After asking how much, dad had barely extracted a five pound note from his wallet when the doctor leaned across, said, ‘That will do nicely’, and for something that had taken less than five minutes to carry out, pocketed what it had taken dad a week to earn.
Dad was on leave from the navy and had been on board a ship with an outbreak of smallpox, so all families were advised to get vaccinated. Although mum was annoyed with the doctor when she realised they weren’t getting any change from the fiver, she wasn’t surprised.
During her childhood through the twenties and early thirties if you were poor, calling on the services of a doctor was an act of last resort. If it was that desperate and a doctor was sought out, they frequently refused to attend when given the address of the patient. It happened to my mum when her mother [my gran] was taken ill. She ran to two surgeries and as soon as she said she lived in Coley, they found an excuse not to call.
Instead the Coleyites relied heavily on the services of Mrs Mason who delivered babies and helped with ‘woman troubles’, and Mr Ferris from around the corner in Brook St West. Mr Ferris was trained in first aid, and out of the goodness of his heart tended to knocks, bumps, scrapes and minor ailments including lancing the odd abscess.
At least there were trained midwives on duty in 1944 when I was born. I was delivered by Nurse Denton.
If they were noticed at all, normal childhood ailments went untreated, and, although at some point in her early years my mother had gone down with rheumatic fever which left her with a damaged heart, she couldn’t remember it and said she was eighteen the first time she’d seen a doctor.
Unfortunately there was a lot of slum housing in the twenties when mum was small. Overcrowding and lack of decent sanitation or medical care meant diseases such as TB were rife and the sight of straw spread on the road outside a house to muffle the noise of horse and carts whilst someone was dying inside was all too common.
Consequently, when the NHS came into being, shortly after the end of the war, mum never stopped reminding us how lucky we were to have decent medical attention.
In 1949 when I began school, like all beginners I had to have a school medical which usually took place a few months after we’d started. The headmaster’s study was rigged out as a surgery complete with a hospital screen, an eye chart on the wall, with a desk lamp and a white enamel kidney dish filled with wooden tongue depressors on the headmaster’s desk.
With a parent present, after a nurse had weighed and measured us and tested our sight and hearing, a doctor examined us and took our medical history. There were regular checks for head lice and we had the choice of a school dentist if we wished.
In the fifties with the discovery of vaccines for many of the killer diseases, mass vaccinations were carried out at our school, and later on we were taken to a schools clinic on the other side of town.
As we lined up with a bared arm, the boys passed the time scaring each other with horrible tales of what could go wrong. Then, as one by one we disappeared behind a screen for a nurse to give a scrape or a jab depending on what the vaccination was for, we waited with baited breath to see who would faint first.
Medicine was dispensed in returnable glass bottles and was usually foul tasting, with ‘The Dose’ in large black letters on the label along with the chemists hand written instructions for how much to take and when.
Rubbing liniment which came in identical bottles bore a red skull and cross bones and warned it was NOT to be taken internally, while ointments and small pills came in dinky white cardboard boxes which, when the contents had been used up, were ideal for keeping odd buttons pins and beads in.
A spicy tasting Beechams Powder tipped from its waxed paper wrapping straight onto the back of the tongue and washed down with a drop of milk was good for headaches. Aspirin was only taken when we had a temperature, while a daily spoonful of Malt and Cod Liver Oil helped keep colds at bay. If we did succumb, a liberal dollop of Vick’s Vapour Rub massaged into our chest and back at bed-time helped no end. Mum also used to put a dab of Vick under my nose and across my forehead which was hazardous if I forgot and rubbed my face and then my eyes.
Hair was always checked regularly. Nitty Nora the Flea Explorer didn’t come often enough to keep us clear of head lice, so if she found anything that looked suspicious mum plastered our hair in a yellow, greasy, foul smelling liquid called Sulio. It had to be left on overnight so was only applied on Friday or Saturday night. There was no way you could go to school with that on. Everyone would know!!! It was unpleasant, but better than being sent home with a letter from the nurse to say we had nits.
When home remedies failed our doctor’s surgery was located in the cobbled courtyard of a Tudor building half way down Castle St. In those days there were no computers, queuing systems, receptionists, or nurses let alone numbered discs, but we rarely had to wait more than an hour to see the doctor. Often it was less, and somehow we always knew whose turn it was without a word being spoken.
Formerly part of the Stable block with red brick wisteria smothered walls, the waiting room was small and cosy. In summer the perfume of old fashioned flowers and bird song wafted in through the open door. In winter an ancient gas fire popped and hissed threatening imminent explosion and added faint wafts of gas with the smell of surgical spirits and Mansion floor polish Its heat made us drowsy as we sat uneasily on a motley assortment of Victorian straight back chairs.
When we visited the doctor we wore our Sunday best and were under threat of death if we made a noise, because his surgery was in the next room and the walls were rather thin. We tried not to eavesdrop as the murmur of voices drifted through the wall, but it was more than flesh and blood could bear. Although we couldn’t make out what was being said we automatically stiffened when the voices stopped, because it meant the patient was being examined. Too long a silence and we would begin to feel anxious and would quickly check the person’s expression when they left.
Because he knew most of us by name, before we were even seated the doctor had retrieved our file from a battered wooden cabinet in the corner of the room.
If we needed a blood test he would take an enormous syringe from a steaming autoclave, draw an armful of blood, label the phial and in two or three days would have the results.
If we needed an X-ray we would be sent to the hospital and it was never more than a few days wait for the results
When we were too ill to visit the surgery the doctor made home visits. Frequently white faced with exhaustion, especially during influenza outbreaks, nevertheless he was always gentle and concerned as we reeled off our symptoms. Three days after his first visit he would automatically call again to make sure we were on the road to recovery, and at that point to perk us up, would invariably prescribe a bottle of vivid orange but pleasant tasting tonic to complete the cure.
No matter how long it took he would sit with us whilst we came into the world, and be there when we left it. He was a family doctor with the emphasis on family and I mourn his passing.