Still in the early days of her nursing training Hilda warmed the beds on the evening of 3 March 1943 ready to receive the injured, though she was puzzled that she had not heard any bombs dropping. No living casualties arrived that night, only dead bodies brought in because there was no more room in the mortuary. The nurses were sent to bed, there was nothing they could do.
You can listen to the recorded INTERVIEW below.
Read the interview SUMMARY online below, or click on the icon to read or download: Hilda Woodward SUMMARY.pdf
The summary gives timed sections which direct you to specific parts of the recording.
Click on the icon to read or download the complete TRANSCRIPT: Hilda Woodward TRANSCRIPT.pdf
Date of Interview:
8 July 2014
Length of interview:
Any other info:
Introduction. Hilda talks about her childhood in Lancashire and Chatteris, Cambridgeshire.
Hilda’s father was a lorry driver who delivered produce and Hilda recalls accompanying him to London. They delivered carrots to Borough, Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets. They travelled overnight and slept during the day.
Hilda remembers another wartime trip made on a coach to Manchester. She recalls seeing the city on fire after being bombed.
Hilda explains that she moved to Bethnal Green in November 1942 with her friend Doris Russell (also interviewed for this project). During the war when you reached a certain age, if you were not in a reserved occupation, you were enlisted into the army, the Land Girls (if you were a girl) or the pits (if you were a boy). Hilda chose nursing instead.
Hilda and Doris were delivered to the main gate of Bethnal Green hospital by their parents who were not allowed in with them. Hilda remembers feeling very excited.
Hilda describes life in the hospital. She remembers it being like a family – with all the medical staff living in at that time. She lived in the big nurses’ home that was four storeys high. She has fond memories of being involved in theatrical productions that were put on by the hospital staff. The top floor of the hospital was closed and served as the theatre. There were also spelling bees organised for staff entertainment.
Hilda explains that Bethnal Green hospital was a general hospital and says it was the “poor relation” of the London Hospital. It had a geriatric ward, a female TB ward for terminal sufferers, male and female surgical wards and girls from Holloway prison who sometimes had their babies with them. Sometimes these girls used to shin down the drainpipes of the hospital to escape! The maternity ward was closed and used for air raid casualties.
Hilda explains her typical junior nurse’s duties. There was a lot of cleaning, washing bed pans and applying dressings.
Hilda’s training lasted four years after which she went to do part 1 midwifery training in St Giles’s hospital in Camberwell. Then she did part 2 in Paddington hospital in Harrow Road. She remembers how she was billeted with a midwife behind Olympia and used to cycle everywhere.
Hilda explains that she loved midwifery but she saw how the midwives didn’t cope well when emergency Caesarean Sections had to be performed. So Hilda decided to go into theatre work to gain experience in this area.
She went to Woolwich Memorial hospital and did a six month operating theatre training course and loved it. She never went back to midwifery. She remembers how she moved around a lot in her early career and worked in different parts of London.
Hilda talks about her memories of Bethnal Green during the war. There were lots of bomb sites. She remembers a buzz bomb that blasted the door off her room in the nurses’ home and one that blew all the windows out of the hospital. She explains that all the patients had to be evacuated to Harold Wood until the damage was repaired. She treated a lot of air raid casualties in Harold Wood and remembers it being worse there than in London at that time.
Hilda remembers that she never used the tube shelter in Bethnal Green. There were Cover Points at the end of the wards for medical staff to use in air raids but nobody ever used them. In the nurses’ home bunk beds were moved into the sitting room so that nurses could sleep there during the worst of the V2 bombing raids.
Hilda remembers her time in Bethnal Green hospital as happy and says she felt safe there even though she knows it wasn’t in reality.
She tells the story of one of the doctors there who had escaped from Nazi occupied Austria during the war and recalls that there were a lot of refugees employed in the hospital as nursing staff. It was very cosmopolitan.
Hilda explains that the night of the tube shelter disaster she and Doris were on call for air raid casualties. When they got the call they went to the casualty ward, checked that the beds were ready, and warmed them using a heat cradle. Then they waited.
Stretchers started to arrive and were lined up along the long corridor that ran the length of the hospital. She remembers not understanding what had happened as they hadn’t heard any bombs dropping.
Hilda remembers suddenly being told to go back to bed because there was “nothing they could do”. They didn’t realise it was the dead being brought in on stretchers because there was no mortuary big enough to take them all.
Hilda recalls that there were no living casualties brought in that night. She says she wasn’t really affected that much because she was used to laying out people who’d died on the wards. But that night was on a “mega scale”.
She does remember being told not to talk about that night and being sent on holiday for 2 weeks straight afterwards.
When she returned to Bethnal Green she went back to work as normal and didn’t find out what had happened because it was “blocked out” as bad for morale. So nobody talked about it.
Hilda explains that she returned to Bethnal Green hospital after the war. She remembers people being very friendly – especially Jewish people. She says that there was a big Jewish community there and they had a special area set aside in the hospital chapel for them to lay out their dead.
She remembers that there weren’t any air raid casualties in Bethnal Green hospital when she was there. She also says that people in the area died at a fairly young age. The typical life expectancy was “in the 50s”.
Hilda is not aware of any anti - Jewish feeling in Bethnal Green when she lived there and did not hear the rumours that Jewish people were responsible for the disaster.
She remembers the poverty of the area and says there were lots of slums.
Hilda recalls that she never went hungry during the war when she lived in the nurses’ home. The food was not great but they weren’t affected by rations that much living in the nurses’ home. She remembers that there was no fruit in war time. The nurses were given a little bag of coal once a week to light fires in their rooms.
Tape paused and restarted.
Hilda talks about a photo she shows the interviewer of 30-40 people who all worked at the Bethnal Green hospital when she did. She remembers that the London Chest Hospital also took in casualties the night of the disaster.
More anecdotes about life as a junior nurse.
Hilda remembers going to the cinema next door to Bethnal Green hospital and says that the nurses were allowed to sit in the back row for free. Similarly when nurses went on trolleybuses to Hackney the conductor refused to take their money because they were in uniform. Hilda shows a photo of herself in uniform aged 17.
Tape paused and restarted.
Hilda talks about her time as a theatre sister in the Mayday hospital, Thornton Heath. She remembers one particular surgeon who was very colourful. She stresses that it was a lovely atmosphere working in theatre as the staff formed a very close unit.
Hilda explains that after the Mayday hospital she worked in theatre in Dulwich hospital and then Ealing hospital.
After Hilda retired from Ealing hospital she worked in a back room, sterilising surgical instruments, at the Royal Masonic hospital in Ravenscourt Park. She also did a correspondence course in chiropody at this time.
Hilda started to do home visits using her chiropody skills on completing the course. She still sees 10 patients today and talks about that.
Hilda explains that she’s had cancer twice and so has seen nursing from the other side – as a patient. She thinks that nursing has changed a lot since she started her career. Today the theoretical comes first whereas when she was training you started at the bottom of the hierarchy, and the practical “hands on” contact with patients came first. She tells some stories about bad practice she witnessed in Ealing hospital when she was a patient a few years ago.
Hilda makes a distinction between the teaching hospitals and non-teaching hospitals today in terms of quality of care. She says that when she was a patient in Queen Charlotte’s hospital the care she received was brilliant.
Hilda returns to her early career in Bethnal Green hospital and remembers being so overstretched one time that the nurses went on strike. It was covered by the Daily Mail.
Hilda talks about going to one of the memorial services for the Bethnal Green disaster in St John’s church. She remembers seeing pearly kings and queens there and says that it was a very happy occasion despite it being a memorial. She has not yet seen the new memorial in the park but would like to.