Atina in the Val di Comino

My Family Continue To Suffer The Ravages of War

Although the war was over we still faced harsh times ahead in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy. We were so happy that news came saying that finally Berto would be released from the internment camp in Montreal.  He had come to like Canada very much, and later said he would have chosen to stay there, if it wasn’t for Mamma who wanted him to return to London.  The men who had been interned were not bitter, generally they just got on and picked up their lives as best they could. But still my family would continue to suffer from the hidden ravages of war. 

Tuberculosis

I had become unwell, I had no energy and had developed a nasty cough. Then I  started coughing up blood. Soon I was diagnosed with Tuberculosis of the lungs, and the doctor immediately sent me away to a TB Sanatorium, as in those days sufferers were made to be isolated from the rest of society. The sanatorium was situated in Haselmere in Surrey, and was named Holy Cross.  It was was run by nuns, the institution had been founded by the Daughters of the Holy Cross in 1917 for the treatment of Tuberculosis.  I spent most of the next several years in and out of this institution.

Berto back in Clerkenwell London

Berto back in Clerkenwell

I remember that my ward was incredibly long, with row upon row of beds. There were separate wards for the men and the women. It was friendly in the Sanatorium,  we girls knew that we were all in the same boat, so we tried to stay cheerful and many new friendships were forged. It was rather like being away at a boarding school. My doctor was a gentle and compassionate man and the nuns were very kind and also got to know us all well.

The main treatment of Tuberculosis in those days was rest, a good diet, fresh air and sunlight. For a long time I was more or less bed-bound, however each day our beds were wheeled outside onto the verandah, even on cold frosty days, so that we could breath in the goodness and catch the rays of the sun.  I had lost a lot of weight since contracting this illness and a eating a wholesome healthy diet was part of the treatment, so the nuns used to try and fatten us up. There were no antibiotic treatments available back then to fight the infection.  I had to undergo another form of treatment which was to collapse a lung, to reduce oxygen consumption, which enabled the lung to rest and the tissue damaged by the bacteria to heal. I can remember feeling so weak and utterly exhausted.

There were so many young people there with this terrible disease, which was sometimes referred to as the “White Plague”.  Many of them looked really healthy, with rosy cheeks and all, but inside it was a different matter.  The doctor compared it to the look of a shiny red apple which appeared to be perfect on the outside, but when you cut into it it was rotten with maggots inside.  During my confinement I watched many youngsters die of this cruel disease, savegely struck down in their prime.

However, gradually I gained in strength and was allowed to get up for a short while each day.  We were encouraged to take up new hobbies, new crafts such as embroidery, tapestry, knitting, drawing and painting to help pass the time. Day by day I started to feel better and eventually I was able to enjoy a gentle walk around the beautiful garden and grounds.

Berto and Papà would try to come and visit me most weekends, which helped to keep up my moral.  One time they brought our dog Patsy to see me, which was a real delight.

Eventually the doctors said that they thought that my T.B. was in remission, and at long last I was allowed to go home.  I had been kept in the sanatorium for about 18 months.  I was told, however, that I would never have the strength to bear any children

When I got home I realised that my mother was also ill, she had had a weak heart and had been suffering from diabetes for some time.  She begged me not to send her to hospital, she was so afraid because she couldn’t speak English.  So I nursed my mother at home however the stress had a detrimental effect on me and I started coughing up blood again.  I knew I couldn’t leave my mother in her hour of need, so I tried to ignore my symptoms and managed to look after here at home. Before she passed away Papa begged us all for our forgiveness for how he badly he had treated us during his bouts of drinking.

Tina-Benedetto-and Patsy in Clerkenwell

Mamma died on the 4th January 1947 aged 62 years.

Memorial Card
Maria Grazia Leonardi of Clerkenwell Funeral Card
Maria Grazia Leonardi of Clerkenwell London

Shortly afterwards I was sent back to Holy Cross Sanatorium once again for treatment, still grieving for the loss of my mother. However I soon got accustomed to being back in the hospital, it is amazing how quickly you become institutionalised. Some of my friends from my first stay were still there, including a special friend who I had known from the Clerkenwell area, by the name of Rita Malvermi.  My treatment was the same as before. At least we got fed well, as in the outside world rationing was still in place after the war.  I spent another whole year at Holy Cross.

When I eventually got out I realised that my father was really poorly. He was missing Mamma so much and his spirits were at a very low ebb.  I looked after him as I had done with my mother.  He died just over a year after her on the 9th April 1948, aged 63 years.

Funeral Memorial Card
Benedetto Leonardi of Clerkenwell London
Benedetto Leonardi of Clerkenwell London

Berto was by now working away and I found myself in great difficulty and hardship. I was still ill and unable to work, with little or no money coming in to buy food and pay the bills. One of my friends from church was concerned about me and would bring me things to eat, including horse meat. When you are hungry you will eat anything.

Holiday in Davos Switzerland

Another of my friends had recently been fortunate enough to inherit a little money and very kindly she said she would like to treat me to a holiday in Davos in Switzerland .  I was quite overwhelmed by her generosity.

Following treatment, the Holy Cross Sanatorium sometimes encouraged patients, if they could afford it, to take a recuperative holiday in the fresh mountain air of Switzerland.  They were in contact with some small hotels which were run by nuns for this purpose, the perfect environment for people recovering from Tuberculosis.

I discussed it with Rita and her sister Delia and another of our friends, Bruna, and we decided to take a holiday together. We budgeted to stay for 2 months.  Here are some photos taken for my passport, you can see from my face how poorly I was.

Concetta Leonardi of Clerkenwell London
Concetta Leonardi of Clerkenwell London

The hotel was in Davos, there the nuns looked after us very well.  It was absolutely wonderful to be away and free and able to have fun – and much fun was had I can tell you!  Looking back I think that this holiday probably saved my life.

Italian Heart

Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner.  Images marked * are in the Public Domain. 

Photos marked with  are believed to be in the Public Domain due of their age.

All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself –  © Louise Shapcott