Ethel Corduff

As a nursing student at the City General Hospital. I am standing in the hospital grounds in front of a maternity hospital being built. I am a second year as shown by my two epaulettes, in 1966. Image courtesy Ethel Corduff

I left school at fifteen after passing the Intermediate Certificate. After a few years of working at low wages in Dublin and Killarney, I felt there was no future for me in Ireland at that time. Most of my friends had gone nursing to England. My mind was made up practically overnight that I would go to England.

I answered two advertisements for student nurses in The Universe, a Catholic publication which I thought would only have reputable hospital advertisements. The City General Hospital, Stoke on Trent was the first to reply. Within a few weeks I received a letter of acceptance with an invitation to start as soon as possible, as a pre-nursing student before the next preliminary training began in two months.

I was so excited on departure day; I just did not feel sad. It was my first time ever to leave Ireland, even for a holiday.

Crewe was a big, noisy, dirty station where I boarded the train for Stoke on Trent. As the train neared my destination it was horrifying to see the sight of chimneys everywhere. Smoke filled the sky; there were many strange looking buildings. I was to discover later they were kilns. I was now in the Potteries!

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The hospital was huge. Matron Agnes Brown was from County Mayo. She was a forbidding looking figure in black and her huge white nurse’s cap reminded me of a nun’s veil. Her voice was powerful, and terrifying. Matron welcomed us to the hospital and listed all the times of the Masses in the hospital chapel and in the nearest church at Newcastle under Lyme. She recommended daily Mass and later we discovered she was there every morning and could see which nurses attended.

A group of my friends are celebrating a birthday in one of the nurse's bedrooms. I am sitting at the front. We spent a lot of time congregating in one another's bedrooms. Courtesy Ethel Corduff

I had hardly ever handled a baby but I found I was expected to feed, change, and observe them without orientation. It was July and so very hot. We had to wear masks all the time. The smell of urine and faeces penetrated the mask.

The pre-nursing students did all the menial work, sluicing used napkins and heavily soiled linen. The others seemed to know so much about babies I felt cut off from them.

I was so homesick, some nights I cried so much I could hardly sleep. After three long hot weeks of masks, daily church and sick babies, I could not take it anymore. Once I had made the decision to go, I waited in the queue outside Matron’s office. She surveyed my untidy appearance with disdain. ‘Well, Nurse.’ She boomed. ‘I want to leave, Matron, I will never make a nurse.’ She started shouting at me. ‘Coming all the way from Ireland you are a disgrace to your parents, you have no guts or backbone, obviously you are not fit to be a nurse. It is disgraceful behaviour and I am disgusted.’

In a terrible state and feeling like a criminal I eventually crawled out of her office. Chastened and nervous, within an hour I was back in Matron’s office. She was furious to see me again. ‘What is it this time?’  She yelled and she did not call me nurse. ‘I have changed my mind Matron. Can I stay on and go into PTS please?’ ‘You can’t keep changing your mind like this.  If I allow you to stay you will not be able to leave until you finish your training.’ she retorted angrily. I was trapped.

The three years ahead would be very difficult, but I knew I would have to endure it and I did: I grew to love it, becoming a ward sister and years later an acting ward manager and I nursed until I reached retirement and five years beyond.

Extracts from Ethel Corduff’s forthcoming book on Irish nurses, Ireland’s Loss Britain’s Gain