Diphtheria in Ruislip...in 1935

What is was like in Hillingdon to be aged six and have diphtheria (in 1935!)

Until about 1940, when medical skills perfected immunization against diphtheria, children were expected to catch a whole range of ‘childhood diseases’.  The sooner they caught these illnesses, the sooner they would acquire immunity and not have to suffer what, by general agreement, were worse symptoms and after effects that adults were said to suffer.  Chicken pox, measles, mumps and whooping cough were forever decimating the junior classes at school.  Our doctor would make a house call, diagnose the complaint, dispense some advice and leave it to our mothers to nurse us through.  A second group of diseases was regarded by the authorities as sufficiently serious to require isolation.  These diseases were scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis and polio, or ‘infantile paralysis’ as we called it then.  Little is heard of any of these diseases nowadays.

So it came about in the spring of 1935, when I was six years old, that I woke one morning with a raging fever and red blotches on my body. The doctor was called on a neighbour’s telephone (two pence being left to cover the cost) and my mother’s suspicions were confirmed.  Isolation was imperative we learned.  I could either stay at home for a month while my mother would be housebound and my father required to live somewhere else, or I could be sent to the isolation hospital at Hillingdon.  The alternatives were stark but the second one was the only practical one.

What my mother always referred to as ‘the fever van’ duly arrived. This conveyance was an ancient, (even in those days!), Morris Commercial ambulance, painted brown and marked with a St. John’s cross in white.  The driver carried me out in a blanket and placed me on a bunk while the nurse settled on a seat, and we were off, trundling along through Ickenham and finally, the hospital.  
The Hillingdon Isolation Hospital lay on the south side of the Uxbridge Road with the four buildings set well back from public access.   The residence for the nurses sat by the gate. Each of the four ward buildings was of single story construction with a ward for males at one end and females at the other. Scarlet fever patients were accommodated in two buildings, one for juniors (where I was) and the other for seniors. One of the other buildings was for patients with diphtheria and the fourth for those with tuberculosis or polio.  My ward contained about fifteen beds. I felt at home immediately when I found several of my classmates were in the same ward.  My bed was next the ‘THE DOOR”. This particular opening was the one patients passed through on their way to being discharged. No one else, even the nurses, went through it and those patients that did, never came back. We would speculate what went on on the other side of the door.

After a few days, my temperature subsided and I was allowed up to wander the ward. Visitors were allowed on Wednesdays, when my mother would come, and Sundays when bother parents arrived. Visits were frustrating as the visitors were only allowed to stand on high benches outside one set of windows while the patients were on the other side.  The windows were closed of course so the only communication was by mime. When we were allowed outside, we were forbidden to go on the side of the building used by visitors.

My parents would bring me small gifts (no food or sweets) that were always acceptable. I do not recall other toys being provided except for those left by departing patients.  My mother always brought me eggs, which were allowed, so that I could have one each morning.  Without the egg, breakfast consisted of bread and margarine with jam and a cup of tea.  My previous acquaintance with tea was an occasional taste that had left me disliking the stuff. A nurse put my mind the rest, ‘this tea’ she assured me ‘is different. It is hospital tea and nothing like you get at home’.  I was appeased.  We ate and drank our ‘hospital tea’ sitting on benches at a table close to the window our visitors used for peering through.

The nurses were mostly a good bunch. The ‘probationers’, as the student nurses were called, would play a little with us when their duties allowed. The night nurse was something of a monster. Her duties were to look after things during the night. She would tour the beds with a light but otherwise sat reading.  She sprang into action if someone wet the bed and she was called on to change the sheets. The culprit generally had his bottom smacked a couple of times. This form of therapy generally had the whole ward awake. At other times, boys would wake up crying with excruciating earache brought about by infection of the mastoid area behind the ears. The only way to deal with this at the time was an operation that involved chiselling out the affected bone. Dressing the wound was a painful experience and the patient was left with scars behind the ears for life. Nowadays this condition is rarely encountered and when it is, is treated with sulphur drugs.

Once a week was bath night.  We were all herded naked to the bathroom in the middle of the building where two baths were filled with hot water. A nurse stood at both ends of each bath while we lined up to be immersed. We would be lathered all over with carbolic soap and then totally immersed in the water before being passed on to others to be dried off.

When the weather permitted, we were allowed outside to play. The area we could use was constrained by the quarantine rules.  The side of the building used by visitors was out of bounds, as was the vicinity of the diphtheria ward.  An older girl was generally delegated to keep an eye on us while we played games such as ‘in and out the windows’ and ‘the farmer’s in the dell’.
One by one, my friends were called upon to pass through “THE DOOR” and eventually my turn came. A surprise was that I was told I was being discharged a day or two early.  No sooner was I through “THE DOOR” than I encountered a nurse I had not met before and given yet another carbolic bath. This time it was a gentler as she had only me to contend with. My clothes were left behind in the room. I passed naked to another room where fresh clothes awaited me and then out to be met by my mother and aunt.  I was hoping to ride to Uxbridge station in one of the trams that then ran along Uxbridge Road but my mother had hired a car to bring me home, which was treat in itself.

Only too soon the reason for my early discharge became apparent when I developed mumps – a gift from one of my hospital mates.

Whilst I was in hospital, the bedroom had been fumigated with a nasty smelling compound and the house inspected for infractions of the health code.  That I had almost certainly caught scarlet fever from a classmate did not deter the inspector from finding that six years before, the builder had failed to install a certain ventilation trap in our sewer line. Much to his annoyance, my father was obliged to pay to have this rectified.  Where he had always paid the rates as soon as received, he henceforth wrought vengeance on the council for the next 45 years by never paying until the very last day. The Council likely did not notice but it gave him a lot of satisfaction.

Page written by Brian Hester, Ruislip Online would wish to extend its thanks to him.
Diphtheria in Ruislip and Hillingdon