Raising money for a tennis court

The Working day


Christmas in hospital

Some sad cases

A frightening case

Light relief



By Margaret Staples SRN

After an interview with Matron C, of the Royal West Sussex Hospital Chichester, I was accepted for training for the SRN certificate and thus the Royal West became my home for three years and two months (2 months sick leave had to be made up) and started on the FIRST day of JANUARY 1929 aged 18½ years.

In those days the hospitals were either voluntarily contributed or called (awful name) Poor Law. We were of the former type run by a Management Board with some of our consultants and people of Philanthropic leanings and the Royal West was very fortunate in having some rich and interested folk to care for it. i.e. the Duke & Duchess of Gordon & Richmond from Goodwood , the Hierarchy of the cathedral, and most importantly the owners and staff of the Shippams Potted meat factory in the City.

This firm had a Drama group of its work staff who gave concerts and plays etc. during the years in the City Theatre with all profits going to us and in particular this drama group kept our Children's Ward, "HOWARD WARD", in nursery rhyme crockery. If any of us unfortunate probationer nurses broke any of said plates or mugs etc. we had some cash deducted from our salary. which was 1st yr. £16, 2nd £18, and 3rd yr. £20 plus our uniform, laundry, board & lodging. Our two State exams, the Prelim and the Final, cost us 3 guineas each.

Our Matron was a very large, buxom lady with pure white hair and she wore a very large starched white Army style cap, she was in fact a member of the Nursing Yeomanry Service and when war was declared in 1939 became the matron of the FIRST NILE hospital in Egypt, gaining the highest Red Cross award of that time.

We went in some degree of fear of her for she was extremely strict, yet also when you got to know her, very just & fair in her dealings with her nurses. Having trained herself at The Royal West she was SRN 5, and many years later I became SRN 63174. I wonder what the figure is today.

Matron, knowing we had to pay those State exam fees one at about 16 months time of training and the final at 2 years 9 months, used to deduct a small amount from our salary every month and bank it, thus when the time arrived we all had our cash in hand. Some of us had financial help from home or relatives etc., some had none and I was one of those. So buying lecture books, pens, note books etc. became requests from family for Birthday & Christmas gifts. It is of course invidious to try to compare prices by today's standard and then but a pair of good quality ward shoes cost 7/6p in old money but on our salaries very little different from managing today on a pension or small wage.

We started work at 7am and with 3 hours off duty on a rota set by Ward Sisters finished at 8pm. And had one half day a week. With 3 weeks annual leave. Starting work straight on to a ward usually the children's ward for three monthly stints our training was planned so that we covered everything in the hospital by the end of it. Our ward sisters taught us the bed side nursing and Home/Tutor Sister our Theory with lectures from the various Drs and consultants working at the hospital.

About 4 months after I arrived the next probationer nurse came and we became almost immediately good friends. It was very strange when we discovered that we both possessed the wonderful gift of a retentive brain. At lectures some of our colleagues would be scribbling away masses of notes to be converted into presentable essays for marking whilst Nurse B & self took just headings and important detail and then when writing out our essays just "put ourselves back to the lecture" and it all look shape. A gift it appears I have passed on to my Son for his City & Guild exams in marine Engineering.

The hospital was 100 bedded with 40 nurses, 4 ward sisters, Matron, assistant matron, home/tutor sister and night sister who was the only midwife on staff as we only took emergency midder cases, plus theatre and out patient sisters. Built over 200 years ago like the Royal Hants at Winchester, when being built there were two Wisteria trees planted under the central steps to the front door and these trees are still there today covering the whole of the front of the building and kept trimmed to the level of the upper ward windows. A lovely sight every spring and often flowering twice a year.

We had amongst our nurses a fairly heavy percentage of Irish girls who had to pay for their training in Ireland so came over to England, and most of them were Roman Catholics. Matron was of the Baptist tradition but again always very fair but the Sisters found it a work of art if having 6 nurses on day duty with 4 of them Irish Catholics who stated they had to go to MASS on Sundays at 7am. It can be imagined how Sister had to juggle the off duty list. This at one time became a bone of contention between r.c.'s and C.of E's and others so eventually Matron called in the R.C. Priest from the City who gave his poor nursing flock an awful dressing down on "what about other folk besides you?" and said some of them should get up at 5am and go to 6am Mass. In those days they did not dare murmur. You really did do what you were told. Everybody from the domestics to the House Surgeons & Physician lived in and nobody was allowed to live out at all and woebetide you if you were seen out with any uniform on. Just not done, you could carry germs back into the Hospital. Could one say a form of barrier nursing?

For two years we wore caps with butterfly wings at the back and the 3rd year attained the dizzy heights of wearing a small lace frilled cap with strings under the chin with a lace-edged bow. Our Black belts were not allowed until we had passed our SRN and only Ward Sisters were allowed to wear a Silver Buckle. What a difference to these days!

A little story from that silver buckle.

I was 19 years and on the Female ward called NIGHTINGALE and helping to nurse a dear old lady dying of Carcinoma. At visiting time one day she called me over and said "Nurse Elliott I want you to have this silver buckle so that when you are a Sister you can wear it". Sister Nightingale gave me permission to accept it and I wore it from early 1934 when I had my first Sister's post until I retired in 1973 and now my Granddaughter has it to treasure for the future.

The lay out of our hospital was fairly straightforward. The lowest floor held the kitchens, engine rooms with coal-fired heating and some domestic quarters. The ground floor with a central entrance up a small flight of steps held the Matron's flat & offices, the House Surgeons & physicians quarters, a large Board room and right at the end the O.P.D. X Ray and treatment rooms plus the Hospital Chapel.

The next floor held two large surgical wards "Dixon" the men's and "Nightingale" the women's. And along the very long corridor were each end a 6 bedder, 5 bedder and a 2 bedder Wards with a central room for admin. & stock cupboards. Leading off from Dixon & Nightingale were balconies for 8 patients who were the recovering ones and they were able to have a good degree of freedom and with a strong solid glass floor in the centre of Nightingale's they were directly above the Chapel. The theatre was also on this floor near the central admin. room. The very top floor had small rooms with dormer windows and the nursing staff used these until a New Nurses home built in 1929/30 with a small Private wing attached and a covered walk way between the home and the main building. This latter home then held all the nursing staff with the sisters and the very first bedroom was designated for the Theatre staff nurse so that she could be called quickly and quietly in the night there being no night theatre staff or even a Night Porter.

The Sister's offices and sluices etc. were on the same side as Theatre block but quite separate from it. The stairs led up the centre of the hospital with a lift from the first floor also centrally placed. The small side wards were used for Medical and special cases with the female 2 bedder for emergency midder. Thankfully in early 1931 these side wards became called the Central ward with the admin. room made into a kitchen, this gave us more staff and lessened the work on the two main wards. At the rear outside the hospital were the laundry and the Mortuary. And various other sheds and buildings. At one time we had 3 gardeners working on the lawns and flower beds and also a kitchen garden, and a grass tennis court for all of us to use.

Out of blue one of our sisters proposed we have a hard tennis court. This idea was put to Matron who got some estimates and told us it would cost £200 and if we wanted it we had got to raise the money ourselves but at the same time after we decided Yes we would do it. Matron gave to each 1st yr nurse 6 pence to be made into 5 shillings. 2nd yrs had 9 pence and 3rd yrs l Shilling to make into £1 and the Sisters had 2/6 pence (Two shillings and six pence was one eighth of a pound) to make three pounds. All to be found in three months. The nurses home was redolent with the smell of home made toffee, marsh mallows, etc. all being sold to each other and to patients' visitors with other ideas for raffles etc. I was 3rd yr then and had a very nice piece of blue satin (my Mother was a Court Dressmaker and helped me with all sorts of bits and pieces) and with 2 piece of Gamgee Tissue, from the Theatre. I spent my shilling on narrow blue ribbon from Woolworth's which was then a 3d & 6d store nothing over sixpence and with such ribbon at 2 pence a yard I made a Handkerchief Sachet which I raffled and got over my £1 in next to no time. We achieved our cash limit needed in less than the stipulated time and all felt very pleased with ourselves. And did we enjoy that tennis court for we could play long after the grass one was out of action for the season.

Our working day starling at 7am with all beds made and ward tidied by 8am when Day Sister came on, took the night staff report and despatched them off to their Supper/breakfast? and then she took her staff through a short Prayer For the patients & their families and then for her staff, we then all joined in with the Lord's prayer and on with the work being given our off duty times for the day First. If you were off 1O-1pm it was a scramble to get all tasks appointed finished and I recall we had in an elderly man who was alcoholic, with an inoperable tumour in the Oesophagus, he was being treated with RADON SEEDS placed down as far as they would go and each one attached to a silkworm thread and strapped to his cheek, and of course a gastrostomy tube for liquid feeding. He was a bit of a humorist when sober with a saucy twinkle in his eye and when he saw one of us getting his feeding tray ready the naughty old thing would pull his tube out knowing we then had to sterilise it again and after one or two incidents of this staff nurse had a word with sister and we sterilised three tubes at a time without him knowing. So that closed that little trick to him. A time waster of course but really rather funny, except if you were rushed off your feet.

After going off duty at 8pm and having our supper we could voluntarily go to our Chapel for a very short Service, the women above us in the balcony loved to hear us singing a hymn and said it "set" the night for them. I can well imagine that.

Mr Basil Shippam from the City firm was then a very young man and extremely clever. During my three years there he fitted every bed up with earphones connected to a ward wireless set. Bearing in mind the BBC or 210 as it was called had started in 1926 and before I finally left he had wired up loud speakers to all wards from the Chapel and various Radio stations he did all this work voluntarily and thoroughly enjoyed himself, as he wasn't terribly interested in the factory food work.

I started on Howard ward children's, and the very first patient I came in contact with was a darling baby of about 16 mths with about 80% scalds , she had run into Mummy who was carrying a large saucepan of boiling potatoes, and you can imagine with the starch content of the potatoes she had little chance of recovery. Sister Howard was one of our Best, trying to learn Envelope sheet corners on cots with railing round was far harder than a straight bed, and it had to be done to her satisfaction so you went over the procedure until you did "get" it.

We all carried what I suppose would today be called a work sheet. It was a large form with all procedures and tasks taught to you marked off on perfect completion and signed by your ward sister I still have mine tucked away with certificates etc. Breaking a Clinical Thermometer was to us an almost major disaster because it meant not only paying 6 pence towards a new one, but a visit to Matron's office with the offending broken pieces and a dressing down on how to be more careful.

One of our junior nurses who was a bit of a "I like to do what I want to do people" was cleaning the sluice room one morning. We were supplied with all necessary equipment for this task but she picked up a graduated specimen glass and poured quickly some pure LYSOL into it and the liquid shot up from the small space at the bottom of the glass into her eye, sad to say she had to lose that eye and of course her career was finished. Lysol wasn't supposed to be used in any case which made the situation all the worse for her.

On another occasion a 3rd yr nurse put some lipstick on and was carpeted for that but at least was able to carry on finishing her training.

A funny Incident comes to mind.

We had a female patient in for many weeks with Rheumatic Fever - quite a killer in those days before antibiotics, etc. She was in bed for a long time and then came the day when Sister said we will get Elizabeth up today. After bed nursing for so long it was difficult to assess her size, or rather her height. So getting her into a chair for a few minutes and then with Sister's help standing her up to walk round the bed and back we heard gales of laughter from the patients the other side of the ward. There was I, 5 foot 3 inches, Sister 5 foot 5 inches and Elizabeth 6 feet 2. We had to look heavenwards to see our patient's reactions to standing, etc., and we did indeed all finish up laughing until Sister said to some of the other patients, "You'll all get sore tummies if you laugh so much." The very dear Elizabeth went home cured. With I think no heart defects from her illness.

We all felt very sorry for folk with Pernicious anaemia. Practically nearly always fatal then, the poor souls were treated with raw liver sandwiches, and hog's blood to drink, and PR retention enemas of saline with black treacle given at the rate of one drop a second, until a pint was absorbed.

The care given to the patients was excellent if somewhat misguided in some ways for instance. A clean stitched appendix was kept in bed for 10 days and not allowed to wash themselves for 8 days. We blanket bathed them daily and sutures were removed usually on the 10th day and they returned home on the 12th or 14th day.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other way today with very early home going, when, because you are allowed up, you can "DO" - not altogether good but better than staying in bed so long as in the 30's. Pneumonia cases, nursed in the small side wards, were expected to take 9 days to reach the Crisis, depending of course on their admission day of the illness, but for as long as they held a high TPR, taken 4 hourly, they were tepid-sponged 4 hourly then TPR checked again and woe betide the poor nurse who hadn't got it down even a little.

We ourselves, if ill, were nursed in the private wing and cared for well physically but socially we were almost outcasts, nurses should not be ill. If you worked hard, played hard, ate properly you just shouldn't become ill. Sister Tutor lecturing us would say, "You are here to nurse the sick and try to get them better not to be ill yourselves." This gave a lot of us a nasty complex about being "ill".

Christmas in hospital was wonderful. I had some of the happiest times of my life then. One of the side wards were emptied, admissions being at a minimum for a week, and converted into a "Rest Room" for us as we had no set off-duty for a week and lots of goodies to supplied to eat and as I think still happens today some of the Drs and consultants came in to carve the turkeys on the wards and join in with us. I think our board of management gave Matron some cash which was divided between the wards for decorating so all and sundry were busy making these. In the centre of the two large wards was a wooden edifice which we called the "Green Trolley". It was quite large and cupboards and drawers were built all around it for equipment to be stocked, and the top of this was covered with some beautiful dark green tiles which of course we had to polish but for Christmas each ward would work their own theme of decoration for the whole ward. It might be for instance a Pantomime title or a Children's book title and it was kept secret from each others' wards. We would then have a visit from the Bishop of Chichester who would judge the best decorated ward. We also received from the cathedral a truly massive box of chocolates for the nursing staff. The box in itself was so grand that it used to be raffled when empty. All the patients, as today, had presents and a good time was had by all. A very different story to Christmas at my Midder school but more of that later.

Going back to exams, Matron was an examiner for the General Nursing Council for the state exams, so was up North in Leeds or Manchester whilst we had to go to St Mary's Portsmouth for our written and practical exams.

It was it this time that Matron showed her wisdom to good effect. Three days before we were due to take our written exam papers she had the exam set in her office plus every note book, lecture book scribbling books etc. and she locked them all away in the safe in her office, then proceeded to tell us to forget them. and when given our question paper. not to start writing immediately but to read through every word including all headings of the paper . then to read it again. then to read each question very slowly and decide which one or two we would not choose to answer, then to read once again the first one to be answered before picking up our pens to write, We had nearly always a very high pass mark, going with a relaxed brain and studying the question paper really thoroughly before attempting to answer it.

In addition we had of' course inter Hospital exams every 6 months and we used this same method then.

It is obvious that with so many folk going through our hands and with the majority getting better and going off home that certain cases stand out in one's memory and possibly inevitably the sad ones. One day we admitted a girl of 2l yrs with Acute Nephritis, in a coma and fitting. She was dehydrated, with a very dry skin and unable to sweat at all. I recall she was ordered and given a drug called Pilocarpine to help her sweat glands to work. Then the hard work for us began, also ordered were hot wet packs to cover her completely every two hours to achieve the same effect as the drug. We had a large zinc, bath into which we laid a bed sheet and onto that a blanket folded loosely, then gallons of boiling water heated up for us on all wards in large fish kettles borrowed from the kitchens. Then came the task of wringing it out. It took two of us, one wringing to the right and one to the left. In other words a massive hot fomentation. Into which after testing it for over-heat our patient was carefully rolled. After a few days we began to see the effect of the treatment and Glucose and saline retention enemas were given to sort of drip feed her like today's Hartman Solution, and during the 2nd week she regained consciousness and showed immense improvement by the day. Then she began to eat a very light diet - steamed fish, etc. We were very thrilled with all this progress and she was the darling of the ward. And then arriving on duty one morning we found the ward all quiet and an empty bed where Edith had been. It transpired that during the night she suddenly started to haemorrhage from all her mucous membranes and died very quickly even before Night Sister could get her relatives along. We all felt very sad and 1 think the nursing felt deflated after such hard work and then to lose her.

A case that really frightened me.

Not quite 19yrs and one month into my first three monthly night duty on Nightingale ward, my Senior and I went on duty to find Night Sister busy with an emergency Midder case in 2 bedder ward. Day Sister gave us the report during which she told us there was an elderly lady in her late 70's in the theatre having been admitted about 7pm with "Acute Abdominal" for laparotomy. My senior and self got on settling down our patients for the night and about 9.30 p.m. Night Sister came out and said she needed my senior's help with the midder case, leaving me with the ward alone. At about 10pm the theatre nurses were bringing our lady back from theatre when she died on the trolley in the corridor. She had been found to be inoperable. She was placed on her bed and I was left to cope with "Last Offices" (no funeral directors to do such tasks in those days). Night Sister had been informed and after 30 mins came along to find me preparing the needed equipment for the task. She stood at the foot of the bed but well away from it and in her usual martinet manner barked orders at me like "Well get on with it nurse". I got on with it and turning the patient over to plug the orifices to my horror the poor lady's tummy burst open, fluid everywhere and of course coils of bowel which I had never seen before. Night sister just stood there and said "Come on girl turn her back and stuff it all back in. Get a large many-tailed bandage and a spare sheet and I'11 tell you what to do" I did this plus needle and cotton, she then told me how to cope and somehow I did, thinking all the while, why doesn't Sister help me, being of course totally unaware of the C.M.B. ruling that a midwife should not touch a dead body other than a mother or baby she was attending. By this time I was almost a trembling mess, but Sister kept up her staccato orders which I blindly obeyed. The next task was to get the lady on to a trolley and down the corridor to the lift and over to the Mortuary in the pitch dark and terrified out of my wits. I'd not been to the mortuary before and had to find the lights. Take the patient in shut the doors and lock them and then I literally took to my heels and raced back to the ward. Sister met me at the ward door with "Carbolise the bed Nurse, then change your gown wash your face and hands and come to my office."

I thought I was in for a telling off. but she said, "Sit down Nurse, I'll be back in a moment. Close your eyes and try to relax.". A few minutes later she came back with two cups of strong sweet tea, one for me laced with Brandy and one plain one for her. She then explained about the C.M.B. ruling, said I had done well, (which for her the strictest Sister we had and very hard on us all was a miracle) "You must now go off duty and go to bed, we will manage for the rest of the night. I will explain to Day Sister in the morning. On duty at 8pm tonight please Nurse." I had nightmares for weeks after that but eventually got over it.

A little light relief.

The Nurses home doors were locked at 9.30pm and 10pm passes had to ring for Home Sister to let them in. About 8 of us in our exam sets decided we would have some fish & chips from the corner shop not many yards from the Hospital, so two of us took it in turns at various times to sneak out of a top bedroom window and get our needful chips etc., 6 pence would buy an enormous amount of chips then, and sneak back to one bedroom sit round the floor and eat out of the newspaper in the dark. The smell from those fish & Chips must have reached Home Sister's nostrils down the corridor but she never came after us bless her. Perhaps she had done likewise in her training days.

Margaret Staples died peacefully in her Thatched Cottage opposite Jane Austen's House in Chawton, her family with her, on Friday 9th March 2001. This account is faithfully reproduced from a scan of her original typescript which she typed herself during 1998 and 1999, and although I corrected some typing errors I otherwise left it exactly as she wrote it, preserving her distinctive voice and style. She has since read it and made various suggestions for improvements, including correcting her registration number, which was originally wrong.

I hope this will be seen as a tribute to someone who was dear patient of mine for about twenty five years and who I am therefore well placed to know was a "real person" if ever there was one. JARW