NHS 70 stories - training at Southmead Hospital in the 60s

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Hilary Hiscox did her nurse training at Southmead Hospital in the 60s and spent another 17 years working at the hospital. She was a staff nurse on F ward, for male surgical patients, G ward for female medical patients, and U, which was an ENT ward. She was also sister on S ward, which was a mixture of coronary care, male general medical and an assessment unit for female care of the elderly patients.

Here Hilary shares some memories from her days training at Southmead:

Hilary Hiscox looks back at her training at Southmead Hospital in the 1960sThis is me, leaving home to start training as a State Registered Nurse at Southmead Hospital on May 8, 1967 along with about 20 others. We stayed for a month in a house overlooking the Downs before transferring to Gloucester House Nurses' Home just inside the Southmead Road hospital gates. It was then that the real fun began.

The wardens in the nurses' home enforced the 10pm curfew rigorously, although with at least a day's notice we were allowed one late night a week until 10.30pm. We had to sign in and out, so if you could manage not to sign out, life was easier.  Unsurprisingly, my ground floor bedroom window, amongst others, was always left off the latch for alternative easy access for anyone who needed it! Male visitors were not allowed beyond the waiting room at the front door, where they sat while the warden went to fetch us from our room.

I remember having a gathering in the common room to organise an “end of study block” presentation and we smuggled in a couple of the male members of our set, where they sat behind the door. One of the wardens came in at one point and didn't see them but we gave it away by giggling. She wasn't happy, but when we said why we were there, she let us continue; however she stationed herself outside the room to ensure they didn't stray beyond the common room and that they were gone by 10pm! The window in Hilary's room that was left on the latch for trainee nurses to use when they got back after curfew

We were able to have great fun on the wards too, whenever it was appropriate, but there is rarely time these days for some of the pranks we got up to, which on reflection may be just as well! Rookie students were often sent to other wards and departments for items such as a Bowman's Capsule or a Fallopian Tube. Often, the department visited would pretend to look, find nothing and send the nurse off to another area to ask. I heard of one girl on night duty going all over the hospital and arriving back very worried that she hadn't been able to locate a left handed syringe.

In fact most of the fun was had was on night duty, as often a third year student would be in charge of the Ward, supported by a second year student. First year students worked with a staff nurse. Night sisters roamed the corridors and came unannounced at random times to do a round of the patient's, when we were expected to know everything about each one. I found out that she became just as cross, if you guessed or made something up, than if you didn't know everything!  If a Ward telephoned the one next door to warn of her arrival, she made sarcastic comments as she came in, having heard the phone echoing in the corridors. 

Smoking was obviously not allowed, but the smoking room located next to the dining room showed how many nurses did smoke then. On L Ward with a staff nurse one night, she showed me the system she devised to allow her to have a cigarette when everything was quiet and it was hard to stay awake. She opened a drawer of the desk, which was behind a partition and put in a glass of water. On the desk was a pair of scissors and a 'fresh air' spray. The plan was to light the cigarette with her lighter which went straight into her pocket. If we heard the main Ward door open, we were to quickly cut the lit end of the cigarette into the water and close the drawer. She was to start writing in a patient's notes and I had to stand up and spray the air freshener, looking as if I was coming from the nearest bed. The first time I did it with her, we heard the door open and footsteps coming towards us. Night Sister asked us a few questions about the patients and all seemed well until, just before she left, she said, "You are not as clever as you think. The desk light showed your shadows on the wall and I saw your attempts to cover up what you were doing" She glared as she left and said in her scariest voice "You will never do that again". I think we got off very lightly.

Hilary and colleagues at Southmead Hospital

Patients stayed in hospital a lot longer then than they do now and were also up for a bit of fun. We knew who we could make an ‘apple-pie’ bed for and who we shouldn’t. All male patients had a bottle by their bed to pee in during the night. One morning on E Ward after we had collected all the bottles, we realised they all gave a different note when struck, due to the varying amounts of urine. When we played a tune on them in the sluice, the men heard and thought it was hilarious. They said they'd try to produce a full scale for us next day. We got a round of applause when we eventually managed a reasonable rendition of The Bluebells of Scotland!

There were sad and emotional times, embarrassing times, times of elation, of biting our tongues rather than risk the wrath of a senior nurse or ward sister, and particularly as a student nurse, there was a lot of time spent in the sluice: cleaning; scrubbing; scouring; disinfecting and generally mopping up.  I am reminded of when a group of us were told wryly, by a senior sister, " ...... and at the end of your training, you will be awarded your Cleaners Badge. Remember, you worked hard for it!"

I look back on my training and the many subsequent years nursing with great affection and gratitude for the fun times we had, and the amazing people I met.  There are so many more wonderful moments to remember and stories to tell, perhaps I should have jumped on the bandwagon and written one of the many memoirs that are in the bookshops today!

Hilary Hiscox (previously Culverwell)