Highwood Hospital

A Memory of Brentwood

I spent nine months at Highwood Hospital  between May and December 1951. I celebrated my 12th birthday in Poplars 3, a girls' ward almost at the end of the drive. I remember so many things about my time there I could almost write a book on it! Sister was Sister Thomas whom I worshipped, then there was Nurse Mac (Mahon) who was young and pretty, Staff Nurse Weller, quiet and efficient in an all-white uniform, and Nurse Donnelly (very Irish). The doctors were the lady Doctor Briegel and Doctor Jib (Dubrovsky) who was really likeable and kind, but couldn't find a vein when he took blood - on one occasion he tried both my wrists, both ankles, and gave up in despair. Orderlies, Kitty Brace and a Scottish lady called Chris were sympathetic and we felt they were on our side.

I made many friends at Highwood. We were all East End kids and not at all the pale, shallow-breathing consumptives of film and fiction. We were a rumbustious lot and we gave poor Miss Currie, the teacher who had the bad luck to be assigned to our ward, a very hard time. She would read to us every day before she left and I have never forgotten Elizabeth Goudge's "The Little White Horse", which was magical.

Where are all my friends now? I can list them all, remembering them sitting in their beds in the horrid red flannel bedjackets, made necessary by the almost permanently open "sun balconies" that ran the length of the wards, or wearing the status gym slips when allowed "up on hours". Are any of you out there? Margaret Watson; the other Pam, older than me, who taught me how to make a turban out of a towel after washing my hair; Eileen and Marie Bennett, sisters from Hackney; Rose Murphy; Andrée Criddle; Janet Capon, who was always sick on visits day, she got so excited; Paulette Saville; Janette Last; Doreen Neat, who was spirited off to Harefield Hospital for surgery. She came from Croydon, where I now live, but I've never managed to trace her. I did find dear Mozzie (Maureen Willsher), my greatest friend and partner in crime. She was in Leicester, and we emailed each other for a few years until she sadly passed away a couple of years ago.

At Highwood I was known as Rusty (Morley) because of the colour of my hair. there was much banter about the boys on Laurels, opposite Poplars, and Mozzie, with some others, reckoned that they had used a telescope and spotted a ginger boy across in Laurels. They claimed that the nurses had said he knew about me and fancied me. I fell for this invention and people kept referring to him as "Rusty's joy, the ginger boy"! I was devastated when Mozzie confessed that it was all an elaborate fiction and that there was no ginger boy!

We all had to make our own beds, and Sister taught us how to do immaculate hospital corners, a skill that has lasted 67 years to date. Woe betide the girl whose sagging corners were noticed by Matron on her daily round, when we stood by our beds or sat in silence, until she had passed on her way.

We had to go to church on Sundays once we were up on enough hours a day. I remember the vicar preached one sermon about a wedding garment, which told how those not wearing this garment were not admitted to the wedding feast. He interpreted this mysterious garment as baptism and told us that the unbaptised would not be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven. When my parents came to see me  in the afternoon I begged them to let me be christened. I knew I had not been, because my father was an atheist and did not hold with it. He asked me quietly why I had suddenly expressed a wish to be christened. I told him about the sermon and he was absolutely furious. He went and told the staff that his sick child had been terrified by the threat of being cast into hell and that he would not allow me to go to the church again. In hindsight, I can see why he was so angry, but I imagine the vicar had meant no harm.

We had visits from a dentist periodically and the exaggerated horror stories that circulated were far worse than the threat of hell in maybe 70 or 80 years' time! Those were the days when they extracted anything that looked too difficult to drill and fill, and I think many of us left Highwood with fewer teeth than we had gone in with!

All in all, though, we were very well cared for. We were fed quantities of cod liver oil and malt as well as a healthy diet, and the fresh air treatment clearly helped our TB. Some girls were on medication, but by no means all of us - bed rest and fresh air really did cure us. The most serious cases were not on Poplars, and we all went home sooner or later -  and probably made old bones, like me! There were stories about patients dying on Firs or Rowans, but whether these were just more inventions I never knew.

Looking at the photos of the derelict buildings online brought tears to my eyes, as the memories flooded back. If there is anyone who was on Poplars 3 with me in 1951, I'd love to hear from them. My email address is pam_cr2@hotmail.com

A memory shared by Pamela Stockwell , on Apr 4th, 2014.

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