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Part I: Groby Road Sanatorium circa 1935
The appointed Saturday arrived. I can’t remember if I’d been told I was going to hospital. If I had, it didn’t worry me unduly. I had my dinner in the normal way after being scrubbed and cleaned until I swear I shone!
Clean clothes were put on me and always, when being prepared for anything special, our Ted’s bony finger was hooked under my chin and my head tilted back at an impossible angle whilst he put a parting in my hair. Never once whilst performing this simple service for me did he meet my enquiring gaze nor use his favourite expression used at times such as this,
‘Keep your bloody head still or I’ll give you a bloody good hiding!’
That alone should’ve told me I was in bad trouble!
Then it was time to go. I clearly remember it being a truly lovely day. The sun had been shining and a gentle breeze was wafting the curtains of the living room. The window was open, I think because Mabel was downstairs with us and we had to watch those germs, although we never let on to her. The tenseness in the air had got through to me and I wanted to get off, otherwise I was going to start to cry. I had a new comic pushed down the side of my sock, a favourite place in those days of short trousers. On the floor was a small case, although where that had come from, God only knows! I suppose it was borrowed. It contained only pyjamas and this puzzled me, for you see the penny hadn’t dropped I was going to be admitted to the ‘Sanny.’
I’d been thinking along the lines of, ‘I’ll be coming home in a few hours’ and, ‘Why have I got pyjamas?’ After all, Ronnie and I slept with Ted, he in his vest and we in our shirts.
Mam came and stood looking down at me. I gazed back at her trying hard to smile. I didn’t quite make it!
She sighed and said something along the lines of…. What with Mais in the ‘Sanny’ as well as you Norman, it’ll make visiting that much easier!
VISITING?!! I knew now; I was staying in the ‘Sanny!
The living room door from the kitchen opened and my dear sister Mabel dragged herself in. She was hard put to be able to breathe and her eyes were red. She stumbled into the big chair under the window. Had she been crying? I wondered, why? Why do people shed tears often without good reason? (Much as I’m doing now)
Mam had her poor threadbare coat on now and was checking to see she had a copper or two in her purse. She didn’t seem to want to move very far and her face was crumbling as though she too was holding back the tears. Mam picked up that little case and then said those words that even today brings me out fighting.
‘Ah well, there’s plenty worse off than us!’
I went over to our Ted and lifted my face to be kissed, and was told very gruffly,
‘Now, you just behave yourself!’
Then our Ronnie kissed me. (Then he pretended to spit)
I looked around for our Mais to kiss,……..then I remembered where she was so looked at Mam enquiringly! You see we’d been told that we mustn’t catch our Mabel’s breath, mustn’t use her cutlery, drink out of her mug, and yet Mabel, slight frail little Mabel, was leaning forward so expectantly, that I didn’t know for a split second what to do! She was looking at me as though it was to be the last time she’d see me, ever, and the way things were at that time, that wasn’t outside the bounds of possibility either!
Mabel spoke in that husky soft voice of hers, a voice in which I discerned a ‘catch,’ for she must have known that the odds were I’d caught the disease from her!
‘Aren’t you going to kiss me Norman?’
Well, there’s not very much in life I’ve done I’m proud of, but what I did then makes me put my chest out. I pulled my hand out of Mam’s hand, ran to my sister, threw my arms around her, and kissed her. I set the memory of that kiss among my dearest memories…….
After a journey that took us first into town by tram, we then caught another which let us off at the terminus. 10 minutes’ walk later we arrived at the ‘Sanny’.
The Sanatorium was the most imposing place, both from outside and inside, and as we passed along, guided by the signposts, we passed a great expanse of green lawn surrounded by various brick-built wards. Mam pointed out to me the isolation building wherein our Maisie was incarcerated. No-one but nursing staff were allowed in that ward. Visitors had to try to make themselves understood by shouting or miming through the windows. Many of the patients in there were very ill indeed, including our Mais.
Over the centre of the administration block on Ward 10 was a slab engraved upon which were the words ‘Hospital for Consumptives.’ In those days it should have said ‘ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE!’ Going under that engraving to be admitted upon my first day that early spring in 1934, I shivered.
Ward 10 was a long single storey block of small, two bed cubicles, fronted by a long glass veranda. The ward was divided into two, with a Sister’s office and nurses’ minor treatment room in the middle. As to be expected, it was men on one side and women on the other. The cubicles were just large enough to contain two single iron, black painted, hospital beds against the opposite wall, a small bed locker cum washstand, and at the foot of the bed a single wardrobe. So far as I was aware the cubicle itself was only used if the patient was very ill or dying, which at that time and in that place, amounted to much the same thing. For the rest, the beds were always outside on the ‘open to the elements’ veranda; winter or summer, rain, hail, or shine. Many times during those first few weeks, I would awaken in the early morning with the late frost freezing my face. In all truth, I don’t remember feeling the cold and certainly, it did me no harm, although I bet all of those nasty little consumption germs I was carrying took an awful bashing. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it is to wake up on an early spring morning, literally in the open air, with the dawn chorus ringing and singing, whilst the early morning breeze blows the scent of wallflowers and recently cut grass across the dew laden air.
At the back of Ward 10 was a corridor and leading off this were some toilets and bathroom. Any patient who died (and there were quite a few) were taken out this back way, washed, plugged and shrouded. During my time in the ‘Sanny’ I never witnessed any of these sad processions but nothing could mask the noise of the enamel buckets and swishing of water as some poor soul was prepared for his or her trip next door.
Nearly 50 years later whilst keeping death watch over our Mam who was lying in a newer ward just below the by now disused Ward 10, I walked across and reread the words upon that old plaque, aware I was soon to lose her. I walked on and saw again the little cubicle I’d occupied as a child all those years earlier. I then walked further along to what in those days had been the women’s side. In 1947 this ward had been turned over to an all-male ward and was the cubicle I’d occupied myself for a second term of consumption, along with so many young ex-servicemen.
I thought of the thousands who’d known the ward and those cubicles before death gave them merciful release. Consumption had been beaten eventually but too late for them.
I remembered Johnny Pugh, Frankie Jordan and Carter, a man who, having had drastic surgery in 1947 had asked for, was given and now carried around, one of his own ribs! I remembered Juddie, Nurse Gilbert, Staff Nurse Carr and Ted Birkin. Finally, I remembered Jackie Murgatroyd, my cell/ room-mate in 1947, who died like the brave lad he was.
And so I stood in the gathering twilight and silently called the roll of honour, and wept for those dear friends, so long gone, and for she who I was about to lose in June 1983 – My Mam.



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