John Oakley’s memories

I was born in a wooden bungalow in the grounds of Little Plumstead Hospital, moving to the Lodge when I was two years old, with my three sisters, Gwen, Sylvia, Josie, and later my younger brother Joe. My father, Joe Oakley, was one of the original staff at the hospital as he had been employed by Major Ashley who lived in the old hall before it was sold to the government. He was then employed as caretaker before joining the nursing staff when it opened, passing his exams to be a mental nurse, a good achievement for someone with a very basic education. Apart from nursing he always played the part of Father Christmas, visiting the childrens’ wards every Christmas morning. The Norwich market traders always sent lots of fruit and nuts for the enjoyment of the hospital patients.

The hospital was completely self-sufficient, having its own farm growing vegetables for the kitchens with the inmates helping. Mr. Allen and Mr. Pratt, who both lived in the cottages in Water Lane, were responsible – Mr. Allen for growing the produce and Mr. Pratt for the dairy herd. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, gardeners were all employed and transport was provided to bring in the nursing staff. At one time there were more than 800 inmates and Blofield Hall was purchased for the more able male patients who went out to work on the local farms etc.

I spent many of my school days fishing in the hospital lake and watching the cricket and football teams play. This was recreation for the patients, the most able ones made up about half of the teams and others were brought along to watch. Arthur Edrich of the cricketing family kept wicket. Lenny Layt, one of the male attendants, was a very good footballer as was was the goalkeeper, called Charlish, who used to live in the Lodge at the entrance of the Hospital.

One of the highlights of the year was the Christmas concert, compered by Mr. Ken Brister. Lenny Layt was usually the dame and Wally Bunkle made sure that the inmates were always involved, especially the girls who made up the chorus. Some were very good singers. There were also film shows to which staff were allowed to take their children and friends.

Once the government decided that all the inmates should be integrated into society, the hospital was gradually run down and finally closed, becoming a housing estate. Closing the hospital was not a good move as it had been a huge employer of local people. Most families in the village had some connection with it. With all the facilities it is a pity it could not have been kept and turned into retirement homes, flats, etc. as it could have been an entire village on its own.

Little Plumstead Green bombing

Some houses belonging to Mr. Joe Wiley on the Green were hit by bombs and somebody was killed. I remember seeing the end walls blown out. The row of houses standing there today are the ones that replaced them.

My memories of the school were similar to Rosemary’s but one of the worst was having to go into the gas van to test our gas masks during the war. Sitting inside that van was really horrible and I am very glad it never happened for real.

I do remember the arrival of the evacuees coming from London in the early part of the war. Peter Barton, a tall ginger haired boy, and his sister, Stella, lived on Plumstead Green, and Alec and Tony Brown lived in Sandy Lane. Bernard and Walter Moss, who lived on Reeves Corner, were also evacuated here for a short time.

In later years, when Mrs. de Jeux was head mistress, my father played the part of Father Christmas at the school, borrowing the hospital outfit. My daughter was a pupil then and always knew who Santa was!

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