Ken Hayter (b. 1940): Illness & Health – Writing Lives

Ken Hayter (b. 1940): Illness & Health

‘I’m getting inoculated against dip- dip something or other, dip- dip- diphtheria, that’s it. Diphtheria’ (102)

The above quotation is taken from the ‘Tomorrow’ chapter within the Toxteth Tales memoir. Illness and health are certainly explored throughout Hayter’s memoir and was a common conversation in the working-class communities from 1930 to 1940. In particular, Hayter discusses the diphtheria epidemic that plagued Britain during this time and how this personally affected Hayter’s family and friendship group.

Taken from the online collections from the

Diphtheria is a life-threatening infectious disease that was a common childhood illness before the vaccination was created and given out in 1942. It affects the nose and throat and can restrict breathing and lead to incredibly dangerous complications. The diphtheria immunisation would be the first of many in the UK of centrally funded childhood immunisations that helped save many children’s lives. Up to ‘3000 children were dying of the disease each year’ (Mortimer, 489) up until 1940 when the vaccination was created. It is the circulation of the vaccine throughout Liverpool 8’s community that Hayter specifically remembers.

Diphtheria immunisation scheme that was rolled out in the 1940s to aid the epidemic. Photograph taken from the.

The vaccine was widely accepted in the Liverpool 8 community as Hayter remarks that the children discussed the ‘hypodermic needle the size of a bicycle pump’ (102) and how ‘they stickirrin about four times’ (103). In a simple and juvenile spirit the children all refer to the diphtheria illness as the ‘black death’ (102), something they are particularly confused about is whether they ‘‘noculated the rats’ (101) to cure it or if they have to get the dreaded ‘‘noculation’ (101). P Mortimer comments that the willingness of families to receive the vaccine demonstrates the ‘spirit of social solidarity’ as it would have ‘seemed unpatriotic to leave at-risk children huddled in air raid shelters or displaced by evacuation’ (Mortimer, 491). This sense of social solidarity was evident throughout Hayter’s community as every child, one by one, ‘survived the pain’ (103) of the vaccine and ‘more important, none of [them] had caught the black death’ all bar one- poor ‘Little Arthur’ (95).

Photograph of the vaccine that was given to children in the 1940s to stop the spread of diphtheria. Taken from the

            Hayter reflects on his friendship with Arthur who he says was referred to as ‘Little Arthur because [his Mam] felt sorry for him’ (95). Arthur was a ‘nuisance to his mother because he had to be fed and clothed’ (95) and it is this strained relationship that leads to Hayter’s Mother looking after Arthur as regularly as she could. She kept an eye on him and was even going to take him with Arthur to receive the vaccine for Diphtheria together. However, we soon sadly learn, through Hayter’s foggy memory and his recollections of small snippets of gossip between his mother and the fellow ladies down the street, that Arthur’s mother denied the help from May and promised to take Arthur to get the vaccination herself. This never did occur. Hayter recalls the ‘tears that glistened on mother’s cheeks’ (103) as she ‘clung to [him] in the darkening room, quietly sobbing for a long time before she could speak’ (104). 

Another advert pushing the importance of parents getting their children vaccinated against diphtheria. Taken from the

 His mother explained the epidemic that plagued Liverpool and how all the children had been taken to get ‘innoculated’ (104). All ‘except one’ (104). Little Arthur sadly passed away from the disease. In Hayter’s childlike innocence he questions the feeling of despair saying, ‘It was so strange, this feeling of emptiness. Why was I crying? (104). It seems that the feeling of grief is hard to comprehend as a child and this causes young Hayter to turn to God for answers to his questions for the first and only time within the memoir. Hayter asks God if ‘Arthur could reach the latch on the golden gate’ so he could get into heaven and if there were ‘any clockwork toys for Arthur to play with in heaven?’ (104). He says, ‘I wanted Arthur to come out and play with me again’ (105).

Photograph of the Diphtheria clinic in Liverpool. Taken from the memoir./

This incredibly poignant chapter is concluded with Hayter remarking ‘We were all going to the clinic… tomorrow’ (105). Perhaps his use of the word ‘tomorrow’ here and also in the title of the chapter correlates to a tomorrow within an after-life. As he says, we are all going to the clinic tomorrow similarly we will all eventually meet in an afterlife ‘tomorrow’. Hayter also uses small quotations from pieces of literature throughout the memoir to act as a subheading for his chapters. During this chapter, he has chosen a religious piece of writing from Charles Wesley. It says, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child, Pity my simplicity, Suffer me to come to thee’ (93). This is notably the only religious text he has referenced throughout the entire memoir perhaps alluding to his innocent mind relying on a sense of purpose and an afterlife in heaven. In which he will ultimately meet Little Arthur again.

Give my previous blog post on Ken’s Home & Family a read here and be sure to follow my twitter account for all things Spud related:


Hayter, Kenneth. Toxteth Tales. Lancaster: Palatine Books. 2017

Mortimer, P. P. ‘The diphtheria vaccine debacle of 1940 that ushered in comprehensive childhood immunization in the United Kingdom’. Epidemiol Infect.  (2011). Cambridge UP: 487-495

Images were taken from the Toxteth Tales memoir, and

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