The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: Disease, deprivation and death

We often look back on our life through rose-coloured spectacles, remembering the good times and forgetting the bad.

Wednesday, 3rd March 2021, 10:07 am
Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

We think of our glorious childhood but forget the periods of poverty and hardship, disease and deprivation.

Mothers lost babies, sometimes more than one, and one wonders how they heroically coped with such losses.

My own mother lost two children, aged two and nine, the little boy to rheumatic fever and the little girl to pneumonia, and there were many more parents like her.

Tragic times: There were many children from the period when this photograph was taken, and possibly some of those pictured, who died before their time – especially when various epidemics hit the town. In the 1930s when there was a serious outbreak of diphtheria in the country, hundreds of local children lost their lives.

Children with infectious diseases were placed in isolation hospitals and many died alone because parents weren’t allowed to go near them for fear of spreading the disease.

They could only look at them through glass partitions.

All this is sadly reminiscent of what is happening today with the coronavirus and the terrible restrictions being imposed on us not allowed to visit loved ones in hospital or care home

If you look through old newspaper files you recognise what happened whenever virulent infections broke out in our local communities, like small pox, polio, diphtheria and influenza.

A diphtheria epidemic which hit Dewsbury in the 1930s, claimed the lives of hundreds of local children, including a little girl called Gracie Kay.

Many years ago I interviewed her sister Freda O’Brien (nee Kay) who recalled the day her 11-year-old sister, Gracie, came home from school not feeling well and who died three days later in Mitchell Laithes Fever Hospital.

Some days before, Freda herself had felt unwell but had shrugged it off, and it was only after Gracie’s death that it was confirmed that she had been the germ carrier.

Freda recalled going to the hospital with her parents and seeing Gracie laid out in the mortuary.

“But we were only allowed to see her through a glass window.

“My mother was heartbroken. She pressed her face against the glass to get as near to Gracie as she could.

“We weren’t allowed to bring her body home, and on the day of the funeral, mother ran out to meet the hearse.

“It was terrible to watch her pressing her body against it to say goodbye to Gracie.”

Freda also recalled other people in their neighbourhood losing children at that time, including one woman who lost two little boys in the same week.”

All this happened in the days before the National Health Service, and at a time when doctors and nurses were regarded as godlike creatures, and hospital visiting was not encouraged in any hospital.

I remember an old friend and neighbour of mine, Edith Carrigill (nee Newbould) showing me the card given to her parents by the old Dewsbury Joint Hospital Board when she was admitted there as a child.

The card stated that visitors were only allowed on the ward if the patient was dangerously ill or their life was in immediate danger – and even then they had to get special written permission from the Matron.

Visiting could only last 15 minutes, except by special permission, and infants or young persons under the age of 17 were not allowed on the wards at all.

Visitors who were tired or exhausted were also not allowed to enter the wards, in case they were ill, and all visitors were advised to “partake of a good meal” before entering the ward.

Only nearest relatives were allowed to visit, and never more than two at a time, and visitors were also required to put on a cloak provided for the purpose, before entering the ward.

The cloak, similar, I suppose, to modern PPE garments today, had to be kept on and closely fastened, until they got outside the ward buildings.

Visitors were also instructed to carefully avoid touching the patient, and must not sit on the bed or handle the bedclothes, but should sit on chairs a little distance from the patient.

Inquiries respecting patients could be made on any day at the Porter’s Lodge at the hospital gates between 10am and noon, and in cases of emergencies at any hour.

Bulletins, which relatives could inspect, were issued daily at the hospital, except Sundays, and at Dewsbury Town Hall..

They were also issued to the following council offices, Thornhill, Ravensthorpe, Heckmondwike, Batley, and the town hall in Ossett.

Other instructions on the medical card read. “In case of any death, the funeral shall take place from the hospital and shall proceed as direct as may be to the place of burial.”

These stories remind us of how difficult like could be, but if we want to learn about local history, we have to listen to the painful part of life as well as the good.

And, I’m sure that in years to come there will be even more painful and harrowing stories to tell when the historians recount the devastating effect Covid has had on all our lives.