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<—Home is a Refuge for Friendless Girls         Life in a Wartime Nursery—>

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Dear Diary

Marie:   So many people were in the labour room of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, three medical students watching as part of their training, two nurses, Sister and a doctor.  After eighteen painful hours it was it was nearly over.  

“One good heave now Olga.  I can feel the head” the doctor said and then finally the baby slipped out. 

Before the mouth and nasal passages were cleared Sister had slapped the baby on its bottom and it cried immediately.  Then it was weighed, washed and wrapped in a blanket and handed to me – I had a baby girl.  I was frightened holding her because she was so small and I thought I would hurt her. 

“Babies are tough, Olga.  Give your daughter a cuddle” Sister said kindly.   I wish Mammie could see my tiny, perfect little daughter.

******

Dear Diary

I’ve christened my daughter, Marie-Thérèse, after my favourite nun at Alpha Academy and I’ve had to register her birth.  When the Registrar asked me the father’s name, I just shook my head.  I felt ashamed, but he was a kind man and patted my hand and gave me a little smile, but his act of kindness made me cry.   I have no idea how I am going to look after my baby.  I have no home, no money and no job. 

Then the problem was solved for me.  Miss Franks came to me and said that because of my circumstances, my baby would be taken from me and put in an orphanage to give me time to think about whether placing Marie for adoption was best for her.  She also told me that Matron from St Giles had said I could work at the hospital, as a maid, for a short time, which would give me some money, and I could stay in the refuge for a while until I came to some kind of decision about Marie.

I’ve asked Miss Franks if she could arrange for Marie to be baptized at St James’s Roman Catholic Church in Spanish Place and Moores said she would be Marie’s godmother. Immediately after Marie was baptized  I handed her over to a complete stranger to be taken to an orphanage in a place I’d never heard of, Gloucester.  If Moores hadn’t been with me I think I would have ended my life then. 


“In Jamaica we have Obeah men who can work evil against people who hurt you, you know, Moores.  They can make bad things happen to that person.  I only have to ask someone back home and it will be done.”

 “That’s voodoo, Olga”

“Maybe it is, but I want to hurt him for what he did to me”. 

“Would it help if I pop into John Lewis and bought a little doll and some pins, then you can pretend the doll is John Edward and stick the pins in it.”

“Don’t laugh, Moores, believe me Obeah works,  I know, I’ve seen it working” I told her.  I looked at her and there was a little smile on her face.

“Forget all that rubbish Olga” she said putting her arm around me. 

“You need to concentrate on finding a way to get your baby back.”
 
  ******

Dear Diary

Miss Franks wanted to see me.  She showed me an advert from a newspaper.  A toddler and baby nursery in Wimbledon wants help in its nursery and she thinks that with my nursing training I should apply for the job particularly as no school leaving certificate is asked for. 

It is a private nursery in a very big posh house at the end of a long drive in Victoria Drive, I was interviewed by the two trained nurses who ran it called Sister Warner and Sister Pateman.  The Sisters told me that the mothers of the babies at the nursery are in the navy or army and when they have finished their tour of duty, or the war is over, they will take their babies back again.   I explained I had a little baby, Marie, and they said yes your little baby can come along. 

Then they took me round the building and explained how the baby nursery takes babies from six months up to two years old.   The baby room is on the top floor of the house and there is a play room next to it which is full of soft and wooden toys made by the local people living in the area and my bedroom is on the same floor.

Then they showed me around the toddler nursery which takes day children from two to five years of age.  The children are able to come to the nursery any time after 7.30 in the morning and have to be picked up by 6  in the evening.  The nursery is on the first floor and also has a playroom as well as a sleeping room for the children to rest in during the day.    Each toddler has their own overall, towel and flannel, which is kept on their own peg.  Sister Pateman and Sister Warner’s bedrooms are on that floor.

On the ground floor are two bathrooms each with electric fires over the bath and the staff dining room.  Next to the air raid shelter in the basement is the laundry room where there is a big sink with a wringer.  

Each baby has its own cot and bedding and every day nappies have to be boiled as well as washing the cot sheets and towels.  When I saw the amount of washing that had to be done I thought I can’t do this job, I won’t cope, but Sister must have seen my face, because she said I would not be doing the washing.  A local girl comes in each day and does it and another woman comes in two afternoons a week to do the ironing. 

 “They were desperate for some help and you were a godsend to them Olga”, Miss Franks said later.

 For the first time in a very long time I felt happy, it meant free board and food for Marie and me and I got paid as well.  I’d have done the job just for the board and food.

Six months after Marie was taken away from me  I’ve got her back and I will never, never, never, EVER give her up again to anyone. 

I miss my family.

******

<—Home is a Refuge for Friendless Girls          Life in a Wartime Nursery—>

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<—The Refuge for Friendless Girls                               Marie —>

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Dear Diary

I never knew places like this existed.  Matron said I was lucky to be here because this is a Catholic refuge and other girls in my state end up in the workhouse, which, she says, are very unpleasant places and the treatment of the women in them is often cruel and harsh.

 “Here”, she said,  “they will treat you well and take care of you until you have your baby”. 

 My room is cold and bare, with an iron bed, a table, a chest of drawers, a large white enamel jug and bowl.   On the wall is a big crucifix of Jesus on the cross.  I like the cross being there.  It makes me feel I’m not so alone.  

There are eight other women here, all waiting to have their babies.   I spend my days cleaning the refuge or peeling vegetables in the kitchen.  When I’m not working I stay in my room and say my rosary.   We are forbidden to speak to each other during the day but can talk for one hour in the evening after prayers.  But I don’t want to talk to anyone.  I feel ashamed.  I keep myself to myself. 

Why do I dream of the things I can’t have. 

Last night it was Cissie’s wedding.  I saw everything so clearly. 

Father Baker performed her wedding ceremony at the Holy Trinity Cathedral and there were flowers everywhere.  Cissie walked down the aisle on Sydney’s arm to the music of the wedding hymn, looking beautiful in a simple white silk dress with a long tulle veil and a spray of orange blossom in her hair.  The tots and I were the bridesmaids and we wore pale blue dresses with broad hats trimmed with blue lace and chiffon.    Over sixty people attended the service, as well as Dyke’s family and friends and including three of Cissie and Dyke’s children.

After the ceremony everyone went back to Mission House.  In the back garden Mammie had arranged for a large booth made of bamboo and coconut leaves to be built and decorated with lignum vitae and pink bougainvillea.  This was where all the wedding presents were put before they were unwrapped.  There was a table in the garden covered with a white linen table cloth and on it stood the wedding cake with a net over it and pinned in several places.   

After the bride, the wedding cake was the centre of interest and the guests had to bid money to uncover the cake.  They would try and outbid each other and by the time the cake was uncovered Cissie and Dyke would have several pounds, as well as lots of lovely presents.  It was such a happy, noisy day with so much laughter. 

I thought about Michael Sales and the pretty earrings he gave me at my leaving party in Kingston and how he said he’d wait for me to return so I could be his girlfriend.  But not now… not me Michael.  I hope you find someone nice.

 

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<—The Refuge for Friendless Girls                            Marie —>

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 <—The Rape of an Innocent

(Continued Olga’s Diary)

Dear Diary

Matron called me to her office.  I’m not surprised.  I know my work has not been good lately.  I was hoping she would tell me I could go home.    Dr Randall, who carries out some of the three monthly student medical examinations, was sitting behind Matron’s desk.   He spoke first. 

“I’m sorry to have to tell you Nurse, you are pregnant and I’m sorry but you’ll have to leave St Giles”. 

The room started spinning and I don’t remember what happened next, except I was sitting down and Matron was giving me sips of water from a glass.   I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what Dr Randall had said.  Neither of them asked me any questions, which was just as well because I didn’t have any answers. 

“I don’t know how I got pregnant” I told them and I started crying.  Matron was very, very kind and said

 “Leave things to me, I will arrange everything”.

Later Moores came to my room and asked me what had happened, so I told her what Dr Randall said. 

She asked me who the father was and I said

“I don’t know”.  

But she didn’t believe me,

“You must know who made you pregnant Olga, after all you it’s not like you know a lot of men. What man have you been with?”

And then it began to dawn on me that maybe it had been John Edward.  I had never mentioned to anyone what happened that day in the pub, even when I saw Moores the next day I didn’t tell her. But now I told her everything.   By the time I’d finished, she was crying and hugging me tight. 

“Oh, Olga, I’m so sorry. I let you down. It would never have happened if I’d been there.” 

Still holding me she asked hadn’t I realised afterwards that I might be pregnant. 

I told her “No.  Mammie brought us up very strictly at home and we never talked about things like that, so I had no idea how babies were made.  When my sister Chickie was pregnant we were never allowed to discuss why she was getting bigger and bigger.  We knew she was going to have a baby but  Mammie never told us how babies were made.  We were always told that babies were sent by God and delivered to the mother.  That was the sort of upbringing we had”. 

“Oh Olga”, Moores said, “and you a nurse.  Never mind, my family know a doctor who will get rid of it for you.  It won’t help you get your job back but at least you won’t be burdened with a baby and can go back to Jamaica and your family won’t know anything about it.” 

I knew Moores meant well, but I was horrified by her suggestion.

“But, I would know.  I can’t do that.  It would be a sin.”

When I went to bed I thought about my family.  There had been so much gossip about us over the years, so many scandals and I didn’t want to be another one.  When I thought of Mammie I ached to put my head on her lap, just once more, and feel her hand stroking my head like she did when I didn’t feel well. 

I don’t feel well now Mammie.

Then I said my prayers and prayed for God to forgive me for my wickedness and the shame I had brought on my family

 ********

 Report:   Prepared by Miss Geraldine Franks, Superintendent
Catholic Refuge for Friendless Girls, Barclay Road, Fulham, London
 

Subject:   Miss  Olga Josephine Browney 

  Olga Browney was referred to the home by Miss Mary Norton, Matron, St Giles Hospital, Camberwell.  Throughout the interview Miss Browney sat on the edge of her chair with her head bowed. 

I told her that the first thing we had to do was to complete a registration form for her and she would have to tell me something about herself.  As she answered my questions her voice trembled and her hands shook and when she mentioned her mother she started to cry.  Miss Browney has made it clear she does not wish her mother, or any member of her family, to be informed about her situation.  She says she does not want to hurt them.

We then moved on to the father of the child.  At this point she refused to talk about him and no amount of encouragement on my part would make her.   I decided not to press the matter. 

I then asked her what plans she had for supporting the baby once it was born.   When I explained that she could put the baby up for adoption, for the first time in the interview Miss B raised her head and said she would keep the baby.  As gently as I could I explained to her that she may have no choice in the matter especially since she was not prepared to take the baby home to her family in Jamaica.  I asked Miss B, how, if she kept the baby and stayed in England, she planned to manage, support and care for herself and the child.    Miss B said she would find a job and work.

It is quite obvious that Miss B feels she has brought shame on her family by her predicament, but I am concerned about her decision not to return home and have tried to persuade her to change her mind.            

I am at a loss to understand why the fear of confronting her family with an illegitimate child is greater than choosing to remain in a country at war, without the support of friends or family and treats unmarried mothers with contempt, not to mention the problem that her colour may bring. 

Fortunately, there is time to persuade Miss B to place the child for adoption.

                                                Geraldine Franks  (Superintendent)

 <—The Rape of an Innocent

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<—Bad News                            Refuge for Friendless Girls—>

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

  

Dear Diary 

What did I do wrong:   The water in my bath was so hot the bathroom was thick with steam, burning my skin and I could barely see the bath taps.  But I didn’t want to cool it down, I wanted it as hot as I could bear it.   

Earlier Moores had said she’d meet me at the pub, but wasn’t there when I arrived.  So, I got my ginger beer from the barman and sat down.  The pub was busy and noisy and though I’d been there a few times before, this was the first time on my own.   

From where I was sitting I could see John Edward in the other bar with a group of friends.  Before the war he was a senior doctor in St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington and very well respected.  Now he was working as a doctor in the army based somewhere near London. He’s very popular and everyone knows who he is.  He has a reputation for being a bit of a ladies man.  Moores would often tease me about him saying I had a crush on him and, it was true, I did like him a lot, but he’d never even noticed me.  

I’d been sitting there for half an hour and Moores still hadn’t turned up so I decided to get one more drink. I decided I’d go back to the Nurses’ Home if she hadn’t arrived by the time I’d finished it.  I felt a twinge of disappointment when I went up to buy my ginger beer because I couldn’t see John in the other bar.   

I sat down and the next thing I knew he was sitting opposite me.  He smiled at me but I was overcome with shyness.   

“Olga, isn’t it?” he said loudly so I could hear above the noise.  Goodness, I thought, he knows my name.   

“Yes, it is”.  

 I was getting a really good look at him now.  I’d never seen anyone so handsome, except, of course, film stars, but most of them were dark haired.  John was slim and fair-haired and he had such a lovely smile.   By now I was hoping Moores wasn’t coming because I wanted John all to myself.  He told me he had three days leave before he had to report back to the army.  I could see some of the other girls in the bar looking at us, a bit jealous I thought, and I felt so proud that he seemed interested in me.   

My initial shyness was gone and I was surprised by how easy he was to talk to.  I told him where I came from and all about my family and he talked about his life in the army.  We talked like two people who had been friends for ages.  He offered to buy me another ginger beer and while he was at the bar I went to the ladies toilet.   

As I came out he was standing in the passage waiting for me and took hold of my hand.  

“Come with me, Olga, I want to show you something.”   

We went down the passage, in the opposite direction of the bar and John opened a door and we were in a small dirty yard where there were lots of beer barrels and crates of beer.   He closed the door and I wondered what we were doing there.    

Then he pushed me against the wall of the pub and started kissing me very roughly.  With his knee he forced my legs apart and I was frightened because I knew then that something bad was going to happen to me.   

I tried to push him away from me but the weight of his body had me pressed against the wall.   

“Stop, please stop, you’re hurting me” I pleaded still trying to push him.   

“Stop struggling and it won’t hurt” he said.   

He pulled my dress up and my knickers down.  He’d undone his trousers and by now I was crying  

“Please, don’t” I said, my fists punching his shoulders.  I looked at him and he was smiling and then he covered my mouth with one hand and forced himself inside me.   

Suddenly terrible, terrible pain, as he repeatedly pushed himself into me.  The pain was so bad I thought I wanted to pass out prayed to God to let me pass out so I could not feel it any more.  After a few minutes I felt his body relax. 

 Again I said “Stop, you’re hurting me” and he laughed.   

“It’s OK, Olga, I’m finished now”.   He buttoned up his trousers and then went back inside.   

For a few minutes I stayed in the same position I’d been in throughout my ordeal, leaning against the wall because I couldn’t stand up properly on my own without its support.  I could feel fluid running down my legs but was afraid to go back inside to the toilet to clean myself up. 

There was a door in the yard that opened straight onto the street.  I tried to run back to the nursing home but my legs were shaking so much I couldn’t. I kept my head down all the way back not wanting anyone to see my tears or to make eye contact with me because I thought they would know what had just happened to me.  

 I felt so ashamed and humiliated and tried to think what I had done or said in the pub to make such a bad thing happen to me, but I couldn’t think of anything. 

I stayed in the bath until it was cold, crying for Mammie. 

****** 

Dear Diary 

I  have physical pain and yet I feel numb too.  How can that be?    

I’m not the person I was before. That Olga has gone.    I cannot concentrate on anything I am asked to do and am always being scolded by Sister Tutor.  She asks me  

“What’s wrong with you, are you sick?”  

 I can’t tell her.  I don’t tell anyone.   

 If I don’t pull my socks up there will be no point in sitting the first year examination again she tells me. I don’t care any more.  I have nightmares now and am too frightened to sleep, because, when I close my eyes, I see it all happening again, so I stay awake.  

 I want to go home, but I can’t.
 
 <—Bad News                               Refuge for Friendless Girls—>
 
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 <—-St Giles Cottage Hospital

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 
Dear Diary  

Oh, damn and blast, I failed my first year preliminary exam.  Knew I would.  There was so much I didn’t understand, but, Sister Tutor says I can sit the exam again, but if I fail the second time, that’s it, finished.  Goodbye Olga.  Moores failed too, but she doesn’t care as much as I do. 

Watch out, men about:   After a nursing lecture by Sister Tutor, she kept us all behind to give us another one about soldiers and men in uniform.

“A lot of women are being assaulted and worse, by airmen and soldiers from overseas” she told us.              “Care should be taken at all times because, these men have thrown away all sense of propriety because they are away from their home, in a country where no-one knows them and are taking advantage of women and the blackout,  to behave how they like without fear of retribution”

 Moores said she’d never heard anything so ridiculous.  All the overseas men she’d met were charming and treated her with respect.

“They’re a darn sight more polite than any Englishman I’ve been out with. Of course, sometimes there are rotten apples in a barrel” she said.

“But to give the impression that all airmen and soldiers from overseas do bad things and take advantage of women is wrong”.

 Moores was really quite angry with Sister Tutor. 

After the lecture Ethel and I were on night duty together on the men’s surgical ward and she asked me if I’d heard about Sara Donahue. 

 “Yes, isn’t it sad.  When is she coming back?” I asked Ethel.

Sara is in our group but she had to leave suddenly and go home because a close relative died. 

“It’s not true about the relative dying, Olga.  She left because she failed her three monthly medical.  We think she had gonorrhoea”.

“Oh,” I said.  I’d never heard of that so I asked Ethel what gonorrhoea was.

“It’s a sexually transmitted disease” said a young male patient, who had been listening to our conversation.

 “Couldn’t put it better myself” said Ethel. 

I didn’t know what a sexually transmitted disease was, but I wasn’t going to ask because I had a feeling I would look stupid.  After all I am a nurse.  When we’re on night duty and the air raids sound, we have to pull all the beds into the centre of the ward and put each patient’s gas mask on their bed.  We’ve been issued with helmets which have to be worn when the bombs start dropping.  The first time I put mine on I thought, thank God, the tots can’t see me.  They’d never stop laughing, as a matter of fact neither could I.  It was so big I had to keep pushing it back so I could see where I was going. I looked ridiculous in it. 

Ethel and I were sitting at the big table in the middle of the ward writing up our reports and whenever we leaned forward to say something to each other, our helmets would bang together.  After a couple of times we started to laugh and then when we laughing so much we leaned back in our chairs and our helmets fell off crashing to the floor and made a terrible din and woke all the patients up. 

There’s still a routine on night duty, but it’s not so hectic.  By nine thirty the bed quilts must be folded in four and placed at the foot of the bed, thermometers in mugs, equipment trays fully laid up, false teeth deposited in mugs on lockers and all lights turned off except the green shaded one on the table in the middle of the ward.   

While some men snore, others light up cigarettes, not taking the slightest notice of us when we tell them they are not allowed to smoke in bed. 

But we do have time to write up our lecture notes and revise.  By the end of night duty, when I get to my room I’m too tired to undress and fall asleep across my bed clutching my books.

 

Horrible news:   There’s a wireless in the student nurses’ sitting room where we all gather round and listen to the news to hear how the war is going.  Before the war it was a games room but there doesn’t seem to be time to play games now, although we do sometimes play music on the gramophone. 

I was listening to the radio when Moores came in.  Before she had said a word I could see by her face that something was wrong.  But I wasn’t prepared for what she told me. 

As she sat down beside me she took my hand.

 “Olga, Joanne is dead.  The rest centre in Morley College was bombed last Tuesday evening and it seems that Joanne was visiting someone there.  Some people were rescued but most of them, including Joanne, were trapped inside.  By the time they pulled her out, she was dead.”

 “No, it’s not possible”.  

She had told me she was on night duty all week.

“Joanne changed shifts with another nurse, Olga.  Joanne was off duty.  I’m sorry”.  Then she repeated it.

“Joanne’s dead” . 

Alone in my room, I kept repeating the phrase “Joanne is dead” as if it would help me take in the terrible news.  The thought that I would never see Joanne’s face again gave me the most awful feeling I have ever had, worse than all the bombings and scares that I had experienced these last few months.  My world has changed.  I feel helpless – as if an invisible wall that once surrounded and supported me has gone and without it I feel disconnected from everyone and everything around me, tiny and insignificant. 

I’m so lonely.

Next day: I went mechanically through my duties until the last one when I was removing the flowers and potted plants from the ward and putting them in the bathroom for the night.  I remembered Joanne telling me how she loved doing this job at Paddington General because it turned the bathroom into an exotic florist, rich with perfume and vibrant colour.

 “For a few minutes Olga,” she said ”I’m back home in Jamaica”.  That night I cried bitterly for the loss of the best friend I’ve ever had. 

 ********

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

These days I spend most nights listening to the wireless for news of the war in Europe. It is so frustrating that I know more about what is going on there than how my daughter and sister are managing in London. It is months since I have heard from either of them and I feel helpless because there is nothing to do except pray. 

We now know Germany is bombing London relentlessly and the loss of life and injuries, as well as the devastation to the city, is enormous.    I read in the Gleaner of how people have to go to use the underground tube stations to shelter from the bombs.  They often sleep there all night and then have go off to work the next morning trying to avoid unexploded bombs or fractured gas mains.   How dangerous it all sounds.

I wonder if Olga has to do this too. 

 <—-St Giles Cottage Hospital

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 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939           Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —>

 

(Olga’s Diary Continued) 

Dear Diary

 St Giles Hospital:  I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  Not too long ago I was spending my mornings sitting on a park bench in Regent’s Park feeling sorry for myself and now I’m standing in a line with other student nurses listening to Sister.   

“These are the rules for student nurses and I expect you to commit them to memory” barked Sister as she handed each new student nurse a rule sheet. 

A stout, straight talking woman from Yorkshire with grey hair and voice that only seemed to have one volume, loud. 

“It is my pleasure to guide you through your nursing training until you become fully qualified nurses” Sister Tutor was referring to us by our surnames and when someone asked why, she said that’s how it is in hospital.

“We don’t use Christian names, only surnames”.

Honestly, I don’t like the idea of someone calling me Browney.

RULES FOR NURSES

  • walk at all times, only run in case of fire
  • stand when a senior member of staff enters
  • always open the door for the doctor
  • never overtake a senior member of staff on the stairs
  • no make up on duty 
  • hair not to reach your collar
  • nails must be short 
  • black stockings only when on duty and no ladders in them
  • low heel shoes
  • on duty by 7.00 am
  • in bed by 10.30 pm

 I felt uncomfortable and awkward in my student nurse’s uniform, my black frizzy hair poking out at different angles under a heavily starched white cap which needs four hair grips to hold it in place.  My grey dress had a little white collar which fastened tightly round my neck and was nearly choking me and over the dress I wore a starched white apron with a wide belt around my waist.  I didn’t like the feel of the thick black stockings on my skin and the thick black rubber soled shoes felt like lead weights on the end of my feet.

There are nine other student nurses in my group but Alison Moores, Ethel Richards and me are friends already.   I don’t really know why because we are so different.  

For a start Moores is aristocracy from top to bottom; she talks beautifully and I think she sounds very posh, she’s tall, with dark hair, which used to be long before Matron told her she would have to cut it before she started her training.  Moores has a perfect peaches and cream complexion, is very confident, elegant, and looks more like a film star than a student nurse.  Her parents are rich and they make some kind of cold cream for women and sold in jars by the thousands.   They sent her into nursing because they said she comes from a privileged background and should give something back to society.  Ethel asked her why she wasn’t doing her training at one of the big teaching hospitals and Moores said she had thought about it but preferred to be amongst real people in a smaller hospital. 

Ethel is from the East End of London, only 5 ft tall with, lovely twinkling green eyes that always seem to be smiling, a round face framed with red curly hair and a cockney accent which I don’t understand sometimes and when she smiles she shows off a set of perfectly even white teeth. Sometimes she reminds me of Vivie because she’s not frightened of any form of authority, neither Sister Tutor nor Matron.  Ethel says it’s because she grew up with five brothers and because she’s the only girl in the family she always had to fight for what she wanted.

And then there’s me.  One day I asked Moores how she had described me to her parents and she smiled as she said:

“Slim, not very tall, brown skin, not particularly pretty, short frizzy black hair which she wears with either a blue or yellow ribbon, slightly bushy eyebrows above huge brown eyes that seem to be in a permanent state of astonishment at everything she sees or hears, a beautiful smile and a soft voice that fits like a glove with her gentle manner”.  

Isn’t that a lovely description?   

It’s funny Moores comes from a very rich family and she’s not stuck up or anything.   I’m the only coloured person in the whole of the hospital, as far as I know, and people do stare at me sometimes.  Moores tells me not to worry about it. 

“They stare at you because you’re a novelty Olga, that’s all”. 

Ethel says she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and neither should I, but sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable.   

 

  Letter to Mammie, Kingston, Jamaica
from Olga, Student Nurses Home, St Giles Hospital, Camberwell, London

Dearest Mammie

The weeks fly by, such a lot to do and learn. We are on duty from 7.00 in the morning until 7 in the evening with only a coffee and lunch break.   Please don’t worry about me because I am happy, tired but happy, and I have made friends with two other student nurses.

So far I have learnt about hygiene, how to take a temperature, how to stack linen, how to put a bandage on a patient and how a treatment tray should be laid up.  Once a week we spend a morning on the ward and one of my jobs is to feed the patients. 

Oh Mammie, I love it so much, the patients are so grateful when you do something for them. Sister Tutor praised my bed making the other day, you see Mammie it’s important to make beds properly with the sheet corners turned in and the open ends of the pillow slips mustn’t face the door into the ward – the sewn end must face the door. 

The top sheets are folded over the counterpanes and have to be the same width and the fold has to be sixteen inches.  I find the best way to check is to measure from my fingertips to my elbow.

Matron is fierce and Sister Tutor stern and doesn’t smile at all.  I find it difficult to remember things so now I carry a note book around with me and write down as much as I can, especially the things I don’t understand.  When I meet Joanne she explains the things to me that I’ve been too frightened to ask Sister Tutor to repeat in case she thinks I’m stupid. 

Lectures are nearly always when we’re off duty and in one of our first lessons I met Henry who scared the life out of me.  Henry’s a skeleton that hangs from the ceiling in the lecture room and we have to memorise the names of each bone in his body.   Sometimes when I look at all those bones I think of Aggie Burns.  If she could see Henry, I bet she’d love to get her hands on his bones for her Obeah man.

I got into trouble the other day as I was preparing the patients’ tea and I was holding the loaf of bread against my chest while I was trying to slice it with a knife and Sister Tutor was furious with me.

“Don’t you have any common sense and realize how dangerous it is to try and cut bread like that”. 

And then she showed me how to cut it on the table.  I told her I’d never cut bread before because either Aggie Burns or Cassie did it.   Sister Tutor said nothing but gave me a very funny look.   I’m not lonely any more Mammie because I have three good friends now and that’s all I need.  

Your loving daughter,  Olga

 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939       Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —> 

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<—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                     Olga – A Student Nurse –>

When I asked my mother (Olga) how safe she felt in London during the first part of 1939, she said she wasn’t worried because people felt that war with Adolph Hitler had been averted.   

Maybe the previous war was still fresh in people’s minds (after all in 1939  it was less than 20 years since the end of WWI) and that was why they simply couldn’t believe that the world could go through all that devastation again.   Personally, had I been in my mother’s shoes, I’d have headed straight back to the safety of  Kingston, Jamaica.

The reality for my mother was that war was a heartbeat away and she was in a strange country living with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt and had no idea that world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent would all combine to prevent her from returning home to Jamaica.  

the-browneys-tree

(Olga’s Diary Continued)

Dear Diary

Fate steps in:  Three days later two things happened one after the other. 

First, Sydney got a big discount, bigger than he anticipated, on some bicycles he ordered for the shops and the second thing that happened was that he took ill and was rushed, by ambulance, to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington with appendicitis.  Hours later his appendix was out and he was being looked after by Nurse Megan Lloyd who comes from Wales. 

My “good old holiday” with Sydney is now being spent sitting by his bed every day in St Mary’s watching the nurses do their work while he sleeps.   I noticed that the patients have a great respect for the nurses, which is nice, and, as I like the idea of helping people get well, a plan was beginning to develop that would mean I could stay in London and make Mammie and the family really proud of me.   

When I thought the time was right I mentioned to Sydney I would like to become a nurse.  His immediate reaction was definitely not, you’re going home with me and no arguing.  So I enlisted help.  Joanne and Nurse Lloyd.  Sydney had taken a shine to Joanne and she pointed out to him the benefits of being a nurse and how it would help our community back home when I returned to Jamaica a fully qualified nurse whose training had been in a big London hospital.  It took both of them to persuade Sydney to at least have an interview with Matron at St Mary’s.  When AM heard her reaction was disbelief. 

“A great hospital like St Mary’s only takes white, middle class young ladies to train as nurses” she told us.

“They would never accept a coloured person so don’t waste your time seeing Matron, just to be told no.” 

She was right, but, for the wrong reason.  Within five minutes of sitting in Matron’s office she announced I couldn’t study nursing there because I didn’t have a school leaving certificate but suggested we try the smaller St Giles Cottage Hospital in Camberwell. 

“You’ll have more success there because not too long ago and before it became a hospital, it used to be a work house and they’re not so particular about their nurses”, AM told me, when Sydney was out of earshot.

We had an interview with Matron at St Giles, and shortly afterwards I was offered a place on a residential three month basic nursing programme, but first I had to have a medical. 

  

Dear Diary 

Good news:    I’ve been offered a nursing place and the best part of my new job is that I’ll be living in the Nurses’ Home at the hospital so don’t have to live with AM any more.  Oh happy days! 

I could see Sydney was proud of me and I knew Mammie would be too, in spite of being disappointed that I wouldn’t be going home now.  I had to promise Sydney that if war broke out I would come home immediately.  He gave me enough money for my fare and to keep me going until I got my first month’s wages which was going to be £2 a month.   He also bought all the books I needed for studying, plus three pairs of thick black stockings and my black shoes.  The rest of my nurses’ uniform would be provided by the hospital.

The night before Sydney left to go home he took Joanne and me to the theatre to see the Ivor Novello musical, The Dancing Years, and afterwards we had supper in a posh late night restaurant. 

 If I hadn’t met Joanne I’m not sure I would have chosen to become a nurse, but knowing that she would be close by,  helped me to decide and that was a big comfort, not only to me, but to Sydney too, I think.   He could reassure Mammie that I had at least one good friend.  Sitting at the dining table watching them dance together, I thought wouldn’t it be just perfect if one day Joanne became my sister-in-law. 

Something to pray for Olga.

 <—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                    Olga – A Student Nurse –>

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