Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sharley McLean: from refugee nurse at Lewisham Hospital to LGBT activist

Born Lotte Reyersbach in Germany, Sharley McLean (1923-2013) fled the Nazis and ended up in London. Her parents both died in the Holocaust (her father was a socialist, her mother was Jewish). After hearing a libertarian speaker in Hyde Park she got involved in the London anarchist scene, selling the papers Freedom and War Commentary at Speakers Corner, though she was ambivalent about their pacifism during the Second World War: 'I really saw the Nazi machinery as an evil and so I did not want to participate in anything that would detract from that'.

During the war she worked as a nurse at Lewisham hospital, as she later recalled: 'My first involvement in unions was when I was nursing at Lewisham hospital. I learned from a friend that nurses at Friern Barnet got five nights off a fortnight and we were getting only four. I heard that there was a trade union in the hospital, basically for porters and cleaners and another nurse and I got in touch. We were probably among the first nurses to join a union. You had porters who wheeled trolleys for the corpses; you had porters who looked after the rubbish. Everybody insisted on the differential and I thought that was crazy. However, we did get five nights off a fortnight.

I hated the war; we were in the frontline, all the casualties we saw. When Sandringham School was bombed, there was a tremendous anti-German feeling when those kids were brought into the hospital. It was heartbreaking: a war against children. You just worked; there was a dedication and even people with little nursing experience were called upon, to set up drips. It was all done by hand and we had a big fish kettle to sterilize things. Things were primitive compared to now and the sepsis rate was higher, and there were no wonder drugs. I was also on duty when the hospital was hit. A bomb fell on the dispensary which caused tremendous fire. As nurses we were told where there were so-called safe points and one of my friends on E Block had taken shelter at one of those points and that collapsed and she was killed outright. We were badly burned in the D Block I was in but we managed to evacuate all the patients, and people who hadn’t walked for months and months suddenly found they were able to walk down these ghastly fire escapes. At the end of the war Ruth [another refugee] and I went down Lewisham High Street and we sang every German folk song we could remember'.

Sharley (pictured above in 1941) carried on working in the NHS until she retired, and later became involved with HIV/AIDS support at the Terrence Higgins Trust as well as being a lesbian activist working for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Indeed her first encounters with other lesbians were while working at Lewisham in the Second World War.

'When Lewisham Hospital was bombed, we all shared rooms and even beds because the rooms were so small. We were together; we cuddled each other without giving it a second thought. I think we were naive sexually. One staff nurse would say there were two ward sisters who were 'homosexual ladies'. They used to tell people they weren't married because their boyfriends were killed in the First World War. I remember we used to look at them with curiosity. Ridiculous when you think how naive one was.

I can remember one woman in particular I had a tremendous crush on. She was a cancer patient. I was very fond of her and I was told off for being too emotionally involved when she died. Also one of the orderlies used to say to me, 'Oh, you are one of us' and I thought she meant that I was as English as she was and I felt flattered that I had been accepted'.

Source: Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories (Routledge, 1989). The air raid on Lewisham Hospital took place in July 1944, killing at least three people. The bombed school she refers to was actually called Sandhurst Road School in Catford - 38 children were killed there in January 1943.

Update March 2022:

Sharley MacLean was given recognition in the 'Out and About' exhibition of material from the Bishopsgate Institute LGBTQ+ Archive at the Barbican Centre in Feb/March 2022. Included was a banner from 'Hyde Park Gays and Sapphics' with a sign saying that this was a group founded by Sharley in 1982 and which for more than 20 years gave speeches on gay rights at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park.

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