Quarantine memories broadcast on Talking Newspaper

Did you know that Lewisham has its very own Talking Newspaper? It is a weekly digest of local news and comment, recorded and delivered for free by volunteers, for people with sight impairment. They will give you a player and weekly memory stick, or you can get it online.

Denis Cobell, one of our committee members and former Secretary for 40 years, recorded this piece at the start of lockdown where he recalls his own quarantine over 70 years ago:

This is Denis with some of my own thoughts about the current lock down. No, it’s not more information about the unprecedented (have you heard that word recently?) Covid 19 crisis. Well not really. Since I am not speaking in a medical or political capacity, it would be improper for me to give advice.

Have you noticed how quiet the traffic is? Have you realised there are few, if any, planes flying overhead? And have you noticed the bird-song more clearly?

But how are you coping with self-isolation? I realise for some this may not be such a novelty. If you always live alone and cannot get out and about, you may also not have any visitors, who may be isolated themselves. For some of us, take me for example; I can go out for a short walk every day, but not too far. Unless I have an essential reason, I am requested not to use public transport or go by car. As I don’t drive, that’s not so different from normal times. 

What has happened, as I have noticed, though, is that those of us of a certain age, and perhaps this applies to some listeners, we start recalling our childhood ‘isolations’ or quarantines, as we called them once upon a time.

I was 10 years old in 1949 when the family doctor was called and gave my mother a diagnosis for her son’s malady: scarlet fever. It was suggested I might be sent to a fever hospital. I pleaded not to let this happen, and I was allowed to stay at home.

I was placed in quarantine in my bedroom for the next 6 weeks. My home was a very ordinary 3 bedroom house, and my bedroom was the smallest, and was quite adequate. But the restrictions were somewhat harsh for 10 years old.

I did not leave my bedroom for a single second during those 6 weeks. My mum was the only person permitted to enter. She donned a housecoat soaked in disinfectant, and kept said coat just outside my bedroom door. Over the door was a sheet soaked in carbolic.

All my meals were brought to me; ablutions were with a bowl. My excreta, both liquid and solid were carefully removed in a pot after use.

My memory is almost entirely of a wonderful time; apart from the first day or two or feeling unwell, I was just confined, but otherwise fine. It was springtime, the sun came in at morn, my room was east facing, and if memory is correct, the weather was always good. I think most of my meals were salads; I’m not sure whether that was on medical advice. I enjoyed salads then, and retain this – a salad is one of my favourite meals to this day. Salads in 1949 were basic: lettuce, tomato, maybe beetroot or cucumber, with cold meat – spam or corned beef probably. Avocadoes were not on the menu in 1949.

I didn’t have to get up to walk to school. I don’t think there was any work sent from school: nevertheless, next school year saw me pass the 11+ with top marks.

Neighbours sent in ice cream; ices were a treat in 1949! What did I do? Someone sent in lots of comics – the only snag – once I came out of isolation after the 6 weeks, they all had to be burnt – in case of any infection being transmitted. I watched buses passing just at the corner, and by the adverts on the side of these double-deckers, knew which bus would pass, and what time.

Was I bored; I don’t think so. MY human communication, apart from mother, was talking through the open window, looking down from my upstairs room, with granny, dad, & my 5 year old sister. Oh, I nearly forgot, the doctor’s weekly visits to check on me. I think his name must have been Dr. Pangloss, he said I could be set free – with these words –“all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Maybe he didn’t say that – memory can play funny tricks, but I thought it might bring the self-isolation experience up to date.

However, my quarantine was not the same for all children. My wife Bronwen, who reads for LTN, was a few years younger than me. She still is. But when her family doctor announced scarlet fever, she was carted off to a fever hospital, to be joined a week later by her younger sister.

In that hospital there were nurses: she remembers one was kind, but there was another, she recalls was not so nice. Her mum & dad could only visit once a week, and look through a window and wave. She did not enjoy her weeks in hospital, particularly the spoonful of Virol syrup a day that she was forced to consume.  Moreover, she had to spend an extra week in hospital because her sister did not want to stay there without her having been admitted a week later and, on discharge, she had to part with a favourite nightdress case in the shape of a dog which had been brought in by her sister, (never to be forgiven) because it might convey the dreaded infection.

But let’s be thankful; I have a friend who spent 4 months in Hither Green Hospital in 1929; at that time scarlet fever was really dangerous, and children died. My friend, now over 95, survived to tell the tale, but ever since has had a fear of hospitals.

Well, that’s my tale of isolation from the past; I hope you, if you are alone in isolation, can manage to smile at what happened all those years ago. Bye until the next time.