Tomorrow is my mums birthday (31st October)!
So in celebration, here is a re-post from 2007 in which she reflects back on some of her own experiences as a nurse in the late 1950s.
Mum isn’t on Facebook, doesn’t even know what Twitter is, but she does read this blog regularly…… so if you enjoy reading about nursing ‘back in the day’ please drop her a little birthday well-wishing in the comments. She will be well chuffed.


Joan the Nurse.

Whilst talking to my mum about her award for kindness in 1957, she dusted off plenty of memories of her early experiences as a student nurse.
As you will soon see, we have come a long way in our care of patients since the late 1950′s. Sure the technology has made incredible advances, but the quality of basic nursing care?
I’ll let you be the judge:

Here are some memories of my mums experience working at Mount Gould Hospital, Plymouth. An orthopaedic hospital specialising in the care of TB patients.

nurses residence 1957.

Still legally a child, my mum arrived at the nurse’s residence. New nurses were accompanied by their parents who had to *sign them over* to the care of the ‘Home Sister’ (the age of consent was 21 yrs back then).

From that time forth a special pass was to be obtained in order to leave the residence on days off. Once a month a late pass was issued allowing the bearer to stay out till 1030 PM.
Within the residence, your room could be inspected for cleanliness and tidiness at any time. A single lockable draw was the only private space; all other draws and cupboards were inspected.
Males were forbidden in the residence. OK mum, whatever you say.

When she became a second year nurse, mum was allowed to live out. My grandfather gave her a vintage 125cc Royal Enfield motorbike to make the 30 minute drive from their house. On her second day mum was called before the Matron. She was in deep shit for wearing trousers on hospital grounds!
After some interventions from her dad, mum was permitted to ride the motorbike through a side gate, directly to the shed where the garden equipment was kept. Here she could change into uniform and proceed across the hospital grounds with a little decorum.

pecking order.

Junior nurses were expected to hold doors open for the seniors and sitting room chairs had to be surrendered to those higher in the pecking order. Christian names were not to be used whilst on duty.

All nursing activities on the ward were directed by the Ward Sister, known affectionately as The Dragon.
Junior staff were allocated the menial jobs such as cleaning out the sputum mugs and scrubbing the bedpans. This was a TB hospital and every single patient was allocated a sputum mug. Mum states that “ the sound of that per-lop as the contents of the mug were tipped into the sluice still makes my stomach heave and my nightmares horrific.”
As you progressed through the ranks of seniority, you inherited the more sought after jobs.

ward duties.

Rubber gloves were considered “extravagant and uneconomical” and were only used in operating rooms. Universal precautions consisted of keeping your fingernails short and your mouth closed to avoid the splattering.
Every single piece of equipment from linen to sputum mugs, was stamped with the name of the ward. Once a year a ward stock take was held and God help you if a single item was not accounted for. Anything broken was to be paid for by the nurse responsible.
At the beginning of each shift nurses signed on in a large book. The shift lasted until everything was done.
No such thing as overtime.

the pan round.

The nurses commencing night duty began by pushing a trolley holding a large urn down the length of the ward. Each patient was settled with a cup of hot coca or tea. Once the round was completed the cups were quickly collected and washed.

No sooner had they finished their cocoa, the patients were subjected to ‘The Pan Round’.
Patients were not permitted to use the pan when nature called, but had to wait for the allocated pan rounds which were spaced out at set intervals.
So imagine, a long thirty five bed *Nightingale* style ward. A single screen was placed across the door at the end of the room. No curtains around the beds. No-siree.
Each patient was then placed on a bedpan, where they sat balanced, eyes front until the job was done. The sounds echoing through the corridors. The wards did not have toilet paper, but instead used a material consisting of “wiry coconut fibers” called Towa.
Bums were tough back then.

Wiping of bottoms was strictly hands on, no gloves.
A large trolley (pushed by a junior nurse) then transected the ward, collecting the full pans and transporting them very carefully to the sluice room. Lock up a wheel on the trolley, and a catastrophic avalanche of metal pans would crash to the floor.

the sluice room.

Here the most junior nurses would spend many a miserable hour. No mechanical flushes or sterilizers here. The Sluice Room was a huge white tiled room centered with a bath sized sink.

The room was lined with shelves containing rows of glass jars, test tubes, spirit lamps, wooden tongs, and pipettes.
Esbach’s solution, Tinc Guaiacum, Benedict’s solution, all used in the testing of various bodily excretions.
Urine was mixed and boiled, adding a pinch of this and a smidgen of that to test for albumen or sugar or bile pigments or pus. Once a week every patient had their urine tested. The nurse allocated this task would find herself surrounded by a bubbling, steaming 35 labelled test tubes.

At any time you could be summonsed by the Ward Sister and you would have to tell her every patients name, diagnosis, treatment and test results.
Failure to be familiar with this information was punishable: death by sluice room.


The only oxygen available came from large cylinders. These were connected by a rubber hose to a Woulfes Bottle . The oxygen passed through a glass tube into the bottle that was half filled with warm water to humidify it. When used, this system required constant tending to keep the warm water topped up.

All intravenous solutions came in glass bottles, the IV tubing was rubber with a glass drip chamber to monitor the infusion rate which was controlled via a metal bulldog clip.
After an IV set was finished the tubing was boiled in water, cleaned, and used on the next patient.

As mentioned, rubber gloves were only used in theaters. They were then washed inside and out, tested for holes, hung to dry, powdered and steam sterilized for re-use.

Morphine came in granules. Little tablets of the required strength were placed on a teaspoon and a few drops of sterile water were added. The spoon was then held over a small spirit lamp until the tablet dissolved, after which it was drawn up into the syringe with the remaining sterile water.

the mortuary.

The Mortuary was a separate building on the hospital grounds. To transfer a body, it was placed in a bed with a *hidden* recess, that was then made up to look like an empty bed.
This is pretty much the same way we transport bodies today, although the effect of concealment was somewhat spoiled back then. After the body was secreted, the bed was draped in a Union Jack as a mark of respect for the dead!

In 1957 it was a criminal offense to attempt to commit suicide. If a patient was admitted after attempting to self harm they would have a police officer at their bedside for the duration of their admission. As soon as they were well enough to be discharged, they were arrested and taken to jail.

management of cardiac arrest.

They hadn’t invented ICU or CCU yet and the management of cardiac arrest was very basic.
If a patient arrested on your ward, you were to administer a sharp blow to their chest and then drag them out of bed, face down on the floor. You then administered Schaefers Method of Respiration, which as far as I can tell, essentially consisted of giving them a vigorous back massage.
Doctors were summoned to attend an arrest by a series of coded flashing lights on panels located around the hospital. If the doctor did not notice their particular code then they never arrived.

If a doctor did arrive the cardiac arrest protocol was to administer intra-cardiac Adrenaline and intravenous Coramine to “stimulate the respiratory system and blood pressure”.
During her time as a student nurse, my mum never witnessed a successful resuscitation.

No sex please, we’re nurses.

In conclusion, at the end of each year the hospital held a grand Christmas Ball. Trainee officer cadets from the neighbouring naval base were invited. Lower ranks, of course, were excluded. The whole evening was chaperoned by senior naval staff and The Matron. Despite being under surveillance it sounds as if a great time was had by all.

No-one was permitted to leave the hall and at the end of the evening the Navy were counted back on a bus and returned to the base.

Yeah. Right.

18 Responses to “Happy birthday mum!”

  1. Happy Birthday Joan, hope your day was as inspiring as your story of past era, enjoyed reading it thankyou.

  2. Happy Birthday Joan! Im currently a student nurse and I enjoyed making a mental comparison about the difference in training now and when you did it. I had a good laugh about the sluice room and marvel that poo seems to play a central role in a student nurses’ training no matter what era. Your story was wonderful and demonstrates the rich history of nursing….more please xo

  3. Happy birthday from Istanbul, Turkey!..During my military duty I did almost the same 8 years ago :)

  4. Happy Birthday, Joan, from Georgia (USA.) I worked in the pathology department of an Atlanta hospital back in those days. I occasionally wonder how we survived those pre-rubber gloved days!

    Thanks for sharing with us by way of Ian.

    Have a wonderful day!

  5. Happy Birthday Joan. I trained in the mid sixties in Melbourne. There had been a little relaxation of the rules then but a lot of your tales are very familiar. Enjoyed the trip down memory lane. Things have certainly changed!

  6. Happy birthday Joan, have a lovely day. My mum also has similar stories but I don’t think she’s told me the whole extent-probably doesn’t want to scare the bejesus out of me.

  7. Happy Birthday Joan. Enjoyed reading your stories and would love to read more. Nursing and nurses have such an amazing history. I hope you have a wonderful day
    Tina (Melb)

  8. Happy Birthday from Tennessee! Thank you for these memories. As others have said, “More, please”

  9. LOVE IT! Thanks for sharing. I didn’t know many of these things.

  10. Inspiring! Happy Birthday, Joan! Ian, can you help your Mum make a version of “call the midwives”? With her life’s experience and the gift of story telling you both have, it would be a smash hit! Can we at least have an encore from your Mum?

  11. Wishing you a very happy birthday on your special day

  12. Happy birthday Joan, it sounds like it would have been thoroughly entertaining back in those days, thanks for sharing!

  13. I remember it well, I am bottom right of the pile. They were really happy days in spite of the restrictions
    on our private lives. There were other ways beside the main door of entering the nurses home at night. Happy birthday Joan.

  14. As a student nurse who is currently doing clinical placement in a rest home, this made me smile. Just glad the sluice rooms are better now :)

    Happy birthday Joan, Have a wonderful day.

  15. Many thanks! I loved reading your recollections. Tell us more.

  16. Happy Birthday Joan!
    Thankyou for sharing your nursing tales with Ian and therefore the rest of the world!
    I have enjoyed reading them and despite your story being around the time I was born there are many bits I remember also.My grandmother was a nurse and she would also have enjoyed reading this and thinking how “modern” it sounded as she trained in 1935 in Bombay!
    Again happy birthday!
    Linda ( in Queensland)

  17. My Mum’s also a hospital trained nurse, although she’s from the 1982 vintage; she and Dad met at one of those “Christmas balls” (he did his apprenticeship in electrics at the same hospital)…

  18. Truly an interesting and wonderful read with beautiful pictures. Happy Birthday Joan! Enjoy your day.

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