District Nurse - Midwife - Health Visitor - School Nurse etc

Mrs Gwenda Westrope, nee Williams

By Jackie Embury

Mrs Gwenda Westrope

District Nurse - Midwife - Health Visitor - School Nurse etc

Gwenda was born in Wales, 1903 her full name was Gwenllian Ann Williams.  Gwenda came to Ashwell in 1925, she soon became a very important part of village life, delivering babies and generally caring for the well being of the inhabitants not only of Ashwell but surrounding villages working alongside Dr Woodforde.

Gwenda married Charles Hall Westrope, Village Grocer, Dec 1931 at St Mary's Ashwell.  Charles who was a long serving Deacon and Organist at Ashwell Congregational Church (AURC) he died on 22 January 1948 and is buried in the AURChurchyard. They had three children, Richard Charles 1932-1933, John Hall 1934 and Catherine 1937.  On marrying Charles Gwenda retired from fulltime nursing to look after her family but continued with some private nursing, some of which was for Doctor John Moynihan.   Gwenda died in 1997.

Gwenda Westrope's speech given at the 50th Anniversary of Ashwell Museum 1981 which gives a very good insight into her work and the type of medical service which was available to the inhabitants of Ashwell and surrounding villages in the early 1900s.

"I came to the village from having trained in Birmingham and trained and worked in Watford, so imagine what this glorious village meant to me.  It was absolutely beautiful.  I arrived on a March day, brilliant sunshine, bitterly cold with the icicles melting on the trees.  It was heaven to me.

I love the country;  and I was met by dear Miss Cooper in an open car, no hood up, freezing and the roads were terrible, I remember she drove so slowly - terribly slowly.  We got to her lovely house, that's Dixies Farm, to a beautiful meal and to meet her very gracious father Mr William Cooper, who, with Mrs Fordham, founded the Ashwell Nursing Association.  I don't quite know when that was.

I was coming as the District Nurse under the Ashwell Nursing Association, that was under Mr and Mrs Phyllis Fordham and a Committee who were all very gracious to me I must say.

I was rather staggered, the roads were so bad, as you can imagine with carts and horses, as compared to made up roads in Watford and Birmingham.  No water indoors anywhere, no street, not anywhere in the cottages, no running water indoors.  There was one tap outside each row of houses and you had to fetch it in.

You had an open black grate or occasionally a black range to heat it on but there was always a copper.  No street lights, no telephone, no means of transport;  I got around on a bicycle.

The district was Hinxworth, Caldecote, Newnham, round to Wallington, Slip End, part of Odsey and then down to North Fields - on a bicycle! 

It was really lovely working in the houses, because the people were so delightful, very poor, but the essence of goodness and kindness.  What I shall never forget working in the houses was the good neighbourliness.  As soon as they saw my bicycle or the lights go up in the house they ran across saying, "I have got the copper on nurse, can I have your bowls to boil them?"  I don't know what they boiled but never mind!  Then there would be a tray of tea and they would bring a lamp, which was worth so much to me.

Each house had one oil lamp, otherwise I would be working with candles.  They would bring the oil lamp full, take it upstairs and light it and say "Got your light nurse".  Then when it was all over there was always a tap at the back door, "Can I have your washing?"  So the washing used to go out to one of the neighbours.

All these were baby cases. All the babies were delivered in the houses, apart from the odd baby and I only remember one but, of course, I am old and my memory is bad, going to hospital but it had to be a rather serious complication.

Then there is my introduction to the Doctor in the village, who was delightful and had wonderful manners, as all of you know who knew him know (Dr Woodforde).  However there was one thing he hated, that was midwifery.  He said "I don't wish to be called to midwifery cases unless it is impossible for you to cope".  So that was a bit shattering. 

However, I did occasionally have to call him and one of the first occasions when I had to call him was when I had a premature baby in one of these little cottages.  There were three little ones in bed and this premature baby arriving and the husband dead drunk in front of a fire just about out, so I tried to wake him but couldn't.  Again good neighbours knocked at the door and I can see this neighbour now, running in his nightshirt and boots all the way up the hill to fetch the Doctor, because there was no telephone you see.

I was petrified about this poor little mum thinking that something might happen.  However it didn't and the Doctor soon dealt with things and we managed.

We had another baby that was a very bad instrumental delivery so the Doctor had to come to that one and it was a first baby, very precious.  It was so cold in the house which was freezing, there was a range not an open fire, so I did not quite know how to keep this child warm.

The mother had to be kept warm with the one and only oil stove in the house, so I had a brain wave.  They had a great big baking tin so I lined it and put the baby in and popped the baby in the oven.  Needless to say I had to sit there and watch and very tenderly put one lump on just to keep the temperature.  However, the baby was breathing very badly when the Doctor left and he said, "There is nothing more we can do, nurse, but I will be here before surgery in the morning", and he was.

He was so pleased and amazed that our little boy was really breathing, very nicely indeed thank you;  we did keep him in the oven the next night too.  After that we took him up to his mother, put the oil stove there and that was alright;  that baby is still alive and he still calls to see me when he comes.

Well then, they were so uninformed some of these mums, which was difficult.  There were no magazines with lovely pictures of babies being born in those days.  The subject was a closed book - having babies, you didn't mention it.  They hated it.  I started doing antenatals and they thought I was dreadful.  A little slip of a thing coming and looking at our tummies, it was dreadful;  but what was worse was that I was asking for a specimen of their urine to test it.  They thought that was really the end.  They didn't think very much to me when I first came I assure you.  However, I suppose that doing a lot of 'midder' with them helped, but they were so uninformed.

I shall never forget that we had a baby in Hinxworth, to a little girl of sixteen, an unmarried mother, it was born with no occiput (no bone to the back of it's head), which meant it was just like jelly and we expected it to live a short time. 

The baby lived to nearly the time for vaccination, which was compulsory in those days unless you had an exemption form from a magistrate signed by a magistrate within four months.  Well now, this baby was alive nearly four months and this little mother would not get a form but insisted, in fact, on having her baby vaccinated because, of course, she was going to do the very best.

She was a wonderful little mother and her parents were wonderful grandparents.  However, the Doctor vaccinated the baby and it died, not from the vaccination of course, it was dying anyway.  It died within, - I can't remember how long.  Then we had great difficulty in getting any other baby vaccinated because, of course, they circulated that the baby had died of vaccination, so all the magistrates were inundated with signing forms for exemption.

Then the other thing, with again lack of information, I went into a patient one day and she was on the kitchen table, very large, I could not possibly diagnose the position or anything of the baby because she was so large.  However, I could not understand what she was doing on the kitchen table so I said, "What are you doing on the kitchen table?"  She said, "Well, I have been told that if I jump off this table seven times a day I shall get rid of this baby".  She had already got nine or ten I'm not sure, so let's be fair.  She expected me to give her a rocket but I did nothing of the sort.  I said, "Well, jumping off a table won't do you any harm because it's very good exercise and it might get down a little bit of fat (Oh dear not very PC!) but I assure you it will not move the baby because it's an involuntary action".  So we left it at that.  However, when the twins arrived she said, "You see, I did wrong, I kept jumping off the table and I split it in two".

We attended for ten days, we went twice a day the first three days and then every day for seven days, and do you know, all the neighbours made a rota.

Everything was in pans in those days, milk pans.  They would all promise, they made the rota, one had to be up at five in the morning with her husband, therefore she took her early morning tea with bread and butter, somebody else took her breakfast, somebody else took a can of gruel.

Gruel was the thing in those days and there was a can of soup daily from the Rectory.  This was for the ten days.  Really, the good neighbourliness and the friendliness was fantastic, both to the mothers and to me.  (people may class this as interfering or nosey these days but haven't we lost something).

When I had babies outside, for instance, I had a baby in Caldecote - I couldn't get back because of the weather, we were just cut off, as you can imagine.  However, the farmers were so marvellous they gave me a bed, a meal and a bath which was worth everything.  They were so marvellous, sending me back in a horse and cart in the morning to deal with the other patients.

 Very often I was sent out by horse and cart from one village to the other because there was no other way of doing it, but once I walked from Ashwell to Caldecote across the fields behind West Point;  there is a pathway there.

I do want you to know how happy and contented those people were.  They were always ready for these babies.  Occasionally they weren't, if the baby arrived at seven months, of course, but it was marvellous.  Everything for the baby was ready, nothing else mattered and they were the essence of goodness and kindness, so hospitable.

There was always a cup of tea for the nurse and my bicycle was the best kept bicycle in the village becauses the dads cleaned, oiled and pumped up the tyres while the baby was being born;  so you see I was always alright.

It was hard work because it was midwifery, general nursing, health visiting and school work, that was my job, not only just the babies.

Dr Sheila allayed all the fears and superstitions about the twins etc by forming an infant welfare centre in the village.  I think that must have been marvellous for the nurse, because she was able to send or take her patients to the antenatal and her babies to be weighed properly, not held up in a sack with stilliards" (portable scales).




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