Hitler was still sending nightly bombing sorties against London so we slept in our designated shelter, the converted basement of a factory in Middlesex Street. The authorities had installed black metal bunk beds, as well as lockers and chemical toilets against one wall. I would gather up my most precious possessions – my pressed flower book from the Holy Land, my best cardigan and the placemats I was embroidering – and stuff them into a pillowcase, together with my homework and a torch, so I could read under the blankets after the main lights were turned off.
We children expected to get one or more childhood fevers. I caught measles, chicken pox, rubella and whooping cough in turn. That was about par for the course. I was left with a cough for years and a few little pock marks on my face, but I was lucky – there was a significant mortality associated with these infections. Some children were left blind or deaf from measles and every school had children wearing leg braces to support limbs damaged by polio. The only immunisation/ vaccination we had was against smallpox.
The last infectious disease I caught was Scarlet Fever and I loved having it.
As I trailed after my mother to the shelter, I was feeling worse and worse. My head ached and my throat was sore. By next morning my chest was covered in a vivid red rash.
I don’t remember at which stage I saw a doctor, but I was soon wrapped in a soft red blanket and packed off in an ambulance to Hither Green Isolation Hospital – Scarlet Fever is very infectious. It was so exciting. I’d never been in an ambulance before. I loved it when they turned on the bell when they couldn’t get through traffic.
At the hospital, the examining doctor congratulated me. He said I had the classical Strawberry Tongue of Scarlet Fever and bemoaned the fact there were no medical students to admire it. The nurses took my clothes away to be fumigated and I was admitted to a ward full of crying toddlers and babies.
Antibiotics weren’t yet available so I just had to wait for the disease to take its course. After a couple of days, I felt fine. Fortunately, there was one girl of my age, Ellie. There were separate one storey buildings for each infectious disease, set in quite extensive grounds. Ellie and I could wander at will. The wards were called by different letters and each had a tree planted nearby whose name began with that letter. Being in Q ward, I met quinces for the first time.
It was lovely having a friend of my own age and wonderful not having to sleep in a crowded shelter, nor having to use the smelly chemical toilets. But while I was in hospital, Hitler started to send over Doodlebugs, unmanned explosive planes which didn’t have to wait for the cover of darkness to avoid anti-aircraft fire and could be sent over day or night.
I think I was in hospital about 2 weeks. The good thing was that when I was discharged home, there was now no point in sleeping in the shelter that I hated. I could sleep in my own bed, curled up in my lovely feather ‘parana’ – bed bugs and all!!
Hither Green Scarlet Fever Hospital was opened 1897 and after being used for a number of different medical specialities, it was closed in 1997. It was designed by Edwin Thomas Hall, who also designed the Liberty Stores in Regent Street. The hospital has been demolished and the site is now a housing complex, Meridian South.
I thank all those lovely people who read and commented on stories like this in my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat’.