East End Memories

THE MIRACLE IN HOMERTON

Brighton

Recently I was looking at a picture of myself on the promenade at Brighton. This picture was taken on my first visit to this seaside resort. It was a very popular place to visit when I was a child. I remember being very excited and was happy, as I had brought my bucket and spade with me and was determined to build a sandcastle. You can imagine my disappointment when I found no sand on the beach, only large unmanageable pebbles. Anyway, this picture was taken before we got on the beach and I am happy and intent on having the Mickey Mouse side of the bucket shown to the camera.

As the picture shows, I was dressed in the fashion of the day complete with hat to shield me from the intense rays of the sun! The outfit was very popular and typical for boys of my age: short pants that buttoned to the shirt and sandals with white socks. When I look at this picture now, I find the child delightful – happy and excited to be by the sea and with a feeling of urgency to get onto the beach. The hat is certainly too much, but in those days parents seemed to take great care to protect their children from the elements.

My mother was very careful to see that I was dressed warmly as a child and that I was protected from the sun and so on and so forth. As a child, I always felt overly dressed and would find myself wrapped up warm for most of the year. It used to drive me nuts. My mother could easily be dismissed as an overly protective mother – however, as with most things, this explanation would be too easy and simplistic since there are generally reasons to explain odd behaviours. As it turned out, she had good reason for having concern for my well being since I had at that young age almost died twice from the combination of bronchial pneumonia and whooping cough. Each infection in itself generally proved fatal in those days in one as young as me, but together they were almost certainly deadly. It was believed that I contracted these infections while in a shelter where I had been taken to avoid being killed by the bombs.

Apparently, after contracting these illnesses, vicars were called to administer the last rites. I can only imagine the despair that my mother felt. Somehow I survived the first bout of infection, but I was assured that it was touch and go for many days. However, it was on the second occasion that the infection proved more devastating and almost impossible to combat, as none of the previous treatments and measures seemed to work.

Once I became ill this second time, I was quickly transferred from The Children’s Hospital in Hackney Road, to Homerton Hospital, which is just east of Hackney. I am told that this was where the really serious cases were taken for care.

 

The Children's Hospital, Hackney Road


Homerton Hospital

Like other children, I always enjoyed hearing about my own parents’ childhood and tales of my own, even though I was still young. I would love to hear these stories and requested them again and again. One tale that would guarantee a great response from my mother and me, while my father sat there with a seemingly disinterested look on his face, was the one about my second brush with death. My mother would relate this event with great passion and I would be moved to tears as a child when she did and it would end with us sobbing and hugging each other. My father would look on and say that we were mad to rake up old history if it was going to upset us so. We would dismiss his remarks as being totally insensitive and ignore his complaints, as we happily wept on.

My mother would tell me about how she sat alone on a bench in the central garden of the hospital all day while I fought for my life somewhere in the hospital. In those days, visitors were not allowed to remain at the bedside of a sick person – child or adult – and so she waited in the garden until she was allowed into the ward. I used to imagine her sitting there alone on that bench. I would imagine the scene to be during the height of a very cold winter and with snow falling. Although, to be truthful, I had no idea of the time of year that my illness occurred and what the weather was actually like. Anyway, in my mind, she was always alone and freezing since I imagined her with no coat to keep her warm. I would also see her weeping and saying prayers. To be honest, she never said any of this in her recounting. But, my mother would add inadvertently to my scene of misery by saying that while she sat waiting all around the hospital, bombs were dropping and the sky was filled with fire. What a scene! I could not have imagined it better myself.

 
St. Pauls Cathedral during The Blitz   Eastcheap during The Blitz

I hate to say it but as I got older, I began to question the drama of this scene. Although I still appreciated the anguish and the suffering that my mother endured as she waited, I nonetheless began to feel that she had exaggerated the setting somewhat. Since the docks were some distance from the hospital, and since these were the main targets for bombing, I felt that Homerton and the hospital were less likely to suffer direct bomb hits. Eventually I dared to question the validity of certain aspects of the setting and even suggested that my mother had exaggerated them somewhat. Naturally, my remarks never sat well with her and she would generally get annoyed and tell me that she was there and she knew what happened. Sadly, the older I got, the more skeptic I became of the details of her story – anyway, more of this later.

The garden of Homerton HospitalMeanwhile, with my mother sitting and praying in the central garden, my condition worsened and once again a vicar was called to administer the last rites to me. It was thought that it would not be long before I died. If you actually stop and think what this situation must have been like for my mother, you can appreciate that my illness was a terrible blow to her especially since I had only recently survived my first brush with death.

Let us imagine the following scenario if you would: there, in the central garden of the hospital, sits a young woman – she is heartbroken – alone and in despair – she sits and prays that the life of her only child who is fighting for his life be spared; she is alone in the world; all of her loved ones are elsewhere or not caring about her or her son: her husband is far away – heavens knows where – fighting on the front lines – she hasn’t heard from him in a while - he might be dead for all she knew; her brothers are likewise in the military and doing the same – one in Europe and the other in the Far East – again she has not had any news of them in an age – they too might be dead; she is exhausted from lack of sleep and from the trauma that war brings; her days are busy with war work, which are spent working on the railway where she is expected to drive a team of shire horses and make deliveries about the East End and City of London while dodging bombs – she is required to tote heavy bales and other loads – just like a man; once she is finished her work, she has to come home – often walking since the bus routes are disrupted; she had to collect me from the nursery where I have been kept all day long – if she is kept late, she would go to the Police Station where I would have been taken for her to collect; she would then have to feed me, feed herself and then leave me with a neighbour while she next spends a couple of hours fire watching; following this, she is able to go to bed for a few hours, which can be disrupted by the sound of the air raid warning – at the sound of the siren, she has to get up, get me and herself dressed and ready to run to the shelter; but worst of all, she receives no support from her mother – my grandmother – who makes no efforts to comfort my mother or enquire after me either before, during or after my illness – her mother, lacking any remorse, later says that she was too busy with her own affairs to concern herself with us. Imagine having to suffer these iniquities.

Corridor, Homerton HospitalDespite the available treatment and the best of intentions of the medical staff, my situation worsened and it is deemed serious enough for the hospital authorities to request my father be sent for. He was quickly flown home from Germany during those last days of the war. What happened next, according to my mother, and this again used to be told with great feeling and with a tremendous sense of drama, could only be described as a miracle. My mother would say that as she stood by my bedside while I fought for me life, my father suddenly appeared in our midst, like some apparition, whereupon he made his way over to my bed and took my hand. And at that precise moment, my eyes opened! And at seeing my father standing there, I smiled!

At this point in the telling of this tale, I would begin weeping afresh and run to my father and hug him in thanks for his saving my life. With the retelling of this story as a small child, I came to believe that every church bell throughout the land immediately burst forth into joyous peals and everyone in the vicinity fell to their knees and gave praise and thanks since I would live! Forgive me for this! Later, I saw the situation less dramatically, but still believed that those around me were happy and offered prayers of thanks that I had turned the corner to recovery and was on the mend.

I feel that with the multiple recounts of this story, my poor mother became a tad jealous since my father began to receive more and more praise for his part in my being dragged back from the brink of death. My father adored to be praised. He would love it when he was the centre of attention and the object of adulation. He would take all gratitude offered whether deserved or not and think of it as his due. With time, my mother, despite her telling of the tale in the way described here, soon realized that it was the combination of prayer and medical care that had saved me, and not my father’s apparition. She began to see his arrival at the precise moment when my eyes opened to be fortuitous. Fortuitous or not, my father began to believe that the event which heralded my miraculous recovery had been his arrival and he enjoyed receiving all praise given.

My parents were predictable in their responses to certain situations and events. Sadly, I could not help but manipulate a situation at times in order to get the response from them that I wanted. This would be one generally guaranteed to amuse me and later, them. Over the years, I have to confess that I would often tease my parents about this story and would happily set my mother and father against each other whenever I would innocently recall the miracle and suggest that I survived thanks solely to my father’s timely presence at my bedside. After hearing me say this a number of times, my poor mother could not but respond to my theory in a tad jealous manner and would ask if her efforts had been for naught – which of course would be quickly denied by me and she would then have to be placated, which always took some time.

Although I felt somewhat guilty about teasing my poor mother over this story, in my defense, I have to say that my torment only came about because of her original manner in telling the story. Had she not told it in such a dramatic and highly charged fashion while I was still remarkably impressionable, I would not have exaggerated my father’s role. Mind you, although guilty I may feel, I have to confess that I did enjoy the teasing. It was great fun! Following our contre temps, I would work hard to assure her that I had been teasing and that I truly believed that my recovery was a direct result of her prayers and the medical care provided by the staff of the hospital. After a suitable period of time, she allowed herself to be convinced of the sincerity of my entreaties, and would graciously allow herself to forgive me, but only after obtaining the promise that I would never again torment her in such a cruel fashion. By now, I was ready to promise her anything since the joy of teasing and tormenting had passed and I wanted to get back to being in her good books. And so we would make up much to the annoyance of my father who now sat there exasperated at our fickle behaviour.

Once my mother had forgiven me for my unfeeling remarks, my father would get up and leave the room realizing that he was no longer thought of as the one who brought the miracle. It was my father way to adjourn whenever he felt wronged or was wrong. Although I felt a certain sense of sorrow for him, I did recall that he had been willing to hog the credit for my recovery and had been unwilling to share it. But again, this was his way.

We never had to worry when he left the room in this manner, as we knew that he would return after a short time. Within a few minutes, we could hear the sound of the kettle being filled with cold water and then the sound of the gas exploding under the kettle as he brought a lighted match close. Soon he would be coming through the door, his old bright self, full of jocular remarks and carrying a tray like some waiter in a restaurant on which were cups of his delicious tea. This was his way of conceding to the truth and saying that he was sorry for being jealous. As he entered the room, he would speak to my mother in a mock French accent and say ….. perhaps Madame would care for some tea? My mother could not help but smile and accept his peace offering. My father had a great deal of charm and he knew well when to use it. Soon we would all be laughing at ourselves and our silliness and enjoying the delicious drink that he had made. And within minutes, my father would be kissing my mother on the cheek in the hope of sealing his forgiveness.

In case you might be wondering, I was not mocking the power of prayer earlier. To be honest, I have always believed that my mother’s prayers made in that garden had played a major role in my recovery. As a doctor, I have witnessed the miraculous power of prayer on numerous occasions. I have seen people get well when drugs and treatments have failed and those about them have continued with their prayers. In my case, prayer and modern medicine obviously worked together, as just prior to the arrival of my father from the front lines, I had been treated with a new wonder drug, Penicillin, and it had helped to wrestle me from the grip of death. Penicillin had only just come into use at that time, and I was told that I was among the first to receive it. Penicillin had been developed at some urgency as treatment for wounded military personal in order to combat infection, since at that time infection was claiming more lives than combat.

In 1992, my mother moved to the U.S. My father had died several years earlier and after spending a number of years alone, she allowed herself to be convinced of the sense in living with me. She was 79 years old at the time. I tried hard to make her bedroom as much like her own had been in England, since I was concerned that as she aged further, she might awaken in the night and not recall where she was. Much of her bedroom furniture and the things that she had about her room and on the wall were brought over and put in place in her new room. Once she had been living in the U.S. for about a year, I went back to England to collect the remainder of the things that she wanted. It was during this visit that I decided to go to Homerton Hospital and take some photographs for my mother to see. To be honest, I have never been back to the hospital since my illness and had no idea what the place looked like.


Homerton University Hospital as it is in 2010
 
NHS Logo

The hospital was not large but obviously had grown since the war years, as there were new buildings about the grounds. I asked the porter at the gate if there was a central garden still in existence. He was young and said that there was a garden, but he suggested that I wait a bit as someone was coming on duty soon who was more familiar with the buildings and grounds. About an hour later, Old Tom came on duty. He was a man, long past retirement years, but who continued to work as a porter when needed. He was well into his seventies. He alert and spry and was knowledgeable about the hospital.


Homerton Hospital - side entrance
 
Hospital Guide

It seemed that part of the garden was still present, although just as I had thought, much of it had been built upon after the war. I told him about my having been a patient there years earlier, during the war, and how my mother had sat in the garden waiting for visiting time. At this Old Tom interrupted me and started to tell me how terrible and dangerous it had been at the hospital at that time. Why, I asked? Well, it seemed that many enemy pilots missed their targets – the docks – and instead would drop their bombs around the hospital in the hope of hitting targets on the canal that was close by! It seemed that this was a regular occurrence and then he said ….. all around the hospital, bombs were dropping and the sky was filled with fire!


The remains of the Central Garden of Homerton Hospital

I could not believe his words. Into my head came my mother’s voice. I could hear her saying the same thing that Old Tom had just said to me. I was seized with guilt. How could I have ever doubted her words? As Old Tom continued, I became filled with remorse and the need of confession and penance. More out of politeness and a wish not to offend Old Tom, I stood and listened to more of his war tales for a while longer. I remember that the telephone rang and took him away for a few minutes. When he returned, I politely thanked him for his time and for his telling me about the hospital, the bombs and the night sky. I left the hospital with my mind a'buzz. To be honest, I could not wait to get back to my hotel as I wanted to telephone my mother to apologize for ever having doubted her telling of the conditions that she endured when she sat in that garden all those years earlier while she waited for her miracle.

 
READER COMMENT
 

I was born in Cashel, County Tipperary in Ireland.  I was born three months ahead of time and, after only twelve hours of life, a priest was called to administer the last rites.  This caused much stress and sadness to my Mother.  Fortunately I survived. 

When I was four years old, as a result of there being little work in the area, my parents went to England in the hope of earning a living.  They settled in Hackney, where they continued to live for the next twenty-five years before moving to Stoke Newington, which at that time was still part of the Borough of Hackney. 

Since my parents had no idea if they were going to earn a living in London, it was decided to leave me with my Grandmother in Ireland for the time being.  However, in the late summer of 1959, my parents received a telegram informing them that I was ill and that they should return home immediately.  I don’t know how they managed to scrape together the fare to get them back, as wages were not high in those days, but somehow they did. 

When they got to Tipperary, they discovered that I was in hospital suffering with Glandular Fever.  My poor Mother was beside herself with worry.  I was taken to the operating theatre where a gland was removed.  During the operation, my heart stopped beating, but fortunately they managed to resuscitate me.  When my Mother learned of this, she was beside herself, and, as she said, turned to jelly and was a bundle of nerves. 

After I was revived, I was kept at the hospital for until my condition improved.  Once it did, it was decided that I could be discharged.  Unfortunately before this could happen, I contracted double bronchial pneumonia and once again died!  And fortunately, once again I was resuscitated and went on to recover fully. 

My mother would occasionally tell me the story of how I died twice when I was a baby.  She was an amazing woman, as she told the story without letting on fully the fear that she must have felt during these ordeals.

Patrick, ex-Hackney resident

 
Left, Patrick's Mother; Right, Patrick, aged 19
 
For the history of Homerton and other Hackney hospitals, please visit the following link:
http://www.homerton.nhs.uk/about-the-trust/our-history/eastern-hospital-1870-1982/ 
(link provided by Mr. Dave Eason)
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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins