Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

Teaching 1963

Autumn 1963

At last September dawned and it I had to start work at the College of Further Education in Manchester. I think I hit the wrong note on my first day at work with my class of 16 year-olds. I was told that these boys were "failures" from secondary school and were repeating their "O" levels in physics at the College of Further Education as full-time students. Unlike the students who took one day per week off from work for study, these lads had plenty of time to hang about. I think my mistake was being over-familiar with them and asking them if they liked football, about which I knew nothing. The result was that the following week, two of the boys were brandishing knives in class, and when I told them to put them away, took no notice. When I asked the head for help, he said "That was my problem," and I never got any help from him. Nevertheless I took a lot of trouble with this class and prepared two sets of lessons, one set on electricity and magnetism and one set on heat, light and sound. One lecture and practical was on Tuesday afternoon and one on Thursday afternoon, each lasting three hours. The practical sessions were easy to arrange, as the lab technicians would put out whatever equipment I asked for. I was teaching both electricity and heat in alternate sessions, which was another mistake on my part. The boys eventually told me that the end-of term exam was on heat, light and sound only, so my lectures on electricity were a waste of time. Of course they were not a waste of time in the long term, as this subject was needed for "O" level.

However after about three weeks, upon discovering my mistake, I had to abandon my carefully prepared notes on electricity and magnetism and teach double the amount of material on heat, light and sound. This needed extra preparation. Soon I found that I was working a 55-hour week, though officially my hours were 24 hours of teaching. There was one very hard day, when I had to work nine hours in three sessions, from 9-12; from 2-5; and from 6-9. Apart from the contacts in the college I spoke to no-one and did no activity outside the college; I was too tired. There was an hour long bus journey on top of my 55 hours work, and even on the bus home, I found I had to make time to mark homework.

Besides the "O" level boys, I taught a class of boys mathematics, mostly logarithms. These boys were not so aggressive; were all in full-time employment and had one day in college per week. Though they were quiet, often the class did not pay attention and one boy I sent out into the corridor because he was constantly disturbing the class by getting up and going over to the window and looking out. This was not a very good "punishment" because he usually went home. He was never there when I looked for him.

When I asked why he disturbed the class, he said, " I don't want to come to the class at all. I would rather stay at work. I know I am thick and cannot pass exams."

I had some sympathy with him, as I did not believe employers should send unwilling students to the classes. I guessed there was a bureaucratic reason for the attendance of some of these students, as probably the maths classes made little difference to their employment.

I also had two classes of girls and felt more confidence with these. There was one class of student hairdressers and one class of pre-nursing students.

There was also a class of dental technicians. These were boisterous young men. They held up their sets of teeth, hoping this would frighten me!. Nevertheless, though I did not feel I was doing very well with any of the classes, none of the other students carried knives, like the two lads in the "O" level physics class. This frightened me and made dread their lessons. It also tired me and sapped my confidence. Towards the end of term, I found I had a sore throat and could hardly speak. Unless I rested for the whole of the Christmas holidays, I did not think I would have the strength to carry on, and told the head of the college this.

One thing I complained about I was a qualified chemist, yet had no pure chemistry classes even at "O" level - yet on the training course had practised teaching chemistry most of the time, even up to degree level. It was this subject in which I had most experience that I wanted to teach. It was in order to pass on our experience that we had trained for teaching.

I told the head that I did not think I could carry on, but would come back after the holidays and see how things went.

He said that the salary I was getting should keep me happy and seemed to think that the money was the main reason for doing the job.

"Yes", I said, "I need to earn a sufficient salary to keep myself going, but it is not the only reason for working!"

I wanted to feel that I was doing a good job!

So I went back to my flat in Whalley Range, and rested quietly for the three weeks Christmas holiday. I went to Mass at the local church, but had been too tired to make any friends there, so I hardly spoke to anyone. I was quite glad to do this, as I needed to rest my voice.


In the cold days of January, I continued my hour long bus journeys from my flat in Whalley Range to the College of Further Education in Newton Heath.

My time-table went something like this:-

Each three hour session consisted of one hour lecture and two hours practical class, except in maths, where we had three hours teaching; part of this was devoted to tests in mathematics.

Monday - 3 hours "O" level physics to 16 -17 year old boys.

Tuesday - 3 hours physics to pre-nursing students, girls aged 16-17; 3 hours chemistry to same.

Wednesday - a nine-hour day - 3 hours maths to lads aged from 16 to 21, day release students; 3 hours elementary chemistry to female hairdressers, mostly under 18 - evening class students; 3 hours "O" level physics to 16-17 year full-time boys.

Thursday - 3 hours elementary chemistry to dental technicians; 3 hours elementary physics to dental technicians.

Friday - free - spent the day preparing lessons for the following week.

I was slightly better in health after three weeks rest during the Christmas holidays, but after about 4 weeks teaching, my throat became so sore that I was barely able to speak. I've suffered from this sort of weakness all my life, though during the years I had spent as a laboratory technician or chemist, had hardly noticed it. But this job had never involved public speaking.

The other teachers complained about standing; they said that this was what wore them out. However I hardly noticed the standing, as I had stood at benches and walked about in large laboratories for far more hours, than I ever did while teaching, and had got used to this, so the standing hardly tired me.

It was public speaking which tired me the most, and every day I had some nervous apprehension about whether I could get through the day. Lecturing for one hour, followed by 2 hours in a laboratory, where I had to shout instructions down a long room exhausted me totally. In these days there were very few printed hand-outs; I had either to write on a blackboard, or give instructions verbally.

The awful day dawned when I could no longer speak above a whisper; the classes began to get totally out of hand.

When I had my tea-break, I sat round a table with other teachers as was the custom, but did not join in the conversation, as my throat was so sore. I remember one teacher aged about 50, telling the group his troubles; he had got married about 5 years ago, and now had a three year old son; he said that all the experiences that others had in their thirties he was only now beginning to experience, and he found the family tiring; as he said he had to learn so much that was new to him. I listened to this story bemused; I was so hoarse that I could not speak to anyone without pain.

I got about half way through the term, and went to tell the Head I would have to leave; I was beginning to be told off by lab technicians because my classes were breaking too much equipment, and the cleaners and clerical staff for leaving rooms in a mess. Yet I was still duplicating class sheets myself, because the technician who was supposed to do this could not use the old duplicator. I tried to show him how to do this but was tired out; so did it myself. It was one day when I went to the toilet that a small incident happened which made me feel I should leave. Absently- mindedly, I neglected to pull the chain; someone called after me "Teachers don't behave like this!"

When I told the head that I was exhausted and could not come in to work again, he was very angry, as he said that he could not get replacements at short notice. He was a very unsympathetic man. It did not occur to me to take sick leave, as I had no definite illness that a doctor could diagnose.

So I left work, and took three weeks rest, mostly lying quietly in my flat. Hardly anyone noticed I was there. It took about three weeks for my voice to recover. After that I applied for jobs as analytical chemist and was very surprised to secure a post in a soap factory. It was a quiet job, which suited me very well. There was a very relaxed atmosphere in the laboratory and I enjoyed working there. I was mainly employed to check analytical methods, and analyze competitor's samples.

The factory belonged to the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and besides the usual range of scented soaps made "White Windsor Soap" which was unscented and contained no additives. It was sold much more cheaply than scented soaps, and I began to buy it for myself. In those days a simple range of products was considered inferior to highly scented materials; and the same applied to foods without added colour and flavours. When the first bars of soap labelled "Just Simple" arrived in our shops many years later and were sold at a premium price compared to the scented soaps, I was disappointed, remembering the heyday of "White Windsor" soap. In these latter days of rampant free-market competition, expensive "Just Simple" soap was what had replaced the solid, dependable, cheap soap made by the Co-operative Wholesale Society.

The brand Simple Skincare was created in 1960. However, in 1986 it was marketed by a TV commercial called 'Gilding the Lily', which ran on the newly launched Channel 4 and featured a pristine white lily being sprayed by robotic arms with colouring and perfume.

White Windsor appears to be a well known type of soap dating back at least to the 1930s. Olive Miller mentions it in her article Shopping at the Coop in the 1930s in Westhoughton - archive

Working at the soap factory in 1964 were some interesting characters. A young man told me that he had only one kidney. He said that he had been offered two alternatives by the doctors when he became ill with kidney trouble. Either to go into hospital for about one year for a long course of drug treatment and get better slowly, or to have one kidney removed and to be better in two months, and back at work. He chose the latter. When I remarked that keeping his kidney seemed a better option to me, he replied that he did not want to lose a year of his life. I do not know what I would have done in his of, and felt thankful that it had never happened to me.

Ron liked lab work, but said his uncle did not have to work at all, because he lived on his winnings at horse races. Ron said that his uncle had a scientifically worked out system of betting on horses which produced enough to live on. I could hardly believe this.

The young man went on to say, "My uncle will not divulge details of the scheme to anyone, not even me, and I have to earn my living in the normal way."

Though I thought his uncle was "lucky", I took a dim view of his way of life without real work. His uncle apparently, studied form closely, every day, by reading sports reports in the newspapers, and this could be classed as work. I wonder why many people think those who do the same thing with stocks and share and make far more money than Ron's uncle on the horses are more respectable? Ron's uncle would be classed as vaguely dishonest for not doing an honest day's work!

People rationalise by saying that the money invested in stocks and shares are investments which keep industry and commerce going and support the rest of our society, whereas the betting man only kept the bookmakers, and possibly the race-courses going. I think that living entirely by betting is an unsatisfactory way of life, whether by stocks and shares or by horses.

Ron said that his uncle was the only one he had ever heard of who made his living by betting. Most punters are losers.

Keeping the race-courses going however seems better than keeping some of the unpleasant armaments industries going. The lovely horses are good to look at, and seem to enjoy racing. A day at the races must be entertaining. I have never had the opportunity to go. I remember my friend Margaret going to the races one day - betting but not winning any thing. She was very honest. My bet had won - so she brought some winnings home for me, after losing all her spending money. Most punters limit the money allocated to betting; it only becomes dangerous when it becomes an addiction.

An elderly Indian worked as an assistant in the lab. One day, I was amazed to see him wipe his face and even clean his mouth with the towel which was used to wipe the outside of the laboratory glassware. This was a most unhygienic practice.

Another middle-aged Indian did not use his real name but was known as "Smiley". He was a qualified and highly skilled analytical chemist. He was also a member of the Communist party. A younger white lab assistant was his friend and also a Communist. One day they tried to convert the rest of us by leaving a sample of their literature on all the benches.

The manger, Mr Dewhurst told me to ignore it. "Smiley is an expert chemist and I don't want to lose him", he said. The Communists never had any substantial effect on the majority of scientific workers.

Occasionally most of the staff went to a meeting of the Association of Scientific Workers, in the evening after work. Mr Dewhurst, the manager encouraged us to go. CWS Ltd encouraged unions, but we had no complaint with this employer about salaries or working conditions, so that attending the meetings was a theoretical exercise. Most Trade Unionists had no wish to disrupt their employers. It was only in those industries with hard or unhealthy conditions where this became necessary to most workers. These cases received publicity in the papers, which stirred up complaints about trade unions, in accordance with the newspapers own political agendas.

Joe, another laboratory worker gave me a lift one day in his car to the union meeting. I was surprised to hear his car radio, playing light music. He said that he liked to listen to music all the time.

"Joe's all right, but he has his limitations," Mr Dewhurst told me one day.

One day I was standing next to a fume cupboard performing a sulphate determination, which involved heating to dryness a residue of the sample with concentrated sulphuric acid. Mr Dewhurst stopped and watched me, and said, "I'd like to be able to do that sort of work".

"But you're a manager, and have a better job than us," I said.

"I know," he said, "but I don't like administrative work. I would like to be able to do some bench work again".

I did not realise that anyone felt like this; I thought that managers enjoyed their work. Some of them did; Mr Hubbard my former supervisor in the food lab at the Government chemist had proudly told me, "I have not worked on the bench for ten years".

Personally, I had always enjoyed bench work. I thought my present job had potentialities, as I was beginning to work on new analytical methods.

In my spare time, I had become a Legion of Mary worker again, which was quite easy for me while I was living in the flat in Whalley range. There was a nearby Catholic Church where we held our weekly prayers meetings and planned our visiting. We visited families in Moss Side, which adjoined Whalley Range. In Whalley Range most of the property had been divided into flats for single people, whereas Moss Side with its rows of terraced houses, was inhabited largely by black families.

These Catholic families from the Caribbean were mostly quite friendly; meeting them was a new experience for me. I did my visiting in the company of a young Irish woman. One mother showed us her daughter, aged about 18 months. Her curly hair had been divided into about ten square sections, and the hair from each small block tightly plaited, so that it stood up from the scalp like spikes. Though this style is fairly common today, I had never seen it before.

The mother, who had normal frizzy Caribbean type hair, had left it in its natural state. It was only her daughter's hair which had received elaborate attention, and she said, "I'm doing this to try to practise our culture".

My friend from the Legion said she thought it was marvellous. This black family was kind to us, who though we belonged to the same church, had not met us personally before. The mother told us that they were regular Mass goers. Her husband was out. We left our prayer leaflets, which were happily accepted.

Our duty consisted of taking a street, knocking at every door and asking whether any Catholics lived in the house. If they said they were Catholics, we offered prayer leaflets, and asked if they went to mass at the local Catholic Church. If invited, we went in and spent about ten minutes having a chat.

After visiting the kind black family my Irish friend and I knocked at another door, where the man of the house answered and acknowledged that he was a Catholic. We were invited in and expected a pleasant reception, so we gave him a prayer leaflet and asked if he attended the local church.

When we had finished speaking, he started a tirade against white people. He went to the door of the room and locked it, while we were sitting on his sofa; came back and told us how much he hated white people, and did not want to associate with them. As he began shouting at the top of his voice, I became alarmed. I had never met anyone like this before, and he was not typical of the black families we visited in Moss Side.

My Irish friend said nothing and silently listened to what he was saying for five long minutes. I said a few words to try to calm him down, but it did not work. Meanwhile I was frantically trying to think of something to say, which would extricate ourselves from this situation. I was frightened that he would not allow us to leave the house.

Eventually, I smiled and said, "I would very much like to meet your wife".

Miraculously, this worked, because the man said, "Of course, you can see her. I'll go and get her." This meant that he had to unlock the door.

I noticed that he did not lock it again from the outside. I thought "Well, at least, he does not mean to do us any harm - but I don't think we'll do any good, by staying here any longer," while we waited in our seat like frozen people, not uttering a sound.

Eventually his wife entered. She sat next to her husband and spoke very little.

I said to her, "We're from the church. We hope you are able to go to Mass. I think we ought to be going now."

She said, "Thank you for calling," and let us out, quite normally.

All this time my Irish friend had remained silent, and I felt that I had had to take the initiative. When we got outside, I asked her why she had not spoken to the black man, and asked her whether she had felt frightened. She did not seem to appreciate my apprehension, and had not noticed the man locking the door. After that incident, I gave up Legion of Mary work for a while, but when I had a cold, asked one of the Legion workers to visit me at home.

When this lady came, she remarked that my flat was not very nice, and said "I could not possibly live here."

I was very upset, as I had lived in much worse rented rooms in London. I wondered what was so terribly wrong with my flat, and imagined that this married lady was living in a very smart house, so looked down on everyone living in rented flats.

I stayed three more months in the flat in Whalley Range, during the middle months of 1964.

Then, while I was visiting Audrey, the teacher of secretarial work, who lived in St. Anne's, told me about a accommodation at Urmston, which was very near the factory. It was only two stops away on the small branch railway line, which went through Urmston, Flixton and Irlam on the outskirts of West Manchester. There was no need for me to remain in Whalley Range, in South Manchester. I moved to occupy two upstairs rooms in a house owned by Mrs Rathmill, a 76-year old lady.

Mrs Rathmill was a Methodist. When someone called she said she was just going out to church.

She said, "I'm lucky. I am living on borrowed time", meaning that anything over threescore years and ten was a bonus.

While I was with Mrs Rathmill, there was a General Election, and I asked to sit with her to watch the television that evening. We were both fascinated with the excitement of Election Night in October 1964, and like the majority in Irlam, favoured the Labour Party. Labour won the General Election, and there was a New Prime Minister called Harold Wilson. By the time we went to bed, rather late that night, it was apparent that Labour was going to win. There were new methods of statistical analysis applied as results came in, and these were a good forecasting tool. Labour had only a small majority.

Mrs Rathmill found it hard to make ends meet. Before I had lived with her, she had had another lodger. The house was her own, but she received only a small pension, so was pleased to have the rent money. I cooked for myself in Mrs Rathmill's kitchen; as there was a sink upstairs in my two rooms I took my washing up and washed up there. I had my own pots and pans, brought with me from the furnished flat. If I felt tired I did not always do the washing-up straight away. However, on one occasion I had eaten a kipper, and left the dirty frying pan on my shelf upstairs while I went out to work next day. When I came in, Mrs Rathmill grumbled, as she said that the smell of the remains of the kippers had filled the whole house. She said that I must always do my washing up immediately. This did not always suit me, as I went out some evenings to Central Manchester to meetings of the Legion of Mary or to see a film. For the time being I had given up studying and attending evening classes. So I resolved not to eat a kipper again while living with Mrs Rathmill.

I found work at the soap factory interesting. However the factory was next to the steel-works at Irlam, and I did not like this location. The air always appeared cloudy, and I wondered whether there was much pollution from the steel-works. I was rather lonely, as apart from attending the Catholic Church and the Legion of Mary, I did not see many people, apart from Mrs Rathmill in the evenings. I joined the Manchester Central Library and obtained some good books from there, and often sat alone in my room, reading.

Mrs Rathmill did not have many visitors, I never saw her relations there. Someone from her church called occasionally.

Unfortunately, Dad's friend Eve had been taken ill with a stroke. At first she had been able to walk and remained at home. When a second stroke followed, she became confined to bed.

That Christmas I stayed with Dad for a week's holiday; he was finding it hard to manage. He told Eve that if she could not walk, then he would be unable to look after her, and he would have to find a place for her in the local cottage hospital. He asked me to find a job in London so that I could visit him more often. I did not want to do this as I liked the work with CWS Ltd, but eventually agreed to look for a job in London.

I went back to Manchester after the Christmas holidays feeling rather sad as I knew that I would soon have to leave.


When I returned to Manchester after Christmas, I started applying by post for jobs in London. One day, I took a day off from work for an interview in London, and was accepted as a research technician in a hospital in London. They told me that they would pay me the same salary which I had been receiving at the Co-op, though this was a little above their normal rates.

I thought that this would be pleasant work, so I gave a month's notice to Mr Dewhurst at the Co-operative Wholesale Society soap works. Mr Dewhurst was very disappointed. He said that I had only been there six months, and that it would give him much trouble to obtain a replacement. Inwardly I did not want to leave. I was doing this because Dad wanted me to visit him more often now that Eve was in hospital. Eve, his companion had had two strokes, and was no longer able to walk.

At the interview, the hospital had said that they could find me accommodation, and I relied on their promise as I had no time to look for rooms myself. They had found me a rented room. I was glad that the room was in Chelsea, near Tedworth Square, where my aunt lived and worked as house-keeper to a doctor, but it was considerably smaller than my flat in Manchester and much more gloomy. By this time I had acquired a library of chemistry books, but unfortunately had no suitable place to store them. I had one bookcase which was inadequate. The rest of the books were stacked on the floor all round the walls of the room, which could not look anything but untidy. I did not feel very happy there.

But worse was to follow. I assumed that my working hours were nine to half-past five, and had been told so. But when I went to the laboratory, I found that no-one else arrived until 11 am, and the senior lab technician worked from 11 am to 7 pm. I was frowned on when she found out that I did not wish to do the same. But I resisted these hours as I wanted to have my evenings free. This lady had worked in the lab for many years, and working hours appeared to be arranged to suit her convenience. Every time I went home at half-past five, I was given black looks.

In charge of the work was a doctor of medicine, and we were the staff who executed his personal research. I was dismayed when I found this out, because he appeared to have very little knowledge of chemistry. None of the practices usually strictly adhered to by most qualified chemists were followed.

There was no distilled water in the lab, and I was horrified to learn that the test-tubes were washed out with ordinary tap-water only. The bulk of the work consisted of routine tests on urine and blood samples for phosphate. Unfortunately tap water contains some silicate which gives a similar chemical test to phosphate. However, when these people got what they described as a "high result", they simply discarded it. I quickly became convinced that the research was worthless. But I believe it was being done to obtain an additional degree for this doctor, and thus entitle him to a higher position and salary. I had never felt so unhappy in any laboratory I had worked in previously.

However in this lab the doctor's word was law and discussion was not allowed. If I asked for any additional apparatus, the request was refused on the excuse that it would cost money. Additionally, I was always being told that I was being paid too much.

There was a female doctor working there as a lab technician for no pay at all. She told me that her husband paid surtax; therefore it was not worthwhile for her to claim the pay. Apparently though just qualified, she did not wish to work as a doctor, but was doing this "voluntary work" in order to help the hospital.

Some of the apparatus used in the lab was unsafe.

There was a small electric hot-plate in the lab, which was used in a particularly unsafe manner. Every morning I had to heat up a large flask containing about two litres of chromic acid on this. The base of the flask had a larger circumference than the circular hot-plate. It was in grave danger of falling off, if the heating was just a shade too high. This set- up was just waiting for an accident to happen.

One day I did not watch the hot-plate closely, while the acid was heating, because I had many samples to prepare. As I was busy on these other tasks, the acid in the flask bumped and the flask toppled over. I was blamed, even though I had previously pointed out that this was likely to happen. As there were always too many samples to complete in the allotted time, I had to hurry and dare not turn the heat down too far on this unsafe hot-plate. I think I had been working in this lab for three weeks when the accident happened.

The chromic acid spread out all over the floor and dripped into the room below. Our lab was situated on a kind of balcony and was open to the lab below. A worker in this lab was splashed with the acid and had to be given first aid. However the staff in this lab, to whom I had not previously spoken, did not blame me.

The room where I was working quickly emptied and I was left on my own to clear up. The doctor who was a volunteer lab worker happened to be in the room, and turned round to me and said, "Oh, you know how to clear up!"

There were no adequate materials for clearing up. When a Winchester of concentrated acid had been spilled on the floor in the pesticide lab at the Government Chemist, it had been easy to clean up, because everyone had helped. The procedure had been to scoop up as much acid as possible from the floor into small beakers, and then while wearing rubber gloves absorbing the rest in swabs. Then if necessary we used bicarbonate to neutralise the remaining acid. In this lab there were no small beakers, only test-tubes and no washing up cloths or swabs of any description. I looked at the bottle of bicarbonate and thought that it would be inadequate to neutralise so much acid. In the meantime the acid had started to burn the floor and produce fumes. If I had been able to act quickly on a clean- up this would have been minimised. It was not desirable to use water to dilute it. I knew this full well, but I could not think of an alternative, so I used water, hoping that I could dilute the acid enough to prevent burning.

When this was ineffective, and the fumes beat me back, I left the room because I did not know what to do. There were no open containers into which I could scoop up the acid, and there was insufficient bicarbonate to make much difference.

When I came back I was shouted at.

"You left your post," they said. I had gone out because I did not know what to do! Someone had returned to the lab with a large bottle of bicarbonate and had neutralised the acid with this. By this time the floor had been irretrievably damaged. They told me I had caused hundreds of pounds worth of damage, and I was told to leave immediately. When I went to get my cards, surprisingly the office staff were very sympathetic.

"You're better off out of that job. No-one would work for that doctor," they said. "They were all funny people who worked in that lab", they remarked.

This did not help me practically very much as I was now without work. I went home and in the silence of the squalid little room gave way to panic. I thought that I would immediately be given notice by the landlord as the lodgings had been obtained by the agency of the hospital. In the meantime, I had not been able to visit my father in Manningtree at all, and this was the reason I had taken the London job!

I went to the employment exchange to sign on as unemployed. Having never done this before, I felt ashamed. The staff at the employment exchange told me not to be silly, when I said that I did not believe I should be signing on.

"We are here to help people like you," they said.

But I did not believe them, and went to see my doctor in a fit of nerves. For a week I had had a peculiar headache. It was like a tight band of pain round my head and was there all the time. I began to believe that it would never go away.

Unfortunately, the doctor decided to send me to Horton Hospital for a rest. This was a mental hospital in Surrey.

I thought that I had better go, as I believed that the hospital where I worked would force me to leave my lodgings, now that I had lost my job. This was because the lodgings had been obtained through the hospital's accommodation agency, and I believed that they were in control. Probably I was incoherent when I tried to explain things to my local G.P., who I had never met before, but said that I did not feel well enough to pack up the possessions in my room.

"Of course you can do that", the doctor said.

I spent a day alone in the room, packed up, and left my possessions in Aunt Violet's flat in West Kensington, saying that I hoped to be home soon to reclaim them. I felt very ashamed and would not tell Aunt Violet where I was going.

The hospital was near Epsom, and was in a pleasant part of Surrey. I was admitted to a villa in the hospital grounds. It was commonly believed that these villas were for people suffering nervous breakdowns, but not for the seriously ill. Most of the women in this villa were very pleasant. The building was quite large, and had two floors. Downstairs was a day- room, and a dining room and a kitchen for washing-up and making tea. We were allowed to make tea whenever we wished. The two main meals of the day were brought over on heated trolleys from the main building. These were often eagerly awaited.

We had occupational therapy during the day. I chose to attend an art class. It was here that I most enjoyed myself. I had not done any painting since leaving school, and I began to draw still life in water colours. Round the corridors of the main building was a row of professionally drawn water-colours. I asked the art teacher who had done them.

"It is one of the patients here."

"He cannot possibly be mentally ill if he can do such wonderful drawings," I said.

"There is nothing wrong with him. He is afraid to go out and face life," was the answer.

"Can't he get any paid work?" I asked.

"At Christmas he gets a commission to design some Christmas cards for a shop in Epsom," was the answer. "That is the only work he can get."

On my first day I had met a man in the corridor, and had said to him, "They tell me that I'm unlikely to be here for more than three or four weeks."

"They told me that, when I first came, " he answered, "but I've been here for 23 years."

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard that.

I resolved not to lapse into the same state as that man or become like the artist, but to start applying for jobs as a chemist immediately. In the meantime I had been given several different types of tablet, mainly anti- depressants. I saw the psychiatrist for five minutes once per week, and he asked me how I was doing on the particular tablet.

Each time I replied that I still had a continuous headache, and he changed the tablet. One day he gave me a tablet called sparine. That week I applied for a position as chemist with a firm in Epsom. I considered that I was very lucky to have an interview, as I had given the hospital address. I got up early in the morning and set off for the interview. It was possible to walk into Epsom, using a path which led through several fields and grassy places called "The Backs". Most patients would use this route instead of the main road, because it was very pleasant. That morning the fields had never looked so brightly coloured before. I realised the tablet I had taken for the first time that morning was having a strange effect. I felt like a person raised up to a higher state of consciousness. Every blade of grass was a separate glorious object which stood out from the fields and shone with a bright green light. The spring buttercups and celandine were a shining shade of yellow, and I experienced everything with an intensity I had never known before. For the time being I thought life was very pleasant, and when I entered the interview was seen by a group of men seated at a long table. This was known as an interviewing board. When they asked questions, I thought I was doing well. I felt much more confident than usual.

However when I left the room, I heard the sound of laughter, and realised that the men on the interviewing board were all laughing at me. I felt humiliated.

I thought, "It is because they have the hospital address, that they are not considering me seriously."

So I thought that if I wanted a job I had better try to get away from the hospital soon. However, my reaction to questions at the interview may have been peculiar, because the drug was making me very excitable.

When I arrived back at the hospital I told the doctor about my strange experiences with the tablet, which were just beginning to wear off. Actually, I thought that this was what the tablet was meant for; to give me an intense experience of well-being. But the psychiatrist said he was sorry that the tablet had caused this effect, and said he would try something else. I was surprised. It was only years afterwards that I realised that unintentionally I had had what is now called "a trip". from this drug called Sparine. I suppose it was a "trip" but I was innocent, in the knowledge that I had not asked for that drug, Sparine, and had not known what its effects would be.

In its place I was given the drug Nardil, an anti-depressant, and after taking these tablets for a week, I felt so well and my headache had disappeared that I said that I would like to leave hospital and start applying for new work. I think I had been at Horton for only six weeks, but the time I had seemed much longer than that.

With Nardil I had to avoid eating cheese, Marmite or Bovril. Its pharmaceutical generic name is phenelzine, and it is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO). MAO drugs react with certain foodstuffs producing toxins. The main use was in treating depression and anxiety where this is a reaction to unfortunate circumstances. One of the side-effects of MAO inhibitor drugs was a lowering of the blood-pressure. Nardil had some bad effects on me, but these were slight. If I was walking fast or running through the park, I would come over faint, and have to stop and rest. But I did feel immensely cheerful and able to accomplish twice the amount of work I normally did in a day. My system became used to the drug and after a time I no longer noticed any side effects. Unfortunately, without realising it, I became addicted to this drug. At a later date when a doctor tried to withdraw the drug, I made a fuss, as I was convinced that I could not manage without it.

In this hospital interlude I had met some interesting people. There was Sheila, who had attractive blonde hair. She said she was there because she was no longer able to do the housework. One day the husband or boy- friend called for Sheila. I spoke to him and said good-bye to Sheila.

"Yes, one day Sheila suddenly jumped up and said she could face going home. She's quite well now," said this man, and Sheila smiled.

Sheila was inarticulate, unlike her friend, Anna, who frightened me, because when she washed up, she would throw a cup across the kitchen and smash it, and had a foul temper.

Most of us felt we were unable to follow our normal occupations or hobbies while in the hospital. I declared that I was unable to read a book, whereupon the psychiatrist told me to go to the hospital library and borrow a book.

"You can do all the things you normally do," he said.

I thought this doctor was most understanding. I was reassured when I found an interesting book, which I was able to read while sitting in a quiet corner near a window. Another quiet patient with a book joined me there.

Evelyn was about 50. She told me that she used to be a doctor, a general practitioner. I could hardly believe this, because I imagined that doctors would not themselves be subject to nervous breakdowns. I had little understanding of the frailty of the professional classes. Evelyn was sitting in the day-room, watching me scan the advertisements in the Daily Telegraph. I found this paper uninteresting but it had all the scientific job advertisements in it, which was my reason for buying it occasionally.

"The Telegraph used to be my paper, but I can no longer read it," Evelyn remarked.

I felt very sad to hear her say this and said, "Of course you can read it, if you pull yourself together," echoing what the doctor had told me, and left her with my copy of the Telegraph.

The main temptation in this hospital was to take a nap in the afternoons after lunch, and forget to go to occupational therapy. The nurses forbade us to lie down at any time until after the evening meal. This was usually finished and washed up by 6 pm, so we could have a long evening on the bed if we so desired. However the evening was not a time when I wanted to sleep, as I found that the patients were quite interesting to talk to. Most of them had more medical knowledge than me, but it was rather shallow.

"None of us are bad cases on this ward," someone said. "This is the ward for the mildest cases. Nobody here is psychotic."

I was very glad to hear that.

"Except maybe for that woman sitting over here," said Evelyn, the doctor. "Have you heard her laugh? I don't like that laugh."

However, this laugh did not disturb me, and when I talked to the patients, the main reason for being there was incapability of continuing with whatever job they had recently left, or with the housework. Half of them were housewives; the other half were mostly secretaries working in Central London, and living alone.

Betty was a housewife. She told us that she was going for special tests.

"They are called brainwaves," she said.

I was mystified by this. But when she left the room, the another woman said "Poor Betty. She will never get better. But don't tell her. She has got something organically wrong with her brain".

The other patients agreed, and made sympathetic remarks. I wondered how these women knew this if Betty herself did not know it. I had been talking to Betty that morning on commonplace subjects, and could not find anything mentally wrong with her. Likewise most of the women seemed very normal. I wondered why we were here in this hospital.

One of the nurses said that Anna had formerly been a nurse and had been named as Nurse of the Year. She had come top of her year in nursing examinations when she had qualified as SRN. "Unfortunately, she will never be allowed to go back to nursing when she is better. That is why she has been training to be a secretary," said this mental nurse.

Apparently Anna, while in hospital had passed tests in shorthand and typing and was now applying for jobs locally in Epsom as secretary. I believe some of the women were local residents, but the hospital's catchment area was also West London, which was why I had been sent there. I questioned why Anna should not be allowed to return to work in nursing when she was better.

The mental nurse said "Because working in nursing was what caused Anna's breakdown."

I wanted to return to work in chemistry. Life had been fairly equable in most labs, and I had got on with most of the staff fairly well. It was not until I had worked for a doctor in the hospital lab, that I had been unable to cope. This idea that the patients should not be allowed to return to their former professions, if they so wished was not something I agreed with. The idea that work had caused the breakdown was threatening to my way of thinking.

The hospital culture did not apply this idea to married women who were fulltime housewives, and these were encouraged to continue in their former state. Husbands visited the hospital, but children were never seen there. If any of these women had families, they certainly did not talk about them. However it was often a boy-friend who visited.

"I am not well but I think I can manage to set up our little love- nest," was how one young woman described it when her boy-friend arrived to take her home for the week-end.

She was wearing a black and white diamond checked jumper from Marks and Spencers. I recognised it as last year's fashion, and immediately wanted to go to Marks and buy one like it, but they had gone off the market, so that was impossible.

One woman said she was doing without tablets. She used to sit quietly in a side-room doing some very elaborate embroidery each evening, and did not talk much.

"You are not very active," someone said.

"But I am doing without tablets," she said triumphantly.

One day we were all sitting in the day room in the evening just before going to bed, when a new patient was brought in.

Her name was Wendy.

"They say no-one here is psychotic, but she must be," I thought.

Wendy walked round the room pulling the curtains even though it was still day-light. She continued walking round the room all evening and if the curtains were pulled, pulled them back and vice versa. She uttered no word and would not speak when addressed. Most of us did not venture to speak to her, because we thought her behaviour would become even more frightening unless we left her alone.

The next day we had a ward meeting and she just sat there not uttering a word.

But on the second day at the early morning ward meeting, Wendy spoke. We sat in a circle containing also two nurses and a doctor.

"The reason why we are here is because we have not cleaned ourselves out," she said.

I tried to read some profound meaning into this statement. It was declaimed so dramatically that I felt sure it had a mystical meaning.

Most of us spoke of more commonplace things. At first these ward meetings seemed interesting, but after about ten days they became boring. We discussed subjects such as whether we should be paid for the housework we did each morning on the ward, and decided as it was just cleaning up after ourselves we should not be paid. The occupational therapy was sometimes discussed, or our clothes, or how to look for work, but nothing much about failed relationships.

We all had to do housework on the ward;some of this was quite heavy. Housework was done from 7 am until 8 am each morning before breakfast. This was compulsory for all fit patients. There was a woman of 70 years of age on our ward, and she was not excused. Apparently she lived an upper-middle class life-style normally and was not used to housework, but a light dusting job was found for her, which she did under protest.

"When I get home I'm going to ask Dr. Stevens to tea," she said, cattily, trying to get one up on the rest of us. Dr. Stevens was the psychiatrist for our ward.

Jobs were allocated each morning on a list which was put up by the ward-maid. One job consisted of cleaning the lavatories and this was highly unpopular. Cleaning the day-room was also a heavy job. All ash-trays had to be emptied and washed. The tables had to be dusted, and the floor swept.

The large ward bedroom, where about thirty women slept, was divided between six patients for cleaning. After the floor had been swept, the polish was applied to the floor by hand. Then we used a buffing machine, which was a large, thick pad on a handle, which had to be dragged up and down the floor, using a fair amount of pressure in order to polish the floor. It was very heavy work.

When Anna saw me doing it she said, "You should refuse to do that".

"But it has to be done," I said. I aimed to please and did not want to refuse to do anything. In fact I often did extra housework during the day, in order to keep myself occupied. Once I was taking the Nardil, I speeded up, and thought I could do massive amounts of work.

Anna laughed at me, and went into a side-room, where an electric polisher was stored and proceeded to use it to polish the floor. "You are living in the dark ages", she said to me.

One of the more unsatisfactory occupations was the industrial therapy. I disliked it because all the products from one table were placed together in a sack when completed. Those incorrectly were extracted afterwards by a sorter, who was a member of staff.

The sorter was always muttering "It is no good giving work to these kinds of people. They make so many mistakes".

This hurt me, as I was confident that over 90% of my product was correctly done; but there was no way of distinguishing our individual products during the work process, and I could see a large quantity of incorrectly assembled items passing down the line. The work consisted of jobs such as:- folding cardboard and gluing it to make boxes; packing four assorted components into a small box - some of these items we were told were components for car engines; arranging six different coloured pencils on a cardboard rack. Usually the detailed work changed weekly. We were paid about seven shillings per week for this, and allowed to work two half days per week, from 2 until 4 in the afternoon. I was pleased with the money because it was enough to buy tea and cakes in the patients' canteen in the hospital grounds, which was run by the WVS. My sick pay was almost wholly spent on fares to Epsom, when I did not wish to walk into town; on the launderette; on having clothes cleaned, and on newspapers, especially the "Telegraph" which contained the most advertisements for chemists and lab technicians.

A woman of about 50 was allowed to work every afternoon on this industrial therapy at her own request, and I was horrified to learn that she cried when she was discharged from hospital. Most of us were pleased when we were ready to go home, but it transpired that this woman was very short of money, could get no employment, and was very loathe to give up the £1 per week which she earned through industrial therapy. The other patients chattering in the tea-break also felt sorry for this woman.

Wendy soon disappeared from our ward and I was told she had been transferred to the locked ward called "E".

"It is a bad ward?" I asked the nurse.

"No, there is a much worse locked ward called 'O'", she replied. "Patients on "E" ward don't usually stay there long."

I met Wendy most mornings at the art classes, and she seemed to be better. Many of the women on "E" ward were allowed out for occupational therapy. It soon became apparent that Wendy had outstanding artistic ability. The art teacher was annoyed when he found that she had taken some of her paintings away from the art room, as he wanted to keep them on display.

"Wendy will have to bring them back, because paintings done here belong to the hospital, not to the patients," he said.

The Italian ward-maids appeared to hate their work and were very abrupt when they spoke to the patients. However, one day when I had been mopping out the kitchen, which was an extra job which I did voluntarily after finishing the washing-up, I was called into the cubby-hole occupied by the ward-maid when she was not busy. She poured me a glass of fizzy lemonade. This was an unexpected treat, and I thanked her profusely.

"I am giving it to you because you have helped me," she said.

One of the patients was Italian. She talked incessantly. She told me that she had been employed as a live-in maid. When she was discharged, I promised to write to her, but was disappointed with the reply, when I discovered she was illiterate. She had been articulate in speaking during the ward meetings.

The day came for me to say good-bye to the patients, and the psychiatrist wished me the best of luck, giving me a prescription for Nardil.

"How did you like it here?" he asked.

I replied that the experience had given me a better understanding of human nature, but I was thankful to be leaving, feeling much better. It was a warm day in June.

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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.