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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.

Marjorie Trousdale_SNT

Marjorie Trousdale: Taken on her 85th birthday party this year, when she held a garden party which raised over £500 for Macmillan

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



Readers' comments (6)

  • Fascinating, thanks for sharing this story. A GP friend of mine was a nurse (before becoming a doctor) in the 40's and she is always shocked that nurses these days have such short breaks and are not fed by the hospital. Shifts then were long too but you had several hours break and were, she said, "looked after" by the hospital. She is not impressed with the system now! Any thoughts David Cameron?

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  • I started my Nurse training in 1966, (I am still registered), my experiences were not dissimilar to Marjorie's as we trained at that time on the 1952 syllabus! We still had glass syringes and reusable needles and sent our own ward rolled cotton balls and and hand cut gauze swabs, packed into drums to be autoclaved. Things changed dramatically over the following three years but the paternalist care of staff still remained. Things change and progress as technology and knowledge advances, generally for the good. The turnover of patients is now frantic. The only thing I miss from my days as a hospital Nurse all of those decades ago is the care and nurturing of the staff. Regular breaks, regular hot meals cooked and served on the premises. Uniforms carefully laundered and rest areas for well deserved breaks.

    If only we could combine today's caring knowledge and skills with yesterday's values of staffing levels and staff welfare we wouldn't have the problems of Mid Staffs. Carrots not sticks generally work.

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  • I qualified 'only' 30 years ago but recall feeling safe and looked after by my employer. Nurses enjoyed a high level of tangible respect from the public and patients alike but we had earned it. It was rare to see a nursing assistant on the wards: we mainly had qualified enrolled nurses as well as pupil/student nurse learners.

    Sisters and staff nurses did the more complicated tasks and would formally order the rest of us off the ward at lunch/supper and home time to ensure we complied with breaks etc. We did not even know the first names of these Sisters or Senior Staff nurses and would not have dreamed of using them even if we had!

    We had specific 'staff only' parts of the canteen, well away from the workplace where no patient, relative or visitor was permitted: we could talk freely about our shift without fear of being overheard by the public. Even our laundry was done (one uniform for every day of the week - what a luxury).

    We did do internal rotation but it was well planned and spaced out - not like now where staff so often do all three shifts in a single week!

    It was a physically hard job in the days before manual handling legislation and we worked a 42 hour week. There was a strict hierarchy & routine but everyone knew where they were and what they were supposed to be doing at any given time: including patients and visitors!

    Notwithstanding the mists of nostalgia - there are lessons to be learned from the past which could be applied to the present.

    Most sad of all, student nurses nowadays miss out on the formative experience of a 'safe haven' School of Nursing on which to build a solid foundation to support their professional career: culminating in the pride & prestige of having earned the right to wear their training school 'badge' once qualified. Mine was the Wolfson School of Nursing of Westminster.

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  • I trained in 1973, and can connect my training experience more with Marjorie's experience than todays. Whatever your role was in the hierarchy, everyone knew the line you didn't cross. It was strict but fair, matrons were looked up to, and they looked after you, and listened. If you had a problem, you could see the senior matron at 2 in the afternoon. They were available for you. We need a mix of some older values with todays demands.

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  • My Mum became a nurse in 1948. She wanted to be a nurse, but her parents wanted her (The only girl of the family) to stay at home, work as a hair dresser, and look after them as they got older. Her eldest brother helped her,apply, and she trained at Barrow, a good distance away from home in Ashton Under Lyne.
    She remembers working for sisters, good and bad. The good ones were the ones where you knew where you stood, and she liked the sterner ones best, due to this. She enjoyed the hospital plays, which the staff performed at Christmas, and still remembers some of the songs which they sung. She also remembers the disgusting food (she still doesn't like bread and butter pudding!), and getting one day off a week, which if it fell on a study day was lost. You got the one day even if you were on nights.
    She subsequently trained as a midwife at St. Mary's hospital in Manchester, and worked on the district in Hulme, which was, and still is a very poor area. She had a flat there, and rode her bike to make visits. It was at St. Mary's where she met my Dad, who as a medical student pinched the patient which she was about to deliver. Very few nurses in those days stayed at work once they got married. (Not long previously they wouldn't have been allowed to even if they wanted to) but Mum remained as a District Midwife until, after several miscarriages she was advised to give up.

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  • Hi,

    Thank you all for reading and for leaving such fascinating comments.
    I will make sure that Marjorie reads them too!

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