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<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

Life goes on:   A strange thing happened this morning, a gentleman called out.

 “Nurse”

It took a few moments before I realized he meant me.  It was a bit of a shock, but a very pleasant one. 

Sister Tutor says even in wartime there has to be a routine in hospital.  The day always starts the same with Sister re-arranging the flowers and potted plants which had been taken out of the ward the night before and put in the sluice room because Matron says they give off poisonous carbon monoxide during the night.  It’s a hospital superstition, too, that no lilies are allowed in the wards because they’re considered to be unlucky and you never have red and white flowers in the same vase either because that means death.

 I have to clean each marble-topped locker next to the patient’s bed and wipe out the fruit bowl that stands on it.   Then the beds are pulled away from the wall for a maid to sweep the floor and which Matron likes highly polished, which is fine if you are wearing rubber sole shoes, but for the patients wearing slippers it can be a difficult.

 I was helping an old man to the toilet yesterday morning and he was fairly steady on his feet to start with, but suddenly he slipped, lost his balance and ended up on his bottom and me with him.   The other patients had a good laugh at our expense and I thought it was funny too, but Sister Tutor was furious with me.

Everything and everyone has to be neat and tidy ready for Matron’s mid morning inspection.  The staff, including the doctors, have to line up in a row and woe betide us if the ward isn’t up to Matron’s standard.  She expects us to know all the patient’s names and their medical condition.

When war was first declared I was frightened, especially because normal every day things changed.  The cinema and theatres closed, and that upset me, because I’m crazy about films and I used to go every week with Joanne, but now we have to find other forms of entertainment.

 Moores discovered a pub near the hospital and she and some of the other student nurses go there quite a bit, but I don’t drink, so I haven’t been there yet.    Moores and I are working on the same ward at the moment, which is fun, and when we’re doing beds together we get the chance to talk and I hear all about what happened  in the pub the night before.

This morning we were changing the bottom sheet of a bed, with the patient still in it, and Moores was telling me about this Canadian soldier who said he can get her some French champagne and silk stockings.  Each time we moved the patient he broke a little wind and at first we ignored him and carried on chatting, but then he did it again and we started to laugh and couldn’t stop and what’s more neither could the patient, which made him break wind louder and more often and then all the other patients joined in and they didn’t even know what they were laughing about. 

But it was a wonderful moment especially as there was no one around to tell us off.   You need little moments like that because it helps to take away the tension and worry for a little bit, and it’s amazing how much better you feel afterwards.  

Moores is such fun, you know, she says to me

 “Olga, eat life or life eats you”. 

So I’ve decided to have some fun and go out with her tonight, but I won’t tell Joanne because she thinks Moores is a bad influence on me.  Joanne says the first year examination is not easy and I should be studying hard for it. 

 

 The Rose Public House:   I’ve never been inside a public house before but, apart from being very smoky, it was really quite nice.  Moores always finds someone to talk to but I was happy to sit quietly drinking my ginger beer.  For the first time since the war started I felt safe there, perhaps, because it’s used by soldiers and watching people enjoy themselves, laughing and having a good time, makes you forget about how worried you are about the war and exams.

I never go out on my own at night because it’s so dark with all the street lights turned off, but at least the lamp posts are painted white so we don’t bump into them and the edges of the pavements have been painted white too.   Moores, Ethel and I each carry a little torch which we have to shine downwards onto the pavement.  But we had a nasty shock on the way home from a night out.

We were passing a doorway when Ethel let out a  scream.  We looked up and there was a woman’s face lit up in the doorway.  She had a little torch pinned to her coat so that the light shone on her face and she was wearing a fox fur around her neck.   The  fox’s eyes were glinting in the light, its tiny teeth bared in a snarl and it had little paws and a bushy tail that hung loose.   I’m not surprised Ethel screamed, it was a frightening sight.  Moores said the woman was a prostitute waiting for clients.   Moores knows about everything, you know.

 

We’re being blitzed:   It has been difficult for me to write because we have been so busy in the hospital and to be truthful I haven’t felt like it. 

Everything has changed.  

Germany’s planes have been dropping bombs on London day and night and the devastation is awful.  Hundreds of people have been killed, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands are without homes.  The bombing raids can last for hours without any let up.  But, most of all I dread it when the Germans bomb at night, which they do frequently. Every part of London is being bombed including here in Camberwell. 

A landmine exploded nearby and several homes were blown up, many of  the casualties were brought here.  There seem to be fires burning somewhere in London day and night.  Other cities are being bombed as well but the Germans certainly seem determined to destroy London. 

I start to shake when I hear the air raid siren sound and even when the all clear is given I’m too frightened to go out.  I’ve been keeping away from Moores and Ethel, using study as an excuse to stay in, because I don’t want them to think I’m a coward, but I’m ashamed of myself too, because the people who are homeless and have lost everything still have their fighting spirit and say they won’t be beaten by Germany.   

Joanne came to see me at St Giles during a break between bombings and made me go for a long walk with her.  I felt much better afterwards, especially, when she told me that she was afraid too.

“Olga, we must do our job and put our trust in God” she said. 

We talked about our families and wondered if they knew how bad things were here in London.  The letters Joanne receives are heavily censored too and so we think the ones we write home are as well.  It’s heartbreaking; I’m desperate to receive news from Mammie and the family and when I do get a letter, line after line has been crossed out with black ink so I’m left with hardly anything to read.  And you feel as if someone is spying on you.  The censors know more about what’s going on with my family than I do.

Joanne says “We should be grateful, at least they open the letters carefully and don’t tear them.” 

  Any day now Joanne’s waiting to hear if she’s passed her final exam so that when the war’s over she can fulfil her dream and go back to Jamaica a qualified nurse.

“And, if you study hard Olga, so will you”

“Who knows, maybe we can work together in Jamaica”. she said

 I’ll tell you something Dear Diary, I struck gold when she sat down beside me that day in Regents Park. 

 

<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

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<—My First Contact                         Life on Board SS Port Morant 1902—>

 

Letter – from Becky Ross, Droop Street, Paddington, London 

to

Lucy Sinclair, Constant Spring Hotel,  Jamaica 

 

July 1901

 

Dearest Lucy

 

It was lovely to receive your last letter.   Martha was very interested with your remarks about Jamaican women and how fashion conscious they are.  Maybe there is an opportunity for her skills over there, although at the moment she’s got a “gentleman friend”, a private in the army and they certainly do see a lot of each other. 

 

I’m working as a governess in Kensington for a very nice young couple who have two children, Emily and Robert, but it’s only a temporary position because they have an elderly governess who has been with the family for ages (handed down from generation to generation I think) but took a leave of absence and will be returning to her position in about two months.  That suits me well, because when I finish I want to enrol in a housekeeping and basic cookery course with Marshall’s Cookery School in Marylebone Road.  

 

I think the more things I can turn my hand too the less chance I’ll be pressured by Pa into marrying a man of his choice.  Would you believe it, Lucy,  in the past few weeks he has brought home three police constables to dinner with the express purpose of them looking me over to see if I am suitable marriage material.   I’ve no intention of being press ganged into marrying someone I don’t love even if it means I do end up a spinster of the parish. 

 

It’s wonderful to hear about your life over there.  I read your letters over and over again, usually on the way home from work, freezing cold and trudging through London smog, snow or rain, Jamaica seems magical, like a fairy land. 

 

Ma and Pa send their love to you and ask if you are going to mass on Sunday.  I assured them that we were all too scared of the hell and damnation that would befall us were we not to.

 

Your loving sister (Signed Becky)

 
 
  

Letter from Lucy Sinclair, “Mon Repose”, Jamaica 

to

Becky and Martha Ross, Droop Street, London.

 

February 1902 

 

Dearest Becky and Martha

 

It is barely a year ago that we arrived here; such a lot has happened in a short space of time.  John has found a small estate for sale, about 1,050 acres, and it is within our budget so, we have bought it and named our first home “Mon Repose”.

 

It’s in the parish of St Andrews which is a few miles from Kingston and John says it is in a good position as it is on fairly level land and has a stream running through it.  There are stables and a large barn which house some  50 or so cattle, 3 horses, 3 mules, a wagon cart and some other equipment that came with the land.   The horses and mules will be useful but John is undecided about whether he wants to raise cattle. He is keen to grow more crops and make use of  what he has learnt with Bertie Pollock. 

 

The land is divided by wire fences, most of which need repairing and has considerable cultivation in bananas, coffee, pimentos, over 150 bearing coconut trees and other bits and bobs. 

 

The house is quite large though it does need an awful lot of renovation because it has been empty for years, but its structure is sound.  It has a drawing room, dining room and four bedrooms and is quite well furnished.  That takes care of  one immediate problem, having to furnish it.  There is a kitchen and outside a water closet as well as an outhouse for bathing.

 

Oh it’s perfect Becky.  You and Martha must come and visit very soon.  There is plenty of room in the house, lots to see, and so much I want to show you.  Are you and Martha working on persuading Pa and Ma to let you come for a holiday? 

 

Your loving sister  (Signed Lucy)

  

Telegram from Martha and Becky Ross, London 

to

Lucy Sinclair, Jamaica

 

Success at last!.  Martha and I leaving Avonmouth at 4.45 pm on 16th July for Kingston on “S. S. Port Morant”.   All being well should arrive on 28th .  Very excited.  Longing to see you.  Love Becky.

 

 

<—My First Contact                 Life on Board SS Port Morant 1902—>

 

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<—St Andrews, Jamaica                   Letters Between Lucy and Becky 1901-02—>

 

The Advertisement in The Gleaner

Mum had been consistent over the years in refusing to tell me anything about my father or allowing me to attempt to make contact with her family back in Kingston, Jamaica. Whenever I asked about either the reply was always the same. In response to the family question she would say “I don’t want to see them, they’ll only ask questions and, anyway, they’re probably all dead by now”. And in response to questions about my father she’d say “It’s too painful to talk about”.

At that stage I had no idea who my father was nor the circumstances surrounding my birth. In the nineteen forties, when I was born, there was a huge stigma attached to being an unmarried mother, coloured or not, and I assumed it was that stigma which was imbedded in my Mums psyche.  I was later to find that there was another reason.

Her near death experience made me determined to find out more about my family, so I placed the following advertisement in The Gleaner, Jamaica’s national daily newspaper.

    ad-in-gleaner42

A Result!

I suppose, because Mum had been so adamant over the years that all her famiy were dead, I didn’t hold out much hope of a reply. But 24 hours after the ad appeared in the paper I had a phone call a woman called Audrey who was married to Anthony Shim. Anthony was Ruby’s son and Ruby was an older sister of Mum’s and he and his wife lived in London. It was highly emotional phone call for me particuarly when Audrey told me the family in Jamaica believed Mum to be dead. And within hours of that phone call I received a telegram from my Aunt Ruby:

telegram-copy

 

On My Way

The first inhabitants of Jamaica, the Arawaks,  gave the island its name Xaymaca – meaning “land of wood and water” and as I looked at it from the air, the name seemed very appropriate. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to see their Jamaica or even the idyllc island Mum had left behind so long ago.  Kingston had changed a lot since Jamaica gained its Independence.  Now, because of the violence, certain parts were  ‘no go’ areas and visitors were warned to be vigilant to ensure their safety.  

Our plane had started its descent into Kingston and I looked out of the small cabin window at the island I had spent much of my childhood daydreaming about.  From the air, it looked stunning.  Jamaica is a mountainous island with the rugged mountain ranges of the spectacular Blue Mountains to the east of the island. One of the flight attendants announced that we were in a holding pattern over Norman Manley Airport and would have to circle over the island for 10-15 minutes until we could make our final descent into Kingston.

And so the captain gave us a bird’s eye view of Jamaica – I could see the smaller John Crow Mountains next to the Blue Mountain range. I thought I could have been flying over the Amazon Jungle as I looked down at a dense tropical forest no doubt completely uninhabited. A blue haze, from which the Mountains get their name from, wafted lazily over the top of them like a long pale blue gray chiffon scarf. Now we were flying over Cockpit Country in the center of the island where direct descendants of the Maroons still lived. The word Maroons comes from the Spanish word “marron” meaning brown.

The Maroons were slaves owned by the Spaniards when Spain ruled Jamaica. After the British conquered the Spaniards and took Jamaica for themselves, many of the slaves escaped into the mountains and forests in the remote Cockpit Country and set up communities there. The British soldiers tried on several occasions to recapture the slaves for themselves but the Maroons were fierce and resourceful fighters who could outsmart the British soldiers. They were led by a woman, the indomitable and formidable Nanny – now one of Jamaica’s national treasures! Eventually a truce was called and the Maroons gained a considerable measure of self-government they still enjoy today. And every year on 6th January the Maroons celebrate the fact that they were the first black people in the West Indies to gain their freedom, nearly 100 years before Emancipation.

As we continued to fly over the island I could see through my cabin window rivers that criss-crossed over the island and ran from the mountains all the way down to the coastline. I could even see huge waterfalls on the side of the mountains, We carried on flying westward and there were miles and miles of white sandy beaches surrounded by the clean, clear sapphire-blue water of the Caribbean.

We passed over fertile fields crammed with healthy looking crops and I couldn’t help wondering whether we were flying over fields where ganja was growing. Mum had told me how it was smoked quite openly when she was a child in Jamaica, most notably by my Great Aunt Lucy.  I took one more look at the Blue Mountains we started our descent into Kingston.

 

marie-stuart-patsy-and-aunt-ruby-welcome-home-partyfor-marie12 

“Welcome Home to Jamaica” Party for Marie
from l. to r. Patsy, Aunt Ruby, Marie and Stuart

 <—St Andrews, Jamaica                   Letters Between Lucy and Becky 1901-02—>

 

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my-mum-aged-883

 

  • In 1994, my mother, Carmen Browne, was admitted to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, England seriously ill. As she slowly recovered I realized that had she died so too would the chance of my finding out about her past, her family in Jamaica and, of particular importance to me, who my father was information she had resolutely refused to share with me. So I decided to find out for myself.

  • My first discovery was that my mother’s real name was Olga Browney, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and one of eleven children from a close-knit, coloured Catholic family. A kind, naïve and gentle girl, my mother arrived in London on 1st April in 1939 and lived with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt, intending to stay for only six months. However, world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent all combined to prevent her from returning home to Kingston.

  • I discovered a story of cruelty, revenge and jealousy inflicted on an innocent young woman and how she demonstrated huge moral courage, dignity, resilience and, in particular, love. I learnt what a remarkable woman my mother was, who because of circumstances, made a choice, which resulted in her losing contact with her beloved family in Jamaica, until nearly half a century later when her past caught up her.

    This is her story ——->
     

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