by KATHRYN INGHAM
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
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.
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!)
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!
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.
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 -
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
Good morning Sister I hope you are feeling well this morning. I close with
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.
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!
time out there came to an end and in 1943 she arrived back in England
where preparations were underway for D-Day.
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.
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
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.
McLaren c.c. of the 10th Casualty Clearing Station writes in a report –
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."
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 –
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
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
after mum arrived at Sandbostal it was VE day, but for mum there was no
celebration. In her diary she notes –
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."
remained in Germany treating the troops.
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.
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.
mum contracted Motor Neurone Disease from which she died in 2003.
Also by Kathryn Inham: