The British invasion | PostIndependent.com

The British invasion

Eddie O'Neill
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Contributed photoA group of five British nurses set out in 1958 with the intent to work their way across the U.S. In Colorado, strict nursing laws prevented their working in their profession, but they landed jobs for six weeks working as waitresses at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs. Gwenda Gofton, author of a new book on the experience, is second from right.
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – The year was 1958. The place was Pine and Sixth Street.

“The Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs looked like a renaissance palace, with its grand columns of warm stone glowing in the sun. A steep rocky slope, dotted with misshapen pine trees, shot up vertiginously behind it into the hard blue sky.”

Those are the words of 78-year-old Gwenda Gofton in her new book, “Bedpans and Bobby Socks” (Little Brown Book Group, $11.95) The book is co-authored by her daughter Barbara Fox.

It tells the tale of five British nurses on an adventurous road trip across the United States more than half a century ago. One of their longer stops along the road was in Glenwood Springs.

Their American journey began at Mount Sinai Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, after best friends Gofton and Pat Small responded to a call for British nurses to come work in the U.S. There, the two met fellow nurses Celia Greene from Ireland, Maureen Houghton from London and Molly Adams from Scotland. The five of them worked a year-long stint at Mount Sinai Hospital. After that, they planned to work their way across the U.S. as nurses.

“They set off in April of 1958. After camping for a few days in South Dakota, they headed to Denver, where they hoped to work as nurses for a while,” said Fox.

Their Denver dreams were halted, as Colorado had strict nurse’s licensing laws. However, a local employment agency found them a weekend of work at the Hotel Colorado as waitresses. That weekend turned into a memorable six weeks among newfound friends in the heart of the Rockies.

“They were so kind to us at the hotel,” Gofton told the Post Independent. “My hope at first was that the guests couldn’t see my hand shaking as I took my first orders waiting tables. My previous experience at waitressing was confined to peddling wares from a tea trolley.”

According to Fox, their British accents were an instant novelty as they balanced large trays of drinks and delivered main courses to the endless weekend gatherings of lawyers, bankers and high school proms.

“I finally realized the meaning of ‘my feet are just waiting for the rest of me to die.’ Those weekends were filled with long hard work,” Gofton said.

One of Gofton’s fondest memories of her and her friends’ stay at the Hotel Colorado was the concept of people leaving tips.

“Maureen and I worked for a while in the cocktail lounge. We English didn’t realize that when a patron left money on the bar or on the table, it was for us. At first, we would tell the folks, ‘You forgot your change.’ The American waitresses were quick to inform us that that money was for us,” Gofton explained with a chuckle. “I could have been a millionaire if I would have kept all that money.”

Once Sunday afternoon came and the hotel guests trickled out, it was time for the nurses to let their hair down.

Gofton related that the hotel staff became some of their closest friends and there were some interesting characters among them. There was Don, the maître d’ who doubled as rodeo rider, and Al, the bartender, who shocked the nurses with the news that he had been married and divorced three times.

The staff also became their unofficial instructors in the ways of the American West.

“One of the first things the girls and I did was to buy blue jeans and cowboy hats,” Gofton said. “We rode horses in the mountains and roasted wieners. The staff took us on fishing trips and even a harrowing ride down the Colorado River. The names of Crystal River, Hanging Lake and No Name Creek were as magical as the places themselves.”

After saying goodbye to their dear friends, the nurses headed north to Wyoming and Montana. They even drove up to Alaska because it was there. Their rickety 1949 Ford broke down twice on the Alaskan Highway. Gofton and Small eventually made it back to the U.K. in September of 1959. They settled down, got married and started families.

When asked if this memoir was fun to put together, both mother and daughter responded with an enthusiastic “yes.” Fox, who herself was a journalist for the UK Telegraph for a number of years, noted that she and her four other siblings weren’t too interested in their mother’s tale when they were younger.

“A few summers ago while at home visiting my parents, mom showed me the letters she had written home during that time. I quickly realized what a great story they told,” said Fox. “I could hear my mom’s young voice talking to me through those letters.

“She was young, full of enthusiasm and slightly naïve. I loved the social observations that she and her friends made about 1950s America and Americans.

“The 1950s USA was so different from 1950s England. In particular, they found the lack of hierarchy refreshing. They were worn out with all the stuffy rules back home about who could talk to who in British hospitals; and they loved the fact that the cleaner sat down to eat with the consultant in the hospital canteen.”


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