Kathleen Howard was in a reserved occupation in Nottingham. She worked full-time at Boots but managed to volunteer as an immobile VAD at the local hospital. Kathleen’s duties uncluded polishing floors, giving blanket baths, and emptying bedpans. It was routine work perhaps, but vital to the war effort.
How did you become involved?
” Someone suggested to me that I join the Red Cross for the firm [Boots the Chemist]. They wanted me to be fully qualified. They must have allowed me to have that week off because it was sort of their benefit really. And that’s how I first came involved.”
What was the work like?
” Work on the hospital wards? Really, it was routine work. Which was to be expected. But it was obviously of value to them. We did replace the nurses quite simply. Even had to polish the floor, pull the beds out every week and polish the floor.
I don’t think wards wanted more than one or two volunteers at once. And in a way, I don’t think that [having more] would work terribly well. Some volunteers don’t like doing some of the menial tasks. They expect to go in and do surgery or something. But you’ve got to be prepared to do humble things.”
Any special memories?
” Every [patient] had a blanket bath when they arrived on the ward. When a new patient came into hospital at that time, you put the blanket on the bottom of the bed over the sheet. And then you put a blanket over them and you had a bowl of water with soap, towels, and things at the side of the bed. Obviously you screened them off, and you started with the top and you worked down. And you washed them all over. And that to me is one of the reasons they don’t do that anymore. They give you a towel and you go and shower yourself now.
I think that could have been the reason for some of the infection.
‘Cause there were some dirty people in those days! I’m sure there still are!
You didn’t have intensive care units in those days, because I can remember them telling me one day: ‘Feed that lady.’ And I couldn’t get even a piece off a spoon to her. She couldn’t even swallow. In the end I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, but she can’t take any.’ This was when I was still quite raw. And well, she did die a few days later. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t even take it off a spoon. There were really sick people on the wards.
I can’t remember if anybody warned me that would happen. I think I was a bit horrified to be faced by that. But I would stick my heels in and get on with it. I don’t let something beat me. Because you did go on your own. I was the only Red Cross one on that ward. You did what you were asked to do. It was not something that was always easy to do. And I learned a lot that way, really, you do. “
What happened after the War?
” [After the war] I changed my job completely. I went and worked in the occupational health department. I had to do some more training because it was a bit different. I eventually did 30-odd years doing laboratory and radiography. I did blood testing and all other sorts of testing. Whatever else you can test. And it was really my Red Cross background that gave me the interest in that.”
Reserved occupations were jobs that were considered so important during wartime that those people doing them could not join the armed forces. Young men in reserved occupations sometimes felt angry that they could not fight. Some members of the public could even look down on them. On the other hand, some women who took up reserved occupations were seen as sending men to war by competing for their jobs.
VADs who were uncertified nurses received an allowance of £40-£62, 10 shillings per year, roughly £4,000-£7,000 today. They also received £103, 18 shillings 6 pence a year for lodgings and rations, and £5-£10 a year for uniform.
In 1944, St John Ambulance had 178,369 members, and the British Red Cross had 168,190. There were 26,614 Red Cross and 8,709 St John Ambulance members in the Civil Nursing Reserve, and 6,785 British Red Cross and 796 St John Ambulance VADs. Most of the nursing volunteers did fairly routine but absolutely vital work. Find out more about volunteering.