by Jenny Faulkner

I was born in one of the prefabs on the Portobello estate during the terrible winter of 1947/48.  The snow was deep on the ground but that did not stop Nurse Richards coming out to attend the birth.  As she always did, she set out on her bike with her black Gladstone bag, full of her instruments, in the wicker basket on the front.  But Nurse Richards never was the best of cyclists and, as often happened, she fell off.  The Gladstone bag shot out of the basket and all the instruments disappeared into the snow drifts.  All the neighbours came out to pick her up and to dive around in the snow to find the instruments.  It took them some while but eventually Nurse Richards got round to our place in time to act as midwife to my entry into the world.

This is me, when only a few months old, sitting with my father on his motorbike.  He was a despatch rider.
This photo, taken on the same occasion, give a better view of the prefabs when they were new. 

The prefab estate at Portobello had been built just after the war and it was exclusively for the use of returned servicemen.  It fronted onto Hill Road.  All the roads on the estate were named after great battles of the Second World War: Arnhem Road and Alamein Drive ran round the estate and Tobruk Walk run up the middle. 

The house (seen in 2006) in which I was born is the one on the right.  There are only two houses on each side now but I remember there having been three houses each side on every cul-de-sac.

Round the sides, in cul-de-sacs containing six prefabs each, were prefabs with pebble dash fronts and sides; whilst in the middle were a second type of  prefab with plain fronts and sides.  Those of us who lived in the gravel prefabs rather looked down on the houses of those who lived in what we called the cardboard prefabs.

Part of the estate, seen in 2006.  Although originally intended to be temporary, these prefabs have proved to be wonderful - and long lived - homes.

 But all the prefabs were very well designed and equipped – we even had a refrigerator when they were very rarely seen in people’s homes.  And on this estate we had very big back gardens and each one had been provided with an Andersen shelter to use as a garden shed.

Another group of the houses which are still on the estate.  All the remaining prefabs are of the type with pebble dash walls - though now a lot of them have been altered a lot.

One of the prefabs was set aside as a clinic and there Nurse Richards presided.  And she had plenty to do.  With a lot of ex-servicemen around, all wanting to start families after the war, there were plenty of kids on the estate.  Nurse Richards conducted ante-natal clinics, acted as midwife, and then weighed, measured, tested the eyes and generally checked up on the growing children.  She also handed out the orange juice and Virol and cod liver oil which our parents administered to us each day.  The orange juice and the malt Virol were nice, but the cod liver oil was vile. 

This is the prefab which was originally Nurse Richards' clinic.  As you can see it is now much altered and is in residential use.

Nurse Richards was also the nit nurse.  She did everything else as well but every child seems to remember her most as the nit nurse.  The nit nurse would come round all the schools in turn to inspect the children to see if they had head lice and to treat them if they did.  Nurse Richards used to come to my school, Stow Health school, which had been newly built after the war to take children from the new local estates.  When the nurse arrived she settled into the school office and then each class was called in turn to line up in the corridor outside the office.  Then each child was called in and examined and, if they were found to have nits, they were given a note to take home to their parents.  When Nurse Richards returned next week that child, along with all the others who had had such a note, were called out of class to go back to the office.  There the nurse would comb their hair with a tooth comb and then wash their hair with a special soap called Derbac.  It was a kind of amber colour and it smelled like coal tar soap.  But when it was wetted and rubbed onto wet hair it produced a grey-black foam.  The child then had to sit there for about half-an-hour while it did its work. Then their hair was rinsed and combed and then they came back to class.  You could always tell what had happened to them because their hair was plastered down and the distinctive smell of the soap preceded them into the class room.  When one child was found to have nits all their brothers and sisters at the school were immediately called in and examined because these things spread by close contact. 

Only the prefabs in the cul de sacs round the edge of the estate survive.  Those in the centre went long ago and have been replaced by these modern houses.  But the name of the road is Tobruk Walk.

I am pleased to say that I never had nits or anything else of the sort.  But on one occasion when, I suppose, Nurse Richards was away, we had a new nit nurse.  I was duly examined by her and given a note.  When I got home my mother found that the note said that I had a dirty neck and it must be washed before I went to school again!  We were furious, not least because I did not have a dirty neck.  I had a rather dark complexion anyway and I had been out in the sun.  The nurse didn’t seem to know the difference between a sun tan and dirt!

Stow Lawn School today.    

But the school was not just a place for learning the three Rs and attending the nit nurse.  It was one of the important centres of the community.  Every Saturday morning the Head Teacher, Mr. Bailey, would put on a film show in the school hall which all the kids attended.  He normally showed Norman Wisdom films.  I suppose Mr. Bailey liked them – and so did I.  And there would be school trips by charabanc.  Several months in advance of each trip parents were sent a note about the date of the next trip and were given a card on which a record of the weekly payment to cover the cost of the trip could be kept, so that everything was paid for when we set off.  I think we usually went to Rhyl but we always had a great time, even when it rained!

Nurse Richards was just as important a part of the community.  She was a funny little woman, short and plump, with her hair parted in the middle and tied into a bun at the back.  She work a black dress with white lace collar and cuffs, which she would always carefully take off before getting down to work.  When she rode around on her bicycle for her daily visits as a district nurse she would put on her cape, which was black with a red lining and which billowed out behind her.  She often fell off, which lead my Father to say “I wish she could ride a bike as well as her brother could ride an ‘oss”.  For the fact of the matter was that her brother was Sir Gordon Richards, the most famous jockey of the day.  When we kids were playing in the street and saw her coming we would run off as fast as we could – because, if we didn’t, she would pick out one of us and say “I  am just going to see your mother.  Come along with me”.  And then she would take you home, have a chat with your mother, check that everything was going all right and have a cup of tea.  And when she left your mother would say “What did you want to bring her home for?”. 

Nurse Richards was still there when I left the estate to get married and I think she carried on for many years more, still a pillar of the community.  I think she never married or had children of her own.  I think that we were all her children.

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