The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: A Royal visit for Dewsbury nurses

Smart staff: Nurses at Staincliffe General Hospital stand in military style to be inspected by the Princess Royal who visited the hospital in 1960. She is accompanied by Sister Dorothea Wood. Note how their crisp white uniforms and starched caps, and they are even wearing gloves!
Smart staff: Nurses at Staincliffe General Hospital stand in military style to be inspected by the Princess Royal who visited the hospital in 1960. She is accompanied by Sister Dorothea Wood. Note how their crisp white uniforms and starched caps, and they are even wearing gloves!

THERE have been great changes over the years in the way our hospitals are run and also in the way people working in them are treated.

In the early days, before the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948, the nursing profession was made up entirely of women.

Margaret Watson.

Margaret Watson.

They never got the recognition they deserved and were forced to work long hours in poor conditions and were also expected to do the cleaning as well.

Over the years thousands of local women have given dedicated service in our hospitals in varying worthwhile capacities.

But few of them ever held high positions because those making the decisions in hospitals were always men.

And it wasn’t until 1949 that a woman, Miss Gwendoline Cockrem, was appointed Dewsbury’s first female consultant gynaecologist.

Until then gynaecology and obstetrics was considered a man’s world and nobody seemed to object to that.

Miss Cockrem worked in the Dewsbury and Batley area for 40 years and when she retired in the 1980s I interviewed her about those early days.

She admitted having been terrified of her male colleagues and had hardly ever attended any of their weekly conference meetings.

“I would set off to go, but only got as far as the door,” she recalled. “Sometimes, I’d have my hand on the door, but when I heard them talking or laughing inside, I hurried back to my office.”

Only gradually was the number of female consultants and doctors increased at both Dewsbury and Batley hospitals.

One of these doctors, which many local women still remember, was Doctor Mary Fox, who did her rounds at Moorlands Maternity Home accompanied by her pet spaniel.

In those days, as can be seen from the photograph above, nurses wore uniforms with frilly caps and white aprons which clearly identified them as nurses.

They also had to parade every morning in front of the matron who would check they were properly attired.

She checked their hands and nails, and they had to have their hair tied back and tucked underneath their caps.

When the Princess Royal visited Staincliffe Hospital in 1960, she too inspected the nurses who were required to stand in military fashion as she walked by. Note from the picture their upright posture, eyes straight ahead, and they are even wearing gloves, as is Sister Dorothea Wood, who accompanied the Princess.

How different life had been for both nurses and patients in the very early days before Dewsbury and Batley opened their first maternity homes.

Infant mortality in this area was the highest in the country, especially among the working classes who were having their babies at home under shocking conditions.

In 1904 the first district nurse was appointed in Batley, named Marie Ross, but maternity services were still minimal and most working class women relied on untrained midwives to deliver their babies.

Many died in childbirth as a consequence, and between 1908 and 1910, nearly 300 babies died under the age of one in the Batley area alone.

In Dewsbury during 1924, one hundred children died that year.

It was not unusual for women to lose two or three children, and in Dewsbury, one woman, Sarah Imeson, tragically lost nine babies.

Only two of her 11 children survived to maturity, and a tapestry dedicated to the memory of those who died now hangs in Dewsbury Minster Church.

The tapestry was worked by Sarah herself, who lovingly embroidered the name of each of her babies giving the dates of their birth and death.

Matters started to improve in 1922 when Batley’s first Maternity Home, a gift from Batley mill-owner Theodore Taylor, was opened.

Two years later, Dewsbury Corporation bought Moorlands Hall, the home of the Tweedale family, for £10,000, and converted into the town’s first maternity home

The man who had campaigned for this to become a maternity home, was Dewsbury councillor Tom Myers, an ardent campaigner for improved housing and health conditions for the working classes.

He blamed the slums and the appalling sanitary conditions existing in them, for the high infant mortality rate.

Maternity care for local women improved dramatically in the late 1920s, especially with the introduction of modern medicines and technology.

In the 1930s women in labour were offered for the first time pain relief in the form of gas and air.

In the early 1950s they were offered injections of pethidine, and today they can choose what is promised to be a pain-free labour with the use of epidurals.

The hospital pictured above was later to become part of a new £40 million hospital opened in 1988 by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The name Staincliffe Hospital was dropped in favour of Dewsbury and District Hospital, the name it still holds today.

○ It isn’t too late to support your local amateur operatic society – Dewsbury Collegians – by booking a seat for their pantomime Dick Whittington in Dewsbury Town Hall from tonight (Thursday, January 16) until Sunday, January 19, starting 7.15pm. Also Saturday and Sunday matinees starting 2pm. To book, ring 01924 492742 or town hall booking office 01484-225755 or visit kirkleestownhalls.co.uk.