Press on Regardless but not Rewardless


PRESS ON REGARDLESS, but not rewardless!

By Val Milner: Ex Ellerby Lane Pupil, Director of the iconic Ellerby Lane School Film: Brought to Justice. And member of the Show stoppers Dance troop.


Val tells us of her ordeal in the 1950s with Polio.

In 1949 when I was a couple of months short of my 11th birthday I contracted the virus disease of Acute Poliomyelitis (Infantile Paralysis) and became one of the polio statistics of that year. The annual general report of the Registrar General says in 1949 there was a total of 5,918 cases in England and Wales, of which 5,439 were paralytic and 479 non -paralytic. In a dreadful way I suppose we were fortunate there was ‘only’ 657 deaths, it could have been so much worse.

I’d enjoyed a happy seaside holiday with my mum, aunty and cousin, but back home in Leeds 9
I started to feel unwell. In one scary incident my legs gave way as I walked to the toilet – outside lav, of course. Laid out on the pavement I couldn’t get up until a concerned neighbour saw and helped me. Things got worse reaching a stage of headaches, aching muscles and hardly able to move my legs or even sit up by myself, my daytime hours spent laid out on the settee. Thank God for the creation of the NHS which began only the previous year on 5th July 1948.
What would we have done without it.

We were registered with a doctor’s practice at Richmond Hill. My mother’s most vivid recollection of that time was coming into my room during the night to check on me. I was awake and pointed into the darkness telling her to look at ‘that lovely bright light’ at the bottom of my bed.

The doctor visited again on the Saturday morning, immediately returning to his surgery to phone a specialist to come see me on a domiciliary home visit, only to be back within minutes with the news that an ambulance was on its way. The specialist had heard enough to diagnose Infantile Paralysis.

I stayed in Seacroft Isolation Hospital until danger of infection had passed, my parents told it was unlikely I would ever walk again, which thankfully was to prove wrong. The diagnosis was confirmed by the virus being isolated by a sample of my celebrospinal fluid taken by lumbar puncture.
Polio meant isolation from the outside world; no known medicine to cure us; no vaccine. The miracle is no-one among family, friends and neighbours came down with it, but they must have been in a state, anxious at the turn of events.

How fortunate then that eventual transfer to Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield for a stay of several months saw my gradual progression from bed-patient to wheelchair (wheelchair races forbidden), 2 walking sticks, 1 stick, then none, profiting from great nursing and physiotherapy. In hospital I learnt to swim. In hospital ‘school’ was a teacher coming into our ward attempting to teach girls of different ages. I liked to join in their songs, my favourite Hope the Hermit – ‘a hermit wise and good’ who lived ‘in a blithe green wood!’ I still like it.
All the children from my class at Ellerby Lane School sent me individual get well letters – I wish I still had them! Family and friends were greatly missed but my parents came for the hour long visiting time on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and my mother came for the only other visiting hour – Tuesday evening after work, but there were lots to keep me occupied in between.

Our very own kindly and long-suffering Sister Johnson was in charge and when I was recovered sufficiently as an up-patient she was soft enough to allow me to dress up in a white coat and with stethoscope round my neck parade around the ward ‘helping’ but NOT when matron was around – she ruled with an iron fist concerned primarily that patients, staff, fixtures and fittings daily passed muster. Matron’s entrance was preceded by a flurry of nurses’ whispered warnings -she’s here! – then her booming voice, “Good morning, gels!”

We gels had our film star photo collections, sing-alongs, read and swapped comics and mags and best of all, when as up-patients, freedom, as we played on the grass outside the ward. One nurse was considered a friend for life for saying I had a look of British film star Patricia Roc – would you believe!
Friday night was film night, and once a group of volunteer amateur entertainers came in to give us a concert which we thoroughly enjoyed. I am ashamed to say, however, that one of the highlights immortalized in my diary was ‘big girl (as in ‘large’) slipped when dancing’.

Pinderfields was designated as an emergency hospital in 1939, 20 overflow huts were built on adjacent farmland to nurse battle casualties of the Second World War. At the end of the hostilities the huts remained in use as general nursing facilities. Girls Ward I, my ward, was one of these long huts heated by a solid fuel stove with a tall iron chimney going up through the roof. During the cold winter months I developed nasty chilblains – the first and last time I’ve ever had them. At the end of the ward was a large cream coloured machine, an iron lung respirator encasing a young polio patient, its regular rhythm a constant background sound.

Readjusting to life back at Ellerby Lane School was not easy. When hospital was left behind one of their instructions was for me to wear trousers at school to ‘keep your legs warm’ or as mum would say, ‘Watch that circulation’. Ellerby Lane was accommodating, but we are talking about 1950 when trousers were not the norm for girls, not a good feeling to be different from the rest. For a time I was allowed 2 swimming lessons a week (at Joseph Street Baths). I seem to recall the steamy water was a ghastly dark green colour.
Generally though, any awkwardness felt by me or by anyone else gradually faded away, and good weather meant that I could go back to wearing skirts. Life was returning to normal.

My hospital repertoire of folksy songs was augmented at music lessons when our class gathered in the hall with lovely Mr. W. J. Banwell instructing and playing the piano. We performed songs ranging from quiet remorseful ballads such as Barbara Allan to rendering a rousing version of ‘On Ilkla Moor baht ‘at. Barbara Allan seemed to be a favourite song of teacher ‘Chuck’ Holmes because when we were singing it he would sometimes leave his classroom, a few steps from the hall door, then stand there listening.

It took a while for me to catch up on school subjects, but I always say how lucky to be at Ellerby Lane during that time. We started Spanish language lessons which came in handy at Christmas when mixing a verse or two in Spanish to O come, all ye faithful or Silent Night at doors when my mates and I were out carol singing – it has been known to intrigue the household within and we were often spared the hefty kick on the door that signalled dismissal. And, of course, there was the innovation of film appreciation lessons learning about how films are made, culminating in 1953 in being let loose to make our own film reported in local newspapers and beyond. Heady stuff! One thing that did bug me about school was having my PT (physical training) efforts constantly registered as ‘Fair’ on school reports, which I thought was anything but fair, but better I suppose than a ‘Tries hard’.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that polio figures began to improve dramatically due to the effects of the vaccine campaign, and nowadays, according to a British Polio Fellowship Report, it is estimated that 120,000 of our population still live with the after effects of polio.
What d’you know – I’m still a statistic……………


Great tale, Val. We are very lucky to have a contributor that remembers so clearly right back to the start of our great NHS.   ‘Oh Matron!’

and for the record, I too thought you looked a bit like Patricia Roc. And I bet all you Ellerby Lane School colleagues will be happy Mr Banwell and ‘Chuck Holmes’ are remembered. 

5 Responses to “Press on Regardless but not Rewardless”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Thank you Val for those reminiscences, you describe the hospital scene and your rehabilitation so vividly. I too remember Mr Banwell at the piano and my favorite of the songs he would have us sing was “speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing”. Peter sent me a disc of your film some years ago, I’m going to fish it out to check on whether I think you resemble Patricia Roc too! Chuck Holmes was my teacher for part of a year in 1942. He was very creative in helping you all make that film. Thank you

  2. peterwwood Says:

    Come on! Who thinks Val looked like Paticia Roc?

  3. peterwwood Says:

    Talking about old film stars have any of you found Talking Pictures TV on free view channel 81? There are some great old films on there with stars we remember better than contemporary stars.
    I plan my weeks viewing of old films at the weekend and probably (the news apart) I watch that channel more than BBC 1 And ITV.
    And the credits at the start of the film make you feel you are entering The Princess or the Easy Road Cinema. It’s quite nostalgic, give it a go you won’t be sorry.

  4. Gloria Blakey Says:

    I too watch Talking Pictures. They take you back a bit in fact on Saturday I watched “Some Like it Hot” Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. They were great films in their day. I too remember Chuck Holmes always galloping up and down the classroom throwing the blackboard chalk at any one who talked. Mr. Banwell was my teacher too playing the piano I can see him now. Those were great days at Ellerby Lane School. I was there from 1948 until 1958. Does anyone remember Miss Parsonage and Miss Gibbons. Miss Hardy took us for PE. In fact when I started work her husband was my boss!!!!.

    What a coincidence.

    Great take by the way Val. I had a friend who was in Seacroft Hospital with T.B. She went in when she was 19 and came out when she was 20. You may remember her Joyce Marshall.

    Good old days.

  5. beauair Says:

    That brings back memories, not good ones.
    I was bed bound for 13 weeks around that time. I was coming home from school at Chapeltown and at the time we lived in. North Park Avenue. There was a choice of stops to alight from the tram but I couldn’t move. I managed to alight at Rhoundy Park and got home, with great difficulty, and collapsed . The Dr was ‘sent for’ and I was put to bed. That is where I stopped for the next 13 weeks. The diagnoses – suspected polio!

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