When Margaret Nelson trained as a nurse, there was no West Cumberland Hospital in its current form.

Back then Whitehaven Castle was at the centre of local healthcare.

Known as Whitehaven Infirmary or sometimes the Castle Hospital, this was her initial base, until the new Hensingham premises opened.

Margaret, 78, of Kells, has now been involved in the local NHS for 60 years, first as a hospital nurse, then as a school nurse in the west Cumbrian community, and later as a patient panel representative.

She has many fond memories of her time in nursing, the patients she looked after and the colleagues she worked alongside.

After retiring, Margaret and some fellow staff joined together to document the history of their local hospitals, publishing Whitehaven Castle: The Hospital Years in 2002, and hosting an exhibition.

Now, to coincide with the 70-year anniversary of the NHS, she is once again sharing the memories from her career.

Margaret said she doesn’t really remember the exact moment she decided that she wanted to be a nurse, but remembers it coming up in a careers discussion towards the end of secondary school.

“I don’t really know what it was about it. We just had this inkling that we wanted to be nurses,” she said.

It turned out to be the best move she could have made, with Margaret being accepted to start training - alongside about 10 other student nurses – at Whitehaven Castle in February 1958.

She then had to take external examinations, in Carlisle and Newcastle, in order to qualify as a State Registered Nurse.

She said nursing back then was very different, though much of the basics remain as important today.

Duties, which were carried out under the supervision of a ward sister, included bed-making, administration of medicines, serving meals, cleaning and personal care of the patient.

She said they worked alongside a host of other staff, including porters, electronics engineers, estates, catering staff, X-ray technicians, administration, pathology and pharmacy staff.

Margaret Nelson at the Holmewood Annexe TB unit in 1959 Margaret was at Whitehaven Hospital when they began to move to the new build West Cumberland Hospital.

Although it didn’t officially open until 1964, she said it was a gradual transition, with the first patients moving five years earlier.

“Myself and several others went up there then in 1959. I can remember the first patient being admitted. I was on night duty. It was December, but I remember it being a sunny day,” she said.

“It was very transitional. The first wards to open were geriatric care. It wasn’t fully completed until 1963.

“It was very different than what we were used to. It was much better for the patients. Theatre was the last to move.”

Margaret didn’t attend the official opening of the hospital, performed by the Queen Mother, as she was pregnant at the time.

She then took a short break from nursing to spend time with her family, but went back as a night sister soon after.

In 1970 she moved into the community and became a school nurse - and still meets people now that remember her from their school days.

“I loved it. You were working with children from three to 18. I had a brilliant time,” said Margaret.

One memory from her 45-year nursing career involves travelling out to sea to vaccinate a ship’s crew off the coast of Whitehaven.

She said it was a Norwegian vessel called the Bagru , which was delivering phosphate rock to the town’s Marchon chemical factory. The huge container ship was docked offshore, as they did regularly.

“The crew had been in contact with cholera in the Black Sea. Myself and a doctor had to go out on a boat to the ship and vaccinate them. That doesn’t happen every day,” she said.

She also remembers being a school nurse in 1992, when the first measles outbreak for 21 years struck west Cumbria.

A couple of years later Margaret was among the nurses who took on a mass vaccination programme in Allerdale schools, which formed part of a national study about antibody resistance.

Margaret retired in 2003 but, after a short spell as a patient, became a West Cumberland Hospital patient representative, attending regular patient panel meetings between 2006 and 2017.

This role saw her work with the hospital’s infection control team and safety and quality assurance committee, as well as assisting in local and national inspections, even helping at one earlier this year.

As a patient representative, she has also been involved in the West Cumberland’s recent redevelopment project, giving feedback on its design and making suggestions where appropriate.

She has also been involved in the research project, feeling it was important to preserve their memories of Whitehaven Castle and the opening of the West Cumberland Hospital for future generations.

“I just thought we had a duty to record its history. We’d all worked there and had a lot of memories. I didn’t want them to be lost,” she said.

Overall, she said it has been a “great privilege” to serve the west Cumbrian community across her various roles.


Whitehaven Castle: The Hospital Years was published in 2002, charting the role this landmark building played in local healthcare.

Prior to the NHS, west Cumbria’s population was served by several small hospitals, all supported by charitable donations.

They included a six-bed colliery hospital for miners, Bransty hospital for patients with smallpox (some from infected ships docking in the harbour), Stirling’s Hospital in Cleator Moor for iron ore miners, and Galemire Hospital, for patients with polio.

Whitehaven Castle began life as a hospital on January 22, 1926.

Princess Mary opened the building, and the children’s ward was subsequently named after her.

Other wards included the Walker Ward, a surgical ward named after H W Walker, who helped fund the castle’s transformation; and Muriel Ward, named after G J Muriel, a long-serving surgeon.

The hospital served the community for many years, including during the tragic William Pit explosion in 1947.

It was decided - in 1938 - that the building was aging and needed replacing, however it was many years before the West Cumberland Hospital was eventually built at Hensingham.

This was due to the outbreak of the Second World War, which prevented its construction until much later.

Building eventually started in 1955, and it progressed in stages until 1964 – when it was officially opened by the Queen Mother.

The first patient was admitted in December 1959. Whitehaven Castle’s final long-stay patients were transferred out in 1987.