Letter From Malta – Summer 1916

This letter from Miss Fairclough, was written in March, and gives her first impressions of the hospital at Malta, where she is in charge of the kitchen:

4, Strada Kirscia,
St. Julian’s Bay,
Sheina,
Malta.

Beneath a white green-lined parasol I look at the word March, which has just been written, and then gaze with admiration at the gorgeous blue sky peeping through the trees, and wonder if June ought not to have been put instead. It is perfectly glorious weather at present, and the sea lives up to its name of blue Mediterranean, and is so clear that one wants to bathe at once.
I am particularly enjoying to-day as it is my second day off since arriving in January, as work naturally occupies nearly all and every day. My first invalid kitchen was in a 12ft. square tent, beloved of all winds that blow, and was hardly ever still; but one day a very grand General indeed came to inspect, and as the fluttering canvas nearly knocked off his lovely gold-embroidered cap, and the tin draught-screen round the oil stove played muffled thunder as it waved to and fro, he raised his voice to remark, “You must have a wooden hut.” The wooden hut materialised into two rooms in a Married Quarters’ Block, near an operating theatre and a dentist-so the blend of ether, gas, and fried onions in that corner is considered very fine. The work itself is very much the same as kitchen work in a Red Cross Hospital at home, except that more Army routine has to be followed in the drawing of stores, clean towels, oil and coal. The patients catered for are not many in proportion to the numbers in the Hospital, but are quite enough to make the hours from 9 to 12 extremely busy, especially when four different kinds of diet must be arranged-such as when ten men may have beef fillets, mashed potatoes, and tomato sauce, and treacle sponge to follow; 14 others will have haricot beans and tomato sauce, with a milk jelly to follow, and perhaps three need chicken creams and milk or egg jelly.
The dinners are served at any time between 12 to 12.30; it depends upon the time the ward orderlies arrive, after which cold things for the next day are begun-the orderly going off for his dinner first, and later I depart for mine, after which we mutually tidy up and get away any time from 2.45 to 3.15 generally the latter now. There seems more work in a house than in a tent, although we have practically the same furniture, but it is now spread over a larger space.
Two more kitchens are to be opened in other hospitals, and it is very interesting going to see them and their different situations, as some hospitals are under canvas, others in beautiful old buildings, some in converted barracks and so on.
Malta is a curious rocky land, and historically most fascinating. I was remarking on the majesty of the old fortifications to a lady the other day, who told me they had been built originally by Turkish prisoners, who were kept ill underground chambers now used as granaries. I had wondered what these granaries were or could have been, because one walks over a large paved space with little square openings at regular intervals, on top of each of which is placed a large round stone like a mill stone with a number stamped on it, and these spaces are the roofs of the granaries, and the now covered squares were the only means of entrance of air and light, and the unfortunate prisoners were lowered into them nightly, and taken out to work during the day. [It gives one a shock to see a basket load of hay being drawn up by means of a chain and pulley, and to think it once could have been a human being.]
At one time I used to go to my work through passages made through the fortification walls, and across a drawbridge over a deep moat, and was surprised at the length of the passages and wished them shorter. They are now used as roads to take the goats out of the town into the country. It was quite amusing to emerge down some very, rough steps, into a large space where donkeys were always waiting to be harnessed to little flat no-sided carts, one of which invariably started to bray and set off the whole set.
The other day I went to call at a beautiful old fort, and was given tea out of doors on the rocks, overlooking one of the harbours, and sat on grass – a fact worth mentioning, as there is not a great deal here, though the wild flowers are lovely. We spent a very entertaining time watching the little launches, locally called Puffers, dash across from landing-stage to landing-stage, while being Saturday there were many charming little sailing boats scudding along, with here and there a big ship, all no the exquisite blue-green water.
At present I am sitting in a garden under orange trees, just beginning to bloom, under which are arum lilies also in bloom, while figs, apricots and almond trees take up the rest of the space. You would have loved the violets, and the flower sellers’ baskets now are the most exquisite still life flower groups one could find the natives have an extraordinarily happy talent in the grouping of colours in these, though not so successful in placing colours in a garden.
It is so lovely out here this afternoon, and when the bees hum I immediately picture the Hut and its surroundings. What makes it more Forestry than ever is the sound of a distant clucking hen.
If you think this letter worth putting in the Magazine please do, but it has had to be rather stiffly written on account of Censor rules, and also because I promised not to write for the Public Press before leaving home, and though the Magazine can hardly he called the Public Press, still it is as well not to transgress. I have written to Miss Douglas to give an account of my routine, and If there were any Items in it you thought suitable to add to the above I don’t suppose it would matter. How I wish I could say more: but it’s no use running the risk of having the whole letter destroyed.
The work is fascinating, not so much from the actual cooking point of view, but from the organisation point, and how to circumvent the appalling red tape, and as they have asked me to organise two more kitchens, and train the helpers to a certain extent, I feel that it has been worth while coming out here, and the experience is invaluable.
The present acting Red Cross Head is Mrs. Radcliffe, whose husband, Colonel Radcliff, is on the staff here, and they live at the Palace, and when I had to see her the other night she remarked on my shoulder badges, and asked whereabouts, in Wilts my Detachment Home was, so I said Salisbury, whereupon she remarked, “Oh, that’s where the Godolphin School is that Lord Methuen is always talking about: do you know it?”
The Palace is a beautiful building, and it was most interesting seeing at least some of it. I intend trying to see the State Rooms, which are open to the public, which contain some very interesting things.
With very kindest remembrances to all.
I remain,
Yours affectionately,
MARGARET FAIRCLOUGH

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