Glamorgan Archives recently received a diary written by Joan Mark of Cardiff for the year 1939, the year Glamorgan Record Office – now Glamorgan Archives – was established.
Joan was born in 1921, was educated at Howell’s School and was only 17 when she started to write her diary, recording her work as a trainee nurse at the Prince of Wales Orthopaedic Hospital in Cardiff. The Boots Scribbling Diary came complete with coupons for free gifts such as lemon barley crystals, indigestion mixture and Devonshire violets talcum powder.
Joan gives us a fascinating insight into her working life, set against the background of the impending War which broke out in the September of that year. She records being on her feet all day, …was nearly sleeping on my feet is one of her entries. She had to live in rooms in the hospital when she was on duty, and the constant sound of patients ringing their bells is noted many times; bells, bells, bells she writes.
Joan enjoyed working on the children’s ward.
Diseases such as scarlet fever, chicken pox and diphtheria are mentioned. When helping at the babies’ clinic she records:
All sorts of babies came. We had to scrape the dirt off some before we could see their little faces.
She also had to check for head lice and on one occasion found that several children were ‘alive’ with lice and had to try and get rid of them using Derbac soap and Dettol before the Ward Sister returned.
Joan was also expected to help out with the laundry, darn serviettes and cut miles and miles of gauze and wool for bandages. On her days off she also had to attend lectures and take tests. On one occasion she tried to swot for a test …but fell asleep.
One constant worry was the shortage of staff in the hospital. I hope we shall get some more staff soon, she writes, and that on one day the other staff were …all shouting and bawling at me. They seem to think I can produce mattresses, plaster knives and clean counterpaynes out of the air.
The Matron and Sister ruled with a rod of iron and nurses could have their days off cancelled for misdemeanors such as not reporting a broken light or an untidy bedroom. In March they were given new nursing caps to wear:
We all had new caps given us this morning. They are all terrible and show all our hair at the back. Matron told me to put mine in curlers, but I shan’t even if I’m the only one left with straight hair.
It wasn’t all work for Joan and she records visits to her family and her social life: trips to Barry Island, shopping at Woolworths, listening to the wireless, regular trips to the cinema, walks in Roath Park and visits to Star Street Chapel and Roath Methodist Chapel on a Sunday. In January 1939 the hospital maids had their annual dance, when the nurses had to wait on them and washed up afterwards; we were allowed to dance with each other as well at the end, but were told not to take the maids’ men. Joan couldn’t go to the dinner and dance that had been organised for the nurses:
…so we held a dance on our own in the bedroom with the wireless and gas-fire in full blast and lemonade and biscuits as refreshments.
She was on duty on Christmas Day and was given presents from the Matron and other nurses. A band came at 7.30am and most of the nurses were dancing. Joan played with the children on the ward and a choir came to sing carols, followed by Christmas dinner at 7pm.
From August onwards the talk of War clouds her diary. On 24 August Joan writes:
Everyone seems to think there is going to be a war
Two days later she says:
They are making our Out Patients Department into a Decontamination Centre and pasting black paper over the windows of the Hospital. The International Situation seems pretty serious but I don’t think there will be a war.
Joan was due to take her holidays:
Sister Blake says I may have my holidays but must come back if War is Declared.
On 1 September she records that Germany had started bombing Poland and that she had gone on a trip to the beach where she …met two sweet little German exile children. Joan was on leave when War was declared on 3 September and on that day she records that the Germans had torpedoed a British liner (this was the SS Athena). A few days later Joan travels to Nottingham to visit relatives and she helps her Uncle to black out the windows. She had difficulties travelling back to Cardiff as all the trains had been stopped and were being used to transport troops.
Preparations were in full swing when she went back to work the following week. They only had eight patients and from then on were only going to admit 50% of their capacity so that the Hospital would be ready to receive any wounded troops. On one day Joan had to strip and remake 48 beds in readiness. The Sister gave the nurses some advice:
If a bomb falls on the Hospital – don’t rush into the flames or make martyrs of yourselves. Get under the beds and the quicker the better.
The Matron was worried …because the Russians have entered Poland.
The Sister said, What does it matter as long as they don’t enter the Prince of Wales Hospital.
As the diary comes to an end there are glimpses of the day to day changes that War has brought to the country: being warned for having too much light showing in a window, the issue of National Registration cards, visits to air raid shelters, a colleague learning to knit socks for the troops and the evacuation of a family member.
Joan went on to qualify as a registered nurse in 1943, but tragically died in a car accident in 1951, aged 29.