Betty MacKinnon with her Bailliere’s Nurses Medical Dictionary

Betty MacKinnon
Retired Midwife

Favourite thing: Bailliere’s Nurses’ Medical Dictionary

This is the very, very first book I bought when I became a student nurse. 4th September 1951.

Of course when you start nursing you go into preliminary training school and you have to buy things. Well, I decided that I needed a dictionary because I didn’t understand all that the tutor was saying. So that was my very first book. I actually refer to it now and again because it gives you all the medical conditions and explanations, and if I get a little bit puzzled I can go and have a look. You can’t necessarily get it off the internet.

A lot of the books I got, I passed on when I finished doing my training. I left them behind to go into the nurses’ library so that anyone coming along could borrow them and not have to fork out all that money. I’d been down in Clacton (Essex) all summer and I’d had 2 jobs. I was a waitress. I was working in a restaurant in the daytime and at night I was working on the pier in the ballroom. For about 10 weeks I earned £10 a week and after I paid for my digs and my food, I was able to get a little nest egg. When I started nursing I went down to £8 a month.

Money was scarce, so you look after things. I didn’t need the other books, so I just left them there for others who were perhaps in the same sort of situation — needed a book to refer to but they could borrow that until they could afford their own. But I kept this one because that was the very first one I bought.”

Where did you do your training?

“A place called Black Notley hospital, near Braintree (Essex). It’s not there any more. You went into the preliminary training school. It was the first time in my life that I’d had a room. It wasn’t a whole room: it was just a cubicle with a curtain across but it was mine. I’d never had that before. It was wonderful!

We were there for 10 weeks. Lectures from the tutors and the sister tutor and then you were on to the wards.

“They could see I was very, very junior… they got me to bring in the New Year by smoking a cigar”

I was told I was going on night duty at the New Year. I was put on the sanitorium on the men’s ward. I was utterly bemused because I didn’t know any of the routine and I didn’t know much about tuberculosis at the time. But I survived. I had a great time. The men teased me. So I got my own back on them. They could see I was very, very junior and very, very new and didn’t know very much. And so they dared me to bring in the New Year by smoking a cigar. So I said: “Right. Come on then”. I didn’t inhale it of course but I puffed on the cigar and I went all the way through it!

One poor old gentleman there who was dying, the ward sister had left a little tot of… I think it was whisky… a little stimulant for him if he became a bit low. So I let him celebrate the New Year with this stimulant. It was midnight and everybody was supposed to be asleep. But we had a good time and the men went to sleep after that.

“Matron was furious”

About a year or so later I was told that I had to go on day duty. I had to go to one of the san wards. “They need a nurse there.”
I said: “But I’ve done my sanitorium training. I did 5 months.”
“No you didn’t, you did 3 months. You must go about your business, you’ll never be a nurse.”

I went back to the ward where I’d done my 5 months on nights and spoke to sister there. I said: “Sister” — she was nice — “do you think I could have a look at some of the ward report books?” There was a big book and each night you had to write in at the end of the night anything that had happened during your shift.

I went back down to matron’s office armed with my books. She was furious. So she’s told me “Very well, you must go back to the ward I’d sent you to and work there tomorrow and then you can go back to your own ward.“
“Yes matron.” Of course, I was off the next day.

But all the ward ledgers were removed from every ward that day and put into storage. So nobody could go back and find something and dispute what they’d said.

Retired midwife Betty MacKinnon with her Bailliere's Nurses Dictionary

“I think I always wanted to be a nurse”

I think I always wanted to be a nurse. I was brought up by my grandparents.  And my grandmother said, you always wanted to be a nurse.  All my toys — I had, you know the usual, the dolls and teddies and so on — they always had something wrong with them. They’d got a bandage on or they’d got a headache. And one Christmas I was given a blue dress with a red cape – a nurse’s uniform. I was into the street with my nurse’s uniform. I was about 8 I think.

But when I was 10 I had to leave my grandparents and go and live with my mother. I was there for 8 years. My mother had no conception, no idea at all about nursing or anything. She just wanted money. And so I was taken out of school at 14. I’d just past my 14th birthday. I should have gone on and finished the year. But I was 14 in October and she made me leave my secondary school in December so that I could go and get a job. That lasted for 4 years. It wasn’t very nice.

“My mother said I wasn’t to go… I got a thorough good hiding”

I actually went down to Clacton in 1950 with someone I worked with. And we worked there for the summer and then I went back home. And I wanted to go back again because I thought I could make a little bit of money. My mother said I wasn’t to go. But I’d already given in my notice. So I got a thorough good hiding before going back to my job which was my last day. I said: “Well I’ve got to go back because I’ve got to get my wages.” So I went back. It was just across the road. My work mates were very nice, they said you’re not going back there. So we went right down to the end of the factory — I worked in the canteen in the factory.

“They boosted me over the fence on to the canal towpath”

We went all the way down to the bottom end and they boosted me over the fence on to the canal towpath. And I walked down to the station. I took the train. I went back to my friend’s in Clacton. So I said to Rose: “You know, I really do want to be a nurse.” I worked there for the summer. And I went to Clacton hospital to find out how I could start nursing. And they sent me to Black Notley.

I’d already, when I was still living with my mother I’d gone to Croydon to find out about nursing courses. My mother was furious that I did that. I wasn’t allowed out of the house.”

Why didn’t she want you to be a nurse?

“There was no money in it. When I went to Monmouth, I worked there for 7 years. When I asked if could have a reference because we were going to Scotland to live, the senior nurse wrote that I had a job for life there. I was about, what was I? 30?

After Black Notley I went back to Wales to my grandparents and I applied to Cardiff do my midwifery. Once I started doing my second part, you are working with people in their houses, you’re part of their family for about a fortnight.”

Like Call the Midwife, the TV programme.

“Yes well I did all that. I’d already done it so I didn’t need to watch the programme.”

“We never had any qualms about our own safety: you were very respected”

You worked in Tiger Bay in Cardiff?

We never had any qualms at all about our own safety down there: you were very respected. I remember going to one place down there and the fella sat, the husband, was the other side of the door and we were in there delivering the baby. And he had a piano accordion and he said: “I’ll play you any tune you like.” And he sat there playing his piano accordion behind the door.

“You knew they didn’t have anything. They were so poor, the really were”

But the number of times you went down there. I denuded my poor grandmother’s house of sheets, old sheets, because you’d go into the house and you know you’d want to put clean linen on the bed after they’d had the baby. There’d be nothing. “Oh I loaned them to my friend.” And you knew they didn’t have anything, they were so poor, they really were.

And so I used to make sure I had something with me each time and I went through my grandmother’s cupboards. “Oh you don’t need this do you, and you don’t need this.” And I’d take something back with me so that I had something available the next time I had a delivery.

I had a lot of deliveries there. You were supposed to have 20 supervised deliveries on the district for the second part of your training. I got 45. The very first delivery I went to, they were a very nice family, they gave us a full meal with silver and china and everything in the middle of the night. And then the next one I went to, just 2 streets away, there was no wood around the door, the architraves, there was no skirting boards because they’d taken them away and used them for firewood.

“You never put your bag down on anything but that newspaper… I got three fleas”

And when you went out, you had your bag with all your equipment in for your nursing visits.  You always took a newspaper with you. And you never put your bag down on anything but on that newspaper. And you always hung your coat up on the back of the door where there was nothing else. You obeyed these rules. You knew what would happen if you didn’t. And this fella went out to call for the ambulance for us to take us back — it was the ambulance that took us out and brought us back from our deliveries — and he put his coat on top of mine. I got three fleas. I went into bed and was jumping and caught three of them.

I was there on Christmas. That was 1954. And we were a nice group. And we decided — matron was going to give us a nice Christmas dinner and so on — we would put on a show afterwards. We made up songs. We added words to songs that people knew. You know Allentown Jail? We put our own words. “Last night I went down to Loudoun Square, oo-oo-oo/ Now who do I know who’s expecting right there? oo-oo-oo-oo /That filthy old woman who’s covered in fleas, covered in fleas/ We’ll take a few more for our settees.”

“There were fleas inside the settee in the nurses’ sitting room”

And we did, we had them on our settees. If you sat on the settees in the nurses’ sitting room, you got fleas because they were all inside. I never sat there. I heard the assistant matron say to matron: “Look at these settees.” Now there were 15 of us. She said: “Look at these covers, they need cleaning. We had them done a year ago!”

When I passed my exams I got a temporary job at a small hospital at Panteg until I could get a permanent post. I wasn’t there long – a couple of months and I was accepted as the district midwife in Monmouth. I was there for over 7 years, 7 and a half years. In which time I got married and had Gabriela (her eldest daughter).

Jimmy wanted to go back to Scotland and an opportunity came. So we moved back up to Scotland. I got a job in a hospital that’s now closed, it was Rotten Row. And I worked there for a few months. I worked at different hospitals and a midwife’s unit out at Hardgate. No doctors there, you had to call the general practitioner if you needed a doctor. So I was there for a couple of years. And then I applied for a post at the hospital. I’ve forgotten it’s name now. It was just outside the zoo, the other side of Glasgow. I was there as a night sister. Then I got the job at the Queen Mother’s hospital in Glasgow and I was there for the rest of my career. 1992 I finished. From 1951 to ‘92  involved in the health service in some way.”

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