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2024 Young Or Golden Writer
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'A story of love and tragedy'

Based on a true story, Gwendoline explores the challenges facing women in the 1900s, the struggles confronted by individuals suffering from mental health issues, and the devastating impact these issues can have on their families.

First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

The flat above Freeman, Hardy & Willis, the shoe shop on Western Road, Brighton, was the first home Gwen remembered as a young girl. Her father Sidney Oddy was described on his marriage certificate as a “cobbler”. He had indeed started out as a shoemaker, but by the time Gwen was born her father had been promoted to be the manager of the shop above which he and his wife Annie and their eleven children lived. The company, which had been founded in 1875, was proud to declare that it provided “Shoes for all the family”. In the case of Sidney’s large family this was no mean undertaking, and a considerable perk of his employment with the firm in the early part of the twentieth century. New shoes as and when required were provided free and “on the house” to all children of management employees of the company.

Gwen was one of the youngest of the children in the Oddy family. She’d had five brothers and five sisters, in addition to the sixth sister, Cissie, who had burnt to death as a young girl. Still in her night dress, she had been ironing clothes with an old smoothing iron which was being heated on the hob of burning coals next to the ironing board. A spark from the coals caught her night dress on fire and she burned to death there in the living room. Her screams were horrendous for all the family to hear. Her mother Annie rushed into the room to find her daughter writhing in pain on the floor, her nightdress and her pretty long fair hair set alight in flames. Annie screamed out to Sidney for help and he and Annie dashed backwards and forwards with bowls of water from the kitchen sink to throw over Cissie. But they were unable to save their daughter, who died in her sobbing mother’s arms in a very short time.

Gwen had been too young to remember the incident, but the horror of the story she was later told of her older sister’s death was to haunt her for the rest of her life. This was a tragedy which had affected them all, but was apparently accepted with more grit and determination by the close-knit family than would have been the case a century later. Both Gwen’s parents had strongly held religious beliefs – they were committed members of the Congregational Church – and in the years to come explained to their other children that they’d had to accept their loss of Cissie as “God’s Will”. It was true that many children died in childhood in those days, particularly from infectious diseases and malnutrition, and this was one of the reasons that couples like Sidney and Annie had large families in the first place, as an insurance against life’s cruel depredations. But this can’t have made the death of Cissie any less terrible for her parents to bear.

When Gwen was about ten years old, her father was moved with his family to manage the Freeman, Hardy & Willis shop twenty miles east along the Sussex coast in Bexhill-on-Sea. This was hardly a promotion – being transferred from the large town of Brighton to its smaller neighbour, however pleasant and indeed rather genteel the new town might have been considered. The fact of the matter was, that Sidney knew his transfer to the smaller branch would reduce his salary and affect the size of the pension he was to receive when he retired in only a few years’ time. That was why the company had arranged to downgrade his position and its lower pensionable status. He was aware that the company had employed such a strategy with the managers of other branches who Sidney was in contact with. But he never sought to complain and never mentioned his insight into why his transfer was being made, not even to his wife Annie.

At the age of eleven, in 1922, Gwen went on to the secondary school on the Bexhill Downs. Four years after this, the County School for Boys and Girls, which was later to become the Bexhill Grammar School, was opened half a mile up the road from her secondary school. But entry to the new school was by an academic examination. Gwen could not remember whether it had ever been suggested that her name should be put forward to transfer to this new school, or indeed whether she had actually taken the exam. It may have been that, being from such a large family of children whose parents, loving and caring though they were, were not from an academic background, the possibility of Gwen sitting an examination to gain entrance to the new County School had not even been considered.

In spite of spending all of her time in the less scholarly secondary school, whether by design or default, Gwen proved herself as intellectually quite bright. She was certainly outwardly thinking enough to have aspirations to become something more than a secretary or housewife, which was the path of so many young women in that era, whether they liked it or not. She decided at a young age that she wanted to train to be nurse, but at that time never had the courage to raise this possibility with her parents, who she feared would not approve of the idea.

Chapter 2

One evening in 1925 Gwen was sitting at the table in the living room doing her homework. Her father had finished his supper and was standing with his waistcoat unbuttoned next to the fire lighting his pipe, his tie discarded and his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows after work. He coughed loudly to catch her attention, and Gwen looked up from her school books.

‘So, my girl. You’re fourteen at the end of June. What do you want to do with your life after you’ve left school in July?’ This was the moment that Gwen had been prepared for. She had known this question would arise sometime soon; now was the time for her to tell her father what was in her heart.

‘I don’t want to leave school, father. I want to continue with my studies.’

‘You’re thinking of secretarial college then?’ her father asked her.

‘No, father. I don’t want to become a secretary like a lot of the girls I know do. And I have no intention of becoming a housewife either, come to that!’

‘Well, I can’t think what else you might be wanting for yourself. Being a housewife has been a very satisfactory life for your mother. You’re not getting ideas above your station, I hope?’ her father challenged her, making clear his disapproval.

‘No, father. I want to train to be a nurse.’

‘A nurse! That’s a job only fit for “gentlewomen” to pursue; either that, or it’s the resort of “fallen” women, so they tell me! And you’re not in either of those brackets – at least not in my house! – and I forbid you ever taking up such an inappropriate occupation!’ Her father hit his pipe hard against the side of the grate, emptying the tobacco he had just spent some time packing into the pipe’s bulb out into the fire in his anger at his daughter’s stated intentions. Her mother stood at the open kitchen door, anxiously wiping a cup with a tea towel as she listened nervously to the exchange which had just taken place. But she kept quiet and said nothing in support of Gwen’s wishes, evidently agreeing with her husband about the matter.

So, as fate would have it, Gwen had to wait until she was legally old enough to make her own decisions, before she was able to leave home to enrol as a student nurse in London. In those days no sane young woman would run away from their home and parents and risk ending up in poverty, or worse. And, in any case, Gwen was a dutiful daughter who loved her parents. In spite of her father’s unreasonable intransigence regarding her career aspirations, she did not want to leave home in anger, perhaps never to have contact with her family again. So she continued to bite her tongue, from then on not discussing the subject again with her mother or her father.

When she did leave the Downs secondary school that summer, she got herself a job in the haberdashery shop Greens in Devonshire Road. She loved it there; it was like a magic cave, with swatches of material and velvet curtains in all shades hanging down the walls and drawers full of reels of cotton and buttons on cards. She was mesmerised at first by the cash-carrier which fired a metal canister pneumatically around the ceiling from the counter with money to the cashier in her cubicle, and a receipt and change from her back to the counter. The manageress was a kind woman who looked after Gwen and the other girls in the shop and treated them well, as long as they behaved themselves. And Gwen made a number of good friends while working there. The money she earned was not bad, although every Thursday when she received her weekly wage as cash in a brown envelope she passed all of it on to her mother when she got home the same evening, to help with the family’s expenses. Her mother would sometimes give her a sixpence back if Gwen asked if she could have something to spend on herself, such as a trip to the cinema with her friends at the weekend.

But Gwen never lost sight of her determination to become a nurse. She would avidly read any book or magazine with a nurse in the story, and also made sure she got to see all the films about hospital life which were being shown at the Curzon cinema. In the September after she left school she enrolled at night school and spent her evenings studying hard. She didn’t tell her mother and father what she was studying for and why, and by that time they seemed to have lost interest in what she was doing in any case. Three years later Gwen passed all her matriculation exams with adequate marks.

Chapter 3

Every Sunday Gwen would go to the Congregational church in Bexhill with her family for the morning service and, very often, back in the evening for the evening service as well. The morning service was generally very popular, with frequently as many as a hundred people in the congregation. As she grew up, what she came to like about the denomination was that it was a liberal church which encouraged free thinking. Indeed, there were quite a few liberal-minded politicians and other eminent members of society who had been brought up in the church in their early days. Each local church was allowed to run itself democratically by the members, rather than by diktats from bishops or Popes above them, and encouraged engagement with the up-to date life around them. In this and other respects, it was quite different from the Baptists, strict or otherwise, and the Methodists, both of whom frowned on many aspects of “normal” modern life, such as public singing and dancing, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Gwen was looking forward to the Halloween night party which was being held at the Territorial Army hall, next to her old school, on Thursday. Luckily, it was at half term for her college, which meant that she would not have to miss her evening class on that day that week. When she arrived, with her younger brother Stuart to chaperone her, the partygoers were already having a good time. The hall was decked out with witches on broomsticks hanging from the ceiling and huge pumpkins which sat on every window sill, their eyes and mouths carved out – with gaping, jagged teeth and sinister grins – and lit up by tea light candles burning inside them. Her parents hadn’t been interested in coming with them, but people of all ages were there, including entire families. A lot of those on the dance floor were older people, but Gwen was relieved to see that there were a good number of young people her age as well. As usual for those days women considerably outnumbered men, especially younger men, who were often working away from home or in the forces.

One young man she recognised immediately was Roy Baines, who was standing by his own at the edge of the hall. He was the brother of her friend Muriel. He was a softly spoken, rather shy young man, tall and thin with his black hair neatly parted to one side. She chatted to him quite often in the church vestibule at the end of services or at meetings in the church hall. She had already learnt he was quite a serious young fellow, but an interesting one once you got to know him and not as silly as many of the young men of his age. Gwen had got to like him and was pleased when he looked up and gave her a wave from the other side of the hall as she walked in.

‘Would you like to dance, Gwen?’ Roy appeared in front of her after about fifteen minutes. Gwen was a pretty girl, with her hair tied up in a bun behind her head, and it was perhaps surprising that other men had not approached her to dance already. She didn’t speak, but stood up and smiled at Roy in agreement, her head on one side. He reached out and took her right hand, placing his right arm around her waist as they stepped out onto the dance floor together. They did not have the luxury of a live band to dance to, but one of the men was in charge of a very good phonograph on the stage which made an adequate alternative. Gwen was enjoying herself, and danced with Roy a number of times.

At the end of the evening her brother Stuart seemed to have disappeared, but Roy offered to walk her home. They walked slowly, talking and listening to each other, sharing what had been happening to them recently. Roy started to tell Gwen about the building works his father’s firm was involved in along the coast. He was clearly very excited about whatever this was, but did not go into the detail of what was involved, or its purpose. ‘It’s a State secret, really. I can’t tell you mo…more. Please don’t repeat any of this to anybody else, Gwen,’ he added.

She had noticed before that Roy had a slight stammer, just occasionally, especially when he was excited.

‘That’s exciting, Roy. And, don’t worry, I won’t discuss this with a soul!’ Gwen said with a little laugh, still completely unsure what it was he had been trying to tell her. She didn’t want him to think she was mocking him.

As they reached her house he took her hand. ‘I’ve had a lovely evening. I say, Gwen – I don’t sup…suppose you’d like to come with me to the Curzon sometime? I happened to notice in The Observer that there are a number of good films being shown over the next few weeks.’

‘That would be lovely, Roy. Thank you for inviting me. I’ll let you choose the film.’ She stood on her tip toes and kissed him on the cheek. She waved goodbye as she let herself into her parents’ house.

Chapter 4

One Friday night, the week after her twenty-first birthday, and after both her parents had gone to bed, Gwen reached down the suitcase from the top of the wardrobe in her bedroom. She began to pack it quietly – so as not to disturb her parents and her brothers and sisters who were still living at home – with the clothes and essential items she had been collecting together over the last few days. She had written to her aunt Hettie in Streatham – who was actually her mother’s cousin – asking if she could come to stay with her for a while whilst she was applying for nurse training school. She told Hettie that she would be able to arrange her own accommodation as soon as she had been accepted. She had also explained in the letter that her parents had not approved of the idea of her training to become a nurse, but that she was dead set on it and desperately wanted to pursue a career in nursing. For this reason, she wrote to Hettie, she would very much appreciate it if she did not mention her plan to her mother or father at the moment.

She had received an enthusiastic and supportive letter from Hettie that morning, telling her that she and her husband would be very happy to accommodate Gwendoline for a while and promising not to tell her parents what she was planning until she was ready to do so herself.

So at four thirty the next morning, before even her mother had woken up, Gwen let herself quietly out of the front door of the house with her suitcase and made her way to the Central station to catch the first train of the day from Bexhill to Croydon. She left a note for her mother on the kitchen table, telling her she loved her and that she would be in touch within a few weeks.

Gwen was excited about the life ahead of her. The only regret she had was that she would be leaving Roy behind. By then they had become a couple and she knew this would only be a temporary separation. Roy had promised to come and visit her in Streatham as often as he could.

Chapter 5

In September 1932, aged 21, Gwen entered nurse training school. She was the oldest girl in her year, because she had not gone into nursing straight after leaving school, which was the case for the rest of her class. She had applied to and been accepted by St James’ Hospital in Balham, South London. She hadn’t known where to apply to, and had picked St James’ mainly because its entry qualifications were less rigorous and also because it was not far from her aunt Hettie’s house in Streatham. She had been nervous about visiting the centre of London – she still was – but had also assumed that the most prestigious teaching hospitals in the centre of the capital would be unlikely to take her on.

But St. James’ Balham was a more ambitious place than she had anticipated. It was a large and busy hospital in a densely populated area of South London, a hospital of nearly 900 beds, planned to serve every need of the local population. The Hospital Board had decreed that no case should ever be refused, as a result of which the hospital received the whole spectrum of emergency and routine medical and surgical conditions. The hospital had come to acquire quite an eminent reputation since the Great War, not least in the surgical disciplines.

The School of Nursing was a popular place to train and took in 120 student nurses every year to its three year State Registered Nurse training course. During the 1920s a new nurses’ home had been built, accommodating 155 members of staff, with another block for the nurses’ home having been added three years later. Almost all of the nurses lived in the nurses’ home, given the fact that it was next door to the hospital and convenient for the long hours they all had to work. Gwen moved in there at the start of her first term, thanking her Aunt Hettie for having been so kind to her, so that she could now be independent and close to her place of work. Her nursing training was very much centred on learning to care for the sick patient, although inevitably parts of the course included the teaching of basic anatomy and physiology. Gwen would never forget one summer afternoon when nursing tutor Margaret Young gave her group of student nurses an outdoor anatomy class on the terraced area of the roof of St James’, using a full size human skeleton hanging by its skull from a metal stand to illustrate the subject. The arms of the skeleton would sway backwards and forwards in the breeze from time to time, as if it was coming back to life once more in a Danse Macabre, now that it had been let out of its cupboard. Gwen and her student nursing colleagues could not resist giggling throughout the whole of the class as the skeleton jigged about behind the nursing tutor’s back.

After completing her training and passing all her exams to become a State Registered Nurse (SRN), in 1935 Gwen obtained a post as a staff nurse in the casualty department of St. James’. This was a busy job, the arrival of accidents and emergencies never ceasing, twenty four hours a day, in this populated area of South London.

One evening she was on duty with another staff nurse colleague when the doors swung open and ambulance men started to bring in patients on stretchers from the row of ambulances which were drawing up outside, their blue lights flashing. The casualty department sister had gone off duty only fifteen minutes before. Gwen realised at once that this was some sort of general emergency, not just the arrival of one or two patients from a road accident or from home because of any other medical or surgical emergency.

Gwen stood at the door, rapidly assessing each patient and directing each stretcher case to the minor, major or critical beds in the department which were ready to accept new comers. She had already picked up the phone and asked the switchboard to Tannoy all medical and surgical doctors in the hospital to report to casualty immediately. Her other staff nurse colleague was busy allocating other nurses and nursing auxiliaries to each available cubicle. She could see that all of the men being brought in – they appeared to be all men – were dressed in rags, malnourished and even emaciated. Their boots were dirty and worn down, their feet blistered and bleeding. Even in this area of south London, where there was so much poverty, she had not seen patients in this number who looked so impoverished. Not in one large group, in any case.

‘What’s going on, Bert?’ she asked the next ambulance worker who had just brought a patient in. She recognised him from his frequent visits to the department. He was one of the ambulance crew based at the Balham ambulance station and St James’ was therefore his most frequent port of call.

‘It’s the Jarrow boys,’ Bert replied. ‘There’re being sent in to us from all over London – Edgware and Marble Arch and Westminster – in their scores.’

‘What’s this all about?’ Gwen asked.

‘Haven’t you read the papers, love?’ Bert replied. ‘These poor boys are just a few of the thousands of bastards who have walked all the way from Jarrow in the North East of England to protest about the closure of the shipyard there and the poverty and unemployment they and their families live in.’

Gwen was astonished. It was a fact: her job was so busy that she very rarely had the time to listen to the wireless, let alone read a newspaper and know what was going on in the world outside her small island here at St James’. The department was by this time being invaded by teams of doctors – medical and surgical – who had responded to her emergency call on the Tannoy, assessing each patient in the department as they went around.

After about an hour the wave of emergencies had started to die down. Her staff nurse colleague swapped place with her at the entrance door, and Gwen started to walk around the cubicles which were all full, with some trolleys still in the corridors, in spite of the fact that a number of patients had already been taken off to the surgical wards or even to theatre to be operated on their broken limbs or other urgent surgical issue. She was giving reassurance to the patients, as well as to her more junior nursing colleagues and student nurses, who, like her, had never had to deal with an emergency anything like this before. At that moment she felt like her heroine, Florence Nightingale at the battle of Crimea. Very quickly, she was able to see that the men that had been admitted to the department were not truly “emergencies”, in the strict definition of the word. They had bleeding blisters on their feet and sores elsewhere on their bodies, and most of them had collapsed with exhaustion onto the road as they reached London, their final destination, sometimes sustaining bony injuries as they did so. But all of them were so generally malnourished and emaciated as to come into the category of “chronic disease” patients. They had not been brutally injured by amputation or internal wounds from gunfire and ordnance, like the soldiers of the Crimean war. But they were starving and emotionally damaged by the life of poverty and depredation that they, their women and children had had to endure. Either way, they had collapsed on the road and had been brought in by ambulance.

‘Are you comfortable, sir?’ Gwen asked the next patient she came to. (She always spoke with respect to all her patients, whatever their social status, age or other category.)

‘’Ahm al reet, bonnie lass,’ he replied. Gwen was bemused for a moment by the man’s reply in the vernacular.


Jeremy Bending Fri, 05/04/2024 - 21:15

The front cover is an artistic impression depicting a scene from
the Pevensey marshes in East Sussex. Gwendoline was to spend
some of the happiest days of her life exploring the marshes
during the idyllic summer of 1943, when in WW2 she and Roy
were evacuated to the small village of Hooe, which sits on the
edge of the marshes

Jeremy Bending Wed, 01/05/2024 - 12:55

Jeremy Bending's previous four books can be viewed on his website at: