Chapter 8

Casualty Registrar at Croydon

Croydon General Hospital, I soon learned, was not the most sought-after hospital for training surgeons. On the positive side however, I accepted that it was an interim, marking-time period for me, as the six months casualty had to be served at some time and in some place. There were distinct advantages taking this job at Croydon. Firstly, the hours were fixed and virtually half-time with plenty of time off to study. It was also close to London with the opportunity to do a weekly evening course at Barts in preparation for the second part exam of the College. I also had time to do a correspondence course – and we were provided with a spacious comfortable flat. The final advantage was that the work itself was easy and included lots of five-guinea medical reports for the legal fraternity. The income may not have been declared to the Inland Revenue; if questioned I could claim ignorance, as I had no accountant and was not required to put in a tax return. My attitude was that I was working long and conscientiously for Health Minister Aneurin Bevan’s NHS and this was some recompense for my efforts. For the first time we were able to save and put money aside for our planned grand continental tour.

Our first-floor flat in Croydon Hospital grounds – the onset of winter

In many ways, Croydon marked the period when we started to get our act together for the first time. We had no Lesley and John Fisher to act as our crutch. They had already given us a flying start to this new life in England for which we remain eternally grateful.

We had roomy accommodation but it was very cold with just a small coal fire to provide all our heating. Snow storms used to whirl under the closed kitchen window into the kitchen itself – an amazing sight.

We had room enough to accommodate the occasional friends who would visit. Croydon itself was a grubby part of Greater London, south of the Thames, but the Saturday morning market was always entertaining and it was there that we procured our first refrigerator – a tiny implement small enough for us to carry home to our first floor flat.

I had good relations with the other staff of the hospital. The other casualty doctor was a Peter Clark – English to his finger tips; ‘Oh yes, I had a splendid dinner on the way down from London, but the peas unfortunately were slightly underdone!’

Anatomical snuff box

We had the occasional gathering in our flat where Peter and a colleague produced snuff from their little containers. They would carefully place the snuff in the anatomical snuff-box and with a quick flick of the wrist throw it up their nostrils. This would be followed by intense sneezing and blowing of noses. Sadie tried it but I declined to try this quaint English habit.

We were now able to have friends to stay and at Christmas time we entertained the Pickerings who came down from Aylesbury and also John Bruce, a childhood friend of Sadie’s from Eudunda, and his friend Gary, a budding design jeweller, who joined us from London.

Christmas at Croyden with the Pickerings and John Bruce

I saw very little of my direct boss, the orthopaedic surgeon Mr McMillan. In fact I was very much left to my own devices as to how the casualty department functioned. McMillan I found to be pleasant enough. Knowing that I was preparing for the second part of the exam, he offered me access to the extensive library of the Royal Society through his membership. This I readily accepted and promptly rang them to send a number of journals through the post. When these journals failed to arrive after several weeks, I suspected they had been sent to his home address so accordingly rang his home. His wife, whom I knew was a pathologist at The London Hospital, answered the phone. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘The journals are here. I wondered what they were doing as he hasn’t read a journal for twenty years!’

I subsequently learned that McMillan had left home, apparently having run off with their French au pair, and was living elsewhere. Mrs McMillan filled me with many further home truths about her husband’s shortcomings before agreeing to send the journals on to the hospital.

The saga did not end there as a month or two later an ambulance arrived at the Croydon Casualty Department one morning containing no less than McMillan himself. Fortunately, Peter Clark was on duty at the time. It transpired that McMillan had taken a barbiturate overdose and was unconscious. Wisely, Peter had him transferred to a large London teaching hospital where he was dialysed but subsequently died. A sad episode all round.

Undoubtedly, the highlights of our time at Croydon were a week skiing in Austria in January 1963, and our grand continental tour in May.

How exciting it was to receive Ingham’s Ski Holidays brochure and thumb through the various destinations. We finally settled on a little village in the Austrian Alps – Alpbach, in the Austrian Tyrol. We gathered the recommended gear and joined the train in London. If I remember correctly, the train took us to Dover where we boarded the cross-channel ferry, which connected with the special ski train in Calais. We slept overnight on the train, or tried to as there was much singing and hilarity when it made temporary stops at various places en route. Music blared forth from the train whenever it made these stops in the small hours, no doubt much to the displeasure of the sleeping residents.

The train went straight through to a town near Alpbach and we were transported to the village. What a picture postcard place it was and what fun we had with ski lessons from Hansel twice a day, after which we adjourned for après-ski – akin to the 19th hole in golf – music, thigh slapping dancing, glűhwein and Austrian apfelstrȕdel. The glűhwein was made from heated red wine to which was added cinnamon and cloves. If one felt particularly cold, then schnapps was the order of the day. Schnapps is a spirit made from various fruits – apples, pears, plums or cherries – akin to Russian vodka and similarly tossed down in one motion. One glass usually warms the cockles! Two gets one on the dance floor and three causes somnolence! Certainly, on one occasion when Sadie was suffering from a sore throat and was off-colour, a couple of schnapps put her right back into the swing of things and back up the slopes!

Outside the ski lodge, Alpbach

Village view from the lodge

About to let rip downhill
Picture postcard

By the end of the week we had become sufficiently proficient to enter the weekly competition and were both awarded bronze medals for our time trials.

No sooner were we home from skiing than we started to prepare for our Grand Continental Tour.

In those days, petrol tickets had to be purchased beforehand. Ferry bookings for the car had to be made and numerous other arrangements. Just before we were due to leave a mini crisis occurred.

I was on duty one day in the Casualty department when the police brought in a vagrant who was drunk out of his mind and uncontrollable. They wanted me to check him before putting him in the cells. They said they found him in the gutter but gave me no history of him falling or hitting his head. I examined him as best I could with his constant struggling and found nothing of consequence, so they duly took him away and put him in a cell. The one thing I omitted to check was his pupil responses. If I had, I would have found unequal responses and unequal sized pupils and sent him urgently to the Atkinson Morley Hospital down the road at Wimbledon – the most advanced brain surgery hospital in the world at the time and the place where CT scanners were developed. Regrettably, next morning he was found dead in the cell and the post mortem showed an extradural haemorrhage from a ruptured middle meningeal artery – a classic scenario and one for which the clinician is always on the lookout. The problem was there was no history given of a fall or head injury so it was all very unfortunate.

Yes, you guessed it, the coroners court was called for the middle of our five-week Grand Continental tour and I was delivered with a summons to attend court to give evidence in the middle of our holiday. This would wreck completely all our careful planning. What to do? Well, I opted not to tell Sadie as her conservative nature would demand that I accept the court order. Had I been in Australia, I would have done just that – accepted the court order. However, in the circumstances, being on the other side of the world, and with the opportunity for a continental tour being unlikely to rise again, I opted for us to go and hang the consequences. I would hardly be likely to want a reference from Croydon General Hospital and in any case my only referee, Mr McMillan, was dead.

Another major factor influencing my rationale was that Sadie was pregnant and would be three months into the pregnancy when we went on holidays. Safe enough to travel but if we obeyed the court order and cancelled the expedition it could never ever be replicated with a baby or small child.

So, in late April we set off – down through the beautiful English countryside to Dover and the ferry. We parked our car aboard as directed and sat in the sun on the deck with beers in hand.

‘Would Dr Johnson please come to the purser’s office’.

No, it couldn’t be. I ignored the call. They must have put the same call on every ferry crossing the channel that morning. Again, the call;

‘Would Dr Johnson please come to the purser’s office’.

‘Was that Dr. Johnson they called?’ said Sadie innocently.

‘Couldn’t possibly be me,’ I replied, ‘We’ll ignore it,’ and we did.

‘If they want to play tough and ruin my time in England while I’m slaving my inside out for the NHS on very little pay, then they can try, but I can play tough too!’ I thought belligerently.

Within two minutes I had put the incident right out of my mind – until we boarded the ferry for the return trip across the Channel to England.

The Australian Tyrol on our continential trip, 1963

The first night we camped in the Bois de Boulogne – what a beautiful spot – in the heart of Paris, right on the banks of the Seine. The Tuileries Gardens, the Louvre, Mont Martre, the Champ de Elysees – the magic went on and on and continued for five weeks through France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Monaco, and even Liechtenstein.

On arriving in Italy, we decided to purchase a large carafe of cheap wine wrapped in a paper maché covering – probably around two or three litres if I remember correctly. Cheap wine at a cheap price. This lasted us for most of the trip. On several occasions I remember we drank it with our weeties at breakfast time. We seemed to have no concern for Sadie’s pregnancy. 

We had a few hairy experiences such as wending our way down the switchback Furka pass in our tiny van in fog. In those days there were no guard rails along the sides.

The treacherous Furka Pass between Switzerland and Italy

On another occasion, we found two large snakes in our tent in the Michael Angelo Caravan Park just outside Florence. For the rest of the trip we slept, not in the tent, but the back of the van. Our French was non-existent and when we were camping somewhere in the south of France we saw a sign advertising Lès Verdon for excellent dining so thought we would splurge. We went up and down the main thoroughfare asking for ‘Lou Verdons’ but with no response. When we wrote it down the response was immediate. Well worth the trouble as the food was superb. First, they bought us a large tureen of delicious soup. We hadn’t been eating well so after we gorged ourselves with three bowls each we realised that we were meant to take just one bowl each and pass it to the next table. They said nothing, so we pressed on with the next course of tasty chicken.  

Eventually, we returned to Calais in time to board the ferry for the return trip and back to work.

The hospital engineer who lived in the flat above us told us there had been a great hue and cry at the hospital about the coroner’s court findings which were very critical of the Croydon General Hospital Casualty Department. The Coroner was unimpressed with the responsible doctor absenting himself on holidays, and the responsible Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon inconveniently committing suicide. The Daily Telegraph featured the coroner’s criticism and championed the public’s shock/horror for a few days and then – like all newspapers – today’s news becomes tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping!

The Chairman of the Board came to see me and together we travelled up to London to BMA House to see how we could counteract the bad publicity but in the end it all blew over and nothing happened. Everyone had gone through the motions. Somewhat arrogantly, I reflected that I was cutting my surgical teeth on the Pommy population and far from home, so shouldn’t worry about a bit of adverse publicity.

Another interlude we had at Croydon was the wedding of our good friend Keith Grote to Alice on September 28, 1963.

Keith was, on many counts, an enigmatic character. His father had been the general practitioner at Mannum where Keith was born. Whether or not he was delivered by his father I do not know. I do know that his parents were practising Lutherans and that an early age – six, seven or eight – his father sent him down to Adelaide to be a boarder at St Peters College, purportedly the premier college in Adelaide at the time. Why did he not send him to Concordia or Immanuel Lutheran Colleges? The reason was that no science subjects were taught in those schools and those students wishing to pursue a scientific career had to do their science studies as external students at Adelaide High School. Why was this so in the 1950s, an age of enlightenment? It is my opinion that the Lutheran Schools in that age were still coming to grips with science being contradictory to biblical teaching.

St Peters was not a happy experience for Keith as the boarding house was run very much along the lines of Dr Arnold’s Rugby School in England in the mid-nineteenth century. The young boys were fags to the older boys and the initiation ceremonies conducted by older boys on the new boys was an experience they never forgot.

Nevertheless, Keith stuck it out even though it left deep scars on his psyche. Probably, his father hoped that he would follow in the tradition of medicine but in the end he opted for dentistry, a course which took him considerably longer than the designated five years.

During those years, Keith’s parents forbad him to buy a motorcycle but he duly did. I came across Keith as a student. He parents had shifted to live on the foreshore at Grange by that time. Also living at Grange were the Haskards – Robin Haskard being in my class at school.

Mrs Haskard, a lady of ample proportions in all areas of her anatomy, was in the habit of organising Saturday afternoon tennis parties in order to line up the eligible bachelors for her three daughters. Keith and I fell into this category. In later years, Keith told me that Mrs Haskard had aligned him with her youngest daughter Colleen but, when this did not work out, she sent out her minions to invite me to her matchmaking endeavours.

The moves were made at her extravagant afternoon teas. She did not mince matters and said to me one day during the tennis afternoon tea: ‘Why don’t you make eyes at Colleen?’

I did not tell her what was in my mind – that Colleen bore a remarkable resemblance to her mother and held no appeal at all for me. Instead, I mumbled something like: ‘Well, there’s a thought.’

Somehow, Mrs Haskard’s intentions became known to Colleen’s boyfriend at the time, one Gordon Billows. I thought nothing more of it but the following week at the tennis gathering Gordon took me aside and said, politely enough but firmly, ‘Perhaps you don’t know but Colleen and I have come to an understanding and we are an item.’ By this stage, I was prepared to say that if Colleen were the last girl in the world, I would still run a mile. Instead, I politely told him, ‘I have absolutely no intentions in that direction’, whereupon we parted amicably.

I don’t know why Mrs Haskard was so determined to steer Colleen in a direction away from Gordon. Shortly after this episode, Colleen and Gordon announced their engagement, married and had many children – with Colleen indeed becoming more and more like Mrs Haskard. My discretion ensured that my invitations to those afternoon teas continued. Mr Haskard, whom I never met, was in charge of the School of Mines, a tertiary education establishment on North Terrace. I suspect he knew the machinations of his spouse and stayed out of sight.

But I digress from the adventures of Keith Grote. Around this time Keith decided to travel overland to England by himself on his BMA motorbike, ignoring his parent’s remonstrations. He had many adventures on this trip, including losing his wallet and passport and having to seek consular help, but eventually he arrived at his destination and settled into life with his compatriot dentists in Earls Court or ‘Curl’s Ort’ as Keith referred to it. In those days, the 1950s and 60s, Australian dentists flocked to the UK in their hundreds and developed a bad reputation for ripping off the National Health Service. I hasten to add that Keith would never have been party to such behaviour. He lived in ‘the Nunnery’ as it was known, a flat in Earls Court that normally housed some six or eight expatriates but after one of their regular parties the numbers would double for several days.

We met up with Keith when we shifted to Croydon, South London. At that time he was courting a young nurse, Alice, and we were introduced. Eventually, and with much trepidation, he popped the question and a wedding was arranged for September 28, 1963.

I was to be best man and Keith came to stay with us at Croydon for a few days before, to gather his strength. More than once in those few days he was fearful to go through with the wedding but was persuaded otherwise by Sadie.

On the Friday night before his wedding, he had arranged a ‘bucks’ party, as was the tradition, somewhere in London. It was considered a duty that I, as best man, would take him up to London, look after him, protect him, and deliver him safely back to Croydon.

His male friends consisted of a wild bunch of irresponsible cowboy Australian dentists and, despite my best efforts, they managed to lace his drinks and Keith became semi-comatose.

I bundled the poor guy into our trusty Thames van and we headed for Croydon having to stop periodically for Keith to empty the contents of his stomach onto various Surrey pavements. Eventually we arrived at the High Street, Croydon around 2.00am. As bad luck would have it, Sadie had invited her English teacher from her school days, a Mrs Shoddy, to stay with us that night before she left for the continent. As Sadie describes the events, she heard this moaning and retching coming up the stairs and ever closer to our flat. Finally, the key turned in the lock and the noise became louder. We tucked Keith up in bed with his vomit bowl and all retired.

Next morning Sadie was up early with Mrs Shoddy to get her off for her trip. Not a word was spoken between them about the night before and to this day Sadie believes Mrs Shoddy left with the clear belief that Sadie was married to an alcoholic.

The day of the wedding arrived; cold, windy, raining. Keith instructed me on the morning of the wedding to go way out somewhere in West London to pick up many dozens of cans of Fosters and then deliver them to the flat where the reception was to be held. No small order battling London traffic on a wet Saturday morning to unknown addresses. Nevertheless, I accomplished the task and delivered the Fosters which I dutifully put in the bath at the flat and covered with ice!

Not surprisingly, when I arrived back at Croydon we were running late. Sadie had spent the morning reassuring Keith that he was doing the right thing as he seriously wanted to cancel the whole show.

Our problems were still not over as the wedding ceremony was to be at Luther Tyndale Lutheran Church at Kentish Town, at least one and a half hours drive through London traffic from Croydon. Yes, we were late getting the groom to his appointment. The bride had been circling the church for fifteen minutes and the guests had been preoccupied removing a large fallen branch from the church driveway.

The rest of the day was uneventful and Keith was happily married. 

The groomsman with Alice and Keith Grote, September 1963

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