Obituary: Edith Cotterill

Edith Cotterill was born in a cellar during a Zeppelin raid on Tipton gasworks in 1916. Later she spent 25 years as a district nurse in Tipton, at the heart of the Black Country which industry made "black by day, red by night" so that Queen Victoria would only go through it with the blinds of the train window drawn. Cotterill loved it and on retirement was the author of a best-selling book about her experiences as a Black Country nursing sister, Nurse on Call.

Educated at Wolverhampton Girls' High School, Edith Humphries decided to become a nurse. "I did it to get away from home, and to escape the vicar who wanted me to become a missionary." At Margate Hospital when war broke out in 1939 she met her future husband, Harry Cotterill, a patient rescued from a minesweeper. He too - and other crew brought in - came from the Black Country and Edith was called on to act as an interpreter. "They're supposed to be British but they can't speak a word of English," a fellow nurse said.

After a wartime marriage and the birth of two daughters Edith Cotterill returned to nursing as a district nurse in Tipton, where her chief petty officer husband had become ambulance station officer. The death of her teenage daughter Judith stimulated Cotterill to take up writing. She was encouraged to write articles and poems by Harold Parsons, editor of the Black Countryman, the magazine of the Black Country Society. In 1973 the society published her slim volume Black Country Nurse at Large. It sold 9,000 copies locally and attracted the attention of a literary agent, who persuaded her to write an enlarged, Anglicised version, Nurse on Call. Published in 1986, it became a best-seller. Women's Own featured it. "Soddin besom yo'm bin writin abowt me," a patient chided Cotterill. "Burra I wull say this for yer, Nus, yo' gorra good noddle on ye."

Readers loved Nurse on Call because it took them into the other world of nursing which is beyond hospitals. The nurse who works on the district (the term now is in the community) meets the patient on the patient's own territory, whereas the patient in a hospital is on the nurse's own ground. It makes a difference to the relationship. And Cotterill's beat was not along country lanes but streets of tenements. She transmuted real stories of bed bugs, impacted faeces and banknotes sodden because the patient had them in bed for safe-keeping. They were told with humour tinged with sadness, and highly readable.

An animal lover - on leaving school she showed at Cruft's the first puppy to win the championship - Edith Cotterill donated the bulk of her royalties to animal charities. She never wrote the sequel to Nurse on Call which her publisher wanted but up to her death was writing pieces and poems for the Black Country Society - such as "A Plea from a District Nurse":

Please be kind to district nurses,

Don't belabour us with curses.

Even though we may look tough,

We are built of tender stuff.

Laurence Dopson

Edith Humphries, district nurse and writer: born Tipton, Staffordshire 24 January 1916; married 1940 Harry Cotterill (died 1982; one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Machynlleth, Powys 1 February 1997.

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