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go back to the last page you were on Tramps and "Something"

Dawn Griffis (née Alsford)

During the war years and for several years afterwards we had a steady flow of Tramps stop by our home. The gentlemen of the road were usually aged in their 50's and then on up in years. They always walked or trudged along. Frequently with a long stick that was used as either a walking stick or to carry belongings wrapped in a cloth and tied to the end of the stick and lodged on one shoulder, as Dick Whittingham did during his travel to London. Each ones dress and appearance was much the same. They seemed to be very rotund with always an overcoat that was tied around their waist with string. Mum said they looked that big because they wore several layers of clothes as it was easier to carry them that way. Sometimes they wore hobnail boots and sometimes shoes that did not look so weather proof. It was not unusual for them to have no socks or not matching socks. Their faces were knarled or heavily wrinkled, Gran said that was because they were exposed to all the weathers. Sometimes they would get permission from farmers to sleep in a barn, but most of the time they slept under the stars in the hedgerows or under a big old oak tree. This made their skin look like leather. If they did any washing of themselves it would be in the cut, river or a stream, all of which would toughen them up. Their hair was always to their shoulder or pretty close to it and they usually had a beard. Some beards were scraggly, others like Father Christmas. They were all topped off with an old trilby hat that the rim was down all the way around, probably from pulling it down over their ears during the rain. The hat seemed to mold to each ones head.

Mum said that the tramps left messages for other tramps as to whether there was a "good" home in the village & where it was, also if there were homes to stay away from. They would do this by arranging stones in piles of marks in the walls. I was never able to find any of these messages. The messages must have been there because we had a steady stream of tramps to our house. We would have one of them knock on our door at least once a week - always at our mid-day dinner time. Even during the war years Mum was always able to come up with a good sized plate of food for each one.

She was very specific how we were to behave around them and what to use for them. She had a special chair for them to use that could be scrubbed down after they had left. This would be placed just outside the front door. She saved a special plate knife and fork for them to use that we never used. We children had to let them "eat in peace". After each had finished eating we were allowed to stand and talk to them. We were not to touch them or to get too close, "in case we might catch something". She never elaborated on what the "something" was & we never asked. The stories they would tell though long forgotten were much too interesting to worry about the "something". I think it was a sad day with the passing of no more Tramps or Gentlemen of the Road.

Years later I came to find out first hand as did many others, what the "something" was. Let me set the stage. The time was around the end of 1959 I was ending my second year of general nurses training. We always at different times of the year had an influx of people officially known in the hospital lingo as NFA's, this stands for people of "No Fixed Abode". By the time they came to us they had an ailment real or otherwise, but with history and symptoms enough to get admitted. They were down usually to just one layer of clothes that was definitely the worse for wear. We would bag them up & quickly get them out of the ward to the hospital incinerator. We always supplied them with a "new" set of clothing when they were discharged.

At this particular time we had a new student nurse who was definitely a challenge to say the least. It was difficult to give her a job to do, that she didn't cause a dozen jobs for everyone else to do. Her first day on the ward in the mid afternoon she could not be found anywhere. Finally someone looked in the linen closet, there she was just like Goldie Locks fast a sleep on a pile of linen. Considering in those days nursing students weren't allowed to even sit down on duty, you can imagine how well that went down. She just came back with that she always takes a nap every afternoon- not any more she didn't. It became very difficult to find her jobs to do that she didn't bungle. One day someone asked her to clean the thermometers and their containers. In those days we kept each patients thermometer in a glass container in a bracket on the wall behind their bed. There was cotton wool in the bottom of each to protect the thermometer and a asceptic solution put in it for obvious reasons, and then the thermometer was placed in it. These were thoroughly cleaned weekly or if a patient was discharged. This student was told to gather all the thermometers and the containers and to clean them all. She gathered them in a large basin - remember our wards had 36 beds in them. When she got back to the sluice room she filled the basin that held the thermometers and containers with the hottest water she could from the tap!!!!! There were no thermometers that survived that onslaught and very few containers!!!

The next project a few days later we thought would be safe to give her. She was to clean each patients teeth and this time almost all elderly people had a full set of false teeth. Each was given the necessary supplies for this at time of admission. We thought this would keep her safely occupied for awhile. She came back very quickly especially for her and said she was finished and what should she do now. We looked down at what she was holding in total horror. She had gathered up all the patient's false teeth in a large basin taken them to the sluice room and cleaned them all. There they were spotlessly clean all grinning up at us in one large basin!!!!. Now I can look back and laugh at it but not then! What we had to do was to go to each patient - the more alert ones first and ask them if they recognized their set of teeth, and to try them on. Many had to try more than one set before they found the right ones. It took hours and it was totally the process of elimination. A few had to wait until a relative came in to try and sort which teeth belonged to which patient, these were the more confused patients. We just didn't want to confuse them anymore by putting the wrong teeth in their mouths. If the reader can let their imagination run wild you really can see the eventual funny side of this situation! Oh! the fun of nursing!

Now back to the relevance of all this to our NFA's or Tramps catching "something". During this time with this student we had one such gentleman admitted, as usual his clothes were removed and bagged. These clothes were given to the student to dispose of. A few days later almost all the patients were scratching and complaining of itching and what looked like bites on each of them. They were - they were covered in fleas. Normal practice was we changed bed linens everyday on every patient, if needed more than once a day. We investigated the linen closet - there were fleas every where. They must have loved the warm linen room environment and multiplied rapidly from the NFAs clothes that our dear student nurse had put in there! I graduated and left there before she was due to. I do not know if she stayed with it. Before we leave the Tramps, Gentlemen of the Road or the NFA's it will take me into the next part I want to share with you. These patients always descended on us just in time for Christmas. They made sure the complaint they had would certainly keep them in long enough for the whole holiday, but nothing that would mean they couldn't enjoy the Christmas Fare.

In those days Christmas at the Horton Hospital was something to be enjoyed by all no matter what the age.

Recipe for the Witches' Brew

Recipe for the Witches' Brew

Each ward was a hive of industry for weeks before Christmas getting the ward decorated. Each ward would decide on their own theme and of course it all had to be made by the staff and or patients. On Christmas Day a winner was picked as to which was the best. The children's ward usually picked one of the pantomime stories. There was a long narrow table down the middle of the ward where the theme was displayed as the story unfolded. The windows walls ceiling and beds was decorated to compliment the theme. On Christmas morning the children not only got gifts from their parents that were brought in ahead of time, but there were gifts for each one purchased from the hospital fund. Sister Stewart would buy for each one out of her pocket and the town donated gifts to each of the children. The donated gifts from hospital & town were usually very expensive gifts, such as bikes, dolls prams, train sets etc. These children did much better in the gift category in the hospital than at home. Parents could be there all day along with siblings. It was a fun time for all.

The other wards would do anything in the line of decorating and they did, from children's story themes to pirates, Robinson Caruso etc. The last year I was there I was working in the operating theatre, the only place we could decorate was Sister's office. We turned it into a witches cave. We made stalactites and stalagmites out of plaster cast - it really would have been more appropriate for Halloween & we made up a recipe for a witches brew incorporating all the names of those of us that worked in the theatre.

On Christmas morning all the town dignitaries and their families visited all the patients in the hospital during the morning. Even the mayor wearing his chain of office. The physicians and their families also attended. Each physician was over certain wards, and each was dressed in a costume that we had made according to the theme of the ward. Each would entertain the patients up and down the wards according to what they were representing in their costume. Then when the Christmas dinner was brought to the ward the physician in question would carve up the turkey and serve it to each patient, then do the same with the Christmas pudding.

Photo of Christmas 1961: The consultant dressed up as a pirate for the celebrations. Dawn Alsford is on the far right

Photo of Christmas 1961:
The consultant dressed up as a pirate for the celebrations.
Dawn Alsford is on the far right

Christmas Day all nurses, students and staff worked a 12 hour shift. It was a day for the patients not for us officially. Believe me we did not suffer. We did have the private room on each ward set up for the staff. In there we had all kinds and types of food and drinks that had been given to us by patients and their families past and present. Physicians and businesses in Banbury and the surrounding area also gave to us. The hospital and each ward sister would also give to us. We nurses at the Horton were well loved and respected by the Banburyshire folk, and we felt that every day of the year, not just at Christmas time. Christmas Day would start off with doing all the essential things for the patients and of course throughout the day any meds or treatments they might need, but the rest of the time was dedicated to fun for all. The nurses were allowed to go in groups to the other wards to check out the decorations and visit with the patients.

The last year I was there I was in the operating theatre. We had no surgeries scheduled, and no emergencies came in, so we spent the entire day visiting all the wards and helping out where we could so others could have more time to enjoy the day.

I must admit I miss those Christmases, they were so special and no hardship at all. I like to imagine each year that the Horton Christmases are still the same.

Written by Dawn Griffis (née Alsford)