The solstice just passed marked a very special anniversary for a group of nurses who began their professional training on Sunday, June 21, 1964, at Agnes Jones House at Altnagelvin.
The nurses celebrated the occassion on Saturday with a trip to the Mayor’s parlour followed by a tour of the Walls and a reunion dinner in town.
Jean Latimer, of Knockwellan in the Waterside, told the Sentinel the group were delighted to have been able to recreate an old photograph (see picture) taken of the class outside the nurses’ training accommodation 50 years ago last weekend.
“It was taken about June 21,” Jean explains. “We started on Sunday (June 21), we were called the June Preliminary Training School (PTS).”
“We started for 12 weeks in Agnes Jones House. Instead of going to university you went to Agnes Jones House,” she says.
Jean explains how Agnes Jones - a Cambridge-born nursing pioneer who was a friend of Florence Nightingale and is buried at Fahan Presbyterian Church - endowed the local health authorities with the requisite money to build the accommodation for the training of nurses.
“Agnes Jones bequeathed it for the training of nurses,” she says. “She left money to the health board, I suppose it was the health board at that time, for the training of nurses in this area. And that house was called after her.”
Jean describes what she found when she arrived at Altnagelvin from Derrylinn as a fresh-faced 18-year-old.
“It was a big house. It’s still there to this day in the grounds of Altnagelvin Hospital,” she says. “There were so many bedrooms in it. Some were three girl shared, some were two girl shared. It was on three different levels.
“On the bottom floor the kitchen and the dining room and the big sitting room, on the middle floor there were the wardens’ quarters and then there were bedrooms off them and then on the top floor there were bedrooms. A great big house. We stayed in block for 12 weeks,” she adds.
It was whilst staying at Agnes Jones House in the mid 1960s that Jean and her colleagues learned the skills for a nursing vocation that for her has endured for over a half century.
“We learned in the classroom. We had a classroom, and Molly McDaid was our tutor. She looked after us,” says Jean. “We’d never seen a bed or a patient until Molly McDaid put us in a classroom with a dummy in the bed and that was us.”
The girls - and one boy, Pat Campbell - hailed not only from the immediate Londonderry area but from all over Northern Ireland and Donegal.
Student nurses travelled from as far away as Ballymena, Derrylinn and Glencolumbcille to avail of what were then the ultra-modern facilities available in Londonderry.
“Altnagelvin at that time was a good new training hospital,” explains Jean.
The ‘June PTS’ were also a rather unique cohort due to the aforementioned Pat’s membership.
“Missing from that picture is a fellah called Pat Campbell and he was from Derry,” said Jean. “We were a very special PTS because we had a man in it.
“And we stood out from the rest. At that time men did not train as nurses. We were the oddity because we had the man. And when anything went wrong we all told Pat about it and when Pat went home to his mother, his mother sorted out all our problems.
“He came back the next day. We were all wee girls who had only come from home,” she says.
Jean says that although the girls were under curfew and under strict instructions to be back in Agnes Jones House by 11.15pm at the latest, this wasn’t adhered to.
This was, of course, the height of the showbands era and trips to the Embassy and Borderland were de rigueur for the class.
“We weren’t allowed to run the country,” says Jean. “We went out windows, you name it, we did it. We worked hard but, by God, we played hard.
“We went to the Embassy. We walked and if you met an Altnagelvin bus you were going away from the hospital and if an Altnagelvin hospital bus passed you were going
towards the hospital and that was our ways of knowing.”
Jean went on to spend over 30 years nursing at Altnagelvin, before going on to manage the Avondale Nursing Home on the Culmore Road. She now works at the health centre on Scroggy Road in Limavady.
She says Saturday’s reunion was a follow on from a previous get together in 1999.
“When we were 35 years nursing we met up. I would keep in contact with this girl, Valerie. I keep in contact with Daphne. Roisín keeps in contact with Sue (Gallagher). “We sort of all know each other. We never really lost touch with each other. We have a network.
“She (Sue) organised it this time. Me and Pat and her organised the 35 years. When we were 35 years working we met up and we said we would do it again when we were 50,” she said.