5th July 1948
As the early morning July sunlight crept around the edges of the faded curtains, Sister Connie Byrne, the senior nurse for the Spitalfields and Shoreditch Nursing Association, flicked her head in an attempt to dislodge the lock of her golden red hair from her temple, without success.
But then wasn’t it always the same? As soon as you tied your mask and put on your sterile gloves, your nose started to itch or a stray hair tickled your forehead.
Ignoring it she wriggled her fingers in her rubber gloves. ‘Right, Mrs Sinclair, one more push and I should be able to see baby’s head.’
Margaret Sinclair, a slightly built young woman with fluffy blonde curls, rolled her grey eyes. ‘I bloody ’ope so.’
Margaret and Don Sinclair and their four – soon to be five – children lived on the third floor of Fallow House in Brushfield Street just a stone’s throw from Petticoat Lane. The three-room dwellings must have seemed like palaces to the artisans who first moved into them a hundred years before but now they were one of the dozens of damp, overcrowded Victorian tenement waiting demolition under the LCC’s post-war slum clearance programme.
‘Right, Margaret,’ she said, placing the labouring woman’s left foot against her own hip. ‘With the next pain I want you to tuck your chin in and push down into your bottom.’
Margaret nodded then, taking a deep breath as another contraction built, she lowered her head and strained. Continue reading
Having interviewed Sister Byrne about the new NHS I thought I might try and gage what the medical profession feel about the changes, which is why I’m in the tea shop at Liverpool Street Station
to meet Dr Hari MacLauchlan.
Me: ‘Good morning Dr MacLauchlan and thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for my readers.
Dr MacLauchlan: ‘Not at all.’
Me: ‘Can I ask how long you’ve been back in the country and have you noticed any changes?
Dr MacLauchlan: My ship from Calcutta docked at Southampton three months ago. I managed to get some temporary digs in Clerkenwell but as most GP post come with accommodation I expect I’ll be moving into something a bit more homely soon. And as to changes not so many as I’d imagined. Although, I thought the LCC would have cleared most of the bomb sites and rationing would have finished.
Me: ‘I’m a bit surprised you’re still looking for a post as I thought there was a shortage of doctors in London at the moment.’
Dr Hari: Well, yes so am I but I’ve had a few interviews and it’s only a matter of time before the right post presents itself. In fact I have an interview this afternoon which looks very promising.
I thought I’d give you a little insight into Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie by interview Sister Connie Byrne. It’s 8am in the morning and I’m going to have a few words with her as she chains her bicycle up in the backyard of Fry House.
Me: ‘Good morning, Sister Byrne, can you tell me what you’ve been up to this fine morning?
Nurse Connie. ‘What I’m usually up to when the phone goes at 3am in the morning: delivering a baby.
Me: ‘Boy or a girl?’
Nurse Connie: ‘A boy. Seven pound nine ounces and was my first.’
Me: ‘Your first?’
Nurse Connie: ‘ NHS baby.’
Me: ‘Of course, it’s the 5th July and the new health service starts today.
Nurse Connie: ‘It started at midnight last night so the Sinclairs weren’t charge 10/- for my services to see Master Sinclair safely into the world.’
Me: ‘So you’re in favour of the new health system?’
Nurse Connie. ‘I certainly am. I’m sure there isn’t a district nurse or midwife in the land who doesn’t hate charging a desperate mother with a poorly child for a visit or taking the last few coppers from an elderly person who need a bit of help to the toilet. And I for one won’t be sorry that from today I can throw my weekly collection book in the bin.
If you do a quick search for the history of District Nursing you’ll no doubt discover that William Rathbone’s founded of what is described as the first district nursing service in Liverpool in 1863. If you dig a little deeper you might also unearth the fact that almost forty years before Rathbone’s philanthropic gesture Elizabeth Fry, the well-known prison reformer, set up home nursing services in Brighton after seeing for herself the shocking conditions of the poor.
You’ll even read how Florence Nightingale supported the founding of District Nurse Associations throughout the country describing district nursing as “that most important of all its [nursing] branches”.
This seems a laudable statement until you learn that as the notable Lady with the Lamp was lamenting in 1867 that “until we have district nursing in London we shall have done nothing even when we have reformed all the hospitals and all the workhouses” Ellen Ranyard had already laid the foundation of the first district nurse service in London ten years before.
Born in Nine Elms in 1809 Ellen Ranyard, the wife of a non-conformist minister, founded the Bible and Domestic Female Mission in 1857. Unlike many of the mission societies formed at that time instead of utilising middle and upper-class women to further its cause Ellen Ranyard recruited her Biblewomen from the poor working-class communities the Mission was reaching out to.
Although very successful in their initial goal of distributing bible tracts to the poor it soon became clear that a practical as well as spiritual dimension was needed so in 1868 the Biblewomen nurses were established. They, too, were poor, working women who after three months training in a London hospital would return to serve their communities as Biblewomen nurses.
Although initially based in Covent Garden they soon expanded east to Whitechapel and south to Bermondsey. Their duties included referring patients to doctors and hospitals, inspecting infants in mother’s meetings, and encouraging medical self-help among the poor.
Within 25 years the Bible and Domestic Female Mission had over 80 Biblewoman nurses in London and Ranyard’s Biblewomen nurses continued to operate in South London even after the introduction of the National Health Service but were absorbed into the London borough’s district nursing services in 1965.
I discovered Ellen Ranyard when researching my post-war East London District Nurse series and the fictitious St George and St Dunstan’s District Nursing Association in my books is based on the East London Nursing Society founded by Ellen Ranyard’s Biblewomen Nurses Mission in Poplar.
Today her fierce evangelical fervour and views on the causes of poverty would be regarded as narrow and bigoted. However, her pragmatic way of ministering to the poor and sick introduced for the first time the model of cultural link-workers used in health promotion work throughout the world today.
I can pinpoint the moment I fell head over heels in love with history to the day, as a child I watched Roger Moore as Ivanhoe gallop across our black and white TV screen on a white horse.
My infatuation grew throughout my childhood fed on TV series like the Buccaneers, Robin Hood, The Forsyth Saga including a brief flirtation with the Wild West with Bonanza. Dr Who, too, in its earlier days went back in time, who could forget one of his early companions Jamie McCrimmon? I later moved on to the Onedin Line and of course, along with the rest of the female population in 1975 fell in love with Robin Ellis as he strode across the screen as the original Ross Poldark.
I just love the thought, feel and possibilities of the past. All my life I’ve fanaticised about broad-shouldered, chiselled featured men with piercing eyes dressed in doublets, kilts, starched collars and cravats and redcoats, what woman hasn’t?
Of course I didn’t just watch historical fiction but I read it almost exclusively in books by Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, Nigel Tranter, George Shipway, Dorothy Dunnett and Sharon Penman to name but a very few.
The joy of writing historical fiction is also that the past isn’t just one point in time. It can be Nero’s Rome, Robert the Bruce’s Scotland, Revolutionary Boston or Lautrec’s Paris or for me, post-war East London.
It can also focus of major historical character such as, the Empress Matilda, Cecily Neville, Joan of Arc, or Marie Antoinette but it can also have more lowly protagonists such as Frances Nelson Lord Nelson’s long suffering wife or Elizabeth Fry, with her eleven children and bankrupt husband.
Of course, you can have fictionally characters, who inhabit a real time and place and who fall in and out of love but who aren’t constrained by actual events.
But that then leaves me with another question I’m often asked which is ‘Do I write Romance or History?’ and again my answer is always the same. ‘I couldn’t tell you; I just write stories?’
Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie.
It’s 1948 and the nurses of the East End of London are making the most of life post-war. For Connie in particular, things are looking rosy as she looks forward to planning a future with her sweetheart, Malcolm. But, as many a young bride-to-be has proved, the course of true love never did run smooth and Connie finds herself having to grapple with interfering mothers and Malcolm’s reluctance to set the date.
But while there are many obstacles to overcome before walking down the aisle, at least Connie can relax in the knowledge that she’ll soon be married to the man of her dreams, can’t she?
Life at work isn’t all smooth sailing either. The newly-formed NHS is keeping the nurses of Fry House extremely busy and as ever in the life of a nurse heartbreak lurks at every turn. But there are some new faces to keep things interesting. And one in particular might be the answer to all of Connie’s problems.
‘A delightful, well researched story that depicts nursing and the living conditions in the East End at the end of the war’ (Lesley Pearse talking about Call Nurse Millie. )
‘…The writing shines off the page and begs for a sequel’ (Historical Novel Society)
‘…you will ride emotional highs and lows with each new birth and death. Beautifully written with some sharp dialogue.’ (THE LADY)
Well not him personally, I understand he’s a really nice chap, but just his books. And I’m not annoyed with him for him being a universally known author while I’m a struggling mid-list one so please let me explain my annoyance.
I’ve just come back from a week’s cruise and his books along with other old favourites like Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope, seem to be as numerous as sunbeds on the ship. I’m annoyed because with so many fabulous authors out there people still seem to grab the same old thing from the airport W H Smiths before boarding their flight.
Given that most people cite ‘time to read’ as one of the things they enjoy most about relaxing on a beach they seem to give very little thought to the matter before they check in at the airport. So as a public service to my favourite people – readers – I thought I’d give you a few of recommendations for authors you may not have discovered to pack in your suitcase.
If you like a good thriller/murder why not try The Holy Thief by William Ryan the first of his Korplev Mysteries.
Set in 1930’s Moscow under Stalin’s oppressive and paranoid regimen we follow the fortunes of Captain Alexei Korolev a detective in the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department. Not only is this a cracking detective story but a fabulous insight into the corrupt, blood-soaked world of communist Russia at the time. Fabulous read and highly recommended.
If you’re after an intelligent action hero in uniform then The Scarlet Thief by Paul Fraser Collard might be for you. The first of the Jack Lark series is set during the Crimean war and
features Private Jack Lark of her Majesty’s King’s Fusiliers. As Jack is a good old East End lad from the Victorian rookery of Spitalfields I was willing the story to grab me from the start and it did. I won’t say too much as it would spoil some of the twists and turns but the book starts at a breakneck pace and continues to the end. Again good period details which don’t intrude on the action.
The Girl Under the Olive Tree by Leah Fleming. In the same vein a heart-wrenching read, which follows the fortunes of Penny Georgiou a half British and half Greek nurse. We meet her in pre-war Athens and then as she ministers to the sick in German occupied Crete. It’s fantastically atmospheric and holds your interest on every page with a very satisfying ending.
So far I’ve given three historical recommendations but now I’d like to throw you something of a ‘curve ball’ with my next recommendation Aurelia by Alison Morton. This is the 4th in her Roma Nova series and is set in the alternative world of Roma Nova a remnant of the Roman Empire that survived into the 20th century. Morton does a brilliant job constructing this modern Roman society within the alternative history of the 20th century minus Hitler and a different configuration of European states. It’s a story of industrial espionage and spies with Aurelia Mitela a serving officer in the Pretorian Guards and member of one of the ruling families, as a sort of female James Bond getting into all sorts of mayhem for Empire and Family.
Although you might be floating in the Med or laying on a beach in Spain you can travel further field; to the Australian outback in fact, with the Wild One by Janet Gover. It’s the second in her Coorah Creek series featuring the small mining town somewhere deep in Queensland. We meet photographer Rachel Quinn and park ranger Dan Mitchell both struggling with unresolved issues and heart-break in their past. As Ms Gover originates from an outback town like Coorah Creek she takes you there right down to the dry dust on your boots. Well recommended although you might want to start with Flight to Coorah Creek, the first in the series.
Lastly, I’d like to recommend Where Love Lies, by Julie Cohen. It’s a wonderfully crafted novel about Felicity and Quinn, a newly married couple and their fight through a very unusually threat to their happiness. My sympathies veered between Felicity and then Quinn at the start of the book but then found myself willing them both to win through. Absolutely love the whole story and read it in two days flat but I must warn you to keep a box of tissues handy.
Have a nice holiday and enjoy.
|I once asked a group of twelve friends if anyone could put Richard II, Henry II and Edward II in chronological order. I’m sad to report only two managed it and one of those admitted it was a lucky guess. There ensued a discussion about history. Some said they hated it at school while other couldn’t see the relevance of learning about the Tudors, Stuarts or even the Industrial Revolution. However, when I asked them about their family’s history it was quite a different matter. One person’s grandfather served on the North Atlantic convoys, another had a father who fought at El Aleman, two had grandmothers who were evacuated and one had been a land girl.|
|In addition one of us had lost Jewish family members during the Nazi occupation of Europe and my mother had survived the 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Disaster. Suddenly history wasn’t boring anymore. It was touchable. I believe this tangible link between our family history and the dramatic event of the last century goes a long way to explain the huge popularity of all things 20th century.|
|Of course the genre of popular fiction described as sagas has long tapped into this rich vein of social history. Traditionally they dealt with the gritty side of 19th century women’s lives, with multi-character and multi-generational stories. However, in the past few years they shifted forward a hundred years and focus more on stories set in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. This has caused a huge surge in popularity for the genre and such novels feature prominently in bestseller lists and supermarkets alike.|
|This popularity of the mid-20th century social history is also reflected in TV series such as Foyle’s War, Call the Midwife, Inspector Gently and the like. Although first and foremost entertaining dramas, their success is also linked to the undeniable truth that the dramatic tensions between protagonist and the plotlines often hinge on the period’s social history. Docudramas, too, like Cilla and Made in Dagenham also reflect the current fascination with our grandparents’ world.|
|It is not just fiction of the 20th century that dominates the TV ratings but factual, too. This is evident by the hugely popular Who Do You Think You Are, Secrets of the Workhouse and Turn Back Time, a series in which volunteers live as their families would have 70 years ago.||
|Although during last year’s commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War some documentaries explored the political and imperial causes of the Great War the vast majority focused on the lives of ordinary people on both sides caught up in conflict.
Add to this the thousands of people who are researching their family trees and it could be argued that the interest in all things historical has never been higher.
Of course, I accept there is a massive dollop of nostalgia in all of this but given the
uncertain times we live in perhaps it is understandable. However, maybe by exploring
20th century history through fiction, drama and their family histories people will be
better able to understand the origins of the complex world we live in today.
First published in the Historical Writers’ Association’s Historia magazine in 2015.
|I thought you’d like to have a look at a Fullerton family heirloom; my mum’s 1948 wedding dress. I used it as the template for the wedding dress Millie helped Connie make in Call Nurse Millie.
|Although my parents were married on the 14th August 1948, almost six months after cloth rationing ended, other than the slightly longer train, my mother’s dress is in fact a typical war-time wedding dress.|
|Like most brides of the period my mother, who was a machinist by trade, made her wedding dress and has only covered buttons and press studs to fasten it.|
|The fabric is rayon, one of the first man-made fabrics and as the brilliant white fabric of modern wedding dresses wasn’t manufactured 65 years ago the colour was ivory although it has now faded to buttermilk.|
|As you can see it is a simple design with very few details other than the small peplum at the waist and two beaded bows at the neckline.|
|The only other style details are the cuffs which are pointed and fastened by press studs; you can even see my mother’s original stitching on them.|
|My mum was only 5 foot tall and after she had me and my brother, hovered between a 16-18 dress size. Interestingly I had to buy a size 10 stand to display the dress so perhaps those of us who want to lose weight should try a few months on war time rations!|
I suppose like me you always wondered if there was a grain of truth in all those stories you were told as a child about your family history. I did but now thanks to the wonder of the internet I’m happy to report that apart from a couple of little things, for the most part, what I was told about my Fullertons forbears was true.
My Nan maintained we are descended from Robert the Bruce. Now wouldn’t that be something but sad to say as far as I can tell we aren’t. However, we certainly originated from the Bruce lands in Argyll; Cambeltown to be precise on Kintyre peninsular. This is where the earliest directly linked Fullerton ancestor, Robert Fullerton come from. Although I have no actual date for his birth must have been born sometime in and around 1640 as his son, Archibald, was born in 1670. Continue reading
One of the things readers often comment on is the amount of nursing detail I have in my stories. I’m thrilled to hear this as I do put a great deal of time and effort into getting the procedures Millie and Connie undertake right.
Although I’ve been a district nurse for over 25 years you’ll appreciate that how I worked during my time on the district is very different from the limited drugs and equipment Millie and Connie had at their disposal. Continue reading