she arrived. She never looked back, she was a handful and we had to watch her the whole time but she was such a delightful girl.
I remember one funny incident involving her. At the time we were playing tennis over at East Harling, and we’d take the children to the matches. They’d play on the playing fields while we played tennis. I was playing the match and there was this little girl with the roller that they use on the pitch and she was rolling it across the pitch! She said, ‘Ooh I didn’t know I couldn’t do that’. We did laugh.
A nice end to this story is that she had been somewhere and ended up telling one of Terry’s cousins about this holiday that she’d had with this lady in Scole and how it had been the best holiday she’d ever had.
This was only in the last year or two ago and she managed to contact us and we met up. She was a lovely girl and she had made so much of her life. She said that she owed a lot to us because we were such a happy family and she strove to be like our family and have a family herself.
Pearl Fisher (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive on 26th April and 4th May 2022 in Scole, Norfolk.
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