This week, I have been thinking rather a lot about my maternal grandmother. She lived in our family home when I was a small child and my few memories of her centre around how different she was to the other adults. This difference was the result of a massive stroke that had paralysed one side of her body and badly damaged her power of speech. The stroke had happened when I was a baby and my mum worked hard to care for her mother and her own four children. My mum fought for speech therapy and helped her mum re-learn to read. My grandmother had extremely short-sight which degenerated in her final years and she was registered blind by the time she died – when I was four. She was only sixty-seven when she died – of a heart attack in her own bed, in the back bedroom of our house.
Nearly all the family tales of this grandmother have a laugh in them – whether they are funny or not. She was a heavy smoker to the end, insisting on wedging her fag between the fingers of her paralysed hand and burning holes in the chair arms. She’d go the local paper shop, where she was well known and my mum had briefed the shopkeeper not to just hand over the cigarettes but to get her to attempt to ask for them. One of her best attempts at Players Number Six, or perhaps just cigarettes, was “blue cabbages”. She declared the weather “a bit bailey!” when it was chilly and this was thought to refer to some next-door neighbours of that name who were, indeed, somewhat frosty. There are plenty of other tales that pre-date me – the family walk across the Downs when she fell, climbing under a gate, and got her face in a cowpat or the time she set fire to the living room while my mum was lying upstairs with a new baby. There was no harm done as she, apparently, put it out and got the room re-decorated before my dad was home from work. She was a demon for ‘drawing the fire’ with a bit of paper or cardboard – something my mum taught me as a kid. The trick is to create a draught of air up against the fire but not let the flames catch the paper!
I remember my mum telling me, when I was a teenager, how, as a young woman, my grandmother had had a ‘breakdown’. I guess this was in the early 1920s. Her husband did enough to keep her out of the clutches of the hospitals, or I guess in those days, the asylum. There was even a laugh in that story too, though, as one evening she made a cup of tea for her husband (a promising sign?) but then proceeded to pour it into his ear. I wondered why she’d gone through this time and my mum explained that it was probably partly to do with her upbringing, in the care of Doctor Barnardos.
I always knew my grandmother had been “in Barnardos” but I never thought much about it. This week, I’ve been typing out a few notes that someone in the family got from Doctor Barnardos, some years ago. My mum can’t see the print very well as she’s having some post-op complications after her cataract surgery. Some of these notes have had me rather tearful, alternately wondering how people in such circumstances survived with their humanity intact and feeling so damn lucky to have been born a couple of generations later.
There is a page of facts, based on medical examination at the time of my grandmother’s admission to Barnardos, in 1909. She was admitted with two of her sisters and one of her brothers. She was the youngest, at one year and eleven months. Her mother had died when she was five months old so I guess it is a testament to the care her family managed that she was alive at all – and a fairly respectable 23lbs in weight. Her brother (aged twelve) was vermin bitten with a mouth full of rotten teeth. He was immediately separated from his sisters and soon sent to naval training school in Norfolk.
The page of report that tells the tale of their family’s descent into what is called “dire straits” makes for painful reading. My grandmother was the youngest of eight children and her father had left the navy to work as a labourer. He couldn’t get regular work and her mother earned what she could as a char. She was “never strong”, which is no surprise seeing as she bore eight children in about fifteen years on a poor diet and worked outside the home as well as in it. She died of bronchitis – leaving her husband with eight children to care for and no regular wage coming in. One of the children (a great-aunt of mine, I think) had died already, by the time he handed over the care of his youngest four to Barnardos. This part is the bit that hit me hardest,
“The father is described as a good, hardworking man, and an affectionate father, and it was only his inability to get work that induced him to part with his children.”
The choice was give up his children or watch them all suffer and, possibly, starve. The report makes it clear that they have only just been kept from starving (thanks to help from family, the former mistress of his late wife and a local coffee house keeper) and were on the point of eviction from their home. Thankfully, their father was strong enough to resist the pressure to let the charity send his children overseas and the report reads,
“As the father much objected to emigration the Canadian clause has been struck out of the agreements.”
This was probably the saving of the family, as a family, because the children were never abandoned, in spite of their admission. Their father died but the family (especially the two older sisters who hadn’t been admitted) never really let those children go. They were young (only thirteen and fifteen) when their siblings went away, but there are records, over the years, of their visits to their sisters. Some of those made me want to scream. Here’s one,
“15.12.1914 (more than five years after their admission) Sister (name) asks for a visiting order on Sunday. Informed regret unable to accede to request as visits on Sunday not allowed in accordance with rules.”
Yes, they had to get visiting orders to see their sisters and it is clear that Barnardos would only allow continuing access if they approved of the family members – and only if they played by the rules.
My grandmother spent most her time “boarded out” with foster families. The family in which she and her sisters spent their earlier years was very near here – in Lewes. From what I have read, families had to live in pretty rural areas to be deemed suitable. The mother of that family would send them to the pub to buy jugs of brandy (no doubt funded by Barnardos!) but there wasn’t much food around. The girls used to eat raw veg from gardens and allotments - carefully removing the baby white cauliflowers and re-arranging the leaves. That was another tale told with a laugh in my childhood.
It was only when reading these notes that I realised that, of course, as her sisters grew up they had to leave Barnardos and my grandmother spent nearly four years boarded out on her own. That must have been a lonely time. But she survived. She got out and lived with a sister and met her husband and raised her own children. She knew how to love those children and they loved her back – and her grandchildren when they came along. She made me the most enormous pink, furry rabbit, when she went to the daycentre. She always had Smarties in a pot in her room. She could still play hand sandwiches, even if she was a bit slow at it. She never had to go back in an institution or be a stranger in someone else’s home. She had more rough than smooth but she died where she belonged, thanks to these words on the record sheet, “Agreement, without Canada Clauses, signed by father.”