Uniforms, frills and grey tights..

student nurse in woolwich ’72

Thinking back, I remember being surprised at  how relatively quickly I fit in when I arrived at the Brook Hospital to train to become a nurse.  A whole new world awaited me, indeed I had been a patient many times in London, Scotland, then Toronto.  Now I was back in the UK, just turned 21, and determined to become a nurse and a British nurse at that! must admit that when I arrived at the Brook, all set to be a nurse,  knowing in the back of my mind that this would be a huge challenge in my life, surprisingly I was most disappointed when we were given our uniforms.

We were measured for the uniforms at the beginning of our classes.  Within a couple of days we were supplied with 3 blue dresses made out of a thick woven cotton material, which turned dark blue when wet!!!    (not too great if one sweated heavily like I did, worse when nervous!  At some point, when writing home, I asked my mum to post me sweatpads, which could be bought n dressmaking supplies…… I sewed them into my dress, and voila, when I sweated, now I had a dark blue ring surrounding my bulkier underarm light blue fabric….. in other words…. fail!!) 

Then there were heavily starched white aprons that had to be attached to your dress with safety pins, a self coloured blue belt, stiff detachable blinding white collar starched to within an inch of its life, and … ugh – white cardboard caps as plain as day,

I found the following pix on http://oesermaatra0069.hostoi.com

look at that cute cap.... and I know that the shirred white armpieces were to cover long sleeves rolled up!! (& yes, I do know she is a TV nurse from Emergency Ward 10!!)

look at that cute cap…. and I know that the shirred  white  armpieces  were  to  cover long sleeves rolled up!! (& yes, I do know she is a TV nurse from Emergency Ward 10, a TV show I watched when I was a kid)

with nothing approaching an elaborate or fancy design.  Oh My Dear!, I was sooo disappointed that my uniform had no frills, either on the cap or the sleeves or the pinny.

yes, the sleeves are a bit too puffy, but I love the pinnys that cross over in the back...

yes, the sleeves are a bit too puffy, but I love the pinnys that cross over in the back…

No sumptuous folds of white gatherings anywhere!!  At least we did not have to recreate the starched perfection as we learned that when our uniforms were soiled we were to deposit them into a laundry area where they would be laundered, starched and returned to our rooms (if we lived in the nurses home, which I did).

We were also supplied with a cape……

see how great the black stockings go with black shoes....

see how great the black stockings go with black shoes….

exactly like I had seen in films or whatever. It was heavy wool, longer and reversible, red on one side and dark navy on the other..  If I remember correctly nurses were to wear the red side out when they were on duty and the navy when they were off.

The Brook uniform code called for flesh coloured stockings/tights with black shoes. Another dream dashed!  I had really hoped for thick black stockings which was what I remember seeing in pictures of British hospital  nurses, as well as when I was incarcerated, having all my orthopaedic surgeries.   Even with my gammy leg, (which is impossible to hide), I took a risk and started to wear grey tights ( hoping no-one would notice) with the hope that I could gradually colour down to black. As luck wouldn’t have it, one day I was walking through the corridors of the Brook (some outdoors covered by a transparent plastic awnings), and who should be walking towards me but m a t r o n….. and some of her senior cronies. I froze for an instant and realized that there was no where or way I could hide my indiscretion. Sure enough, matron approached and and with very dry sarcasm commented that if my skin were the colour of my stockings then I would either be in an oxygen tent or dead! ‘Make sure you are wearing the proper uniform colours or you will receive marks against you’. The more marks on your file, the closer you were to being reprimanded and suspended without pay…. another fail!

Sisters, or head nurses, wore dark blue uniforms with long sleeves those great thick black elastic belts with ornate buckles and starched cuffs.  Staff nurses, State Registered Nurses,  wore the same blue uniform as mine, but with the sassy black … (I also remember seeing some bright red elastic belts, but cannot for the life of me remember what that signified), and State  Enrolled nurses, wore the same paraphernalia only in green.

I then noticed something interesting on the wards.  It seems that back then, nurses who graduated from other hospitals could wear their own ‘home’ uniforms instead of the official Brook unifomr…. I may be wrong, but I seem to recall seeing the odd non-Brook uniform on a SRN, or SEN…

As it turned out student (SRN 3 year training) and pupil (SEN 2 years training) nurses seemed to be the guts of the hospital labour force & of course the NHS. We had blocks of classes & then bigger blocks of working on the wards.  Classroom education blocks which were about 4 weeks long, consisting of anatomy, physiology, biology, pharmacology, disease process, tests and practical learning: making beds, administering injections, inserting naso-gastric tubes, and then for the next month or two, we were literally thrown onto the wards where we worked 5 full shifts and 1 or 2 half shifts a week. Our work schedule was determined by the ward sister and hence we also ended up working evening and night shifts.

Work soon became relatively routine. The most fun I had in that training part of my life, was a 2 month stint on Simpson ward, which was male orthopaedics.  A long ‘room’ lined by many beds filled with men of all ages on each side.  Now here was a task for me to undertake, a ward full of men!, and me with my gammy leg and having  to wear a ‘dress’ of course, but at that time nurses wearing trousers was unheard of.

On Simpson ward, the Sister was a chubby woman, quite tall with dark curly hair, not too old (I always found it hard to determine age when I was young) and hallelujah she actually had a sense of humour and was quite decent. Not like the sister I encountered on my very first ward, which was female medical. For the life of me I cannot remember the name of that ward. In Britain, it seems that many hospitals name their wards after famous British doctors and contributors to medicine, whereas here in North America they use geographical logical directions for their patient units. This sister was skinny with short greying hair, quite unattractive with glasses and a sergeant major type manner. I remember not long after I had started my stint on that first ward, I was in the nurses’ area where all the charts were. I was sitting and perusing my patient’s chart, when sister sternly called out “S” (my surname)! get up and let the doctor sit there, …and go make him a cup of tea”! Talk about your sucking up!

A strange coincidence occurred on my first day on that ward. It was an evening shift and I approached the ward entrance with trepidation. I was told to report to the sister’s office, with no idea where anything was. I must have checked a room where the door was slightly ajar. I had wrongly assumed that all patients were on open wards.  I peaked my head into the room only to see a lifeless body lying on a hospital bed wrapped somewhat in a sheet. It was an older lady who was obviously deceased. I was to find out later that she died of complications of multiple sclerosis, just as my sister was to 20 odd years down the line.

14 thoughts on “Uniforms, frills and grey tights..

  1. Interesting. I trained at The Brook 1967-70 – Christine Shepherd. Have often wondered about all my fellow class mates.

    • so cool to ‘meet’ you…. as far as training went, I learned more in that one year at the Brook, than the following 2 years in Toronto…. Do you have a blog Christine?

  2. Hi there, I trained at the Brook from January 1972 and left March- April (as a SRN) 1975 and staffed at Kings. Florence Findlay. Still in touch with Saleem Rangoonwala and Kim his wife. He kept in touch with many others including Mrs Jardine our tutor until she died. Lovely to read your stories. Was the female medical Willis ward? Sister Carlos, Irish and anxious? Doesn’t sound like your description. Will need to think about this one. Look forward to any more memories

    • So nice to meet you Florence! It could have been Willis Ward…womens’ medical. The sister was thin and grim, and did not have an Irish accent. Did you recognize any of the students in my class photo? Do you have a blog Florence?

  3. Sorry…as I was saying… Susan seaman Jane still, Irene drinan, Mary farrally, Julia Stephenson, were in my set. I worked at st Nicholas hospital for my first year and worked at brook. Second and third year..loved it. Parker ward, Nelson ward where I staffed and ITU….Jayne greig nee jarrett

    • Hi Jayne, thanks for your comment. You would have started at the Brook a years after me. I only lasted one year… homesick and depression got the better of me, but that one year taught me so much about nursing compared to the 2 years following that I spent getting my RN in Toronto. I ended up working at The Hospital for Sick Children for 12 years and found that it was definitely my niche… Where did you work after you graduated, and are you still nursing? Best wishes to you

  4. I enjoyed reading your blog.I found it while looking at old pictures from The London Hospital.I trained in 1983 and we wore the starched white aprons with cross over straps as students then no straps as staff or sister.We all loved our frilly caps and puffy sleeves it was a truly lovely uniform.We had detachabke collads and buttons too that all came off for laundering .I was so proud to wear it.We were .wasured at interview and uniforms were custom made Now I slpo around bit scrubs:-(.The patients loved it too.We had to wear horrible brown shoes and american tan tights but the uniform was still pretty.Purple complements a lot of people .Your photo shows a student pure check and sister blue.Staff wore pure.They now wear the national uniform there 😦 best wishes Katherine

    • Hi Katherine … thanks so much for your comment. I would have envied you so much back in the day for the London Hosp uniform. I still don’t understand the tan tights and black/brown shoes… black stockings and black shoes would make any uniform look better. I was watching Call The Midwife, the episode where Jenny gets seconded to the London and has to wear their uniform. Would that have been the uniform you wore in 83? Thanks again for commenting, and best wishes to you Katherine..

  5. Hi I trained at the Brook, 1982 – 1985 (the March set). I spent a total of 4 years at the Brook, I remember that the Social club was the central hub of the hospital. I have so many fond memories of the place.

  6. This blog is so interesting – I was a patient at the Brook in 1982 and was on Coutts Ward, Parker and also Lister. (Spent quite a long time there). It was run so efficiently and I remember Sister Wheeler on Parker Ward, and Robin Gray, the fantastic Surgeon who operated on me (Crohns). I was a 23 yr old at the time and everyone was terrific and they got me through it – wonderful place. Robert Cliffe

  7. Hi, a good friend of mine was a patient in Brook General in 1977-78. He was in Intensive Care and moved to a Surgical ward following surgery. His name is Seng Fatt WONG.Last year he came back to UK hoping to visit the hospital and the wonderful staff who gave him live-saving care. Unfortunately the hospital had been pulled down. He lives in Malaysia and is trying to get in touch with Sister Rita Wooldridge and Sister Heather Pickette. Can anyone help?

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