Oxford, 22 July 2013
No doubt a lot has changed since I was on night duty in the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital Paddington. This is where the new royal baby has been born and where Princes William and Harry were born.
On my 19th birthday, a very distinguished, fragile old lady gave me a five pound note. She was sitting up in her bed in the Lindo Wing, the private patient’s ward of my hospital, St. Mary’s Paddington. As a student nurse I was on night duty there performing humble duties – personal care, shall we say. Humble duties is where a nurse really gets to know her patients and it was the most satisfying part of my training. As soon as you rise to the glory of a Staff nurse or Sister, there’s too much to do in the way of admin, supervision and responsibility. Let alone keeping the doctors happy.
Back in the ‘fifties a large part of a junior nurse’s time was spent cleaning: beds, lockers, bowls and beakers, the sluice, and sterilising instruments ad nauseam. Practically nothing was thrown away; things were cleaned and re-used. Even our uniforms, a complication of cap, “strings” (a strip of cotton pleated to resemble the tie of the cap, but actually worn underneath it), belt, apron and dress were laundered weekly, with only the apron being frequently changed.
I never worked on the Lindo Wing during the day; I suppose mainly qualified nurses and maids did the day shifts. We did ten nights on and four off, usually for three months. I’m sure most of us who did “nights” are now insomniacs. Even resorting to sleeping pills didn’t help on your four nights off. (I wonder if BH – my Better Half – would have done better? He can sleep anywhere for however short or long a time, just like Churchill – and Mrs. T. they say.)
Anyway, there was I attending to this aged, delicate figurine in the bed and I told her by way of chit-chat that it was my birthday the next day. When I took in her breakfast tray the next morning she gave me this fiver and wished me a very happy birthday! Blushing to the roots, and protesting that I was sure I could not accept such a huge present, she folded my hand over the note and said: “Nonsense Nurse, you get something for yourself you would really like.”
Gob-smacked of course, I could hardly thank her enough. Five pounds then was the equivalent a staggering £150 nowadays. (I find that hard to believe but am assured by an ex-banker that it is so.) To me it was about half a month’s salary. The benefactor’s name was n. Sassoon, and her relationship to Siegfried I cannot now remember, but I can see her face in my mind’s eye, and I can visualise that fiver: it had black printing on white paper and was much bigger than the ten shilling or one pound notes.
I intended to put it in my savings account, honest I did – for about ten minutes. (I most certainly didn’t tell Sister, she’d have made me give it up. Fruit and chocs were allowable as gifts, but cash was frowned on.) The fiver didn’t last long. What did I spend it on? Gin and cigarettes, repaying a myriad of small loans, treating a few chums to Knickerbocker Glories; cinema tickets and shoes probably.
Everything in the Lindo Wing was quiet and “genteel.” This is true: I was sent to work there a) because Matron didn’t think I was suitable for the VD ward, and b) because I spoke the Queen’s English. But by golly it was boring. I think I was responsible for no more than three patients at night, a far cry from about thirty on a general ward. Unless one of the three rang the bell, I never saw them. They had chosen the privacy of a private room so we Juniors could hardly go in and say shall we chat?
From bed-time till breakfast I sat in the kitchen reading leftover newspapers and writing letters and appalling poetry. The senior nurses (as was their right) sat in the Staff Room. Early teas were a blessed relief, after which there were breakfast trays to be laid with proper linen and flowery china, to be distributed with smiles. Then report to the Night Sister and go off duty, hurray. The patients were rich and mostly famous and perfectly nice I’m sure, but we never got a chance to know them. I don’t think they even knew my name.
I’m sure the Duke and Duchess will find the Lindo Wing very changed. Apart from anything else Kate, as we all call her despite her formal Royal status, will only be there for a day or two, God willing. Attitudes to staff, be they humble student nurses or the sainted doctor, have completely altered, and a good thing too.
May the Bad Fairy stay well away from this new family, and God’s blessings shower upon the three of them.