Jean’s story continues about her experiences as a Voluntary Aide at the Walker Hospital in 1919

Brother dear, your expression has several times saved my life already. When the milk boiled all over the clean floor and I was fit to weep about it, I merely stood still and said, #^&%*@#.  No, I won’t write it down as mother may read this letter, but it soothed my temper like a charm.

You will probably receive a petition from the four nurses in my room to not write me such humorous letters because I can never read them till I get into bed and then I keep the others awake by giggling irrepressibly. I stick my head under the pillow, but even then, they can hear muffled screams of delight and they get peeved and jealous.

Matron asked me this morning was I going home on my twenty-four hours leave and said she thought there would be no risk if I had a Lysol bath, wore a mask all the time, clean clothes and kept six feet away.  When I asked her was she going home, she said no. On the whole, though I long to see you all, I think I would rather not spend the subsequent nights worrying myself sick for fear I had given it to you. Some of the girls do go home, and some don’t.  I’ll spend a luxurious and quite happy day here – twenty hours in bed and four in the garden.

On night duty now.  On the whole it’s much better than day.  One hates it when going on at 9 pm but loves it madly when coming out of the wards into the dewy garden at 6.30 am.  Night duty is a weird business but, on the whole, less rushed than day duty, so we are thankful for small mercies.

Joanna Walker
Children’s Cottage Interior

Five of us – two Sisters and three Aides – now live in the usual night quarters.  It’s a dear little fairy book cottage amongst the trees, built round a little square court, where four orange trees grow in tubs. Since, in peace days, it was the children’s quarters our furniture consists of tiny chairs, a sofa and tables, a musical box, a doll’s house, a woolly bear, a rocking boat, a see-saw and many celluloid fishes and tin buckets and spades.

We have such nice mornings just “messing around’, cleaning our shoes, washing our clothes, making our beds, sweeping, doing the flowers, making ourselves tea, gathering mushrooms, writing letters and sewing – it doesn’t sound very exciting, but I don’t know anything pleasanter in this wide world than a cottage morning.

Our day begins with a telephone call to wake us up at 7.45pm. We dress and trail over to the hospital for a hot dinner at 8.30 on duty from 9pm to 6.30am.

It’s a funny existence – there are a Sister and two Aides in women’s wing and we take up our position in the central hall – the Sister on a couch and Jean and I on the floor with two pillows each and we lie and write letters, and listen.  Because the wards are so still, one can hear the faintest sound, and when the sound comes one of us gets up and flits off with an electric torch into the darkness, fixes it up, and slips back in silence. And that lasts all night with the exception of one more exciting half hour when one relieves the Aide on the men’s side, where things are diversified by seeing a delirious man suddenly peering round the ward door at you, or climbing out the window.

Then at 3.30am the rush begins – zero hour. We wash the patients and make the beds by lantern light – heavy work which leaves us aching all over, and blind with weariness by 6.30am – talk of hopeless dawns. However, we then have breakfast and a bath and feel a bit better and spend the morning in our cottage, cleaning shoes and ironing quite happily. Bed at 12 sharp and so to sleep till the telephone rings again.

Our calm was rather shaken yesterday, but fortunately, the episode ended happily this time. We were having morning tea when we saw an orderly tear down the grass to the water’s edge, and the next instant the whole hospital came flying out from every door. We all made a cordon by the water’s edge.  There was a man who had, for two days, been swearing he would get away from us so you can imagine our relief when, about seven minutes later, he was found hiding in another ward.

Mummy, can’t you understand how impossible it is for me to do as you suggest, and get afternoons and evenings off for dances and kitchen teas. I can only come to the boat race, to watch my brother racing, because I am off duty anyway.

Flu is real – flu is earnest – and whew, one gets letters such as I did the other night from friends, insisting on my coming to picnics, and to even try on bridesmaids’ frocks, and one doesn’t quite know how to answer them without appearing either melodramatically tragic, or else apparently putting them off for insufficient reasons as they seem to think that it is the easiest matter in the world to come out.

They had to recall two Aides from legitimate leave the other day, so how can I, who have had so comparatively much, ask for extra days.

There are many rumours of good news and much news of closing down. Only, please don’t believe it yet. Still, the very fact of rumours is something.  Our conversation has been in the Bairnsfather line, “Doctor So and So says the eleventh month will be the worst, and after that every thirteenth.”

It’s just midnight and I haven’t had a call for 20 minutes, touch wood.

Brother dear, I’m afraid the boat race is quite off for me, as I will have to be asleep. Fancy going quietly to sleep within half a mile of the boat race!!!

But there can be no question of it – as it’s the inviolable rule of the hospital – night staff in bed at 12.   However, to stay awake would be a sheer physical impossibility. But just possibly, I might sleep from 7am till 3 – come out with the launch and go back to sleep at 5pm. I wonder would I be able to sleep. I’ll see how experienced I am by then.

Saw a Shore Four on Thursday and raced madly along the waterfront but too late – also on Friday ditto. Today I saw you way off and waited long but in vain. Walking home from Rhodes on Wednesday I caught a glimpse through the trees. I’ll always remember because it was so beautiful – the Eight flashing past with every oar blade dripping silver and the sun on the white singlets.

Have you ever seen this river at 3.45am? Jean and I fly down to the wharf for a breath of pure air at that time every night and it’s absolutely wonderful. You can think of me at 8.30pm every night and wish me luck.


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One Comment

  1. Hi, Great article. I have just come across this site and following up on a relative that worked at the walker hospital mid 1920s by the name of Iris Woods. I have a photo of her in what seems to be some kind of uniform of which I am trying to identify to date the photo. Can you assist or suggest someone that might know (historian). Many thanks if you receive this.
    Jeffrey Milne in Brisbane 0412099336

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