Sunday 20 October 2013

Starting my training - 30 years ago!

During my time as a nursing assistant in paediatrics at the QEII in Welwyn Garden City, I started applying to become a student nurse. At the time most nurses were trained in a School of Nursing attached to an acute hospital. Training was delivered by the nurse tutors who taught nursing theory in the classroom and clinical teachers who taught practical skills on the wards. It led to the qualification of either State Enrolled Nurse (2 years) or State Registered Nurse (3 years), a two tier system bought in when nurse training was standardised as part of the NHS formation in 1948. Once qualified the SEN worked at a mainly practical level and always under the supervision of the more SRN nurse. Opportunities for promotion were limited although many enrolled nurses were highly experienced and skilled at what they did. The State Registered Nurse worked as the more senior of the two and was able to progress to senior staff nurse, ward sister, nursing officer, matron etc. As a registered nurse, she or he was able to make decisions about patient care including the management of wound care, drains, drips and sutures, administer a wide range of drugs including controlled and intra-venous drugs, accompany the doctors on ward rounds and lead the nursing team as required.

As the training for SRN was more demanding that of SEN, Nursing Schools required their SRN applicants to have a minimum of 5 O’levels. The more popular Schools could demand A levels as well. Some training places were highly sought after, a relic of the times when training schools around the country offered vastly different types of nurse training programmes. The best of these (includng of course Florence Nightingale's own school at St.Thomas') would only select well-educated young women from 'good' families.  Living close to London, I was within easy reach of Barts (St.Batholomew’s Hospital) and Guys and St. Thomas’s (before the merger), three top Schools which were still taking their pick of well qualified school leavers. However, as I was not an overly well qualified school leaver I decided to apply to the slightly less prestigious (although still very sought after) Hammersmith Hospital in West London, on the basis it was in London and therefore I would have a good social life. Although Hammersmith did accept O’level applicants they made it clear that A level applicants would have priority unless the O’level candidate was of exceptional quality. I was lucky then to get called for interview, probably on the basis of my nursing assistant  experience rather than my rather paltry collection of hard-earned O’levels.

The grand old Hammersmith Hospital in 1984                                                                                                                                                                             All I remember about the interview was that the hospital interior was beautiful. All varnished wood and tiled floors, with big heavy doors and tall windows. It looked grandly old-fashioned and seemed full of important people but sadly I was not to become one of them. After sitting through an interview paneled by three stern faces, they very nicely said good try but no can do. I didn’t really mind, I had been offered a training place in my home town at St.Albans City Hospital (SACH) and was happy enough to go there. With a full social life and a lot of friends in the area, a nursing life on the doorstep of my childhood home suited me fine. There would be time enough later for moving further afield.

I started my nurse training in May 1983. Our group of 18 were partnered with a similar sized cohort who were based at my previous hospital the QEII Hospital. Our first and the third years would be spent at SACH and the second year at the QEII, whilst the partner cohort would spend their first and second years at the QEII and their middle year at SACH. Our group was all female, all Caucasian and all 18 years old bar two, another girl and myself. Both of us were just 19. We were a very typical nursing student group of the time, predominantly Caucasian, boys a rarity and English our first language. The age, cultural and academic diversity brought about by the NHS’s widening participation initiative was still some way off.

The class of 1983, I am back row 7 from the left!

On our first day we arrived as directed at the School of Nursing for our welcome talk. Most students were accompanied by either one or both of their parents. There were girls there from Somerset, Corby, Cambridgshire, Bedfordshire and Wales, each with a stack of luggage ready to move into the nurses’ home. Only I was without luggage because I lived so close to the hospital it was easier to move all my stuff straight into my room from home. I was glad in the end to have stayed in my home town, less adventurous than some perhaps but I had no home sickness or nerves to contend with either. I was already used to working shifts, I was familiar with hospital environments and routines and I couldn’t wait to have my own space away from home. Close enough to see all my friends, but far enough away to have some privacy.

Like most hospitals at the time, SACH had its own student accommodation (perhaps one reason nurse training was popular). This was housed in two ‘homes’; Church Crescent and Osyter Hills. We were given rooms in the Church Crescent Home, which was just a short walk from the hospital’s main site via the Folly Lane allotments (creepy in the dark). The Church Crescent site had been in use for medical purpose since 1887 when it was bought for £750 in-order to re-house the St.Albans and Mid-Herts Hospital and Dispensary which was then situated close to Holywell Hill, some short distance away. The new Hospital and Dispensary accommodation was built for just £3,750 with the aid of various donations, bequests and subscriptions.
The Oyster Hills Home at the top of Waverley Road was built originally on the land known as Oster Hills. Initially a privately owned eight bedroom family house sitting on the brow of a hill surrounded by orchards and paddocks, it then became a registered asylum in 1834, licensed to receive ‘no more than 15 lunatics at one time’. By 1851 the census records show it as family residence again, albeit lying alongside the St.Albans Workhouse which was built just down the hill on corner of Waverley Road and Normandy Road (then called Union Lane) in 1836-7. 

The Church Crescent, Oster Hills and Normandy Road sites were three parts of the four piece jigsaw that made up St.Albans City Hospital by the time I went there as a student nurse. The missing fourth piece originated as The Sisters’ Hospital, built by Sir John Blundell Maple and handed to the City in 1893 for ‘the benefit of the inhabitants of the city and the immediate neighborhood who might be suffering from infectious disease’.
The Maple Block, built by Sir John Blundell Maple
These four jigsaw pieces became one at some point and the resulting hospital a jumble of styles from the once grand house Oyster Hills House, to the sturdy red brick of the Church Crescent and Normandy Road buildings and the single storey ‘bungalow’ style infectious diseases ward, St.Stephens. More recently a multiple storey high rise building called the Moynihan Block was built to house the growing city population; it opened in 1970's (exact date proving elusive). The wards in the new block boasted a modern layout known as the ‘racetrack’. Unlike the traditional nightingale wards with beds arranged linear fashion down the length of each wall, the racetrack wards were shaped like a chunky number eight with beds arranged in 6 ‘bays’ of 4 beds each plus a number of individual side rooms. Sluice, linen store and treatment rooms were centrally located and therefore easily accessible from wherever the nurses were working. It sounds pretty standard now but in those days it was considered a very 'modern' build.

The Church Crescent nurses’ home was a two storey block with single rooms on each floor, shared bathroom areas and a communal kitchen on the ground floor. There was a television room downstairs and the only way to make or receive a call was to use the pay phone on the landing. Each room had a wash basin, a single bed and a small wardrobe, a chair and a chest of drawers. There was not a lot of room in the room but we could add our own things including a TV if wanted. My TV sat on a small table at the end of the bed and could be turned on and off with a carefully maneuvered snooker cue (I did not actually play snooker I hasten to add). There was of course no remote control. We brought our own kettles, saucepans, plates etc. and some girls even had small fridges. For the rest of us it was a question of leaving provisions in the communal fridge and hoping they would not be raided by someone else.

After being there a while I bought a Tower slow cooker and would sometimes make a casserole or minced beef, leaving the dish to cook slowly on my bedside table whilst I was on shift. I also perfected the art of cooking eggs in a boiling kettle (half-fill with cold water, flick switch and bring to boil, turn off straight away, leave for 5 minutes, remove and eat). When I eventually obtained a mini second-hand fridge, there was so little of nutritional value to put in it I hardly ever opened it. Also, I was smoking at this time (yes, I am suitably ashamed), usually packs of 10 John Player (10 because it was all I could afford and JPs because I misguidedly thought the black packet was cool). On one memorable occasion I lost my cigarette packet and a Mars bar having just bought them in a nearby shop in Folly Lane. I hunted high and low in the room then walked back up the hill searching the ground all the way and even asking in the shop to see if I had dropped them there. So rarely did I look in the fridge it was days before I thought to and found both Mars and cigarette packet nestling side beside in the otherwise empty fridge. I have to say my flirtation with smoking was relatively brief, my love of chocolate lasted decidedly longer.

 Next week: Getting started.. 


  1. Hi Julie,
    that's me standing with a female nurse studying the human anatomy in 1974-Mid Hertfordshire School of Nursing!.
    ---thank you for the great stories.
    Nick P

  2. Nick P continued-----

    I commenced my SRN training as a male nurse (St Albans based) at the Mid Hertfordshire School of Nursing in the September 1972 set.There were 27 female nurses and 2 males.Two of the nurses were Nuns, one from England and the other from the Philippines.I came originally from a very rural background, farming and it was just amazing to be exposed to so many young ladies from so many parts of the world--(and my family and friends wondered why on earth as a man I went into nursing!).
    One of my secondments was to the St Peters group of hospitals-St Peters, St Philips,Shaftsbury and St Pauls in central London.Here they
    specialized in genital urinary issues.The care patients received there was very impressive.It was here that I met wife who is from Mauritius; to be honest I don't think I had even heard of this island, although I had heard of the Dodo bird !(still happily married after 37 years)
    When I qualified in 1975 I worked initially in A&E (the cowshed I called it) and then for about one year on St Peters Ward and the Coronary Care Unit (rotational arrangement).
    Although I loved the work at St Albans I then went onto complete my 18 months training, RMN, at Napsbury and work there for 12 years as a Charge Nurse-Laburnum,Hawthorn,Hazel,Oak, Palm,Hornbeam and Fir.
    Having served what I felt was my apprentice ship at Napsbury I then went on to work for 8 years as a CPN based at Barnet in Adult Care, age range 16 to 65, - great Crisis Intervention Service) one year as Crisis co-ordinator and the my last 8 years and favourite placement working as a CPN in old age.
    Moving from the wards to the community was almost like starting over again-you're on your own for most for of the time with an ever changing case load of around 25 to 30 patients. Knowledge and skills learnt both on both general and psychiatric wards proved invaluable and put me in great stead during this period.

    1. Hi Nick
      Thank you for taking the time to reply and share your own memories, I hope they are happy as mine. How amazing that you spotted yourself in the photo!

    2. We were in the same group Nick...I am Moira. I remember the 2 nuns and also Malcolm Caie.....what a hoot. I have lived in Australia for 36 yrs where I am stil nursing in theatres

    3. Hi Moira, we must all be busy people judging by the length of time between replies but hopefully Nick will see yours. Incredible that you were in the same group and have had a chance to connect again all these years later. I loved reading Nick's own memories, they have brought back more of my own, not least the cowshed which made me laugh. Please do add anything that you remember, who knows who else might be out there :)

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  4. I started my training as an RGN at Mids Herts Welwyn Garden City in April 1984. Loved reading this. Brought back so Amy memories. Thank you.

    1. We must have past each-other many times!

    2. Indeed! Wish I could find my colleagues I trained with. Would be great to share more memories.

  5. I started my training as an RGN at Mids Herts Welwyn Garden City in April 1984. Loved reading this. Brought back so Amy memories. Thank you.

  6. Trained with you Nick, and Malcolm Caie....I am Moira

    1. Hi Moira
      Wow fancy hearing from you down under----where do you find the energy to keep working.
      Sorry it's taken me so long to reply.
      Do you remember the tandem rides and canal hols---would be great to be that young again!
      I've been retired for over 10 years now and pleased that I could do so---although I loved the community work I felt quite worn/burnt out at the end.
      Best wishes,

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  8. Thank you so much Peter, much appreciated.

  9. Hi Julie, wow so many memories, I am the one standing to your left in our group photo, Tracy Cook. I retired from community nursing 4 years ago in Royston Herts, how things have changed.

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