A UCH nurse travels through 1950s Africa
A UCH nurse travels through 1950s Africa
Having completed my training as an SRN at UCH in 1953 I had to wait two years to be able to study midwifery at Cambridge Mill Road hospital. I was 23 years of age. My friend Barbara Cocker (set 113) suggested we join together and travel to Canada or South Africa. At the time I didn’t have any thick winter clothes, so we agreed on South Africa. We were successfully vetted by the Society for the Settlement of British Women Overseas (SOSBW) and given a fare of £58 to sail to Cape Town.
Embarking from Southampton, we sailed on the Union Castle Liner for ten days. We had a tremendous trip. No one had told me we shouldn’t venture into first-class territory! Our friends there brought us buns for tea – in case our steerage fare did not provide adequate sustenance. To the contrary, the food was fantastic. But our cabin was very near the propeller, right in the depths of the ship. Quite adequate for us. And we were greeted by a huge bunch of flowers from Anne Walker (set 112), another fellow nurse.
The Bay of Biscay was vicious; the waves were so huge they even smashed the windows of the Bridge. The dining room was deserted. But thankfully sea sickness didn’t get to me. A brief stop at Las Palmas. I fell asleep and missed the land tour. The next time I stepped on land was arriving to a wonderful sunrise in Cape Town at 6 a.m. The SOSBW club was based in the Gardens where the original settlers had grown vegetables in 1862. We were given a tremendous welcome. Someone at our breakfast table introduced
Barbara to Mendl, a theatre and cinema critic. They were happily married for 48 years. Also, we met someone who wanted to find two people to rent their flat. What a chance! So, Barbara and I became probably one of the few white people in South Africa to be washing their own linen. I worked in an excellent private nursing home. All the staff were SRNs, so no need for a reference. The sight of a UCH badge was enough.
I had a series of very interesting cases. I became particularly involved in postoperative care for brain surgery patients, even though I only had had a little experience of neurology at UCH. Various opportunities arose, I was asked to nurse Yehudi Menuhin. And then to look after a blind lady who was found to have terminal cancer. I declined as I had recently visited Robben Island on a particularly hot day – my sun hat had blown off, I had sunstroke and an enormous swollen face but through this connection I was offered a job in Transvaal – to look after a paraplegic man who, had he not crashed his light aircraft while inspecting his farm without breakfast, he would have become a great politician. He was a multi-millionaire, whose grandfather’s farm was called Johannesburg. It was subsequently taken by the Boers in the war at the turn of the century. Much gold was found on that farm. His nurse of 25 years had tripped over and fractured her ankle so she couldn’t work for a year. So, I stepped in as a re- placement.
I had my own quarters, which included an Olympic size swimming pool with pool house and staff – all set in a wonderful garden. During my time there, a trip was organised to the Kruger National Park to visit Colonel Stevenson-Hamilton. He had been asked by General Kitchener at the end of the Boer War to leave the army and stay behind to create a wildlife park. The colonel was a lovely elderly gentleman who had a marvellous bronze statue in bronze made by a lady artist who had come out to research his story. He asked her to marry him. To this day I have two of the series of Wedgwood plates she designed for Liberty using all the different animals in the park. I slept in a bed in a Rondavel which King George V had slept when visiting the Kruger Park.
Knowing I was booked to start midwifery training in six months I organised to travel to Mombasa for the return voyage home. I had to see as much of Africa as I could manage. In the UCH magazine I had seen a letter from Mary Anderson who had been a nurse at UCH in 1936 and become a matron of a 1000 bed hospital in India. It prob- ably had 2000 patients and relatives at any one time. Now based in Africa, she called on other nurses coming to the continent to let her know. She didn’t mention she was 200 miles from the nearest road. On the way I visited Chick Charlton (set 113) in Mahaobeskloof. By now she had three children and lived in a beautifully mountain- ous and forested area which I reached by train and bus. I then travelled to Rhodesia where it was such a joy to hear the national anthem and also to find no segregation of white and native, as was the norm in South Africa.
I travelled by train and lake to the Congo via lake Nyasa and on to Portuguese East Africa. And then on to Kenya, where I visited David Livingstone’s house. And onto Lakoma Island. The island had a cathedral six feet shorter than Winchester’s. Stop- ping in Zanzibar I went to the capital and had trouble getting back to the ship. So I asked an Englishman who took me to the harbour in his Morris Minor. He turned out to be the bishop of Zanzibar.
I had a marvellous trip running up the coast of Africa to the Suez Canal. After the Suez crisis in Egypt we were one of the first ships to sail through. There were many abandoned vessels and wrecks. In Port Said I got lost, but as I had to surren- der my passport before leaving the ship they knew I was missing. I was bargaining for a scarab brooch and I escaped to the harbour just as the captain was pulling up the gangplank. We visited Aden – camels galore – and huge water tanks to provide the colony with freshwater. We then sailed through the Mediterranean, stopping at Marseille and Genoa. I finally ended up in England to start my midwifery training in Cambridge in 1955.
Philippa Leavey (nee Richards) Set 113