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taj mahal

Ginger The NurseThe Nurse (Calcutta 1932)

She could see huge flames rising from the European quarters, from bungalows, mess houses, public buildings and residences of the unofficial Christian community. Horses had been burned to death in their stables. Only the elephant house was still standing.

It was early morning when she saw the enemy clearing off, heading towards one of her old homes in Agra. The sky lit up in front of her and as day dawned, she envisaged what those who had survived the night had seen; how thoroughly the Sepoys had done their work.

She was filled both with fear and anticipation.

Over here, she heard a voice call out. In the elephant house.

Beatrice was day dreaming again. She could now see two small boys, dirty, petrified, and clinging frantically to each other, unable to speak.

An exhausted, trembling English trooper was gently lifting them to safety.

These small children had been hidden by loyal servants when the attack started, risking their own lives to do so. The parents of William George Mason (7) and his brother Robert (5) had been slaughtered in the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

William was Beatrice’s paternal grandfather.

The brothers were brought up in an orphanage and William later qualified as a civilian medical doctor. Beatrice loved to hear tales of how he used to go off into the jungle to treat sick, native Indians and of how he regularly failed to return for months. The story was that William would fall ill with malaria and have to remain with his patients while they nursed him back to health.

A door banged loudly and a voice called out.

‘Are you stone deaf Trix? I’ve been calling you for about five minutes. We are on duty shortly.’
Beatrice glanced up, her dreaming shattered. She smiled at her friend Jean.

‘Won’t take me long to get my uniform together,’ she said.

She gazed fondly around her room. She had been training at the Presidency hospital in Calcutta for just a few months. Her home in the nurses’ quarters was only a few minutes walk to the hospital.

A single bed, an arm chair, a desk and a wash stand filled each corner of her large airy room and the walls were flanked by a large dressing table and wardrobe. Although the room had a slight clinical feeling, there was no comparison to the cold clinical atmosphere of the crowded convent dormitory. Beatrice did however occasionally yearn for the warm, feminine trimmings of her bedroom in Agra; simple things like her pretty bedspread and matching rug. These things were outweighed by something far more important though. She had made two close friends, Jean Waterloo and Pearl Pedroza, her first real friends who had no connection with family or military personnel.

camera Click here to view a picture of (Left to Right)
Nurses Jean Waterloo, Pearl Pedroza and Mum

All three had so much in common. Not only did they thoroughly enjoy nursing but they also enjoyed the same pastimes. Whenever they could, they went to the pictures together, read the same books, played tennis or partied with boyfriends at local dances. Beatrice radiated happiness and contentment.

The two young women set off for work. Backs straight and heads held high, they jauntily strutted towards the hospital. Soon they would change from their pretty shift dresses into their pristine white nurses’ uniforms. Their friend Pearl was on a later shift.

‘What made you decide to nurse, Trix?’ Jean asked.

Beatrice smiled. She needed no encouragement to spark off her favourite topic.

‘It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Aunt Maggie, my mother’s sister is a nurse and my parents were very keen for me to follow in her footsteps. My dad joined the Royal Artillery Army College to study medicine, but didn’t like it. He changed course and became a qualified engineer instead. But I suppose my biggest influence was Granddad Mason who was a civilian doctor.’

‘What was he like?’ asked Jean.

‘You won’t believe this,’ said Beatrice, ‘I can’t remember him at all. He was sixty when I was born and he died when I was a teenager, away at boarding school. But his background always has me spellbound.’

Beatrice told Jean all about her grandfather’s rescue as a boy from the elephant house and his encounters as a doctor, nursing the local Indians

‘I suppose it was possibly his way of repaying the loyalty shown to his family at the time of the mutiny. He married and had six children but I don’t suppose my grandmother saw too much of him. She was only twenty nine when she died you know, taken by cholera, but unusually all the children survived. The eldest child was ten at the time and the youngest only two, poor little things. My dad was their third child. Then granddad remarried a few years later and had three more sons, only a few years difference between them and me. I don’t know these half uncles though, nor grandmother Dolly. Just imagine Jean a grandmother called Dolly. I expect her proper name was Dorothy. I do know that my half uncles Frank and Jack are both almost ready to qualify as doctors themselves. So you could say that the medical profession is in my blood.’

Beatrice had barely paused for breath, while Jean just gawked at her in amazement.

Then as the young trainee nurses entered the gates to the hospital, Beatrice said, ‘I wonder if we could have prevented my first Grandmother Julia dying from cholera or perhaps helped cure Granddad Mason’s malaria. Modern medicine is so much better than it was fifty years ago, don’t you think?’

‘I really don’t know Trix; all I know at this moment is that if we don’t hurry we will have the wroth of both Sister and Matron to put up with. It’s more than I could cope with at present. See you tonight.’

Both signed the hospital register and went to their respective wards.

Beatrice was now twenty two years old. After leaving the convent at seventeen, she had spent five years at home, five rich years getting to know her parents and brothers. Well almost. Just as she felt they were a family once more, three of her brothers enlisted in the army within a short while of each other when the family was stationed in Burma, and no sooner had her parents and two younger brothers Basil and Michael moved back to Agra, than her nursing career began in Calcutta.

Every day now brought her new challenges. General nursing was a very hand on affair with lots of personal contact with the patients. Emptying bedpans, taking temperatures, giving enemas, changing dressings, and simply saying goodbye to recovered patients, Beatrice found it hard at first to cope with the suffering and anxiety of the sick. Later as she nursed them back to health and removed dressings and stitches, the surprise followed by relief and pleasure of her patients on witnessing their own recovery, filled her with a deep warmth and fulfilment.

The Mother Superior at the Convent of Jesus and Mary had instilled in all the girls that it was a sin to feel such self satisfaction and although Beatrice knew she would probably burn in hell for her sins, she could not help herself; nor did she really care. Soon she was going to train in the hospital theatre and later she would have short spell learning about tropical medicine. And to top it all up, she was actually paid for the pleasure.

At the end of each month her nursing salary was 30 rupees. (About £2) which she usually spent on material for new dresses. In her first year she would earn one month’s holiday, then after that, two months each year. Her main vacation as always was spent going home to visit her family. Another two to three day train journey.

‘Wherever i go, whatever the distance, it always seems to take two days to go home by train,’ she pondered. But she no longer minded theses journeys. She had no wish to change anything about her current lifestyle.

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The Story of Beatrice Mary Mason. Written by F. J. Louis | Copyright © 2009