A friend of my mothers, Auntie D. we called her – and who we were all very fond of – was a nurse and had a friend who was Matron of a Shaftesbury Children’s Home in Bournemouth on the south coast and she suggested to me one day that I might consider the possibility of working there. The seed was sown – it would be a means of escape, escape from restrictions, escape from the rut I felt I was in – to be my own person. New horizons loomed, and I decided this is what I would do. And so I made the break and set off amid long faces and tears for the Victoria Cripples Home (V.C.H.) in Bournemouth on the 22nd of September of my 22nd year (1932).
I had given little thought as to what the work at the Home would entail – it would have been well had I done so and so avoided the shock that awaited me.
On arrival I was briefed as to my duties, which were to start the following morning, and given my uniform, a blue and white striped dress that had evidently been worn by someone who was definitely not my size! And a white cap which had to be ‘made up’ from a large square of material. The Home catered for boys and girls from babies to ten year olds, all physically handicapped. I was to work in the boys’ house with 23 boys. The middle aged woman in charge of this house was well regarded because of her ability to maintain discipline and run an orderly house. This reputation I found she earned by her harsh and iron rule, applied to both children and staff.
Our day started early – on duty by six o’clock to get the boys up, washed and dressed and taken over to the dining room for breakfast, after which they were taken outside to the toilets and then to the school which was in the grounds. Having deposited them there we did housework. We had to make all the beds – mattresses turned once a week – before breakfast – besides doing cleaning – no modern day helps with that – and washing by hand the boys’ socks and vests. The cleaning was hard physical work and my duty included scrubbing a large washroom floor. Our work was inspected and I was told off for omitting to scrub the step!
At ten o’clock we had a break when we went to the dining room and were given cocoa and large slices of bread and dripping! Our uniforms included detachable long sleeves which off-duty had to be worn, including break times. One day one of the girls could only find one sleeve and in her hurry to get to the break, came without it, whereupon she was promptly sent back to find it, and that day missed her cocoa and bread and dripping! With all the hard work we used to get very hungry and to miss break was a disaster so we all felt very sorry for her.
After break which lasted 10 minutes it was back to more housework and then to collect the children and take them to dinner. We then had our mid-day meal attended by matron and her assistant and served by one of the senior ‘nurses’. (We were, most inappropriately, given the title of ‘nurse’). I had always hated milk puddings. My mother had always made me eat them, but of late I had avoided them like the plague. So now I politely asked, when my turn came, not to be served any. The server looked shocked and turned to Matron who said sternly “But nurse you eat what you are given”, and so I perforce did! So I learned to keep the rules. Maybe if I had mislaid my sleeves I would have missed my dinner!
Then it was getting the children to school and back for more housework for two hours until we again collected the children. Sometimes we had to take them for a walk, just marching them in an orderly line around the streets. Some of them made very slow progress because of their disabilities, and as the winter came we all got very cold. After tea we took the boys to the ‘playroom’. The poor mites didn’t know how to play. There were no toys – just a big ugly bare room. They were so repressed – their meal times had to be silent, and they had to do something with their energy and all they knew to do was rampage about, yell and fight. They were quite uncontrollable.
Then it was getting them to bed. Twice a week we bathed them and the other days we took them out six at a time to strip-wash. There were two of us to look after these 23 boys and when one of us was off duty we had to follow this procedure alone. This was a nightmare! While supervising the six in the washroom, the rest would run amok. On one occasion when I was coping alone Matron unexpectedly walked in on this bedlam and exclaimed “But nurse, what is going on?” The boys were scared of her and stopped in their tracks, open-mouthed. We were not supposed to be disorderly or noisy – and if she could instantly get order why could not I?
We had two hours off duty each day if we were lucky enough to get off in time – it was a long day and by this time we were so tired that sometimes we were glad just to creep into bed. There was a staff room, but no one seemed to have time to relax in it.
I discovered that the ‘nurses’ seldom stayed very long so there were constant staff changes. After a while I was given a new room-mate, Betty Haliday whose home was in Bournemouth where her father had been mayor. She had come after me and too was appalled at the situation. She had a lovely sense of humour which helped us get through the days as we commiserated with each other at the end of the day and we became great friends, a friendship which lasted for many years. She introduced me to her parents and I was welcome in their home. It was bliss when off-duty I would sometimes go and visit them just to relax in an easy chair and enjoy home comforts. Unfortunately Betty worked in the girls’ house so didn’t see her much during the day. In writing to her mother she once said “Eve and I are so desperately tired when we get to bed, too tired even to say our prayers, so one night I say ‘Thank-you God for our bed’ and Eve says ‘Amen’, and the next night she says it and I say ‘Amen’. Yes, her sense of humour certainly helped.
On each Sunday we had to take a group of the boys to church marching them there in crocodile lines. It was not exactly a happy occasion – we were always worrying in case they misbehaved or caused some kind of disturbance but they never did. It could not have been a happy experience for them either. I am sure they had no idea what it was all about – what did they know of love, God’s or the human kind either. Their physical needs were catered for adequately, but they were hardly treated as human beings. We were actually told never to get too close to them and, indeed, we never had the chance to do so. We were so harassed and rushed we never had time to talk to them individually or to show them any love or affection – one would hardly treat a herd of animals such. They certainly never knew what normal childhood was. I feel sad now as I think of them, and wonder what happened to them. It would not be surprising if they grew up, sub-normal, full of hate and resentment, or turned to crime to compensate.
The Home was well thought of in the town and when visitors came, as they did, they saw nothing wrong – all was clean and orderly, and the children awed and cowed into good behaviour.
I now realized what a sheltered and pampered life I had led. I had always been sheltered and protected from anything unpleasant. I had never before done any hard physical work. Early cups of tea in bed were the order of the day, a warm cosy home and good meals prepared. What a contrast to my life now and what a shock it was to be landed in it. I confess I was homesick and as time went on, wanted once more to escape from my circumstances! Betty too, had had enough and we decided to give in our notice.
However when I bearded Matron in her den to do just that, I met with strong opposition. She made it plain that she thought it was a very bad idea, expressed sadness that I should want to go and did all she could to make me rethink and stay on for a while. I don’t think it was personal regret, but it seems strange that she could not see why she had difficulty in keeping folk to stay. Anyway she made me feel guilty in leaving her in the lurch. Anyway I left her office no nearer to getting my freedom. The same thing happened to Betty so there we were ruefully commiserating with each other.
So we struggled on. (We tried again a bit later and the same thing happened, such was Matron’s forceful domination.) Things did not improve. I got a whitlow on my finger which was very painful and gave me sleepless nights. I was still scrubbing floors with my hands in dirty water; it was fortunate I did not get blood poisoning!
It was now winter and very cold. There was no heating in our room or the boys’ dormitory and getting them up in those early dark mornings was something to be endured.
Besides having a two-hour break during our long day (and we were lucky if we ever got a full two hours) we were given a whole day once a month. This was bliss, and I had been getting as far from V.C.H. as I could for as long as I could. Now that it was so cold and wintry I decided to stay in bed for a while hugging my hot-water bottle. How wonderful not to have to emerge from the sheets around 5:30 am. On these days one of the maids brought breakfast to our room. I hated milk puddings but I hated porridge even more. I had so far been able to avoid it at breakfast, Matron not gracing us with her presence then. But on this particular day there appeared a large plate of it. In spite of my entreaties to take it away it was more than she dared do. So there it was staring me in the face and I suddenly felt very angry. How dare anybody decree that my wonderful free day which I was all set to enjoy, should be spoiled by making me eat porridge. So up I got, and making sure no one was around, tipped it all down the loo. Then I felt better!
Sometimes one of the boys had to go to London for a medical treatment or check-up and Matron would detail one of us to take him. She evidently thought that this was such a privilege that we would have to go on our free day. It was the only occasion that there was any chance of having any one to one conversation. Some of them were not very bright and conversation was difficult. But these poor love-starved little creatures knew not how to communicate – grown-ups had apparently never or seldom talked to them and they were so repressed and cowed that they took no interest in anything that a normal child would. They just did not know how to respond.
On my second trip to London I went to bring back a boy who had spent a week-end with his family. His mother had brought him to the station where I met them. On leaving with him his mother said “We liked having him but I know it’s best for him to be in the Home, he’s having such good care there”. Their physical needs were certainly met, but I wanted, but dare not say to her “I think you should take him home and just give him love”. The families these children came from were mostly poor and I suppose they thought that the good food and physical care was most important. Stanley, the little boy was so miserable and on the way home I could not get a word out of him. He was so sad for a long time afterwards and kept asking if it was Sunday. When asked why he said, “That’s when my brother is coming to see me”. Apparently he had been given this false hope in order to cheer him up. They must have known they could not keep their promise. Poor little boy – I have thought of Stanley often over the years – why did nobody see the awful truth of the situation. And yet, when one was there and trying to cope with it all one tended to become hardened and accept the situation. There was no time to think and I think I could not have survived if there had been.
And so Christmas came and went and what a dreadful time it was. All the work had to be coped with as usual. In the morning, there being no school, we took the boys on a walk – a long crocodile line making our slow way through the cold and damp streets. I think we girls all longed for home as we saw through the windows the happy families and the bright decorations and Christmas trees. But I doubt if the children even comprehended what it was all about. Some of the children received parcels from home. Whether they had been told only to send eatables I don’t know, but they mostly contained only a few sticky sweets inadequately wrapped and not easy to deal with. The children never had toys; they possessed nothing of their own, they had no lockers or space of their own to keep anything. And so the day drearily passed. When we had got the children to bed some of us did get together in the staffroom, took some eats and had a bit of a party, but I think none of us were feeling very festive.
Letters from home had always contained what I think were intended as enticements to bring me home. Not overt requests, but descriptions of lovely blazing fires and cosy family gatherings, etc.
After that dreary Christmas those pictures of home comforts were too alluring to be resisted any longer and I resolved to make yet another bid to get away from V.C.H. This time I was successful. I think Matron realized she was beaten and could no longer persuade me to stay, so at the end of January I was able to say farewell to V.C.H. and all its misery. Soon afterwards Betty was able to give in her final notice and we rejoiced together! After working out my notice, thankfully the day came when I finally said goodbye to V.C.H. and headed home.