Mildred Brett grew up hungry. But at 17 her luck changed. She joined St. John Ambulance, excelled in the hospital operating theatres, and nursed soldiers back to health. After the War Mildred went on to become a state registered nurse and received an MBE. She had found her way.
How did you become involved?
” I’m Mildred Brett. I was born June the 13th , 1923. I can never thank St. John enough for the start they gave me and if there had not been a war, my life would have been very different.
My story starts in the mid-thirties when we knew what it was to be very hungry and cold. The main thing when we were young was to reach the age of fourteen so we could earn a few shillings to help out. “
What work did you do?
” I started work at the George Hotel. I worked from 6am in the morning until 11pm at night. I was given one hour off during the day. I sat in a kitchen with a rip-rip floor, in an ordinary chair and in the evening the Mistress used to come down and say, ‘Here’s some oranges. Peel them very thin.’
And how many did I do? Enough for a hundred pounds of jam.
When I was nearly 17, the Mistress came down into the kitchen. She said, ‘it’s time you did some war work.’ I was flabbergasted.
She said, ‘I’ve seen the superintendent of the St. John Ambulance just for a minute. I’ve told her that you’re coming on a Thursday night.’
Well, it was like being let out of heaven, because I’d got my brain, my photographic memory and all, and of course when I went, there were some nice people. Oh, I was in my element. I was learning! I had the book, and I learned it all the way through, and the index and everything. “
Any special memories?
” A new world opened to me when I went making hospital beds, taking temperatures, changing draw sheets and learning first aid.
Unbeknown to me, the superintendent had gone home and told her sister, ‘I think I’ve found a born nurse. She only works at the George Hotel but I am going to do everything in my power to get her into nursing.’
The first I heard about it was when a letter arrived for me to report to the Southampton Hospital in the year 1941.
The morning I arrived there had been some heavy bombing in the city, docks, and the railway station. I got into a taxi to get to the hospital.
The driver asked, ‘Have you come to replace the nurses that were killed in the nurses’ home last night?’ As we drove to the hospital I could see large craters in the road.”
What happened next?
” After a year in Southampton, I was transferred to Oxford . This was an ‘Emergency Medical Services Hospital’, meaning a block in a civilian hospital was taken over during the war by the military. We had a fair percentage of Italian prisoners and I nursed six German pilots. These were the happiest years of my 42 years nursing, especially for the comradeship. I shall be ever grateful to my St. John superintendent who saw in me the nurse I did not know about.”
Before the war around 40 per cent of the UK’s work force worked in manufacturing. Because so many men went to fight, women began to take on jobs traditionally held by men. After the war, many were dismissed as men returned to the work place. Nevertheless, the experiences of those who had done a ‘man’s job’ during the war began to change attitudes to women working.
The British Red Cross and St John Ambulance trained their members and the public in first aid and home nursing, and other subjects like child care. Home nursing training was vital before the National Health Service started after the War. Treatment by trained doctors and nurses was very expensive and most people could not afford it. Find out more about first aid and home nursing.
As a port, Southampton was a target for the Luftwaffe, or German Air Force. Up to the summer of 1941 it suffered 50 bombing raids. In just three days in September over 2,200 bombs fell. Find out more about the bombing of UK cities.