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Rita - Nurse 1930s-50s  - interview extracts

These extracts (most of which appear elsewhere, but are arranged here thematically) stem from interviews with my grandmother in the mid 2000s, not long before she died. After a childhood in rural Ireland, she followed her sister to Warley Hospital in 1938, and continued working there until the 1950s. The hospital remained important to her - both for the meaning she found in the work, and for the lifelong connections she formed there. She lived in Brentwood for the rest of her life, and would often return to the hospital for masses at St. Dymphna's, jumble sales in the Duchess of Kent centre, and to visit old friends. 

World War Two


  • "There were a lot in there from the First World War - men especially, who’d gone in with shellshock. They weren’t bad at all; they were better than the others, you see. It was just shellshock with them. They were more normal, if you know what I mean."


  • "I remember once on night duty I could see a fire at Tilbury Docks. I was sitting out on the veranda on Daffodil Ward, and I’d be left sitting out there at night. The patients used to be sleeping along the veranda – out in open as they had TB and that. God it was cold at night with no hot water bottle, only a blanket around you. I remember being out there and I could see the bombs being dropped, the fires at Tilbury Docks. I could see the flames going up."


  • "When the siren went off we just used to come downstairs, but there was nothing there really. We’d just sit under the stairs. It was better than being up in your room or the ward, I suppose, what with all the glass – no glass down there you see. We never had any bombs explode on us though – we were lucky. Once a bomb landed behind the nurses home, and we had to be evacuated in case it went off. But they were able to come and take it apart. If it had exploded, they said, it would have blown the nurses home to bits. Wasn’t to be I suppose. Someone said they’d never drop a bomb on this place – they wouldn’t waste one on it! – and they were right.   We worried we might get one in mistake for the barracks, though. … "


Views of Local Community


  • "A lot of people’s family were in there so they couldn’t say too much that was bad about working in the hospital – nearly everybody in Brentwood had somebody in there." 




  • "I had my head banged on the floor in M.5. I was coming out of the toilet and she was coming back from the washroom. She grabbed me by the hair of the head, and was banging my head on the floor, shaking me like a rag doll. And I was screaming, but there was so much noise from the patients they never heard me. But I had a whistle and eventually I got my mouth to it.. And then a matron found me and I said, I've been calling out, but she said. "I couldn't hear with the noise." I said I thought I wouldn't have a hair left on my head if you didn't come soon. Then she told me to sit down by the fire, gave me a few tablets and sent me off duty. If you weren't hard, you'd have died long ago."


  • "Some of the staff were very cruel when I first went there – absolutely dreadful – pulling them by the hair of the head, punching them, horrible. They had to stop it because it was so cruel. Mind you, if they had hold of you by the hair you had to get rid of them somehow."


  • "I’ll never forget this woman attacked this other patient – and this nurse was running around shouting seeing if you can find her eye…  It happened a lot, patients attacking other patients."




  • "I found them dead in bed many times, yeah. At first I used to run away, but you get used to it. The same way you get used to prison they tell me."


  • "I remember one went out the window when I was there – killed herself – opened the window and went out. Nobody saw her go – it was night time. The night nurse should have locked it.  …Windows were always in the dormitories – but there were good patients in there."


  • "One climbed up the window one night – and she went out the window – threw herself out and died. I wasn't on the ward that night, thank god. I was on the night before. But what can you do – there's so quick. And they'll do it no matter what, no matter who's there. She’d said to me as we were walking round the garden (I was holding her by the arm – you had to do that in case they’d run off) that she was going to throw herself out the window; and the next day I came to work and she’d jumped out the window. I told them she kept threatening to jump out the window, but they wouldn’t listen. Patients were telling you that kind of stuff all the time and you wouldn’t take much notice. She was a schizophrenic, I think - but I wasn’t really medically trained or anything then."




  • "We used to pass through the cemetery on our way back from Crescent Road, a shortcut to the Nurses Home. There were lots of children buried there years ago, near to D Block, facing the D Block nearly.  There were never many gravestones."


Nurses' Home


  • "The Nurses Home? A lovely place that was. We used to have dances in the dining room with lovely parquet floor. It’s such a shame they knocked it down. There was a lovely big space out front, flowers and shrubs under the windows.  You could look out the back and see the trains go by. It wasn’t shut in at all, you didn’t feel closed in."


Lives of Patients


  • "They were well looked after – entertainment; dances and everything. There was this one male patient – he was a marvellous dancer. Everybody used to want to dance with him- really good he was. Some of them were no good at all, they were just shaking around – but you had to dance with them if they asked you… Long time ago now!"


  • "The male patients used to do ever so much gardening  – and the females did a lot of cleaning. They used to be out in those long corridors scrubbing them – sometimes without pads on their knees. It was a horrible job to do, but the wards were spotless in those days. Old codgers scrubbing them in the bitter cold – it was awful, really. We used to show them sewing, too, and how to put on a patch. It used to keep them occupied at least."


  • "Some of them didn’t have anyone at all looking after them; they looked after themselves – there were two or three like that. They just did everything – cooked their own meals, washed up, kept the ward clean. All we did was the laundry. You just looked in now and then, in the morning and at dinnertime in the evening to check they were still alive. There were two or three wards like that. But there was still not much privacy – just bed space."


  • "A lot of them were able to go out too –they’d even pick you up some shopping if you asked them. You wondered why the heck they were in there. Just because there was no one to look after them – that's why. Or if a girl got pregnant by a bloke they stuck here in there and had the baby adopted. Can you think of anything more wicked or mad? It was absolutely shocking. Anyway, they were more like staff. They‘d make you a sandwich and bring milk to you if you were in the office doing anything. They liked doing it. Some patients were very nice, you really got to like them – just like outside, the same."


  • "There were usually tables in the day rooms – and the patients would sit in there and have their meals. Or there were couches to sit on. We used to play games with them and cards and everything- keep them amused. Some of them were good and tell you lots of jokes and everything. Or we’d go out in the garden, take them by their arm. The last time I was back there they were all just sitting around doing nothing. They said they weren’t looked after properly in my day, but I think they were looked after better in some ways. All I saw when I went back was the patients sitting around like zombies, and the nurses in the office drinking their tea. At least we could sit with them and do things with them. We used to have groups, you could sit there and read with them. And they used to have Sports Day, and we’d take them for walks and outings.."


Escaped Patients


  • "I was out shopping once, at the bottom of Crescent Road, and there she was, this woman who’d escaped – so I took her by the hand and said:  “Come on, we’ll go for a walk” and I took her back, otherwise she’d have been gone. She came along all right with me. All the doors used to be locked when I first went there. Then they had to open them because they weren’t allowed to keep them locked all the time. Not too many used to get out, I remember."


Life as a Nurse


  • "You had to be in by a certain time – 10 o’clock – so the matron felt a bit like a parent. You could book a day’s pass, which let you in at 12 o’clock, but you could only get one a week. The Crescent Road entrance used to have this big high locked gate, and sometimes if we got back late we used to have to climb over it because the man had gone. He'd be there to let you in – and if you were late back, he’d just shut the door and off he went – you couldn’t get in at all, you’d have to climb over it. And then we used to get in, and everybody was in bed….   One of my friends who never went out used to say: “If you throw a pebble up at my window I’ll come down and let you in. The number of times I’d come back in the pitch dark at two o’clock in the morning! But we didn’t worry about anything then – we were quite safe -  the patients were all locked in then."

Life on the wards


  • "You were always on your own at night – except on the sick ward, where there’d be one out on the veranda and one indoors. And there’d be fifty beds in a ward upstairs…They were from wards that had no bedrooms downstairs, so there’d be 50 of them there at night. And you know, I fell asleep on duty one night and this patient came up to me and said: “The lady from downstairs is coming through the door!”. She woke me up to tell me that the head nurse was coming in..  "


  • "A donkey came in one night – frightened the life out of me! Somebody didn’t close the door and the grounds were very open then – there was no fence across or anything. Anyway, this one time I turned round and there was this flippin’ donkey. Well I was brought up with animals - we had donkeys and horses and everything in Ireland – so it didn’t scare me as much as other people. In the end we got two of the male nurses to take it out."


  • “..'Cadbury Alley' is what we called the ward where all the old dysentery patients used to go. That’s what we always used to call it – gave everybody a good laugh. You need one working there. Toughened me up, that ward, I can tell you. It was very contagious, you had to be careful."


  • "I went downstairs for something once and there was a little cupboard round the corner, and the two of them were there. And of course they came out quick when they saw me. They were up to no good I suppose - two male patients. And the staff were worse than the patients! I remember I caught a couple under the stairs – a man and a woman at it. I said: “Get out of there you two filthy devils” and they soon got out of there, I can tell you." 

Memorable Patients


  • "There was this one woman and she’d be completely normal – but whenever the royals would come on the radio she’d go berserk. “Imposters!”, she used to say. “Imposters!” and start shouting at the ceiling. (They had the radios up high in those days, ‘cause they’d smash them if they were down low, you see). It was so funny….And she always wore these long dark grey clothes, and a lovely blouse with a broach there at the top. She thought she was royalty."


  • "Some of them were really nice – you used to get quite attached to them…. There was one there and she used to call me a 'ginger zoo rat'. 'Here comes a ginger zoo rat,' she used to say. Whatever a zoo rat was! The lowest of the low I should think – a zoo rat! And then when she was well, she was as nice as pie. I said to her: 'You called me a ginger zoo rat' – and she said: 'I never! I’d never do that to you. I wouldn’t do that to you.'..."


  • "You had to hang onto this one woman when you were taking her round the grounds, ‘cause if a man came round, up went her skirt. She was always flashing in the ward, lifting her skirt up when any men came near. So I said I’d take her out. I said to her: “if you lift that skirt up once I shall smack you round the face!” - so she behaved herself while she was out. We went around the town, looking in the shops for a couple of hours. I felt sorry for her really."


  • "I was sitting on a ward at night once, and there was this patient. I fell asleep in the chair, and I woke up and she was rubbing my legs. She said she had to come and sit there with a nurse because Father O' Flynn was after her. ..I don't know what might have happened to her before she came in - whether it was all in her mind or not…"


Sir Geoffrey Nightingale


  • "I remember Sir Geoffrey Nightingale – he was nice he was. We had old Powell before that and he was horrible. Head doctor – he was a horrible man. Geoffrey was a lovely man, though – not a little upstart like the other one. He couldn’t have any family, and he adopted this boy, I think. A real gentleman he was – spoke to everybody when he came round; wasn’t a snob at all. He lived in one of those houses by the road, near the church. All of those buildings were doctors houses, I think."



  • "There wasn’t that much treatment for them back in those days. We used to give some of them ECT – cleaned them and then put this electric thing on their head and they used to fit. Then they’d wake up and they’d be ever so nice, but then it would wear off. They’d be as mad as hatters; and then they’d be so nice. That was really the only form of treatment we had. I can’t remember many drugs."


Homesickness/Reasons for staying


  • "The quicker I could get out of there and back to my room the better – that’s how I felt. They were very bad, the patients in those days. Violent. I had my hair pulled and my head banged on the floor a couple of times. I would have left if it hadn't been for my sister Kate. She was a tough old boot, Kate. If she hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have stayed five minutes, I can tell you - I’d be gone. I was frightened of the patients and used to talk about going home every day. “Don’t’ be daft,” she said. “Stick it out! What d’you want to go home for? There’s nothing there for you to do. The money's better here, and blah blah blah”. Otherwise I'd have gone, gone straight away. I didn't like it all. ….But then I got used to it. And I thought the money's better than doing general – we got £16 a month, which was marvellous in those days - and our accommodation was free. I had some happy times there in the end."


  • "I was working hard at home and getting no money at all, so I thought I might as well go over there and get a bit of money for it. There was no money back in Ireland at all. I remember seeing adverts in the papers and my sister Kate was already working in the needleroom and then later on the wards. My family liked it too because the money was good in mental hospitals and they thought you were more looked after than if you went into digs. You had to be in at 10 o’clock and they were quite strict – so my mum quite liked that side of it."


Ward décor


  • "We used to try and keep the wards as nice as we could – with flowers on the table for them, plants on the tables. Make it a bit homely for them. And at Christmas they used to put decorations all around the ceilings and everything. In the cells, there'd just be a bed, no chairs, no nothing. If there was a chair they might bang you over the head with it when you went in the door…. (And two of you usually went in. You never went in on your own). The corridor was usually clear – maybe a couple of seats to sit on, built into the wall with padded tops, like church kneelers. Furnishings? Like something that came out of the ark.  No curtains at all in those days – no privacy whatsoever. Curtains around the shower and bath, but we never drew them as you had to be with them, in case they stick their head under the water."

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