Gwen Beauchamp’s diary
Gwen Beauchamp became a VAD nurse in Mere in 1916. She was a niece of the Commandant Minnie Beauchamp White and she stayed with her aunt at Midsomer Norton and cycled each day to work, but after a nasty accident on an icy road she had to be taken by the milkman to the hospital. Thereafter she was billeted in Mere, for a while with the Workhouse Master in the local workhouse (on Castle St.). She received no pay and so her father paid for her digs. She had only £20 a year uniform allowance and no pocket money at all.
She worked at the Bath Military Hospital from 1918 to 1919 when she contracted Spanish ‘flu in the epidemic of that year. On her recovery, she took on the post of Commandant of the Red Cross Detachment 28 at Midsomer Norton. She also played tennis for Somerset! She married Keith Malcolm in 1924 and moved to Wimbledon where she lived for most of her life.
Extract from the diary of Gwen Beauchamp (cited in Susan Bulmer, ‘Keeping my Distance’, The Pomagne Press, 2004)
“I had joined our local Voluntary Aid Division in August 1914 and my father’s sister, Minnie, who was Commandant of the V.A.D. hospital at Mere in Wiltshire, persuaded my parents to let me go to nurse there. So in October 1916 I became a full time VAD.
Mere Hospital was in the village school, which was a very modern building in those days -two enormous schoolrooms – one called Kitchener Ward and the other French Ward, with four tuberculosis huts (two occupied at that time) in the playground. Matron told me that another full-time VAD was arriving the next week and that she would train us as though we were First year students in Hospital. My opposite number did go on with her training after thewar and became a Sister at Barts…
I shall never forget my first day in the hospital. I was told by Staff Nurse to get a broom, dustpan and brush and sweep Kitchener Ward. Having seen a bottle under every bed I felt I couldn’t face it so I went and locked myself away in the loo in the school yard, next door to the broom cupboard. Shortly afterwards there was a banging on the door, ‘what are you doing, Nurse? Come out at once, get the broom and sweep the ward.’ Staff Nurse…escorted me back to the ward and watched me to see that I took each bottle out to the sluice before sweeping the floor. By that time the troops were enjoying it and making ribald remarks so that I wished the floor would open and swallow me up with all my brushes and blushes.
One day Matron helped us move a badly wounded patient on to a waterbed; a difficult job as he had a large wound in his right thigh. Having eventually got him reasonably comfortable, Matron started to do his dressing assisted by Sister and a V.A.D, training to be a nurse, who was told to hold a large bowl of swabs in lotion. When Matron removed the old dressing and exposed the wound, the nurse passed out and in doing so poured all the swabs over the wretched patient and his bed. After that it was decided that she was not cut out for nursing.
One day Sister asked me to scrub out a tall cupboard in the ward. I think I got myself wetter than the cupboard and the troops roared with laughter and even the really ill ones joined in to give me advice of one sort or another – some of it very unsuitable. Eventually Sister came in and joined in the laughter, and she showed me the drier way to go about it.
“I shall always remember my first day in the Theatre at Mere Hospital. It was a wooden hut in the school play ground with a galvanised roof. Matron was a very small, extremely capable and terrifying woman. The staff and troops were all frightened of her and I had nicknamed her the ‘Mighty Atom’. She was holding a bowl of sterilised instruments in lotion for the surgeon. I can see him now standing there in his braces and shirtsleeves with no mask, no overall, no rubber gloves. Sister from Kitchener Ward was giving the anaesthetic and I was just standing there, ready to do whatever I was told. We were all straight from the wards, possibly washed but not scrubbed-up and dressed in our normal clothes. The patient was a local R.N.V.R. (Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve) man on leave with a double inguinal hernia. The operation was in progress when it suddenly started raining heavily. Rain on a galvanised roof is very noisy. There was a flash of lightning and a terrific clap of thunder overhead, whereupon Matron became white as a sheet, pushed the bowl of instruments into my hands and rushed out of the Theatre and did not return. I can’t remember what happened after that except that the operation was a success and the patient recovered well so presumably I must have done what was required of me. We found out afterwards that the ‘Mighty Atom’ was petrified of thunder and lightning – the one phobia over which she felt she had no control.”
Extract from the diary of Gwen Beauchamp (cited in Susan Bulmer, ‘Keeping my Distance’, The Pomgne Press, 2004)