Wartime Nursing Memories

As told to me by Gwen Mottram

By Debbie Burstow

Gwen with some evacuees outside the huts.
1942, training at Wimbledon.
Nurses reunion 1981
Christmas entertainment at Chalkdell, 1943.
One of Gwen's wartime service certificates.
Gwen 1940
Staff and patients, ward 2, Chalkdell Hospital
Chalkdell Hospital
Christmas Show 1940/41, Chalkdell Hospital.
Chalkdell EMS Hospital reunion.
Gwen at rosehill Hospital
Matron Hinkins, Letchworth Isolation Hospital, 1947

Gwen Mottram was born in Royston in 1921 and moved with her family to Letchworth when she was 3 years old. Gwen was educated at Pixmore School  until she reached 14 years of age. From there at age 15 she worked as a machinist at Kayser Bonder stocking factory in Baldock. This factory was sold to the Tesco Supermarket chain and they converted it to a superstore but, to their credit, they retained the striking Egyptian theme frontage.

Gwen then decided to join the Red Cross Society which involved voluntary work on Sundays at the former NHS Beds Hospital. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Gwen was called to serve full time as a trainee nurse. Her first post was at Chalkdell House which in its previous existence was the local workhouse. Nissan hut wards had been built on adjoining land as an Emergency Hospital just prior to the war. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were master and matron and they took overall charge. However, at the stage when Mr. Chamberlain was still attempting to broker a peace deal with Hitler, the new wards were still empty. Some of the nurses volunteered to help on the wards for the elderly on the workhouse site. Gwen has a lasting memory of this time of rows of enamel mugs on the bedside cabinets containing bread and milk for the elderly patients, as many of them did not even have false teeth prior to 1948, as they could not afford them!

However they were soon back on the wards on the Emergency Hospital site. This site consisted of eleven wards, mostly 40 bedded, in the Nightingale style. An operating theatre was built and some marvellous work was carried out. The nurses worked very hard under sisters evacuated from various London hospitals. They were employed under the banner of the Civil Nursing Reserve. Nurses were recriuted after some initial training and were  called ‘nursing auxillaries’, this included Red Cross and St Johns nurses. Their duties included a lot of cleaning and polishing ward floors witha heavy mop which they called a ‘donkey’. It was also expected that they stoke the coke stoves in the centre of the wards. The old wards at the workhouse site had no curtains around the beds and the nurses were expected to heave heavy wooden screens around the beds when the matron and doctors did their rounds. The beds also were not so technically developed as they are now and it was therefore more difficult to move the patients.

During this time many of the nurses had to live in one of the huts, but the lucky ones who were local could live out. Gwen nursed evacuee children and soldiers form overcrowded London Hospitals at this period.

Gwen met her future husband Victor Jabez Kirby at the Hitchin Town Hall when he was giving a talk under the umbrella of the St Johns Ambulance brigade. Gwen was 19 years old and Victor 21 in 1940. However, they could not marry until 1946.

After two and a half happy years at Chalkdell Hospital, Gwen and a friend decided to apply for state registration, so they applied to Wimbledon General Hospital. This entailed passing an entrance exam as Gwen did not have any qualifications. She nursed at Wimbledon from 1942 -1945, passing her finals at the first attempt. During this period it was the height of the Doodlebug blitz and the hospital became a casualty clearing station, which was very traumatic.

Whilst Gwen was training at Wimbledon Hospital she once got onto the wrong side of matron but in spite of that she received Matron’s prize for that year. Gwen was caught singing the following ditty whilst working. Sung to ‘There’s a home for little children’:

There’s a home for tired nurses above the bright blue sky

Where matrons never enter and sisters never pry

All the little troubles are drowned in cups of tea

And all the little bedpans they rest eternally.


On obtaining her ‘SRN’, which is now ‘RGN’, Gwen still has the certificates issued to her for her war work. Gwen returned to Hitchin to work at Rosehill Isilation Hospital where she remained for two and a half years until 1948. Whilst there they had the poliomylitis epidemic. They also nursed various fevers without any cross infection, although they went from ward to ward, observing strict barrier methods. When the state took over in 1948 the hospital ceased to be a fever hospital, mainly due to immunisation stamping out common fevers.

Gwen then went to Letchworth Hospital as a staff nurse and had a very happy time there nursing surgical and medical patients. The nurses developed a terrific bond with their colleagues and in 1970 a big reunion was held with as many of them as could be contacted. Unfortunately Gwen could not go as she was ill with jaundice.The reunion was featured in the newspapers.

Gwen decided she wanted a change and applied to become a District Nursing sister for the Letchworth and Hitchin areas. Cycling in all weathers (they are now allocated cars), sterilising the equipment at home which entailed baking dressings in a biscuit tin, boiling syringes (no throw away articles). She enjoyed being able to spend whatever time was necessary with her patients. Unfortunately Gwen was prone to pleurisy due to being out in all weathers, so it was back to Letchworth Hospital. The Nursing office approached Gwen and offered her the post of sister-in-charge of Rosehill Hospital (formerly the Isolation Hospital). Whilst at Rosehill they arranged summer fetes in the lovely grounds to help buy things to improve the enviroment for the mainly long stay patients. Gwen’s time at Rosehill was quite short as she retired from fulltime nursing in 1981. On her retirement Gwen was presented with a cut glass bowl. However Gwen loved her job so much she went back to Letchworth Hospital 2 mornings a week to arrange clinic appointments until she finally retired at 65 years. All this while Gwen lived in Hitchin with her husband who also worked tirelessly as a St Johns Ambulance Officer, but that is another story.

This page was added on 12/06/2012.

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  • Great to hear these snippets of info about the Rosehill and other hospitals. My great grandad Harry Purkiss died there on 21/7/57. He had a glass eye. I would welcome any info about that time. Thank you

    By Sarah D (03/09/2022)
  • I am in the process of trying to trace the records of my mother who was a nurse at Chalkdell hospital sometime between 1944 and 1955, also where she went after that. I would be most grateful for ant information.

    By Manuel Peter Bone (22/03/2021)
  • In 1954 I emigrated to England from Germany on a work permit as student nurse. After the war ended and refugees flooded Northern Germany, no work was available at home. At the Hitchin Hospital I was joined by several other European student nurses and my memories of the hospital, the staff, the patients are happy and many. At now 88 years I am trying to reconstruct the years at Hitchin and the hospital from 1954 to 1957 when I transferred to the Hull Infirmary, Yorkshire, without little success. I am trying to remember the layout of the hospital, how many patients to a ward, the building itself. I am in the process of writing my memoir and would love to include the time first spent in England before emigrating to America in 1967, any contact information would be very much appreciated. I look back to those years with fondness and nostalgia – Hanna Hyland

    By Hanna Hyland (02/02/2021)
  • What a beautiful inspirational story.

    By Debbie (27/12/2017)