AMO­MENT of serendip­ity in a week steeped in the med­i­cal nos­tal­gia sparked by the 70th an­niver­sary of the NHS. Rum­mag­ing in a drawer in my par­ents’ house, I found a yel­lowed let­ter writ­ten in the early 1950s to my late mother.

It had come from M. Henry – Regis­trar of the Gen­eral Nurs­ing Coun­cil for Eng­land and Wales, 23 Port­land Place, Lon­don. And it opened a por­tal into the very dif­fer­ent world of the NHS in its for­ma­tive years.

As my mother em­barked on her nurs­ing ca­reer in East Glam­or­gan Hos­pi­tal the rules were be­ing laid out in strict terms. The lan­guage was brisk and of­fi­cious.

“The fol­low­ing points should be noted in re­gard to the uni­form for State Reg­is­tered Nurses,” de­clared the open­ing line, be­fore a quite be­wil­der­ing set of sar­to­rial in­struc­tions un­folded, com­plete with bold type on cer­tain words for added stern­ness.

“The wear­ing of the uni­form when worn must be worn com­plete; ie., State Reg­is­tered Cos­tume with State Reg­is­tered Hat (any of the four de­signs); State Reg­is­tered Over­coat with State Reg­is­tered Hat (any of the four de­signs). It is not in or­der to wear a State Reg­is­tered Over­coat with State Reg­is­tered Hat, Beret or Peaked Cap with any cos­tume or coat.”

A few years into uni­ver­sal health­care for all, there was an added com­pli­ca­tion: “The ap­proved rain­coat is not yet in pro­duc­tion. As an in­terim mea­sure any navy blue reg­u­la­tion rain­coat may be worn over the State Reg­is­tered Uni­form.”

And where were the young nurses of the 1950s ex­pected to buy all their garb?

“Only tai­lors who have en­tered into an Agree­ment with the Coun­cil to sup­ply the Uni­form may do so. The ad­dress of the tai­lor near­est to any vicin­ity will be sup­plied by th­ese Of­fices upon re­quest.”

Any at­tempt at ac­ces­soris­ing was par­tic­u­larly frowned upon.

“The uni­form in all its de­tails shall be strictly ad­hered to, and no al­ter­ation or em­bel­lish­ment of any kind shall be per­mit­ted. No trim­mings, lace or jew­ellery shall be worn on any part of the uni­form, pro­vided that this pro­hi­bi­tion shall not ap­ply to the wear­ing of the badge or of the rib­bon or other in­signia of any or­der, dec­o­ra­tion, or medal con­ferred by the Sov­er­eign or of any for­eign or­der, dec­o­ra­tion or medal ac­cepted by per­mis­sion of the Sov­er­eign.”

I don’t think Mam would have had to worry about royal in­signia. Like ev­ery nurse of her gen­er­a­tion, for her there was only one ac­ces­sory that mat­tered – the prized SRN badge. Ac­cord­ing to the let­ter, it could be worn with or with­out uni­form “af­fixed to the right side of the per­son”.

And woe be­tide any nurse care­less enough to mis­lay it.

“The Coun­cil re­quires a pe­riod of 12 months to elapse from the date of the no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the loss of a badge be­fore a du­pli­cate can be is­sued. Only one du­pli­cate State Reg­is­tered Badge can be is­sued to any one nurse.”

If such mis­sives from the Gen­eral Nurs­ing Coun­cil for Eng­land and Wales laid out the rules on pa­per, the fear­some Ma­trons of the 1950s en­forced them in per­son.

My mother told me how mor­ti­fied she once felt be­ing forced to wipe off her lippy in front of all the other stu­dent nurses af­ter a rant from Ma­tron. By the time she was in a po­si­tion of se­nior­ity her­self she was rather more benev­o­lent with the rook­ies, re­mem­ber­ing those ward reigns of ter­ror.

But apart from the oc­ca­sional telling off, her mem­o­ries of nurs­ing were en­tirely happy. Those uni­form rules may have been dra­co­nian but my mother and her con­tem­po­raries took great pride in dress­ing for the part. They never came to terms with the more ca­sual py­ja­mas-and-crocs combo of re­cent years.

As a child, I loved hear­ing her sto­ries about Christ­mas on the wards, when the nurses would turn those capes with the cross­over straps in­side out to re­veal their fes­tive red lin­ing and sing car­ols to the pa­tients.

I en­joyed play­ing with the or­nate belt buck­les that graced her uni­form. As I got a bit older, the vol­umes of nurs­ing en­cy­clopae­dias that filled our book­shelves held more du­bi­ous plea­sures as I scared my­self sense­less by tak­ing sneaky peeks at il­lus-

> June Hitt in her nurse uni­form in the 1950s

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