Peter (1967-68)

Peter as an 18 year old nurse in the training school at Portnalls House, Cane Hill (1967)

About the photograph

I can’t remember who took the photos – I think it was one of the other nurses, perhaps the other Englishman in my intake? – obviously we posed for this and other shots. I am sitting on the left with my arms folded saying something to a Nigerian girl – there were several Nigerians, boys and girls, in the class. Behind me sitting looking into a book is Sean Kelly. He was a quietly spoken friendly smiling Irish gentleman. There were two other Irishmen in our class. I can’t recall their names. One liked to play the fool, the joker, I remember that; the other spoke very fast and I could not make out what he as saying. Sean Kelly spoke to me about Ireland and Irish rebel songs. He mentioned The Thompson Gun – was that the name of a song? I can’t recall. I was a ‘mod’ at the time – it was the era of ‘mods and rockers’. I am wearing the grey flannel suit (I think Sean is too) that I got fitted for in the tailor’s shop. It was several months after I had started work as a nurse before I began lessons; I believe I attended three altogether before I left the job and became an art student. I seem to remember that we were introduced by whoever was in charge of the school to a consultant psychiatrist – a large middle-aged man with a bald pate. I remember one lesson was on the subject of the emotions. He asked us to name the various emotions. I called out a couple and gradually the class got together a list. He wrote the names of these various emotions down on a blackboard. Another time he brought patients into the school – one of whom was suffering from mania (or as it manic-depression?) and he (the psychiatrist) told us about the symptoms of mania, such as, word salad (was it?) and so on. I think the idea was that mental illnesses were markedly exaggerated emotional states. Difficult to remember, it was so long ago. The school itself was a separate unit I think at the back of the main labyrinth.

Peter’s experience at Cane Hill

I originally went for a job as a hospital porter and the head porter, a very, very, tall man, Mr. Lee, (maybe he was an ex-Guardsman from Caterham barracks?) took me instead to the Head nurse’s place, a small office not too far away down the right hand side of the front entrance, and left me there. I think the main nurse, the boss, was called Mr. McMahon. And there were a couple of other men in grey flannel nurse suits there. They chatted with me and gave me a job on the spot as a trainee or student psychiatric nurse, (RMN.) I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. This was about 1967-68. I can’t remember the exact date. I stayed there for about ten months and then left to go to art school. I wasn’t really motivated or if I was it was for purely selfish reasons. There was no altruistic intent. I’d failed at school and I was just filling in time. It was the nineteen sixties and Britain seemed to be changing and there seemed to be all sorts of things happening.

There was no selection process. They just asked me some questions and they seemed to like me and I fitted their bill and that was that. I think it was a matter of days and I started work at 7am on Zachary Ward. The Zachary ward Charge nurse seemed friendly but was mostly busy doing other admin-type stuff rather than nursing and he handed me over to the other nurses on duty and they showed me how to make beds. It was a nurse called Barry, a gay man, in his thirties or forties I guess, all fun and jokes, who took me under his wing, so to speak. One of the first things we did was to bathe an old man who was covered in his own faeces. Most of the time, however, was spent, once the beds were made, the patients fed and medicated, standing or sitting around doing nothing but talk. I don’t remember having to learn any rules. We were given a key to the ward; a universal key that unlocked every ward door in the entire place.

There was no feeling of being in the army or any such thing. You had to arrive a few minutes early for your shift, but that was about it. And you learned by watching other more experienced nurses. It was basically common sense. And it was up to you whether or not you took an interest. The “uniform” a three piece grey suit came later.
It was totally multicultural and where there was no language problem pretty much integrated too. Back then multiculturalism was something merely talked about in British society. In Cane Hill it had already long since happened and it worked. The different nationalities, races, ethnicities, and so on, got on together with no problems so far as I can recall. There was no racial abuse either. Of course there were arrogant individuals but you get them irrespective of race, culture, etc.. Oh yes and I mentioned a gay nurse, Barry, perhaps I should mention the fact that there were quite a few gay nurses, and openly so, and yet I never encountered any homophobia. So on the whole Cane Hill was probably more liberal and tolerant and open-minded than society in the outside world at the time. I remember too once hearing an extraordinary sound, the sound of flutes playing, in some dormitory or other, and when I went in to see what was going on it was nothing but some Rastafarians testing out the great acoustics of the place. Yes, and another Rastafarian used to sing, “Rudi don’t fear, no boy, Rudi don’t fear”, which years later I discovered was an early reggae song by one, Derrick Morgan, called “Tougher than Tough”. It’s even on YouTube.

I had little or no contact with senior staff. I was just a kind-of junior. Charge nurses were in charge of the wards and some were friendly and hands on but others kept their distance. Every ward I think had a full-size snooker table or two but I never saw any patients playing snooker only Charge nurses. If it was hierarchical I wasn’t aware of it; it probably seemed natural to me that the people at the top would have been remote from coal face activities, as it were.

Hierarchical organisation was probably par for the course at that date in Britain. And Britain has always had a dreadful class system. Monty Python skits did nothing to break that down. There were of course numerous professionals and non-professionals working side by side in the hospital: psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses, morticians, porters, kitchen and catering staff. launderers, tailors, visitors of one sort or another, and so on. It functioned as a reasonably well-oiled machine.

On Zachary ward there were numerous incidents involving one particular nurse. One old man in his chair, (most of these old boys sat around all day in wheelchairs,) who was blind, deaf and dumb, epileptic and schizophrenic, called Alfie, was regularly slapped across the face by X, a very stupid and nasty Staff nurse. Alfie would start screaming and the Staff nurse thought it was hilarious. There was another old man, John, who constantly wrote letters and underlined every word and when he argued with this same nasty Staff nurse the latter threw him out of his chair onto the floor, filled a hypodermic syringe with Largactil, splayed out the needle point on a nearby cast iron pipe, and stabbed this instrument of torture into poor patient’s backside, pumping the drug in so fast that a swelling the size of a golf ball appeared. It must have been agonisingly painful. I’ll never forget that and the fact that I did nothing about it. Again this Staff nurse thought himself very clever. He generally bullied and mistreated patients, I saw him regularly kick other patients including another one called John and a Jew with thick black hair and stubbly beard by the surname of Mark Griver, I think. I should have done something but what? I’d only been there a couple of weeks, whereas the brutality was handed out by a Staff nurse who’d been there years.

I’m pretty certain that there were many people there who were not actually mentally sick. Sure they were institutionalised, and maybe appeared mad to the untrained eye, but really they were simply unable to cope in the outside world. The hospital environment was surely a refuge for them. One particular example that springs to mind was the case of the man that appeared in a side room on Zachary one day. I don’t know why he was put there since he was not old but he occupied that side room for several months until he was released. He was admitted because he was suffering from delirium tremens or “the dt’s” as they’re commonly called. As he got better he started writing a record of his experience. This record ran to so many pages that it was more like the manuscript for a book. I know he was highly educated but apart from that, nothing. He kept himself to himself and one day presumably when he was ready he departed.

No, I was aware of talk about there being no future for large mental hospitals such as Cane Hill; that they were to be replaced by community mental health centres (or some such euphemistic term) but that’s about all. I had no idea that this was the beginning of the end. The place was full of activity on every front.

I was there approximately 10 months, not very long, but long enough to get a glimpse of the goings-on is such places. It was a good education too while it lasted. It opened my eyes in many ways. But overall I found the atmosphere somehow oppressive; I felt that if I stayed long enough I might even go crazy myself. We were told early on never to get emotionally involved but I’m afraid that’s something I couldn’t do: cold logical reasoning is, for me, nothing without emotion, without compassion, without sympathy. So yes it was an amazing, a unique, experience, one I’d recommend; but enough is enough. Some aspects such as the violence I came across in some of the freshly admitted paranoid schizophrenic patients was scary. A lot of the nurses were physically large but I’m only a smallish man: I didn’t want to be put in the position of trying in vain to physically restrain a violent person twice my size. Then what with the use of ECT, brain surgery, insulin therapy, and drugs, things didn’t seem right. Anyway, I then got accepted into art school. Years later I saw the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and I think it captured an aspect of the totality that was Cane Hill. Although I think also that compromises were probably made for decorum’s sake. It would have been nice to see a more documentary-esque portrayal of the subject.

There were large grounds and fields too. At one time there had been a fully functioning farm in the grounds. It probably had been self-sufficient in the more distant past. But I don’t think anything was any longer happening on that front—certainly not while I was there. However Cane Hill must have been a relatively self-contained thriving utopia in its day. Only with the passing of time another day dawned, one in the mid-twentieth century in which utopian vision somehow gave way to dystopian nightmare.

There were several entrances to the hospital and grounds. There was the main entrance with gatehouse on the Brighton Road but there was also a smaller gateway further along the same Brighton Road presumably put there so that Coulsdon South railway station could be more quickly accessed. Coulsdon was well served by the rail and road network. Over on the other Chipstead Valley side of the hill there was an entrance too that vehicles heading for the kitchens and stores used. I reckon that had the right people been managing the place they might have made a go of self-sufficiency.

[‘Peter’s responses to interview questions by Ali Costelloe, 2013]

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