Stephen Colegrave gains new insight into his mother’s diaries about her time in isolation with Scarlet fever during her wartime evacuation in Scotland.
During lockdown, I have been re-reading my late mother’s childhood diaries and, amidst the COVID-19 crisis, they now seem more poignant.
It is easy to forget that it was only in the last decade that the number of deaths from communicable diseases finally accounted for more than half of worldwide deaths. Eighty years ago, when my mother was a child, there were many diseases that could and did kill, especially before the development of antibiotics. Isolation was often the only way to deal with these infections, as we are doing with the Coronavirus today.
Early in the war, like many other children, my mother and uncle were evacuated from their small farm in Kent. Pam was 10 years old and her brother just eight. They were lucky to have relatives in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, even if they didn’t have the experience of looking after children. Being free spirits, the children were used to roaming around the countryside with their older sisters, who stayed at home to help run the farm. They didn’t take easily to life in a town and their Scottish school was definitely was not their favourite place.
“My teacher’s name was Miss Currie: yet another elderly spinster shaping my life!” my mother complained. “Curled up on her desk was a tawse or leather strap. This was in constant use not only to instil discipline but to ensure learning. Two spelling mistakes brought them a cut from the strap.”
Bundled Off To A Fever Hospital
But my mother didn’t have to put up with Miss Curie for long. After six months had passed, one day she and her brother woke up with red rashes all over their bodies and were diagnosed with Scarlet fever. Before the introduction of antibiotics in 1945, this was a serious condition. It could lead to meningitis, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, liver and kidney damage, if you did not die from the original fever.
As it was contagious, they were both immediately bundled off to the fever hospital in an ambulance drawn by two horses with their stretchers swaying around in the back. They were to be hospitalised for six weeks in an isolation ward. All their school books were burnt and the house where they had stayed completely fumigated.
“Fever hospitals in the 1930s probably differed little from the days of the plague,” my mother remembered. “The building was red brick and looked like a workhouse. Inside was one large ward furnished with iron bedsteads. One side for boys and the other for girls.”
Social Distancing – 1940s Style
Like today, they really were in isolation. They only saw two nurses, a formidable matron and a doctor when he did his rounds. Visitors were not allowed in the building but they had their own social distancing style of visiting – which was slightly more demanding than it is today.
Visitors had to collect a wooden ladder and climb up it and talk through the glass of a closed window. All gifts had to be handed to the nurses, who then went through them to decide whether they were suitable. Several of the comics my uncle was sent were deemed inappropriate. The matron was not big on superheroes.
As they recovered, my mother and her brother felt terribly homesick. Occasionally, relatives climbed up the ladders to see them but they hadn’t passed on much news from home. Kent, the farm and their family seemed faraway. Then, just when they were at their lowest ebb, they were told that their parents were on their way to see them.
“We both sat at the same window,” my mother wrote. “Two ladders were erected and there were our parents. It was such an enormous relief to see them. What we both needed was for our parents to hug and kiss us. It was not allowed. They had to stay behind the glass windows as we sobbed and cried, overwhelmed with relief and happiness.”
Returning to War and School
If I had read this a few weeks ago, I don’t think I could have fully understood how alone my mother must have felt at this time, especially at the moment when she could see her parents but not touch them. It reads like a 1940s Zoom meeting with parents or children locked down faraway.
Of course, when my mother’s lockdown was over and her parents came to take her back to Kent, she wasn’t worried about how long she would be furloughed, because for her “it was time for us to return home and back to war”.
Her time in Scotland seemed to have made a bigger impact on her than expected.
“My teacher smiled at my newly acquired Scottish accent and I was encouraged to demonstrate rolling my ‘r’s,” she wrote. “I had learnt to dance the Highland Fling and this was incorporated into our country dance lessons.”
Miss Curie also had a lasting effect, despite or perhaps because of the threat of her dreaded strap. My mother found her English grammar so vastly improved after her time in Scotland that she went on to study English at Sheffield University. This was a big step for a girl from a small holding in the 1940s and led to a long career as an English teacher.