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15 October 2014
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Hospital Work: In Manchester and Staffordshireicon for Recommended story

by Brighton CSV Media Clubhouse

Mrs. Joan Painter

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Brighton CSV Media Clubhouse
People in story: 
Mrs. Joan Painter
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Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
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25 June 2004

I WAS BORN IN Bristol in 1913. I left school at eighteen and studied art. At 23 we moved as a family to Lancashire and I wanted to change direction. I told my parents that I was going to train as a nurse. They were very surprised but very supportive. I started my training at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, for three and three quarter years. During that time, in 1939, war broke out. On qualification, I did staff nursing in the out-patients department. It is surprising to me that at that time de-contamination cubicles were put up in out-patients, in case of contamination by perhaps gas, etc.

After war broke out, Manchester was blitzed, and during that time, many, many people were injured and killed in Manchester. They came through the out-patients department, sometimes going to theatre to be operated on by surgeons without electricity, just lamp. During my time at Manchester, no antibiotics had yet come into use. I remember very well the first use of sulphonomides. Patients were not allowed to eat certain foods when using them, such as onions or eggs.

The streets were covered in shrapnel and the nurses home, which had been newly built, one day had a high explosive right through the middle. Anyone with a room left in the building was taken very carefully along with a detective to see if anything could be recovered from their belongings. When an air raid was sounded I and one other nurse who worked in out-patients were fetched from our underground air raid shelter by air raid wardens, all of us in our tin helmets, and taken to the out-patients department to be on duty. Occasionally we went into Manchester, hoping that no air raids occurred, and I remember one occasion in which one happened, and we sheltered in the Gaumont Cinema for very many hours.

On leaving Manchester I applied to the RAF and had an interview at the Air Ministry in London. I was taken on in the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service (PMRAFNS). All Nursing Sisters started at Halton, near Aylesbury, where the RAF had a very large hospital. We spent 3 months there, being introduced to the work we would have to do. I was sent first of all to the RAF hospital at Uxbridge, Middlesex. The nursing sisters during the war were the only qualified nursing staff. We worked with VADs and WAFs. I married during my time at Uxbridge. When at Uxbridge I was asked if I would go to Iceland, to the RAF hospital there, which I would have loved to have done. But unfortunately my husband was rather dubious about us being parted during the war, and at that time married women were not obliged to go abroad. And so the RAF sent me to an enormous maintenance unit at Stafford, where I worked with four other doctors, including Flight Lieutenant Stevens and Doctor Mary Logan.

It was a very large unit, and a good hospital, with dental services of course. Strict security was observed and when out of camp, and returning, the sergeant on duty, on seeing someone approach, would say: ‘Halt, who goes there, friend or foe?’ And one would answer, ‘Friend,’ and he would say, ‘Advance, friend, and be recognised.’ And then, quite often, the sergeant would say, ‘Hello sister, pass.’ Stafford was a very busy hospital, as there were hundreds and hundreds of personnel there. I had a very helpful RAF sergeant with great experience, who had worked in India for some time. I can remember him telling me of a case in India, of a poor man who had elephantiasis. After serving some time there I became pregnant and had to leave. I was taken to Stafford Railway Station by two of the doctors, who wished me farewell. My nursing finished there, although Doctor Mary Logan visited me later to see my daughter.

During the war there were difficulties, as everyone knows. Rationing was very strict, but all the children had their cod liver oil and orange juice, which was good. And perhaps the diet, as they say these days, was preferable to the diet some people eat today. I can remember how difficult it was to get bedding, and left my small daughter with my mother for two hours, and went to the next village, where one could buy just two grey blankets. I even tried to make some little dresses for her, out of part of a barrage balloon, which had been given me by my Aunt. We had a radio, but of course television hadn’t been introduced very much then. But I can remember my small daughter sitting in her play-pen on the floor, listening to the radio, and the name of General Smutts was mentioned. She looked at me, with a puzzled expression on her face, and said to me, ‘Mummy, I always thought General Smutts was the Queen’s cat!’ I’m sure the Queen Mother would have appreciated that joke.

Later, when my children were in their teens, I resumed my art as an art teacher.

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