July 16, 2012

The Withington Water Tower.

By Angus Townley
My friends in Crowle will remember me as a quiet, well behaved, disciplined young man of Methodist extraction, even a bit of a drip.
Which shows the advantage of the anonymity of the big city university. They still cannot understand how I managed to acquire my wife.
If you think they would be interested you can post this which I recently did for our Aluni Magazine.


The Withington Water Tower.

In 1948 the government took over an already partially developed Health Service for Lancashire County Council. Finding it necessary in the 19th century to build workhouses it had in most towns built a rudimentary hospital alongside. After the Midwives Act about the beginning of the 20th century, it also developed a rudimentary maternity service, employing midwives and specialist obstetricians mostly on a part time basis. Separate hospitals were also built for infectious diseases.

Two large hospital complexes were built in Manchester, Withington in the south and Crumpsall in the north. Withington with Wythenshaw became the South Manchester University Hospital group eventually being based at Wythenshaw with Withington almost demolished and the land sold for development. Crumpsall has become the North Manchester Hospital Group.

The same architect must have built both hospitals because the original buildings were almost identical. I did my three months midwifery training July to September 1955. The GPs were supposed to supervise their own district deliveries. We spent a month at Withington learning the basics of a normal delivery, then two months at St. Mary’s Hospital, Whitworth Street, in Central Manchester, opposite the Palace Theatre. Where we spent a month observing complicated pregnancies and abnormal deliveries, the third month was spent attending district deliveries in the old Moss Side, before it was knocked down and rebuilt. We had to attend a minimum of twenty. Resident for the three months, how the costs were covered I do not know, but as far as we students were concerned the residence was free.

1955 was the centenary year of Withington Hospital, which was celebrated in various ways.

The water tower. During the First World War there were problems with the water pressure, so that German prisoners of war built a concrete water tower five stories high. A flagpole was included at the top for use on special occasions. The tower was eventually demolished long before Withington itself was demolished.

In 1955 around the water tank at the top in four-foot high letters was 1855 to 1955. This was light up at night by arc lights until about 10: 30pm.  Very few had TV sets, the cinemas finished the last show shortly after 10 pm and the pubs shut (by law)

promptly at 10: 30 pm. There was no point lighting up the tower after 10: 30 as the majority were in bed.

That water tower must have been the bane of the administrators at Withington Hospital because it became the target of every new group of medical students, not short of intelligence, every month.

As soon as our group started, serious discussions started on what jape to get up to.

Firstly a recognisance was required. At 11pm when the lights were out most of us quietly slipped through the grounds to the water tower. At first we were disappointed, the tower had been targeted so often, the door was amply reinforced almost like Fort Knox. A couple of us wandered round the tower peering through the windows. Leaning forward hands against the window frame it was realised that the putty around one window was soft and new. A penknife removed the putty and a large central pane of glass was lifted out, two of our smallest members were lifted through and they climbed the stairs to the top returning after 10 minutes with a pair of ladies knickers which they had found attached to the flagpole. Someone had been there before us but the knickers were so small that they could not be seen and cause the uproar intended.

We replaced the glass and putty and gave the matter some thought. Our wish was for a Skull and Cross Bones flag, but unless there is a strong breeze a flag hangs alongside the pole and cannot be seen. It would be removed before it caused the uproar we intended.

The matter was left in abeyance for a week or so, until one evening returning from the labour ward, I spotted a brush with a handle at least ten feet long. The cleaners swept cobwebs from the ceiling with these. No one was about so I promptly carried the brush to our quarters.

We now had what we needed, our charming handsome roué was dispatched to distract one of the junior ward sisters whilst one of our girls raided the linen room for a single bed sheet and another the sister’s office for some drawing pins.

The sheet was pinned to the handle of the brush and then using all our black shoe polish followed by most of the brown a very satisfactory skull and cross bones was made. That evening at 11 pm another sortie was made, the putty and pane of glass removed the same two smaller students helped through and the brush handle tied to the flagpole, so that the skull and cross bones would be seen floating in the morning breeze at dawn.

We then retired to bed. Scarcely had I got to sleep, when the student on immediate call, myself, was called to the labour ward.

Nowadays induction of labour is fairly routine and common procedure, then it was something that had to be embarked upon with much forethought and care, the techniques used were not always effective and if not may precipitate a Caesarean Section, then considered a very serious procedure to be avoided if at all possible. Certainly not the casual, voluntary, social choice of those who feel a normal delivery is inconvenient these days.

The incidence of successful induction of labour had been recently increased by a new drug, Pitocin. Pitocin is a hormone produced by the posterior pituitary gland, which stimulates uterine contractions, increases milk production by the breast and inhibits ovulation.  For many decades now it has been replaced by a synthetic pitocin known as syntocinon.

The pitocin was obtained via the abattoir, from the posterior pituitary glands of cows.

Its strength was in units, which being measured by biological means was not completely reliable. In addition containing traces of cow protein it could cause anaphylactic reactions in the recipients. Patients on pitocin drips required close monitoring, quarter hourly, blood pressure, temperature, pulse and foetal heart. Whereas modern machines now exist to administer syntocinon, the only way then was by counting the drops per minute and manually adjusting the flow. Such a procedure was tedious and time consuming, a waste of a pupil midwife’s time when she could be usefully employed elsewhere, but there were those useless annoying medical students. Why not use them?

The Night Sister in charge of the maternity department was a fiery red haired, freckled Irish lady in her late twenties. On reflection she was a shapely young woman and I presume in some quarters would be considered attractive. She was possessed of a strong personality and frightful temper and frightened the lot of us to death.

A patient was being induced on the antenatal ward in a labour room and that is where that night sister ordered me from about 11: 30 that night. God it was a boring job and I must admit the patient and I fell asleep for about two hours. Somewhat distressed when I woke with an empty monitoring chart for two hours, I took the patient’s advice.

“ I am OK, nothing bad has happened, why don’t you just fill it in? I shan’t say anything”

About 6: 30 am, a harassed pupil midwife rushed in. There’s a man in the kitchen swearing and shouting and insisting on seeing you. He won’t take no for an answer.

I entered the kitchen and was promptly met with a mouthful of verbal abuse, with Anglo-Saxon explicatives. He would personally have me arrested, thrown into jail and expelled from university etc., etc. I could not get a word in edge ways.

Whilst this was going on the red-haired night sister appeared. Seeing me standing there instead of with the patient, she went for me as well without the Anglo-Saxon explicatives.

When I blustered, “It‘s this man sister, he insisted, something about a skull and cross bone flag”

The man started giving an explanation.

The result was marvellous. That administrator was subjected to one of the most brilliant tirades I have ever heard. Which included barging into one of her wards without her permission, forcing himself onto a female ward full of women who would be extremely embarrassed and where only husbands and male relatives were permitted.

He turned pale under the onslaught,

Then a fantastic effect, she stood behind me with a hand on each shoulder pulled me onto her ample bosom and said

“This poor boy, has been with us all night helping us with a seriously ill patient and you have the temerity to accuse him of some silly prank. Furthermore I have had to send one of my very busy staff midwives to make sure the patient has not come to any harm. If she has I will be reporting this matter to your and my superiors” etc. etc.


When he had gone, “ All our patients are delivered, we can manage now. Better get to bed for a couple of hours before your day starts.


What a beautiful sight I saw walking back to the residency at 6: 30 am. The sun had started to shine and lit up a skull and cross bones flag on what looked like ship’s top-sail just above a mist, that came up to the part with 1855 to 1955 on it.


9: 30 am. You are all to report to Dr. Burslem’s office. Dicky Burslem was in charge of the medical students, a relatively young man; Dicky had been a highflying student and become a consultant at a relatively young age. In addition Dicky had been an active and popular student and reports of his exploits were legendary.

On entering his office, Dicky looked at me and said, “ You can go, night sister has already reported you were not involved”

“ I’m sorry sir, but it was my idea.”

We were taken to task and then told we would all be fined 30 shillings £1 and 10 shillings (£1: 50p). A modern reader will realise what an enormous sum that was, when I record that a labourer’s wage was about £5 per week and a well-paid miner about £8. We all objected strongly and asked why. It was for the damage we had done answered Dicky.

We informed we had not done any and explained how we got in.

A visit to the water tower revealed that the door had been bashed in. We took Dicky to the window showed him the soft putty and our fingerprints where we had replaced the putty.

A change came over Dicky, this matched any jape he had been involved in and he had been lied to and his student’s accused of damage they had not committed. The administrators involved had been too impatient to wait an hour for the key holder to arrive, smashed the door down and then tried to blame us.

Dicky nodded sagely and left us.

That was the last we heard of the matter, but rumours circulated of one hell of a row in the in the central offices, involving several members of the Management Committee as Dicky went in punching on behalf of HIS students.



A Total Mystery.


At the side of “The Lavatory Brick Palace”  (The medical school was built of a yellow brick) was a tall yellow brick chimney, which carried the smoke from the central heating boiler and the crematorium, where the remains of dissected bodies were reverently disposed of.

The chimney needed repairing and scaffolding was erected around it. The work ceased on a Friday, the scaffolding was dismantled and prepared for collection on the Saturday morning. (People worked on Saturday mornings then.) Friday night some of the scaffolding was re-erected and in large black letters  FRYING TONIGHT was written on the chimney top. The scaffolding was replaced and collected by workmen the following day.

A chimney with Frying Tonight in large black two foot high letters, with no way of arranging immediate removal, caused serious consternation amongst the University Authorities. The culprits would be immediately “SENT DOWN” that is expelled.


The result total and absolute silence, not even a whisper or hint as to anyone who was involved in anyway.