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

Rubery Hill Hospital 1967-1968

After I walked out of the Cadbury laboratory for the last time I went home and took four or five sleeping tablets. I did not wish to attempt suicide. I merely wished to have a long sleep. I was found in bed the next day by my landlord when he called for the rent. He told me to pull myself together. He was a plumber, quite a rough sort of man, but not unkind.

This event caused me to visit the doctor and be sent to Rubery Hill Hospital again.


I spent the winter of 1967 at Rubery Hill Hospital but did not get on too badly, because during this period I was not given heavy tranquillisers and was able to function and take part in activities going on there. The chief daily function was the "group therapy meeting", which lasted one hour, from 9 am until 10 am after breakfast.

This meeting was dominated by a young patient called Maureen. She was a good singer, and so they decided to produce "The Sound of Music" from volunteers among the patients. This meant singing all the songs from the musical film, mostly as a choir, linked by a sketchy amount of acting from a few main characters. The production was going to take place at Christmas time and would be open to visitors and friends from the general public. I did not take part in this, as I have no talent whatsoever for music. In fact I find even singing hymns in church rather difficult and can only sing hymns with very familiar tunes.

Accordingly as the singers were fully occupied, I made friends with some of the non-singing patients.

One of these was called Dorothy Saadat. She had married an Iranian, but had had to get divorced. She said that she was still friendly with him, but had had no children. He was quite westernised and had taken "A" levels in England. But when they had gone to live in Iran, she had found that the life there was something which she could not tolerate, and had come home to England, alone. She liked wearing bangles, which she had first seen in the Persian markets. Dorothy still called Iran "Persia", as it had been called when she lived there.

Eventually she changed her name back to Dorothy Jones. After about three months at Rubery Hill, she began living in a room at the YWCA and working as a clerk at Lucas Ltd. The money was very low and she found it difficult to live.

Another good friend was Stella Cohen, a Jewish lady about ten years older than me. She had been in and out of Rubery for the past ten years, and had formerly been a house-owner. She had worked as a secretary for as long as possible. Her last job had been invoice typing, which was low-paid compared to secretarial work. She had then found it impossible to make ends meet on her salary and had taken in lodgers. It was difficulties with the lodgers and financial troubles which had precipitated her latest nervous break-down. She was now living permanently at Rubery Hill Hospital.

Stella told me that she had become addicted to amphetamines, at first prescribed by her doctor. When refused because it was becoming known that amphetamines were an addictive drug which carried health risks, she often went to a "private doctor" and paid extra for her amphetamines. This increased her financial problems. She told me she was a Conservative, had eventually sold her house and had her money invested in stocks and shares. She still retained some interests outside the hospital as she was a member of a Jewish ladies social club.

She had retained a sense of humour and when I was rather mean one day at the hospital shop, she said, "Who's Jewish, you or me?"

I kept in touch with Stella for several years and visited her in hospital when I was out at work again in Birmingham.

Another young woman who was a member of the Socialist Workers Party and a single mother became friendly with both Stella and me. She was called Anne O'Rourke. While on the ward her warm character was shown by the practical help she gave to other patients. For a middle-aged patient called Pat, she took up a skirt to make it the right length for her. Pat had been unable to find paid employment as a typist outside the hospital; in the meantime she spent her days typing notes for some of the doctors at Rubery Hill.

I stayed at Rubery Hill Hospital for about three months including Christmas 1967. On Christmas Eve, Anne sat in one of the ward arm-chairs making Christmas decorations by paper tearing. It was a form of origami which looked attractive when hung from the ward ceiling. In a jovial way, 60 year old Mr Jones tried to chat up the women, including myself. He was a 60-year old Clerk of Works brought in straight from his building site. He ascended a ladder to put the Christmas decorations from wall to wall in the lofty day-room. A nurse intervened, saying that he should not be climbing ladders while taking his tablets.

After Christmas Anne was transferred to a general hospital for an operation, and I visited her there. She had a private room.

"No it has not been paid for; its is on the NHS," said Anne. "I was very lucky that the room was vacant when I arrived."
Anne gave me a copy of the Socialist Worker, which I started to read on my way home.

February 1968: Home to City Road

When my time came for going home, near the end of February 1968, I hired two long-term patients, both young men to clean my room at City Road. They were adequate at cleaning the floors and seemed very grateful for the £1 note which I gave to each one for their work, which only occupied one morning.

I tried to settle back in the room, but my green rug had been taken downstairs as a door-mat by the landlord and had been ruined. It was covered with dirt. I was very sad about this, as it was a home made wool rug, which had cost a considerable amount as the wool and canvas had been rather expensive. It had also taken me many hours to make, while sitting in my room near the Arsenal football ground in London, at Aubert Park in Highbury. This had been a change of occupation as a relaxation after sitting for the final examinations for the Royal Institute of Chemistry exam.

At the present time there was nothing I felt like doing as a relaxation. After two weeks alone in this dismal room, I became depressed and demoralised.

Moving to the YMCA

I finally decided to move, and Dorothy Jones, who was living at the YWCA, introduced me to the manageress of this hostel, and I was given a room there. It cost more than the room in City Road, but the under-floor heating was included in the rent. I believe it cost £3.15s. in rent and service charges, and my unemployment pay of £5 per week was not enough to cover my living expenses.

I was looking for work, and in the local newspaper I found an advert for a job at Midland Assurance. When the application form arrived I found that two references were needed. As I did not want to ask Mr Turner at Cadbury for a reference, I arranged to see Dr. W.I.Stephen at Birmingham University again. He agreed to give me a reference. He said that when Mr Turner had phoned to say how unsatisfactory my work was, he had not agreed with him.

In March and May 1967 two scientific papers bearing my name and that of Dr. W.I. Stephen had been published in Analytica Chimica Acta. These were called

"The nephelometric determination of small amounts of sulphate ion"
"An improved colloidal stabiliser for use in the nephelometric determination of sulphate ion."
Dr. Stephen had sent me copies of these. When I saw him at the University he went to his study and came back with about twenty letters and postcards from all parts of the world asking for copies of one or both of these papers. He said that he had saved these for me, as he thought I might like to have them to read at my leisure.

I was thrilled that so many requests for copies of our scientific papers had been made. Though it did not help my present search for work, it boosted my self-confidence. When I left the University that afternoon I was feeling more cheerful.

In later years our papers were cited in several other people's publications. In the scientific world this is thought to prove their worth.

Meanwhile, in the room at the YWCA, I arranged my chemistry books in cases along one wall, and was quite comfortable. In the evening I often had tea and biscuits with Dorothy Jones, either in her room or in my own. Dorothy had kept three suit-cases by her bed and had covered them with a plastic cloth. She called this her coffee-table. This may seem pathetic to the average person in 1996, but at the time, it seemed a very good idea, and I proceeded to make my own "coffee-table" by covering my three suit- cases with a bright, new plastic cloth.

I agreed with Dorothy Jones that it was delightful to wake up each morning to automatic warmth coming through the floor. I made do without extra heating, but in cold periods it was possible to boost the heating with an electric fire, which one had to pay for through a slot meter.

Midland Assurance

I was successful at the interview at Midland Assurance, but the pay was only £10 per week. It was very difficult to live on this. In my old files I still have a letter from Midland Assurance, saying that I was appointed to the Engineering Department on 8th April 1968 and left on 23rd May 1969. It was a reasonably peaceful year.

I settled down quite well at Midland Assurance, remained cheerful and was able to stop taking any form of tranquilliser. I had to buy a few new clothes. People criticised the mini-skirt, which at this time was the fashion, but my reason for wearing one was the fact that they were the cheapest clothes on sale in the chain-stores. There were no charity shops in the High Streets of 1968, and jumble sales were unreliable, so following the current fashion was the only option for me.

When I had first visited the Rotunda, I had gasped at all the young women hurrying by in mini-skirts. The rotunda was a famous Birmingham land- mark, a very high round building. It was mostly occupied by Employment Agencies which was my reason for visiting it. However I never succeeded in getting any work through the employment agencies, which mostly dealt with high-speed typists.

Another patient called Pat who was much younger than me became personal secretary to one of the directors at Lucas. I had often played table- tennis with Pat in the day-room of the ward at Rubery Hill Hospital. She told me that she had been termed a schizophrenic, but did not believe this was true, because she had been able to stop taking any form of drug after three months. I did not believe she had schizophrenia because one year later she had settled down in her work. She was in her twenties, so earned higher wages than Dorothy or me. Her typing speed was slow, but she was given time off for lessons by Lucas Ltd. In those days the younger women were able to earn higher wages in offices, as it was assumed that the older women would be married. Not only were women like Dorothy and me employed at a low wage, but we were never offered a rise and any promotion prospects were blocked. This was the system at Midland Assurance. Anyone over 25 was employed at £10 per week. Women who started work at 18 also earned £10 per week, and were able to earn increments each year to a maximum of about £15 per week. This may not sound much of a difference but it would have made a great deal of difference to my life.

However I had one lifeline. I was able to volunteer for overtime. Not more than three hours per week. But this was paid at 10s per hour. I was happy to do three hours overtime whenever I could and earn an extra £1.10s.

Funnily enough the work we performed on overtime was even less skilled than our normal work. It consisted in taking a file of back papers from the shelf, and tidying the papers which it contained. Where the file was torn we threw it away, got a new file from stores and relabelled it with the appropriate month and year. My frequent companion during this evening work was an 18 year old girl, who wore a wig. She had perfectly good hair, but wearing wigs was fashionable that year. I was astonished.

I did not ever want to waste money in following unnecessary fashions, but still liked to buy books and newspapers. Newspapers were very cheap and nearly everyone bought one every day. Books were expensive, and considered a waste of money by most people. I bought a set of books for studying engineering insurance, because I was employed by the engineering section of Midland Assurance. I had been told that even though I was nearly forty years of age, I would be considered for higher pay if I passed the insurance exams. The qualified men noticed that I was intelligent and started to employ me on a range of work, such as dictating answers to letters into a dictaphone, which was normally reserved for higher grades of employee.

The Midland Assurance had a good record of employing disabled people. I think they knew about my time in Rubery Hill Hospital, but unlike Cadbury's this was never made a subject for gossip. My confidentially was preserved and the senior staff were very decent.

A deaf woman was employed as a typist, and I was told that she was considered very satisfactory, as she could not stop to talk during tea- breaks, but simply continued with her work.

There was another floor of offices above ours, and I saw a woman in a wheel-chair being conveyed by lift to this floor every morning. Once at her desk, this woman was able to do just as good a job as the rest of us; a fact ignored by many employers. Though I considered Midland pay policy to be unfair, I thought that the other aspects of their employment policy were fairer than was the case with most employers. Employees were not told off by superiors for petty reasons, and staff were given a chance to do varied work, if they showed aptitude.

Some women did not want varied work. A married woman who worked part- time was quite content to check the wording of policies every day. I also had to do this work, but quickly became very bored by it.

Whenever possible I was employed on inserting the correct wording into new policies, or adding endorsements to old policies, and working out the exact rate for premiums. As most of our customers were small businesses, and as I was employed on the engineering section, the work was reasonably interesting. I contemplated going to evening classes to study engineering insurance, but because it did not interest me as much as chemistry, and as I had completed over ten years of study at evening classes and needed a rest, I decided not to pursue the matter for a year. In the meantime I was still examining the small advertisements to see if there was any possibility of getting employment as a chemist once more.

In the evenings, just occasionally I saw a film in the cinema which was part of the YWCA building. Very often I visted Dorothy Jones in her YWCA room for tea and a chat; she also came to my room. Dorothy said she was thinking about applying to emigrate to Australia because her sister lived there. She had few friends in England. As far as I know her only friends were the other residents in the YWCA building, as like me, she had little money for social evenings out.

Often I walked through the University campus for relaxation. In 1968 Marxism had become popular among students. To my surprise I saw a notice about evening talks on Marxism pasted up on the outside wall near the laboratory in which I had worked. This appeared to be a cheap evening out, so I decided to attend some of the lectures, especially as a Catholic Priest, Father Laurence Bright, from the University Chaplaincy was taking part. The lectures were free and open to the general public.

When I attended a talk by Father Laurence Bright, I discovered that a group of Catholic intellectuals had produced a book called "The Slant Manifesto" which attempted to integrate the writings of Marx and the Gospel. THese people were also very interested in "Liberation Theology" which was being developed in South America, in a thirst for social justice among peasants and shanty-town dwellers on the outskirts of towns.

The intellectual side was "a far cry" from English Trade Union activities which had never mentioned Marxism or theology except in vague non-practical ways.

Father Bright's talks did not lead me to join any students' activities, as apart from feeling too old for this, my present job was entirely unconnected with these circles, and even joining a Trade Union which had been easy in my earlier life was no longer feasible. However after purchasing the Slant Manifesto, I bought a Penguin book contining the Communist Manifesto, and other extracts from Marx's writings. THen I borrowed Trotsky's "My Life" from the library, and bought another Penguin book containing extracts from Lenin. At the same time I borrowed Thomas Merton's "Seven Storey Mountain" and "Elected Silence" from the library. These were the autobiographical writngs of a young American shortly before and shortly after entering a Trappist Monastery called "Gethsemnane " in America. He became a very radical thinker and an advocate of non-violent resistance against war and injustice.

Quietly reading these books passed my evenings. I had no television, and on the radio listened only to the news.

click for John May Martin "alone" with dog in front of a flowering laburnum tree in May 1969.

August 1968: Joan visits Gordona and Tendring cottage hospital

In August I took two weeks annual holiday and visited my father. He was now living on his own because Eve had had two strokes, was not able to walk and was accommodated in the cottage hospital at Tendring.

We set off to visit her on a fine, sunny day. It was a long tortuous journey. We caught one bus which went through Little Bromley to Little Bentley. There we had to wait at a deserted bus stop for another bus to Tendring. It was a long and tiring journey which brought us to the hospital at an hour before visiting time.

We entered a room with a stage. At that time an entertainment for visitors was being performed on the Saturday afternoon. On stage was a lady who sang in a broad Suffolk accent, which I understood easily as I had lived near this area for years. It was a song about a bucket with a hole in it with the repeated refrain,

"Oh, Henry, there is a hole in my bucket."
It was a comic act; each time Henry asked the woman to do a job, she found a "hole in her bucket" and an increasing amount of other things wrong with the equipment, which she added to the refrain of her song.

Normally, I am not much interested in this type of entertainment, but it was boring waiting for the beginning of visiting hours so I was glad of the distraction, and disappointed when my father got up after half an hour to go to the canteen for a cup of tea. I would have preferred to have taken tea from the automatic machine and continued to sit in the hall.

In those days visitors to hospitals were often kept hanging about as visiting times were strictly limited. On Saturdays visiting hours ran from four pm until six pm, but I think we had to leave at 5.30 pm to catch the bus home. On the way home there was another long wait at Great Bentley, and we were very tired by the time we reached home. We had sandwiches for supper.

While I was staying there for the summer holiday, Eve's sister Mavis came to see us. She said she thought Eve was greedy, because she ate whatever we brought immediately.

It was true that when Dad and I had visited Eve, we had taken her some bananas, for which she seemed very grateful, and had started to eat immediately.

I said to Mavis that I did not think Eve could help this behaviour, which did not worry me particularly. It was far more distressing that we could not understand Eve when she tried to speak. Two strokes had left her heavily disabled. There was not much that Eve could do, and little stimulation was provided by the hospital. Every day Eve was got out of bed and sat in a chair with a rail in front, presumably to prevent her from falling over.

Little was known in those days about giving stimulation to inactive patients. There was food and warmth and reasonably comfortable surroundings in the cottage hospitals but little more.

For example none of the patients were wheeled out to see the afternoon performance by the volunteers on the stage. It appeared to be an entertainment for visitors only. Many of the visitors had travelled long distances and not many of them owned cars, so the entertainment was well attended and it was free of charge. In those days the cottage hospitals were fully funded by the state and there was no need to raise funds. Comforts for the patients were provided by personal visitors and there were not many patients who did not have visitors.

I went back to Birmingham and my room in the YWCA and felt reasonably happy during the rest of the year, though disappointed that I could not find a position as a chemist.

Midland Assurance loaned a room in the top floor of their building to the Blood Transfusion Service once per month. Equipment was brought in and Midland Assurance staff, as well as other workers in neighbouring offices were invited to volunteer to give blood. I did this on two occasions. It was quite easy, and I did not feel unwell afterwards, as we were given tea and biscuits before we left the room.

At Christmas I visited Dad again. The Essex countryside was refreshing though cold. On Christmas morning I caught a bus to Colchester and attended church. In 1968, buses were running though it was only a skeleton service, but the general shut-down which occurs in the 1990's was not usual. Most offices gave the staff only three days holiday plus the week- end.

Mavis stayed for a few days, and we watched television, ate a large Christmas dinner of Yorkshire pudding, chicken, potatoes and sprouts followed by Christmas pudding. Mavis then wanted us to eat one of her mince pies, but I could never do this on Christmas Day. Dad had a few bottles of Indian Pale Ale.

Mavis had sold her cottage in Bradfield, which she had found very isolated. She did not drive. She had bought a small house in Clacton near the sea-front. Occasionally she found some temporary work doing market research.

I visited the cottage in Bradfield once, and one day we had a meal with Mavis in her new home in Clacton.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.