Memories of Abergele Sanitorium in the early 1950s by John P

An AbergelePost reader who wishes to be known as John P has contributed this fascinating long read article with his memories of being a patient in the Abergele Sanitorium in the early 1950s.

JohnP
The author John P pictured centre c1952

He says :”The whole lot does seem pretty enormous, but I prepared it for my own family record as well and it all has such relevance today, with Covid instead of TB. I was explaining what I was working on to a man in his 40s the other day, and he had never heard of TB or sanatoriums!”

Today, JohnP lives in near the coast in the West Country. Please feel free to use the Comments section at the bottom of this page if you’d like to respond or add your own memories.

Please note that the text and images are JohnP’s copyright and he asks that they not be used elsewhere without his permission. On an historical note, some of the images have been colourised by John. But they seemed to me to help tell John’s story better than the original monochrome ones which he also sent me.

So now, here’s Joh’s article. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading it:

MEMORIES OF MY TIME AS A TB PATIENT FROM 1952 TO 1954, IN ABERGELE SANATORIUM, NORTH WALES

One of my daughters came across the Abergele Post by chance on the internet recently and found in it the memories of former patients at the Abergele Sanatorium, which had been contributed in 2012 by David Hughes, Walter Bond, Nigel Hilton, Craig Hughes and many others.

Knowing that I had been a patient there myself in the early 1950s, she told me about it, and I found it all to be tremendously interesting.  I’ve often thought about the people I met there and my experiences and I decided I would like to share my own recollections with surviving patients, or their families.

I contacted Gareth Morlais, the website proprietor, to see if he would be interested in publishing an account of my time at the sanatorium, including copies of photos which I took at the time and kept in an album and which I fortunately I still had. He said he would be pleased if I would submit an article, which I am now starting to put together.

I am very much aware that it is almost ten years since the original memories were published, and also that many of those people were talking about times spent in the children’s or adult female wards in the main sanatorium buildings, whereas I was in the original Plas Uchaf sanatorium for adult males only. This was situated in a different part of the grounds and I do not know how the treatments differed to ours. Again, each person’s recollections often differ so I make no apologies for any misconceptions  – after all it took place about 70 years ago.

I don’t know how relevant data protection was in 2012, but I think it is very important now, and I hope that this account and the photographs, in no way break any of the rules. If so, please contact Gareth, who will have already looked for such breaches himself before publication. I have added the Christian names of the patients who appear in the photos, where they are noted in my album or where I remember them, but some I cannot remember at all. However, to assist surviving patients or their families, I’ve appended a list of the full names of all the fellow patients I can recollect as being there at the same time as me.

When I started this article, I just intended it to be a follow-up to the memories posted in 2012.  Many of those were of the times when, in the absence of any effective cure for TB and the rapid spread of infection, the disease was endemic. The greater the poverty and the harsher the living conditions, the more prevalent it seemed to be.

My father contracted TB only about two years before I did.  He was in his fifties at the time, an engineer working in hard conditions in an oil refinery. He was sent to a sanatorium in Cheshire, at a time just before the discovery of two wonder drugs, but in a time of antibiotics.  I don’t know if he was given antibiotics or just the traditional treatment which was a bed in the open air, most of the time, and in all weathers.  He was sent home after about six months and never had a recurrence of the disease.  However, I remember other patients there, who were confined to bed, some coughing up blood . What awful times they must have been for their families as well.

I count myself very fortunate. My first intimation that I had contracted TB was on a night in November 1951 when I was in my local youth club. I was hanging a picture up on the wall when I suddenly coughed and a great gout of blood came into my mouth.  I knew straight away what it was and once it was confirmed, I was confined to bed at home till I could be found a place in a sanatorium.

I left school at 17 and commenced five years articles (apprenticeship) with a professional firm in Manchester. I was able to defer my two years National Service until I had completed my articles. My great friend was due to be posted to Egypt to do his National Service, but he didn’t want to go and spent a lot of time with me in my bed at home breathing in the germs so that he could catch TB as well! I would cheerfully have swapped places, but when I saw him again in 1954, he told me what a great time he had. As it turned out, I never did my National Service because I was pronounced medically unfit due to the TB, when the time came.

After I completed this part of my article, I showed it to my daughters and one of them commented that living with TB then was uncannily similar to our own times as we live with another plague, Covid 19, which is indiscriminate, difficult to effectively control so far, and worldwide. This time however we have the tools to fight it.  It made me think that these recollections of mine, together with those of the ex- patients or their families who posted theirs in 2012, may be a piece of social history, of interest to many other people today.   I don’t want to take any credit for any of this, far from it, and I prefer not to disclose my full identity and current location. No doubt someone who knows, or remembers me, will work that out anyway.

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I was admitted to Plas Uchaf in February 1952, the same day that King George VI died.  The male nurse who received us there, Ron Grandage, was wearing a black tie.  I was aged 18 and was living in Manchester with my parents and sister. It was an awful moment when this big, windowless (I think) ambulance arrived to pick me up to take me to some far away location in North Wales, none of us knowing when we would see each other again, like the children who were evacuated to the country in WW2. The ambulance then travelled to another part of Manchester to pick up another patient. He was a lad my age called Roland.

For children, it must have been traumatic to be away from their families, they or their parents not knowing what the outcome would be for them. This would also have been so for adult patients who had wives and families back home.  There were no mobile phones to keep in touch, just a chance to make an occasional call on the ward landline, if permitted.  I certainly didn’t get the chance.  Of course, I was eighteen, I could have been away in the forces fighting in Egypt or Korea, so that a lot of it was a novel experience to me and the nearer I got to being up and about, the more I started to enjoy myself.  I didn’t think enough about the sacrifices my parents were making for me.  Money for them was in short supply, yet they managed to make the long bus trip to visit me and bring any necessities. I look back and think how self absorbed youth can be.

The first ten months were the worst, but nothing like the suffering that my roommate Roland had to put up with. He was the lad who travelled there with me in the February. We were put in a two-bed ward and were assessed the next day.  I had the bed furthest from the window, which was understandable, as his condition was much worse than mine.  I was assessed at what I think was Bed B, which meant I could get up once a day to wash; everything else, bedpans, urine bottles, had to be requested by pressing a bell.  When we wanted to spit out phlegm, which we produced copiously, we had to spit into a papier-mâché sputum box by the side of the bed, for inspection for blood stains and subsequent incineration.

Roland’s lungs were apparently so bad that the castors on the feet at  the bottom of his bed were propped up on 12” high wooden blocks, so that he spent all his time with the bed at an angle of about 30 degrees with his head well below the level of his feet. This was supposed to make the cavities in his lungs compress down and heal, but he may have had parts of his lungs amputated at later dates – I can’t remember what happened to him now. He was classified Bed A: complete confinement to bed.  Although his suffering must have been great, I never heard him complain.  By contrast I was only affected in one lung, with one cavity there.

It was a long hot summer, and I longed to be out in it. All I could see out of the window, which was at the back of the building, were two trees on a sunny hill in the distance and I resolved to find them when I was able to get about. Our entertainment was reading, hobbies such as embroidering teacloths, which I believe prisoners of war used to do and I later made marquetry pictures. Consequently, I was always lying on lost needles or bits of wool and then veneer splinters. An Almoner, as she was called, used to come round and supply the kits and materials and listen to our problems.

We also had earphones for the radio by the bed: BBC Home Service only. My not to be missed programmes were Listen with Mother after lunch and The Archers for 15 minutes in the evening.  In 1950 or 1951 The Archers, which was intended as a sort of advisory programme for the farming community, had replaced Dick Barton, Special Agent, which the BBC had started to broadcast after the war, but which they now deemed too violent   I missed it very much. There was a dramatic episode in The Archers when Grace Archer died in a barn fire.  It was said the BBC had put it on deliberately to coincide with the opening day of commercial television. I should think it had the desired effect.

It being a hot summer, there was a plague of wasps which were flying in the window all the time.  They could give a nasty sting, so I made myself a swatter and became quite adept at catching them in mid-air over the bed and bouncing them off the wall opposite.  They were probably swept up later. I don’t remember being stung.

After ten months on Bed B, I was moved to another two-bed room which I shared with Martin, a very pleasant family man in his forties, who I think was posted there to keep me out of mischief.  I had a sunny bed by an open window and lots of small birds, especially robins and red squirrels came in and ate the food we left on the window sill.  From there I moved to different rooms as my condition improved, until eventually I was allowed to get up all day and I was allocated a chalet from the group in the grounds behind Plas Uchaf.

 

It’s so sad to read from Craig Hughes’ posting that the Plas Uchaf building had been demolished before he bought the site. Had I read his request for photographs in 2012, I could have supplied some, but it may be too late now.  There is a photo of the main building in 1953 in the ones attached to this article.

By 1952, the standard treatment for TB – lots of fresh air in beds on open verandas in all weathers – seemed to have gone as far as Plas Uchaf was concerned. Some treatments we had were probably old ones, but new drugs were being prescribed, these being PAS (short for a nineteen-letter word ending in ‘acid’) and streptomycin. PAS was a white powder in a small papier mache box which you had to soak in water then swallow. It was like swallowing a live snail and it hit your stomach like lead, killing your appetite and making you feel sick.  I had months of it and dreaded its coming.   Streptomycin was a wonder drug, administered by injection and I can’t recall any side effects. It probably cured my TB, as I never had any more trouble when I got home.  It was remarked somewhere in the 2012 memories that antibiotics played a big part in treating TB.  That was possibly before the drugs I’ve mentioned above, and they must have made a huge difference in operations to remove parts of the lung.  I can remember how horrific infections could become before antibiotics.

Another standard treatment for lung cavities, or holes caused by TB, was an AP (artificial pneumothorax), which involved the injection of air into the lung cavity to compress the lung. If the cavity was in the top half of the lung a great darning-type hollow needle was pushed in under the arm between two ribs (if the aim was good) or into the abdomen below the rib cage if the bottom half of the lung had the cavity.  A rubber tube leading from an apparatus was then fitted to the needle and air pumped in through water to replenish the old air, which only lasted a week or so.

Apparently, the lung is suspended in the chest cavity by adhesions attached to the chest wall, otherwise the lung would collapse and for an AP, some of them have to be severed in the theatre to allow the lung to compress. This involved inserting two separate tubes in the back by local anaesthetic, one with a camera to locate the adhesion and the other to sever it.  In my case this was only partly successful because one adhesion contained a blood vessel and they didn’t dare cut it. In fact, I did the job for them some time later when I fell out of bed during an argument (idiot that I was).  I had no discomfort afterwards, but when I had my weekly scan to see how much air I needed, they discovered that my lung cavity was two thirds full of blood and pus and I had to have a huge needle stuck in my back to drain it off. I understandably howled in agony: the doctor told me not to be so soft.  He probably saved my life though.

Another treatment to get a lung collapse which I had, was a phrenic crush.  This involved making an incision in the base of the neck, pulling out the phrenic nerve, crushing it between the finger and thumb then putting it back it in again with a stitch.   I still have the scar today and the needle marks under my arm.   A chest doctor in my local hospital examined me when I had pleurisy 2 years ago and when I explained about my time in the sanatorium and the reason I had the various scars, he was amazed and called another doc in to have a look as well. I felt a bit like a museum specimen, but also faintly important.

Better any of that than major surgery to remove diseased parts of the lung to protect the remainder or removing the whole lung if it failed.  One young man, who appears in the photo of the patients by the putting green, had a lung removed, and recovered sufficiently to be up all day.  Then he tragically caught TB in the other lung and died after a few months. We were all deeply saddened to lose a friend. His was the only death from TB that I recall, although there probably were others and it shows how successful the new drugs were, considering the life expectancy that most patients would have had in all the years before.  I would probably have been one of them, instead of which I am still lucky to have survived to 88 in reasonable health.

In general, the patients in Plas Uchaf were a hardy lot.  Many of them had had tough lives, been through WW2, or had been living in very deprived circumstances.  The hospital was one of the sanatoria on the list for Manchester TB cases and was probably the healthiest to be in.  One guy in my ward had been a Royal Navy stoker in the war and a window cleaner after. He was tough and wiry, but I think he had already lost part of one lung and was taken to surgery one day to have the rest removed.  We heard that he woke up prematurely during the operation and struggled to get off the table. When they tried to get him back on, he shouted  “get off me, I’m no hypochondriac!” .  I met him two years later in Market Street in Manchester, where he was cleaning shop windows. He seemed remarkably fit.

We were from all sorts of backgrounds, all ages from 18 to late middle age and we mostly got on well together. A young soldier about my age arrived at the hospital in an army vehicle one night, probably having caught TB whilst serving his National Service. I never asked. He was a tough character, and not one you’d argue with.  However, I got quite friendly with him when we were allowed up all day, and he and I used to take the bus to towns along the coast like Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Llandudno. I think we visited Gwrych Castle just outside Abergele, where I remember Randolph Turpin the boxer lived at the time and as I write, it is being used for the TV show I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

There was a recreation hall next to Plas Uchaf and film shows were held there now and then. Nurses from the other wards came over and we used to chat to them.  Patients also attended from the other wards. We watched the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth on TV there on 3rd June 1953, as did Walter Bond (his posting on 11.7.21).

Nigel Hilton mentions the forbidding cellars in Plas Uchaf, which were reputed to be haunted.  I thought the whole building was a bit spooky, but never saw a ghost.  I vaguely recall the abandoned Annexe on Tower Hill, which always seemed a bit eerie.

I can remember many of the staff at Plas Uchaf, and quite a few are mentioned in the memories in 2012.

They were:

Dr Morrison, the Hospital Superintendent.  He was a quiet, kindly, Scotsman who ran the hospital well.

The Matron.  A small middle-aged lady who came on her inspection round each evening with the Ward Sister.  Everyone was on their best behaviour.   She could have been the Miss Sarah White Tim Wilkinson mentions. He says she was a friend of the Morrisons and retired in 1960. The matron certainly had a flat in Plas Uchaf, as did the Ward Sister.

The Ward Sister, Margaret Clothier.  She was a lovely, charming woman in her mid -thirties, always kind and helpful, but a good disciplinarian and she took no prisoners when a reprimand was due!  I think she suffered from severe arthritis and was in constant pain.  She was one of my favourite people there.

All the nursing sisters of those days wore the large white wimple headgear, like nuns, and blue dresses and white aprons.

Sister Parry, who had a great sense of humour, Staff Nurse Roberts, Male Sister Bonello, Male Nurse Smith, the Staff Nurse nicknamed “Chiefy”, and Nurse Ron Grandage. I also remember a Staff Nurse, possibly in her early thirties, who had a strong German or Austrian accent.  She strode very briskly around the beds, sorting us out and generally “taking the micky”.   I wonder if she might have been the Miss Rosalie Stirzaker, later Rosalie Fritzsche, mentioned by Jane Young in her post on 20.3 12. If so, she could be well over 100 now.

I remember a male nurse, possibly the Mr Timothy mentioned by Walter Bond, who was usually on the evening rounds. He introduced me to a very enjoyable weekly competition in John Bull magazine called Bullets.  You were given a word or expression and had to enter your Bullet reply in a double meaning way.  The classic Bullet clue which illustrates it was “Wedding March”, answer “Aisle Altar Hymn”.  I never even approached that standard. He also wrote short stories which he read out to us, hot off the press.

Among the Nurses who came to the film shows whom I recall, were Betty Brookes, Eirlys Hughes and Eileen Cullivan.  Nurse Hughes may have been the same one Christine Roberts mentions in her posting in 2012.

My stay in Abergele had a long-term effect on my life. After the freedom I had enjoyed exploring such a beautiful part of the country, next to the sea like when I was in Scotland up to the age of eight, I was very reluctant to go back to a city and the profession I was training for. So I worked for six months as a ward orderly on the boys’ ward in the main block, My tasks included emptying bed pans and urinal bottles, taking patients’ temperatures, and cleaning the perspex screens between the beds, but I wasn’t very good at it apparently and was threatened with the sack if I didn’t show more enthusiasm, by the formidable female nurse in charge of the ward. Also, I had to do night shifts some weeks, and I hated having to have my dinner, which was made the day before, at 7.00 in the morning, before I went back to my room to sleep. This is a fact of life for much of the nursing profession, of course.

I knew I had to go back home sometime and, no doubt to my parents’ relief, I did, early in 1954, and completed the remaining years of my training, and the exams, by late 1957.  Manchester was by the late fifties a transformed city . The soot and grime had gone from the buildings and public places and the beautiful architecture around could now be seen, and the poor housing of most of the inner city areas had been replaced. However, I still yearned for a country life.  My wife was happy to move away too, so in 1961 I joined a professional practice in a West Country coastal town, where we have lived for over 60 years.  I retired in 1994, 27 years ago.

We have been to North Wales, or Clwyd, many times over the years, for holidays or to visit friends, but I have only revisited the hospital once, just to stop and look through the gates. As Tim Wilkinson says in his posting on 7.7.2012, the place wouldn’t be as I remembered it, and I don’t want to spoil my treasured memories.

John  Patterson

December 2021

 

APPENDIX   -NAMES OF PLAS UCHAF  PATIENTS  IN 1952-1953 THAT I RECALL,  IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER

Jimmy ADAMSON,  Dennis BETNEY,  George BOWEN,  Hughie BURKE,  Brian DENTON, Gordon DAVIES,  Jim

ELSON,  Eddie GREENALL,  Whitfield GRAY,  Eric GRUNDY,    Geoffrey HIBBERT,  Henry HIGGINS,  Roland

HILL,   Arthur HULSON,   Mick “Geordie” IVORY,  Captain JONES,  Derek LOCK,  Frank MARTIN, Martin ??, 

Sam McKEE,  Joe POWER,  John SINCLAIR,  Philip SPEARS,  Harold TOMKINSON,  George TOOLE,  Paddy

WHELAN,  Tommy YOUNG

 

Just to repeat that the text and images are JohnP’s copyright and he asks that they not be used elsewhere without his permission.

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