Barbara. Retired RGN district nurse, Midwife and psychiatric enrolled Nurse. Just to say this site is brilliant, I will be getting in touch with old comrades to try and get what info I can. I was there 1962-65. When I entered psychiatric nursing in 1963 I was a shy awkward seventeen year old who knew very little about anything. I had answered a local advertisement recruiting girls to become student nurses in at High Royds Hospital and, for no better reason than I wanted to leave home. The thought of general nursing seemed somehow too responsible and threatening to me. Why mental nursing should be less so I can’t now really except that it sounded rather mysterious and exciting! With minimal enquiries into my suitability for such a calling from the hospital matron, I exchanged my family home for the Nurses’ Residence one snowbound February morning in 1963. As I walked up the hospital drive I was both awed and entranced by the sight before me–the huge Administration block from which turretted ward blocks jutted on either side, set amid extensive grounds , covered in pristine, sparkling snow–it looked like a fairytale palace–a vastly misleading impression as I was soon to discover!
The hospital matron, Miss Biggs I will call her, an obese woman with bad teeth and stringy hair over which a great white tablecloth affair flapped, ushered me briskly down to the nurses’ residence–a old converted private ward, and having handed me a massive bunch of keys left me to my own devices in my room. On the bed was my uniform, two mauve cotton dresses with an array of starched accessories which I had great difficulty sorting out. Button,belts,collar,cuffs, aprons and a cap had all to be assembled , though one of my neighbours kindly came to my rescue and helped me sort the baffling ensemble out, as well as showing me a few more of the ropes and escorting me to the canteen. I was due to join the February Intake of Preliminary Training School which was to commence two weeks hence, but in the meantime, in order to gain some practical experience, I was assigned to Ward 24.
The following morning I nervously presented myself in the appropriate department, after letting myself in with the enormous key !My nurse’s cap was already cockeyed and sliding off my long slippery hair which refused to stay tidily pinned up, the detachable buttons somehow worked themselves loose, and the cardboard like cuffs were rubbing my wrists raw ( though I was soon told to take them off and get my sleeves rolled up!) However, there I was, ready for action on my first ward–and what a shock it proved to be! I am not sure what I expected, but it was not what I quite had in mind to be plunged into the midst of seventy or more demented, elderly, incontinent females and being told to “Get on with it!” This was from the ward sister–who I shall call Sister A– who looked almost as elderly as her charges (I learnt later she had retired twice and was seventy if a day!) She grumbled volubly, while taking deep puffs from her Capstan full strength–to her companion, a heavily made up laquered peroxide blonde nurse in the green dress of a nursing assistant–about being sent new staff who didn’t “know owt.” This sister was a real Sairy Gamp. She whizzed round the ward with her keys tucked into her belt, jangling and smoking and dropping ash over everything and everyone, her unfortunate charges most of all! The only consolation was that she did not seem to notice my deshabille appearance ! The stink and the noise was horrendous but I had little time to take stock of the situation as I was shooed off to work with the ward skivvy, a “worker” patient from another ward. This lady, who went by the name of Annie Malloy, was younger than the Ward 24 inmates–well, her hair wasn’t grey and she wasn’t barking mad and she worked like a mule covering both shifts–seven till two and two till ten–for a pittance of pocket money,all of which went on cigarettes. Poor Annie, in her faded, flowery overall and lank greasy hair, toiled round the clock, assisting the nurses “turn out” the hapless, bedridden patients of the ludicrously named ward(all the wards, I was told, had been given names instead of numbers to make the hospital–which had recently been upgaded from an asylum, sound more friendly and nice.) Annie showed me what to do. We hauled a great metal contraption called a “back trolley” out of the sluice room and proceeded to wash and change the incontinent patients who were practically swimming out of their beds at seven o clock in the morning.
About twenty patients were permanently bedridden, for what reason I did not know–and still don’t ! At that time, however e “gallery”, the others were left in their stripy, towelling dressing gowns, the belts of which were used to tie them into plastic covered easy chairs. The bed patients on my side of the ward who still had use of their legs were pulled out of bed by Annie and deposited on a commode. She then stripped the hapless woman stark naked and told me to wash her while she made the bed. When the patient had been washed and redressed in a dry wincyette nightie with a split up the back, for obvious purposes, she was put back into bed and we moved onto the next victim. Some of the women, Annie told me, had been in bed for many years. I didn’t understand at the time that this was the reason their limbs were contracted and could not be straightened, so they had to be washed and changed in bed, rolling them from side to side and struggling to clean them up in their rigid foetal position, while they yowled, cursed, lashed out or simply glared. “They have to have their legs broken to get them into their coffins when they die,” Annie informed me laconically by way of conversation as we moved on on our depressing, dreary round. She also showed me the difference between a shroud and a nightie and explained that we kept the former on the back trolley to save time going back to the linen cupboard should a patient die en route. The women’s backs were riddled with huge sores, many going right down to the bone from which poured putrid, foul smelling discharges. We wore no gloves in those days,( except for giving suppositories, for which small mercy, I suppose, I should think myself lucky !) I was instructed by my mentor Annie to clean the cavities with red, green or purple lotion, presumably which ever took Annie’s fancy that day and squirted into the bedsore from a syringe, and then smear a slimy, homemade cream from a pot around the wound and cover it with a gauze swab. All completely unsterile of course, and stuck on with some superglue type pink tape, which ripped the skin when removed.
If the patient had been incontinent of faeces we used some dreadful stuff called tow to clean her up. This was a clump of scratchy brown fibre – God knows what it was made from – and can have done little to prevent further breakdown of the skin of these poor women. The abuse was further compounded by rubbing unbroken skin vigorously with surgical spirit afterwards to “harden it up ” – research has since shown that not only was this procedure rubbish, it was a positively harmful, causing further tissue destruction, though no one at the time knew this, so they can’t be blamed for that one! If Sister A was doing the dressing, she usually dropped cigarette ash in and on everything and everyone as well, while at the same time more worker patients arrived on the ward to clean, stirring up more dust and dirt into the fetid atmosphere as they swung their long polishing poles back and forth across the floor, adding even more harmful ingredients into the lethal pool of cross infection. But at that time, although I was initially culture shocked by what I saw, I soon came to regard it as normal. Later, when I had been in training school and learned, in theory, better ways, I became very disheartened when the “old brigade” on the wards, refused to alter anything by the smallest degree. It had “always been done that way” and there was “no time” for “new fangled ideas”, the students had “no experience to start telling their elders and betters what to do.” It was hopeless ! The same soul destroying inertia which gripped the patients, who had long ago given up hope of anything better, began to grip me also. There was a mosaic lawn of black daisies in the main entrance to the hospital – not, white, pretty, dainty daisies, but black daisies, malignant, mutant growths ,the sign of the ‘sylum, the emblem of the bin. I was soon almost as institutionalized as the hospital inmates, arriving every day to go through a dreary round of drudgery under the Dickensian rule of the elderly ward sister and her faithful assistant. They invariably worked together and palmed me off with Annie, from whom I learned my primitive nursing skills.
The main objective of the morning for Sister A and her glamorous handmaid was to get through the work as quickly as possible so they could retire to the ward kitchen where another “worker” patient, a tiny, browbeaten little woman called Elsie, would serve them tea and toast. I was meanwhile consigned to the sluice room to clean commodes and bag up the steaming piles of laundry with Annie. After no less than a full hour the two women would emerge from the kitchen and Sister would shriek, “A-a-annie! Annie Malloy, dratted woman, where are you, go fetch me the whatchermecallit from the wheresist, you imbecile!” She pronounced imbecile to rhyme with mile. Annie would scuttle out of the dark corner in which she had been lurking with a dog eared roll up ,to be given some unpleasant task to undertake while I was graciously sent off to the kitchen for ten minutes, where the humble kitchen slave, Elsie, tended to my needs. Sister now proceeded on her medicine round which consisted mainly of dishing out horrible sticky yellow medicine called Sparine, or syrupy brown Largactil, major tranquillisers, a popular form of “treatment” in the sixties. Then came preparation for dinner a round 11.30, which was hastily rushed through as sloppy mashed potatoes, or invalid “pops” (milky Complan with lumped bread floating in it) was spooned down the women’s throats, while those who were at the tables fought and spilled, choked and threw their food around–after which we were “turning out” and toiletting again.
It was a regular zoo! Sister A’s criteria of a good nurse was whether she was quick or slow. A quick nurse was honoured by the title of “grand worker” while slowcoaches, such as myself, were “useless, lazy lumps.” If you were not blessed with magical foreknowledge of how to perform routine nursing tasks such as temperature taking and urine testing ,or giving injections without being shown how, then you were a failure. I was a failure. More quick witted and confident student nurses must have been able to bluff their way through, I could only conclude, perplexed. Ward 24 routine was rigid and quite inflexible. On Mondays we gave enemas to all twenty bed patients, whether they needed them or not – and in those days enemas were enemas, two pints of hot soapy water down a long, rubber tube, a ghastly business–on Tuesdays we cut nails, a dangerous and disgusting job, on Wednesdays we washed and sterilised the stainless steel instruments and galleypots, which were never used, and Thursdays and Fridays were bath days. Bath days were like Paddington Station. Those women who were mobile were herded into the huge double bathrooms and lined up in rows, stark naked. They were given a hasty dunking in the scummy water, their hair washed with enema soap (which actually did wonders for one’s hair !) and then pulled out by their armpits and dried with a communal towel. They were then dressed from communal piles of clothing–a knicker mountain of pink wincyette bloomers, oddly matched lisle stockings which were fastened above the knee by twisting into knots, and miscellaneous dresses, buttonless cardigans, faded overalls and ill fitting shoes. One week we worked seven a.m. until two pm and the following week two till ten pm. We had one day off a week which moved on automatically, and gave one weekend in seven off. Although this was to some extent a sensible routine it had the effect of dividing the ward into two camps, each referring to each other as “t’other shift” and between which a permanent state of warfare existed. ” ‘T’other shift” never did anything right, they were bone idle, incompetent and totally devoid of sense or reason. It was all quite bewildering for me until I was actually transferred to ” ‘t’other shift ” because one of Sister A’s family wanted to work on her ward with her. (In those days, many generations of the same family found employment at the’ bin’. It was like a local cottage industry.) I thought at first that Sister B was a great improvement on Sister A. She was much younger for a start and called me “Nurse Barbara ” instead of simply by my surname as Sister A had done, ( though this was the custom on the sixties).
Rumour had it that Sister B, who was a Roman Catholic, had nearly become a nun after being thwarted in love. However she had decided to dedicate her life to the insane after receiving a call from on high after which she had taken a vow of virginity, though some people unkindly said she need not have gone to the trouble. She was known by those residents of Ward 24, who could still string a sentence together, as “The Good Mother” and wore her frilly sister’s cap Sister of Mercy style ,pulled down over her Tweeny Twinked curls while a huge gold cross dangled round her neck, occasioning near fatalities to those patients who got in it’s path. Her methods were insidious. She fussed and fretted around the patients for about half an hour, engaging in long ,babyish conversations with them about their bowels, about which particular bodily function she seemed especially obsessed, and then she would inexplicably disappear to reappear later in the morning equally inexplicably and carry on her nauseating chatter and holding up the work. Then off she would trot again, leaving me to finish clearing up the mess, and reappear armed with coloured satin ribbons, which she would tie into the skimpy locks of the demented grannies’ hair making them look even sadder and madder than ever. Unlike Sister A’s routine of frantic hurry, Sister B’s methods served only to slow things down almost to a standstill, in the midst of which meals would be served. In direct contrast to Sister A’s policy of whizzing through the work as though her life depended on it, catching everybody up in a panicky stampede of slapdash work, Sister B plodded through the morning–or afternoon–bunging the women as full as food as possible fussing round them like a ministering angel from hell ,and completely ignoring their prescribed dosages of tranquillisers. With the two ward sisters working from entirely different ends of the universe, the results, from the patients point of view, were bizarre and distressing. Sister A starved and doped them. Sister B fed and left them to freak out as they wished. Somewhere along the line, the patients were saved from the direst consequences of this potentially lethal regime by the simple fact that each sister’s routine saved the other from the other’s malpractices when the shifts changed over. However, I soon realised, being a victim of both routines myself, what was actually happening on Ward 24. For example, when I worked with Sister A on the afternoon shift, her first job after Sister B had given her the report and departed was to rush ,muttering to herself ,to the medicine cupboard and emerge with a great bottle of Sparine or Largactyl tucked under her arm( depending on how disorderly the ward was, Largactyl being the stronger dope) and administer Shipmansize measures to the offenders.
In contrast, when I arrived on the Good Mother’s afternoon shift, all the patients were as quiet as lambs, if not actually comatose because they were all zonked out on the yellow or brown stuff .The Good Mother always appeared to be totally amazed at this scene of tranquillity! However, by the time the night nurse arrived, chaos once more reigned supreme, and as the night nurse was always an untrained “assistant “and was not allowed the drug cupboard keys, she had to put up with the situation. However, if Sister A had been on the afternoon shift the patients would have had their sedation and sleep like logs all night. More disturbing was the matter of Crystapen. Crystapen, an antibiotic, was always prescribed when a patient fell ill on Ward 24. The diagnosis was irrelevant, though the problem was usually pneumonia, or some other infection; however, when this happened, Sister A always ignored the medical instructions with impunity, thinking to give the injections a waste of time and effort, while Sister B adhered strictly to what had been ordered, for a change. Most of the patients survived this unethical and probably illegal game of Russian Roulette thanks to Sister B who at least ensured they got half their antibiotics, and continued to stuff them full of food however ill they were. Unlike Sister A, who dished out pobs most of the time,(and if they didn’t swallow in less than a couple of minutes, threw it out,) Sister B gave all the patients proper, full course meals sent from the hospital kitchens, so that on her shift you were on a non stop treadmill of feeding or toiletting, with never a break in between. The doctor who supervised the luckless residents of Ward 24, was a Scotsman who both sisters regarded as something higher than the normal run of mankind. He was always given the most deferential treatment, coupled with blind panic on Sister A’s part to find a worker to make him his coffee. This was served in a china cup and saucer kept under lock and key in the dangerous drugs cupboard, which was then placed on a tray with a lace doily, and taken in private in the office,with sister fussing and fluttering round him !After this ritual Doctor M would condescend to do his ward round, nod at the patients and mutter “Och,” or “Nay” , prescribe his treatments, the universal Crystapen or an adjustment to someone’s sedation (not that that made any difference, when Sister A was around) and then say “I’ll bid you all adieu,” with a flourish and disappear for another week, unless he was needed before, a highly unlikely event. The hospital Matron was just as bad. Everything on the ward had to be absolutely immaculate when this obese, hard faced woman in her frumpish navy frock and great flapping white tablecloth hat, arrived for her daily inspection. Pillow ends facing away from the door, the beds lined up as straight as soldiers, the patients under control by fair means or foul. Looking back I often wonder why she condemned me to Ward 24 which had the worst reputation in the hospital, even worse than the refractory wards where the real mad people were locked up! She obviously had a cruel sense of humour! She never enquired whether I had settled into the Nurses’ Home or whether I was happy or had any problems.
There were many young women working at the hospital, some from as far away as Spain or China, (who often could not speak any English, and were simply recruited to be “a pair of hands”) with no sympathetic mother figure to give them support. Some of the student nurses became pregnant, or took overdoses, for drug taking was rife, amphetamines and barbiturates being pilfered from the ward with great ease, and when this happened they were sent “down the drive” i.e. sacked. Everyone was busy diagnosing each other’s psychiatric status – I was labelled a budding schizophrenic as I was very quiet and shy. It was a female dominated world, most of the male nurses being of the old mould- ” ‘sylum ‘tendants,” burly, bullying men who we rarely met, apart from the rare male student, who came into mental nursing because as it had a more macho image than general. All the patients on Ward 24 had case notes, kept under lock and key in Sister’s office. I longed to read these intriguing documents but was told in no uncertain terms by Sister A that they were none of my business and we were far too busy for such time wasting notions. The Good Mother had smiled sweetly at my request and said, “Of course, Nurse Barbara , dear, when we have time,” and made sure I never had any. However, as luck would have it, Sister B went off sick and Sister A went on holiday at the same time, and two different staff nurses took over the running of the ward. Both seemed reasonably sane members of the human race with no disconcerting idiosyncrasies of character, and Staff Nurse C, with whom I worked, was a revelation to me. She was horrified by the dismal standards of nursing care and all the other potty, antiquated goings on, on Ward 24. One of her “reforms” involved unlocking the room in which the patients’ weekly chocolate supplies ( of which I had been ignorant ) was hoarded. Hundreds of chocolate bars mouldered here, some quite inedible, but what was consumable was loaded onto trolleys and dispensed liberally among the women, with rather indescribable results ! Her other unheard of practise was to invite me into the office at report time, so I knew what was happening to the patients and to give me free rein to look through the case notes. Here are a few examples of the women of ward 24 , who will be long past their torments now, and whose real names, I have of course, changed. Milldrid P, the drab, elderly woman who sat on the “gallery” all day, staring into space, had been admitted to the hospital forty years ago. She had murdered her two children with a hatchet. She was diagnosed as suffering from “dementia praecox” which was the terminology for schizophrenia in bygone days (though it was probably puerperal psychosis) and had been certified insane and sent to Broadmoor Hospital. She had spent many years there before finally considered safe enough to be “rehabilitated” in the supposedly more humane surroundings of a lunatic asylum – though the notes still advised that “no less than six persons should enter her room if she became violent and confinement was necessary.” A tiny passport size photograph showed a glazed eyed, pretty young woman staring out at the world with hopelessness and terror, finally considered safe enough to be “rehabilitated” in the supposedly more humane surroundings of a lunatic asylum–though the notes still advised that “no less than six persons should enter her room if she became violent and confinement was necessary.” A tiny passport size photograph showed a glazed eyed,pretty young woman staring out at the world with with hopelessness and terror. Margery W, thought she was a teapot. She was completely blind but otherwise physically well; nevertheless, she spent her days bedridden. Fortunately for Margery her imaginary world was still so colourful that the real one did not trouble her. “I was born on the steps of Gilkerry Cathedral ten hundred and fifty years ago,” she would address her invisible audience. “What my mother was doing in Gilkerry Cathedral at the time, I really don’t know. There’s a teapot in my back, it wants pouring out please.”
They said her wedding night had sent Dora K insane. Her husband’s demands upon her – which she had been totally unprepared for and ignorant of – had been such a shock she had had an instant “nervous breakdown.” She had lain in bed ever since, doubly incontinent, shouting obscenities: “You’re a bloody f–ing liar, Sam Smedley. You should be sterilised!” An unprintable expletive would always follow, of which I had never heard the like ” Take that f–ing thing away from me, take it away !” Again, the expletive! And this lady had been a pillar of the Church. Apparently, according to Sister A’s rule of thumb, pillars of the Church were always the worst! If Dora was up and dressed, as she had been in the past, she spent the whole of her time ripping her clothes to shreds until she was quite naked. That was why she was now kept in bed. Sister A seemed to think it a huge joke to poke Dora in the ribs whenever the vicar visited the ward, and set the poor woman off on a torrent of unrepeatable abuse.
I began to wonder who was mad, the patients or their keepers. Then there was poor Maria. Maria had been a French mistress in some posh boarding school but had been struck down by what we now call Alzheimer’s Disease. She was only in her fifties and sadly demented. “Senile decay,” Sister A, who must have been in her seventies, informed me. I tried to communicate with poor, bewildered Maria as she wandered round the ward in a daze, trying out on her my few French phrases, at which her eyes would light up and she would become quite voluble in the foreign tongue , but alas, my French could not compare with hers and we would both end up frustrated and none the wiser. Clarissa W had a condition known as Echo Lallia which meant that she repeated everything she heard in a kind of “Rhyming slang.” ” I am,I am,a yam,a yam,a yam!” quoth Clarissa. “I’m feeling very tender, wender, sender, fetch me teeth, a weeth, a neeth !” Jemima Briggs,known as “Jimmy” was a victim of General Paralysis of the Insane. This terrifying-sounding condition was the end result of Syphilis, diagnosed by the Wasserman test, which all patients had on admission. How Jimmy had acquired her unfortunate ailment, her case notes did not specify although she was described as an “invert”. I did not really understand the terminology, for no one had emerged from the closet in the early sixties and I knew nothing of homosexuality, male or female. I assumed that Jimmy had got her unmentionable affliction the “normal way” and happily for Jimmy, her symptoms caused her no problems. In fact, they seemed almost a bonus to her life ! She was convinced that she was Queen Victoria, (delusions of grandeur) and that she was a millionaires (she wrote cheques of toilet paper for millions of pounds) and told everyone that Liberace was dedicating all his songs to her through the ward television and radio and wanted to marry her. Provided that she was well supplied with baccy, she was perfectly content. Freda B was a sad case. She had been born in the asylum, her parents still being inmates of different wards. She was an imbecile ( as in aisle ) according to Sister A, but whether this was due to her environment or her genes was impossible to say at this stage in her life. A small, grey haired, unobtrusive woman, shuffling through her daily tasks, a textbook example of institutionalisation. Florry D was another matter altogether. She had ended up on Ward 24 through a series of misfortunes. The first was due to her suffering from puerperal psychosis after the birth of her son in her late forties. She had tried to kill him and had been admitted to the psychiatric hospital as a result. Although she had not been charged with attempted murder, she had been forced to undergo electro convulsive therapy on a court order. She had never made a proper recovery from this trauma, with repeated depressions and ECT treatment continuing over the years, until she finally fell and fractured both her hips. Now, disabled and chronically depressed, she was a permanent fixture on Ward 24, and , like most of the patients, disowned by her family. Then there was “Arnty”, who, at some point, had been mysteriously elevated to honorary membership of Sister B’s family — (Sister A had no time for such whimsical affectations, and used Arnty’s real name, whatever that was–I forget now). But Arnty, who lived in a “cage” was one of Sister A’s favourites.
She would spend hours fussing and chatting to her and stuffing her full of mashed potatoes and pobs (the end results of which I would be left to clear up!). Then she would say sweetly, “I think Arnty’s looking a little worried, Nurse Barbara, dear– she might be needing a little ole b.o. – is that what you want, Arnty, dear. Run and fetch the commode, Barbara, dear .” She always referred to patients’ bowel functions in this quaint, coy way, her rule of thumb regarding the patients’ well being based on whether or not they had had a “wonderful b.o.” or not recently. Arnty would glower at Sister B in dazed bewilderment – or was it hatred (she never spoke) as she was swung out of bed by her armpits and dumped on the commode. She had the most spectacular bedsores I have ever seen, before or since, huge craters in her back which must have caused her excruciating pain.
Sister B would proceed to tie a huge brightly coloured satin bow in Arnty’s thin, grey hair and say gaily,” Aint we just a bobby dazzler, now, Arnty ? My my, we’ll have all the young men running after you when you go to the ball tonight ! She’ll be the belle of the ball, won’t she, Nurse Barbara dear !” And Arnty would glower even more fiercely, murder, no doubt, in her poor old heart. Another inmate of Ward 24, Lotte, had been a famous opera singer but had been binned after getting pregnant. What became of her illegitimate child no one knew – it was not an uncommon situation fifty years ago. .Lotte could still sing beautifully, and would join in with any music – even pop music – which came on the ward television, even though she was totally demented. A real tragedy was Moira K who had Huntingdon’s Chorea. I remember how shocked I had been when I first set eyes on this unfortunate woman on my first day on Ward 24, roaming round her “cage”, jerking, slavering and grimacing.
I had been given a bowl of pobs and told to feed her, which had almost finished my nursing career before it started. Moira was one of the few patients to be visited by her family. They would sit around her bed, her sons and daughters with their children, no doubt wondering which of them was doomed to end up like the creature in the cage, writhing, demented, incontinent. Huntingdon’s Chorea is a hereditary disease, not manifesting itself until middle age, when many people will already have had their families. And there were so many more tragedies recorded within those buff coloured files which made my heart bleed, despite my ignorance and immaturity. There were mothers and daughters, wives and spinsters, who, by some mischance of fate or fortune, had ended up among the motley inmates of a psychiatric ward. There were women of high intelligence, talent and grace, teachers and dancers, war heroines and courtesans, women whose beauty, wit and initiative had once been applauded and feted. Where were they now, those bright ,laughing women who had once existed within the shells of these shapeless ghostly beings who moved like automatons through their endless, pointless days, their brains fried to nothing by ECT, their spirits broken by the heartless, thoughtless regimes of the likes of Sisters A and B? Minnie W was, to some extent, an exception to the general trend of tragically wasted lives on Rose Gardens. This lady, who occupied a complete corner of the ward, was a “special case ” according to my reliable informant, Annie Malloy. That Minnie received special treatment there was no doubt. This consisted of being waited on hand and foot by whatever nurse was around, regardless of what the nurse happened to be doing at the time, (Minnie regarded us as lady’s maids) – and having all her whims and fancies pandered to unless we wished to incur the wrath of Sisters A and B. I wondered why Minnie was a patient for she didn’t seem to display any signs of dementia, though her case notes said that she had been admitted with “involutional melancholia” fifteen years previously. This was the old fashioned, and rather romantic term for depression. She had had ECT treatment, after which she had been abandoned by her son, her only relative, who never visited her. I wondered what terrible thing could have occurred to make a child condemn it’s mother to a living death on an asylum ward. Minnie was certainly a very bitter and unendearing character, despite the high esteem in which she was held by both sisters.
Their inexplicable and nauseating devotion, unfortunately, had the effect of turning Minnie into a thoroughly nasty person, whose sole aim in life was to spy on the nurses and play each shift off against the other – though neither of the sisters could see this. Minnie also considered herself far superior to the rest of the patients, who weren’t supposed to go anywhere near her “corner”, though of course it was impossible to stop them, at which Minnie would shriek hysterically, “Go away, shoo, scat you horrid old woman !!!!!!!” It was Minnie’s misfortune, perhaps, that she should be struck down with pneumonia in the absence of her two guardian angels. Both stand in staff nurses thoroughly detested the ward favourite because of her vindictive troublemaking but I can only regret, looking back now with more enlightened and sympathetic eyes, that none of us took the opportunity to delve deeper into the personality of this sad, unpopular woman. She was undoubtedly a difficult and selfish person, or her son would not have abandoned her, but being encouraged in her vices by Sisters A and B did her no favours at all. Surely, deeply buried within her, as with all humanity, we hope, there was some divine spark which could have been fanned into a glow of light instead of festering into a poisonous growth. Minnie succumbed to her illness within two days. I knew that she had been written up for Crystapen by the indispensable Doctor M, but if the staff nurses were adhering to the doctor’s instructions, the penicillin was having little effect. (Dr M never thought to monitor his medications – it was Crystapen or nothing with him!) You could hear Minnie’s rattling chest as soon as you opened the ward door it was like a road drill! She lay behind her “special screens”, all her pillows taken out but one, gasping for breath through navy blue lips, ( but no oxygen was brought onto the ward to aid her breathing), pleating and picking at the bedsheets until she finally expired, alone and unlamented.
The shroud was hastily whipped from the back trolley and, contrary to hospital policy, she was laid out and whizzed off to the mortuary well before the prescribed hour allowed for the soul to depart from the body. Nobody deserved such an end and I wish now it had occurred to me to spare the unhappy woman a word of comfort. When the two sisters returned to their duties from their respective breaks there was consternation at the sight of the empty bed in the corner. “Where’s Minnie ?” demanded Sister B, the first to arrive at the scene of the crime. “She died,” I said apologetically. “Died !” repeated the Good Mother, peering at me quizzically over her specs.. “Don’t be silly, Nurse Barbara, dear ? She was perfectly well when I left the ward. How can she have died ?” I explained, making sure Dr M was made to sound the villain of the piece, whereupon Sister B dashed off to her office where I could see her through the glass door, making agitated phone calls. I could not prevent myself from giggling at the Good Mother’s consternation. It was even funnier when Sister A arrived for the afternoon shift and was acquainted with the shocking news. “Dead! Did you say dead ? She can’t be !” she expostulated, rushing over to Minnie’s corner as though she expected to find the pampered favourite hiding beneath the bed. I don’t think either of them either got over it, but from then onwards the ward was a marginally pleasanter place to be. Before I left Ward 24 to start the Preliminary Training School, a minor revolution took place. Some do-gooding busybodies who didn’t know owt about mental patients had coerced the Matron into employing an occupational therapist at the hospital. They had quoted some airy fairy new legislation which made it impossible for Matron to refuse employing such a waste of public money, but because Matron’s hand had been forced ,her wrath fell upon the innocent applicant to the post. As Ward 24 was the place to which all who had offended Matron were sent ( intentionally or unintentionally–I never did discover my particular fault, though it was probably my long flowing tresses of which I was rather vain) the hapless therapist was sent to join the rest of the poor souls out in the Styx. Matron, however, had sadly misjudged Miss V, as she was called. Miss V may have looked like a pushover who would soon be handing in her notice, but she was, in fact, made of sterner stuff ! Miss V soon became a major thorn in the side (excuse the pun) of ward 24 senior staff.
The new therapist was a trained artist, and her first task was to supply the gallery patients with drawing books and crayons and encourage them to put their feelings down on paper. Some of the women were, of course, were far too demented to make anything of this, but Florry D soon became Miss V’s star attractions, with her amazing, psychedelic patterns which showed real talent as well as an interesting insight into the patient’s mind. All well and good, as having the patients thus occupied made them less of a nuisance to the rest of the ward, but then Miss V really started getting above her station and asking for silly things, like spectacles and teeth. She was quite insistent about the spectacles, as, after all, how could the patients do their therapy if they couldn’t see ? She also refused to take the patients to the toilet. That was the nurses job, not hers, and this annoyed both sisters vastly as they had both decided that Miss V would be useful in that capacity. Then Miss V really put the cat among the pigeons when she requested to read the patients’ case notes. Both sisters flatly refused ,whereupon Miss V worked on Doctor M, and somehow wangled him into supporting her petition, after which Miss V was able to obtain her wish, to the great chagrin and fury of Sisters A and B. Miss V then proceeded to write progress notes on her pupils, which she later developed into a thesis, which she presented to the chief psychiatrist of the hospital, – which, not too surprisingly, simply resulted in getting her the sack, as it was highly critical of the entire establishment ,including the ward sisters, matron and Dr. M. Miss V was years before her time in her efforts to help the institutionalised and forgotten women of Ward 24. Not only did she bring colour and hope into their dreary lives, she went so far as to seek out lost relatives ,even succeeding in reuniting Florry D with her son, and Maria the French mistress with her brother ,before she was sent, cards in hand , “down the drive.” Preliminary Training School lasted three months. We had to attend classes Monday to Friday, nine till five pm. During that time we were introduced to the theory of nursing and psychiatry. We worked on a ward all day Saturday and had Sunday off. We had two tutors, one senior and one junior, both men. The senior tutor , who was reputed to have a “brilliant brain” and a failed university career behind him, stayed in his office all day, apart from emerging at 10 a.m. to crack obscure jokes which no one understood and read an article – anything would do – -from the Nursing Times, while the junior tutor, a retired nurse – did most of the teaching, most of which seemed quite irrelevant to our work on the wards.
What practical skills we were taught were simply scoffed at in the “real world” the hospital wards. Students getting above their station again! And we were all very quickly taken down several pegs every time the slightest attempt was made to put theory into practise. The senior tutor nodded his black, greasy head sympathetically, winked at us and tut tutted with theatrical sighs when we complained, then quoted some amusing epigram of his hero, Oscar Wilde but said there was absolutely nothing he could do, the wards were nothing to do with him. He certainly couldn’t interfere! And there the matter rested. The one thing I found incredibly interesting while in training school, was the history of the hospital. Our eccentric and inept head of training was in the process of writing a book about it, which was probably the reason he spent so long in his office. However, when he talked to us about the hospital’s past, he displayed some of his reputed brilliance and academic ability. The asylum came into existence in the nineteenth century as a result of the County Asylums Act of 1808. Several other asylums were built in Yorkshire, and throughout the country during Victorian times when many famous doctors and philanthropists were trying to establish more humane means of treating the insane .Although originally designed to accommodate around 700 patients, the hospital increased in size over the years, new buildings being added to the original gothic block, the present population being around two thousand inmates, divided into strictly segregated (supposedly ) male and female sides resulting in severely overcrowded wards.
In recent years the forbidding ten foot wall and iron barred gates surrounding the hospital had been dismantled, and from the roadside the asylum looked like something out of a fairy tale, its ornate towers and extensive gardens set amid pleasant woodland, with its own cricket field, tennis courts, market gardens ( which grew vast beds of glorious red and yellow tulips in the summer )and farm buildings, though the farm was no longer run by the patients. The name of the asylum had also been changed to hospital, though it was still referred to as the ‘sylum or bin by patients, staff and locals, and the nurses had only recently graduated from being called ‘ sylum ‘ tendants. The senior tutor loved to describe the gruesome treatments used on the patients in the early days. He was diagnosed by my fellow students as a sadist, because he dwelled so much on the gory bits ,his little black button eyes gleaming wickedly , his tongue lasciviously licking his lips as he sniggered and smirked and wrung his hands while he described bleeding and purging, cold baths, straight jackets – how he loved his straight jackets, – muzzles, restraints, padded cells and so on. The present treatments were still pretty barbaric. Deep insulin coma was still used, which put people to sleep, a hair breadth away from death, for several days until they came to their senses, or otherwise. Electro convulsive therapy, shooting electric shocks through people’s brains, presumably worked on the same principle, and doping the rest with the major tranquillisers, Largactyl and Sparine, which had arrived on the scene in the nineteen fifties–the new wonder drugs of psychiatry. Other than that, there was little progress that I could see, though I was not really qualified enough, in my lowly role, to have an opinion, but if Ward 24 had been anything to go by………… Another aspect of his research which the senior tutor loved to ruminate over endlessly, were the strange causes of insanity as recorded in the old admission registers. “Thwarted in love” was his favourite, followed by ” masturbation.” Other entries which tickled his fancy were “consorting with men” “dissipation” “violent fit of passion” “venereal disease” “reading plays and novels” “overheated in a hayfield”( great squeals of laughter here) “selling beer without a licence ” to quote only a few . Some of the entries actually spoke of demonic possession and witchcraft and religion mania and visions which were probably schizophrenia or manic depressive psychosis, the conditions we were learning about in school.
I was sent to work on the womens’ admission ward on Saturdays as part of my practical experience. I wondered whether there would be patients there displaying the same bizarre diagnoses as we had heard about in the old ledgers, but they all seemed to be suffering from depression and I was soon wondering whether I had gone out of the frying pan of Ward 24 into the fire of Escroft clinic, as the admission ward was called. The ward sister on my shift–Sister C–was a proper little madam. She was only twenty two, but had been elevated to the ranks of sisterhood with amazing speed, though being related to the Matron might just have helped her rapid rise to power. Sister C strutted round her little kingdom being rude to and making jokes about the poor depressed women –she called them all “damn fools”– , and to those members of staff she took a dislike to, which included me. She was very pretty, it had to be admitted, a cross between Dusty Springfield and Princess Diana, with her bleached, blond hair backcombed into a lacquered page boy bob, or bouffonned up into a neat “French pleat .” Carefully placed on top of her meringued hair ,like a lace tiara ,was her coveted sister’s cap while her baby blue eyes were encircled with black eyeliner and sooty mascara, her pert little nose was always stuck in the air and her pouting lips usually painted sugary pink. With her blue dress displaying more leg than was regulation, for it was the era of mini skirts, she resembled, I thought cattily, a French maid more than a ward sister, but ward sisters at the ‘sylum,I was discovering, were not to be confused with Florence Nightingale role models.
Sister C possessed great charm which she used on those people she wished to impress, which included all the doctors, certain fawning nurses who told her she was beautiful and the private patients, of whom there were a small handful, and who had private rooms away from the rest of the rabble. She was forever boasting about the dozens of rich and famous boyfriends she had and their great swanky cars. Rumour even had it that royalty had sought her hand–but as she “lived out” and not in the Nurses’ Residence, no one ever saw any of these dashing hunks with their bulging wallets and enormous vehicles. It did make me wonder a little, why such a paragon as Sister C was burying her talents in a backwater asylum. Why hadn’t she gone to be a “proper” nurse in a general hospital where they would have been sure to appreciate her many assets, or why hadn’t she married one of her wealthy suitors, so she didn’t have to work at all ? (She did ultimately marry one of them, and, in her usual style, got herself pictured preening and posing plastered over the tabloid newspapers.) Fortunately I left Escroft clinic and its sister from hell before I became as depressed as the residents and ended up being herded into the ECT room along with the rest of them.
You had to be careful around the admission wards–anything on two legs was likely to be pounced on and electroshocked. It was a cure for ought that ailed you, or so we were led to believe. My next experience was on the refractory ward 28, and I have to say that it was here that I got the best experiences of my short career in psychiatric nursing. The ward sister I was assigned to seemed quite normal, which was something of a shock after my stints on Ward 24 and Escroft Clinic. Sister D made me welcome and showed me round, and to the best of her powers, considering the conditions we had to work with, looked after the patients with care and compassion. For over eighty violent and unpredictable women there was one sister, one student and one assistant, and we were locked in with our charges for the shift. At any one time there would be women locked into the side rooms, which were no longer padded, but when a visiting VIPs, like Matron or the doctor, arrived on the ward their imminent arrival would be announced by one of the patient spies positioned at the gallery door, someone had to scuttle quickly round and unlock all the side room doors, as it was illegal. Perhaps my most unforgettable memory of Ward 28 is the sickly, pungent smell of paraldehyde, the dope of choice, with the truly violent. You had to draw it up in a huge glass syringe, as it disintegrated the new plastic ones on contact, so goodness knows what it did to the human body —and ram a massive blunt needle onto the end, after which you would all advance upon the offender and pin her to the ground, hopefully before the effects of the last dose had worn off, or you were likely to be in dire straights. Some of the women’s buttocks were so callused by this treatment it was almost impossible to find a space into which to stick the needle!
The nurses at the hospital were always talking about patients going “off it” at the time of the full moon and it is true to say that there seemed to be more howling and fighting on Ward 28 on these occasions. But I was fortunate in my fellow workers, for besides the nice Sister D, I was looked after by Nursing Assistant L . She had taken the job while waiting to get married, her fiancée being away in the navy, and was living in the Nurses’ Residence. Despite the fact that she was an engaged woman, I am sure , looking back ,that she was a lesbian, though neither of us realised it at the time! Nurse L was very masculine looking, with cropped hair and great, clomping brogues, and smoked forty full strength a day but she was an excellent nurse, and showed me how to handle the volatile, violent wildwomen we had in our charge, so I hardly noticed, or gave any thought to her unfeminine mannerisms .The women loved her, and I shall always be grateful to her. ( She married her sailor and they settled down and had children, whether she ever “came out” I don’t know.) Some of the patients I remember well, especially Carmel C, who was diagnosed as a “dangerous psychopath,” and spent most of her time locked in a side room pumped full of paraldehyde. (This hopeless case miraculously stopped being a psychopath many years after I had left the hospital, was discharged, found herself a nice husband and became a model wife and mother !)
There was Anita M, a saucy looking young woman in a too tight skirt and too much makeup, lounging by the heavily guarded padlocked fireplace, tapping everyone up for cigarettes, shouting obscene threats at whoever was nearest, and provoking frequent rows and fights . “She’s on a thousand milligrams of Largactyl a day and you still can’t floor her , ” Nurse L explained. “She’s paranoid schitz — and grossly hallucinated . She’ll try to escape from the ward any way possible, You have to watch her like a hawk. Last week she tied bed sheets together and got out of one of the windows. Every time she escapes she goes with every man in sight, ends up pregnant and has to be aborted, unofficially of course. They’re trying to get her sterilised but the do- gooders are interfering, say its against human rights, I ask you !” Consorting with men, I thought to myself, and dissipation ! She pointed out a white faced young women, with beautiful, pre Raphaelite hair wound up into complicated loops with lots of tiny bows scattered among the rich, russet curls, sitting silently alone, like a marble statue, as far away from the other patients as was possible in such a crowded place . Her name was Beth H, and she had drowned her baby by putting it in a sack and throwing it into the river.
They had been unable to electroshock her out of her deep, impenetrable trance on Escroft Ward, where she had been admitted after she had murdered her baby, so they had sent her onto Ward 28l .While a patient on Escroft she had, I was delighted to hear, attacked the unspeakable Sister C, who had made fun of her, saying she didn’t know how such a fine, delicate LADY had got pregnant in the first place, presumably it was by remote control! The story was that Beth had been seduced by a family friend, who had then disowned her and gone back to his wife. Beth, a shy only child who had led a very sheltered life ,had been unable to cope with the betrayal, and had suffered a complete mental breakdown as a result , a classic example, I realised, of the Victorian diagnosis ” thwarted in love.” Other women fitted into some of the other bizarre classifications our senior tutor had entertained us with . We had Freda W, who had religious mania, and was forever having cosy chats with Jesus, St Francis, and St Helena, whoever she was ! A young girl, Janice B, had gone insane after dabbling with a ouija board, and thought she was the victim of demonic possession, which caused her to foam and fit in the most terrifying manner, and there was old Ellen M , brain damaged through alcoholism, who claimed to be a victim of syphilis, given to her by Dr B, the chief psychiatrist at the hospital, which was very embarrassing when this dignified, elderly gentleman did his ward rounds. Ellen would screech, “Its him, him there, that Doctor B, he’s given me SYPHILIS !!!!” Terribly sad was Anna D, whose brain had been operated on–and been irrevocably damaged– when the asylum did pre frontal leucotomies back in the nineteen forties. This butchery was supposed to remove the violent urges from the frontal lobes of the brain, turning the patient from a dangerous lunatic into a calm and reasonable person. It certainly did that! Anna was a walking vegetable. These weeks when I was involved in the hard, fascinating and sometimes scary work on Ward 28, under the sane, safe wing of Nurse L and Sister D, were good for me in other ways. Many of the nurses who lived in liked to go out drinking and dancing, but I didn’t care for this, being unused to socialising. The foreign girls usually kept their own company. Nurse L, however, had her “mates” up on the male side, and used to go onto the wards there to play billiards, a game at which she excelled.
Her great crony was a male nurse nicknamed Gwendoline (don’t ask me why!) an Irishman with wild red curly hair, the gift of the gab, and a terrible reputation for chasing the female nurses. Nurse L, being glaringly obviously butch to all who saw her, though seemingly oblivious herself to her sexual orientation, was safe from Gwendoline’s advances,(she was also an engaged woman !) and fortunately Gwendoline must have found me too slow on the uptake to pursue and I was hopeless at billiards, and didn’t like his peculiar Irish jokes or his red hair very much , so we all got on fine! Nurse L and I never got caught on our nightly excursions to the forbidden realm, for my intrepid friend had discovered the trick of unlocking the great doors which were supposed to keep the mad and the sane and the men and women apart! You wrapped the key in cellotape! How she came upon this discovery, and how it worked, is lost to history, but I think it is safe to let the secret out now! I never finished my psychiatric training, mainly due to the fact that Matron put me back on Ward 24 again, for what crime I never knew. In those days you didn’t complain, or ask why, or rush off to the union. You stuck it until you cracked, and then you went, “down the drive” with the rest of the failures. I made up for this early defeat in later years, gaining my general, midwifery and district nurse qualifications, but I’ll never forget the “sylum in the sixties!” Barbara All content copyright protected.