Doris Russell

Doris began her nursing training in Bethnal Green Hospital in October 1942. She was off duty when  she heard the siren on 3 March 1943 but immediately went to help out. No-one understood why there were so many women and children, their bodies blue as they were carried in on stretchers, but no signs of injury on them.

Read the interview SUMMARY online below, or click on the icon to read or download: Doris Russell SUMMARY.pdf

The summary gives timed sections which direct you to specific parts of the recording.

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 You can listen to the recorded INTERVIEW below:





Doris Russell


Caroline Randall

Date of Interview:

22 March 2014


Chatteris, Cambridgeshire

Length of interview:

60 minutes

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Introduction. Doris explains that she was born in Chatteris and talks about her childhood memories including the schools she attended in the town.


Doris explains why she wanted to be a nurse and how she ended up doing her training in Bethnal Green.


She says that there were evacuees in Chatteris during the war so she had some knowledge of the East End because of that.


Doris and her friend Hilda Woodward (also interviewed for this project) went to Bethnal Green Hospital to start their training in October 1942. They did two months preliminary training in Mile End Hospital first, then went back to Bethnal Green to work in the hospital and live in the nurses’ home there.


Recalls that junior nurses weren’t allowed to leave the hospital/ home so she had no real impressions of the East End at first. Only when she had been there a bit longer could she go out to e.g. Victoria Park.


Doris explains what a typical day as a student nurse was like – the timings and duties.


She remembers that the junior nurses were in awe of the Ward Sister who was very strict. She recalls spending a lot of time cleaning in the sluice and being shattered at the end of the day.


She remembers that there were a lot of Irish Roman Catholic nurses training with her.


Doris explains that when she was at the hospital the Blitz had finished but there were still bombing raids going on. She had to help out in Casualty Outpatients when people were brought in with injuries from bombings.


She describes the way the hospital worked during the war. She remembers the windows taped up and the blackout. There no were no scheduled operations.

She thinks the hospital was funded by the London County Council and remembers that patients didn’t pay for treatment. There was an almoner’s office with an almoner who discussed finances with patients who were going to be discharged as, at that time, patients had to pay for GP treatment.


Doris describes the type of patients she looked after on the medical ward – people with chest problems, stroke patients, people with kidney problems and female TB patients. All were looked after in bed.


She speaks of the strict hierarchy in the hospital which meant that a junior nurse would never speak to a doctor or Ward Sister. They would have to speak to a second or third year junior nurse instead. She describes how the surgeons carried out their rounds in the surgical ward with medical students accompanying them.


Doris describes the day of the tube shelter disaster. She went off duty at 8.15 p.m. The siren went after her evening meal and she went down to Casualty Outpatients to help out - as was the custom.  It had actually been a maternity ward but had been turned into a reinforced ward to receive air raid casualties during the war.


She remembers waiting for the ambulances to arrive then seeing casualties being carried in on stretchers. All the bodies were blue as if they’d been suffocated. She recalls that the ambulance personnel kept on saying they “didn’t understand it” as there were no signs of injury.


Doris explains that not all the victims of the disaster were brought to the hospital as there were too many of them and the hospital mortuary was not that big. She reiterates that nobody could understand why they were all DOA (Dead On Arrival). She says the victims were mostly women and children and remembers seeing children’s bodies piled on top of one another.


The next week Doris and Hilda were sent away on holiday and told not to talk about it to anybody.


Doris recalls going down to the mortuary with relatives who had come to identify bodies. She says it was a very harrowing experience. She recalls that there were piles of the victims’ loose clothing, handbags etc. all piled up as no one knew to whom they belonged.


She says that a lot of the bodies were taken to St John’s crypt. She summarises what happened that night according to later accounts she has read.


Doris says that she has no memory of anyone being brought in injured that night. All the victims had swollen, blue faces and swollen lips because they’d been suffocated.


Doris surmises that it was the Bethnal Green Corporation who told people not to talk about the disaster because they felt partly to blame. She doesn’t think it was covered in the daily newspapers at the time although it might have been reported in the local ones in Bethnal Green.


Tape is paused and restarted.


Doris describes the usual procedure in hospitals during the war when patients were brought in with wounds from bombing. She says that the night of the disaster was a one off as there were no injuries.


Doris reiterates that she was sent home on holiday for one or two weeks straight after the disaster. When she returned to Bethnal Green she went straight onto night duty and the incident was not talked about.  She says she doesn’t really know how it affected the local community because when she was off duty she generally went in the direction of Hackney because Bethnal Green tube station wasn’t a working tube line. She didn’t therefore mix with the people closest to the site of the disaster.


Memories of life in Chatteris during the war – very quiet.


Doris explains that she remained in Bethnal Green until 1946 when she took her final exams. She describes the content of the final general nursing exams.


Doris describes the different things she was taught to do as a general nurse e.g. first aid, bed making, how to administer poultices and drugs, how to catheterise, how to deal out medicines and how to give injections.


Doris goes through the rest of her career after she qualified and left Bethnal Green. She trained as a midwife in Greenwich and Lewisham. As well as lectures she gained practical experience by going out on rounds with a trained midwife in Catford. She delivered babies in Lewisham hospital and remembers the first baby she ever delivered on her own. She talks about the way she would take her delivery bag with her on a bicycle but that gas and air machines were delivered to women’s homes by ambulance.


She once delivered a baby in the back of an ambulance going through the Blackwall Tunnel! Most women in those days had their babies at home.


She did return to Bethnal Green Hospital when the war was over because the ward that had been converted into one for air raid casualties was turned back into a maternity ward.


Doris takes us through the rest of her career. She worked at Lewisham Hospital after becoming a fully qualified midwife. Then returned to Cambridgeshire and worked as a district midwife.


Doris trained as a health visitor but didn’t like it that much so returned to work in Chatteris and March as a district nurse.


She went to India for 5 years to do nursing. She describes her experiences in India. She remembers extremes of wealth and poverty in New Delhi. She talks about the terrible poverty in the poorest areas where there was no water or sanitation. Diseases like malaria, dysentery and cholera were rampant. She remembers little children being burnt because they had got too close to open fires when trying to keep warm at night.


She remembers seeing elephants, water buffalo, camels etc. in the canal behind her lodgings and then the same water being used by humans to wash clothing.


She explains that she went to India because there was a request through her church for nurses to go there. She went by boat which took 3 weeks from Liverpool to Bombay.


Doris returned to England in 1961 and worked in health centres in Chatteris and March.


Doris says she has never heard of the Dunne Inquiry. She explains that she only really started thinking about the disaster again after she attended a couple of the annual memorial services held in St John’s church for the victims of the disaster. There she met people whose relatives had been killed and it made her remember.


She reiterates that when she was a junior nurse in Bethnal Green she lived a very insular life in the nurses’ home so didn’t really mix with the local community. So she doesn’t really know how it was affected by the disaster.


Doris remembers some general details of life in London during the war. She recalls going to Oxford Street, Charing Cross and Lyons’ Corner Houses. She remembers how St Paul’s Cathedral stood when all around it was flattened.


She recalls rationing. She was given her sugar ration and part of her butter ration in jars every Monday at mealtimes in the nurses’ home. If she had been home to Chatteris she sometimes had fresh eggs from her father’s chickens, but she didn’t visit home that often. She describes the journey she made from Bethnal Green to Chatteris by train.