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Lives of Knottingley Folk

Freda Laycock



My mum Freda was born to Samuel and Elizabeth Laycock of Hensall. Mum was one of eight children born to this couple, who were farmers. Mum used to enjoy telling my sister and myself about her life there, including walking the two miles to school every day – with the occasional lift in the pony and trap.

The children all had jobs around the farm, collecting eggs or feeding the pigs and so they were kept busy. The family were members of the Methodist Church and through this the children attended Sunday School each week. At the end of each year scholars who attended regularly received a book. The book mum received one year was called ‘Sisters of the Red Cross’, and it was after reading this that mum decided she would be a nurse.

In the mid 1930’s mum was interviewed by the Matron at Pontefract Infirmary and was offered a place to start her training. On the successful completion of this she went to St Luke’s in Bradford to gain a midwifery qualification. By this time war was under way and mum felt she wanted to do her bit so she decided to apply to one of the forces to be a nurse. She was accepted by the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. (Later on her grey cloak trimmed with red which was part of her uniform, was often used by my sister and myself in our dressing up games!)

Initially she was posted to Shaftsbury Hospital in Dorset to do some training and she spent a short time at Oxford University - she was very proud of this!

On completion of her training she waited to be posted abroad, the two possibilities at this time being either Egypt or Sierra Leone in West Africa. She knew it would not be possible to tell her family where she was as all letters were censored, so she arranged to send them a card before she left England saying either that ‘Aunty Elsie is well’ or ‘Aunty Sarah is well’ - the initial letter of the name of the aunt revealing where mum was being sent. In this case it was Sierra Leone.

Mum then went out by convoy to Freetown the capital of Sierra Leone where she stayed from 1941- 1943. The nurses treated patients of all nationalities including quite a lot of Americans. We know this as in mums’ possessions we have letters of thanks from them. Out there at that time the nursing sisters had ’boys’ to help them with their household tasks. Again mum obviously treated them well as one of the letters from them says -

Dear Sister,

Just to tell you that I have got a box of bananas from my parents yesterday. As you are very kind to me, therefore as a present I have brought some to you.
Good morning Sister I hope you are feeling well this morning. I close with great joy,

I am Moroh

As well as work, the nursing sisters had time for a social life as seen by a ticket we have inviting them to a Red Cross dance - to be held by kind permission of Lt Commander Fenwick R.N. under the patronage of his Excellency the Governor of Sierra Leone and the Commander in Chief of the South Atlantic forces.

White people in Sierra Leone were still a rarity. On one occasion, when mum had some time off, she went ‘up country’ by train. On her arrival she was greeted by lots of children who wanted to see her, they were so fascinated by her they each took hold of a finger and so she walked along accompanied by at least 10 children!

Her time out there came to an end and in 1943 she arrived back in England where preparations were underway for D-Day.

Whilst waiting for this day mum was stationed in Catterick, Fleet and Luton, ending in Southampton on June 14th 1944 ready for embarkation to Normandy on the 16th - 10 days after D-Day. She was to be part of the 10th British Casualty Clearing Station.

As they followed the troops, the sisters often lived under canvas, sometimes in the garden of a convent, sometimes in a school and once in a training college for Catholic priests!  In all the places they stopped they set up hospitals to treat the injured soldiers as they returned from the front line. They travelled through Belgium and Holland before arriving in Germany. (On the way through these places mum had the opportunity of meeting and shaking hands with General Montgomery, something she was also very proud of.) At one point in Germany they set up a hospital in a castle!

However in contrast to this on May 6th 1945 mum was part of a team of nine nursing sisters who went to a concentration camp, Stalag XB – Sandbostal in Germany to help relieve it. She did not talk about this part of her life very much as it was too upsetting, but documents she kept throw some light on what the conditions were like.

Major McLaren c.c. of the 10th Casualty Clearing Station writes in a report –

"The first view of the camp was as I expected, miles of wire encircled each low hut and a further wire encircled the whole camp. Watch towers equipped with searchlights and machine guns were placed on the circumference to cover all exits. It was an ugly place built in a saucer shaped depression giving the prisoners a view of nothing but the sky and the wire wall. In the ‘hospital’ where we were to work each hut was designed like a barn. There were dozens of shelves where the prisoners could lie down on close packed rows; for the most part the prisoners lay on these wooden shelves, there were between 40 - 60 on each shelf."

Mum was placed in charge of the typhus ward – a dreaded place as typhus was very infectious. Her example helped others. Again quoting from the report by Major McLaren –

"I think the splendid work done by the German sisters and women helpers was partly as a result of the example shown by the British sisters. Several times in the early days of the camp I met German girls who were weeping and not getting on with their work. They said they were terrified they would get typhus. It was a certain cure to lead them along to see Sister Laycock in the middle of the typhus ward calmly getting on with her work."

There were not enough British nurses to look after all the prisoners so German nurses and helpers were drafted in to help – hence their presence in the camp.

Shortly after mum arrived at Sandbostal it was VE day, but for mum there was no celebration. In her diary she notes –

"I have 270 patients on my ward. Very, very busy, not enough food, staff or equipment. Patients in an appalling condition, starved and dying. Heard late at night it was VE day."

Mum remained in Germany treating the troops.

One day she was out with friends when she was involved in a motor car accident. The result was her enforced return to England for treatment. Part of her treatment was to have physiotherapy at Pontefract Infirmary and it was there she met my father Charles Blackburne - and the rest is history - You can read about my Dad's life also on the Knottingley and Ferrybridge web site.

After marrying mum did not return to work as she assisted dad in all he did. She created a wonderful home life for my Dad, my sister, myself and our husband's and grandchildren. Mum, although a country girl at heart adapted to life in Knottingley and enjoyed all she did. She took pleasure in attending Ropewalk Methodist Chapel and she particularly liked the Bright Hour and the sewing meeting that met there. Later on she enjoyed membership on the Knottingley Townswomen’s Guild.

Sadly mum contracted Motor Neurone Disease from which she died in 2003.

Kathryn Ingham
April 2006

[Knottingley Folk]

Also by Kathryn Inham:

Charles Blackburne

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