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Brackenwood Memoirs – Episode 2

Brackenwood Memoirs – Chapter 2

Note to Readers – This is the second episode of the Brackenwood Memoirs, a fictional diary of an 18-yr old starting her career as a Nurse for the ‘Mentally Handicapped’ – that was the then term for people with learning disabilities. Terminology in the story is of its time. Episode 1 can be found on this site. Feel free to comment and share. Do note – this is ficion, based on actual experiences, any resemblance to anyone living or dead is totally coincidental. This is not my autobiography but some of my experiences form part of Maddy’s story.

 Diary of Maddy Johnson (18)      August 8th

Whew! I’m obviously not very good at diary-writing – seeing as how a whole week has gone by and I haven’t managed to write another thing. In my defence (I don’t why I feel the need to defend myself, but I do!), I should say that I’ve been really busy. There has been so much to do to get ready – only 5 weeks to go now! I can hardly believe I am actually getting out of this village at last. I thought it was going to be ‘game-over’ for me when I couldn’t finish my A levels and University therefore became off the cards. Not that I wanted all that work – no way – or to be stuck in the 6th form at Mouldsworth Grammar School (even though it was co-ed in that last year – which I missed out on totally when I left to try Business Studies at Harlington FE College – what was I thinking of?!?!?)

No, I was just sad that I wasn’t going to be able to escape this little life and wriggle out of my mother’s clutches – she of the ‘I-know-what’s-good-for-you-Madeleine’ attitude! Which she so definitely doesn’t – know what’s good for me I mean. She just wants to squeeze me into her own failed ambitions, she does. I know that, because Gran told me. She wanted to be a teacher and she had to leave school early and do office work – at 14, bless her. Well, Mum, sorry, but you can’t live your life through me. I would gladly have been a teacher but it turned out I don’t like kids! Babysitting for Sarah and Bobby Benson has definitely taught me that one – even if looking after my foul little sisters and brothers hadn’t already shown me that most children are totally gross!!

So, this nursing course at Brackenwood is definitely something of a life-saver. I will be off in five weeks from now to start my new life. No stopping me! It isn’t Uni, but neither is it living here in Dullsville!!

Lots of things have happened in a few days. I got home from the interview on July 27th– more about that soon, dear Diary – and less than a week later I had the offer letter for the September intake in my hand!! A day later I got my Occupational Health Declaration which took hours to fill in – they seemed to want to know every single illness I have had since birth, which meant interrogating the Mother who was decidedly awkward about it all. That done and posted off, next letter to arrive was the offer of accommodation. I have a place in the Burwood Lodge – Female Nurses’ Home at Brackenwood, which I got to see on my visit and it looked fine to me – quite a grand building actually. Everyone has their own room and about 12 people share the toilets and bathrooms.  Can’t be any worse than here – sharing the toilet with 3 stinky brothers and two sisters – all of whom take far more hot water than they should and let the bath water out when there’s no more hot in the immersion tank, which is so annoying! And they never flush the toilet and leave their business for all to see!!

For that honour, of having my own room on site – I have to pay £11.50 per month, out of my salary – which Dad has worked out for me, will be about £100, so I will still have a fortune every month to live on. The meals in the Staff canteen are reasonable apparently or we can use the kitchen to cook for ourselves. There are ‘fridges and freezers and downstairs there is a laundry room. It will be just amazing – independence at last!

So, as belated Birthday present, Gran and Granddad have bought me a suitcase. I love it! It’s bright blue and it will fit all the clothes I’m taking. My covers and towels and other things will have to go in boxes in the car. Dad is taking me on the day – we’re going up on September 15th, which is the day before Introductory Training Block starts. That will give me time to look round the Nurses’ Home and get unpacked and sorted out. I can’t wait.

Anyway, I need to say something about the Interview Day – before I forget it all. I wrote last time about the awful Oily man in the white coat and poor Barry Battersby who was cruelly dragged off back to somewhere by Oily and his mate Baldy and an evil looking Nurse. Then I met Vera Rosthorne, who I thought was Matron or something, but turned out to be the top person in the School of Nursing. I got chapter and verse about the Hospital off her and then a lovely cup of tea from the Secretary while I was waiting. As I was drinking this tea in the School waiting area, a small group of people mostly my sort of age wandered in. It turned out that they were second-year students. One of them, a girl who looked about 19 or 20, asked me if I was there for interview.

“I am actually, yes. What’s it like here?” I didn’t mention the Barry incident to them; I wanted to hear what they had to say first.

“Not bad as far as these sorts of places go really,” answered the girl, “We’re all just going into our second year and we haven’t been scared off anyway!”

“Have you worked in a Hospital before?” this was asked by an older woman, probably around 40. “Because it can be something of a shock to the system if you haven’t. You will get used to it though, but you need to prepare yourself.” She looked at me sympathetically. I didn’t find it reassuring actually – instead it got me worried about what I might be letting myself in for. The first girl obviously noticed my discomfort and chipped in.

“Carol, you’re getting her worried now!”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to make you anxious. It’s just – well, if you haven’t been inside a long-stay hospital, where there are so many people who are very highly dependent and severely handicapped…Well, it can be disturbing. But, we all look out for one another, don’t we? And you’ll be fine. The residents are nearly all absolutely brilliant.”

There were lots of nods and affirming noises from the others at this and to be honest, everyone in the group did look friendly so I started to relax more. I wanted to ask lots of questions, but at this point, a very tall bloke with the freckliest face I have ever seen in my entire life approached us, asking for Miss Madeleine Johnson and I had to say my goodbyes as I was to be taken off on a tour of the Hospital before my interview.

“Good luck!” said Carol, as I stood to go, “We’ll look out for you next intake; you’ll enjoy it, honestly”

As we left the School, the bloke introduced himself properly as Mr Adswood, a Nursing Tutor. “I hope they weren’t telling you scary stories”

“Not at all. They were actually saying that it was a friendly place – but that it can be overwhelming if you haven’t been in a Hospital like this before.”

“That’s very fair,” he answered, guiding me along a covered outdoor-corridor that seemed to join up dozens of buildings. “I gather you don’t have any hospital experience. You will probably find it very different than anywhere you’ve ever been before. Brackenwood was originally built as an asylum, one of several developed in Lancashire back them to house, what were then termed, Mental Defectives. They had started to build asylums like these in the 1800s and they very quickly started to overflow, so more had to be built. Before it was able to open, however, the Great War broke out and it was used as a Military Hospital, particularly for those recovering from more severe head injuries. There used to be a railway station in the middle of the grounds – right where the Patient’s Social Club is now. There would have been around 60,000 soldiers here at one point. In fact, many patients with severe shell-shock remain here to this day – having been unable to return to everyday life and play a full part. Following the war, it opened formally as a County Asylum in July 1920. It was actually designed by Henry Littler, who designed most of the northern asylums. It’s what is called a Dual Pavilion style. These buildings we’re seeing now,” he pointed to the left with his arm, “are the original Asylum buildings. Pavilions linked by these external corridors. Designed as two wards per building, one on the ground and one above, they were intended to accommodate around 40 patients but very soon would house up to 60.”

I could hardly take this in. I mean, I could see it was a huge place, but 60,000! My mind was racing – were there that many people still here? Were they all mentally handicapped? I couldn’t get my head round this at all. Mr Adswood could see my confusion; he smiled.

“You might have heard of the Mental Deficiency Act?”

Yes, I thought that was what Brian had talked about when he was explaining about Mental Handicap Hospitals. “Was that 1913? Someone told me that because of it lots of people were locked up in hospitals because they couldn’t be looked after by their families any longer.”

“That’s about right. There were already Lunatic Asylums in existence – places liked the Bethlem and Maudsley in London. As well as Workhouses, many of them built in Victorian times. But as towns became more industrialised and more people were going out of the home to work, there were those who were unable to be cared for. So these Institutions were built and the 1913 Act was the legislative framework for those who needed care or who might be at risk of harm or may be at risk of harming others. Sadly and horrifyingly these days, the legislation also meant that women who had babies outside marriage and had no financial support could be labelled as ‘moral defectives’ and they could be confined in these places – along with their children in many cases. Some of those families remain are still living here now, as patients. Those huge numbers in the war were highly unusual – every bit of space was needed for recovering soldiers. Once it became an asylum, numbers settled down. In the sixties, at its fullest, there were 2,400 patients – residents is the term we now use. Nowadays, there are approximately 1,800 and that number will continue to fall, as admissions are decreasing and resettlement into the community starts to grow. There’s been a new piece of legislation in recent years that has been really important with regards to institutions and how we care for people – the 1959 Mental Health Act, which basically decrees that no one can be forcibly locked what for the simple reason of being mentally handicapped. But you’ll learn all about that when you start training.”

I looked around me. I could see a group of four or five women coming towards me on the corridor. It was difficult to tell their ages, but I reckon they ranged between 30 and 70. Two nurses were with them, wearing the same blue uniform I had seen on the harridan earlier on. I braced myself, wondering how these two would speak to their charges. One of the women was having difficulty walking; she looked to be the eldest in the group. Her grey hair was curly and looked freshly done and she was wearing a pale-blue floral patterned dress, buttoned up the front. All looked well except she had white pumps on her feet with knee-length socks. Apart from that odd garb, she could have been anyone’s grandmother.

“Florrie, what’s the matter with your foot, eh beautiful?” one of the nurses asked her. She spoke with a continental accent – possibly Spanish, I thought. She was tiny but rotund, olive-skinned with thick, black hair scraped into a bun at the back of her head.

“It’s me toes, Nurse Crotchetta” I think that’s what she called her, anyway! “I need to go to the Foot Clinic.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow. I take you. Poor darling. Come on, you take my arm. I help you” She turned to her colleague, who was darker skinned, possibly Indian, I thought. “Jan, can you get Vi please?” nodding to one of the ladies in the group” – she be off if we not careful!” For some reason, she started to laugh loudly and the other woman took the arm of the woman who was obviously Vi and chivvied her along, singing to her.

There was much about this scene that was strange. Grown women in socks and pumps. One of them had a long grey pony tail and was carrying a teddy-bear which she was chattering away to and occasionally hitting. Another apparently blind, her blank eyes rolling upwards in her head, that she slowly shook from side to side, as if listening to the air for clues – she was clinging on to one of the nurses, and humming a tune as she shuffled along. She was wearing a dress that was just a little too bright to be right for the day and it hung way below her knees. The final one looked to be the youngest. She had incredibly rosy cheeks and had the roundest eyes – like saucers. Her blond hair was in pigtails with huge yellow ribbons. Again, the whole ensemble was just not quite right – just a little odd.

But there was also much about the scene that cheered me. The nurses had both spoken kindly to the women; they were clearly looking after them; protecting them. What a difference to Oily and Baldy! Maybe it was a female thing?

Mr Adswood turned us into one of the pavilion buildings at this point, as the group of women passed us; the nurses greeting us as they did. He stopped at the doorway – before a huge wooden panelled door.

“So this corridor links all the wards on South Avenue. It used to be called the Female Corridor, for obvious reasons”. I obviously looked quizzical so he went on to explain. “After the Asylum was completed it operated almost as two separate institutions under the direction of a Medical Director. This was the Female side and on the other side of the asylum was the Male side – now the North Avenue. This side was supervised by the Matron and the Male side by the Chief Male Nurse. And that’s how it was until just a few years ago. Gradually, we’re mixing that up, as you will see. However, there are no barriers to men and women mixing socially now at all. Quite a change actually.”

Again, something to blow my mind. Men and women not allowed to mix with one another! He also told me that there was a wall right down the middle of the hospital to prevent mixing. In the sixties they started to have dances in the Ballroom, which I learned was in the central buildings between these corridors – and the men and women were brought from their respective wards and ‘permitted’ to dance with each other, under the strict supervision of the nursing staff. Then at the end of the night – at the late hour of 6.30pm, they were all escorted back to their wards. Torture! What a way to treat human beings!

“Ah, yes, but they were terrified of ‘unfortunate breeding accidents’, you see. One of the reasons people with disabilities were locked away, if we’re honest, was because society was afraid of what might happen if they had children. What would they look like? Could these ‘defects’ be passed on through the generations? There was also this deep-rooted belief that people such as these had no moral compass – that they would ‘mate’ with anyone. So much ignorance.” He looked very sad and I decided there and then that I liked him.

Behind the door we had stopped at was Ward 8, North Ave. “It used to be C block at one time,” the Sister told me. I was amazed she was in charge – she couldn’t have been more than 30, and she wasn’t wearing a uniform, but then, I noticed, neither were several of the other staff on the ward. What had I expected? Rows of beds? With people like Barry Battersby tied to them? What I found was completely different. I’ll describe it in as much detail as I can.

There was a wide corridor behind the door that seemed to go a long way back, but there were glass doors about halfway along labelled “9, North Avenue”, so this ground floor obviously housed 2 wards. On the right hand side of the corridor at our end was a glass and wood panelled door which led into a wide, spacious, high-ceilinged room – windows on both sides making it light and airy and rather pleasant. The floor was carpeted, in swirly golds and ambers, and the walls were papered in soft yellows and apricots. Large reclining chairs were set in groups of threes and fours on each side of the room, with small coffee tables between them. I think I counted 16 chairs in all. On most of them was sitting a woman. Again, there was a whole range of ages. Some, I would guess, were in their seventies, possibly one or two older than that. But at least three of them looked to be very young – one must surely have been a teenage and the other two could not have been more than 25. Each of them had limbs that were twisted or contracted in some way, and most looked as if they were unable to move very much. One or two appeared to be moving in a jolting, uncontrolled way and one seemed to be sliding down out of her chair.

“Goodness me, Sandra Bailey! Are you going dancing?” the ward sister, who I had been introduced to me as Barbara Hattersly, scoped this tiny frame from  the bottom of the chair, just before she reached the carpet and lifted her deftly into a more comfortable and much safer position, propped up by cushions. She laughed and chatted to Sandra as she did so, who clearly was responding to her in her own unique way.

I found myself very touched by what I was seeing. I was confounded as to how it had come to be that so many people with disabilities had been herded together in this place, yet the care I could see being given was gentle and humane. It made me feel somewhat uncomfortable that they were all here – together – in this strange place, yet I found myself wanting to take part in it. Perhaps it wasn’t right that these places had come to be – but they were here and the people living here – residents I learned they were each to be called – had a right to decent care given to afford dignity. I was witnessing this now and I realised I could do this work.

Barbara Hattersley told me all about 8, North Ave. Up until two years ago, 8 and 9 had been one ward – like many of the others in the pavilions. They had all been split into two on each floor now. 8, North Ave was home to sixteen women between the age of 18 and 74. “Sandra is one of the youngest at 21, aren’t you, darling?” I learned that Gracie, a white-haired lady in another group of chairs was the eldest and had lived at Brackenwood since 1947, just after the War. She had come from another institution before that – having been put into care when she was a small child. “Every one of our residents has some degree of cerebral palsy as well as mental handicap. This is a High Dependency/ Physical Handicap ward. That’s how the wards are classified – High and Low Dependency, which depends on how much care they need. Then there’s Children, Adolescents, Geriatrics, Severe Behaviours, Psychiatric.  As a student nurse, you’ll need to do all the different categories for your practice before you qualify. And of course, the Day and Training Centres.”

I found myself looking forward to working on her ward. I couldn’t say the same for the next stop on our tour though – 15, South Ave – however! It was like walking into a madhouse! Oh dear, maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it was just so noisy! And no sense of order at all. Mr Adswood led the way and we walked through the main door onto a corridor again, but this time as the door opened to the right of us, we were met by what seemed to be pandemonium. Around 20 or so youngish men were clamouring around a tea-trolley from which two male nurses, both in white coats again, were serving cups of tea. The tea being poured from the pot appeared to have milk in it already and the residents were trying to grab the teas as fast as they were pouring it. The male staff looked to be not much older than me and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. They were clearly harassed and out of their depth. Mr Adswood looked as if he very much regretted bringing me onto the ward, but then we all heard a loud, clear voice above the cacophony.

“Gentlemen, if you please!!” A very dark-skinned man appeared from an office at the end of the ward – he was tall and imposing (and very good looking, I must add!!) “This is not acceptable behaviour, is it? Where are your manners? Let’s form an orderly queue, if you please” And he moved quietly and authoritatively towards the group who were desperately trying to get their tea. As one, they appeared to dissolve and reshape into something almost like a queue, although with lots of murmuring and shuffling. The tall man gave a few more directions to the young, white-coated men and then turned, with a huge smile towards us.

“Visitors? Lovely to meet you. I’m Charge Nurse Mike Abubakar – yes, I know that’s a mouthful,” he grinned, “it’s Nigerian. So, you’re wanting to be a Student Nurse, eh? Good for you! I trained here too and qualified in 1970 and rose to the rank of Charge Nurse very quickly. This ward is home to 30 male residents – all of whom range between 22 and 85. They’re all severely mentally handicapped – but they can do a lot for themselves – most can dress and feed themselves – they can go to the toilet, although there are a lot of accidents.” I saw that his gaze went over to a male nurse helping a shuffling elderly man towards one of the doors in the ward and I noticed the man’s trousers were clearly urine-stained. I felt embarrassed for the man. Mike Abubakar shrugged. “Sometimes we can prevent the accidents with reminders and persuasion. But not every time sadly.”

He went on to tell me more about the ward; how it was classed as Low Dependency and was a training ward, so I was likely to be allocated there at some point. “We see little violence, towards staff anyway. Although the boys have lots of scuffles between them.” He nodded towards a man who looked to be in this forties, sitting rocking, making a strange growling noises and biting his own hand. I winced at the savagery of his biting – the flesh was scarred badly; it was clearly something he did frequently. “Kevin takes out his frustration on himself. A lot of them do. If he can’t communicate something or he’s thwarted in some way – like now, having to wait for this tea – he’ll retreat to hand-biting.” He went over to where Kevin was rocking. “Kevin, come on now,” he spoke to the rocking, biting man, “Stop that, eh? Let’s get some tea, shall we?” And he leaned into Kevin, taking his arm and began to guide him towards the trolley. Kevin allowed himself to be guided, “Tea, tea”, he was chanting. I couldn’t help note that his mouth looked so dry – scabbed and flaky. He was obviously really thirsty – no wonder he was desperate for this tea.

Back out on the link corridor, Mr Adswood explained more. “The young man we saw who was biting his hand – you may have noticed the dryness of his mouth? Side effects of drugs, I’m afraid. He’ll likely be on major tranquillisers – like Largactil – and anticonvulsants for his epilepsy – they do cause chronic dry mouth problems, among other things.”

I was thinking about the smell of the place. There had been the aroma of cleaning fluids permeating the air, but that was obviously fighting to cover other odours – urine I suspected, if there were regular ‘accidents’. There were other smells combining to make this distinctive ‘fragrance’ though – male sweat, cooked vegetables, something greasy too that I couldn’t identify. I was trying to explain to Mr Adswood.

“It’s the unique scent of institutions, I’m afraid. Of many bodies living together in one place. The traces of excrement and secretions of every kind mingled with soaps, laundry detergents, food of various kind and the lotions and potions that are used to soothe and heal.” He inhaled the fresh air of the corridor. “You don’t think you’ll ever get used to it, but you will. It’s more noticeable on some wards than others, but it’s always there – even if very faint in some places. It will cling to your clothes when you go home. But you’ll stop smelling it eventually; you’ll become accustomed.” He sighed. “What is important though – is to make sure you don’t become so accustomed to what you see, that you stop noticing that it’s not right.”

He was quiet for a while and then asked me, “Did you notice that many of our nursing staff here are from overseas?” I had indeed noticed, I agreed.

“When asylums opened it was very difficult to recruit staff to them. Most institutions had to turn to other countries – most notably other parts of Europe and the Commonwealth – to ensure they were properly staffed. In this hospital, over half of the nursing staff and almost two-thirds of the ancillary staff, such as porters, cleaners and catering staff are from countries outside the UK. We owe our staff from overseas a great deal – we wouldn’t be able to run the hospital without them.”

We had no more time to see other wards as he realised then we needed to get back to the School for the Interview. “That is, if you’re still keen to enter Mental Handicap Nursing. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, I expect you’re coming to see that?”

“I’m not put off,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here and frankly, I was appalled by the staff who were so horrible to poor old Barry. He’s an old man, just being friendly to a visitor! No one has the right to treat another human being like that. I intended to go straight home, but hearing what Miss Rosthorne had to say and then seeing those wards and the staff there…well, I still don’t think it’s right that these places exist. Why put everyone in here all together? But the staff I’ve met look like they care. I think I can work here. I care about people and I especially care about them being looked after well. I want to do my training and make a difference.”

It wasn’t really like me to make such speeches. I didn’t even know I had it in me! Anyway, I must have said something he liked because he nodded in a meaningful way and said “Right then, we’d better get back to the School and see if we get your career started, shall we?”

Goodness me, it’s one o’clock in the morning! I’ll finish the bit about my actual interview next time I do my diary (I can’t say tomorrow, because I’m useless at picking this up every day, as I’ve shown already!!)

Just a few weeks though and I’ll be there – starting my new life at Brackenwood as a Student Nurse!! Whoop, whoop!!

The Brackenwood Memoirs – Episode 1

Note to Reader – This is the first episode of what is to be a series of writing forming the fictional account of a young woman training to be a Nurse at a Hospital for People with a Mental Handicap, in the mid-seventies. Such places, thankfully, no longer exist. There were many around then. Institutions where those society didn’t know how to cope with were locked away from the world. I know, because I trained in one. The story is based on my own experiences, but is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any place, person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Madeleine Johnson is not me – this is not my autobiography – but her story resonates with mine and we share some experiences. Please note, the language in the story, is the language of the time – 1975. It was a time for change in the Disability field and heralded massive transformation of service delivery. Nowadays, most disabled people live in the local community – quite rightly. We accept that all humans have equal value and should be afforded dignity and respect. This was not the case then! Madeleine’s story tells some of this and is also about her, as a young woman, away from home for the first time, and how she grows and changes – her relationships and the way she navigates a sometimes complex life.

August 2nd 1975

Journal entries of Madeline Johnson (an 18-yr old, about to begin her Nursing Career)

Hoorah! I finally got my confirmation letter today! Whew, despite being right on the last second – thanks to Mum dallying over sorting out my paperwork (what kind of mother loses her favourite child’s birth certificate?) – they are letting me start on the next intake. September 16th – I am out of here and beginning my new life!

Sorry, I should start from the beginning as this will not make sense to anyone reading this in later years But who will read this in later years, Maddy asks herself? Oh, who knows but Pepys got heaps and thousands of people reading his diary and, to be frank, they were really pretty boring – apart from the bits about the plague and the fire that is.

So, I had better start again and be clear for the benefit of my future readers. Hee hee!!

Here beginneth the Diary of Madeleine Johnson, soon to be Student Nurse at Brackenwood Hospital for the Mentally Subnormal!!

My name is Maddy Johnson and I am just 18 years old and have literally – this very morning – been given the wonderful, liberating news that I am about to embark on my REAL LIFE!! For months – at least over a year – I have been living a shadow of a life. Not knowing what direction I should be taking or where I would end up.

I scraped thought my O levels, thanks to a disastrous break-up with an absolute plonker of a boyfriend, Jason Minshull, who thought he was God’s gift to the universe (and let me tell you, he truly was not!!) and was stressing out completely over my As in the first year. It was such hard work, although I loved English – French and History were killing me! I was desperate to become a Social Worker, having gone right off the idea of teaching when it struck me that I actually didn’t like children all that much, which I suppose, as I would have had to have spent all day with the miserable wretches, is something of a drawback. (Although loads of my teachers at Harden Hall Grammar clearly despise teenagers – especially greasy, grumpy Mr Hunter and the vile, ugly and odorous Miss Brownlow!!).

But A levels were proving to be a pain in the neck and were literally stopping me reaching my goals. I want to put the world to rights – because frankly it is in a terrible mess and I kn ow I have so much to offer it. I can stand up for the underdog – I know injustice when I see it – and I intend to fight the good fight for those who can’t fight themselves. I was in despair at the thought of going back to do another year of studying with dreary old Miss Rathbone – who makes History sound so DIRE!! And whimsical Monsier Bertillon endeavouring to impart his superior knowledge of French literature to us – looking down his nose at us constantly (What is it with the French that makes them so arrogant? It’s not like they have that much going for them – apart from wine, cheese and sunshine, is it? Oh yes and fit French boys, I suppose)

Anyway, in the depths of my despair, after dropping out of 6th form and trying 2 courses at College, both of which were absolute rubbish, came a voice speaking – as if from on high! Actually it was in the Watering Hole, our local pub. Brian Kirkby, he of the Sunshine Centre for Mentally Handicapped Young People, suggested that I might be good at Nursing the Mentally Handicapped. Well, I’d never heard such of such a career and of course mummy dearest was sceptical about it. I mean, what would a professional like Brian Kirkby know that my mum hadn’t previously had knowledge of? She of the superior wisdom of the whole world (in her opinion and hers alone!)

But it turned out to be absolutely spot on. You can indeed do a Nursing Course and train to become a Registered Nurse for the Mentally Subnormal. A gross title! But Brian reckons that some new laws are being passed soon that will change the title. He recommended two places I could apply for and off I went. Within a few days I was offered an interview at Brackenwood – a huge institution close to an obscure (but actually very pretty) village in Lancashire called Tarpley. Turns out that a bus runs there three times a day from Manchester city centre. I trundled off there – all my little own-some, like a regular grown-up person. Nearly didn’t make it though, as I set from the village on the wrong road, but anyway, to cut a long, but rather brilliant though I say so myself, story short – I got there in one piece with ten minutes to spare before my interview time.

When I say huge I do mean HUGE!! It’s in these amazing grounds, which are like forests of trees and rhodedendrum bushes – the drive is a good 10-minute walk from the gates. And that opens out to these lawns and flower-beds. All very beautifully manicured in matching colours. I had to put my bag down and just stop and take it all in. Because it was nothing like any hospital I had ever seen before. It was more like a stately home or grand county council offices or something. These flower beds and lawns formed a sort of central island round which there were red-brick buildings. The main ones were incredibly grand. That must be where the top brass are, I thought. There was this fancy clock tower rising from it and the time displayed there declared that I had two minutes to leg it to the School of Nursing, which, according to my letter, was on the far side of these central gardens.

There were paths dissecting the gardens, with green-painted seats placed at intervals, so I hurriedly made my way across the one that led across the middle. As I set off, it was with much relief that I noticed the sign for the School so I knew I was almost there. I then noticed an elderly man, limping along the path to my left, coming towards where it would meet mine in the centre – his tongue lolling from his mouth, saliva drooling down his chin, he looked pretty determined to reach me. Shame on me, I felt myself break into a trot, but I gave him what I thought was a kind smile.

“Good morning!” he called to me. Well, I could hardly just bolt off now, could I? So I returned the greeting and slowed a little. Next thing I know, a bellowing voice rang out across these gardens.

“Barry Battersby, you get back here now, you f******g toad! You’re meant to have taken the slops, you lazy good for nothing b******d!”

Charming, I thought! I looked and saw a much younger man, couldn’t have been more than twenty, running towards this old man. When I say old, he could actually have been anything between 40 and 60, it was really hard to tell. His clothes were really old-fashioned. It was weird; he was wearing a suit but with a pullover under the jacket and a shirt, even though it was a really hot day – and the collar was really frayed. Plus there was food all down his front – porridge or something, I think. And the suit was made from that cheap material that my mum likes making dresses from – crimplene – really nasty stuff.

Anyway, this foul-mouthed chap doing the shouting was wearing a white coat and he obviously had Brylcremed his thick black hair – it was gross! I hate oily hair – and it matched his oily voice when he spoke to me – in a VERY different voice to the one he had used on the old gentleman.

“Sorry, miss, he shouldn’t be out. I won’t let him bother you any more” Yuk, this white-coated fool was leering at me! Made me feel totally creeped out.

“What’s a beautiful young lady like yourself doing in a loony bin like this then?” What a sleazy chat-up line!

Before I could answer, the old fellow, who was right next to me now, touched my hair and started to say something. He was holding on to my arm – he wasn’t hurting me – he just seemed to need to steady himself. It was apparently difficult for him to speak, as he seemed to be making excess saliva and his tongue was acting like a barrier to him forming words properly, but I did just about understand him.

 “I like your curly hair”, and he smiled, slurping up as much saliva as he could and wiping the rest that was dripping down his chin on to his pullover, with his suit sleeve.

I couldn’t quite take in what happened next. White-coat man (was he a doctor?) grabbed both his arms and hoisted him backwards, so that his feet came off the ground.

“Get your filthy hands off that nice lady, you scum-bag idiot!” He was red in the face and really angry, but he still managed to leer in my direction.

“Get off me, Sh***face!” yelled the poor man as he wriggled to try and get free, with his feet dangling off the ground. Before I knew what was happening, another white coat with a bald head and fat as Billy Bunter had arrived along with a ferocious looking red-haired woman in a blue nurse’s uniform.

“Get him back to the ward, now! You’re in the slammer, you are Barry – that was your final warning!” This was the woman barking at him now. She looked me up and down, like something the cat had brought in and declared, “You have to be careful striking up conversations with patients, you know. You shouldn’t be encouraging them.” Then she marched off with the bald-white coat half-dragging poor old Barry along, yelling “All f****g staff are sh**faces!”

To be perfectly honest, I had to agree with Barry – they certainly weren’t behaving very nicely.

Brylcreme loitered – he was still leering at me, “Can I help you find your way, love?”

Yeah right, like I’d trust you with directions, you snake, I thought to myself. But as I was unclear who or what he was, held my tongue and just said, “No thanks, I know exactly where I’m going” and with as much dignity as I could muster, I turned on my heel and walked the rest of the short distance to the School. Thankfully, there were no further incidents on route.

I was met at the door of the School by a tall, anxious-looking grey-haired woman, wearing a lilac-plaid skirt with a cream cashmere looking sweater (This is in July, for goodness sake!) – “Miss Johnson? I was just coming to fetch you. I saw what happened there in the gardens. So very sorry. That sort of thing happens rarely, I can assure you. Most distressing for you.”

I decided there and then that I had no intention of staying in a place where human beings were treated so dreadfully. Spoken to as if they were badly-behaved dogs and dragged off like criminals. And where staff made lecherous comments to young women they didn’t even know. I was about to make this little speech – well, actually, I wasn’t but I was thinking it in my head – and would probably have simply said, “Really sorry, I’ve changed my mind, this place isn’t for me”. I was thinking that Grandad Taylor was right – he’d told me when I said I was applying for Brackenwood that “no-one knows what goes on beyond those walls. Folk aren’t put in those place without good reason”. He was afraid for me – that I’d be attacked – but I realised that morning, it wasn’t the patients I needed to be afraid of – it was the staff! I’d seen three already that personally I wanted to biff on the nose and lock up! The patient I had met had seemed absolutely charming – just a little mucky and not very well turned-out.

Anyway, as I’m churning all this in my mind – and believe me, I’m really shaken by all that’s gone on – this woman said something that stopped me from leaving and set my course for the future.

“I can see you’re quite disturbed by that incident. It’s exactly the sort of thing that we’re trying desperately to stamp out. Sadly, it’s become the culture of institutions. It’s why we need to train people – like yourself – in new ways. Ways that respect the humanity of all – that afford dignity and value to the people who have found themselves incarcerated in these places.”

What!? Was this the boss, I wondered? And was she actually slagging off her own hospital? I hardly noticed, but she had me gently by the arm by now and was steering me up a stone staircase and we emerged onto a wide carpeted corridor – lined with windows along one side and doors along the left-hand side. She opened the first door – couldn’t help but note that it was incredibly wide and it opened outwards on to the corridor – which led into a comfortable looking office; clearly hers, because she went behind the desk and motioned me to sit in an easy chair opposite. She pushed a button on an intercom.

“Sally, could you make some tea, please? Miss Madeleine Johnson is here for interview and she’s had an awful shock”. I heard this Sally say okay then and then this anxious looking lady turned back to me. “I’m Vera Rosthorne – Principal Nursing Tutor. I wrote to you. I saw what happened”’, her office overlooked the gardens. “Most distressing”, she repeated, “Miss Johnson, this is an institution that has been overlooked by time and society. They put away the unfortunates; those who cannot cope with life and those whose life cannot be coped with; the ones whose behaviour shocks and frightens; those who are unable to care for themselves and frankly, embarrass and scare us. Then it conveniently forgets all about them. It’s a disgrace and you may be asking yourself, why would I come here? Why train anyone to work in such a place? Because, Miss Johnson, these places must not be allowed to go on as they are. The ways they have fallen into must be challenged. They must be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the 20th century. They must be made to accept that the people who live here are not sick; neither are they mad or dangerous. They are people in need of care and support; of rehabilitation and loving attention.”

At which point Sally comes in with the tea. I feel like I’ve walked into a TV drama! This is all beyond me. Does she think she’s recruiting Wonder Woman? What can I do? I’m still thinking at this point that I have to get the hell out of here as soon as I can politely escape, get myself home and forget about it. Then, I remember Mum will be there with all the “I told you so” smugness that she can sum up and Grandad will knowingly nod and I’ll be back doing a repeat year of A levels, because I’ve already ditched them, in the hope of finding something better.

Then I remember something else. Something Brian Kirkby told me. “Places like Brackenhall were built in the last century – mostly as workhouses and lunatic asylums or ‘hospitals for mental defectives’”, he held his hand up as I looked horrified at his language. What had this got to do with the fabulous young people who had severe handicaps, lived at home with their parents, and came along to the Youth Club I volunteered at each week? They weren’t ‘defective’! What a horrid word! And they weren’t lunatics either.

“That sort of language was once legal speak,” he told me, “There was the Lunacy Act – then the Mental Deficiency Act – 1913, I think that one was – and in those Acts, by law, people who we now refer to as having a Mental Handicap were called Idiots, Imbeciles and Feeble-minded. Some were called Moral Defectives. It sounds dreadful to us now, but that’s because those terms have been hijacked and are used as words of insult that we hurl at people to make people feel bad. Nowadays the term Mental Subnormality is the legal phrase, but that will soon change, I hear. Mental Handicap will be the modern term. These places owe a lot to the Industrial Revolution. Up till then, if any member of your family needed looking after, if they were disabled in any way, they were cared for in the home; because people worked there and they could be kept an eye on. They were part of society and many worked – did jobs to help out in the community – running errands and so on. But when machinery like looms came along and factories were built – everything became centralised – people had to go out of the home to work. Who was there to care for those who couldn’t take care of themselves? The ‘economically unproductives’? So they built places where they could be gathered together to be cared for enmasse. They probably started with very good intentions. Some had their own farms and were self-sufficient. The ‘inmates’ were well cared for. But, segregation and congregation doesn’t work for people in the long run. Institutions of any type breed a peculiar way of being. The staff can be corrupted and start to behave more like jailers than care givers. There will be good nurses, but for many it becomes a power trip. They start to enjoy belittling those who can’t fight back.”

What he told me then was more or less being repeated now by Vera Rosthorne, who was explaining the history and telling me all about the “new philosophy” of Brackenhall – launched and presided over by the Divisional Nursing Officer – who she clearly revered – Robert Atkinson.

“He is making it his life-work to close this place down” she proudly stated. So where would that leave me? I was coming here for my career – how long would I have a job for?

“Oh, don’t look so alarmed, Miss Johnson”, she must have seen my perplexed face, “Student nurses, training in new methods, with new teaching behind them, are all part of the way changes will come about. This a mission that will take many years. But you are coming into Nursing at the right time. This is an exciting point of the Brackenhall development! Mr Atkinson is ahead of his time. He’s acclaimed by those in the field – he’s written papers about it. He fervently believes in Normalization and in Community Care for all – no matter the level of handicap. The practices you saw played out toward that gentlemen, dear gentle Barry, will be stamped out. We’ll show people, through education, that there is a more humane way to treat people and then they will respond in turn and grow to their full potential!”

The good lady’s eyes were shining as she spoke. I had to give it to her. She’d sold the place to me. I wanted to show the oily-haired twit and his bald-headed fat friend, along with the redheaded harridan, that you can’t go treating people as if they don’t count. Barry has a soul and he matters! I would come here, train as a Nurse, in these new ways she was on about and I would fight for Barry and see he got a better life! I would come here and show kindness and respect to Barry and all his mates.

Well, it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and I can see Nessie stirring – any minute now she is going to start whining that I’ve still got my light on and she’ll wake Mum, who will come in and rant and then the whole flaming house will be up – even though it’s only a tiny lamp – Vanessa can’t bear for me to be awake when she’s asleep or doing anything she can’t do. So I had better put this diary away and shut off the light. More tomorrow when I will write about everything that happened on the day of the Interview – because, honestly there is so much more to say! For now, I am signing off – but want to say – one more time, because I want to absorb this wonderful news – I am leaving home! I am off to be a Nurse!! Yahoo!!

Hiding Our Embarassments

I trained as a Learning Disability Nurse in the mid-seventies at a place called Calderstones, in Lancashire. It was one of the largest institutions of its type and at one time over two thousand people with severe learning and physical disabilies, many of whom had mental illnesses, lived there in wards of up to 70.

It was a dreadful place. I can say that now and I shudder because I know it to be true. Human beings segregated from society and congregated together miles from anywhere – treated as less than human. Even the original title of our nursing course – Registered Nurse for the Mentally Subnormal – spoke of how our society thought of the people who were unfortunate enough to be sent there. I remember walking up the leafy drive – it was beautiful, lined with rhodedendrum shrobs, horse chestnut trees, elms and oaks. It seemed to go on for ever. Then it opened out to green manicured lawns, framed and centred with brightly coloured flower beds. Beautifully splendid redbrick buildings with a magnificent clock tower taking pride of place above the largest of them, faced these gardens on three sides. A few wooden seats were neatly placed around the lawns; but no one was sitting on them. I found out later that they were only used by staff occasionally and were largely for visitors who came rarely.

It looked grand and austere. Certainly it was like nothing I had ever come across before as an 18 year-old from Bredbury in Stockport. I was here for an interview to be a Nurse. It was a course I had chosen because I wanted a career, but was too lazy (and hadn’t got the grades anyway) to go to University and I wanted to earn some money while I trained. Nursing seemed a good option, but I didn’t much like blood and hated it when people were ill! I’d tried doing Business Studies at College, but was bored to death, then a bloke at the “Mentally Handicapped Youth Club” (awful name!) where I volunteered, told me about this kind of nursing. So here I was. Not only could I get qualified but I could also leave home and be free from the constraints of parental interference!

My parents were delighted that I was finally getting myself on a career path. The only warning note was sounded from my grandfather, who had visited St Thomas’ Mental Institution in Stockport one time, and urged me to think again – “You’ve no idea what lies behind those walls. Folk don’t get put away without good reason”. He was right – nothing could have prepared me for what I saw behind those walls indeed – some of it was terrifying; most of it was just incredibly sad. He was very wrong about one thing though – folk were “put away” for the flimsiest of reasons. I do believe that no one should ever have been “put away” in those places. It is a terrible indictment on our society that we ever thought it was a good idea to build a place to house the defenceless and the helpless and leave them to the mercy of the unscupulous and merciless.

Do I sound harsh? Yes, I know I do and you’re probably wondering why on earth I stayed if it was so awful. Well, if I am honest, I needed a career – and there seemed to be something of a drive to improve things and find a better way of caring. I saw that on my visit and I heard it at my interview with a fabulous man – Tom McLean – who was then Divisional Nursing Officer. Basically, he was saying that such places needed to be emptied and the people residing there should be living in the community. Well, I didn’t know what to make of that. I had walked round and seen people in the most awful of conditions. They seemed far more disabled than anyone I had met in my brief experience. What I also saw though, which really made me take note, were people there who really did seem to care. I saw nurses who looked like they enjoyed being there, looking after very disabled people and were showing enourmous compassion for them. It hit me that I was incredibly lucky and I felt a strange desire to be in that place doing something that was worthy. I knew I couldn’t simply walk away; I wanted to work there and do some good. I’d never before felt anything like it. I got through the interview and started training 3 months later.

I did see things in that place over the years, however, that horrified me, made me cry, confused me and enraged me – at different times. I saw kindness and I saw cruelty. I saw individualised care and I saw inhumane, institutionalised treatment. Thankfully, the place is closed now (some of it repurposed) and the former residents have largely been resettled to community group homes. I met some incredible people there, made great friends and there were more good nurses than bad. Though I do have to say that a bad nurse could make a horrible difference. I had a good career there and beyond, rising through the ranks to become a Senior Nursing Manager and going on to work in Teaching and then Service Development later.

Why I’m remembering this now is all to do with a book I read recently – “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” by Maggie O’Farrell. It’s the story of Iris Lockhart, a young woman who finds out she has a great-aunt who has been in a psychiatric unit for over 60 years and is about to be released. It’s also the story of the great-aunt, Esme – who was outspoken and unconventional and a source of great embarassment to her well-to-do family, who lived in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Something had to be done. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. Iris has a wonderful story of her own, making sense of her relationships with her step-brother and mother. Coming to know Esme is both beautiful and perplexing. Do look it up.

Esme was hidden away. Could that happen really? Oh, yes, believe me it did! I could tell you of Beattie – locked away for “wandering abroad with no visible means of support” (found on the streets begging!). Or Mary – who was incarcerated for “low morals” – working as a prostitute on Liverpool Docks. Or Sally who was raped as a young girl when she was in service and had a baby by the house owner and was sent away, never to set eyes on the child. Or Marion – “a gregarious, low-grade imbecilic Cretin” whose parents couldn’t cope when they needed to work. When I met Marion, she was in her 80s, had ginger whispy hair and was usually cheerful and loved the nursing staff. “What do you want for Christmas?” I asked her once. “My liberty!”, she answered and then she was crying. A woman the same age as my gran, who was back home right then baking Christmas cakes and ruling the family, sat crying for her freedom. Heartbreaking.

I am most proud of the fact that I was part of the movement to close down those awful places and resettle residents into their own homes. I am also proud that I spent most of my career working to make services better. Striving for personalised care – when it should always have been a right. So O’Farrell’s book resonated with me considerably. I had known so many women just like Esme – the only difference being that the women I met had been declared “Mentally Defective” (yes, that used to be a legal term!).

What must it be like to find yourself in such a place? When you really just wanted to be heard. You were different to other people – you knew that – considered “odd”. But could that really be a reason to be sent away and locked up for your whole life? We’ve moaned in these Corona-driven-locked-up-days of having our freedoms curtailed, but to be prevented from even leaving the building; having all our rights and liberties taken away; reduced to being a lesser being – could we bear that? And worse…?

” There is a smell of disinfectant and floor polish and the person in the bed in the corner mutters all night long. A light in the ceiling flickers and buzzes. Esme cries. She struggles against the belts, tightly buckled, tries to wriggle her way out, she shouts, please, please help me, until her voice is hoarse. She bites a nurse who tries to give her some water…She finds herself haunted by the life she has left, been pulled out of. As light drains from the room at dusk, she thinks about how her grandmother will be descending the flagged steps into the kitchen to see how the dinner preparations are coming along, how her mother will be taking tea in the front parlour, counting out sugar lumps with clawed tongs, how the girls at school will be catching trams to their homes. It is inconceivable that she is not taking part in these events. How can they happen without her?”

page 201 – The Vanishing Acto of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell (2006) – Headline Publishing

I felt sick reading this bit and actually had to put the book down. I thought of all the Margarets and Sallies and Marions I had known. Had they experienced anything like this? Poor Esme. She’ll be an old lady before she is back in the world. Everything she had taken for granted whipped away from her – by her own family. She was too much for them and so they hid her from their view. Some of the women I knew at Calderstones were visited by family but a great many were not. There was nothing sadder than seeing those women standing at windows waiting for sisters and brothers who never came.

I remember too that small things often mattered very much. Possessions like a bag or a dress took on great value. I think of a lady, Hilda, carefully washing her cup, which she’d bought with her some of her meagre weekly allowance, drying it and putting it away in the bottom of her wardrobe. It was precious to her. An ordinary mug with a picture of a dog on it. “I love dogs. Woof, woof!” she’d chuckle. But it was the day trips that lit up those strange lives the most. An outing to the Lakes to sail on Windermere. A coach trip to Blackpook to walk on the prom. I watched little Marion standing there, staring out at the sea once. What was she thinking?

“Esme turns back to the sea, to the keening of the gulls, to the rearing monster-head of the Bass Rock, which are the only unchanged things. She scuffs her feet in the sand, creating miniature valleys and mountain ranges. She would like, more than anything, to swim. People say you never forget. She would like to test this theory. She would like to immerse herself in the cold, immutable waters of the Firth of Forth. She would like to feel the ceaseless drag of the currents flexing beneath her. But she fears it may frighten the girl. Esme is frightening – this much she has learnt. Maybe she shall have to settle for removing her shoes.”

page 135 ibid

There were several women I met during my time nursing who were quite scary – but looking back, I wonder why more of them didn’t put up a fight. When did they settle for ‘this is it’? When did they stop begging to be let out? When I arrived, in 1975, it was a few years after the Mental Health Reform Act which had basically stated that people with learning disabilites (mental handicap, as it was defined then) could no longer be ‘detained’ in hospital and were free to leave if they were able to. They were redefined as ‘Informal’ patients. Of course, most of them couldn’t simply walk out of the place. They had no means for a start and most would have no idea of how to look after themselves. However, it did give an impetus for change; the drive to close down institutions such as Calderstones really gained momentum at that point.

I’ve been thinking though about my own perceptions of the place and the women and men I met there. I had them labelled – they were ‘residents’ (previously, termed patients) – as different to us. My heart told me it was right that they should be treated with dignity of course, but my understanding of them was marred by how they were defined to me. The messages I was given. We had our roles – I was nurse/ sister etc – they were residents. I went home at the end of the shift – they lived there; that was their life. A home in a hospital ward – a bed, a wardrobe and possibly a bedside locker. Our lives were poles apart. How much did I question any of it? I remember getting angry about how things were – how had it happened that places like this had been built and that people had actually been sent there to live out their lives? Did I get angry enough though? Still, they’ve more or less gone now. Although, smaller institutions, often privately run, have sprung up to fill a void left – and there have been scandals about the poor care and neglect discovered in some places – Winterbourne being one such example.

I’m left asking myself about embarassment. Questions about who does, or does not, fit in. Are we any more tolerant or are we just better at hiding it?