Obituary: Mary Gilchrist, nurse during the Blitz

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Born. 12 September, 1914, in Killearn, Stirlingshire. Died: 21 December, 2013, in Sussex, aged 99

MARY Gilchrist was a brave and resourceful nurse who saw service during two of the most hazardous and challenging periods of the Second World War. First, at Dunkirk she tended to the needs of the severely wounded and exhausted soldiers on the beaches as they waited for transport back to the United Kingdom. Then, as a theatre nurse in the centre of London, she served in St John’s Hospital in Balham during the worst months of the London Blitz.

The conditions during the Blitz were horrendous and Gilchrist would later recall that the medical staff had to dash around in between operations as bombs devastated the area. Medics and nurses had to carry buckets of sand and water to extinguish pathfinder flares, which had been dropped by the Luftwaffe to ensure greater accuracy for the bombers.

Mary Gilchrist (nee Scott) was the eldest of ten children of a tenant farmer in Killearn north of Glasgow. It is a delightful, picturesque, town but in the immediate years after the First World War employment was not easy and in rural and mining communities life was hard.

As she was the eldest child, Gilchrist left school at 14 in the hope that she would add to the income of the household. But, with a resourceful spirit that was to typify her entire life, she decided to follow her ambition to work in the medical profession.

She sought out a Quaker hospital in York and after qualifying as a midwife and a psychiatric nurse in the mid-1930s, Gilchrist decided to pursue her career in medicine in London.

Gilchrist’s introduction to wartime nursing was tortuous. On the beaches of Dunkirk she bandaged and cared for the wounded men and women as the Luftwaffe bombed the beaches. The medical facilities were sparse and getting the wounded out to the rescue crafts was an added challenge.

The experience, she admitted, haunted her for the rest of her life: “We couldn’t separate their uniforms from their bodies,” she said. “We just had to give them as much morphine as they could take and hoped they would die free from as much pain as possible.”

Her experience during the Blitz was no less horrendous. Gilchrist worked long shifts and the severe damage to all the buildings along the River Thames made getting about the capital demanding. St John’s Hospital in Balham, south London, was under constant pressure as many of those injured in the nearby dockyards were brought there.

Further demands were made on Gilchrist and her nursing colleagues when, in 1942, the Batttersea Chest Clinic was relocated to the hospital’s boardroom as the borough’s TB dispensary had been destroyed by bombing.

Gilchrist had a narrow escape shortly after joining St John’s. In 1940, a bus plunged into a crater in the middle of the road after a bomb had a direct hit outside Balham Tube station.

The pipes carrying water and the gas mains, along with the sewage pipes, were severely damaged and water poured down on to the platforms where people were sleeping. Many were killed and the injuries to passers-by and the passengers in the bus were extensive.

Gilchrist had not got on the bus as she was delayed leaving the hospital and had to return for some papers.

She married James Gilchrist in 1941 and the honeymoon was short as the very next day he sailed from Portsmouth to serve as a signals officer on the North Atlantic convoys – the famous and dangerous Murmansk run. He was later a liaison officer with the Free French Navy. Husband and wife did not see each other for three years.

After the war, Gilchrist initially concentrated on working within the private sector health care. In particular she nursed Sally Gray (later Baroness Oranmore and Browne) who was a well-known film star of the war era – principally for her fine looks and husky voice. Once Gray threatened to throw herself out of the window of her Belgravia flat and Gilchrist patiently talked her out of jumping.

In the 1960s, Gilchrist worked with mentally handicapped children in London’s east end and then moved to Sussex, where she worked with an animal welfare unit. She never lost her passion for caring and, aged 85, she joined a demonstration against live animal exports.

After the war, her husband became a gas engineer and supervised the conversion of both Buckingham Palace and the Russian embassy in London to natural gas.

Gilchrist, a fiercely independent and enterprising lady throughout her life, remained proud of her Scottish roots. In 1990, she received an RSPCA Certificate of Honour for her devotion to the charity’s causes.

Her husband predeceased her, and she is survived by their son, Roderick.

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