West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections





Nurse Winifred Bacon

I left St. Joseph’s Secondary Modern School in Pontefract at the age of 15 in 1958. Although my school reports were good I had no recognised academic qualifications, so I started my working life at Wordsworth’s bake-house as a trainee baker in the centre of Pontefract, which I quite enjoyed. However, the bake-house closed shortly afterwards so I decided to ask if there were any vacancies for kitchen staff at Pontefract General Infirmary. The matron happened to spot me and, at the age of 17, offered to take me on as a cadet nurse subject to passing the entrance exam.

I was given a nurses ‘uniform’, a blue checked dress, and was assigned to casualty. Cadet nurses’ duties were varied but mainly involved cleaning bedpans, bottles, sluicing nappies and assisting the student nurses.

The working week was 46 hours with Sunday being the only day off. Despite this I attended evening classes to improve my education and gain qualifications in biology and maths. At the age of 18 years I was able to commence nurse training. I was given two dresses, six aprons, two caps, two stiff collars and a laundry bag.

In the second year of training a red belt was worn, which was exchanged for a blue belt in the final year. This represented progress in training. These uniforms had to last throughout training so anyone being unlucky enough to be issued with second-hand ones rather than new meant looking a little shabby by the end of training.

One of my colleague’s mothers’ shortened all her daughter’s dresses and was severely reprimanded by matron. All uniforms had to be 18 inches from the floor. No jewellery or nail polish was allowed, and sensible black shoes and stockings had to be worn for commencing work on the wards.

A nine-week Preliminary Training Course was undertaken at a huge place in Harrogate, which was the headquarters for the NHS (now a hotel – The Crown Hotel).

Six of us lived in. We were allowed home at weekends. We were all eager to learn and have fun. The doors of the nurses’ residence were locked at a certain time each night, but it did not prevent us from occasionally climbing through the windows and other such antics after curfew. However, getting caught was quite a serious matter and the consequences could be a reprimand from the resident matron, which was quite a sobering thought.

Together with the theory and practical side of nursing we also had to be able to make beef tea, milk jelly (I can still make milk jelly!), and know about nutrition as well as sewage and clean water, also bed-making and bandaging (more to these skills than meets the eye!).

After this period the format for the next three years was set and we went back to be placed on the wards where theory was put into practice. There was always a tutor behind us to ensure safe practice whilst attending to the patients’ needs. During training, constant written, practical and oral exams were taken. These exams would be set by the hospital consultants, with whom we worked, making many nerve-racking experiences. I was asked by a formidable surgeon the question ‘what is a spore?’ – I didn’t know the answer, but went away having learned all about ‘spores’.

In those days the matron ruled the hospital - she knew every nurse, their families and friends. Nothing escaped her notice. We never approached matron as a junior nurse. Only the qualified staff spoke to her. We were not allowed to marry without her permission until we had qualified. If this rule was broken, we could guarantee six-months of night duty at least would follow. One of my friends got the ‘sack’ for dying her hair peroxide blonde one weekend. Another was in serious trouble for cutting off her long hair.

Together with the matron and assistant matron there was a home sister for the resident students. The home sister in my days was a Roman Catholic and she formed the Catholic Nurses’ Guild. There was always a small ‘alter set’ on each ward and, as I was a Roman Catholic, I was called upon to assist at baptisms and the last rites. It is a bone of contention to the local priest, as no such practice exists now.

As a first year student, cleaning and bedpans was still a big part of the daily routine, but we were also more involved in patient care. All the hygiene needs for the patient were done by the student nurse, ie bed-bathing, mouth care, pressure care, bed making and toileting. Every need of the patient was attended to. The wards were designed on the old ‘Nightingale’ style, ie 12 beds down each side of the ward and the sister’s desk at the top of the ward so she had all the patients in view. There were coal fires on the wards back in the 60’s, so some patients would be too warm whilst others were pretty cool. Often we would put extra beds down the middle of the ward to accommodate the acute patients.

We knew all the patients, their relatives, diagnosis and ongoing treatment. The average stay in hospital would be 10–12 days for minor operations and 2-3 weeks for major surgery.

Pontefract General Infirmary, or PGI, had several sites spread around the periphery of the main site at Pontefract and the old dispensary. PGI, Headlands Hospital and Chequerfield Convalescent Hospital were covered by Matron Parfitt. In those days, general surgery and ENT (ears, nose and throat) was carried out on Hyde’s children’s ward. Castleford, Normanton and District Hospital was the main hospital for orthopaedics and gynaecology, with its own matron and qualified staff. As student nurses, we were sent to Castleford to gain our gynaecological and orthopaedic training. We were expected to do split shifts, which meant going on duty at 7.30am and finishing at 2.00pm, then returning at 5.00pm and going off duty at 9.15pm.

It was not possible to go home on these days, so matron provided a rest room for the students but not to rest in. We were expected to read and study rather than relax.

In those days on the orthopaedic ward there were always a few lads who had suffered broken femurs due to motorbike accidents. They would be confined to bed on traction for several weeks waiting for their broken bones to heal. As a result of this their high spirits often got the better of them and many a practical joke was played on the nurses. The highlight of their week was Thursday (high dusting day – done by the nurses) when many a glance of a black stocking top or suspender would send many a lad into a frenzy!

Matron would do her ‘rounds’, visiting each ward, speaking to every patient. Word would go round the hospital so that every bed wheel faced away from the ward entrance and every pillow had its ‘closed’ side facing the same way. She would pick up on every detail, however small, and this attitude meant standards were maintained, even if we felt these things were trivial when working flat out.

I spent six months at Castleford, Normanton and District Hospital in the winter and would often walk home from Castleford to Pontefract in dense fog – my face and hair blackened by the smoke. The next morning I would have to get up early to face the walk back to the hospital in the fog again. The buses would not run in such weather, but I never thought of not going on duty.

One of the least favourite hospitals was the convalescent hospital at Chequerfield. It consisted of a quadrangle with a ward at each end (male and female) with the office block in the middle. Night duty on these wards was quite scary, as we were often on our own with intermittent visits from the night sister. My colleague was so distressed on night duty that she pulled out of her training. However, matron convinced her to complete her training and she finished her nursing career quite high ranking. As it was a convalescent ward, most of the patients would sleep through the night and just an occasional commode was needed. In the winter months the night porter would stoke up the coal fire to last until morning and it would sometimes be very tempting to fall asleep (not allowed). We once had an intruder during the night who was trying to steal the drugs, but the smallest night sister I knew tackled him and saw him off (Sister Vause was her name).

My friend and I did some day duty at Chequerfield Hospital where there was a teenager recovering from an appendectomy whom she took a liking to, but because she lived in, she wasn’t allowed to see him without written permission from her mother to matron. Matron received a letter but was never quite sure who wrote it. The romance didn’t last long as the boy went back to Borstal two weeks later!

The wearing of a red belt marked my second year of training. This was because, wherever we went, people would know which year of training we were in and could treat us accordingly.

I was now at PGI doing surgical training – so I was taught wound care, removing sutures, observing IV infusions, drains, drips and bandages. I was sometimes on night duty (this could last 3-4 months). If I was placed on the children’s ward, half the night would be spent making up the feeds for the sick babies. We had lots of children with croup at one time and ‘steam tents’ were used to ease their breathing. Dr Pickup (or daddy Pickup as we called him) who was in charge of the sick children would say that the quiet child is the sick child – so we always knew when a child was improving by the noise they made. I really enjoyed the surgical nursing and nursing the babies.

Into my third year and now wearing a blue belt, still feeling very much a student, but gaining in confidence, I was sent to Ackton Hospital. It was once a fever hospital, but became the main hospital for male and female children with medical conditions (it was razed to the ground long ago and is now a housing estate). This hospital also had its own matron and staff including a wonderful dining room and, as student nurses, we were always well fed. Nobody ever sat down before matron so, if she was late for dinner, it would have to be eaten cold. I have fond memories of an attractive ward sister who was ‘fond’ of the Medical Consultant. She always made us smile as she combed her hair and put on extra lipstick for his ward rounds. We were sent ahead to make sure every patient was in bed ready for examination. Each patient had to have a ‘chest blanket’ and no one dared to ask for a commode. Absolute silence fell on the ward until every patient had been seen.

Every year there was a prize giving day to present the nurses with their hospital badges and certificates, together with any prizes they had won. I was handed a book prize for good ward work.

Now qualified, I needed a staff nursing post. I was given a completely new uniform of a pale lilac dress, a pretty hat, stiff collar and a purple belt with a silver buckle. I could wear a badge, fob watch and carry scissors, but anything else was not allowed in case of harming the patient.

My first post was a temporary position on a male surgical ward where I was covering for maternity leave. Then followed a nine-month midwifery course in Leeds. I did not feel drawn to this as a career so I came back to PGI. Matron asked me to do six-months on night duty and then she would find me a place on days. The night duty lasted seven years and, as I was now newly married, I was desperate to get onto day duty. I was promoted to night sister during this time and I became responsible for the whole hospital. My primary duty was to visit every ward to dispense controlled drugs, help where necessary, work in casualty and cover the operating theatre for any emergencies. I was even expected to accompany patients in their late pregnancy to Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield in case they delivered en route. The ambulance would pick me up at PGI: there were no paramedics then.

The doctors’ quarters were situated above the casualty department so I was privy to many comings and goings of various people. One young student was left very embarrassed when her mother called to see matron saying that her daughter was exhausted due to the amount of overtime she was doing. Matron put the mother straight by telling her what her daughter was doing with her evenings. Nothing escaped matron! Our night duty was eight nights on and six nights off – very hard work.

After several years on night duty I was ready for a change but matron didn’t listen to my request (I was useful on nights), so I went to see the manager of the operating theatre where there was a vacancy for a sister. He was reluctant to give me the post at first but I eventually got the job. It was a very busy job with lots of new skills to learn but with the help of my colleagues I was soon assisting the senior consultants with major surgery. I really enjoyed working in OT except for one thing; the new Abortion Act came in and, being a Catholic, it really distressed me to see all the abortions taking place. I did my best to steer clear of these procedures.

Winifred Bacon (nee Winn)



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