steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Tom Butler's Schooldays - Part 4: Life in Ward VIII

The new clothes were very difficult for a new boy of the age of seven to button and unbutton. New leaden buttons were awkwardly tight in their stiff holes for weak little fingers to undo. If a child of that age agreed to pay twopence to an older lad to button and unbutton his clothing for him during dressing in the morning, undressing in the evening, and at any other time necessary, the nurse allowed this arrangement for the newcomer's first week. I myself was ashamed to be, like a babe, unable to dress and undress, and therefore managed somehow without help, but with great difficulty. ...

In her best mood Mrs Meredith was a well meaning woman. She performed cheerfully the ordinary work of a nurse, looking after a whole Ward of children, which was necessarily a heavy business. She seemed to enjoy tubbing the smaller boys, using soft, yellow, almost liquid soap, the same which the charwoman used for cleaning the Ward floor. In a quick business-like way she washed the heads and backs of the bigger boys which were held over wooden vats. She taught the Ward how to part their hair with a brush, and to save the trouble of using a comb, so that the latter soon became of no use. ... When good humoured she told us of a conversation she once had with Princess Victoria, afterwards Queen. She mistook the Princess for a dress-maker but discovered the mistake after parting from her. ...

On another day she showed that, to a boy who offended her, she could be spiteful. She took the cake, which had been sent to him from home, out of the Ward cupboard, cut it up into about forty pieces, and distributed them in the Ward. "What a shame!" said we in an undertone one to another, but poor wretches, we were half-starving and in a few moments the whole large cake was devoured, not one of us having the grace to refuse. To another little wretch who committed a transgression, which he could not help, but which gave her trouble, [I call bed-wetting - ed.] she showed a violence and vindictiveness of a fury, without having the sense of justice which is attributed to that mythological character. I shall never forget the sound of the scuffling, banging and fierce words "I'll teach you" which I heard outside the garret where we slept; it was the harsh treatment of a child scarcely more than an infant. The words "I'll teach you" are probably as old as the time of Gideon, for it is said of him that he "taught the men of Succoth". I thought of the Nurse afterwards when I heard a man who was whacking a frog say to it, "I'll teach you to be a frog". ...

Another item of interest in Ward-life, which amused me on account of its absurdity, was that everyone, whatever his condition in health, was obliged to go once a month to the Sick Ward to drink a small cupful of jalap, strong enough for a man of fifty. I usually, if I could, kept the large dose in my mouth till I got into the playground, where I spat it out. The poor lads were always hungry. Some would beg for orange peel and even pick it up from the sandy Ward floor, make it clean, and devour it. ... Cold and hunger, caused by want of nourishing food, gave us various complaints. All the tips of my fingers festered, and were full of yellow pus, and a thumbnail came off; my eyelids stuck together in my sleep and when I opened my eyes several lashes came out. One day a young lady of about 18, whom I had never seen before, and have never seen since, took me outside the Hospital, bought me a paper-bagful of confectionery, and then brought me again to my Ward. She was some kind of cousin. I was disappointed, for the affair did not last more than about a quarter of an hour. I thought it over, and concluded that she had made a promise to call upon me, and had thus fulfilled it. ...
Tags: family history, tom butler's schooldays
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