Happy Memories of Roodlands Hospital

Maggie J McDonald

(Royal Burgh of Haddington and District Community Council Handbook 1991)

My introduction to Roodlands Hospital was a long time ago – 42 years to be precise. Working hours were long and we valued the off-duty times we had. Our pleasures were simple, and money was scarce, yet we all enjoyed ourselves. There was matron, the late Miss Mowatt, three ward sisters, and a sister tutor, all of us living far from home.

Remember the long ‘bonnie days’ we used to have – sunshine from early morning till after 10 p.m. – we would be out of doors in thin dresses till bedtime. Occasionally we went for long walks on a Sunday half-day off. A trip in the bus to the seaside and walk by the seashore; sometimes a trip to Edinburgh – for which the fair was the equivalent of 12p, afternoon tea, 9p, and a visit to the pictures, 10p. The whole day’s entertainment for less than 50p!

In the evenings we played putting on the lawn near the nurses’ home. Matron would join us. If you were getting on with the game and putting the ball near the hole along would come the matron’s pussy cat and nose it away, like playing with a pet mouse. During a game of croquet the cat knew the ball was hard and heavy, and kept its distance, yet still purring around your legs. If matron won the game, we were invited to her sitting room and were treated to a glass of sherry. If she lost it was ‘good night’ and along the corridor to make the bedtime cocoa. Guess who won mostly! I think that matron was lonely and just wanted to speak to someone.

The sisters made up the off-duty rotas for their own departments and it was copied into a big book kept in matron’s office, where she could keep tabs on everyone. During an afternoon she would phone the wards and invite us to afternoon tea with her. This was taken outside in the sunshine, around the back of the nurses’ home – a sun trap. We would get the hair tidied, cuffs on and set off. Matron sat on a high-backed chair as she had a troublesome knee, while we struggled to set up the old fashioned deck chairs. There was a narrow grass path and the chair had to be manipulated in order to prevent the legs tipping into the rosebed, which sometimes happened unexpectedly. Who can with dignity sit low down on those chairs, balancing matron’s rosebud bone china cup, saucer and plate on the knee, enjoying dainty cucumber sandwiches and cakes – the cat purring around all the while?

Invariably stories would be told and many a laugh we had. Mention would be made of the amount of breakages we all had that week. A notebook accompanied the broken pieces of dishes to the stores, before we got replacements. Many a jigsaw caper we had trying to get extra dishes! Economy was uppermost in matron’s mind, as she was kept to a very tight budget during the Council days – so when the National Health Service began we were reminded that we would be responsible for emptying the ‘privy purse’ if we continued to have so many breakages. When taking temperatures we all learned the great knack of holding the thermometer to prevent it slipping from our fingers. These do not pick up in one piece when dropped! We had a kitty which helped to defray this expenditure.

You might be serving dinners in the ward and sit up an elderly man to have his dinner – one look at the soup plate and you would hear ‘I’m here to be made better, no’ to be pushened (poisoned) being made to eat grass in my soup. I’ve never seen soup like this. My mother never gave me this to eat.’ And with a swipe of the hand plate, spoon and soup crashed to the floor. Dishes also got broken in the delft sinks. Parsley was served in abundance in the food. Somehow matron’s cat never found that bush of parsley, although it was known to be taken to it! Matron had a Morris Minor car and she often took whoever was off duty for a run around the seaside or hills for a picnic.

No one chooses to be ill during the festive season, but it does happen and hospital is a happy place to be in if you live alone and are lonely and elderly. All nurses’ off-duty was given up on Christmas Day. The whole day was given to the patients. At 6.30 a.m. the nursing staff and house doctors gathered in one of the ward kitchens and night sister arranged cups of tea and toast, then the night nurses dimmed the ward lights and, with candles in ‘Willie Winkie’ candlesticks, or a hole in the middle of paper doilies to catch the grease, we set out to sing carols. Silent Night was a favourite in the female ward. Many a tear was shed, the patients felt so emotional and the sight and sound of us. The men, too, felt quite touched. When we finished in the wards we would go down to matron’s bedroom window and again render Silent Night – she would flick her bedside light in appreciation. After that we went up to the kitchen to sing whilst the bacon and eggs were being cooked.

We had to be on duty at 7.45 a.m. to let the night staff off duty. Routine work had to be done and sometime during the morning Santa would arrive in a wheelchair, amidst clanging bells, and each patient received a gift. Tears and kisses were bestowed all around the ladies’ ward. Many elderly men also felt very emotional as they were being given gifts. Full Christmas dinner was served to the patients and during the afternoon each received visitors for tea; then the children and husbands of the nurses arrived for their tea party fare of trifle and jelly. The kitchen closed after lunch and the cooks and kitchen staff usually went round the wards for a cup of tea.

The kitchen staff had a great deal of work around that time. All the Christmas puddings, cakes and mince pies were baked in the hospital, together with turkeys and trimmings. Various staffs had their Christmas dinners days before day and night staff and ancillary staff, whom we served and washed up after, to give them a rest. The rest of the evening was given over to the gramophone, when Scottish reels and dancing went on till midnight. An enjoyable time was had by all.

Great changes took place once the staff began to live out, and the married nurses had their own home commitments.

There was sadness too. Sometimes there might be a death on Christmas Eve or Day, and sometimes emergency operations were required. The routine work must go on in hospital when caring for sick people.

Who, but someone with a heart of stone, could but feel touched at the end of a long and busy day when an old shepherd alone in the world, nearing the end of life, would grasp your hand and, with tears like raindrops pouring down his cheeks soaking the pillow, whisper between sobs: ‘I’ve had a grand day. I enjoyed seeing the young girls singing this morning – they were bonnie in the candlelight; and a visitor from the next bed came to have a cup of tea with me this afternoon. Just think, I got a present from Santa – just fancy that at my age. I have known many stormy Christmas days when all I have done was share my pieces with my two dogs in the lythe (shelter) of a dyke. I’ll never forget this day.’

Finally, to be beckoned to the bedside of a little old lady, as I bent to see what she wanted, her knarled arthritic hands painfully outstretched, reached up and clasped my chin, and said with a shaky voice: ‘I have had a very happy day. Santa came and gave me a present and he got out of his chair and gave me a kiss! I loved the carol singing this morning and I had a wee greet to myself, I was so touched. It was all so unexpected, all that lovely food and a friend to share a cup of tea with me in the afternoon.’ With a sweet toothless smile and a glint in her dulled, misty eyes, a whispered ‘thank you, thank you again, God Bless.’ What a priceless reward, ending yet another busy Christmas Day.

At Roodlands everybody worked as a team. Each needed the other to keep the wheels in motion, and share the workload. Happiness radiated throughout the hospital, which in turn reflected on the patients and hastened their recovery. So many stories I am sure are told by so many people of the time they were in ‘the Roodlands’ and they remember in detail all the ‘goings on’. Happy memories last forever.