Christine’s story: Nursing at GOSH in post-war Britain
13 Jan 2021, 10:04 a.m.
In 1946, one year after the second world war ended, Nurse Christine joined Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). A firm believer in the power of play, Christine was always looking for new ways to entertain and inspire the children she cared for.
In this article, Christine’s daughter, Jane, shares the wonderful story of her time at GOSH and her adventures overseas.
“All she had ever wanted to do was be a nurse. She decided when she was just two years old,” begins Jane.
Born in 1924 to a working-class family, Christine was a smart young girl with an ambition for nursing. In 1942 Christine enrolled as a student nurse at Central Middlesex Hospital.
She was propelled into nursing at a time of war and hardship, where vital drug supplies were desperately low. Christine saw the devastating aftermath of these shortfalls on the soldiers she cared for.
“She found this hugely traumatic,” Jane says.
A move to GOSH
Despite the trauma of the war, Christine remained resilient.
"She soldiered through and, two years after VE Day, she landed her dream job at Great Ormond Street Hospital,” Jane explains. “Within four years, she was promoted to Sister.”
“It became her universe.”
Remembering her mum’s tales of GOSH, Jane recalls:
“Mum was visited at GOSH by the Australian scientist Howard Florey, who’d been developing penicillin at his lab in Oxford. He came onto her ward to see how the drugs were working.”
Howard and his colleagues made history with their scientific breakthrough: transforming penicillin into a life-saving antibiotic.
“Christine watched it save the lives of many children in her care and considered it to be the wonder drug.”
Healthcare for the nation
Then, in 1948, the NHS was born.
“Mum was absolutely thrilled when GOSH became an NHS hospital: perhaps because she came from a working-class background and had seen immense poverty and deprivation throughout her training in the war.”
“She saw the benefits of national programmes of vaccination, particularly the polio vaccine, which saved many children from the long-term effects of the debilitating virus.”
“This was one of the developments that she was proud to be involved in. The other was the health and well-being movement and the notion of learning through play.”
The power of play
“In those days, children tended to stay in hospital much longer. Parents were encouraged to leave their children at the door and hand over all care, physical and emotional, to the nurses.”
“Emphasis was placed on keeping the children quiet and not allowing them to get excited, for fear it would endanger their recovery."
“Mum thought differently and was always looking for ways to inspire the children.”
“She would take them to Regents Park zoo and outings all around London aimed at stimulating their interests, as she was convinced that resilience and optimism were key to recovery.”
“She was also a great one for acknowledging the children’s birthdays and created an enormous cardboard cake which someone dear to the child would hide inside. Everyone would dance around it until they popped out.”
Christine’s wonderful way with children also landed her photograph in The Observer for the hospital’s centenary celebrations in 1952.
The photo captured the three-year-old patient Jeanette with her arms wrapped around Christine, under the heading ‘Doesn’t she look happy in the arms of her nurse.’
The Nightingale Fellowship
After many years of working at GOSH, Christine discovered a life-changing opportunity: The Nightingale Fellowship.
“The fellowship was paid for by the Red Cross with the aim of learning about global paediatric nursing practices,” Jane explains.
Christine impressed the selection committee and won her scholarship place, sailing to New York on “a fine August day” in 1956.
“She was a staunch advocate for the NHS whilst travelling around the eastern states of America and Eastern Canada,” Jane says. “And I often wondered what they thought of her, although she claimed she could bring them round by talking like the Queen.”
“She wrote a report on her tour and was then offered a chance to go to Africa and Australia. But love intervened.”
It was during her travels through Chicago that Christine fell in love with Jane’s dad.
“This was Dr Ray, a brilliant young physicist at Chicago University.”
“Also known as Eric and originally from Tottenham, he shared Mum’s beliefs and instantly succumbed to her smile.” He proposed to her 24 days later.
"Knowing our Dad could spend six months deciding what colour to paint the gate, we asked mum if she wasn’t shocked by the speed of their engagement.”
“‘I was only shocked that it took him 23 days longer to decide than I did,’ she replied.”
“Dad gave up his fellowship at Chicago University to return with mum to the UK, so they both made career sacrifices to be together.”
“They were devoted to each other until the end. Although, as dad lived in university hostels and mum in nurses' rooms, neither of them learnt to cook beyond fish fingers and ‘Christine’s Surprise’: a Victoria sponge served with custard.”
“Culinary excellence wasn’t the glue of their relationship.”
The warmest mother
Christine sadly passed away on 8 October last year, at her house in Burgess Hill. Jane recalls how she felt to hear how her mum had been loved by so many.
“When she was alive, I took a lot for granted. Since her death, there has been an outpouring from cousins, childhood friends and her grandchildren. So many wrote about her special warmth, humour and intellect, to the extent that I have been humbled to realise just how lucky I was.”
“Her life was as remarkable as she was.”