It was always great to get a letter from my sister Rosy, especially when I was having a tough day at work. During World War II social workers like myself were involved in war-related assignments. I loved working as a social worker and during WWII, I helped soldiers and their families cope with injuries and other medical problems. We also developed services for communities impacted by the war.
I also felt I needed to do more so when I asked about driving ambulances, I was told to apply in writing to the Head Quarters of the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service. I wrote a letter saying I wanted to make myself available on the weekend as I worked as a social worker most days during the week. I had been driving since I was twenty four years old and felt I knew London and the outskirts very well. A bit of an exaggeration but I posted it and waited for a reply. Within two weeks I, was summoned to take a test. The letter concluded with, “Please attend the test if you feel confident in being able to handle heavy vehicles with heavy steering and difficult gears.”
The day of my test, I was told to report to the Auxiliary Ambulance Service, 39 Weymouth Mews near Marylebone Station. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. My dear friends William and Joe took me and waited at the corner cafe for me to finish. The examiner was a grumpy old bum, but I stood firm in my confidence and tried to not let his disposition rattle me. I found that I had no problem with the gears but the steering wheel was heavy and the brakes were dodgy. I drove for about forty minutes around London and was really pleased with myself when I finished the test. I could feel a few beads of sweat on my brow. Of course the examiner was not one to chat so the atmosphere was pretty tense. When we got back to headquarters, we sat in the car for a couple of minutes while he wrote furiously and I started to think I would have to do it again another day, when he suddenly looked straight at me and asked if I could start at the end of the week on the Friday night. I may have even stuttered, but I said, “I would be able to.” He told me to report for my first shift at 10pm, as I would be working through the night until 8am with another ambulance driver. I would be able to collect my roster, which will be in my pigeon hole ready for collection.
‘Where was my pigeon hole and who was driving me?’ I thought.
I thanked him and he nodded as he got out of the car and went back inside.
I wrote in my diary the date and time and to get there at least forty minutes early. As I wrote, I hoped I hadn’t bit off more than I could chew, but I desperately wanted to be helping people as much as I could, for the blasted war was taking its toll on everybody and so much from so many people and I felt so helpless when I wasn’t involved doing something.
I had seen those ambulances before, tearing around bomb sites and saw many drivers having to discover ingenuous ways of getting around all of the massive debris and felt that I would be able to manage it.
On my first day, I was lucky to finish work early during the day so I could get some kip before going out again. I sure was nervous but when I met Bridget, the ambulance driver I was to be working with, I straight away felt at ease. I loved her energy straight away. She shook my hand furiously and said, “Hi, I’m Bridget, great to have you on board. Don’t worry about a thing. I will show you the ropes.” As we walked outside to the ambulance, it started to pour down with rain. She said, “I’ll drive if you like.” and I said, “No its fine, I would like to.”
She smiled, “Violet, you are a champion” in her lovely American drawl.
Bridget told me that we will be attending to the wounded who will be transferred to Westminister hospital. We just had word that there was a large scale emergency. I will never forget the first lot of casualty that we picked up from Bank Station and the twists and turns it took to get there. There were horrific head, leg and arm injuries suffered from a direct hit from a German bomb. I couldn’t believe this was my first ever shift. The roadway collapsed into the subways and station concourse, killing over fifty people. I hurriedly tried to get to Westminister Hospital, where I was instructed to take them. It usually takes half an hour or so but I’m not so sure now. I am sure I took the long route but Bridget reassured me I was doing a fantastic job, being my first day and all. From the back were groans and shrieks as we travelled along and I felt terrible. I don’t normally sweat a lot but I certainly did on this occasion because I felt so incredibly anxious. And, I think I let out a sigh or two. I often glanced at Bridget, who seemed so calm and was so glad that she was my buddy on shift.
After my first long shift, I was told to report on Sunday early morning. I had Saturday off to try and rest and get some work done around the house. I walked into my home feeling enormous gratitude that I still had a house in one piece. As a social worker, I have seen men, women and children homeless, standing outside the ruins of their home wailing, screaming out, ‘my house, my house!’ It is a heartbreaking sight.
I loved my home so much that the thought of not having it made me feel absolutely wretched. As soon as I dropped my bag down and washed my hands, I jumped into bed and slept until 4pm, which didn’t give me a lot of time to do things, but I felt rested nonetheless.
After driving ambulances for a couple of weeks, I was pulling dead and injured children out of the rubble. It was very hard to keep our emotions in check and when we got back in the ambulance, I found myself many times crying over all this insanity.
Bridget was wonderful, she told me to let it out. I usually would do my crying in the comfort of my own home but on some occasions I just couldn’t hold it in.
I also on occasions picked up women, usually young who had either tried to abort themselves or had a backyard job, as abortions were illegal back then. I remember the first time this happened, coming across a twenty year old woman by the name of Milly Mulligan. She was pale, with a high, raging temperature and had lost a lot of blood. We rushed her to Westminister Hospital, where I was to find out later from her that she couldn’t afford to pay the hospital around hundred guineas, so she paid a lady two guineas (around two pounds) and the following day another lady came who said she was a midwife.
Milly told me beforehand that she had been trying home remedies that she had heard her mother talk about to a friend years before. One was having scorching hot baths as that was supposed to aggravate the insides of the vagina and strenuous exercise as well as herbal remedies that she rubbed on her abdomen and inserted into her vagina.
“Of course, none of them worked for me.” She said.
Rosy told me later that scorching hot baths were supposed to aggravate the vagina’s mucous membranes, which can sometimes bring on miscarriage.
If you are desperate, you can find some woman who will do it and there are even more horrible ways to do it than what this midwife had done to Milly.
I was to learn that Knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors, paper knives, pickle forks and other implements have all been pushed into the uterus by desperate women who preferred anything other than being pregnant. How a woman can push any instrument through a tightly closed cervix is more than I can imagine. But it has been done and I have heard so many stories in such diverse circumstances and they are all so dismally similar, that the evidence cannot be doubted.
I was to find out later that if a midwife or anyone performing such a procedure was discovered, it is a criminal offence and they would be convicted of an offence for a term of imprisonment, usually two to three years. It was always the intention to help, not to harm and I didn’t agree with these harsh measures at all and it was many, many years before this was done differently.
It was a woman’s right to control her own body, but not in earlier times. It is taken for granted now and younger people can scarcely believe that abortion used to be against the law, punishable by a prison sentence for the woman and the abortionist. In 1803, abortions in the UK were criminalised. This was the legal position until the Abortion Act 1967 (In many parts of the world, it is still illegal). No doctor who valued his career would perform an abortion and no hospital could do so.
I read an article years ago that said, “In 1914 it was estimated that 150,000 women had attempted abortion.” There have always been women who wanted or needed to end a pregnancy, especially if the mother had been raped, was not married, or if they had too many children already and could not feed or clothe them properly. For single women, illegitimate pregnancies meant social and economic catastrophe, especially if they had no family support. Many women who were cast out by their family would often prostitute themselves to survive and many didn’t make it. Some women had their children taken away while, others had their children who pretty much had to depend on themselves to survive and from a very young age. Some women were beaten by the men, their money stolen or were admitted to a psychiatric hospital, unable to mentally cope any more with life on the outside. Thank God we no long call these places asylums!
For rich women, this would entail a secretive visit, at great expense, to a secret address where a discredited doctor would operate illegally, but usually successfully.
In 1967 the Abortion Act was passed, and abortion was no longer illegal. I have often been asked what I thought of abortion. To me, it is more of a medical issue than a moral one. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore, I believe, it must be done properly.