Below is a further chapter from A Kerridge Childhood written by Enid Simpson. For a full introduction and index to all the stories please see the head page.
TRAINS, HOSPITALS AND OTHER ADVENTURES
When I was about three years old I had an accident, falling from a fairly high wall. This resulted in my eye developing a squint and, after some consultation with the local doctor, I was sent to the Royal Eye Hospital for treatment. At that time little was known about remedial practices and so I came home in pretty much the same shape as I went. Having become a patient there, it was necessary for me to attend fairly regularly.
The Hospital was in Manchester, only 20 miles from our village, but it might have been in Timbuktu for the preparation it entailed. First I had to have a bath the night before – this was in addition to our usual Friday night ablutions. Having a bath doesn’t sound like a big deal these days, but then it was quite a performance.
To have a bath in the middle of the week threw everything out of schedule! No hot water in the house meant heating all water in the kettle, and the fire was used for this. Then the large zinc bath was brought in, rug taken up and papers put on the kitchen floor. Mother scrubbed and rubbed me until my skin felt shredded. But I was CLEAN.
After I was towelled dry, Mother and Dad lifted the bath, by its handles, off the floor and poured away the water down the slop stone (sink), taking care that no water splashed on to the floor, causing more work. It was an exhausting task, especially when it was an ‘extra.’
Clean underwear was an essential, as I might get knocked down in the big city and what would they think it my underwear was dirty! The possibility of the same thing happening at home was never contemplated.
We had to travel by train and I loved every minute of it. Workmen’s tickets were available if you travelled no later than 7.30 am and no earlier than 4.00 pm. The Workman’s ticket cost 1/0½d (a shilling and a halfpenny) compared to the regular price of 2/1d (two shillings and a penny) so it was just half, and well worth taking advantage of. We had to leave our home on Kerridge well before seven o’clock to walk the one and a half miles to the station for that seven-thirty train. Stations were always neat and clean, flowers blooming in profusion in summer, with whitened stones marking out the flower beds. In cold weather there would always be a bright and cheery fire in the waiting room, which itself was spick and span. The only adornments were brightly coloured posters on the walls imploring the public to spend their holidays in sunny Margate or the exclusive resort of Bournemouth. Both were equally impossible to us!
Passengers arriving for the journey were greeted by the regular travellers. There were no stalls selling newspapers and chocolates, as you find in modern stations, but Alf Jackson, a one-armed newsagent, brought them from his shop in the village. He would arrive on his bone-shaker of a bicycle, somehow manoeuvring his heavy bag of papers and at an unnerving speed. He knew everyone’s taste and there was no need to ask for your “Daily Mail,” “News”, or “Sketch” – he had your paper ready. Papers cost a penny or a halfpenny then.
As the time drew nearer to 7.30 am we all turned to watch for the signal to be dropped. “Signal’s down” went the whisper, and then round the curve of the line came the front of the engine with clouds of smoke billowing from its funnel. It wasn’t a very long train, but it’s arrival and departure couldn’t have been more dramatic than that of the Orient Express in the eyes of a very small girl.
The porter dashed along the platform exhorting everyone to stand back. No need for him to tell Mother that. She had her own rules about station platforms and canal banks. She KNEW that they ‘drew’ the unsuspecting to their deaths, so with me clutched firmly in her hand, she stood well back until the engine drew to its fussy stop and carriage doors began to swing open. Near to the front of the train we were to sit, and she saw to it that the door was firmly closed – window likewise – before she sat down.
A peremptory blast from the guard’s whistle, the last remaining doors were slammed and we were off – through the little bridge and over the viaduct, giving us a bird’s eye view of the houses and cotton mills below.
Already sheets were blowing in the wind from an early wash and there were frisky lambs and patient cows browsing in the fields. I grew quite familiar with the stations at which we stopped – Poynton, Marple, Rose Hill, High Lane – and each one had its own character. Milk churns stood ready to be put on the train en route for the city and all kinds of odd-shaped parcels for the same destination.
Eventually the rural scene gave way to larger suburbs of Manchester and the industrial haze crept over the bright and clear daylight. When we got to Ardwick we knew that London Road Station [Piccadilly today] wasn’t far away. The ‘up’ and ‘down’ lines were lost in myriads of other lines all converging on the terminus. Mother had already gathered up our bits and pieces, tickets were broken in two, one half to be given up at the barrier and one to be safely tucked away for the return journey.
There was a curious smell as we stepped outside the station – a smell composed of escaping steam from the railway engine, the smoke and soot from thousands of chimneys, petrol fumes and humanity all unfamiliar to the country dweller. The Eye Hospital was next door to the Royal Infirmary at Nelson Street, a good distance from the station, and we must have had to board a tram to get there, but I don’t remember that part of the journey.
On arrival, we went to the Out Patients Department and I have vivid memories of the hideous sickly green decor of that dreary waiting room. Green walls, green linoleum – today’s carpets, potted plants, colourful chairs, magazines and friendly helpful staff had no place in that functional world in which we lived. The department was ruled by a Sister who terrified me and everyone else! She was more like a sergeant major with a roomful of raw recruits and she used her loud sharp voice to bring everyone into line. The Sister of those days (head nurse) was of necessity a bossy woman. She had worked hard and long to achieve her position and as well as having to be responsible for the clinic, patients, nurses and technicians, she was answerable to the doctors. They gave her a rough time if certain instruments were not at hand or notes mislaid. They were giving their services free and expected to have someone to dance hand and foot on them. There was none of the camaraderie there is now between doctors, patients and nurses.
The uniforms they wore then were all white, full of starch, dress, apron cap and cuffs about twelve inches deep. Maybe all this starch affected their manner! No doubt she bad a difficult job to do – the doctors then were on a plane far higher than we ordinary mortals. The Eye Specialists were known as Honorary Specialists since they donated their time to the patients. The reason for this may have been an opportunity to see eye diseases maybe only prevalent in the people of lower classes, or perhaps to enable them to treat a wider variety of diseases. Their regular patients were upper class people referred to them by a GP (General Practitioner) and for which they would pay a big fee, unaffordable by the poorer people. They had vociferous and acid tongues.
We all sat on wooden forms – benches – set out in rows, and moved in a snake-like fashion from back to front with Sister chivvying us along, like a sheepdog with a lot of silly sheep. It was hard luck if anyone had the misfortune to want to use the lavatory when their turn was next. She probably made them go to the back of the queue. It was a gruelling experience and would never be tolerated today.
It was seldom earlier than 1.30 pm when we were free to leave and by this time Mother has usually developed a headache. We must have gone somewhere for a cup of tea but that memory escapes me.
We could not leave Manchester for home before the ten past four train with the workman’s ticket, so there was some time to be filled in. We had no money and no energy then for shopping so we made our weary way to London Road station and the Ladies waiting Room. There were separate waiting rooms then – ladies were protected whilst travelling. Again the room was just functional, the walls were painted drab brown and had long couches on two of the walls. These were stuffed with horsehair and there were always a few bristly hairs that had escaped and were sharp enough to stick in the back of a child’s knee. They hurt too!
A fireplace occupied another wall and this had the usual large mirror overmantel. A huge, highly polished table occupied the middle of the room which had absolutely nothing on it. Everything was spotless and reeked of disinfectant. The lavatory cost one penny to use and as I grew older I could read the notice behind each door with directions for the nearest VD clinic. That took some explanation from Mother.
Widows of railway men usually presided over these station waiting rooms in the cities. The were always dressed in a decorous manner with a long black apron covering their nondescript dresses and were most respectable. No-one dared do anything out of place under their eagle eyes. I can remember quite vividly being fascinated by the way the lady in charge at London Road took her meal, or maybe it was her tea break. Her snack or meal was on a little tray and to protect herself from the curious eyes of the public (remember, they were very respectable) she put up a little screen round her plate. It was something like a games board, snakes and ladders or such, probably bigger, and four fold. Naturally, being an awkward child, though observant, I had to satisfy my curiosity by taking a peep to find out what was going on. She sharply reprimanded me and told me to sit down – which I did. I can’t think what Mother was doing at the time, she was probably dozing, exhausted.
Soon it was time to go onto the platform and board the waiting train. Mother always asked everyone she saw if this was the right train – no junketing off to foreign places on the wrong train for her. Much as I enjoyed these adventures, it was always nice to get away from the noisy city and head for the comfort and familiarity of home. I loved the rhythm of the wheels going over the sleepers and it was refreshing to see the green grass and trees taking the place of the sprawling streets of the town. It was just a forty-five minute journey, but it was like going from one world to another.
We’ve come a long way from those days of leisurely travel to electrified rail journeys and jet airliners travelling almost faster than sound. One thing we had and that was the reassurance of knowing our journey would be made safely with no thoughts of holdups or skyjacking. It was a slow world but a peaceful one.
© 1985 Enid Simpson