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This article is a historical exploration of the work undertaken, by both nurses in training and qualified ward level nurses, on older adult wards of the National Health Service hospitals in England between 1955 and 1980. It focuses particularly on the personal care given to older patients, including pressure area care, the importance of meal times for the patients and the central role of the ward sister in the administration of food, and the training of the student nurses. These key practice themes will be examined in turn and related to the realities that the nurses faced in terms of the shortages of equipment, expertise, training, and also the low status accorded to the care of older people. It will be demonstrated that the care received by the elderly patients was often uncaring, routine and regimented. However, the blame for this treatment cannot be laid solely at the feet of the nurses themselves, but the system which conspired against them and their patients - a system, based on a prevailing attitude in which the older adult population was considered to be a ‘burden’, or the ‘cuckoos in the nest of the acute general hospital’ (Grimley Evans 1997, 1076). It is hoped that this article will contribute to the emerging and important area of the history of nursing work.