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Meet the nurses: Women recall the camaraderie of their early days working in the health service

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 29/09/2015

Together again: the nurses meeting 60 years on at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast
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Winnie Campbell

Plumbridge, Co Tyrone.

I suddenly said at 14 I wanted to be a nurse. My careers master said you must go and train at the Royal. The training was hard but we had great friends. When I qualified I went to the Western General in Scotland to do midwifery. When I came back I was a ward sister in Tyrone for a while before I got married. We were working just before the Troubles, then I got involved in Marie Curie for 20 years after the local doctor and nurse asked me to join them. I just loved them. Being with people and supporting them when they are at a vulnerable time was what I wanted to do.

Audrey Johnston (78)

Enniskillen

I always wanted to do nursing from when I was 16. I just had to wait until I was 18 until I started. There was a waiting list to get into the RVH.

It was hard work but the girls, we just all bonded together - it was great. There were hard times but more good. Some of the sisters were strict. There was a Matron Elliott who was strict but fair.

I then went to London with my sister-in-law Florrie to do midwifery in Windsor and we used to see the Royal family quite often.

The hospital we worked in was right beside Windsor castle. We saw the Queen mother and Queen quite regularly. We were there for a year. I then got a job on a ship as a nursing sister. I went to Australia and New Zealand and South Africa. When I came home I couldn't settle and did private nursing for a while but then left for Canada when I was 24. I met Bobby, my husband-to-be. Four months later we were married and we moved to just outside New York.

I had three children and just did a little nursing in America. This year we decided to come back to Enniskillen.

I enjoyed caring for people and the hands-on treatment. It's marvellous being here today. I'll never forget those three years training. You just get a group of friends.

Rae Chivers (nee Ferguson)

Coleraine (78)

My mother thought I wouldn't stay too long. She thought that at the first sight of blood I would be home again. But I proved her wrong! I went to the Throne Hospital first of all on the Antrim Road. It was a lovely building that was a burns unit and dealt with hernias.

We had some craic training there! Then I went to the RVH and got released into the wards. It was rough and ready but good fun. I did midwifery at the Jubilee Hospital. I left in 1962 when I got married. I just missed the Troubles. As nurses, we were lucky. I had three boys and now have 10 grandchildren.

It was great. We all lived in west wing in Ulster house. I have memories of Ovaltine at night. The training was rough when we did it and the sisters were sore on us but we had the camaraderie together and we overcame all that. It was wonderful. It's great to see everyone today.

Helen Smyth, Strabane

I really knew nothing about nursing, I just knew I wanted to do it. Then I got a shock when I started. I was nearly leaving after three weeks. We had a very strict sister on the new starts. But once you got through that you progressed.

I trained for three years and did a year at Altnagelvin as a staff nurse. It had just opened and it was about 1960. I was one of the first nurses there. Looking back I have very happy memories. It has changed now as we got into a training school for three months before we even went near a hospital and taught all the basic things. Now they go to university. I think hands-on was better.

Alison didn't think about nursing but my other daughter Diane did. She was a children's nurse, she gave it up too after getting married after meeting a farmer ... like me! Things that we learned were just so valuable. Even for me when I was bringing up my own family.

Mabel Trory

Armagh, now Belfast (78)

I think 60 years ago nursing was what young girls wanted to do. I think I probably had that instinct to help people. The training was really like being in a family compared to probably what it is like now. We all arrived together and we had weeks together before we stepped on a ward.

Inside the Royal we were looked after as well. We weren't allowed out late at night; we were all only 18 and weren't really treated as adults yet.

But it was lovely. It was always a wee bit scary, though, when you had to give your first injection! I went to Edinburgh for midwifery for a year but came back to do general nursing. I did it in Musgrave Park before I got married. In those days you gave it up when you got married. I have very happy memories of my time nursing.

I went back to help at the Royal with what they called the bank when the Troubles were on. It was completely different, that was around 1979-81. I went wherever they needed us.

Florence Stewart, Armagh (77)

There was a slight possibility of a degree in teaching but nursing outweighed all of it. I trained for three years and it was a wonderful challenge. There were 25 of us. We had a very happy task together and were looked after where we stayed in the RVH.

I remember one time I was to prepare a hot water bottle for a patient. I thought I'd just go and get a jug and do the needful and pour it in. But I met Sister Dodds, she wasn't happy at all and I had to go through the whole structure of temperature of the heat of the water, safety of the hot water bottle, you name it. After training I did midwifery in Scotland. I came home and then did health visiting for about five years.

It's just lovely to be among friends again.

Rosemary Stewart (77)

Randalstown, Co Down

I was 17 when I trained. I came from a medical family and everybody was either a nurse or doctor. We had a wonderful time. It was during the Troubles. It was difficult getting in and out to work.

One day there was a car burning in the middle of the road and everyone was being stopped by police and Army. Fortunately, with my Royal pass I got through. People were relying on you and if some of your colleagues were sick it wasn't good to leave them in the lurch.

I was at the Royal a year after I qualified and then got married. It was 14 years later I went back and stayed for five. It is training for life really. I made a lot of friends and people. It was just wonderful.

Elaine Templeton (77)

Belfast

I always wanted to be a nurse, there was no question. My parents had to go abroad after the war and I went to boarding school and the headmistress there said you went to either Queen's or Strand. I said no, I wanted to do nursing. We really got on with each other, even though there were so many different characters. There were so many memories. I loved theatre and loved working in the neo-surgical ward with the babies. I was a nurse just during the time I trained from 1955-1959. As soon as you got married you had to leave. I was getting married then and had four children. I would have liked to have gone back but by the time I was ready I had the family and the Troubles were on and my husband was away quite a bit. The only thing I could have done was night duty and that wasn't feasible. I went to Stranmillis and I became a teacher. I taught for 24 years - part of it was first aid in schools. Both my daughters went on to nurse. We've all kept together and still know each other very well.

Moyra Gates nee McKay (79)

Ballymena, now in Cornwall

I visited a hospital with an injured workmate and when I entered the hospital I just knew that was what I wanted to do. I was in an office and hated it. I applied to the RVH and sat the entrance test and got in. There are too many happy memories. I met my husband at the Royal teaching.

Medicine has totally changed. The Royal is not as I remember it - but it still does wonderful work. To see 13 of us out of 25 after 60 years is not a bad average. It is wonderful to be here.

Florence Johnston

Fermanagh

It was wonderful being a nurse. I loved meeting all the women during training. After I was trained I worked in Bangor for a while. I enjoyed my time as a nurse. It was lovely to be here again and see everyone.

Cherry Kitton (nee Huddleson) (79)

Originally from Belfast, now in Somerset

When I left school I went into an office job and I was bored. My mother got sick and I had to stay and look after her and the doctor said to me, 'You are doing a great job.'

He told me I would make a great nurse and told me how to get in touch with the Royal Victoria Hospital. There was a waiting list from nine months to a year to start training. I worked in the Throne Hospital, which doesn't exist any more and was a plastic surgery and burns unit. I got there and got a really good grounding. I just took to it like a duck to water. I just really loved it. I moved away as soon as I finished my midwifery training. I went to Canada and worked in the Montreal General for a year.

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