Matron told us: 'I'll take the Irish, because I need you but I don't have to take the coloureds'
In 1952, Putney took in about 20 new trainee nurses - mostly from Ireland, like me, but also from Holland, Germany, Hungary, Italy and England. There were strong, unresolved post-war feelings and I'm sorry to say that racism abounded, unchecked. Matron, a small intense woman called Miriam Sturgeon, said quite baldly to us that 'I'll take the Irish, because I need you, but I don't have to take the coloureds'.
However, the Dutch would not sit down with the Germans, even if they were Jewish, and there was a hell of a lot of strife between them then, which I found quite bewildering at first. One of my first new trainee friends was a lovely Dutch girl called Hanse. She was 19 and from Amsterdam, and she told me the most terrible story which explained her attitude towards the Germans...
She would stand up and eat, her back to the wall, and Sister would command, 'Sit down, nurse,' and Hanse would retort, saying, 'No, Sister, I'm fine where I am'. I'd be thinking, 'Oh, sweet Jesus, she's in for it,' and I'd entreat her to sit down next to me. 'I'm not sitting next to a verdammte Deutsche,' she'd spit. I didn't really understand the depth of her feelings or the reasons for them then at all. I was so naïve back then. But Hanse would say, 'You know, Mary, the Germans killed us in Holland, just because we were hungry, so I'm not sitting down'.
Infuriated by this insubordination, Sister would stride off and get Matron, telling her there was a war still going on with the prelim nurses; Matron would then march back in, alongside Sister, and snap at the Dutch protesters, 'Have you no dignity, girls? Sit down'. Unperturbed, Hanse would say, 'Gott verdammt the lot of us'. Matron would bark, 'Well, you'll all have to learn to rub along together. The war is over now'. Indeed, on the wards she would not settle for anything else, despite Hanse's and Christe's painful feelings. We were told over and over we all had a job to do, and we had to get on and do it, regardless of any personal grudges or feelings. But the Dutch and the Germans were red rags to a bull, while the Irish were stuck in the middle with the English, for a change. For me, this was a real turn-up for the books.
Sixty Years a Nurse by Mary Hazard (with Corinne Sweet) is published by Harper Element