CAROLYN HITT’S TRIBUTE TO THE NHS AT 70
COLUMNIST OF THE YEAR
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