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The Hospital: Scarlet Fever in Lancashireicon for Recommended story

by Marypat

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People in story: 
Pat Foster
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04 December 2003


In 1939 at the age of twelve, I went to join my elder sister at a new school. It was a direct grant grammar school of about 350 girls run by nuns, and we were among the eighty or so boarders. Just before Easter in 1943, my younger sister, aged thirteen caught scarlet fever and was taken to the hospital where she stayed for a month. On her return she told us all about it, she had been well-looked after, and best of all she had been given chocolate biscuits, unheard of luxuries in those days At the beginning of November in the same year, just after I had gone into the Lower VIth form, I developed a headache and a sore throat. I was put into the school infirmary and had been there for five days, feeling very ill, being seen by the school doctor, when one of the nuns told me that I would be going to the scarlet fever hospital that day. School was not my favourite place, and the thought of chocolate biscuits and a break from routine did not seem to be a bad prospect. I had no idea where the hospital was, because we only left the school grounds when we all went for a walk in a crocodile in the local park, when our patents came to take us out for the afternoon, or when we went home for the holidays.


It was already dark when the ambulance came. I left wearing my nightdress, dressing gown and bedroom slippers. The only things the nuns would allow me to take were a comb, my toothbrush, six white handkerchiefs and five shillings. By the time the ambulance came at around 5.30 in the afternoon, I was feeling a bit better and told the nurse that I didn't need to lie down, so she wrapped a red blanket round my shoulders and we sat opposite one another, chatting. After a few minutes the nurse said she didn't feel well and she really seemed to be in pain. She lay down on the stretcher, I put a red blanket over her and she didn't speak again. We kept on going in the darkness and when the driver opened the door, I was standing there. "Where's the nurse" he asked, I told him she didn't feel well and I got out and he went to attend to her. I walked through the open door of the building. I did ask the next day what had happened to the nurse, they told me she had peritonitis and had been driven straight-away to another hospital. Somehow this strange happening was a portent of what was to happen.


I went in through the front door of the hospital, which was in a small single-storey building made of wood. I learned afterwards that it was one of a number of similar buildings separated from one another by lawns. I was taken from the entrance hall and shown to the first bed in an adjacent ward. I heard one nurse say to another "We don't need to bath her she's from the convent". The ward was not full and one by one the girls, who were all younger than I was, were taken to have their baths.During that evening other children were brought in to fill the empty beds, and all through the next day I watched the ambulance men carry new children into our ward and the boys' ward opposite. Late that evening a nurse came and told me to get up and put on my dressing gown and slippers. She told me that both wards were full and that they were going to have to open another block. It was already dark and I followed her out and across a lawn which was crunchy underfoot and glistening with frost in the moonlight. She produced a key from her pocket and opened the door of an identical building to the first one and she told me it had been closed for a long time. She pointed to the third bed on the right hand side, put some bedding on it and told me that I was being put in that ward because I was the eldest patient. Then another nurse arrived carrying a little girl called Edna May who was about two, and they put her in a cot opposite me. Then the nurses left, leaving us alone and locking the door behind them. There were no curtains at the tall windows and I was absolutely terrified. I imagined that bogey men were peeping at us through the windows or lurking in other rooms. I was so frightened that I was unable to get out of bed even to attend to Edna May who was crying, I comforted her as best I could by talking to her and singing lullabies until eventually she fell asleep.


The next morning two day nurses arrived, two men came to put up blackout curtains and black shades on the light bulbs, and more children were brought in. For some reason the nurses decided to fill up the first ward with both boys and girls before starting on the second. In a few days there were 37 children in our block and then the epidemic seemed to ease off. Luckily for me, two ladies were brought in on the second day. One was a married lady of twenty-three and the other was a shorthand typist who was eighteen. They were put in the two beds between me and the door. We never had a night nurse during the whole time I was there. It must have been very difficult to recruit nurses for hospitals for infectious diseases when nurses were needed to care for casualties of war, victims of the blitz as well as fighting men who had been injured overseas and brought home. There was a list of instructions in the bathroom saying that each child had to be bathed every night, stating the correct temperature and the fact that every child had to have clean water. The two ladies and I had to do this. One lady did the bathing, the other did the drying and I carried them to and from their beds. Unfortunately, we couldn't guarantee clean water, so we changed it after every four or five, because we were also ill and it was very hard work.


We had bread, jam and tea for breakfast, which was given to us when the nurses came on duty. At lunchtime every day, a trolley cam from a central kitchen with our lunch. We had minced meat, mashed potatoes, either carrots or cabbage and rice pudding every day.I never ate any lunch because I didn't feel hungry and couldn't face it. At tea time before the nurses went off duty we had bread and jam and tea again. Every night we had the smallest size bottle of Bovril to make a hot drink for all of us and some cream crackers. The two ladies and I got this ready and gave it out to the children. Every Monday morning, a parcel arrived from the convent. It was quite big and was full of what was known as 'ration chocolate' and sweets. I know that the nuns had all parted with their weekly sweet ration to provide this and I was very grateful. As soon as the parcel arrived, a crowd of children stood around my bed, we divided the contents as evenly as we could among all of us. We were not allowed to send letters or to use the telephone. Any visitors who came had to speak to us through the closed ward windows. My father had fought in Belgium through the First World War and he was now 51. His work involved the provision of animal feeding stuffs. Because he had to travel over the north west, he had a petrol ration. When he was in the area, he used to visit me and we had to shout at one another to make ourselves heard. We had been taught in school not to complain about anything. If we did, we were reprimanded and told that young men, only a few years older than we were, were fighting for our freedom, and that whatever our complaints they were nothing compared with what they had to endure. And of course this was true. But in any case, I didn't want to worry my parents, so I never told him I had any problems. The only visitors to the wards were the doctor and two chaplains who came every week to talk to us. Our doctor was lovely, and one day we were told that he had lost his two sons in the war and that he wouldn't be coming back.He was replaced by a lady but she never came into the ward. She just stood in the doorway and looking at each of us individually, waved her hand and said things like "How are you today?" or "Are you feeling better?" or "Has your headache gone?". I was angry with her at the time because I thought she was afraid of catching something, but having thought about it since, she had probably been 'borrowed' from another hospital and could not come in for fear of contaminating other patients.


This story only becomes extraordinary when I relate what happened next. Two sailors from a naval prison
were brought in and they were wearing white tropical kit. Keith was 21 and Jim was 18. They told us that they had each been sentenced to three months in the prison for having an argument with some Americans in a pub when they were on leave. They also told us that they didn't have scarlet fever, they had eaten carbolic soap. They said it was well-known in prisons that if you eat carbolic soap you get the symptoms of scarlet fever. They didn't want to leave the navy, they just didn't want to be in prison where everything had to be done at the double. In the central area between the two wards, there was an office, a bathroom and a kitchen. Through the kitchen there was a sideward. I never went into it but Keith and Jim were given two beds in there.


Soon after their arrival, Keith and Jim started to sneak out during the day. still wearing their tropical kit. They climbed over the perimeter fence and found a little general shop quite near the hospital owned by an old woman, and she sold them balls of string. They used the legs of an upturned chair which they put on the kitchen table, and then using their fishnet making skills, they made shopping bags with two handles. When they had completed a few, they took the bags back to the shop and the old woman bought them for five shillings each. At night, after the nurses had gone,they would go out and spend the money in the local pub. It amazed me that nobody ever became suspicious of two sailors wearing tropical kit in the middle of winter. On their return they would play cards with the two women on the beds next to me and I used to watch them. They never asked me to play or offered me any drink. I had had a very sheltered and protected upbringing, and after four years in the convent I was very naive and innocent. One night one of the ladies said "Who is getting into Pat's bed tonight?"
Now I can see that they were only teasing me but at that time I was shocked and horrified. I had to make myself stay awake until the sailors went back to the sideward late in the night. There is no comparison between a sixteen-year old brought up as I was in those days and a sixteen-year old of today.


On one of his trips outside, Jim broke his ankle and went off somewhere to have a plaster-of-paris cast put on it. He had taken on the responsibility of preparing the supper and I can see him now, hopping down the ward with a tray of cups.I wore the same long, pink nightdress for all the time I was there. It had got very dirty and I was ashamed of anybody seeing it, so I used to manoeuvre myself into my dressing gown before getting out of bed. I asked one of the nurses to buy something for me outside, but she refised saying she couldn't take my contaminated money out of the ward. So I had to manage. I was a tall girl and took size seven in shoes. Soon after he came Keith passed me in the ward and said "I'll have those" pointing to my slippers. He took them from me, put them on and walked off. I was well- trained in self-discipline and had been taught to consider others before thinking about myself. Also, I knew very little about men. I had three sisters and my two brothers were very young. So I was much too afraid to challenge Ken and ask for my slippers back. I walked around for the rest of the time in my bare feet.I got a bad throat infection and because of this I had to stay longer than the normal four weeks. The treatment I got, because there were no antibiotics then, was a bottle of Condy's Fluid, a bright reddish- purple liquid which when diluted was used as a gargle.


Before leaving hospital, quite a ritual had to be performed. The convent had been contacted and they had sent a set of underclothes and my school uniform but these were kept away from me.The night before I was due to go, I had a bath and washed my hair and was told to put on my underclothes.I was put in a bed near the door, told to lie at the wrong end with my feet on the pillow and my feet and hands were exposed. I stayed like that all night and then the next morning, someone came to inspect my hands and feet to see if they had stopped peeling, as this was an indication that I was better. We were not supposed to leave the hospital with lice in our hair, but we all had those and nobody ever mentioned them. After I had been cleared I went into the bathroom and put on my uniform. Then I was told to wait in the kitchen. I put my nightdress, dressing gown and money in a brown paper carrier bag after having squirted them with disinfectant from a spray. We had not seen Keith for a few days as we were told that he was ill and they thought he had a mastoid. As I sat on the kitchen table waiting for my father, a man went into Ken's room and a few minutes later wheeled him out on a low trolley. He stopped in front of me and went out to speak to one of the nurses. Keith's eyes were closed and on the ends of his feet were my slippers. Spying my opportunity and making sure nobody was looking, I very delicately removed them from his feet, sprayed them with disinfectant and pushed them down the side of the carrier bag.


My father came to collect me and I was received with much joy and happiness when I arrived home, and much excitement from my little sister and brothers. I hadn't seen my mother for a long time and we were all very happy. Later that evening, we we all sitting round the kitchen fire when I told them the story of my slippers.I was feeling proud, we were short of clothing coupons and my mother wouldn't need to buy me new ones. After hearing what had happened, she jumped up, grabbed the slippers and threw them onto the back of the fire. I didn't go back to school for quite a long time because I had a chest infection and got out of breath when I went upstairs. I was well looked after by the family doctor, but my mother had the real remedy. Every night she poured a bottle of Guinness into a cream enamel jug and added some sugar and powdered ginger. Then she put the poker into the fire until it was red hot and plunged it into the jug. The liquid went all frothy and then I had to drink it. My mother said the iron in the poker would make me strong !


I think all the people at the hospital did their best for us, but the epidemic took them unawares and they didn't thave the facilities to cope with it.The experience had such an effect on me that I decided there and then to make sure I could remember every detail, because I knew that sometime in the future, someone would find it interesting. There were so many sad, strange and memorable stories of bravery, hardship and real suffering during those years, that my story would not have meant much to anybody. So I decided quite consciously to keep it in my memory until the time came to tell it. Perhaps that moment is now.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Scarlet fever.

Posted on: 04 December 2003 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

An unusual story, Marypat about a fever hospital in war time. Where was it?
Until I heard Ian Hyslop's excellent documentary about pre-NHS health care I wouldn't have believed standards at civilian hospitals were quite so low.
The NHS launched five years later changed both our culture and life expectancy out of all recognition and that's what makes your story so interesting.

Penicillin was only just becoming available to treat bacterial infections but fighting men were much more likely to be treated than anyone else and the military hospitals were far better equipped than the civilian equivalent which you were in. My father Reg Gill, an RAMC radiographer has his own story about wartime use of penicillin on Malta.


I liked the bit about changing the bath water after five children. Kids must have been tough in those days!

One more question. How were your parents told you were well enough to be collected?

Best wishes



Message 2 - Scarlet fever.

Posted on: 05 December 2003 by Marypat

Dear Paul,
Thanks for your message, it is the first one I have had. The school was in Preston, but I cannot remember the name of the infectious diseases hospital. I have asked a friend who lives in Preston to try to find out where it was. It has probably been demolished by now. I think its name began with an 'F'.I did not live in Preston and so was not familiar with its surrounding areas.

I said that the hospital had contacted the school to ask them to send my uniform. Maybe they had done this through my parents - the hospital must also have known my home address and telephoned when I was ready to come home.

The standard of care that I received was not typical of hospital care either then or before the war. When my sister was there six months earlier in 1943, the standard was very good. This was an exceptional circumstance caused by the epidemic.



Message 3 - Scarlet fever.

Posted on: 07 December 2003 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

No ones's left any questions on any of my stories though I'm sure they've been read!

My father spent some time, aged 2, in Seacroft fever hospital around 1919. Before antibiotics, Scarlet fever was sometimes fatal.
My aunt told me some time ago that the hospitals printed lots of notices in the newspapers which indicated a patient's situation. She specifically mentioned "send clothes" as a signal that the patient was ready for discharge. That ties in well with what you said though you wouldn't have known the mechanism. It seems very strange today.
An immediate visit or words to that effect was far more serious.

In 1926, my grandfather died. He lost a lung in WW1 and the second one was destroyed by infection after a dentist dropped part of a tooth into it. My grandmother received a message, possibly a telegram, (I can't ask my father for more details) to say he'd died, could she collect the body as soon as possible? I'm glad those days have past.

There are a few penicillin stories now on this site.

describes a quite lucky escape by a child.

best wishes



Message 4 - Scarlet fever.

Posted on: 27 December 2003 by Marypat

Dear Paul,
I did reply to your second message about ten days ago but somehow it disappeared, I probably pressed the wrong button. So I am trying again. When my sister had scarlet fever six months before I did, a little girl in her ward did die from the disease, but nobody died when I was in the hospital.

About your grandmother receiving a telegram to notify her of your grandfather's death, it was probably because hospital visiting was very restricted, as far as I remember there was no daily visiting. As few people had telephones, the only way of communicating quickly was by telegram, so although to us it seems to be heartless, they had no alternative.

Best wishes for the New Year - Marypat

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