The Brocket Babies
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From Anon (held on file) - received 8 July 2009
Standing on the platform of my local railway station awaiting a train that will transport me to Welwyn Garden City and then to Brocket Hall. The year was 1944 and I was leaving my home of 20 years, the last time I would be calling it ‘my home’. On my journey I was joined by my ‘partner in crime’, the father of my unborn, illegitimate child. The small case I carried contained most of what I was to wear for nearly 2 years.
Welcome to the Brownies
At Brocket Hall I joined a group of girls called Brownies because we all had to wear a very unattractive brown dress. We were all carrying illegitimate babies and for different reasons were separated from our families to become the ‘downstairs’ maids, kitchen staff, laundry maids and other jobs required to run the City of London Hospital, now relocated to Brocket Hall.
We were ‘greeted’ by the ‘Home Sister’ a rather stern-faced Sister Albertella, who turned out to be a guardian angel to all of us Brownies. She was a real gem of a lady who kept in touch and visited me long after I left Brocket. My duties did not start till the next day so I was shown my bed and unpacked in a room shared by eight other Brownies on the top floor where staff had their bedrooms.
Next morning I was shown my role in this very well run institution. I became the laundry maid and, with Sister Albertella my supervisor in this job, washed hundreds of nappies and all that’s required in the home. I loved it. I loved everything about the place; the people, the work, the bonding with similar situated folks. It wasn’t a holiday camp but it was war-time and everyone was used to hard times - we were very fortunate, looked after by professionals. Our babies had the very best care, safe from bombs and no queuing for rations.
I’d never worked so hard and the hours were long. Half day a week off-duty, 10 shillings a week pay but I never heard anyone complain.
The laundry housed a huge machine, like a long sausage that split long ways to receive the dirty clothes and water and when closed rumbled away for the allotted time then opened up having washed and partly wrung. Another machine finished the wringing off after we had emptied one to the other. Sister Albertella then filled old-fashioned tin baths to the brim with the washed and wrung nappies for me to carry them up the stone stairs and peg them on the washing lines outside. When dry they had to be folded and sorted by which time another wash was ready - those babies never gave up!
On days when it was not suitable to peg outside I carried the baths into the drying room, where hot pipes travelled all round the wall and in aisles up and down the room. The heat was tremendous. Some nurses said it was like the black hole of Calcutta which didn’t mean much to me - all I knew was that it was hot!
We rose at 6 am and began work stopping for breakfast at 7 am. We had another break at 11 am where our big treat was a slice of bread and home-made dripping. It was scrumptious and we fought for it as we liked it so much.
Back to work till lunch-time which was taken after the patients upstairs were fed. Can’t remember much what we had but I’m sure it was sufficient and wholesome.
Tea I do remember. One slice of bread, one pat of butter, one cup of tea. Kath, the cook, ran the kitchen like a Sergeant Major, no-one ever crossed her or questioned what she did or said. Sometimes, for example if one of us had gone into town during the few hours we had off in the afternoon and hadn’t returned in time for tea, there would be a magical extra pat of butter and all eyes would be on it, hoping it was going to be allotted to us by Kathy. She would allocate it according to whoever had the last the extra piece. She didn’t seem to have any favourites, in fact I’m not sure she liked any of us that much!
We were not allowed to go up to our bedroom till all of us had finished our work which often meant that at the end of the day we would all be standing in the kitchen peeling spuds. Edith, whose job this was, never seemed to finish her boring job in time so we all chipped in till all the sinks were full. No moaning, no complaining, it was just done.
So the days, weeks and months passed. I remember some of the girls well. Florrie, who was the upstairs maid, had been ‘promoted’ after her baby was born to collecting dirty dishes and bringing them down in the lift to wash them in the kitchen. Wearing her blue uniform and without the tell-tale bump, which as a Brownie she had to hide from the ‘innocent’ mothers to be upstairs and with whom she was now allowed to mix. I assumed she would be in this post until such time she had other arrangements.
I remember how loudly she sang whilst she washed. Her cockney voice gave vent to all the popular songs of the day and a good few bawdy ones as well. She always made us smile.
I was one of the few lucky ones, there was no question that I was keeping my baby and I believed I was going to receive every support when my time came to leave Brocket. But most of the girls knew it would be impossible to keep their babies and all they had to look forward to was leaving Brocket heart-broken.
Sometimes we got to hear when one of the Brownie babies was going to be collected for adoption. We all congregated at the window which overlooked the back entrance to watch the baby being carried out by the nurse and handed to the adopting parents. How can you hope to ease the pain after the mother had witnessed that. She had loved the baby so much for just a few days and may never have the chance to have another. It was sheer torture for her and we all went to bed very sad and subdued on those nights.
Eventually my day arrived. Sister Albertella saw I was in the first stages of labour and advised me to go to the labour ward, first changing my dress so as to look as though I had just arrived! “Too soon” they said ”Go back you are not due for 3 weeks, you cannot be in labour”. So back I went downstairs to continue the routine, with sympathetic sounds from fellow Brownies. The pain continued until we were all in bed then the ward sister came in with a file of liquid and said “Drink, it will give you a good night’s sleep”. It did but only for me to wake up the next morning definitely in labour. my daughter was born that morning, 3 weeks premature. Well, any mother will tell you how they feel absolutely ecstatic, no-one could possibly be as clever as you. What a feeling! She was without doubt the best looking baby in the nursery. Rosemary, who was second in charge to Matron and had seen hundreds of babies whilst working for City of London Hospital in London and at Brocket agreed she was absolutely beautiful. Her father came to see her very soon but when he went to leave was told never to come again by the matron.
In those times matron was completely in charge and in control of everyone’s lives. She was feared by most of us and I believe we felt inferior in her presence. But as a patient I was grateful she had such command (I remember being reprimanded by her for not removing all the stains from the nappies). She brought out the very best in her sisters and nurses and we all benefitted from that.
Incidentally the nappies were made of the most rough harsh cloth that gave the babies a bright red sore bottom. How that must have hurt. When the sun was right the bottoms were exposed for 4 minutes on the roof of Brocket to help heal the angry spots. I have never seen a red sore baby’s bottom since then thank goodness.
A real friend
My ‘oppo’, Ann, did the same job as me but on a different floor and was in similar circumstances to myself. We were great pals. Our paths would cross during the day whilst both carrying our mops and buckets – her at the top of the staircase me at the bottom. On sighting each other we would place our buckets on the floor, stretch our arms out really wide and call to each other “Mumma Mia”. We were copying an Italian woman who just delivered her baby and who would often call these words across the ward to her visitors.
Ann did not join us in our top floor penthouse. Instead she walked back each night with Milly a faithful ex-servant of pre-war Brocket days. Although past retirement age she still wanted to be of use so helped out with the cleaning and with a bit of sewing. Ann and Milly walked back to a little cottage belonging to the estate which was opposite the “Sun” pub where they both lodged. I still pass this pub regularly and always think of them both. They were good companions, even with the great age difference.
The day before Christmas I was asked to light a fire in the huge downstairs room where a party of the Brownies was going to be held. Can you just imagine, many pregnant ladies and a few generous staff having a great knees up? Believe me, it didn’t happen! I was only shown the coal and had no idea how I was going to get it lit. Looking out of the window, I saw Ann on her way in from the cottage dragging a huge tree behind her that she had ‘rescued’ from the little wood she had to pass through. She’d brought it so that I could light the fire and hauled and dragged it up the long driveway - now she was a true friend. The fire kept us warm - without the knees up!
Because Ann did not work in the evening she stayed in the kitchen to prepare the nurses’ and sisters’ tea. She struck up a good relationship with Jim, the stoker, a cheeky 70 year old whose job it was to keep the fires going (a job that included burning buckets of after-birth). Jim would often pass by the kitchen and sometimes used to tap on the window and ask “any chance of a cuppa?”. Ann always obliged - against all the rules!
My daughter grew even more beautiful and the nurses and sisters loved her and made such a fuss of her. My own visits to her were only to feed her. The nursery, which had been the butler’s pantry, had a line of bells just inside the door which still had the names of the rooms they referred to above them. Ann’s baby was in a cot next to my daughter and whenever Sister Albertella had a spare moment she would pick them up and sing to them whilst marching up and down the aisles of new born babies’. My daughter liked to hold sister Albertella’s nose, which never failed to amuse her.
It’s another long story to tell you why my daughter’s father was banned. Just to say I was already married and so was he. Very irregular and unacceptable. Unfortunately, when the time came for my exit from Brocket, things were not in place for me to leave and I had nowhere to go. Knowing that one of the ward maids was leaving I hoped I could fill her place to give me more time at Brocket until things became more stable. I was interviewed by Matron who started by giving me a thoroughly good telling off. But the outcome was that for the first two weeks after my daughter was born I worked with Miss Hurley, a prim and proper spinster, in the sewing room putting patches on old brownies uniforms. I made sure my stitching was immaculate and was thankful to have some future there, for the time being at least.
Having been promoted and given a different colour uniform I was now allowed to be viewed by the “public” i.e the married patients. My duties were changed and I took over Florrie’s job collecting the dirty dishes to bring to the kitchen to wash. I loved the job but didn’t do as much singing!
I finally left Brocket Hall and after marrying my daughter’s father went on to have 3 more beautiful children. My second, a son, was also born at Brocket Hall in 1948. Sadly my husband died at 60 after many wonderful, happy years together. The dreams we dreamt all came true but should have lasted longer.
I was not a merry widow, in fact I felt I was a very grumpy one. But back to work I found so many people with so much less than I had in my life that I resolved to pick myself up and not be the boring misery I must have portrayed to my children. I married again and to my surprise had many more years of happiness that I never expected to have.
Sadly he too died and I now live in his house in a small village not far from Brocket Hall. I was asked to help out in the village Post Office and spent many happy years working behind the counter, handing out pensions and child care support. It’s a very rewarding job, pleasing folk with cash when it’s not yours and I kept working there till I was 81. Now at 88, my children grown up and with their own grandchildren I count myself one of the luckiest 88 year olds ever.
Coming back to Brocket Hall with 3 of my children on 24 August will bring back many happy memories. It would be nice if I met someone who was there the same time as me. I live in hope.