Memories of matron at Wellington's "happy hospital"

Bring back the matrons!

Matron Irene Braithwaite with a newborn baby in 1962.
Matron Irene Braithwaite with a newborn baby in 1962.

The image of the hospital matron who ruled the roost is an enduring stereotype, even without mentioning Hattie Jacques.

And the reverence and respect for their importance proved an impetus for the introduction of "modern matrons" to the NHS in 2001.

But what were those 1950s-style matrons, memories of which became so seared into public consciousness, really like?

They were people like Miss Irene Braithwaite, who was there at the start of the lives, and the end of the lives, of many Wellingtonians, having become Matron at Wrekin Hospital in 1956.

We've dipped into our files to learn more about her. So let's turn back the clock 60 years and pay a visit to the hospital, and see what one of our reporters found back in 1962, when the hospital in the shadow of The Wrekin not only had a maternity unit, but old people's wards as well as a convalescent block and a chest unit for patients suffering from acute TB (tuberculosis).

Matron Irene Braithwaite with a newborn baby in 1962.

"They call Wellington's Wrekin Hospital the hospital with the family atmosphere," our correspondent wrote.

"And it all stems from the top, because the matron, Miss I Braithwaite, tackles her job with humanity and a wonderful sense of Irish humour."

She must have cut an impressive figure, wearing a neat, navy linen uniform and a crisply-starched hat trimmed with broderie anglais.

By the time mums-to-be had made their second visit to the hospital, she already knew them by their Christian names.

"She is a person who CARES about people," the reporter said.

During her career, she had delivered thousands of babies. A happy matron meant a happy hospital, and it was easy to see why the staff loved her, according to our reporter.

"Interviewing young 18-year-olds who want to take up nursing is all part of her daily job. 'They have got to have that certain something. I call it a love of human nature. And I find that the girls who really care are those who are just as kind and considerate to the old people in our geriatric wards as the younger patients'."

Hair we go... Matron Irene Braithwaite watches as a new hair drier at the Wrekin Hospital is tried out on Nurse Kathleen Davies of Hadley in July 1964. Placing the drier in position is Mrs Marjorie Bebb, chairman of the League of Friends.

Contrary to the perception of stern matrons who ruled with a rod of iron, Miss Braithwaite did not believe in having too many hard and fast rules, and was relaxed about visiting times.

But when ideas were floated later in the 1960s to change the traditional nurses' uniforms, simplifying it by doing away with caps, frilled cuffs and many of the trimmings and removing evidence of rank apart from small plastic badges, she said: "It won't happen here if I can help it. I think there is nothing nicer than the smart uniform the sisters wear with their buckled belts and all the rest."

A £40 cheque, from money collected by the Women's Voluntary Service hospital trolley service, being presented at Wrekin Hospital, Wellington, in December 1957, for patients who would be spending Christmas there. The service leader, Mrs M Miles (left) presented the cheque to Matron Braithwaite.

She hailed from Belfast, and liked to return to the family home for holidays, but had her own compact flat within the hospital walls, with a neat kitchen where she loved to bake cakes and Irish bread for her visitors.

Miss Braithwaite had left Ireland in 1935 and nursed in London and Slough before coming to the Wrekin hospital in about 1947 as assistant matron. She became Matron in 1956 and retired at the end of March 1969. She had a house virtually next door to the hospital, in Holyhead Road.

It was not the end of her public service as two months after her retirement she was elected to Wellington Urban District Council, although she raised eyebrows, and considerable controversy, when five months later she left on an extended leave of absence for a holiday in Australia during which she stayed with the family of former Wrekin MP Bill Yates in Melbourne. She was said to be visiting relatives in the country.

Her seat on the council hung in the balance when she failed to return within the six months time limit. She said she was unable to get a passage back in time and actually returned after seven months on a Norwegian cargo boat in a journey which took six weeks. Councillors decided to allow her to keep her seat.

Miss Braithwaite is still remembered in Wellington today with Braithwaite Row near the hospital site no doubt having being named in her honour.

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