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West Watford History Group

History of West Watford and environs

Memories of the Isolation Hospital

The following are all memories related to the group from people who worked in the Isolation Hospital or who were patients there. We thank them for allowing us to share them. 

Mrs Clare Varhman kindly gave an interview two days after her 88th birthday in April 2011.  She was a Probationer Nurse at the Isolation Hospital in 1942/43, mainly looking after children. Her sister had worked there previously and she got to know the Staff when visiting.  She can remember sleeping under the beds with the children when the air raids were on.  Many of the children had mumps and chicken pox, as she recalls many of the other more infectious diseases, such as diptheria and scarlet fever were beginning to die out, because of the introduction of new drug therapies, including Streptomycin and Penicillin. Streptomycin was also used for whooping cough, which was most prevalent at that time, especially in the very young children, which could lead to complications such as chest infections and pneumonia.  They had to stay in hospital for weeks. Many of these children were evacuees, who had been staying in B & B's and were admitted because they could not stay where they were.  

There were very strict regulations for visitors; 2 - 4 pm only, unless the patient was very ill and then they were allowed to visit in the evening, otherwise visiting was not encouraged.  The Staff worked shifts and weekends and Mrs Varhman remembers the night sister as 'being wonderful'.  She was affectionately known as "flat foot" because of her very flat feet. During the day there was the Matron and the ward sisters and there were quite a large number of Irish student nurses, who were often homesick, but the other nurses tried to make life as homely as possible and treated them well. As it was hard to get fever nurses, because of the nature of the illnesses, the Irish nurses were invaluable. Mrs Varhman was not worried about the fevers, as she had two brothers who had had diphtheria and sisters who had had scarlet fever.

When the shift was over, the Staff had to go to their room, bathe and change before going out. Uniforms were not allowed to be worn outside the hospital. There was a Fire Station in Tolpits Lane and if the nurses were out late, one of the men would walk them back to the hospital to make sure they got there safely.

The building is remembered as being very old and primitive, draughty and hard to keep clean.  There were wards with isolation units and open wards, but the atmosphere was good.  Christmas in a fever unit was different to a normal hospital. Each unit was decorated and stockings hung up for the children and pillow cases for the adults, but the children were not allowed to take presents home.  Father Christmas was out of the question, because he couldn't go from ward to ward, but at the Staff party, the night sister dressed up as Santa, but gave herself away because of her flat feet!

Mrs Varhman thought of her time at the Isolation Hospital as a very interesting and transitional time and went on from there to do her training and eventually became a qualified fever nurse. 

Mary from Watford remembers being a patient in the Isolation Hospital from May 1963 to April 1964 when she was in her late teens.  She was admitted to the TB ward with TB of the lungs and kidneys. She eventually had to have a kidney removed at the Peace Memorial Hospital as the theatre at the Isolation Hospital was not equipped for this, but she returned to the Isolation Hospital to be discharged. She remembers that it was a large ward with 10 beds for women on one side and the same for men on the other, but there was hardly anyone there.  She had to stay in bed on the ward and was not allowed to mix with the other patients.  The only time she was allowed up was to go to the toilet or bathroom, where she would put her head out of the window to get some fresh air.  The hospital library used to go round and Occupational Therapists used to give them something to do, e.g. knitting. She said it was very boring. Relatives could visit and Mary remembers Wednesdays and Sundays were afternoon only.  On the rare occasion that she was allowed out into the grounds, she recalls there was not a lot there. She said there was a TB ward, Ward 5 which was for the chest cases and the Isolation Wing.  She was moved to the Isolation Wing when the TB ward was decorated.  There were not many nurses and they had to stay on the ward all the time and never rotated round.  It seems hospital food has not changed a lot as she remembers it being awful; the only good thing was breakfast. 

Maeve from Watford worked in the Isolation Hospital in the 1970's in the Isolation Wing. The infections included TB, measles and mumps. The staff wore gowns and masks and in the 70's staff were allowed to mix as long they removed their gowns and masks.  The staff on the ward consisted of a sister, two staff nurses, two SEN's and three to four auxiliaries. There were 12 to 14 single unit wards and the staff had to change out of uniform before they left. The hospital consisted of a TB ward, two OAP wards and psychiatric ward. Maeve can remember that the staff were all happy and had a lot of fun. She can remember working at Christmas when they put up decorations in each of the units, but after Christmas they all had to be taken down and destroyed. 

Sue from Watford was in the Isolation Hospital in 1980, along with her daughter and two sons. They all had Hepatitis A.  They had to walk to the hospital, as they were told they lived near enough and that an ambulance would not be sent for them. In the Isolation Hospital, they were all separate units off one long corridor with the Nurses' station in the middle. The family were not allowed to mix, but the boys recovered quickly and were allowed out into the corridor. Sue had to have a lumbar puncture as they originally thought she had meningitis. She was not allowed out of her room at that time. Eventually she was allowed to stand in the corridor to see her children in their rooms. Her brother Kevin was also in the hospital, when he was six, with impetigo.

Chas from Watford in the booklet 'Wartime Memories of West Watford' says: I can remember the Isolation Hospital. I used to deliver papers there. After dad died, mum made me get a paper round. There was somebody in Pretoria Road who had typhoid and even the parents weren't allowed to see him. He was in a blacked-out isolation room. I remember him being taken off in an ambulance with dark rings round his eyes. He pulled through though. We were a bit scared of that hospital. You didn't like to go past it even, but they wouldn't have allowed you in anyway.

Sylvia Matthews (also in the booklet Wartime Memories of West Watford) says: The isolation hospital used to be on Tolpits Lane near where Scammells used to be. I had scarlet fever so I had to be isolated there. I was isolated before I even went into hospital. My parents weren't allowed in the bedroom. Even my mother wasn't allowed in to hospital to see me. I had to look at her through a window. When I got over it and came home I was still so poorly. I only had soft things to eat, milky things, like blancmanges. I was the only member of my family who got it.  They took the wallpaper off the wall in my bedroom when I went into hospital in case I had touched it and put newspaper on the wall. All the books I had at home had to be sprayed.