Memories of King George V Hospital (1940 -1965)

3 Salt Lane Cottages

My name is Roy Holm and I was born in the front bedroom at 3 Salt Lane, Hydestile in June 1941. My father was Henry James (Jim) Holm who was the hospital Carpenter/Maintenance Engineer and my mother Winifred Clara Bessie Holm who worked in the administration office. Both lived at 3 Salt Lane and worked at KGV in these roles for the next 30 years. My sister Sylvia was born in 1945 and my brother Christopher in 1952. Both my sister, brother and I spent our childhood and teenage years at 3 Salt Lane.

In 1941 we were two years into the Second World War and apart from myself there were 6 adults living at 3 Salt Lane. My parents, my grandparents and my mother’s two sisters, evacuees from the East End of London. [I am told, but was too young to remember, that I sometimes sheltered in the cupboard under the stairs with Winnie, while the German bombers flew over.] Given how small the house was at this time with only three bedrooms and coal in short supply, so the fire in the front room was only lit at Christmas, it’s difficult now to work out where they all slept. 

Salt Lane with 8 to 3 Salt Lane Cottages on the left, The County Corner is on the right

My mother’s two sister Vera and Hazel married and moved out of Salt Lane in 1945 and 1949 respectively. My grandfather and grandmother lived with us at 3 Salt Lane until their deaths in 1951 and 1956. At the time this seemed a perfectly normal arrangement, and I failed to realize how tolerant and long suffering my mother and in particular my father was to put up with this situation. Imagine today having your in-laws leaving with you, in a not very large house, for the first 16 years of your marriage.

Aunt Hazel’s husband was Fred Harrison. Fred was a nurse at Milford Hospital. During the war Fred was a nurse in the ‘Eighth Army’ and took part in the Normandy Landings, which must have been horrendous, although he never spoke about it in detail. Uncle Fred was my favorite uncle and was very important to me particularly between the ages of eight and sixteen. Jim, my father, as well as working all day was often ‘on call’ during the evenings and sometimes into the night. This provided extra income for the family. The phone would ring, and Jim would go in. It could be as trivial as changing a light bulb or a serious breakdown of a boiler.  Jim by now was in his forties and starting to slow down. Fred on the other hand was sports mad. We played a lot of cricket and football in the garden of 3 Salt Lane and in the adjacent field. The grass in the field was kept mowed by the KGV gardening staff. Cricket was interesting in that the layout was such that we were hitting the ball towards the road. As you can imagine the ball frequency ended up in the road. To avoid hitting cars the bowler had to listen to make sure no cars were approaching before he bowled the ball. We never hit a car, but I did manage to take a piece out of the guttering on the house across the road. 

Although Jim did not play sport with me, we did go fishing together. Jim, coming from the East End of London, had a particular liking for jellied eels. Thus, our fishing expeditions were aimed at catching as many eels as possible (eels as a species are now endangered and catching and eating them would be unethical and probable illegal). We did not have a car so that the trip would involve being driven down in a friend’s pickup truck to the river Arun at Stopham Bridge; Jim in the front with the driver and me in the open section at the back. We would be dropped off at 10.00 am to be picked up at 6.00pm (We only went in the summer). The methodology was to use strong lines, big hooks and large worms ledgered on the river bottom. The Arun at Stopham is muddy, semi-tidal and at that time, a good habitat for eels; we usually caught some. 

The fishing trips to Stopham were in the main very pleasant, we sat there hoping for a bite and listening to test cricket on the radio. These trips, however, were very weather dependent and once there we were stuck there until pickup time (no mobile phones in those days). On one occasion we had to shelter in a nearby wood from thunder, lightning and torrential rain for four hours. When we were picked up from fishing and before driving home Jim and the driver (‘Ginger’ Holt) would go into the White Hart (still there) for a couple of beers. I would sit outside with a glass of cider. My love of fishing was kindled, and I still go fishing, but not for eels!  

Jim didn’t talk much about work and what went on at KGV, but one anecdote sticks in my mind. Many of the people coming to KGV for treatment were very sick and inevitably some died. The route that the hearse took to collect the deceased from the mortuary passed by Jim’s workshop. Jim told me that the driver of the hearse would always give him a cheery wave and smile as he drove by. I think Jim found this quite disconcerting.

3 Salt Lane – the first cottage, (partly hidden) on the far left of the photo, with the cricket “pitch” at the bottom centre. Note the tent in the field.

The garden at 3 Salt Lane was by modern standards large. At the top end we kept chickens, mainly for eggs, although a couple were fattened up to be eaten at Christmas. Unlike today chicken meat was in short supply and very expensive. If for Christmas dinner you got a wing or even a leg you were doing very well! Uncle Percy (see later) would dispatch them 7 to 10 days before Christmas, and they would be hung in the cupboard under the stairs to mature. We had a large fierce cockerel in with the chickens, I am not sure why. When I was about 8 or 9 years, probably through boredom, I would wind the cockerel up by throwing small clods of earth into its run. One day the cockerel escaped while I was in the garden and hell bent on revenge came straight for me. I ended up with a badly clawed knee and was saved by my grandmother who beat it off with a large stick. Just deserts some would say. 

At 3 Salt Lane my grandmother Clara, did most of the cooking and domestic chores, as my mother was working. In the 1940s, clothes were cleaned by boiling in a ‘Copper’ and put through a ‘Mangle’ before being hung out in the garden to dry. Washing clothes was very labour intensive and clothes were changed less frequently than now. Today some people shower twice a day, as children we had a bath once a week on a Sunday evening and sometimes the bath water had to be shared. Clara was a very frugal woman and times were hard. I remember that whenever we had a delivery of coal, she would stand by the door where coal was tipped into the cellar, to count the bags and make sure we weren’t short changed.

Other members of the family who also came from the East End of London worked at KGV, and St Thomas’s respectively were Uncle Percy Pearson and his wife Alice. Uncle Percy Person had been a stoker in the Royal Navy during the war continued as a stoker for the boilers (operational 24/7) at KGV shoveling coal for 8 hours a day until they converted to oil in the mid-1950. When Percy was on the 2.00 to 10 pm shift money could sometimes be earned by running his supper up to the boiler house, sandwiched between two plates and wrapped in a towel to keep it hot. 

 Aunt Alice Pearson, Jim’s sister worked as a seamstress at St Thomas’s and help run the laundry. Alice was a very skilled machinist and could make men’s shirts out of redundant silk parachutes without the need of a pattern. In the 1940’s and 1950s, people altered or mended their clothes, so her skills were in great demand. (My middle daughter is an artist working in fabric and seems to have inherited the skills). Alice also ran a successful loan/Christmas club that paid out shortly before Christmas each year. Alice was a formidable character I am not aware that anyone reneged on their loan. In a different era and with a better education Alice could have been a successful businesswoman. 

Alice and Percy did not have children, but they often had a cat. The cats led a somewhat spartan life in that the bulk of their food was a 50/50 tinned Kiticat and Porridge, boiled up and served cold. Not many of the cats reach old age as the traffic up and down Salt Lane was a real hazard.  For some reason regardless of their gender Alice’s cats were all called ‘Kipper’.

 Alice and Percy loved gadgets and were the first in the road to have a TV.  I remember watching The Coronation in 1953 on a tiny screen in blurred black and white along with about 15 other people. The Pearson’s livid in one half of the wooden building 1 Salt Lane (now demolished). 

The conversion of the KGV boilers from burning coal to oil had a major effect on the Salt Lane Cottages. Radiators were fitted for the first time and super- heated steam was pumped down as far as number 3.  Number 3 went from cold and damp in the winter to very hot and care had to be taken not to get burnt the radiators were so hot. An unforeseen consequence was that many of the wooden doors dried out developed large cracks.

KGV set in a very rural location and in the 1940s and 1950’s was quite isolated, with few people owning cars and a limited service to Godalming. Milford Station, 2 miles away, offered access to London and Portsmouth for the more adventurous. The hospital did have its own bus. The bus was a 30-seater, manufactured pre-war. The bus rattled incessantly even on good surfaces and the seats were rock hard. It ran between the KGV and the Milford Hospital and went to Godalming, although I am unsure of the frequency. Its great merit was that it was free for staff and their children.

Hambledon School

The only school available to the children living at KGV was Hambledon Church of England. In the early 1940s. the school catered for children from 5 -15 (there was no secondary education). When I started in 1946 there were two classes for children, 5-7 and 8 -11. Only one of the teachers was trained, the headmistress Mrs Peer.  The other teacher, who took the lower class, Mrs Freemantle was far more pleasant. 

The school took it religious obligations very seriously. At the start of each day there would be a short religious service. The few ‘Catholics’ at the school were excluded and had to wait in an adjacent room (we envied them). Before we went home, we had to put our chair on the desk and sing the same Hymn each time ‘Now the Day is Over’, At the end of the school day the children in the lower class were let out 15 minutes before the older children. This was good as it allowed you to reach a point where you could make your way home across the fields, as opposed to being forced off the road by older children riding bikes. The toilets were outside in the playground. The boy’s urinal consisted of a five-foot-high wall with a trough at the bottom, there was no roof, it could be quite cold. 

The educational standards were abysmal, although the school gardens were good and I became a competent gardener, a hobby I continue to enjoy. I also became moderately good at Maypole and Country dancing (the latter I avoided if humanly possible). On sunny days in the summer lessons were abandoned and we went on a ‘nature walk’ to Hydon‘s Ball and back. Unsurprisingly, the success rate for those taking the 11 plus exam for the local grammar school was vanishingly low. By good fortune I was one of them. Having failed the exam at Hambledon, I got a second chance at Meadrow Second Modern School where I spent eight months in a ‘cramming class’ for those who were considered to have a chance of passing the 11 plus second time around. Four of us were successful. I got through ‘by the skin of my teeth’ by interview.

When I was sixteen and having had the benefits of a religious education between the ages of five to eleven, I decided to attend, along with other people of a similar age, classes put on by the vicar with a view to becoming confirmed in the Church of England. (This entitled you to take communion if you so wished) The driving force behind this decision was not a sudden religious awakening. But like most of the other participants I suspect, a chance to meet other people of my age and in particular members of the opposite sex. It should be appreciated that the social life available to teenagers in small rural communities was minimal, i.e., no youth clubs etc.

KGV did not exist in isolation having the country branch of St Thomas’s next door.  The Hydestile Social Club (Cedar Hall was built later) located close to the entrance of St Thomas’s was a venue where some of the KGV staff went for a drink and Friday night Bingo, where Percy Pearson was the caller. The local youths, including myself, met to play darts and snooker and drink beer; luckily the walk back to the cottages was all downhill. The Hydestile Club, where my father was the Treasurer, was built, mainly from breeze block, by the members about 1950. This was after the previous club, built of wood, and located close to the Country Counter Shop, had burnt down in unexplained circumstance. I still remember the sound of the beer bottles exploding as I stood in the front garden of 3 Salt Lane.  KGV and St Thomas’s were both refuges for (mainly) single men who would otherwise probably be homeless. The Hospitals provided a room, three meals a day and a chance to earn some money, often as porters. These people often found their way to the Hydestile Club. One of these, for whom I have fond memories, was a Southern Irishman called Mick Sheehan. I was serving behind the bar as I did some evenings and Mick, who would in his late fifties at the time, was at the bar with some other customers and ordered a pint of beer. I filled up the glass and pushed it over to Mick. He looked at me quizzically and said, ‘do you think there is room for a small whisky in the top of that pint’. I had a look and replied ‘yes, I think there is’. Mick relied ‘in that case fill the bloody thing up’. It was a simple bit of banter/humor but 60 years on it’s still one of my favorite memories of the club. 

One of the highlights of the club’s calendar was the annual trip to the seaside.; either Bognor, Little Hampton or Brighton. The coach would arrive at the club and crates of beer would be put in the boot and off we would go. After about an hour the coach would stop, the children would have a run around and those old enough would have their first drink of the day.  Chris my brother has reminded me of the time when the boot of the coach was so full of beer that it could not get up Bury hill. Rather than abandon the beer the men got out and walked up the hill to lighten the load. On arrival at the seaside (and I have Brighton in mind) the unattached men would find a pub were they would stay until closing time (2.00pm). The younger men would then go down to the beach, strip to the waist, fall asleep and get horribly sunburnt. Alice and Percy would head for the pier to play bingo. Jim, Winnie and us children would sit the beach where we would try to eat our sandwiches without being stung by wasps. In general, a meal in a restaurant would be too expensive, although sometimes we had fish and chips.

On the way home we would stop at least one pub. One amusing (at least to me) incident that sticks in my mind on one of the club outings concerns an elderly lady; Mrs Becky Barden.  Becky was the main person serving behind the bar at the club in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s and was probably paid a small wage. Becky also a Londoner was in her early seventies, short in stature and solidly built, probably weighing 14 -15 stone. On the way home the coach had parked for some reason in a position where the distance up to the first step was quite large. Try as she might Becky could not reach the first step (The sensible thing would have been to move the coach). Three strong, but not completely sober, men thought they could help by pushing from below. They did succeed, but the shouting and swearing from Becky as she was levered up the steps would (as the saying goes) make a sailor blush. Most of those present found it hilarious. 

Mr Morris

Two annul events at Hydestile are worthy of mention. The KGV Christmas pantomime (audio recordings and the St Thomas’s November 5th bonfire nights.  At Christmas most years the senior staff at KGV would put on a pantomime. One of the funniest things I have ever seen was Mr. Morris, the hospital secretary (a massive man from the Forrest of Dean) along with Dr Little and A.N. Other (possible Dr Hurford) dressed up as schoolgirls and performed the song,’ Three Little Maids from School are We’ from The Mikado. At St Thomas’s at least some of the medical staff were younger than those at KGV [a female trainee surgeon removed my appendix when I was sixteen]. The locals were welcome to come and watch the November 5th bonfire celebrations at St Thomas’s, which were wild affairs stoked by alcohol. The locals stood back and watched in awe. The most memorable one was when the medical students/ junior doctors dragged a piano out of their common room and burnt it on the bonfire.

Country Counter, opposite the Salt Lane entrance

The Country Counter Shop and Post Office were important to the people working at KGV the next nearest shop being in Godalming or three miles away at Hambledon Cricket Green.  Not that there was much to buy in the 1940, food and in particular sweets were all rationed. During the 1940’ the proprietor was a Mr. Charles Vacher, a French man, who most people regarded as exotic, having never been to continental Europe. 

Also important to the people, particularly the children who worked and lived at KGV was Hydon’s Ball, the local National Trust beauty spot. When we were young it   could be climbed in less than 30 minutes. The view from the top was and still is magnificent. Slightly below the summit was a horizontal pipe about 12’’ in diameter with a hinged cover, which protruded out of the hillside. This pipe was connected to the water tank situated within the hill. By liftin the cover and allowing it to drop a loud echoing sound could be produced; pleasures were simple in those days.

KGV consisted not only of the hospital wards and associated buildings but extensive ground some of which were used for agricultural purposes.  The most important of these were the Orchard, the Black Current field with over 100 mature bushes and most important of all the Pig Farm run by Mr. Bob Chuter and located adjacent to Hydestile crossroads. In the 1940’s and into the 1950’ s the pig farm was a substantial enterprise with about 60 -70 pigs ranging from piglets to those ready for market. There were about 8 breeding sows which lived free range in a field above the farm. The farm had its own resident breeding boar.  The KGV pig farm was ahead of its time in that all the waste food generated by the hospital was transported down Salt Lane to be fed to the pigs.

Patients feeding rabbits

Waste food from KGV was transported from the hospital to the pig farm by tractor and trailer. If as children, we heard the tractor start up at the hospital we would rush out to and flag it down and have a ride sitting on the rear wheel arch (not much health and safety in those days). Sometimes the tractor would take me on a longer journey over to the land adjacent to the other chest hospital at Milford. The driver was a kindly man, Mr. Tasker who officially was Polish, but rumor was that he had been a German prisoner of war who had chosen to stay in the UK. The waste food was mixed with mash and water and boiled in a large caldron. Surprisingly the smell was fantastic, like a rich soup. The pigs could smell it cooking and the noise from the styes was deafening. Large flocks of starlings would gather on the overhead telephone wires hoping for a meal. The breeding sows had their own enclosure at the top of their field, quite a large building with a pitched roof. Sometimes in the summer evenings we would sit on the roof and listen to Radio Luxemburg on a portable radio.

The annual harvest of the black current crop was usually in the first week of July and was the chance for teenagers to earn some (not a lot) of money. Payment was by result, about 2 shillings and sixpence per box which took about for about two hours of not very stimulating labor. Care had to be taken that the berries were separated from their stalks. For the next couple of weeks dessert for the patients and staff who ate at the hospital consisted of black currents in every conceivable guise.

The apple orchards provided not only a source of food, but the ‘fallers’, the apples that fell on the ground and were unfit for eating could be used in the somewhat dubious sport of ‘Apple Fighting’, where mainly teenage boys (but sometimes adults) run around throwing fallen apples at each other, while taking cover behind hedges and trees.  At least one window at 3 Salt Lane was broken by ‘Apple Fighting’. But of course, this was considerably less than the number broken by cricket balls. 

I moved away from KGV and Hydestile when I was 18 and went to work at The Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. This did not break my link with KGV. I came back most weekends, often accompanied by friends from work. On Friday nights we would usually go up to Hydestile Club. My 21st Birthday was celebrated in the front room of 3 Salt Lane with a large barrel of beer. Even after I moved to Gloucestershire, got married and had children we would still come back every four to five weeks.

While I was at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, I studied Metallurgy through a day release scheme. At the end of five years, I was a Chartered Engineer and a Member of the Institute of Metallurgist’s.  I then moved to Gloucestershire and worked ae Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories for 30 years. On retirement we moved back to Southern England, Hove in East Sussex.