I started as a Domestic [ward cleaner] having been living in Holland and just got back and needed a job.
I started, and apart from some holiday cover work on other wards, stayed on Alleyn ward with a fellow domestic called Beryl, who left to get married. Alleyn was an elderly ward at the front of the hospital opposite Blake and Browning.
The Charge Nurse on the ward was a Gus McDonald. We kept the place polished and clean but it was an almost soulless place. There was a woman there called Alice. I never really knew why she was there, although there was some mention of her being an unmarried mother. (I’m not sure of the truth of this). She was so nice, like your favourite old great aunt. One day she said she did not want to live anymore and stopped eating and very quickly went downhill and died.
I remember a number of elderly people dying there and no one coming to the funeral, suitcases of clothing, photos and mementoes, thrown in the bin. They shared clothing with other patients on the ward, who had gathered around like some carrion crows. There was little if any shared grief, or I was too naive to see it.
I applied for Nurse training and was accepted. My first morning was October 1981 in Cruden ward – upstairs `C` block [now burnt out]. At 7AM I walked into a large dayroom, decorated in late ’70s décor – a big patch of carpet in the centre of the room, big plastic armchairs on the carpet. Several patients sat heads down, smoking rollups, listening to the delayed business flights out of Heathrow. To repeat a phrase this human flotsam left behind by society.
There was a large Polish man who had been a mosquito photographer. It sounds like a rather silly job till you spoke to him and his rather ‘ mad’ behaviour fell into a picture. He had been a photographer on a reconnaissance Mosquito plane in the war, hours flying in the sub zero temperatures with people throwing explosives at him (silly people) still a few months of that and he never recovered. He could not go home to the Red army as he was ‘tainted’ by capitalism – too damaged to live in England post war – so he carried on grinning, clicking away and making whoosh bang noises and we just fed him and made sure he was clean.
A man on the admission wards who thought he was in the recent film that had come out, The Terminator, but he had to save Sarah Connor, not kill her. He adopted the whole clothing look and had some eye injury anyway so wove this into his delusion – was it that I never saw Sarah Connor in the phone book again?
Lots of time was spent in the social club getting very drunk, lots of time in the nurses home – staff were as bad as some of the patients, drunk, depressed, setting fire to the nurses home to gain praise, got caught the second or third time he was the hero – a number of staff committed suicide – you would think we had some better handle on how to handle stress wouldn’t you?
Exams were a trial – spent weeks on the ward not speaking to patients just got head down to study for exams by rote learning.
The stigmatization? Well that was in the village as well. My great grandfather was a gas fitter there - it was gas lighting then. He used to tell my grandmother stories of appalling violence in the place.
There were no anti-psychotics then so people really were going mad and could be very violent – there was laudanum, I believe, but this was highly addictive. Later there was paraldehyde, but this really only sedated people so they’d either be awake and psychotic, or asleep.
The whole village (which it was then) all used to be scared of the place – my grandfather used to run to the end of Lion Green Road to see a motor car on the main road as Coulsdon was only a cross roads. The siren going off for a fire alert was still thought to be a ‘lunatic escaping’ – the local employees did nothing to convince the public otherwise – it gave them kudos and they were looked upon as brave people!
My mother would not go up the drive or my neighbour, despite being invited by me [not to ' pay a penny and see the loonies’] but to see how they were not staring blankly out of barred windows with long greasy hair and straitjackets.
The locals employees used to do quite well from the hospital farms during rationing and had access to all the bedding/clothes/furniture that a large hospital had so did nothing to help locals understand the real situation.
There were some extremely lazy staff that had 2-3 jobs, one that I knew had a mechanics business going and was quite successful. Some slept at work and worked other places, some achieved a nursing qualification and then spent all their time doing furthers studies on degrees – one achieved a first in Law and left to become a lawyer – some drank themselves to near death there.
On the other side there were amazing, dedicated caring staff – I worked with some really awesome staff on some geriatric wards [which I had little interest in and less motivation] but by following them I saw what could be done and so I tried. There was some really caring staff on the longstay ward, trying to raise standards.
I remember some conversations in the village shops about how they were a “strain on society and should be put down – for their own good you understand “. When they came out of hospital patients were regularly cheated out of money and possessions by locals and in London. I remember discharging people to ‘The Spikes’ -[especially one in Camberwell] homeless hostels and they would be left totally to their own devices – perhaps after 1, 2, 3 years in hospital
I believe, from what I have read that there was a turnover of patients in all the mental hospitals of approx 40% a year so theoretically there was a good chance of getting out.
The stories of people being locked up forever are more likely urban myths – some grain of truth wrapped in someone else’s political agenda
Don’t forget there was no community care -social services were non existent and were not interested in the mentally ill - there was little differentiation between learning difficulties and mental illness – there was a lot of what we call PTSD from the war -there was no rehabilitation service – there was lots of what we now call Alzheimer’s which was not socially acceptable.
Alcoholics and drug addicts were locked up. I can remember doing this!
All the countries social problems were given to the ‘bins’ and with little money – – – awful things happen.
Advertising, knowledge and famous people have all brought about such an amazing change in peoples idea of mental illness