What was life like for a student nurse in the 1940s?
When she heard I was preparing to start my nurse training, my 85-year-old neighbour, Mrs Marjorie Trousdale, offered me some insights into her own experiences as a student nurse in the late 1940s.
I was intrigued to leaf through the nursing text books she still has and to hear about nurse training at the dawn of the NHS.
It was 1947 and St. Bart’s were recruiting in the North for candidates, Marjorie Bianchi (as she was then known) was thrilled to be amongst the set of young women selected. The opportunity to become a nurse fulfilled a real vocation for her with the thrill of learning and new challenges to face. So, it was with a sense of dedication that Marjorie left Newcastle in 1947 to begin her training.
When she signed her contract, she not only agreed to complete three years of training plus a fourth year as a staff nurse, but also to NHS conditions that would only become clear a year into her training.
Any nurses who stayed on to become “fifth years” gained the privilege of wearing extra-large elaborate caps.
Marjorie and the rest of the trainees lived in a nurses’ home where a matron and a home sister took responsibility for their recruitment, rotas and welfare, and also instilled in the newcomers old adages such as “you only run in the hospital for fire or haemorrhage”.
As well as full board and lodgings, Marjorie received a weekly allowance of £3.10 - the 10 shillings being the “London rating”. The trainees wore long dresses and no hair was to be showing from underneath their caps. Nevertheless, Marjorie recalls receiving wolf whistles from builders on the scaffolding above while walking through the hospital grounds!
The training involved 3-month rotations at each of the wards in the hospital and Marjorie was soon inaugurated into the strict ward routine.
The day would start with the night staff helping patients to wash and clean their teeth before finishing their shift. Then came breakfast, blanket baths, bed changing, attending to pressure points, medicines and dressings. Bed pan and toilet rounds took place before and after every meal. Patients always knew what was coming next as the ward ran like clockwork. Some of the patients would even help to serve the morning coffee.
During the afternoon visiting hour, the nurses stayed on the ward in case the relatives needed any support. They filled this time with tasks such as sitting around a table making sanitary towels.
Marjorie’s memories of her time on the orthopaedic ward seem a world away from nursing today. She remembers patients crawling around as part of their rehabilitation following surgery for slipped discs and a time when the nurses were all issued with hockey sticks! A patient, who was deemed to be dangerous, had escaped from a secure ward and the hockey sticks were for self-defence in case the patient turned up there.
At the beginning of her career, male nurses started to appear on the scene, mainly those who had been medics in the war. They gradually become more involved and, at a time of limited mechanical aids, “were particularly handy when it came to heavy lifting”.
Marjorie remembers when penicillin was first introduced into hospitals and nurses had to scrub up before administering the injection, as if they were going into an operation. She also remembers giving streptomycin for the first time. The syringe was huge, the same size as the arm of the little boy who was subsequently cured of tubercular meningitis.
Although Marjorie retired many years ago after a varied career, which included delivering babies in Surrey and running Newcastle University’s sick bay, it is apparent that nursing is still a passion for her. My experiences will probably be very different to Marjorie’s, but I look forward to emulating the same passion and dedication for caring for people that she maintained throughout her career and beyond.
Thank you to Marjorie for sharing her memories.
Anna Parkin is in her first year at Northumbria University studying learning disability nursing