Winifred Relph (B.1912): Illness, Health and Disability

‘I never remembered being in such pain before, my body and arms as well as my legs and feet throbbed and ached, I felt pain everywhere’ (95).

Health and medicine were keen interests of Winifred’s and she had always considered the prospect of becoming a nurse. As a servant, Winifred recalls, ‘I found living in a family with two doctors and the general atmosphere centred so much on healing, very stimulating. I began to think that I would like to study medicine and do something more constructive with my life’ (83). Living with and working for a family of doctors is what finally motivated Winifred to fulfil her academic potential and lifelong ambition of studying medicine. The thought of helping, healing and caring for people really excited and intrigued Winifred and, therefore, it is a cruel irony that it was Winifred’s own health that cut her nursing career short after only a few months.

Image of children's ward 1930
Image of children’s ward 1930

Winifred read and trained incredibly hard over a short period of time and was placed as a Day nurse on the Children’s Ward at a hospital in Selly Oak, Birmingham. She felt that nursing was finally a career which, not only allowed her to help people, but progressed her education and confidence too. However, at the end of the first fortnight of working as a nurse, Winifred developed tonsillitis. She writes: ‘I was told by Sister that this often happened to young probationers until they had built up some resistance to the germs’ (88). Winifred was reassured that her illness was a result of her new environment and was sent home to rest for two weeks.

Selly Oak, Birmingham Hostpital Children's Ward early 20th century
Selly Oak, Birmingham Hostpital Children’s Ward early 20th century

However, when Winifred returned to the intense, fast-paced schedule of nursing, her health began to deteriorate dramatically. She writes: ‘About two o’clock I wakened and found my feet and legs were extremely painful. I tried to get out of bed but was not able to stand’ (94). Winifred felt helpless, scared and, for the first time in her working career, tremendously alone and far from home.

After having every finger and toe bandaged separately, Winifred was transferred to the Women’s Medical Ward and informed that her illness was acute rheumatism. This diagnosis was a devastating blow for Winifred and a visit from the Matron confirmed her deepest fears: ‘She stood at the bottom of my bed and glared, “You know this will be the end of your nursing career”’ (95). Winifred was truly saddened by Matron’s words and recalls ‘having a good old cry’ (96) when she was left alone.

The Kings Norton Infirmary, Selly Oak
The Kings Norton Infirmary, Selly Oak

Acute rheumatism causes the lining of the throat to become inflamed and, following this, the inflammation spreads throughout the body in an uncontrolled way. For Winifred, it affected her joints, heart and nervous system most dramatically and, to her frustration, she had to spend six weeks in a hospital bed.

During this period, Winifred had an overwhelming feeling of unhappiness and ‘supplied the whole family with embroidered tablecloths and cushion covers’ (97) to try and occupy her mind. When her six weeks in hospital were over, Winifred ‘left the hospital and her nursing friends very sadly’ (97) as she knew this marked the end of her nursing career. Sadly, Winifred’s illness stole her opportunity of a job in the medical field and, unfortunately, after her convalescence, she returned to working as a domestic servant.


Works Cited:

Relph, Winifred, in Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 3 vols (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) 2:657

Vijayalakshmi, I B. Acute Rheumatic Fever and Chronic Rheumatic Heart Disease. (JP Medical Ltd, 2011)

2:657 Relph, Winifred, ‘Through Rough Ways’, TS, pp. 120 (c. 63,000 words). Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library

Images Cited: 

‘Image of children’s ward 1930’ taken from ‘The Fountain Hospital’ on ‘The Workhouse’. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/MAB-Fountain/ accessed: 16/01/16

Image of ‘The Kings Norton Infirmary, Selly Oak’ taken from ‘Selly Oak Hospital: Over the Years on BBC Birmgingham http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/birmingham/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8741000/8741365.stm accessed: 16/01/16

Image of ‘Selly Oak, Birmingham Hospital Children’s Ward early 20th century’ taken from ‘Selly Oak Hosptial: Over the Years’ on BBC Birmingham http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/birmingham/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8741000/8741365.stm accessed: 16/01/16

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