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Postcard of the Royal National Hospital in Ventor.

Hospitals, etc.
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I was probably working at Hearns for about two years when I was taken ill with Pulmonary Tuberculosis which, of course, ended my career as a butcher.

An x-ray at St Helier Hospital, Carshalton, on 2nd February 1949 confirmed the illness. I spent the next three months in bed at home at North Cheam, awaiting a vacant bed in a Chest Hospital. In the meantime, I was under the care of my local GP, Doctor Evans, and the Sutton Chest Clinic, which was situated at St Helier Hospital. My chest physician was Doctor Harwood.

There was no shortage of home visitors during that time of waiting; my family were very vigilant and friends and relatives would appear almost every day. I whiled away my time with reading, writing and drawing. I also had a radio in the bedroom, an extension from the family set downstairs (no portable radios in those days). One of my favourite radio programmes was the weekly “Hit Parade”, which was the pop music of the day. I even managed to write down the words of most of the popular tunes, (they were easier to understand in those days…).

I also kept myself busy making matchstick models, and was able to do this in bed because dad had given me his ICS drawing board and this served as a workbench on my lap. That same drawing board, incidentally, served me very well over the next fifty years as it travelled with me to hospitals and to every house I lived in. I did quite a few drawings from my bed at home, mostly to amuse myself, but with the encouragement of the Welfare Officer I sent a water-colour painting to a Mr Spencer, art advisor for the NAPT, who assessed it for me. I still have his letter, dated 23rd May 1949 in which he was very encouraging.

Picture of Art Therapy leaflet. Click to enlarge.
"Art Therapy - What it is and how it works". Click to enlarge.

I was admitted to the Royal National Hospital at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight on 26th May 1949. An ambulance with a nurse collected me from home at North Cheam and took us to Waterloo station in London; in a reserved compartment we travelled down to Portsmouth by train and were transferred to the Isle of Wight ferry. We disembarked at the end of Ryde Pier and took the pier train to Ryde station, where another ambulance stood by waiting for us. The nurse who had accompanied me all the way from North Cheam handed over my suitcase to the ambulance driver, said goodbye and returned on the ferry to the mainland.

Postcard of the Royal National Hospital Blocks 9, 10 and 11, used in my dad's book.
The Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest (RNH) was an imposing Victorian building, built in a straight line about a quarter of a mile long, situated on about twenty acres of land with extensive gardens overlooking the sea at Ventnor under-cliff. The building, I was later to discover, was made up of eleven separate blocks plus the hospital chapel; all of these were joined together with interconnecting rooms on the ground floor and a vast underground tunnel running the whole length of the basement, each block having access to the tunnel via a set of concrete stairs, sixteen stairs in all.

Photograph of the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, used in my dad's book.
Royal National Hospital Whitsun Fair on Monday 6th June 1949.

The building faced the south and the blocks ran from east to west: each block was a separate ward consisting of two cottages, each cottage with three floors and a basement. The upper floors had six bedrooms to each block, each with French windows opening on to a balcony overlooking the lawns. The lower floors had sitting rooms, ward kitchens, bathrooms, washrooms, toilets and the ward offices.

The female wards were at the east end of the hospital and the male wards to the west. St Luke’s Chapel was situated in the centre of the building, between blocks 4 & 5. The main dining room was in block 9, and this was a large room which also served as a concert hall when required, as it had a large stage. This block also housed the main kitchens and staff rooms on its upper floors.

Many other facilities were available in various parts of the hospital and in the grounds and out-buildings. There were excellent medical and surgical facilities, an operating theatre (which I never saw), a very busy radiography department where I had a great number of x-rays taken, various laboratories, a physiotherapy department and a dental surgery, to name just a few.

There were libraries, games rooms, a billiard room where I enjoyed many games of snooker during my latter months there, and a shop which sold sweets, post cards, writing paper, etc. Films were shown in the patients’ library, which was also used for whist drives, one of the rare occasions when male and female patients were allowed to mix.

The excellent gardens were very popular with the patients when we were allowed to take what was known as “In Walks”, a privilege afforded to those who had sufficiently recovered from their initial treatment in the ward.

The next stage of “Promotion” was the “Out Walks”, which allowed us to walk outside the hospital grounds and many of us walked as far as the town of Ventnor, or took organised coach trips to other parts of the Island, an indication that we were very soon to be allowed to go home.

There was also a hospital radio, run entirely by the patients, music and messages being broadcast to the dining room and to every ward via the patient’s headphones.

Occupational Therapy was a very important social and diversional activity at the hospital, and we were very fortunate during my time there to have as our Occupational Therapist Miss Violet Pilling, who was a very accomplished artist as well as an excellent teacher in many forms of occupational activity. At first, while still confined to my bed, I passed my time making very small models out of matchsticks, the hobby which I had started at home and continued at Ventnor.

I decided to try watercolour painting for a change, at a time when Miss Pilling was recruiting would-be students for her art classes, but I didn’t prove to be very successful at this.

However, one day on her rounds of the wards, she discovered me doing pencil sketches of the other patients and freehand sign-writing, a hobby I had learnt in the army. She watched me drawing the letters with a pencil on the sketch pad and asked if I had ever used a flat-nibbed pen; when I said no she offered to teach me “the proper way to do lettering” and not the “built-up” method that I had adopted. She said I would need patience and that I should stick strictly to her training method and not be tempted to advance too quickly.

She went to a lot of trouble to get the right equipment for me; somehow she obtained a quill, some reed pens and some Chinese stick-ink. I was taught how to make up the ink by grinding the sticks and adding the right amount of water; I was also shown how to sharpen the end of the quill to form a nib. To do this she borrowed my penknife which I always kept for sharpening pencils and took it to the hospital carpenter to grind the small blade to the correct shape required for shaping a quill (hence the name “Pen Knife”). With the help of a drawing board, etc., she set to work to teach me Calligraphy (although she never actually used the word - preferring to call it “Lettering”).

Miss Pilling turned out to be an excellent teacher to whom I have been extremely grateful ever since. She watched over my early efforts almost every time she visited the hospital and when satisfied that my work was acceptable she persuaded the Ward Sister to display a sample on her notice board. I knew then that I had passes the supreme test.

In the meantime Miss Pilling often spoke of her own early training at art college under the famous Edward Gill, himself a student of Edward Johnston. During my training Miss Pilling kindly loaned me her cherished copy of Edward Johnston’s book “Writing and Illuminating and Lettering” which I carefully read and took notes from. I later bought my own copy which I still have on my book shelf.

A few weeks before I was discharged from the hospital, I was surprised to hear from the Ward Sister that Miss Pilling had left the hospital, but had left me a small gift and a note saying how pleased she was with my progress. She said I was now proficient enough to advance to the use of metal nibs, which of course were much easier to use, and she had enclosed a set of these on a card. Needless to say, I started using them straight away and have never gone back to using a quill since that day.

During my stay at the hospital I was extremely lucky to receive many visitors, as there was little restriction to visiting even on weekdays. Of course, at weekends it was a common sight, especially in the summer, to see dozens of patients with their visitors sitting out on the lawns or on the balconies having tea. I particularly appreciate the efforts of members of my family and friends who regularly made the trip from North Cheam and other parts of London, via Portsmouth. Almost every Saturday or Sunday, by car or by train from Waterloo, they crossed the Solent by ferry to Ryde and took the long, but picturesque, journey by steam train across the Island and the local bus from Ventnor to the hospital. They were always cheerful and always pleased to see me, as was I to see them, in spite of their long journey home again.

Photocopy of Ensign camera advert from my dad's book
Photocopy of operating instructions for the Ensign Ful-Vue camera, from my dad's book. Photocopy of operating instructions for the Ensign Ful-Vue camera, from my dad's book.

My parents bought me an Ensign “Full-View” camera while I was at the hospital, and I put this to very good use especially in the grounds. The annual event which attracted many patients, ex-patients and visitors was the Whitsun Fete, held on 6th June in my year there. We all looked forward to that.

Picture of Alf at the RNH in August 1949.
Alf at the Royal National Hospital in August 1949.

Picture of Alf at the RNH 12th September 1949.
Alf "up all day" at the RNH, 12th September 1949.

Picture of Alf on a day trip away from the RNH 24th September 1949.
Alf on a day trip to Ryde, 24th September 1949.

Picture of Alf and visitors to the RNH 30th October 1949.
Alf, mum, sister Valerie and step-father, 30th October 1949.

Picture of the matron at the RNH 6th June 1949.
Matron at the Royal National Hospital Whitsun Fair, 6th June 1949.

Picture of Alf & others coming back to visit at the RNH 29th May 1950.
"Back again as visitors". Eddie, Sam & Alf, 29th May 1950.

I was at the RNH a total of eight months, which was the average length of time for most patients. I was one of the lucky ones who only needed bed rest, as many others underwent various treatments. One such procedure was an Artificial Pneumothorax, where the lung was artificially collapsed in order to rest and relax it, by introducing air through a hollow needle between the lung and the chest wall, this air being periodically replaced by “Refills” whenever necessary. Many of my fellow patients joined the weekly, or sometimes more often, “Refill Parade” which often caused some hilarity and an occasion to look forward to…

Alf's cartoon of Artificial Pneumothorax refill procedures.
Alf's cartoon of Artificial Pneumothorax refill procedures.

Three attempts to give me an Artificial Pneumothorax was made by Dr Laidlaw on 28th May, soon after I was admitted to the hospital, but they failed to take. As no drugs for the treatment of Tuberculosis were yet available, the only option open to the doctors was to prescribe bed rest which, along with excellent care from the staff, high quality food consisting mainly of dairy products and fresh vegetables from the kitchen gardens and plenty of fresh air, attributed to my eventual discharge from the hospital to go home on 7th December 1949.

Continues on page two

This page was copied (with consent) for the September 2013 issue of "Island Life", an online (and maybe print, too) glossy magazine about the Isle of Wight. The article, identical to the above, was entitled "Alf Allen: Life Not So Royal", referencing the Royal National Hospital at Ventnor. The publishers had asked me for high-quality copies of the above photos too, but these are still, as at date of publication of their magazine, stored somewhere in boxes somewhere in the house...

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Text by Alf Allen 1999. Edited and spell-checked by Mike Allen 2003.
Most photos taken by Alf and most illustrations drawn by him; scanned from his albums, etc., now in my possession and digitally edited 2003-2005.
Yes, yes, the photos and layout need updating - the website was first designed in "dial-up days", before any sort of broadband, and everything had to be small so it uploaded and downloaded fast. Work to do, I know.

Website produced 2003-2013 by Mike Allen - a fatuous platitudes production.

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