• 1965, the year that changed my life
Chris Woodhead, September 1961
Chris wrote in 1967: "Eventually I was admitted into the Devonshire Road hospital, in Blackpool, where, for a fortnight, several doctors came to see me, and probed my mind with peculiar puzzles and pictures, which only made me confused. I was in a room by myself, and although only ten, the Devil tormented me with horrible depression, homesickness, and an unbearable fear of death. I was tried out on various kinds of drugs, which I’m sure did not help, they only gave me stomach aches. I was discharged from hospital, and saw a psychiatrist regularly at the Victoria hospital for several months."
1. In September 1961 Chris was admitted into Devonshire Road hospital in Blackpool for two weeks. The hospital was entered by some steps up to a front door, and there was a corridor which divided the hospital into two halves: the part where Chris went, and a men’s ward on the other side. The half where Chris was wasn’t an open ward; there were a number of small rooms, glass cubicles, almost. These probably stemmed from when Devonshire Road was an isolation hospital (or sanatorium, as it was called). Chris didn’t know what illnesses the occupants had, but there were children in these glass-partitioned rooms. Chris himself wasn’t in one of them, though; he was in an actual, proper room at the top of the ward, with his own window looking out onto the grounds.
 Sanatorium: According to the American Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1963) a sanatorium is an establishment that provides physical therapy and other treatment or an institution for rest and recuperation (as of convalescents) or an establishment for the treatment of the chronically ill. The British Collins Dictionary of the English Language (London & Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1979) adds another definition of British usage: a room in a boarding school where sick people may be treated in isolation. Devonshire Road hospital had been an establishment for the treatment of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases in isolation, and was referred to as “a”, or “the sanatorium”; this usage takes elements from both the U.S. and British definitions of the word.2. There didn’t seem to be a lot of nurses around. Whether they were just busy at the other end, in the men’s part, he doesn’t know, but there wasn’t much activity in his own part. He only remembers one or two: one was Nurse Rigby — and there was also a Nurse Gregory.
Nurse Rigby was quite a friendly nurse, who was often popping in to see him. She was a fairly tall, reddish-haired lady with glasses, middle-aged. She was the one who, when Chris was upset one day and was just sitting on the bed crying, came in and said, “What’s to do? What’s to do?” And Chris didn’t understand what she meant; he hadn’t heard the expression “What’s to do?” before. He hadn’t been living in the area very long.
3. There were two doctors that Chris remembers coming to see him: Dr. Cashman, the one he had seen as an outpatient;[more] and Dr. Clulow, who wore a white coat. This latter may have been a paediatrician, because Chris remembers seeing him around that ward quite often. Or he may have been a houseman (a junior doctor). He came in to see Chris on more than one occasion, and carried out the procedures one would expect a doctor to do: checking the pulse, listening with his stethoscope — all that sort of thing. He also talked to Chris and asked him questions; but it was on a regular, daily-round basis that Chris might see him. And Dr. Cashman was the man who came smartly dressed in a suit; he was a psychiatrist. He was a smallish man, and he wore shoes that had steel tips; Chris could always hear him coming because of the noise they made on the floor: click! click! click! And Dr. Cashman’s “pet” saying was: “Good, that’s splendid!”; after just about everything he said: “Good! That’s splendid!” He carried a black briefcase with him.
4. On one visit, Dr. Cashman brought out a kind of portfolio thing. “I’m just going to show you some pictures,” he said. He opened it up, and there were several cards with dots on them, yellow dots and green dots. The object of the exercise was for Chris to tell him what pictures he could see in the patterns of dots. So that is what he did.
“And what do you see on this card?”
There was nothing on the card. “Well, it’s blank,” Chris said.
So Dr. Cashman said, “Well, I’d like you to imagine the kind of picture that you might see on this card. Can you try and conjure up some picture in your imagination to project onto this card?”
And Chris replied: “A bridge and some ships.” That is what he imagined: ships with tall funnels in a dock, such as he had been seeing in Fleetwood; and he saw a bridge as well.
One supposes that Dr. Cashman then said, “Good, that’s splendid!”, because that’s what he always said.
5. Probably on the occasion that he brought the pictures, Dr. Cashman said to Chris, “A little while ago I asked you some questions, if you could tell me what some sayings meant. I’m going to ask you the same ones again.” And he repeated them. The first time that he had asked Chris the questions was when Chris was an outpatient. The only one that he can remember is: “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” But there were sayings like that; and Dr. Cashman asked Chris to repeat what he thought they meant. And after each question and reply, he wouldn’t correct Chris; he just said, “Good, that’s splendid!” So Chris couldn’t tell if he gave the right meanings to all these sayings, or not.
“Splendid,” said Dr. Cashman. “Splendid. Good, that’s splendid! Thank you, Chris. I’m coming to see you later in the week.” And off he went: click! click! click!
6. On another occasion, Dr. Cashman told Chris that he wanted him to draw some pictures before he came to see him again, about the kind of things he thought about during the days he spent in hospital. He provided Chris with a sketch-pad and pencil, and said, “I’d like you to draw some pictures about the things that you think about when you’re on your own — the things going through your mind.”
And Chris drew the back of a No. 14 bus, and himself, holding a suitcase, being kicked onto it by a nurse! — Nurse Rigby, probably. It was one of the later Blackpool Corporation Transport buses with an open platform at the back, not one of the old centre-doorway buses which were still running at that time. Chris evidently wished to express his desire to be sent home. If that was not already clear enough, on the back of the bus he drew its number and destination: “14 Fleetwood via Thornton”. Chris lived in Thornton.
7. Apart from such visits, Chris was left on his own in that secluded room, even though he was only eleven years old; and there, he was tormented by horrible feelings of depression and homesickness, and an unbearable fear of death.
The hospital was built on the corner of Devonshire Road and Talbot Road; and out of the window, across Talbot Road, Chris could see the white-tiled Catterall and Swarbrick brewery. The brewery chimney had a lightning conductor on top of it in the form of a cross, and Chris said to himself, “As long as that cross is there, I’m all right” — a strange thing to think, since he had no religious leanings and in fact hated going to church. Each morning, he would look out of the window and see the cross, and console himself with the fact that it was still there. “If one morning the cross is gone, I shall die,” he thought.
8. The tea that they gave Chris to drink always tasted horrible; it was really stewed and strong tasting. Chris suspected that it contained some kind of drug. This seems unlikely, though: if they had wanted to administer medication they wouldn’t have gone to such lengths, they would have just given it to him to take. But whatever time of day it was when they brought in the cup of tea, it tasted much the same. Usually, it was in the morning. It tasted so horrible! First thing in the morning, they’d bring him this cup of tea, and it tasted horribly stewed — and sweet; they had always put a lot of sugar in it.
9. It felt very warm in that hospital room — or was this due to the drugs that Chris was given? For Chris was tried out on various kinds of drugs, which seemingly didn’t help and only gave him stomach aches. Whatever the cause — temperature or drugs — Chris felt hot and he was sweating. So after some days he started to smell, but they didn’t give him a bath.
The fact that he was smelly must have shown on his Mum’s face when she visited, for he said to her, “They wouldn’t give me a bath, Mum.”
She said, “Oh, I do wish they’d give you a bath.”
It seems unlikely that they would keep a child in hospital for two weeks and not bath him once. But if they did give him a bath at some point, it was a number of days before anything happened. (As has already been mentioned, the ward didn’t seem to be over-staffed.) Chris remembers that he could smell the odour of his sweat under his arms, and even remembers dreaming about it; as he lay in the hot hospital bed, the odour even entered his dreams and he could smell it in his sleep.
10. On the other side of the dividing corridor was a men’s ward. Chris remembers seeing men in this other side, and in particular one whose appearance alarmed him. Gentian violet was used as an antiseptic and in the treatment of burns, and stained the skin an intensely violet colour. This man must have had some skin complaint, for he had this violet colour all over his face — and he’d had his hair shaved off, too. He used to sit outside — and Chris also would be allowed to sit outside for a while — and the man would sit and talk to him. Chris found it very scary to begin with, seeing the man with all this horrible purple on his face. But after the initial reaction, it became obvious that the man was all right, and not to be feared.
11. After being there for two weeks, Chris was discharged from the hospital.
Chris goes to Newcastle General hospital
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