A bit about me part 2

In the autumn of I think 1954; my father borrowed a car to take us to see the Illuminations in Blackpool. The car was a Ford Popular that my grandfather had bought a few months earlier and at just under £400 was the lowest priced car you could buy in Britain. It was black in colour and extremely basic compared to modern cars; however it did the job rarely breaking down. The weekend holiday was almost a family outing as my Aunty and Uncle also came along in their car.      

We hadn’t booked into any accommodation, which was a huge mistake as we couldn’t find any and had to spend a couple of nights sleeping in the car. This would not be that comfortable for a family of 2 adults and 3 children in a modern car but in that pop up Ford it must have been horrendous. I have a distant memory of it being very cold each night.

I can’t remember the family ever going away on holiday for a week or more. My father had a job driving buses for Newport Corporation, which was not that well paid so we just couldn’t afford the luxury of holidays. Most of the time we just went on day trips to Barry Island, Penarth or Porthcawl.

On a trip to Barry Island I can remember swimming in the outdoor pool, which used to be situated at one end of the beach. The pool was filled by seawater when the tide came in and was supposed to be a safe area for children to play when the tide was out. However the walls were made of concrete, which were usually covered by algae causing people to often slip and graze their lower limbs. In addition it was not that hygienic as one time I saw a piece of pooh bobbing up and down in front of me whilst I was trying to swim. I believe the pool is no longer there having been filled in probably for ‘health and safety’ reasons.

At Christmas many of our relatives used to spend a day or so in my Auntie Eva’s house in Magor Street where she lived almost next door to my Great Nana. Most of the parents would sleep downstairs in one or other of the houses by pushing armchairs together whilst the children would sleep top and tail in the beds upstairs. On Christmas Day or it may have been Boxing Day, we would wake to find stockings for each of us filled with apples, oranges and sweets as well as a few presents each.

Sometime in 1955 I collapsed in the street near our house whilst walking to school. It must have been before the end of the summer term, as I have no school report for July 1955. I can faintly recall being taken to hospital probably the Royal Gwent in Newport by ambulance. For some reason the doctors weighed me and told my parents I was only 3 stone 8 pounds far below what a boy of my age should weigh. They diagnosed me as having TB in the stomach, which was quite unusual at the time.

My parents were told that the reason the doctors didn’t discover the disease in my first spell in hospital was that they had X-Rayed my chest and not stomach. To be fair to the medical fraternity I have since found out that diagnosis of abdominal tuberculosis usually takes a long time and not always accurate. I thank them that they did find out what was wrong with me in the end and for eventually making me better.     

Within a few days I was sent off to Kensington Hospital, which was a sanatorium near St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire where I was to spend the next 18 months as one of the ‘balcony boys’.
Built in the 19th century as a grand country house for Lord and Lady Kensington it was originally known as St Brides Castle. It became a sanatorium in the 1920s when the Kensington family decided to move to a smaller home near Haverfordwest and then it became known as Kensington Hospital, specializing in TB cases. It stayed open until 1978 and treated children primarily from South and West Wales.     

The hospital was over 120 miles from my home in Newport and in the days before the M4 motorway was built travel times by both car and train were long. I am not sure how I was taken to the hospital but I doubt it was by car, as my parents didn’t own one back then. I was probably taken to Haverfordwest by train and then transported the last 12 miles by ambulance or bus.

The main treatment for TB back then was the drug streptomycin. Initially I was given this as an injection in the morning and evening. My arms were so thin that after a couple of weeks they had to use my bottom. Eventually that became so sore they tried giving me it in tablet form. The tablets were roughly the size of the boxes containing the strips of caps you used to buy to fire in toy pistols. I could not swallow these large tablets so the nurses had to give me the medicine as a drink initially straight but then diluted with orange juice as the taste of streptomycin is one that really needs to be acquired.

My strongest memory was spending the best part of a day strapped to a bed in a strait jacket because I refused to eat tomatoes with my meal. Despite the horror stories that have recently emerged about the NHS imagine the outcry if that happened today. To this day I still have distaste for tomatoes and occasionally think back to the time I spent in that strait jacket. My granddaughters couldn’t believe that this happened to me when I told them; however Megan and Ceinwen I assure you it did.
Other recollections are of me singing a duet of ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes’ at a Christmas party with a girl in an adjacent ward. As we were both confined to our beds at the time we could not see each other but we were still expected to sing. Back in those days I did have a good singing voice unlike today.   
I am not sure how long I was confined to my bed but I know it was a matter of months rather than days or weeks. Even when I was allowed to get out of bed it was only for an hour or so before I had to get undressed and back to bed. When you were allowed to get out of bed for 2 or more periods in a day we would often pretend to get undressed but would in fact keep our clothes on under the blankets so we could get up quicker the next period. The nurses probably knew what we did but often didn’t tell us off for doing it.

The long time spent in bed meant many of us were bored and often thought up little games or pranks to play on the nurses. Stink bombs were often obtained and thrown into the nurses’ office or let off by the beds.
Another game, if you could call it a game, was seeing how far people could projectile vomit. Being in hospital you would expect people to often be sick and vomit. We turned this into a game by holding a hand over your mouth and then let it go causing the messy vomit to spurt across the ward. Nurses were, to say the least, not very happy but it did relieve the boredom a little.  

Another time a nurse told me that she watched me the previous night from her office window situated at the end of the ward. I sat up in bed and sang Calon Lân, a traditional Welsh song in perfect Welsh. I cannot speak Welsh today and I couldn’t back then. She had no reason to lie so I must believe what she told me. Perhaps it was the beginnings of my musical career.


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