« How I Took Care Of The Knuckles Guy | Main | The Quiz Ordeal »

U3A Writing: Wartime Nursing

...I remember very clearly my first morning on the ward because the night before, there had been a big fire-raid on London. As we entered the ward all the casualties were lying on the floor. One patient had an injury to his eyes...

Marjorie Shirley tells of being a nurse during the war years.

From the earliest age I always wanted to be a nurse, but I had very poor sight in one eye which made it difficult to get into the profession I so badly wanted to follow.

I tried various voluntary hospitals and eventually I was offered a post in a convalescent children's hospital. This was in 1940, and from then on I applied several times to get into nursing. Eventually I think the number of student nurses fell very low as many girls went into the forces or munitions instead.

It was wonderful when I was accepted for training at St Olive's Hospital in Rotherhithe, Southeast London. Rotherhithe was a close-knit community in the borough of Southwark, a dockland community mostly dealing in timber.

I started my nursing training on May 8th, 1941. My conditions of service were 48 hours of duty a week and three months night duty, although it was often more. I was paid between 30 and 50 whilst I was training. Our hours were 7.30am to 5pm or 10am to 8pm. Night duty lasted from 8pm to 8am. We got four weeks holiday a year.

We all had to live-in at the nurses' home with full board, and I had a lovely little room. I remember the food was quite good, which I suppose was lucky as it was wartime. However, the heating was not up to much and we took baths to get warm.

My nurse's uniform included a pretty cap which we called a 'butterfly' cap (so named because it had two wings on it), and we had to make them up on each other. We also had to wear black stockings, and trying to find them during wartime was quite difficult.

All the student nurses underwent a preliminary exam after the first year, and if you were successful you went on to years two and three. We all had to sign a contract for four years.

There were eight of us in my set. Two were English and most of the others were refugees from Europe, one of whom became my closest friend and was bridesmaid at my wedding and godmother to my daughter.

I remember very clearly my first morning on the ward because the night before, there had been a big fire-raid on London. As we entered the ward all the casualties were lying on the floor. One patient had an injury to his eyes.

Imagine! We were 18 or 19 years old and we were seeing that kind of shocking scene for the first time. Of course, there was no stress counselling in those days, we just got on with the job!

We didn't always work in Rotherhithe. From time to time, we were transferred to another hospital for about three months, and then we would come back to London. Most of were transferred at one time or another. I remember there was a flight of Greenline buses, formerly run by London Transport, which were converted into ambulances and we used to travel about in these. (Ironically, the convalescent home where I had worked as a children's nurse was taken over by our casualties and servicemen).

Nursing was hard work, but my life in London was very enjoyable. The hospital was quite near Southwark Park which had an open-air theatre and this was where I saw my first Shakespeare play.

We had various jaunts, and I remember so well the fun we used to have together - sitting in each other's rooms chatting and laughing. A German friend of mine who had a gramophone introduced me to classical music for the first time. I remember listening to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 and thinking it was the most beautiful piece of music I'd ever heard.

I'm sure there were harsh times, but I don't remember it being terribly bad although the work was very hard. In those days we had to do all the cleaning in the wards as well as nursing the patients, and we had other very junior duties which had to be done first thing every morning. After that we were allowed to go for a coffee break at 10 O'clock and change our aprons.

Christmas in hospital was always rather special. For night duty, we had a very warm black cape with a red lining. At Christmas we used to turn the cape inside out so that the red lining showed and then walk through the wards carrying a light and singing carols. (Of course, we had to be careful about the blackout!). We used to make up little presents for the patients and I remember walking across to Southwark Park and picking bits of holly and greenery to decorate the wards.

At the end of the first year we all sat our preliminary exams, and I was lucky enough to pass first time. In my second and third years, I went to work in a hospital down in Kent where I met my husband.

In the third year of my training, the flying bombs started and they really devastated Rotherhithe. The machines looked awful as they came across the sky and then suddenly stopped overhead, and you just knew that they were going to hit Rotherhithe which was a big target because of the docks. Rotherhithe lost its Town Hall, its little cinema and library. Quite a bit of our hospital was hit, and two nurses were killed.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.