I was born in 1948, so as I write this in 2018 it doesn’t take any great numeracy skills to work out how old I am now. I mention the year of my birth at the beginning of this blog because it is the same year that our National Health Service was born, and this was to have a profound effect on my early years, but not in the way that you are probably thinking right now.
My maiden name is Werry. Throughout my unmarried life the name was constantly mispronounced, and I would get called Weary or Wary, to which would often be added the question, ‘And are you?’, (meaning are you weary or wary) Now I accept that many people were just trying to be funny in asking those questions, but believe me, the joke wore very thin after a time. I even occasionally got called Vary, usually by someone with German connections. The name was also confused with the Norfolk Wherry, which I believe is a type of boat used on the canals, but no, I had nothing to do with boats of any kind. I swore that if I didn’t get married I would change my name by deed poll. I was certainly not going to put up with it for the rest of my life.
I was born in Blackpool, three years after World War II ended, and before I started school I caught whooping cough. It would have been in the January just after I had turned four, and I can remember the doctor calling at our house and giving me some white liquid medicine which I believe was an early form of penicillin. He also advised that I should be taken to the end of Central Pier every day. This stretched out quite some way into the sea, and my mother took me there faithfully every day until I was cured. I well remember the biting cold of the January wind, and the rough seas which swirled beneath us. People had great faith in the healing properties of the sea air in those days, though the penicillin was viewed with some suspicion.
My parents were not badly off in those days. In fact there had been some wealth in my mother’s family. Her grandparents had made their money in the cotton mills in Blackburn, and her grandfather was a man of property. He was also the first occupant of the house, built in 1912, at the top of the hill called Forest Gate in Blackpool. This was a fairly large, three bedroomed semi, which in those days suggested some considerable affluence. The adjoining house was bought by John Hartley, the only son of Sir William Hartley who was the founder of Hartley’s Jam, which completes the picture of a fairly wealthy family. It was my mother who, by the time she got married, had become the sole owner of the Forest Gate house, as it had been left to her in a will.
My father on the other hand was not at all well off. He was a market gardener, and during the war he had done very well selling Blackpool tomatoes on the black market, something he didn’t like doing, and which he obviously had to keep quiet about. He had a desk at our house and I remember being told that the top drawer of the desk was full of paper money during the war years, but of course, he couldn’t declare it. He found it hard to say no when neighbours asked him for some of his vegetables, and then it snowballed as friends of the neighbours, and friends of their friends also came to him, because the things he grew were severely rationed during the war.
He was fifty one years old when I was born, and had fought in the trenches in France during the first World War. Born in October 1897 and keen to leave his father’s trade of butchering in Ulverston he lied about his age and was quick to join up. I don’t think too many questions were asked, so urgent was the need to recruit as many young soldiers as possible, so on 9th May 1913 when he was still only sixteen years old he was enlisted into the Kings Own Royal Lancashire Regiment. By some miracle he survived four years and two hundred and seventy one days of service, finally being discharged in November 1918, and he ended up in Blackpool looking for work. Unemployment was a huge problem for ex soldiers in 1918, but he was determined not to return to the family butchers, and instead opened up a grocer’s shop near the bottom of the hill of Forest Gate, and it was here he met my mother who was a regular customer when she visited her aunt, who by this time lived alone in the Forest Gate house. Money, or I should say lack of it, was a constant problem for him as he just didn’t have the capital to keep the shop well stocked, and when he became engaged to my mother and his future father-in-law offered him the takeover of his market garden on Marton Moss, he jumped at the chance.
My sister and I went to a strange little private school at the bottom of Forest Gate, (more about this in a later blog), and for some reason I remember the fees being twelve shillings and sixpence per term. (One of those odd memories that the mind stores for some unknown reason!) My parents had no problem paying those fees in those early years, but soon all was to change.
Blackpool tomatoes were very highly thought of in the 1950’s, something to do with the rich soil of the Moss giving them a distinctive fragrance and taste. So tomatoes were the main crop, but my father also grew lettuces, celery, rhubarb, and some flowers for the markets, especially gladioli and chrysanthemums. He had three greenhouses as well as some outdoor land. As a small child the greenhouses seemed absolutely enormous, and he did indeed work very hard. He used to say that there was really too much work for one person but not enough for two, and it was very hard to get part time help in those days. So he had to make the three mile journey from the home in Forest Gate to the market garden on Highfield Road every single day of his life, including Christmas Day, because in winter the oil fired heating had to be attended to, or as he described it, it needed nursing.
On New Year’s day 1955 we had been invited as a family to tea at some friends who lived a couple of miles away in Bispham. We were to go on the bus, which ran infrequently on bank holidays. My father of course had gone as usual in the morning to the market garden, and when the time for us catching the bus to Bispham drew closer my mother became anxious because he had not arrived home. Very few people had telephones in those days so he was unable to let us know that he had sustained an accident. He had been cutting string with a sharp knife while at the same time keeping an eye on some sparrows which had got into the greenhouse and were after his tomato seedlings. The knife slipped and cut deeply into a main artery in his wrist, although at first he was unaware he had done so much damage.
Unable to stem the flow of blood he at last made the journey home, just in time to catch the bus with the rest of the family. But blood was still pumping out of his wound, seeping through the towels that he had wrapped around it. He decided the only thing he could do was to leave the bus at the stop near the Victoria Hospital and seek professional help. The wound was stitched up there, and he was eventually able to join us in Bispham. However he had lost so much blood that he really needed a blood transfusion, though this was never suggested.
What he didn’t know at this stage, although he was soon to find out, was that he had a damaged heart caused by contracting Diphtheria as a child. One of his sisters died in this same outbreak, and really, he should never have been allowed in the army to fight in the trenches. But losing so much blood on the day of his accident meant that his already damaged heart could no longer cope.
He became very breathless on the slightest exertion, and knew he needed to see a doctor. This brings me to where I began, with the birth of the NHS. His doctor had transferred to the NHS in 1948, along with the vast majority of doctors in the country, and many people were truly amazed at the free treatment that was now provided. Others though grumbled at long waiting times at the surgery, and not being given enough time to speak to a doctor properly. It is perhaps unsurprising that once people no longer had to pay for treatment they consulted a doctor for things they would have dealt with alone before, and doctors became very busy indeed.
The doctor who saw my father saw that day took out his stethoscope, and immediately exclaimed, ‘My goodness, your heart is dicky! You could drop dead any minute!’ This was no joke, the doctor was deadly serious. My father appeared to be a hopeless case, beyond any treatment he could offer. End of consultation, just go home to die.
It seems almost unbelievable in the light of modern advances in medicine that any patient should be spoken to like that, but I report exactly what happened. What did my father do next, and have I more to say about the NHS? Yes to both questions, and if you are not already completely bored with all this and are interested to know what happened look out for my next blog, which will be coming soon.