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CADET NURSING TALES - 1947-1952

The following pieces, recounted byJeanne Hopkins on behalf of a group of former CRCMH nurses (of which she is a part), have been written especially for The Shrine. Collectively, they provide a unique and at times highly amusing insight into what life as a young nurse was like some fifty years ago.


CRCMH Cadets at Bray (centre: J.Hopkins)

Jeanne was a Cadet nurse/Student nurse/SRN at the CRCMH between 1948 and 1952. She lives in Wales with her husband Kit, and is a member of The Society of Women Writers and Journalists.

The Tender Trap

The sixteen year olds enrolling for the pre-nursing course at CRCMH came from all over Britain. These idealistic schoolgirls, many of whom had been juniors in Red Cross & St. Johns' Ambulance Brigades, soon realised their dreams of wearing a proper nurse's uniform. They were issued lavender blue cotton dresses, white aprons and caps, topped with short grey capes, the only disappointment being brown shoes and stockings not sexy black. With severe post war shortages in mind Matron Baughan had decided ladders and holes in brown stockings would draw less attention to young legs than in 'St.Trinians' black.

Cadet Nurses were housed on wards 12 and 13 in curtained cubicles (with no curtains on windows) and were allowed a full cooked breakfast in bed on their one whole day off a week. Cadets worked 8am/4pm or 12noon/8pm solely on the children's wards. Most of the children were long stay patients in the Rheumatology Unit; one sympathetic ward sister allowed pillow fights among the more mobile children encouraging her Cadet Nurses to join in.

Tales of The River Bank

Hospital life for the 'dormitory' Cadets was similar to that of a good boarding school for girls. They were tutored in maths and English. A small library of books, a sewing machine, a piano and radio were available in the community room, also a stage for dramatics. There were tennis courts and a hockey team.

The popular punt moored on the Thames was given by Lady Astor, and picnic teas could be ordered from the canteen. Swimming was a mud lark in the river. New swimming suits were unobtainable so, for some, the choices were skinny dipping or bra and knickers. Muddy knickers were boiled clean in the dormitory milk saucepan - until the saucepan burnt dry. Matron didn't like the smell of burning cotton and elastic and the saucepan wasn't replaced.

Screaming became routine when a well handled dead grass snake, from Cliveden woods, was found coiled in beds, stockings and toilet bags. A Cadet Nurse exploring a hole in the river bank emerged with a badger trap embedded in her dress. It was safely removed by 'Sparks' the hospital electrician.

Halloween saw several girls covered with sheets hiding in the Doctors quarters (strictly out of bounds) waiting for their return from the 'Feathers' pub. Luckily, they could run faster than the Doctors.

Trained by excellent Senior Nursing Staff, the Cadets took their ward duties seriously. At eighteen they were proud to become Student Nurses at the CRCMH - or other general hospitals.

Junior Night Nurses Tale

(Not for the squeee-mish)

The Grand Corridor during daylight hours was alive with the comings and goings of hospital life. However, after midnight this dimly lit corridor became eerily unwelcoming.

Imagine a solitary young nurse scurrying along to the silent dining room for dinner at 2am - shivering in her thin cotton uniform. Not surprising, most nurses stayed on the comparatively cosy wards all night. Snacking in ward kitchens on stale bread spread with margarine and a mushy "suspiciously red” jam full of wooden pips (How else could there be fruit pips without fruit?). 1949/50 were still austerity years and hospital jam arrived in big tins starkly labelled JAM - probably made from swedes, apples, and a strong red dye.

When a death occurred on the wards at night, it was the junior nurse who escorted the mortuary trolley to the isolated morgue. CRCMH student nurses were tutored in giving 'Last Offices.' In addition, a respectful deference for the newly deceased was 'de rigueur.' After a doctor confirmed death, nurses gently bathed and prepared the body. The shrouded body departed for the morgue securely sewn up in a white sheet, with identification label attached. These winding sheets were sewn with white thread because the use of safety-pins on a corpse was thought disrespectful.

Draped with a black velvet cover, the heavy mortuary trolley was pushed by hospital porters to the north end of the Grand Corridor. And out into darkness with only a porter's flickering torch to light the way (batteries were in short supply too). The long, long gravel path leading to the morgue was hedged both sides with large evergreen shrubs - a particularly unpleasant walk on a rainy night and even creepier by moonlight. Reverent silence between nurse and porters was maintained until the trolley's precious burden was safely behind locked doors inside the dark little morgue.

Normality then returned - and the friendly teasing began. Out went the porter's torch. Owl hoots and ghostly shrieks followed a hastily retreating nurse. On oone occasion in 1950, a junior night nurse was grabbed, placed on the empty trolley, and propelled at speed down the infamous gravel path ( and she's still laughing about it in 2003).

Although tempted to run down the Grand Corridor to the wards, there was always a risk of bumping into Night Sister doing her rounds. Nurses ran only for fire and haemorrhage. Rules were strict. But at night on the Grand Corridor - after visiting the morgue - junior nurses Power Walked for England!


The Grey Night Sister

This is a true story. What happened remains in the memory of my nursing colleague Elizabeth as clearly as if it were yesterday and not 52 years ago.

In 1950, student nurses on night duty sat in the long wards under low hanging lamps shaded with green covers. There was just enough light to study or write a ward report. Incidentally, knitting was a forbidden luxury (T'was thought the clack of two knitting needles might disturb 30 patients, most of whom had taken sedatives).

The following happened on Ward 6 around 3am.

Elizabeth, then a student nurse and alone on the ward, looked up from her studying and saw a figure she took to be Night Sister standing just inside the ward's double doors. Expecting Sister to do a ward round, she hastily closed her book and went to greet her. By the time she reached the doors the figure had vanished. Elizabeth quickly checked out bathroom, kitchen and office. However, no one was there. A glance out into the shadowy, empty Grand Corridor revealed nothing.

Puzzled - and a little shaken - Elizabeth returned to the ward. It was then she remembered the 'Night Sister's' uniform. It had not been the CRCMH dark blue, but pale grey and ankle length with a shoulder cape instead of a full-length cloak. Moreover, the style of 'Night Sister's' starched white cap had seemed a little old-fashioned.

Later - on reflection - Elizabeth realised it was a uniform similar to those worn by nursing sisters during the 1914/1918 war.

The Cliveden War Cemetery was made for those who died in the hospital during the 1914-1918 war. It contains 42 burials of which two are nursing sisters. Elizabeth [Betty] and I will be revisiting the Cliveden Cemetery in spring 2003, having last seen it in 1949.

For more information click here.


Monk..ish Habits at the CRCMH 1949-52

Nashdom near Taplow, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens and built in 1908 for Prince and Princess Dolgorouki, became a Benedictine Abbey in 1926 and remained so until 1988.

Black-robed monks hurrying along corridors and disappearing into wards at all hours enhanced CRCMH daily life. These Benedictines from neighbouring Nashdom Abbey were popular with staff and patients and served the Hospital with gentle dedication. We younger nurses were rather shy and in awe of the black robed Benedictines - that is until the arrival of Peter the Australian.

Peter wore a black robe but he was a novice - a charming, fun loving young novice. One dark winters night he came with four of us, by bus, to the cinema in Slough. I cannot remember the film but who could forget sitting next to a monk in a cinema?

Peter invited two of us to Nashdom Abbey, where we were served afternoon tea in a large graceful sitting room by a shy monk who tried not to look at us. We were surprised to see on one wall a silhouette - feminine curves still visible through a coat of thick white paint. Our black robed host grinned and whispered it must be the late Princess Dolgorouki.

After tea, while the three of us explored the gardens, a bell tolled at regular intervals calling the monks to prayer. Peter stood with bowed head and quietly prayed. We looked away to hide our girlish embarrassment, trying not to giggle.

On that otherwise memorable afternoon I was still too young to appreciate Nashdom for itself. My interest in Sir Edward Lutyens' architecture and gardens came later. [Now don't I wish?] Peter did not finish his noviciate at Nashdom Abbey. He allegedly became a missionary. If he did, I am sure his mission churches would always have been full.

Dom Robert Petit-Pierre was an eccentric delight. He was invariably seen clutching bundles of papers and walking at speed along the 'Grand' corridor deep in thought - perhaps his mind was on higher things.

He became quite famous for dealing with the supernatural and once appeared on television. On the rare occasions he did speak to us, it was with sharp humour. He greatly admired the erudite Abbot of Nashdom, who had been appointed Abbot at the early age of 42.

Dom Augustine Morris OSB, Abbot of Nashdom 1948-1974 was a less frequent visitor at the hospital. We met for the first time when I was a senior student on night duty in charge of male surgical. He came onto the ward at night very late - when all the other patients were asleep - to visit his friend Aime Tschiffely, the famous equestrian explorer and author.

They would talk quietly for an hour or so. Then Father Abbot would come to the ward kitchen for a cup of tea and a chat before returning to Nashdom. He told me of his friend Aime's legendary 10,000-mile ride on horseback from Argentina to Washington DC in 1925. In addition, he lent me his own copy of 'Tschiffely's Ride'.

Aime Tschiffely, a modest teacher from Switzerland and feted by the American President in 1925, was one of the most famous patients we had at CRCMH. It is possible he died not long after leaving the hospital in 1952. You can still get his 'Tschiffely's Ride' from Amazon.

The Rev. Dom Augustine [91] died in January 1997 having joined the Benedictine Order at the age of 18. The Times published an obituary.

Webmaster's Note: Aime Tschiffely and Dom Robert Petit-Pierre will soon be appearing in our Celebrities section - and rightfully so.

 

Together for the first time in 53 years, CRCMH Nurses Jenny, Margaret, Betty and Jeanne raise glasses to toast the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital Shrine. Due to this website, there are now nine 1948/1952 nurses in touch - and the search goes on.


Eileen, Jenny, Betty, Margaret and Jeanne

(Cadet Nurses 1947/1949)
August 2002 - May 2003


Explore some images from this period


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