Nostalgia feature - Recalling nursing experiences from back in the day

Looking back through our archives we have come across this interview with 96 year old Jean Macmillan given to former Gazette reporter Laura F.C. Maciver in October 2007.

Friday, 21st February 2020, 11:41 am
Jean spent some time as a theatre nurse in Glasgow. In this image she is pictured second from the left with her team.
Jean spent some time as a theatre nurse in Glasgow. In this image she is pictured second from the left with her team.

Jean tells Laura all about her nursing experiences, especially her work to help deliver babies and during the years of the second world war.

“Lorry loads of soldiers with skin conditions were coming back at that time, and that’s what we were doing, taking care of them.”

So begins Jean Macmillan’s tales of nursing in the Second World War.

Having already lost one brother in the First World War and losing her youngest only three days into the second, Jean’s memories of the war are understandably not the most pleasant.

Born in June 1911, Jean chose nursing following a six year stint as an office worker, which taught her one simple thing; she had more spirit and ambition than to spend her life in such monotony: “I was in college for a year when I came out of school - I actually came out of school to go to college. I was only 14, but I wanted to do shorthand and typing and that’s what I wanted to do - a job in an office.

“I was in an office for six years and I was only gettlng 10 shillings a week,” she nods flrmly at my shock.

“It’s true; 50p a week. I said, “this is not for me,” and you know my mother had sacrificed a lot, because she had lost her husband, lost her son and she’d sacrificed a lot for me and ten shillings a week was rubbish.”

Knowing that once she had completed the challenging training for nursing she would be able to support both her mother and herself more comfortably, as well as having more chances of progression, Jean began her training in 1934 at Ruchill Hospital, near Glasgow.

It was a three year course that led to an ‘Infectious Diseases Certificate’ and provided training pay of £3 a month or £36 a year.

Her memories of nursing are incredibly fond ones, as she remembers the strict structure and pecking orde,r that kept her constantly on her toes.

“We had to take all our lectures in our off-duty time, so we had to really prove we were dedicated.

“And we couldn’t go out of the dining room without the staff nurses going out first.

“We respected the doctors and we respected the senior nurses, we were a team and we were all happy.

“Everybody lived in the nursing accommodation and it was a really happy time, you know?”

Lamenting that morale just isn’t up to the same standard in hospitals today, Jean puts it down to the lack of structure and changes in the training, as she explained: “General duties have changed tremendously.

“Now every patient, it doesn’t matter how ill they are, is out of bed. We nursed them in bed. It really has changed since we were nursing.

She continued: “There’s just not the happiness in the nursing profession that we had, we were all happy and yet we worked harder and longer hours.

“I think it’s because they’ve all got their own homes now, whereas we all lived-in and when the doctors, or the matron came in we respected them, but now they just ignore them.

“It doesn’t have the structure it once did.

“Maybe the nurses are better going to university, but they don’t do any of the dirty work.

“I see the nurses doing more now than they used to do, like taking blood, but it’s not the same atmosphere or anything.”

Explaining that her happiness stemmed from the bonds that developed between staff, it’s apparent that Jean is a people person, an aspect that is enforced, when she claims she didn’t feel like a true nurse until she began her midwifery in 1942.

“When I was doing my general I never thought I was a nurse because I couldn’t deliver a baby and that’s what made me decide to do midwifery,” she mused.

She began her Miders training at Bellshill hospital in Glasgow, but as most babies were born at home Jean was put on District Nursing in the Shotts area.

“When we did our Midwifery, they used to deliver the babies in the district. We went to the houses to deliver them.

“First pregnancies were admitted and we’d allow them two or three at home and then we’d take them in again for the fourth, because after the third baby it’s not so easy for the mother, there is a higher risk of complications,” she explained.

Having no cars, the nurses were instead given bicycles to get them from one place to another and they were expected to be on continuous call.

Her memories of birthing babies are incredibly powerful as she describes how people were often so poor that they couldn’t afford cots or prams and babies slept in drawers lined with blankets.

But it was the multiple births that proved truly memorable, as Jean reminisces about a woman who was forced to take a taxi to the hospital, but didn’t quite make it to the ward. Instead Jean delivered her twins in the back of the taxi leaving the driver suitably unimpressed and demanding his cab be cleaned.

Or the time that she had to remain calm while dealing with a serious breach birth, but one which proved to be one of her proudest moments.

“Those twins,” she sighed. “They both came out feet first and we never thought we were going to get them out, that was a really serious worry.

“You’d have actually thought that the first one was holding onto his brother’s cord.

“They were small but they were ok,” she reassured me.

“I liked doing Midwifery in the homes. When there was a baby getting born all the neighbours piled in and there was no place like it.

“There wasn’t the camaraderie by the time I left. Now all babies are born in the hospital, there’s very few born at home, but it’ll come back you’ll see!”

But the clearest descriptions come as she remembers district nursing in war torn Glasgow.

Nurses out on district duties were only allowed to use their torch to light the first step of a tenement in line with the blackout restrictions.

“It was terrible,” she remembered. “You couldn’t show any lights at all, the first night I was on Stubhill and you had to take two buses to get home and you couldn’t see the colours or numbers or anything.

“I went to Charing Cross where there used to be trams going round and I knew if I got on one I wouldn’t be far wrong and I could get off at the next stop. But with no lights, it was all black and it was scary.”

But the most vivid image that Jean invokes is the sight of a young nurse leaning perilously over a balcony in September 1939 as she discovers war has been declared.

The spirited 96 year old gets a dreamy look as she remembers the Sunday moming that was to change the world.

“When I first hear war had been declared I had my head over the balcony in one of the wards.

“Each ward was a different disease, one would be Scarlett and one was Diphtheria and one was Measles. Ward five where I was, was theatre, with single rooms and I was hanging over the balcony of one of the rooms.

“Somebody had a radio on and war had been declared at 11am on a Sunday morning. We were expecting it, cause they told us we’d know at eleven o’clock, but I remember that news so clearly.”

Jean gave up nursing in 1957, on meeting a never met before cousin and being swept off her feet. After marrying Neil Macmillan, the pair moved back to the family home of Stornoway in 1959, taking up residence in the Park Guest House for three years while their family home was built.

Neil was a sailing captain who had been living in Bournemouth and who had been previously married and then widowed in 1952.

They continued to run the House until 1962, mainly catering for weekly commuters from Harris, but also attracting some future minor celebrities, as Jean explained: “As a boy, the Lord of the Isles in Harris, Jim Morrison came and stayed with us for the three years.”

Despite having some doubts about their move to begin with Jean soon discovered that island culture spoke to her and offered her things that nowhere else could.

“The first year we were here, I thought I’d never stay.

“We were in the Guest House and people were always in and out, always in a hurry. I really hated it, and Neil was saying, “we’ll wait and see”.

The changing moment came when Jean went to a family wedding the following February:

“A nephew was getting married in February in Glasgow, and when I saw it I didn’t want to go back. Seeing all the washing out and doing everything on a Sunday that you don’t do up here, it’s so different and yet I’d been happy in Glasgow, but I just saw it in a different light when I went back down.”

Looking back on the island over the years Jean’s observations are intriguing, stating that the “islands weren’t so tough,” but that, somewhat contradictorily, “The town’s completely different.

“It’s clean, the shops are all painted and the streets are all tidy. It was a happy place, there was still quite a lot of drinking, but not as much as there is now, I mean you didn’t hear about it.”

But it’s still the camaraderie and community spirit that keeps Jean here; happy and content with, “everything I need around me”.

And as one of the most independent women on the islands (since her husband died in 1981 she has lived alone, and only finally gave up driving in 2002, entirely out of choice) what does she put her incredible vitality down to?

“I’ve always been active. I played hockey for the West of Scotland and I played tennis. I played hockey in the winter and tennis in the summer, and of course I’ve always been happy.”