Oral History

Gwendoline Pointon

The life and times of nurse Gwendoline Pointon

Interviewers: Mr. D. J. Wood (DW)

Interviewed: Gwendoline Pointon (GP)

Date of Interview: 7th of March 2005

GP. I'm Gwendoline Pointon born 1914 on October the 7th. Today's date is the 7th of March 2005 (oh its true) I'm forgetting how old I am 90 years

DW. Can we start with when you first started nursing, when you first started nursing the TB patients.

GP. I was 19 years of age then and had wanted very much to find why Mother died, and so with the help of friends, it was difficult days in Wales in those days. You had to pay to do nursing, so I had to really do a job to enable me to save the money. Not only to pay for my entry to do it but to buy my own uniform as well. Consequently, instead of going to Cardiff Royal, which I’d like to have done to do my general straightaway, I went to Llanelli hospital, which was a tuberculosis hospital, where I was able to find out why my Mother had died. There I had a wonderful five years, of nursing chronic patients, really chronic sick and children and, until war broke out in '39 and we emptied the wards believing we were going to have to take in casualties. Somewhere around when the bombs were beginning to come across the - was it D-day that it was the first time that the soldiers were going preparing for D-day - so all our patients were sent home, we had all our wards empty and waiting to receive patients. I was quite capable of running a ward, looking after a ward, all the hygiene they don't use today, we used then, but I realised in all honesty, I would not know what to do with the gunshot wounds to begin with would I. So although I had been promoted a Staff Nurse by this time, there were three of us, I resigned and went up to the Midlands where we could still move. I don’t know if you know the history of that time, there were times when you could move when you were called up or if you were in a reserved occupation you were all right. But there was a month or two when you could move or you would be called up. Our Sisters had all been called up and us Staff Nurses left in charge. Well I felt, in all honesty, I was not experienced enough to cope with what I was going to have to face, so I went up to the Midlands where I had a sister whose husband had called up - been called up. All the young men in those days they didn't just wait to be called up, they all had to go with their pals, so they all got in the same regiment.

DW. They gave the regiment names, the chums, or something.

GP. Something like that yes. Consequently, the younger wives were all left with young babies and suchlike. Many of them only a few weeks old, and they didn't hear from their husbands for five or six weeks afterwards. Not even getting any salaries or anything. A lot of them lost their homes because means test was a real enemy in those days and the means test officer would go around and even take their furniture away if they couldn't pay the rent or things like this. Err, I went to Leamington, stayed with my sister who’d got a small baby. She was able to work in the evenings and I did private nursing and I had a very interesting time. I not only nursed children whose parents were abroad which they don't do now, you know, people who were working abroad couldn't get back.

GP. Their children were in private schools so if there was an outbreak of measles or anything I could cope with that, I did that. Then I was called to other people nursing. They learnt there was a nurse around who wasn’t been called up. A lovely life really. They asked me why I wanted to be a nurse. I said I’d preferred to be a nurse than a ladies maid.

So, eventually I went on then to Stoke-on-Trent to do my general training, but it took all around the country by this time getting back in. You'd got your Red Cross nurses; you'd got your civilian people. No there was no one around left who weren't in a specified job and you couldn't move from it. We’d got about four weeks I think left, when the house staff in where I was nursing, the kitchen staff went back to Ireland, the chauffeur was called up. There was only the gardener handyman and myself left. The physiotherapist had gone to America, the Doctor was called up, and I was left with this patient for six weeks doing everything for her. During that time I had a wonderful experience because I got her well enough so that I could stay with my sister at night, rest in the day and just eat in the day. I was enabling her to look after herself and cope with life. It was then that Coventry was bombed, it was near, we had people who had come back out from Coventry and put them up. The bombs were, the bombers were coming back from Coventry and dropping their bombs on the way back, and they very kindly dropped one on our little street, one night, which ended in myself and the neighbour arriving outside in the middle of the night and clawing out people out of the ruins. We survived that. Nothing happened to ourselves. I never was hurt anywhere.

DW. Was the area where you stayed bombed just once or was it many times.

GP. No, oh no Coventry was. We were near to Coventry, a little village called Ennesford I think it is, where my sister had to go. She couldn't stay in the house when her husband had gone away. She had to move to this particular place where she could afford it, and we thought we were out of it. It was only the bombs going over, backwards and forwards. We could see the pilots in the planes as they went over and they were dropping their loads as they left, but you stood in the garden and you watched Coventry being bombed. You watched the flames going up and all that sort of thing, but anyway, we got through that. Then a couple came from Coventry, a family from Coventry, and stayed, and then of course to enable them to stay in this little cottage I applied with this nursing. They used to fetch me morning and evenings and I spent six weeks getting this lady back onto her feet and back into work. It was their influence that got me into Stoke, got me an interview at Stoke, because again I couldn't get back into hospital now. I eventually got to Stoke-on-Trent and moved there. I was there all through the war, did my General Training and had a wonderful experience really because we did the first plastic surgery.

We had all the convoys coming in all day and night. We were on duty one night and off duty the next, and at the end of that, the patient's relatives came at night and that’s where I met my husband, who came as a sick visitor to the hospital, visiting an Aunt of his, with his cousin. Err. The conversation during the night when the old lady died, was how we met, and from they’re on their family, who lived in Leek in Staffordshire, invited me. Which meant I met his family, and from then on he finished the war. I was already trained now. I had got my finals and was again a Staff Nurse in charge of a ward. He suggested what he wanted to do, so I recommended him and found it was Groby Road that he had applied to me a little nobody sort of thing sending a reference for a new nurse to do a course. It turned out to be my old home sister from the hospital that I had trained at. She was the Matron at Groby Road hospital, anyway, this is where Leicester comes into it then, this is in 1941,40 –41. I said if he came to Leicester it was understood that I would follow him, and get married which we did.

He came to Groby Road, there were five men who came I think, I may be wrong in this history. There were five men who came after the war. Three went to the Royal, because they’d been in the Medical Corps. Two went to Groby Road because they'd been in other things but wanted to do nursing, and consequently my husband the only two men at Groby Road and the three men at Leicester and we've been friends ever since. Nurses weren’t allowed to marry so I lost my job. You weren't allowed to marry. it was very strict. The Committee said to me they were very sorry but my Superintendent said that I’d left to have a child but they'd be very pleased to have me back and from then until the day I retired I worked for Leicester in some way or other.

DW. Did you do any nursing of the soldiers during the war?

GP. Oh yes, we had our full convoys came in.

DW. Would you like to talk a bit about that?

GP. Even then err way back in Llanelli. I mentioned that they emptied the hospital ready to take patients and the whole hospital was sandbagged. We heard the planes going over, going up the valleys, but we never had any actual bombs near and no real accidents, but all our soldiers and all our friends were stationed ready for D-day and we knew them socially. We met them socially you see, this was why I felt that I had not the experience to cope. But, I realise looking back on it, I was sensible. One of us, three of us were promoted in charge of these wards because the Sisters had all gone, got the M. B. E. for working there you see but it turned out we didn't in the end get soldiers there. They evacuated the coastal hospitals and sent all their patients to us. We didn't know it was for D-day did we, but that's what it was, but leaving that behind then I didn't see soldiers there.

DW. No?

GP. I went to Stoke-on-Trent, but from the time I went to Stoke-on-Trent itself then the convoys were coming in all day and all night, and I had my own ward there and I mentioned plastic surgery. I had the plastic surgery ward and it was the first in the country before Leicester. I think it was a Mr. Macinoh a London surgeon who was the first one to do plastic surgery and now our whole ward was soldiers, from Sergeants, Privates, Officers, having plastic surgery. New hands, new ears their legs had been shot off, very bad burns from the flamethrowers. I must remember, it was when they were in Belgium and they used to use the flame-throwers, it was well on into the war then wasn't it. And these people were coming back very badly burned. They'd get their first, err penicillin came in then. They were given penicillin jabs and sent back to us and we had, not like they nurse them today, we used to have to make the dressings ourselves, spreading the dressing on the gauze, to dress them with. They were bandaged from head to toe, we, they were lowered into baths of saline to soak the bandages off. The surgeon would, there would be a hand put up to it for the skin to grow on the ear or a new nose. Not like the wonderful plastic surgery they do now these were the beginning but umm.

DW. You must have seen a great deal of change from when you first started as a sixteen year old to when you retired.

GP. Oh yes, I’ve been - times I’ve sat here and thought I wish I could go back to work. I’d love to get up and go down that ward and make them move those beds and get that dust out. This infection that they talk about, I wouldn't have dreamed of going in to have a knife put on me anywhere. I've got loads of things happen to me, nothing physically wrong to be sick, to say like cancer or infection tuberculosis. But things happening with falls. You fall and hurt your shoulder, you fall and you dislocate something or other I’ve got things like that., that's my only troubles now but I would never have gone back I didn't trust them, from experience you see. Even this week I've looked on that television what is out there. You see them press a button and rub something on their hands. They haven't washed them first, and they don't wash them afterwards. They go and touch the bed, they touch the patient and they still go to the next bed just rubbing their hands and going to the next patient, and they are carrying it everywhere. The same on television today, there was a young man, they're trying to show you they're now cleaning the wards so of course they're mopping the wards like, with a mop and a bucket, but they're mopping just where everybody walks. They don't go under the beds or the skirting boards or the bed wheels. Perhaps I ought to go back to the days when nurses then, you were very junior. If you walked into, walked in to a hospital and were polite enough to stand back to let somebody go in front of you. You were so innocent that you didn't realise that person was your senior, seniority was really important even in the dining room. If we broke a thermometer we had to go to the Matron's office to apologise. Look what they do now, they take something and throw it down, play with it and throw it down, they don't even put things into really, into containers. Even going way back to my early tuberculosis days, we had wonderful wards. Wonderful steel units where every patient had their own cup plate, knife, fork, spoon, everything was sterilised in sterilisers, everybody was, if you washed the patient and spilt anything, you didn't just change your apron you went and changed your clothes.

DW. What do you think of the idea that is being said now, that the reason we get more germs etc. is actually because we are too clean.

GP. Clean, they've forgotten what the word means. If they worked out what it means they shouldn't get anything. In our day we were told that with tuberculosis, it was only on close contact. If we didn't become familiar with our patients we'd never catch tuberculosis and the nurses who did become familiar quite often did get it but because, all you remember, you just kept your place. You did your job, you washed your hands well, if you had cleared up a mess, mind. I suppose this is something I ought to tell them. They wouldn't like this would they, we had to do whatever was needed; if there was no cleaners then the nurses had to do it, certain routines took place on every ward everyday, Saturdays and Sundays. We complained because we could never go to church on Sunday morning because we always had to do the work that the cleaners hadn't done. The beds had to be pulled out, the backs of them had to be cleaned and it wasn't only just brushing and dusting, you damp dusted.

DW. Yes. I remember that happening when I was in hospital when I was about eleven.

GP. Pulling the beds out but you see now, you can, I've been in intensive care and, mind I'll grant you I've changed my opinions since seeing that, they are marvellous but it's a conveyor belt. This question of sticking on the corridors, they're queuing for beds. If you've got a bed patient coming in every hour or every half hour like they do in emergencies and you've got ten beds, what can you do but a conveyor belt. So as fast as somebody comes round, they're moved into an observation room and then from there they're observed who can go home, even I was told that I could go home as "I'd only got a wonky heart.”

DW. Only a wonky heart?

GP. Only - well it wasn't said - I wont tell you the joke it was because the doctor and I both laughed at it because it went, the other, you can go home you've only got so and so. But again, once I was conscious you see, I was watching everything in case they wanted to get on with everything wasn't I, but I can still see things that mattered. But I wouldn't criticise them I think they were marvellous. It is in an ordinary ward, where you've got a long ward and untrained people; they're not trained people. Perhaps I shouldn't say this, they do four years on a university course don't they. Now doctors do it, but they, but they've always had nurses to wait on them, nurses now are becoming trained nurses, there aren't no one to wait on them is there, so who is doing the work?

DW. It doesn't sound as though anybody is, does it?

GP. No, I might not - in our day again, we had refresher courses, they used to say oh! They're not trained, they weren't university girls but we learnt an awful lot by experience and we still did the studying, we still did the practical work, we had refresher courses every year in term time you know. Fourteen days on a refresher course, and they took us round the new hospitals. I remember going to Harrow, when Harrow was built. I was in the London University having a, on a course there, and it was wonderful to see the new hospital, with lifts from each floor, beds that moved. We didn't have to lift, you know, press them with your feet, they're even better than that now, you just touch them with your finger and they move. We even tried to invent all that sort of thing to enable us to lift and to do things. I remember coming back and this is in 1948 the then Deputy Medical Officer of Health, in the old days in Leicester we always had a Medical Officer of Health didn't we and umm Matron and Sisters. We senior people were in charge of our field weren't we and the Medical Officer of Health did the medical. I went on one of these refresher courses and he gave a lecture. I know on the headlines again there was a picture of us in the Leicester Mercury. From tomorrow all your sick people are to be taken care of, and you can go back and tell them that is not true because we’ll never be able to afford it. Until then we charged even to do District Nursing.

DW. You mentioned about Matron. At one time the Matron used to be someone to be feared, an old battleaxe.

GP. But they weren't all battleaxes they were human beings underneath.

DW. You used to quake when the Sister came.

GP. Oh well you did. I've gone, but that was something good because even if you see, even now you see people standing around having a bit of a giggle together, but I can understand that, you don’t mind that. You have to have a joke, you wouldn't do the job unless you had a certain sense of humour or could have one. The first time I ever went to theatre I went with someone having a leg amputated, and I went as an innocent girl, everybody teasing me on the men's ward, oh! It will be awful, terrible time there you know and I was quite an innocent girl of eighteen, nineteen, and of course I went and I would have fainted if I hadn't been warned beforehand. They certainly just said don't do that. Give it to the nurse. Tell nurse to hold that, but I didn't know what I was holding. It was all wrapped up in a towel, and he went sawing away and of course it dropped down, I dropped it, and it went into a bucket, and you can imagine an innocent girl of that age. I'd never seen anything new. It certainly put you in the front line to begin with. But err um, there were certain seniors had got to be there but you know.

DW. Did you do night duty?

GP. I did a lot of night duty. I'd been in, in a tuberculosis ward, just as the war was starting. On Christmas Eve, a patient that had been in two or three years at the time, lying in bed, they couldn't go home for Christmas they were there. I was the night nurse on the main ward and some of them were soldiers that had already come back you see, but we hadn’t had D-day then.

The Sisters had all been invited to the Matron's office for drinks and coffee on Christmas Eve. The Staff Nurse and the nurses were left with the patients to get them ready for Christmas morning, and. Christmas didn't start until Christmas morning, no fun, no having a joke, no passing parcels or anything. I was the Night Nurse coming on to be in charge of the section at night. When I get on I am told, I wouldn't go in there if I were you nurse, or whatever they called me then -umm- one of the men is in the kitchen, he’s going to do the drinks for you. I should stay in the office for an hour until they all get to sleep, because the day nurses had a bit of fun with the men and had got them all round in different beds.

You'll understand this as a man, they let them get together and play cards together, have a drink together already for Christmas morning you see. but they had started once the Sister had gone hadn't they. They’d started enjoying themselves. So I did it, what I did then, we used to have a fire in the office to sit by for the nighttimes, and once our jobs were done we'd sit there and they would call us if they needed us you see, and you had to sew. Mending you see, you were never allowed to sit and do nothing. There were bedding, sheets to be mended, patched and these bandages to make, all this sort of thing.

Anyway I'm there busily getting on with my job and suddenly there, pause, I was sent off duty, not fit to be in charge of a ward by the Medical Officer of Health. Because he had come into the ward, he'd been doing his rounds, round the outside of the hospital, and he'd seen someone light up a cigarette, this was about nine o'clock, it wasn't in the time I started, but I hadn’t been round then. I didn’t want to know what was there until they were all asleep and I could go round. I was only one little girl, I might even have been pulled on a bed or anything could have happened couldn't it you see. They told me that there were four or five nurses going off, so I sat in the office, the one man had come and he had taken the keys and he had done the teas for me. Every body was alright, yes you're alright Nurse, we are alright. You'll be O.K. in the morning ready for Christmas morning. In comes this gentleman, he'd walked around the outside and he'd seen one man light a cigarette. So of course he came in and wanted to know, smoking was not allowed, another thing that wasn't allowed, of course I didn't know which patient was smoking, as I hadn’t been round. He wanted me to go with him and do a round, and even I must have looked amazed when I put the lights on because every bed had been moved, the men had gone where they wanted. They had put four beds together or two beds together. I mean these weren't sick men needing operations, they were men who were in bed for two or three years for treatment, wasn't it you see, and of course I couldn't tell him who the patients were could I. I had to quickly say, I must have looked aghast myself. Anyway, and then I realised what had happened and I wasn't going to tell him the names then. He said it was that bed there, but I knew that bed there was a young soldier from down that end of the ward and I knew his name alright and what he was but I wasn't going to let on. I said I didn't know, I couldn't remember. So of course I was put in the doghouse. Of course now again I didn't even tell him why it happened. I said sir I called him sir. Not fit to be in charge of a ward - he was furious. He rang for the Staff Nurse who had gone off duty, who apparently was a, he was friendly with and that was all right. He told me I wasn't fit to be on duty and I could go off and stay off. Well you can imagine everyone was awake on the ward can't you. Anyway morning comes and by morning of course everybody knows that I've been sent to Coventry.

Matron herself found, heard about it, she'd been told so she sent for me. So I go with great trepidation, I’m sacked, I’ll be going home today, and she was livid. This is why I tell you there are good Matrons. Even though he was the Medical Officer of Health she said, He's in charge of the financial side of this hospital, I am in charge of the staff Nurse, and you go back to your bed and you have a good sleep. I kept very quiet.

DW. Thank you very much.

Interviewed by: David J Wood.

Transcript by: Jack Matlock.

Edited by: Jean Wood.