secret lives

A life less ordinary resurfaces through the medium of letters. Louise Hunt reports

When physiotherapist Margaret Halstead went through the effects of her late mother, Jessie Goodger, she uncovered a trunk that had belonged to a family friend, Kathleen Mary Jackson, full of letters she had sent during World War II. The correspondence to Jessie Goodger reveals Kathleen Jackson’s fascinating experience of being sent on active service to work as a physiotherapist and masseuse for India Command, but the abrupt end to the correspondence has reawakened the mystery of what happened to Kathleen. 

A dynamic force

Kathleen Jackson became good friends with Jessie Goodger when she stayed with the family as a lodger while working for Grimsby district general hospital. Born on 22 April 1907, she had trained as an orthopaedic nurse and radiographer before becoming a physiotherapist. Her hospital posts included Cornwall, Manchester, Leicester and the Stamborough’s Hospital, Watford, just before leaving for India in 1943. ‘She was very specialised in orthopaedics,’ says Margaret Halstead, describing Kathleen as a ‘go-getting girl’, who was revered by her family. Indeed, she reveals Kathleen’s long-lasting impression on their lives may be partly responsible for her own career choice. ‘Mum was always impressed by Kathleen, and I was brought up with a background of tremendous respect for physiotherapy,’ she says. Kathleen’s dynamism is evident in a letter written during the crossing to India. She writes: ‘These days of sun, comparative idleness and ever-changing scenery are a wonderful tonic, and I feel desperately fit despite the heat. I arise at 6am and take the women’s P.T. class at 6.45am and then have a cold sea water bath before breakfast at 7.30am. The morning is spent walking the promenade deck, and attending language classes that will be used when I reach my destination.’ However, she was not averse to the odd vice as she notes ‘sweets and cigarettes are plentiful and cheap. Rationing seems a nightmare of the past in these luxurious surroundings’. It is unclear exactly what her role with India Command was, but during that period the command was responsible for campaigns in British India, British Ceylon and Burma, as part of the south east Asian theatre of World War II. In July of 1943 Kathleen Jackson was posted with India Command, Ahmednagar, where she was sent to heal an officer with infantile paralysis. ‘That was all I was supposed to do apparently, but was bored with so little to do, and so scouted round for work,’ she writes in her first letter from India. ‘I discovered a marvellous massage and rehabilitation department, complete with magnificent gymnasium  but no staff to run it except for an army trained P.T. corporal. So with his help I have got it organised and am now healing about 40 cases daily. The shag is that I am only here as a temporary posting, and expect to be swept away at any moment. But it seems that the hospital authorities are anxious that I should stay and that we should have this as one of the physiotherapy training centres.’

Tropical conditions

She assures her friend that life is not all work, with many social activities and ‘lovely’ living quarters. ‘My room feels like a church... and one is waited on hand and foot by native bearers  I have never been so lazy in my life. Naturally, there are millions of creepy things, lizards, outsize beetles and flies everywhere.’ In September Kathleen is moved to a military hospital in Lucknow, where conditions are less enjoyable. ‘The summer here has been simply dreadful. It is quite impossible to describe the appalling heat, and the effort to do heavy work in it is terrific. One feels sick the whole time, sleep is impossible and one is constantly drenched with perspiration day and night.’ Fatigue and weightloss lead Kathleen to being sent to recuperate in the hills for six weeks. She next writes from Lucknow in March, presumably 1944, where she says the rehabilitation centre has grown so enormous she and her team are treating 450 patients daily. She is in charge of supervision and lecturing of the orderlies, and also treats a private patient in the evenings. In this letter, Kathleen Jackson reveals that she has been asked to work in a civil hospital after the war and ‘will probably accept’. She asks Jessie Goodger to sell the contents of her trunk. ‘I shall not need it again and feel that I’d get a good price.’ She writes again in April 1944 while on a trekking holiday in Ranikhet, on a hill station at 7,000 ft, ‘situated in glorious mountains covered with forests of eucalyptus and pines. Behind are the snows of the Himalayas  a wonderful, unforgettable sight’. In May, Kathleen Jackson responds to the news that her beloved Spaniel Robs, whom Jessie Goodger had been looking after, has had to be put down. She writes: ‘Naturally, I felt a bit sad knowing he had gone  he was such a great friend, but you certainly did the kindest thing.’ In the same letter she excitedly tells the news that she is to be repatriated and flown back to the UK later that month, and requests that she meet up with Jessie Goodger in London before starting a new job. Her last lines are: ‘The weather here is now desperately hot  about 110 degrees fahrenheit in the shade. The thought of packing in these conditions makes me feel sick. Although I shall be very sad at leaving this place, it will be good to see a green English field.’ ‘Nobody knows what happened to Kathleen Jackson after that,’ says Margaret Halstead. ‘Mum always hoped she would reappear, but she must have died, otherwise she would have kept on writing.’ Kathleen Jackson’s letters, and other personal effects, including her physiotherapy text books, will be housed in the CSP’s archive at the Wellcome Trust, along with this article in Frontline, so her memory will live on. fl 

Louise Hunt

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