This article first appeared on the BBC People's War website and has been reproduced with the kind permission of the McDonnell family following the death of the author in Epsom in 2011 aged 96. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at, local content can be accessed via WW2Memories.html.

A Nurse's Story

By Elizabeth McDonnell (nee Keogh)

Elizabeth McDonnell
Elizabeth McDonnell (nee Keogh) as a recently qualified nurse at St. Stephen's Hospital, Chelsea 1938
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

My name is Elizabeth McDonnell, nee Keogh. I was born in Youghal, County Cork in Ireland in 1914.

When I completed my schooling in the early 1930s there was very little work in Ireland. My Aunty Norah, who worked in London as a teacher, suggested that I should come to London and start a career as a nurse. I came to England with Aunty Norah and Uncle Jack on their return from holiday in Ireland.I managed to get an interview with the Matron at St. Stephen's Hospital in Fulham Road, Chelsea. She offered me a place on a residential 12 week basic nursing school in the hospital. The school culminated in exams which had to be passed before any further nursing training could commence. Thankfully I passed these exams and started as a Probationer Nurse living in the nurse's home adjacent to the hospital. Each nurse, Probationer, Second Year, Third Year or Staff had a room with a bed, bedside table, dressing table and wardrobe. The rooms were about 10 feet by 8 feet. The bathrooms and toilets were on the landings. We were paid a bit less than 2 a month. (As I remember the salary never went beyond 2 a month for many years. Money was not as important as our vocation.) We had to buy our books and shoes and pay for subsequent examinations but our accommodation, food, uniforms and laundry were free.

My first day as a Probationer Nurse was spent on a women's ward. I was paired up with a nurse named Muller, a German. We were told quietly by the ward sister that we were to give a blanket bath to a lady that was dying. As we walked down the long ward with its shiny floor there was a crash behind me, Muller had fallen on the floor, my first reaction was to laugh but I quickly regained my composure and helped her to her feet. We gave our patient her blanket bath. From that day to the end of my career I looked on my patient as one of my own, my Mother, my Sisters, my Father, my Brothers, and later my Husband and my Sons.

Over the next year, along with the other Probationer Nurses, there was a mixture of work experience on all the wards in the hospital, lectures and study. We used to get up at 5 in the morning to study before our ward work or lectures and study again in the evenings before we went to bed. At the end of the first year we took our Preliminary Exams from the General Nursing Council for England and Wales. I think that we were allowed 3 attempts at this exam. The oral part of the exam was in the hospital and my examiner was a Matron from another hospital. I can remember that at one point in my examination she asked me for the medical name of the calf muscle. For the life of me I couldn't remember. I left the room at the end of my oral examination and had closed the door behind me when I suddenly remembered. I opened the door again and blurted to the Matron, "It's the gastronemus muscle!" After the written exam a group of us walked to Kensington High Street, went into Woolworths, paired off and bought each other a token present. The presents were sixpence each. We got the exams results several months later. I passed and at the first attempt!

I was very lucky to have my Aunty Norah and Uncle Jack living so close to me. Aunty Norah would often take me in to the West End and would treat me to tea and cakes. We would window shop together. They looked after me so well and helped me get through the home sickness that always seemed to be there.

The following years at St. Stephen's passed in tours of duty on more wards, more studying and more exams. During this time one of the patients that I nursed was an elderly Irish lady, Mrs. McDonnell. She was kind to me and very friendly. She lived just outside London but originally came from Cork city and knew Youghal, the town where I grew up. During their visits to see her I met her children who were of a similar age to me. These meetings were to have a great effect on my life.

In 1938 I sat the Final Exam for Registered Nursing. I passed! In those days a nurse had to stay with the hospital in which she trained for 6 months after passing her Final Exam. After that she could opt for additional training in whichever specialist disciplines were available in the hospital that she was in or apply for other specialist training in a different hospital. In St. Stephen's Hospital the specialist discipline was Midwifery. I duly did my 6 months and then spent more time at St. Stephen's widening my experience as a Staff Nurse. I decided to stay there and study Midwifery. But by now it was the summer of 1939 and suddenly some of us on the nursing staff were told to attend a talk from the Matron. She advised us that war with Germany was imminent and that our government had made arrangements to borrow nurses from each of the London hospitals. We were the selected nurses from St. Stephen's. The Matron told us that she didn't know where we would be going or for how long. She told us that we might have to live under canvas and that we should take clothes etc. for all the year's seasons. I think that we were all a bit shocked and surprised. I never did get to study Midwifery.

Elizabeth McDonnell is 5th from the left
Elizabeth McDonnell is 5th from the left with other nurses and patients of Horton Emergency Hospital during WW2
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

A few days later, September 3rd 1939, I was on a coach with other nurses from St. Stephen's. Our belongings came with us. After a while the coach went up the drive of Horton Hospital in Epsom. From the windows of the coach the view seemed like heaven after London. Lush green lawns, flower beds, trees, peace, birds singing, beauty and tranquility. Our coach stopped in amongst a lot other coaches in the hospital grounds. Before we could get off the coach the air raid sirens sounded an alarm! We quickly got off our coach, donned our gas masks as instructed and were led crocodile fashion into the hospital interior. Eventually the "All Clear" sounded. We never did find out what had caused the sirens to sound the alarm. Horton became my home until the end of the War.

Over the next days we learned that Horton had been a Psychiatric Hospital but that prior to our coming 2000 patients had been moved to other locations. A number of the administrative staff and senior nurses stayed with us at Horton throughout the War. They were extremely professional and had done a wonderful job of preparing the wards and the beds to receive the patients that would eventually come. In those first few days we nurses were offered the choice of working days or nights. A group of us from St. Stephen's decided that we would work nights. We felt that this would allow us daylight hours to discover Epsom and our environment. I was to stay on nights for a year.

Elizabeth McDonnell is 7th from the left
Elizabeth McDonnell is 7th from the left with other nurses and patients of Horton Emergency Hospital during WW2
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

I loved Epsom. It was so clean, and, after London, small. It reminded me so much of Youghal, my home town in Ireland. The people of Epsom were always very friendly and helpful and we loved to go into the town when we had spare time. Although there was a bus service into Epsom we usually walked in using a slipway that ran from an extreme corner of Horton Hospital at the backs of houses and beside a park. The slipway is still there to this day. In the War days there was an air raid shelter close to the start of the slipway.

The hospital was split into 2 parts, civilian ands military. I worked most of the time on the military side of the hospital. The first months of the War were very quiet for us. The early summer of 1940 was quite warm and some of us got permission to take our mattresses out onto the balconies of the Night Nurses block where we would sleep during the day. On one of these days we were woken by lots of vehicles coming into the hospital grounds. We realised that something was up. We got dressed and reported for duty with the day staff. Our first casualties from Dunkirk had arrived. On my ward we had 30 to 40 soldiers. As the senior nurse on my ward one of my responsibilities was to collect and collate the information about every patient admitted. I needed to record information such as name, rank, serial number, next of kin, home address, treatment details etc. etc. This information had to be with the Nigh Superintendent by midnight. My ward was full of French soldiers! They spoke almost no English and I just had school girl French. I was in despair when suddenly a student doctor appeared. He had asked me for a date on several occasions but I had always politely declined. My first thought was that he was here again to ask me out. He was offering help but in my desperation I was very off hand with him and told him that the only way he could help me was if he spoke French. He was fluent! I registered the information on these French soldiers on time.

Elizabeth McDonnell is 6th from the left
Elizabeth McDonnell is 6th from the left with other nurses and patients of Horton Emergency Hospital during WW2
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

I remember that around this time we got a French casualty on one of the wards who had a badly damaged leg. This man refused to let anyone but a French doctor touch his leg. He was transferred to another hospital. I don't know what became of him.

My War years at Horton flew by. Friends came and went. Patients came and went. There were very sad times but also happy times. Amongst the people working at Horton there was a great sense of duty, companionship, loyalty and sincerity, never to be forgotten. We were doing our duty and we were very glad to be able to help our patients, military and civilian.

Here are a few memories from those war years.

Soon after Dunkirk we started to receive civilian patients from the Blitz. It was always all hands to the pumps and we were deployed onto the civilian side of the hospital as required. One of the patients that we had was a lady who, heavily pregnant, had been walking through a park when she was caught in an air raid. She suffered a badly broken femur but her baby was unharmed and was successfully delivered. I remember hearing that when the lady had been brought in she was very concerned to have lost her glasses. The ambulance driver went back to the spot where she had been found and discovered her glasses in the lower branches of a tree!

Elizabeth McDonnell is 4th from the left in mufti
Elizabeth McDonnell is 4th from the left in mufti
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

I think that the bravest people in Britain during the war years were the Londoners. They put up with so much and were very courageous and steadfast throughout. I tried to see Aunty Norah often and sometimes we would still visit the West End. On one of these trips early in the war we had arranged to meet at Marble Arch. There had been a heavy German raid the previous night. As we came up to the surface from the Tube we saw the devastation in Oxford Street. It looked as if giant hands had smashed buildings the length of the street and swept them into piles of rubble in the middle of the road. Ruptured gas mains were burning, water mains had been burst and there was water everywhere. In all this chaos shop keepers were sweeping glass and rubble away from shop entrances while assistants were writing "STILL OPEN" in large letters on any material to hand. The Londoners were determined to keep going in the face of the bombing and try to live as normal a life as possible.

A young man was brought in to Horton from the battle at Arnhem. His face and hands were terribly burned and had been covered with dressings which had adhered to the wounds. He was lying on a bed and a doctor was examining him. The doctor told me to remove the dressings from the man's face so that a more detailed examination could be made. I felt almost feint with fright and the young man's eyes met mine. I could see his fear. We both knew the agony and torment that the bandage removal would cause. As I started to move forward the doctor suddenly changed his mind and said the dressing removal would be better done at East Grinstead, where he had decided that the young man should be sent. Our relief was great though for this poor young man only temporary.

Elizabeth McDonnell being playful with a colleague in the grounds of Horton
Elizabeth McDonnell being playful with a colleague in the grounds of Horton
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

I missed my parents and brothers and sisters in Ireland a lot. I managed to get home once a year. As an Irish citizen I had to have special paperwork to travel and the usual pre-war route home was closed so I travelled via Holyhead and Dublin down to Youghal. It was wonderful to see my family and live, albeit for a short while, without rationing and without a blackout. Somehow, going home to Ireland always made me feel a bit guilty, as if I was leaving my post. On return to duty in England we were not allowed to bring back things that were in short supply such as tea and sugar. I never did understand why.

The military patients that were on the mend were allowed to go into Epsom. They wore a special uniform, Royal blue jacket and trousers, a white shirt and a red tie. They looked very smart. They often shopped for things for their pals that were still bed ridden. There was a great spirit of helping each other out and trying to improve things for those that were not yet mobile.

The Officers had a block of their own in the grounds. We had a famous patient in this block for quite some time, Ian Wallace. He used to sing at concerts that were held at Horton for the patients. One of his favourite songs was "Mud, mud glorious mud". He also used to make up songs about individual nurses and sing them on his ward. He was a great entertainer and helped keep up the morale of the patients.

Elizabeth McDonnell, age 15 in 1929, at home in Ireland with some of her siblings
Elizabeth McDonnell, age 15 in 1929, at home in Ireland with some of her siblings
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

One day early in the War I had dressed to go on duty and had just left my accommodation block. There was an air battle going on over my head and I could hear the gun fire and see the planes. They seemed very close. Suddenly I was terribly frightened and, instead of walking across the open hospital grounds to go on duty I ran back to my room and hid under the bed. After a short time I heard someone calling to me from outside the building telling me that I was due to be on duty. I replied that I was frightened to death and told them to go away. After a few minutes I managed to gather myself together and went on duty. We had to sign a register as we went on and off duty. If we were late we had to write the reason. I wrote that I had been frightened of the planes and had hidden under my bed. I expected to be in trouble but nothing was ever said, there were no recriminations.

On January 1st 1944 at Saint Mary's church in Chislehurst I married Bill McDonnell. He was a gunner in the Royal Artillery and, having been in the Territorial Army had been called up very early in the War. It was a very quiet wartime wedding and very soon after we were both back on duty, Bill back to his regiment and me back to Horton. Bill was demobbed in 1946. We raised four sons. Bill died very suddenly in 1973.

There was a chapel in the grounds of Horton. (In fact it is still there today and is, I believe, a listed building.) The chapel was multi denominational and services were held there every Sunday. The services were attended by patients and staff and were very always well attended. Catholic services were held by a priest from Saint Joseph's church in Epsom. (This chapel was still being used up until recent years. My eldest son, by sheer coincidence, lives in Epsom. When his daughters were small the chapel was still being used as a place of worship and we would sometimes go there for Mass on a Sunday morning.)

Some of these memories came back to the surface after being walked (I need a wheel chair for long walks now) around the Horton Hospital site by my eldest son. The site is now called Livingstone Park. The hospital that has seen so much drama over the last 100 years is no more. It was a military hospital during both World Wars and gave succour to many thousands of psychiatric patients down all the other years. Now it is being redeveloped into homes for hundreds of young people and families. Some of the original buildings are there to this day, although converted and modernised. The chapel, where so many prayers for help of been said down the years is still there. I hope that it will be re-opened as a place of worship and prayer. The site still has many green and natural areas. A hospital that has seen so much anguish, pain and suffering, so much devotion to duty, so much medical professionalism, so much caring is now to be home for our young people. A wonderful transition.

Elizabeth on her 96th birthday.
Elizabeth on her 96th birthday.
The flowers are from her brother, her last living sibling,
the baby she has on her lap in the above photo.
Image courtesy of Kevin McDonnell ©2015

Elizabeth McDonnell ©2005
WW2 People's War