To my wife, Anne, who nursed at
Barking for many years.
J. G. Brian
were debating the outcome of the Boer War and the new word "Mafeking"
was heard to describe a celebration, the members of the tiny Council of the
Urban District of Barking were choosing the site for their new hospital. It was
to house those with fevers and was destined to provide the nucleus for
future services to raise the level of the public health.
The site chosen was that of the Upney Meadows, bounded by Upney
Lane and close to the marshland of Ripple Level, which ran from Ripple Road to
the Thames riverside. In 1860 malaria was indigenous in the areas of the Wash,
the New forest, the Mendip and the Quantock Hills, the coastal Lake
District, the fens, Eastern Kent, the South Downs and the tidal estuary of the
Thames. The various forms of malaria had their own local names, but
"The Ague" and "English Sweating Sickness" seem to have
outlasted the others. In the mid-nineteenth century life was usually short and
very rarely merry. Barking had become a thriving community, in which market
produce was grown for sale in London, and it also had a thriving fishing
fleet. Scrymgoeur Hewitt's "Short Blue" fleet had solved the problem
of bringing fresh fish for sale in London by inventing the "well
smack", a fishing boat that carried its catch homeward alive in a vast tank built amidships.
It has been claimed that Barking is the oldest fishing village in England,
sweeping the Thames Estuary and the North Sea for fish for many, many
generations. The fishing families inter-married with the families of the
fleets of Belgium and Holland, and, as the fish moved into the more
distant parts of the North Sea, the Barking families followed them, and now
there is a thriving part of "old Barking" in Lowestoft and other East
Coast towns. Barking has a varied and dramatic history, well documented
under the "E" section in the local library.
Upney Meadows site was previously used as part of Baking’s
market gardens industry, but the stubble and the stray potatoes were cleared
and two wooden huts were erected a short way back from the road. One of them,
Humphrey Hut, survived until the Second World War, when it was accidently
burned down when a few sparks from the Mobile Unit Crew's stove set fire to
some bird nests in the guttering. One of the crew lost his life in that fire
when he went back inside the inferno to try to recover a nurse's handbag.
The two huts stood in that wide, open space and, served as
clinics for the advice and treatment of mothers and sick children, and the
service slowly expanded as it was seen to fulfill local needs. From earliest
times the Council of Barking had shown interest in the welfare of' its
poorest citizens, and the pioneer spirit, so clearly evident right up to the
formation of the National Health Service, was by no means of recent origin.
Barking seemed to be at the receiving end of anything unpleasant that could
be sent its way. As late as 1884, when the sewage of a growing London was
being ejected into a River Thames that was too slowly-flowing to take it far out
to sea (allowing for tides, the average flow is three miles downstream per
day), the sewage was being deposited on the bank of the Thames at the
Ripple Level. Seven men were found to be making a living by recovering the
floating fat, boiling it down again, and then re-selling it. For frying chips
and roasting meat?
In 1931 new, brick, buildings were constructed to take over the
work of the overburdened huts and an Administration Block and Nurses' Home was
built at the same time. The Administration Block fronted on to Upney Lane,
close to what is now Upney Station, and the three isolation wards, Jenner
(now Worricker), which was for diphtheria patients, Ross, which housed scarlet
fever patients, and Lister (with a small operating theatre) which cared for
septic conditions, mixed infections and childbed fever were erected
behind the Nurses' Home. All these buildings were very well-constructed, but
down to a price, and there were no frills. Characteristically, the flooring is
of planks. It was in 1936 that the plans of the Public Health Department of the
Borough of Barking became of great interest to me, for then it was that I
joined the team. On the second of November, 1936, I began to work in the
newly-opened Pathology Laboratory of Barking Isolation Hospital. The new
laboratory stood alone beside the roadway that ran from the Main Entrance
(opposite The Drive) to the boiler house and the mortuary. At the same time
three more new wards had been built, and they were Harvey for diphtheria
patients, Sydenham for mixed infections, and Paget (since demolished) for
enteric diseases. Two new wings were added to the Nurses' Home, and all the
1936 wards and buildings were built "up to a standard" and not
"down to a price". Flooring, for instance, was of highly-polished
parquet blocks, and the laboratory floor was of polished terrazzo
The general impression of the hospital was one of dignified
beauty and charm. Tall poplars lined the roadway from the main gate to the
boilerhouse, an orchard flourished in the middle of the grounds beside a
hard tennis court and a rose-garden, more poplars flanked Garland's Drive, a
perimeter walk alongside the railway line, magnificent flowerbeds and lawns
were kept in perfect condition in front of the Nurses' Home, and each
ward had its own decorative flowerbed. All of the work to maintain the gardens
and the lawns was undertaken by one gardener and an assistant, a man who was
advised to take up outdoor work after his discharge from a sanatorium.
Behind Ross and Harvey Wards, running the length of the grounds
beside the railway line was one large, open field. This was sometimes used by
convalescent patients for competitive football matches. The same length of free
space was also used by the Medical Superintendent to improve his golf.
At this point in the development of the hospital site there
were very few houses built on the Leftley Estate, which is bordered by Upney
Lane, the railway line, Mayesbrook Park and Longbridge Road. It was, therefore,
possible to see from the hospital gate a train leaving Becontree Station,
then walk up Upney Lane to Upney Station, and be waiting on the platform as the
westbound train came in. Weekday service was at twenty-minute intervals. Trains
were of the now-obsolete design in which the doors were
passenger-controlled, and it was therefore refreshingly possible to travel up
to London on a hot day with all the doors open wide and nature's own
air-conditioning service in operation. In mid-winter travels only the very
bad-mannered failed to shut the doors after boarding.
The Nurses' Home was the centre of the hospital, with the front
Ground Floor housing Matron's Office and the Telephone Room. The upper floors
and the two wings were mostly nurses' bedrooms, with two rooms set aside as
Sick Bays. Between the two wings was the Kitchen, which supplied food for
staff and patients. But not all staff, by any means. The only source of
refreshment provided for me was a cold-water tap beside the mortuary. The
porters (two) had a Mess Room, which they shared with a fever ambulance
driver and a laundryman.
There was an odd little disciplinary rule that the modern
generation will probably never understand -- "NO FRATERNISATION" --.
If any of the male staff made communication with a member of the nursing staff
except by way of a Sister or the Matron the penalty was a dressing-down
and dismissal. I suppose that morals were being protected somewhere, but whose?
Of the old days, possibly two structures remain. One is that
tiny strip of roadway between Westrow Drive and the nearby shops. That is the
original Upney Lane. The other is the shops themselves, properly "Gibbards
Cottages", which are probably the oldest dwelling-houses in Barking.
Just as the hospital site was a market garden, so Leftley Estate
was a farm, and Manor Farm grew the best wheat in Essex. On the hospital site,
however, the best crop must have been earwigs, and one was well-advised to blow
forcefully down the tubes of stethoscopes before use in order to avoid
hearing a rales and rhonchi tango being danced by a set of eight little feet of
an earwig on the diaphragm.
Summer was a delight for naturalists. The bird population was
dense and varied (wagtails still abound) and all kinds of moths and butterflies
were plentiful, and in the fishpond behind Paget Ward was not only a collection
of enormous golden carp but the finest Tiger Animalcules that I have ever
seen. I still have the photographs that I took of them with the laboratory
microscope and an ancient plate camera. A summer day at Barking Hospital before
the last war was filled with the hum of bees and insects, birdsong from
the poplars, successful shots on the tennis court and the roar of a Lister
truck hauling food trolleys or laundry from ward to ward.
Expert souvenir hunters will have noted that the hospital
teaspoons are labeled "BARKING HOSPITALS" if they are pre-war. There
were two hospitals, Barking Isolation Hospital and Upney Maternity Pavilion.
Maternity patients were NOT in hospital, and a reprimand would follow if
that word were used. It was the maternity PAVILION, not hospital. And that led
to something else. If any member of the staff who had the duty to work in both
units were to go from fever to maternity without washing and changing
clothing the result would be instant dismissal. Maternity to fever --
yes, but fever to maternity HAVE YOU NEVER HEARD OF SEMMELWEISS?
Upney Maternity Pavilion was the most modern in the country.
Windows were of Vitaglass, which permitted the passage of U.V. light; floors
were of cork; the heating and lighting systems were independent of Barking
Hospital and all staff lived in a row of old farm cottages that were
opposite Sandringham Road. The new Maternity Block has been built on their
site. During the war-years I lived for a time in one of those rooms. The floor
fell in because of dry rot, and to run a bath one filled the bathroom
with live steam and the bath with cold water, and the boiler grumbled
about it all night-long. One cold tap made pluperfect coffee and the other delightful
China tea, but never the other way round, and I never did find out where the
additives were getting into those water-supplies. A large, black cat used
to do the rounds in those cottages each night, counting us. We were convinced
that it was the earthbound ghost of a former Night Sister doing a kind of
The years from 1936 to 1938 were idyllic, with the challenge of
providing a good public health service filling all our days and most of our
nights. It was an uphill struggle. We had to plead with doctors to send
specimens to the laboratory for expert examination. We had to plead with
patients to attend the free clinics, which they wouldn't do, because they
thought of it as charity. We had to plead with the Establishment to realise that
the Day of Science was at hand.
I had to call at an outlying clinic to take and collect some
swabs from a little girl with a question of rape. For the first time in my life
I met a child who had been wrapped in newspaper and stitched up in her
underclothing for the winter.
It may be true that lice never live in dirty heads, but other
things do. I found that there were people who would never wash their hair in
the winter for fear of catching pneumonia or something worse.
I learned from one rheumatic old man that the stiff joints and
swellings were not rheumatism. "Can't be the rheumy. Potato allus in my
I learned the hard way that ignorance is not confined to the
One day a Medical Officer thought that it might be a good idea
to look at the haemoglobin of a pallid, sleepy mother who was not doing at all
well. So I set out with the necessary equipment on the first call to the wards
in the history of the new laboratory. Half-way across the,grounds I noted
a figure standing in the doorway of the Pavilion with an intense interest in my
movements and as I came near I called, "I'm coming to see Mrs. ---."
"Why?" she said, standing in the doorway.
"For some blood," I said, "Nothing more."
"NO YOU WON'T," she said, "We've done without
you people in the past, and I won't have you in here now!"
And she slammed the door in my face.
The name of that loyal servant of the rule-of-thumb days is
perpetuated in the name of a ward.
But they were beginning to come -- the specimens to the
laboratory, the patients to the clinic and the poor, poverty-stricken children
to the welfare centres. Those pallid, starch-filled children were a very far
cry from what healthy, robust children should be. But things were looking
up, and mothers were attending their clinics and children arriving at the
welfare sessions with commendable regularity. Immunisation clinics were
almost always full and the dental clinics were even running coaches to the
seaside for the day as a kind of reward for total attendance. I was beginning
to feel a kind of pride that was new, a pride in working for a worthwhile cause
with a dedicated, worthwhile team. We formed a kind of affinity with each
other; we shared our problems and we shared our solutions.
Then came the autumn of 1938. War fever. Munich. The phoney
peace. The shattering of our dreams.
our clinics were boarded-up to give more cubicles, and Gas Drills and Air Raid
Precautions notices filled our noticeboards. The Upney Maternity Pavilion was
to be evacuated to Radlett in the charge of Sister Riseley, and the two
hospitals combined to form Barking Emergency Medical Services Hospital, a
hospital of first reception, to sort out air raid casualties and send them to
hospitals in an area of greater safety.
Then we had EXERCISES, in which experienced drivers attempted
to move ambulances whilst wearing gas capes, gas gloves, gas masks and
gumboots, with no driving lights, and taped-up windows, and it was absolutely
impossible. It was also very dangerous for any pedestrians who happened
to be lying about.
So we had MORE EXERCISES, in which we pretended to be patients.
I chose to pretend that I was knocked unconscious and blown up a tree. I nearly
froze to death whilst awaiting rescue, only to find myself later abandoned in
Casualty with a large label tied round my neck. Written on the label
was:- "Found drunk hiding up a tree". I gave up acting after that.
All that the A.R.P. exercises proved to any of us was that they
wouldn't work, and in our working teabreaks we were all filled with gloom that
the dreams of a ~ood public health service were gone forever.
That last year of peace, for what it was worth, dragged on
through a sultry summer and many subtle changes were taking place all around
us. There seemed to be a lot of secret meetings taking place behind closed
doors. Those who emerged were grim and silent, far too busy and far too
important to stop and explain away our fears. From various Town Halls emerged
strange faces with one thing in common -- they were all officers. Billets
Officers. Evacuation Officers. Transport Officers. Supplies Officers. Everyone
of them with a large lapel badge and a clipboard thick with foolscap
papers. We began to get a bit worried. They were drinking our tea, and there
were more strangers than natives at teabreaks. It was the final invasion that shook us most. Twelve
magnificent ladies with strange headgear descended upon us and announced that
they were the Sisters from the London, and that they would be in charge. With
them they brought twelve ernest but undisciplined young men -- the
Medical Students -- who were to be fitted into our teams.
It was the final invasion that shook us most. Twelve
magnificent ladies with strange headgear descended upon us and announced that they
were the Sisters from the London, and that they would be in charge. With them
they brought twelve earnest but undisciplined young men -- the Medical
Students -- who were to be fitted into our teams.
On Friday the first of September the whole hospital was
"stood down" except for a skeleton staff, and we were told to report
back instantly to our posts if war were declared. We all felt it would be our
last weekend alive, and few of us had any idea of what to do with it. On
that sunny Sunday morning came the radio announcement, then the sirens wailed
announcing the first air raid, and we were at war. My instructions were to
report immediately to Barking E.M.S. Hospital Laboratory for Blood Transfusion
and General Pathology.
The clinics were filled with sawdust and carpenters and
strangers were drinking our tea. Jenner Ward was cleared of everything and then
it was all put back again "in case it might be useful". There were
bandages and traction weights and those awful Thomas splints lining the
walls and there were stacks of hot-water bottles and those round shock-cradles
which fry patients so well. Sterile wound dressings were stacked against sand
buckets and stirrup pumps for incendiary bombs. Shop assistants arrived as
stretcher bearers and office boys arrived as "Admin.". A few
priests hovered around, looking for something nearly dead to practise on. Some
of us found a spare teapot. It was going to be a long, hard day.
But the first casualty was from a motorcycle crash with a kerb
in the black-out. The rider was taking his girl-friend home and they weren't
supposed to be out, and they pleaded with us to keep their secret. I am not absolutely sure of the names and
addresses on the casualty cards (I didn't write them) but I don't think they
were right. They only had two bruises between them, anyway.
The first operation in the Pavilion was an appendicectomy on a
man who was not in the least amused that he was operated on in a maternity
hospital. We were left with the impression that he wanted it stitched back in
again until he could go to a "proper" hospital.
Then we were on the map, and we began to collect the hospital
birds looking for any chance of a shot of morphia, and we learned the value of
never leaving a cupboard or drawer unlocked. There were drunks and suicides and
lead-swingers and cheats, and no end of black-out accidents and people
falling down stairs, and we found that there were only two kinds of policemen,
those who drank endless tea and those who didn't. Anybody with a thirst dropped
in at the hospital.
We all worked "A. R." (= As Required)
and that meant a day or two without any sleep at all at times, then everything
settled down to sleep in that period of the "phoney war".
All nurses had trouble with their stockings, and I was having
trouble with the stockings of a certain Nurse Ratcliffe. The trouble was that
she had six pairs, and I could find only five. I took all of them out of the
pot of formalin and alcohol and counted them -- ten -- and then she
realised that she was wearing the missing pair. I stretched her stockings on
the drying frame and gave them back to her a few minutes later, hardened and
ladder-proofed by my own secret process. It was our proud boast that no
Barking Nurse ever laddered, and the service cost them nothing.
We had just reached the stage of accepted apologies and the
air of the dull, grey Saturday afternoon was filled with the drone of aircraft.
The Red Alert sounded, and the Night of Fire began. Everything shook and went
on shaking, and burning legal documents from fires in the City of London
began to fall from the skies. Westward and nearby the red glow was white-hot,
and the whole of Silvertown was ablaze. Still the planes came, and the whine of
falling bombs became confused with the cries of the injured as they
filled the beds in Jenner Ward. Those with the smallest wounds made the most
noise, and I began to dread the finding of the blank gaze and bored look of
those about to die. The guns in Barking Park aimed at the incoming invaders and
the shrapnel from their shells brought in even more casualties. The drone
went on. And on. And on. We forgot it. But the air was filled with the smell of
cement dust, blood, faeces, vomit and even more cement dust. Every casualty
admitted had first to be wiped clean of dirt and dust. In practice
sessions everybody was clean and sweet-smelling, but in reality they were
indescribably wretched and horrible. Tags were tied round the living, tags were
tied round the drugged, and more tags were tied on those not yet positively
identified. It was important to keep the books straight. Someone brought
tea, but it tasted of cement and blood. Transport was arranged for those fit
for transfer, the dead were stacked in the local school which was to act as a
mortuary, and the more difficult fitted up with more plaster and splints.
And then it started all over again. And then we learned that
we would never rest, for it started again and again as we were ready to stop.
At dawn the sky was filled with smoke and Jenner Ward was piled high with
discarded clothing and empty packs. Someone started to clear it up and
new stocks were found and Jenner Ward was made ready again, and all was still.
A Sunday morning, and no bells rang.
No-one asked them, but they came. A few at first, then more,
until a steady queue of volunteers kept me busy and wide-awake for most of the
day bleeding the donors who had come to replace the vast amount of blood that
we had used during the night. I found that over and over again. These
Barking people never had to be asked. When there was need for blood they were
there, eager, determined, and bringing a friend as well. Right through the
whole war Barking Blood Bank had enough to supply other hospitals as
Night after night the bombers came back, and day after and day
the blood -donors, who had been bombed all night, came back as well. them
it would have been a disaster.
Two particularly nasty bombs were the V.l and the V.2. The
first was a ton of T.N.T. carried by a kind of automatic airplane which crashed
at a chosen distance and exploded. The second was a faster-than-sound rocket
that entered from the stratosphere and exploded without audible warning.
One morning at six a V.l landed at the open end of the bank of
boilers of Barking Power Station. It was change-over time, and two shifts were
there. One by one the men were brought into Jenner Ward with all the hair and
clothes burned from their bodies. They were cheerful. Their wives were
sent for and joined them at the bedsides. They were given as much as they
wanted to drink and most chose bottles of Guinness, and we watched as, one by
one, they collapsed and died. The air was filled with the smell of roast
pork. I have never eaten it since.
One of the casualties had been left until last because he said
that his neck was broken. He came in later, strapped to a chair, and his neck
was wrapped in Plaster of Paris and a hook-ring fitted to the top. Two months
later he was returned to us from another hospital, his neck healed, and
instructions were to remove the plaster. We tried, but there was a problem. His
beard, meanwhile, had grown into the plaster. It took two of us four hours to
get him out.
One summer evening I was having a quiet drink with one of the
students in a Barking pub when the wall came in. We both rushed out to find the
site of the incident, and I jumped aboard a passing loaded Army ambulance
heading for the hospital. There is a door behind the driver giving access
to the stretchers, and I went through to help where I could. On Jenner Ward we
unloaded, and I was very busy for the next four hours with the casualties from
Then we began to clear up and re-stock. From the shadows came
the A.T.S. driver of the ambulance I had boarded.
"Could I have some help, please? I've hurt my foot."
From the sole of her right foot we drew a piece of glass one
inch by three inches, tapering to a point. She had driven that ambulance all
night with that piece of glass embedded in the foot she used on the accelerator
Sportsmen, actors and Civil Servants get medals and O.B.E's ..
I doubt if she did.
Medical staff came from many sources, and the range was wide.
Some were G.P.'s from anywhere in Britain, some had been on the staff of
provincial hospitals, and some were from Europe and had fled the horrors of
political tyranny. These last were often the hardest to work with, since
their English could sometimes be inadequate. But the biggest problem was that
they had suffered terribly, and we simply didn't understand. One poor woman,
who could say more by waving her hands and arms about than she could put
into English words, was a particularly sad lady. Much of her time she spent
silently weeping into a tiny handkerchief and turning away when approached. It
took many months, but later we learned that she had watched her parents and her
brother thrust into a gas chamber and she had escaped with her husband
and her son. The son had been accepted for training as a pilot/navigator, but
on his third flight had been reported as "missing, presumed killed".
She had come to us shortly after the son's death, and within three months
her husband had a fatal heart attack. She was then entirely alone, and in a
foreign country facing an unknown future. She spent much of her time in the
hospital silently sobbing and hiding away and I deeply regret that none of
us did much to make her life worthwhile. We thought of her as a very wet
blanket. But we were only later to believe the evidence of Mauthausen,
Treblinka, Dachau and all the other places that she had tried to tell us about
These Continental doctors came with their mid-European accents
and mannerisms and their yearning for their homelands and we expected them to
understand that the British stiff upper lip would solve all their problems.
Some of these doctors had actually seen warfare, and the
Spanish Civil War veterans tried to advise us on schemes that would work or
fail. We could pump blood more quickly into shocked patients with a CO 2
cylinder, as in Spain, they said, but we had visions of bursting bottles
and wasted blood. One night a young girl was brought in after a bomb had
ignited a gas main and she had been almost grilled alive. From an Italian
doctor who was on the run from a bad-tempered Mussolini came a solution
that was unknown here, but outstanding.
Vultures and Carrion Crows are well-mannered birds, for they
won't eat any part of you until you are dead. Then they plunge their scrawny
necks into all alone, your cavities until bare bones, remain. But they won't eat
you alive. They patiently wait.
Maggots are nicely-mannered as well, for they won't eat living
flesh. They prefer their food to be dead and preferably putrefying.
Now, if you find a little girl who has been badly burned over
a lot of her body there will be an awful lot of dead tissue lying around that
the little girl will find it most painful to part with, so you have a problem.
But not if you are an Italian Refugee from Mussolini in a bad
You wrap the little girl in an oil-soaked blanket which has
been "sown" with maggots. Then you find a nurse to volunteer to stay
with her, day and night, for a few weeks. Then you unwrap her, and a beautiful
body emerges without a scar and the maggots have eaten away all the
Sister Nason of Lister Ward was the one who stayed with the
little girl, and when we both unwrapped her the stench was quite the most
repulsive that I have ever met. It took me days to wash it out of my hair.
Nobody gave Sister Nason a medal, either.
Somewhere, in the maternity wards, there should be a baby's
cot, a rather special one. It is in memory of Dr. Mary Lough, who died from
septicaemia acquired when treating a patient with Childbed Fever. It was before
the days of anti-biotics, before the days of M. and B. 693, when a
streptococcal sepsis was a fairly certain killer.
Ross Ward has a desk pad in memory of a nurse who collapsed
and died from a typical pneumonia, which came as a mini-epidemic soon after the
The Social Club has a record player in memory of Miss Hilda
King, the one-and-only clerk that the hospital needed before the coming of the
There were other "in-service" deaths, but not on
hospital premises. Mr. Foy, a charming and admired Chief Dental Officer
collapsed and died on Aldgate East Station one morning on the way to Central
Clinic. He had been an anaesthetist during the war.
One of the twelve medical students who descended upon us so'
suddenly in the phoney war was always popular and a tireless worker, but he was
dying from leukaemia when they all left us to return to the London at the end
of their six-month stay. Dr. Eager from Australia and Mr. Stafford G.
Meyer from the London both died from heart-failure in mid-life. Dr. A.W.A.
Michie, our popular surgeon who performed miracles in the tiny Lister theatre
and produced enchanting music on a tin whistle at staff concerts went
home to his practise in Great· Yarmouth and never came back. Another heart
attack. The medical profession is not famed for its longevity.
There were lighter moments. It seemed to have been decided
that Barking E.M.S. Hospital was too near the "front line" for
comfort, and admissions for routine treatment were reduced to a minimum. Ross
Ward was closed down and the space used as a reserve store for beds,
splints, dressings and the vast Bragg-Paul Resuscitator that had been donated
by the Nuffield Charitable Trust to every hospital in the country after the
epidemic of Anterior Poliomyelitis had swept the country pre-war. We soon
packed everything into the smaller half of the ward and turned the larger
half into a kind of Staff Communal Recreation Hall. I don't know if we ever
actually asked for permission to do so, but I don't know of anybody who would
have refused if asked. The Resident Engineer, Mr. Greville, built a stage
and wired up lights. Someone found stage curtains. A radiogram provided any
background music required, and a microphone was wired into the amplifier stage
for further facilities. From nowhere came talent, for Barking lacked
nothing. We had nurses with wonderful voices, and by no means were they all
Welsh. Shaw's "Pygmalion" was performed, and performed again and
again every night for a fortnight to entertain patients, staff and friends.
"The Importance of Being Ernest" followed with equal success,
and short plays and sketches written by the staff followed on a regular basis.
The morale of the hospital was very high indeed, and even I got involved in the
entertainments. Before disc-jockeys had ever been heard of I was
producing monthly Record Concerts from requests, and building up quite a
network of lenders of records to make it all possible. I like music, real
music, very much indeed, although I can neither sing nor play, but I was rather
humbled when I watched the audience at many of my sessions. The Refugee
doctors were all accomplished musicians and had clearly been brought up with
the Classics, but often I would see them openly weeping when some of the
beautiful music filled the ward. Perhaps they had known the composers, or
their families, or the music of Beethoven or Mozart took them back too forcibly
to the lands they knew they would never see again -- I don't know. But music
meant a great deal to them.
To the concerts I added exhibitions of craftwork by staff, and
the walls were covered by beautiful embroidery and needlework. More hidden
talent! I found a teacher of Handicrafts at a local school, and she formed a
panel of judges to award the prizes that the judges, themselves,
provided. There were four such exhibitions, and the standard grew higher every
But the best of the Ross Days
was at Christmas.
Christmas ends on Twelfth Night, so there was plenty of time for each ward to
hold its own Christmas Party, as well as the traditional Nurses' and Domestics'
Parties. New Year's Eve was always to have a Scottish theme, but on the other
nights the sister could choose the theme as she wished. The final party
was always given by the Maternity Staff for some long-forgotten reason and the
Christmas Tree was burned outside at the end. The rules were simple. Each
Ward-sister could choose the night that she wished, and her staff would then
acquire, by means legal or otherwise, everything necessary for a Ward Party
which was open to all staff. Everybody. Each ward could choose a theme for their
own -- Disneyland, Mountain Inn, Fingal's Cave, The Mine of the Seven
Dwarfs, Alice's Wonderland -- anything, but it was up to them to provide
everything that they needed, and that included food and other delicacies. It
meant that from about September the night and the theme would have been
selected and the ward staff were already getting friends, relatives and
patients to provide a little extra "something" for the ward party.
Some gifts were most surprising. A promise of a bottle of Scotch -- almost unobtainable
-- a dozen eggs from a poultry-keeper; some old sheets for back-cloth,
some secret recipes known only to the family of the donor, and the result was
that we all learned about the wonderful country that we lived in, with its
pikelets, its laver bread, its figanny 'oben and all those ways in which rural
families have lives richer than the townsfolk. A hospital, by its nature,
is always a very cosmopolitan and inter-racial community, and it would be no
bad thing if all the M.P.'s and Wise Ones of our world spent a compulsory ten
years working in our hospitals before being allowed to open their mouths.
Some of those Christmas Parties were very moving, for we are all human and
homesickness affected us all in one way or another. We were all a long way from
At the Domestic Party in 1943, when we were all feeling the strain of the
restrictions and shortages of wartime life and the war-front news was anything
but cheerful, a skinny and pallid lank-haired girl crept silently to the centre
of the stage and the lights were dimmed. We all knew the girl, or we
didn't, for she was so shy and self-effacing and timid and weak that one had to
make a conscious effort to know that she was there at all. She never spoke in
more than a whisper, and she was always sniffing and wiping her nose on a
bit of dirty rag.
There she stood, in the centre of the stage, staring vaguely mid-left of the
audience and began to sing. Over her spindly arm she carried an old raincoat
and a cardboard gas-mask case. The pianist, an Austrian Refugee doctor, played
very softly and matched the timing of the clear but whispering voice
perfectly. She sang the Negro Spiritual "Going Home", which you may
know as a theme in Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. Her voice grew
richer and she slowly turned to face the audience, seeming to be looking
into everybody's eyes. There was no other sound but the piano and her
voice, which was growing even richer. She ended her song, slowly turning and
walking off-stage as she did so, and the silence was filled by heart-breaking
sobs from many places in the audience. The applause was deafening, but
she wouldn't come back on stage "to take a bow". She was flooding
with tears herself.
There were never a large number of Scottish people on the staff, but those who
were there made their presence felt on each New Year's Eve. Whichever ward ran
the party that night could be assured of some surprise gifts of shortbread and
other items of Scottish confectionary that came out of thin air. Scottish
people are very generous. But perhaps the star attraction was the tireless Mr.
Michie, perched on the back of a chair and playing endless reels for hour after
hour on his tin whistle. Genuine Scots, of course, led the way, but the
large Irish community were not far behind, giving their own version of how
reels should be danced. New Year's Night was a time of active exercise for
everybody, and the hugging and the kissing that broke out at midnight
made up for all the restrictions of the year.
Sometimes performers from outside the hospital would offer to give us a free
concert sometime during the year, and we always made them welcome. Some were
very good, very good indeed, and may well have gone on to well-earned
A group of three, dressed as strolling minstrels with an additional member, a
pretty girl who was a talented singer, wandered among us one evening on Ross.
With no apparent plan they would break out into song or music near a group or
in a corner, then drift away and catch the mood somewhere else. It soon
became clear that they were cleverly sizing us up, and when they felt that they
could identify the origins of the various groups among us they took advantage
and played appropriate local music. (It is true, when in large company,
we tend to agglutinate together into groups of similar taste). The fiddler,
dark and slim with clever fingers, played away at Irish Reels where he detected
a group of Irish nurses, but the star of the night was the bluff,
round-faced, smiling accordionist, for somehow he got the mood of
everybody. In one of those quiet moments when nobody seemed to be talking he
began to play, very softly, "Pedro the Fisherman". Feet began to tap
and soon there were some singing as well, and before anybody realised it
he had almost the whole assembly singing along with him, no matter what he
played. Then the fiddler and the piper joined him, and the girl singer too, and
we simply wouldn't let them go. It was interesting to watch, for I have
never seen such an example of sheer professionalism by entertainers. I wonder
who they were and where they are now?
By the time that the war was ending I had developed an intense loyalty and
admiration for Barking Hospital, although conditions were hard and the work
fairly exhausting. There was never an end to it. It went on and on. Rations
were not really adequate -- not for me, anyway, for I often had to miss a
meal and there was no second chance. Nurses saved my life more than once with a
sly slice of toast. I had begun to recognise the quality of the people I was
working with, and learning that they were really rather exceptional people. We
had shared bombs and fire, we had been demoralised by the rumour-mongers, we
had wept silently when news came of a death or injury to a loved one in a raid
on a faraway home, we had done our best to console each other in times of
trouble or despair and, most of all, we had built up a state of mutual trust
and respect that could never fade. We were Barking Hospital. The Rest was
bricks and mortar.
A great pile of wood and rubbish, almost as high as the ancient chestnut tree,
stood near the hard tennis courts and awaited ignition. It was Mr. Michie who
threw the torch, and soon we were standing around the V. E. Fire, for the war
in Europe was, at last, ended. Some of the refugee doctors were standing
in the firelight hugging each other with tears streaming down their faces, but
most of us were happy to find ourselves still alive. I know well that most of
us did not expect to see peace, ever again. Trying to deal with screaming
or moaning casualties with exploding bombs and the sharp crack of gunfire all
round, the silent prayer of most of us was "Make mine quick; no
mutilation, PLEASE!" We felt so vulnerable, and with the V.l and V.2
missiles day after day and night after night we knew that our luck would
run out soon. Hospitals had been bombed to dust nearby and our colleagues lost
forever. -There was really every reason to behave badly as if each day were the
last, but I never once saw anything but loyalty and dedication among my
colleagues, and that includes the domestic staff and the caterers and the
porters, as well as the doctors and the nurses. It was a real privilege
to work with them. I had been very lucky.
The fire eventually died down in the early hours of the morning and we began to
say our goodbyes. Some had already resigned, and were going immediately
to their homes in the far North or down to the South-west or to proud
Yorkshire. We all exchanged addresses, and I am still in contact with many of
those who still live. Some have gone world-wide, to the U.S.A., the Antipodes,
or back to mid-Europe. Most merely went home. Many, far too many, have
Matron Hedgecock was in tears,
and I felt like weeping with her. Trying to speak clearly, she kept on saying,
"All my best nurses; they've gone. What am I going to do now?"
Most doors were wide open in the Nurses' Home, the rooms evacuated and ready
for cleaning. Dining tables in the Refectory were reduced to three, holding
about eighteen nurses. Patients had long been discharged home.
Dr. C. Leonard Williams had been the Medical Officer of Health and Medical
Superintendent, and began to set plans in motion. Eventually the National
Health Service would take over everything, but meanwhile we would carry on as
if the war had never happened. But, of course, we would use anything that
the war had taught us. Bit by bit we salvaged the clinics and the concrete
sandbags came down and natural light streamed into the gloomy wartime wards.
Shelters were demolished and the vast iron tanks of water for firefighting were
drained, and I often wonder what happened to their resident water boatmen.
Dr. Williams was a unique man to work for. He did not drive, but expected you
to drive yourself to the utmost of your ability. He tolerated fools very badly
indeed, and pompous officialdom got very short treatment from him. Plain
speech, well-chosen words and a respect for etymology seemed to govern
him. During the war he used to hold "court" during the late night and
early hours, and he called it the "University of Barking". They were
really brain-stretching exercises, and he chose his delegates by their
performance. Some moved on, very rapidly, by their own desire. In some
ways a very hard man to work for, but an excellent leader once he was
With such a man we began to re-form the Public Health Service of Barking. In
those days it was all, sensibly, under one control, the hospital, clinics,
school medical services, maternity service, public health, immunisation, health
visiting, T.B. visiting, District Nursing, Welfare and District
Midwifery. Any problems were resolved without delay within the Department.
Everyone knew who was in charge of what. A pregnant mother, attending for a
blood test, may casually complain that she had no coal delivered after
waiting a week. It would be there next morning, for a word to the right
department and it was assured that no pregnant woman was ever in need, and
someone would "get on" to the coal merchant and ask the reason for
New faces came, and some went again fairly quickly. Some came from the Services
or from closed-down wartime Government departments, but there was an air of
uncertainty about everything. Slowly normality evolved, but the danger and the
tragedy of the war was gone and it was hard to rekindle that feeling of
The example of Barking was about to be destroyed. The Public Health Department
was to go. There were to be no more Medical Officers of Health. Hospitals
would not have Medical Superintendents, but lay Administrators instead.
Hospitals would not be answerable to local Councillors or to the general
Groups were formed, usually of about four or five hospitals. Barking Hospital
would join King George Vth, Jubilee Hospital (its original title) along with
Chadwell Heath Isolation Hospital and Ilford Maternity Hospital. Dagenham
Sanatorium (built as a Smallpox Hospital for West Ham Corporation) and
Goodmayes (Mental) Hospital, also built for West Ham were to join the Group
later. The Group was to be called the Ilford and Barking Hospital Management
Committee. But it was nearly otherwise. Another plan was to join Barking
Hospital with Rush Green Hospital to Oldchurch Hospital, thereby nearly
matching the Barking and Havering Health Authority territory. But it did not
happen that way.
The I. and B. H.M.C. raised the status of K.G.V., renamed "King George
Hospital" to that of headquarters, but this was a move generally
followed, rewarding the voluntary hospitals for coming into the N.H.S ••
Many of the staff were promoted up one stage, but the staff of the municipal
hospitals stayed where they were.
Later "Barking" was dropped, and it became the "Ilford and
District H.M.C.", then the "Redbridge and Waltham "Forest H.M.C."
and finally the" Redbridge H.M.C.". It may change yet again.
All kinds of rumours abounded, and it was once planned to turn Barking Hospital
into a sanatorium, or a geriatric hospital, or a General Hospital, and then
suddenly it became a Maternity Hospital. And not before time. The
pregnant were everywhere, and at one time mothers from as far away as Clayhall
and Cranham and Rush Green were only too pleased to find a bed no further away
than Barking Hospital. Plans were made for extension.
Much earlier, long before the war, plans were made by the Borough to raise
funds for a General Hospital by means of an Annual Fete and Carnival. The site
planned was in Loxford Lane, off South Park Drive, near where Hyleford School
now stands. Money was steadily coming in, but the war stopped activity
for a time. When the war was over a National Health Service was planned and the
planners promptly took over the Barking Hospital Fund. If anybody ever built
that hospital it would be the N.H.S., so they took the money. There was a
bit of a protest but it didn't get very far.
The extension to Barking took the form of a Tower Block, called by some
"Princetown Block" because of its ominous, grey colour. It was built
in the middle of the space between the fever hospital and the pavilion, and
experienced many air-conditioning and drainage problems before settling
Garland's Drive was blocked by a prefabricated building intended to house a few
mentally handicapped people before eventual release into the community, and the
row of red-bricked cottages near the Pavilion were demolished to make way for a
new Maternity Unit. The cottages nearly fell down on their own.
Between Harvey and Ross Wards new buildings were erected for future geriatric
patients and one entrance is festooned by what seem to be large, white pipes.
The entrance also abuts well into the roadway.
Between the old Nurses' Home and the station is a structure housing the
Hedgecock Nurse Training Unit, artistically built and looking like a cross
between an entrance to a tropical plant house and a Swiss mountain inn.
Margaret Hedgecock would definitely not approve, for she was very
conservative in her tastes.
The general pattern of Barking Hospital is now decidedly odd. A grey tower, a
Swiss cottage, a pipework pagoda and a new maternity block somewhat reminiscent
of a 1930's cinema. All a very far cry from the quiet and reassuring harmony
of the lawns and the meadows and the waving poplar trees concealing the
sturdy red-roofed wards in the pre-war days. One may wonder what Prince Charles
would have to say if ever he had the misfortune to visit Barking Hospital!
But I can look back with pride. Fifty four years is a long time and many
changes are inevitable, among them many for the better. It is to be hoped that
you will never again see a child choke to death with diphtheria before there is
time even for a tracheotomy to be attempted; no more for you the sight of
the limping walk of the victim of anterior poliomyelitis; never again a Rhesus
baby, and possibly no more Rubella-induced mutilations to be hidden away among
the unseen handicapped children. True, the flimsy safety-net can break if
it is taken too much for granted and not maintained in good order, and those
who question the quarantine laws may have to think a little harder.
I recall the team and the team spirit, the loyalty and the dependability, those
who did not see what there was no point in seeing and did not hear what was
never intended for their ears. In spite of the unflattering NO FRATERNISATION
there were many romances that led to marriage, and those marriages have lasted
extremely well. Too many may have been separated by death, but very few have
ended in divorce.
But then, they always were a loyal lot!
The architect for the 1931 and
1936 buildings was the Borough Architect, Mr. Dawson, who also build Rush Green
Hospital -- hence the similarity.
On the roof at the front of the Nurses' Home two mysterious birds gazed out
eastwards, blazing brilliantly in gold in the first rays of dawn.
At a "University of
Barking" session, when the style of Greek architecture was being thrown
around I asked Dr. Williams the function of the two birds on the roof,
suggesting that they were to guard the Aesculapian Temple of the University of
Dr. Williams was not amused.
""----" and "----"", he said, (naming them, the
details are in my 1941 diary) "are there as protectors. If ever they fly
away a plague and a pestilence will fall on Barking."
Well, Dr. Williams, I am sorry to report that they have flown.