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Feather's Miscellany: Post-graduate Education

...At the sanatorium my duties supplemented the work of qualified nurses. I polished the floors each day, emptied bed-pans and sputum mugs (enamel mugs with lids on into which patients expectorated and made me feel like throwing up when I had to clean them out), made up beds each morning – and laid out corpses...

John Waddington-Feather tells how his education was enriched after leaving university.

In June 1954, at the ripe old age of twenty one, I graduated in English at Leeds University with Italian and History as my subsidiary subjects. Having three months to fill in before I was called up for National Service in the army I signed on as a ward orderly at a T.B. sanatorium at Middleton on the hillside above Ilkley. Speaking Italian helped me get the job because there were Italian graduates on work permits allowing them to work in Britain for a limited time. The only jobs they were permitted to take were in hospitals or coal mines, where there was a great shortage of labour. Working alongside them, I had to interpret occasionally.

The time I spent at the sanatorium and the two years which followed in the army at the height of the Cold War completed my education. As a ward orderly I helped nurse the sick and the dying. In the army I served in the Intelligence Corps. I needed compassion and a good stomach in the one; and in the other low cunning and native guile!

At the sanatorium my duties supplemented the work of qualified nurses. I polished the floors each day, emptied bed-pans and sputum mugs (enamel mugs with lids on into which patients expectorated and made me feel like throwing up when I had to clean them out), made up beds each morning – and laid out corpses.

Tuberculosis was still a major killer disease in those days before the discovery of streptomycin, which virtually wiped out the disease in the late 1950s. Thousands still suffered and died from T.B. and there were hundreds of sanatoria up and down the country. Fresh air and sunlight were thought to be the best cure for the disease, so sanatoria were built in the countryside with long verandah wards, the sides of which were opened to the elements outside in good weather.

Many patients were my own age in their twenties. Others were elderly miners from South Yorkshire suffering from silicosis through breathing in coal-dust all their lives. There were also wards for women, some expectant mothers whose babies were taken from them at birth and wet-nursed for a while to prevent them contracting T.B. from their mothers.

The sanatorium, set in beautiful, wooded countryside and farmland, covered a vast swathe of hillside north of Ilkley, looking across the Wharfe Valley to Ilkley Moor opposite. Now it’s long gone and in its place is a housing estate.

And it was from being a ward orderly at Middleton that I became a private in the army on September 16th 1954, when I reported for duty in the Royal Army Service Corps at Blenheim Barracks, Aldershot. En route to Aldershot I had another eye-opener while waiting for my train at Waterloo Station. Near me on the platform were knots of ‘teddy boys’ – tough, gangland types dressed in their customary long Edwardian coats with velvet collars and thick-soled suede shoes. But there was one great difference between them and your usual ‘teddy boy’ who had a long quiff of thick hair swept back on his head. These characters were all closely shaven, and I discovered why when I reached my billet.

They were Scots from the Glasgow Gorbals slums just out of prison or borstal! When we left the train at Aldershot station, we were all bawled and shouted into line by NCOs then herded into lorries. The ‘teddy boys’ looked out of place in their outfits and were very subdued. No gangland bravado now, and most surprising was how they responded immediately to military discipline. As they settled into military routine they actually relished being in the army.

I suspected it was because they were away from their home environment and living an orderly disciplined life where everyone was treated alike regardless of background or education. Several years later when I was in the Territorial Army I ran across two of them. They’d signed on as regulars in the army and were sergeants in charge of transport units, happily married and settled in a life well away from their gangland environment.

I remained in the RASC till December doing basic training, drilling and learning to use firearms, then suddenly I was called for an interview in London. The man who interviewed me was a rather plump, shortish man in pinstripe trousers and black coat who could have been a bank manager. He tested my linguistic skills for in due course I had to learn some Russian and German.

Two days later I was called into the admin office in Aldershot, told to pack my kit-bag and given a rail ticket to Uckfield in Sussex, where I was met by a driver and taken to the Intelligence Corps depot at Maresfield, five miles away in the heart of beautiful Sussex countryside.

What a change! After the strict routine of army-town Aldershot, Maresfield Camp was like a holiday camp. Of course there was military discipline, but more relaxed; almost affable, and I enjoyed the lectures and training like the surveillance jaunts round Lewes. But best of all was the sport at Maresfield Camp where I played rugby and cricket, boxed and learned how to fence. In some ways it was like being at university again for most of the personnel were graduates and our instructors were intelligent and friendly.

While I was at Maresfield, I was ‘head hunted’ by Crowborough Rugby Union Club and made friendships which have lasted to the present, sixty years on. Each Saturday I was picked up at the camp gates and taken to the Boar’s Head Inn just outside Crowborough, where we changed in an out-house, ran half a mile to the ground in all weathers, played our game, then returned to soak in a large concrete bath set in the floor.

Then we adjourned to the pub for our meal and beer, followed by an evening’s entertainment with the locals, playing darts and chatting. It was a new world to a Northerner like myself living in Sussex where the folk were kindness itself.

Sometimes I stayed at the Boar’s Head for the weekend rather than return to camp, nipping down to Brighton and back to enjoy the seaside and entertainment there. The landlord at the Boar’s Head charged us half-a-crown for bed-and-breakfast. I slept and fed like a lord! While playing for Crowborough RUFC I also played for Sussex regularly in the county championship.

Having completed my courses at Maresfield I was commissioned and sent on yet another course at Oxford to learn to read aerial photographs; that done I later went to nearby Abingdon to complete parachute training, for in due course I was to command the Counter Intelligence Unit in the 44th Independent Parachute Brigade in the Territorial Army, rising to the rank of captain before I finally left the army in 1968.

Perhaps I ought to add that while in the army I kept up my church-going both at Maresfield Church and elsewhere with experienced army padres who led services in the field; for by and large service men and women take their religion very seriously on active service.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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