In 1941, at the age of five, Wendy Fearnley caught scarlet fever and spent seven weeks in isolation at the Monsall Fever Hospital, Manchester, UK. She explains what that was like:
It was 1941, and I was five years old and living in Manchester when I contracted Scarlet Fever. My memory begins in a side ward, with a doctor giving me an injection and me whining, ‘that’s 13 injections. I don’t want any more.’ He replied, ‘Not many more.’ This was before penicillin was available and I think I was treated with sulphur.
The next day I was moved into a long ward with high windows above the beds. Heavy wooden tables ran down the centre of the room. Patients were not allowed out of bed and each morning a nurse brought an enamel bowl to our bedside and she washed our hands and faces. There were no toothbrushes and I never cleaned my teeth.
We ate three meals a day and our main meal was lunch. One day it was a smelly, bad tasting fish cake. Although I was hungry I couldn’t eat it but I was told I would get nothing else until it was gone. At tea-time I refused to eat it again as it smelt even worse. It was returned to me for breakfast the next day but a different nurse said, ‘What’s this? Take it away’ and the ordeal was finally over. Tea-time was my favourite meal. We had a sandwich, two plain biscuits and a sweet. If the sweet was a dolly mixture we would get three.
We had no toys or books but I had my glasses and I would play with them, pretending they were swings for fairies and I’d talk to the fairies and make up stories for them. I can’t remember ever being bored or lonely. There was a lot happening on the ward and I liked watching what was going on. One evening I watched a mouse run under my bed and I was so excited I called the nurse. By the time she arrived the mouse was gone and she slapped me hard across the face and called me a liar and a naughty girl – and the sense of injustice has stayed with me.
It was an isolation hospital and we were not allowed any visitors at all. My father was away in the air force and my mother was heavily pregnant, with two small children at home, and was not able to make the three bus rides to visit. One day I was told I had a visitor and was instructed to stand by the door and wave. I didn’t see anything but a little later a nurse held me up to the window and I saw a smart woman standing outside. She was wearing a hat and dressed in black and she waved back. It probably took twenty seconds, just long enough for me to recognise granny.
One night I was awakened by the sound of sirens and a nurse ran through the ward, screaming hysterically. We were in the midst of a very heavy bombing raid. Two more nurses appeared, lifted me up and made me sit under the table. Shortly after we were transferred to another part of the hospital where mattresses had been arranged in special indoor shelters. I settled in and must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew I woke up to find myself back in the ward.
We were made to sleep every afternoon and one day I was surprised to be awakened by a nurse sitting on my bed and smiling. The nurses were usually too busy to smile or talk to us but she said, ‘you’ve had a letter today. Would you like me to read it to you?’ She had already opened and read the letter so she told me I had a new sister and her name was Jennifer. ‘That’s nice, isn’t it,’ she said. I don’t remember being excited or interested but I agreed it was nice and then the nurse took my letter away before I could read it myself.
Perhaps a week later, Aunty Frances (who was a nurse) arrived to take me home. I was dressed for the first time in six or seven weeks and my legs felt very strange. It was now the end of October and cold and dark outside. There was very thick smog and I was worried that Aunty Frances would not be able to see through the smog and that we would get lost on the way home. We had to change buses and I clung to her, staring at the dull yellow lights that appeared through the gloom.
When I got home my mother handed me Jennifer to feed and said, ‘You’ve been a good girl, my little right hand help.’ I was the eldest and so proud to be the right-hand help. Later, my sister Hazel caught scarlet fever and when the ambulance arrived, painted all over with Disney pictures of Mickey Mouse, I knew she was being deceived into thinking she was going away for some fun. I ran down the path after the ambulance drivers (who were carrying Hazel on a stretcher) and yelled, ‘Leave her alone!’ When she came home six weeks later she refused to talk to my mother. My mother was very upset but after a few more days everything returned to normal.
Wendy Fearnley moved to New Zealand in 1960 and lives in Christchurch.
Read her story about giving birth in 1959 here.