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Transcript TitleWillock, Miss (O1999.26)
IntervieweeMiss Willock (MW)
InterviewerPeter Ruffles (PR)
Transcriber byJean Riddell (Purkis)


Hertford Oral History Group

Recording No: O1999.26

Interviewee: Miss Willock (MW)

Interviewer: Peter Ruffles (PR)

Date: 20/11/1999

Venue: Knebworth

Transcriber: Jean Riddell (Purkis)

Typed by: Freda Joshua

************** unclear recording

[discussion] untranscribed material

italics editor’s notes

PR: This is Peter Ruffles at Miss Willock’s home in Knebworth on the 20 November, .Saturday afternoon, sun shining, both of us relaxed or pretending to be and Miss Willock was, for a while, Matron of the Hertford County Hospital. I’ve come for 20 minutes or so to ask Miss Willock if she could tell us one or two things about her memory of arriving in Hertford, what she thought of the place, but I want to begin by trailing through a little bit of Miss Willock’s earlier life and training. Where were you born?

MW: I was born in Birmingham and I had a council school education until 14. I was one of 9, a very, very poor family, never knew what it was to have anything new, it was always from the people over the way, things like that. When I was 14 I left school at the Christmas and started at a laundry in the January. It was the best paid thing that you could have, although my headmaster had begged my mother, when I was about 11, to go to grammar school. Quite impossible, so I went to work in a laundry. Went through all the stages of sorting room, packing room and all those sorts of things in the laundry and when I was 28 I realised I couldn’t stop in a laundry all the rest of my life, so I went to see the manager to tell him that I wanted to leave and asked him how much superannuation I’d got, because I’d heard of this man who taught children to get into grammar school.

And I had the sum of £32 and some odd money and I went to this man and he said yes, he would teach me to do book-keeping. The book-keeping appealed to me because I was always good at figures. I was down for the month and the £32 would see me through that month, although I was in digs, I had to pay my landlady. On the Saturday morning I finished, I said to him ‘I’ll have to get a job’ and he said ‘don’t worry, I’ve got an interview for you at Arkles & Pikes in Oldbury, which was part of the Tube Investment Group, and I went to see this man, walked into the office, which had adding machines and comptometers and I said to this man ‘what are these machines’ and he said ‘oh, this is what you’ll be using’. I hadn’t a clue. Tube Equipment was the maintenance firm of Tube Investments.

And when I got to the interview I said ‘I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time’ and he said ‘oh, that’s all right, I’m going to give you a job for being so honest’. So I started work on the Monday and he was so good. He stayed behind every evening to show me how to work the adding machines, because it was the costing department, all the jobs were costed out. When I was there, I was in the offices and I used to go round the firm and I used to order equipment for the surgery, the works surgery. I was able to do these things in very good time and I got very tired of that. And because I wanted a job where I could live in, I applied for a job as a hotel receptionist.

PR: How big was the surgery where you’d been working?

MW: Oh, it was massive, it was the works surgery. We didn’t do operations and things like that, a medical room that people would go to if they weren’t well. There was a sister.

PR: There was a sister there?

MW: All the time, it was a big factory. But I found myself getting very interested in that, but it wasn’t sufficient for me, so then I chose to go. I had the idea of being a hotel receptionist, so I read the hotel papers and went to work as a receptionist at the Crown in Shrewsbury, and I worked there for a long time. Then I came to a luxury hotel at Droitwich, travel agency people go there, and once again I got bored very easily and by this time I was about 33 and I used to look after the cash box when we had dinner-dances, and one of the people who used to come to these dinner-dances, she worked at Dudley Road Hospital in Birmingham as a clerk on the clerical side. And she had 2 or 3 jobs.

And then I finished at the hotel, I had 2 months’ rest because I assure you I worked all night with the bars. I had about 2 months without work, but I’d accumulated money because I couldn’t go out. And this woman who worked at Dudley Road Hospital said to me one day ‘how about doing a locum for me at the hospital’. I said ‘work in a hospital? No way!’ I was in digs, all this time, and was getting fed up, and she phoned me again, ‘come and do my job for me or I’ll leave’ and I said ‘I think I will this time because I’m fed up with not doing anything’. So she said she would make an appointment with the matron for me. I was just going to Dudley Road Hospital for a fortnight to do her locum while she was off sick. But during that fortnight I became completely absorbed with reports which were of the maternity department, and at the end of that fortnight I knew, it got to my ears, that she’d had the sack. She wasn’t sick at all but she was doing another job in the Austin Motor Works, and they found out about this, you see, moonlighting.

And I went to see the matron and she said ‘oh yes, you can have her job on a permanent basis’. So I really was thrilled to bits because I found myself getting completely absorbed. And we used to have to go and talk to the labouring mums. I used to take the post round and in those days, women in labour didn’t have visitors, they had to wait until the baby was born before their husbands could come in. So I used to have to take messages to the women. I said to this lady, she said’ I’ve never been like this before and I’ve had 3 children’ and I was very shocked to hear next morning that she had died, and it really was a very big disappointment to me. And then I went on the wards after that, I used to see the maternity sisters sit in an alcove talking about this mum because they felt a bit guilty. I said to this young lady ‘oh, I do envy you’, she said ‘what do you mean?’ ‘you being able to talk like this and in such terms’. Then she said ‘why don’t you start nursing?’ I said ‘I’m too old, I’m 34’ and she ‘Oh, I don’t think you are’, and we talked.

But I thought about it and I went to see the matron, could I do my midwifery training, because I never intended to do general nursing, l only did my midwifery training because I knew I’d get a job on the district, so it was a future for me to have a home to live in and some work to do. I said to the matron could I train and she said’ well, yes if you really want to’. So it was settled and I went to start training. I was thinking, you see, there would always be a job on the district, I could be a district midwife, out in the community. So I had to go to pre-training school, and you had a month in nursing and a month in surgery and it was when I was on the second month that I realised that I couldn’t really be anybody by being a district midwife. So I spoke to some of the sisters and I said ‘I think I’d like to do my general nursing’ and they said ‘oh, it’s going to take you about 5 years’. But I’d made my mind up because I didn’t think I could get anywhere just being a district midwife, be a sister or anything like that, because I hadn’t got my general training. So I went to the matron and she said ‘oh no, I don’t think so, you’re too old, they only take them to about 30 in these days’.

Anyway, my time in the PTD – I was going to finish that week-end and I was going to the midwifery block and start training over there, and I had a message from the tutor, ‘matron wants to see you’, and I thought she was going to tell me I can’t even start training because I hadn’t done very well in my exam. She said ‘sit down, I’ve had a letter from the General Nursing Council and they’re going to stretch a point. You can train, because’ she said ‘you’ve done so well’. I didn’t think I had. Nursing is common sense and I’d acquired common sense working in a laundry, and you met people and that was the benefit I got. So I started my general training and went through that. And I had to take my prelim, exam which you take after 18 months, in the sick bay because I lost about 2 stone. This is because you want to do your best, people wouldn’t have believed that I hadn’t worked in a hospital before, they’d always get me to make beds with them because I could do them quickly and surprised people that I’d not done it before.

I got my first and second part prelim and went on to finish my general training but, because I knew I hadn’t got any time to waste, I had to make arrangements to do my midwifery training before I got the results. I got my finals and I went across to the midwifery department to start my midwifery training. I was there 12 months and then went down to the Isle of Wight to do my second part training, which was lovely, I really enjoyed my time on the district. Mothers on the district were wonderful compared with mothers in the hospital where they all thought they’d have to shout and scream. On the district I think it was because they didn’t want their husbands to hear, or the neighbours. I finished my training in the October and I had a letter from my matron – I’d been made sister. I’ve never been a staff nurse because I had no time to waste. I started midwifery before I got my final exams then I went to Dudley Road as a sister.

PR: It must have been a very good, but funny, feeling for you.

MW: It was, because I was quite thrilled that I’d had a letter from her offering me this sister’s post. I worked as a sister at Dudley Road Hospital for 7 years and once again, you see, I wanted to move on to go into admin. So I got a job at Northampton in the offices and I’d worked there about 12 months and she wanted me to go into management. So I had an interview at the Whittington Hospital in London, 2 hospitals in the so-called Whittington, but 3 branches. I went there but I hated every minute. It was a 12 month course to be an assistant matron and you’re a dogsbody, you’re running about all over the place.

And when my 12 months was finished I had to find another job, and I got a job at St James in London as an assistant matron – no:7 they called it. Then I wanted to get no:8 – which was matron, no:8 nursing officer, and I saw this advert for Hertford County. So I wrote to the chief nursing officer of Harlow and all these hospitals in the area and she met me and driving me to Hertford County Hospital for my interview she said ‘will you want accommodation?’ ‘Oh yes’ I said ‘I shall need accommodation, I don’t intend to retire in Hertford. I shall retire in Birmingham where my 2 sisters are’. Anyway, I got that job, no:8, and that pleased me more than anything. But I can’t say that I got any satisfaction from it really, because it was such a small hospital compared with what I’d worked in. I’d trained in a large hospital – 880 beds, then the Whittington, St James, they were large hospitals. Lots of little things about Hertford County. Is it boring?

PR: Absolutely not!

MW: Talking about the difference with a small hospital – it was so intimate compared with the bigger hospitals and when I first went there and met everybody I was quite taken aback by a man, an elderly man, who did all the shaving of the patients who couldn’t shave themselves. He was so admired and so loved by the staff and patients alike at Hertford County, he really was, and I thought well perhaps he is something in a smaller hospital. I used to go, during my time at Hertford County, to Western House, East Herts Hospital and the TB Hospital at Ware Park Sanitorium, and the rest of my time at Hertford County.

But I liked going round to the hospitals because I would have got bored in the office all the time because I learned to do my job so quickly, I felt I was a waste of money really, because it was such an easy job. I’ve never had such an easy job. But I liked it because the people were so, when I first went there, they hadn’t had anybody, they’d had Miss Baker, then they had this other matron as well and then she left so they had a sort of, an assistant matron standing in. And it was such a change because I’d had all the experience of admin and was able to make up my mind, and they couldn’t believe this. And I got on very well, I think, with everybody.

PR: And then came the diplomacy, the delicacy and the firmness and trying to smooth out some of the –

MW: Oh yes, you had to take your time and you had to listen to both sides of the story. 1972 I went and retired there ’79, there 7 years.

PR: Where was the advert you saw?

MW: Nursing Times, I used to take the Nursing Times.

Side B [this side proved to be less clear – harder to understand that Side A]

MW: When I went for the interview I said I intended to live with my sisters in Birmingham, but from the moment I came to live in Hertfordshire, I knew I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, I loved it, I really did.

PR: Where were you living when you were working at Hertford County?

MW: I was resident, I had a flat at East Herts Hospital at Gallows Hill and it was a very nice flat. I had nothing to do, I was awakened in the morning with a cup of tea and waited on hand and foot really. If I didn’t want to go to the dining room I had to cook for myself, but It had a very nice kitchen. The furniture was a bit dilapidated so I had to buy myself a suite, which I brought here with me, actually. Didn’t change it until about 2 years ago.

PR: I wonder whether your accommodation there is still there now?

MW: Oh no, I don’t think so. It’s all been changed into offices.

PR: Some of the older parts of the hospital are being preserved while they build in the grounds where the prefabricated wards were. Where was it?

MW: My accommodation?

PR: Yes, lead me through the gates, as it were.

MW: If you go up Gallows Hill and you turn left into the hospital, the block that I was in ran parallel with the road. At one time, the admin staff, the people above me, there used to be the school then there was this building where the staff nurses lived, Hertford County, I’m talking about, and then that thing all went, it was sold.

PR: I think Miss Baker lived at Sele Lodge, didn’t she, at the bottom of the drive? Facing you really just a little bit to the left [this is Sele House].

MW: She was earlier than me.

PR: What did the job involve?

MW: Well, posts, meetings doing ward rounds. And if I did ward rounds, I wanted to go on my own, because you got more satisfaction – the rule is that the sister goes around with you – but I didn’t want that because I thought they were busy enough and I would go round on my own.

PR: And what was the point of the round, what would you have been looking for?

MW: Checking on the patients to see if they’d been washed and were clean. Say if a patient had their coffee down their front, I would probably go off and say change that nightie, but if it was dry, I wasn’t very pleased about it because I knew it had been on that patient for quite a while. Didn’t happen very often. I think the nursing we had in the County was excellent in those days. I know when I left people said that they’d missed me.

PR: So you were answerable to - ?

MW: I was answerable to what we call a Number 9 based up at Princess Alexandra Hospital. I was answerable to her. And she, in turn, used to come to all the hospitals in her area to see that we were doing our job right.

PR: At Hertford County, as administrator, you’d got Arthur Sharples.

MW: Yes, I was administrator on the nursing side and he was the admin side of it. Did you know Arthur Sharples?

PR: Yes, played cricket until he was pretty old.

MW: And a dancer. When we had Christmas parties at Hertford County, he and his wife were always first up on the dance floor.

PR: Whose job was the fabric of the place?

MW: I was responsible for the nursing side of it and he was responsible for the doctors and the equipment and things like that, the theatres, buildings, and I was responsible for the nursing care of the patients.

PR: And Peggy Hickman was - ?

MW: She was the boss!

PR: I thought she might be.

MW: She was much more efficient that Arthur Sharples.

PR: But you bring different skills to any job. Arthur would have brought other things, the camaraderie.

MW: Oh yes, he was quite a popular man.

PR: What did Peggy Hickman do, was she working when you were there?

MW: No.

PR: I think she was in the X-ray quarter.

MW: Yes, I didn’t see her very often.

PR: Yes, she was probably married – married the rector.

MW: That’s right, I remember.

PR: Yes, she, when I was a teenager, the Hickman twins and some others of their generation formed an over-age youth club. They’d been part of the youth club and they stayed together within the church, and they met and called this group the Guild of St Andrew, older young people, and Betty and Peggy were always there and close to the rector.

MW: Betty, she didn’t get married, did she?

PR: We didn’t expect Canon Gill’s wife to die, she died quite suddenly and she was a very quiet lady, her mother lived with them. For a while, her mother took over the housekeeper role although she was in her 80’s, Mrs Wingate, and she had a son, Mayo Wingate, who wrote a medical column in Good Housekeeping. I think he may have been in Harley Street. But when he was widowed [Canon Gill] the parish thought which way would he look, and the Hickman twins were in a prime position, but it was still, nevertheless, a surprise when it was Peggy.

MW: Yes, because she was so, she wasn’t deformed was she, but she was a little [overtalking]…

PR: [She had had] polio. Her mother was telling me that as babies, Betty was the weaker, Peggy was the strong child who contracted polio. Peggy died first although she was wife to the rector in his retirement for a long time. Betty looked after Basil, the rector, Robert Gill, she called him Basil, and her own mother, and Jordan who’d been porter at the hospital – I went to his 100th birthday party in the fullness of time, and she looked after all of them and they died within 18 months of each other, these 3 old people and not long after this Betty herself fell ill, just when everyone thought she was over the worries of looking after these old people.

MW: Most of the staff at Hertford County, both nursing and the admin side of it, they hadn’t any other jobs, they hadn’t worked in any other hospitals. They’d trained at Hertford County and they’d gone up the ladder, staff nurse, sister, and there they remained.

PR: Evelyn Lacey was probably one of those.

MW: Of course, yes, and there was Miss Smith, she was on King’s Ward.

PR: Sarah Smith, yes.

WM: But they hadn’t had the experience of life outside. When I went to work at Northampton, the first few weeks that I was there, no-one could get on with the laundry manager. There was a huge argument with the sisters when they wanted extra linen, he would argue, he didn’t want to do it. I had a fortnight when I first went there where you were shown the paces of the place. You were taken round and you spent a little time here and there and I spent some time in the laundry as one of my days, so when he was talking about his laundry, I must have said something, and he said ‘how do you know about that?’ I said ‘I worked in a laundry for 14 years’. But we got on like a house on fire because he knew I knew what I was talking about. And the people at Hertford – Mr Sharples - he hadn’t anything very much, had he?

PR: No, but I think the hospital benefited a lot because there was that comfortable community.

MW: Oh, I think so, but they weren’t able to discuss other things.

PE: Yet you said you thought the nursing standard in Hertford was good, which gave us what we’ve now lost, a small town general hospital.

MW: Oh, it had such history, didn’t it, Hertford County, and it was solid. I enjoyed working there but I would have liked something more to do.

PR: I suppose your tours of inspection never took you into the porters’ room?

MW: No, well, I knew where the porters’ room was, because once or twice I went into the porters’ room to find a porter, if people were saying they couldn’t get a porter, and I would take myself down to see what they were doing.

PR: That was really quite a den, a private quarter for like-minded characters, Mick Holder –

MW: And Clark, and Clark’s son. But even with them, you see, I remember Clark, the head porter, coming to me one day saying something about the union [inaudible] and I said ‘you know you’re not going to get away with that with me, Mr Clark. I’ve much more experience in that’ and he didn’t [confused remark – something to do with a strike].

PR: I had a bit of uncomfortable domestic news once when I was there. I was taking the books around on a Friday night on a trolley and got into conversation with one of them – some argy bargy and they said ‘you didn’t know about the near miss you had the other evening when you put your car in the garage, did you’. I said no. The garage is at the end of the garden [PR’s house had a boundary with Hertford County Hospital] and is close to the boiler house at the hospital. They said ‘(we were) scrumping your pear tree and plum tree’ and they got over the fence into the garden and it was quite a high fence and there was no way out except the way I was coming in, and I’d driven in and I’d trapped them. They were hiding in the back of the garage hoping not to be found scrumping, little things like that, it didn’t matter that Mick Holder. There were other characters, but some would have left before you came. Percy Brooks was Arthur Sharples predecessor, he was an Alderman of the Borough.

MW: No, I didn’t know him. No, I didn’t know Miss Baker. I can’t think of the one who was there before me. I certainly wasn’t impressed with the legacy that was left to me .

PR: But I think from the town’s point of view it’s a loss not to have the convenience – people in Hoddesdon, for instance, have never had the convenience – they’ve had to come quite a long way.

MW: Absolutely. They had to come to the midwifery department from Hoddesdon.

PR: But it was a big blow.

MW: Of course, that was after I left.

PR: There were also the community roles, the telephone and the WRVS tea bar – was Mrs Kemp there?

MW: She was the one on the telephone, on the switchboard.

PR: Yes and calling people for appointments in the outpatients department. What about the nursing home?

MW: Well, it used to be private beds at one time.

PR: Was it worth it?

MW: I don’t know whether you’d ever find private patients in a General Hospital, but I didn’t agree with it because it was not fair for people to jump the queue and I used to object to that. As in education, people should have access to the same opportunity.

PR: That was the difference, was it?

MW: Yes. They had the private patients in there.

PR: Would they have had the same nursing care?

MW: Well, I hope they would. I remember one of the consultants coming to me [about something] and I said ‘I should hope you’d be just as concerned about one of your National Health patients’. He didn’t answer. He said ‘as long as you’re not pushing the baby out with the bathwater’. I said ‘I know what I’m doing and I know what I’m talking about’. They didn’t really like it you know, because I used to stand my ground, and people up in the East Herts Hospital where I would go, say at lunch time, and I’d find the staff eating their dinner [instead of] going round to the patients and I would hit the roof.

PR: That’s the small hospital with its easy ways.

MW: Which you could never do in a big hospital.

PR: The theatre was modernised quite recently before they closed.

MW: Oh was it?

PR: Yes, but it was a good theatre was it?

MW: Very good. Well, of course, Mr Reed was excellent.

PR: And Mr Bedford?

MW: Well, he’d gone by the time I came.

PR: Butcher Bedford they called him!

MW: I think he was [overtalking], Mr Reed and Mr Whittaker.

PR: Yes. I saw Mr Reed the other day.

MW: Orthopaedic man.

PR: Of Molewood, John.

MW: Mr Reed, nice man.

PR: I went to the wrong house to start with, he had to rescue me. I had to look at someone’s planning application.

MW: He knew what he was doing, he was so nice to the patients.

PR: You do remember a lot of people. Was Kath Childs a sister in theatre in your day? She lives in Hertford Heath now.

MW: Did you know Miss Wright who used to run the theatre, Miss Beaveridge, Miss Stoke, maternity department they were.

PR: The names are all familiar. I was less interested in the hospital because I was busy doing other things. I remember earliest years and then more recently, and your time was probably when I was building a career.

MW: It’s 20 years ago now.

PR: Well, we shot through that, very useful.

MW: Would you like a cup of tea?

PR: No, I’m going back to school this afternoon.

MW: Which school are you at?

PR: Broxbourne. What I’d like to do is to leave these forms with you and I’ll give you my address and you can put them in the post to me one day.

[Explains about the forms and their shortcomings]

End of recording