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Imbeciles & Farmers

December 4, 2016

18 years ago, the seed of a question was planted in my brain. I haven’t done anything since to cultivate the seed but it has never gone away. I was at the funeral of my Dad’s last surviving sister. All through my growing up, I was of the belief that my Dad had two brothers – one had died quite young and the other had emigrated to New Zealand, shortly before I was born. At the funeral, one of my cousins mentioned that Dad had three brothers and implied that the one I’d never heard about had a learning disability of some kind. My cousin also has a disability and his speech isn’t always easy to follow but he mentioned cryptically about the brother who “stayed in nanny’s living room all the time and the door was locked”.

It was shocking and not shocking at the same time. I knew that attitudes to disability were dreadful back then. In fact, the cousin who told me the story is deaf and from the ages of 6 to 16 was sent away to a residential boarding school in Margate. It was the done thing. Although his mother was a very feisty woman, I can understand that she wouldn’t have dreamt of challenging the professionals who decided that was the right course of action. There seemed to be so much shame attached to learning disability back then. Hence, my possible uncle being locked away in the front parlour. I guess the shocking thing was that I didn’t know. All families have their secrets but those secrets are normally known within the family. Was the fact that I wasn’t told, some indicator of the deep level of shame felt? It was, and is, hard to make sense of. My family were generally kind, tolerant people. But like a lot of working class people of their generation, they knew their place. I remember the acute embarrassment at one of my school plays (I was probably about 10) when my auntie curtseyed to the lady mayoress. My family could stand their ground with the neighbours, their work colleagues, even each other but there was a whole class of people that they would doff their caps to.

On Friday morning, one of my clients cancelled and whilst channel hopping, I found myself gripped by an old episode of Who Do You Think You Are. It was Gary Linekar. Later that afternoon, after seeing my last client, I suddenly found myself signing up to I didn’t get off it until the battery on my tablet ran out at 11pm. But by that time, I had discovered five generations of my family. I was hooked. I will now need to look for a new support group to join.

My Dad did indeed have three brothers. One died in 1952, aged 40. Another, the best man at my dad’s wedding emigrated in 1956 and I even found the flight records for his journey to Sydney. So, who is Frank? He was born in 1917, so was 10 years older than my Dad. He is in all the electoral rolls from the time he became an adult but suddenly disappears in the mid fifties. I suppose he might have died too but I can’t trace any record of his death. Also, if he did disappear or die in the mid fifties then my cousin wouldn’t have encountered him. I’m not sure where to go from here. I wonder whether he was packed off to an institution somewhere. His father, my grandfather, was approaching his 80s and may have been struggling to cope. That’s the trouble with looking up your roots – you end up speculating like there’s no tomorrow.

I did wonder for a while whether learning disabled people are missed off the census/electoral roll altogether. From what I can gather, details of disability are only released 100 years after the census. I’ve been looking at the 1911 census information and discovered that the disability column was only open to the public from 2012, whilst all the other details have been in the public domain for much longer. Back in 1911, you had a choice of five “infirmities” – blind, deaf, lunatic, imbecile or feeble minded. It made my blood run cold to imagine what group, if Steven had been around 100 years ago, he would have been slotted into. I’m not totally sure what each of those categories mean but they must have been common expressions because there is no explanation on the census document to help the person out. Obviously, 1911 is six years before Uncle Frank was born, so he arrived too late for that classification. I may have to wait until 2022, when the 1921 census will be released.

Other people’s family trees can be incredibly boring, so I won’t labour the point. I did find a couple of heart warming things though. My maternal great grandmother, widowed by the time she was 35 and with 6 children to raise, became a pub landlady in Paddington. The pub, The Swan, still exists, but I bet it was a much more spit and sawdust affair back in the 1920s. On my maternal father’s side, they seemed to do quite a bit of farming. In Kensington! I like to imagine them tilling the soil pre Harrods. And making me jump out of my skin, other people are also researching my family tree too. They must be very distant relatives. But there I was, checking out the “hints” for my dad’s siblings and up popped a photo of a loved up Auntie Binnie and Uncle Arthur in Southall Recreation Ground.

I’ve started now – so I’ll finish.

I want to do the right thing by Uncle Frank.


From → Social Care

  1. Mark, if you know where Frank was living when he disappeared from sight you might find record of him in your local archives. Until c. 1955 all admissions to ld hospitals in Bedfordshire are listed in the records of the Mental Health sub committee. Do not know about other places. Mind you, the records are officially closed for 80 or 100 years but this is not immovable. Jan

  2. emily permalink

    My uncle is researching my maternal family tree and we seem to be a dodgy lot of alcoholics and babies out of wedlock. 😀

  3. Shirley Buckley permalink

    Sometimes there is another side to it. My aunt born 1900 had Recklinghausen’s syndrome, and was hospitalised as a child inGreat Ormond Street. She always said how very happy she was there. I think it was just that they cared – and I think there were institutions where people were really cared for in those days. Asylums that really were that.

  4. weary mother permalink

    A friend did not know he had another uncle till a letter came telling him he was next of kin. His uncle had died aged 90 – had been placed in an institution at birth – and was never spoken of. My friends grandmother had lived with him and his parents for a decade and not a word of this abandoned baby son, brother, uncle.

    When one considers the slave market that is now – the way our sons and daughters are found a home – (I discovered that an advertisement had been placed for support for my son only very recently) – where a panel of wealthy and powerful (by comparison) worthies routinely sit in judgement of him and all his vulnerable peers – all are ‘weighed’ – all are examined – all are tested – for every penny spent.

    A panel pf the powerful examine our sons and daughters – weigh their basic needs – eliminate unreasonable costs – ‘wants’ like happiness – humanity – justice – love,

    In this decade powerless people are examined- not this time for their healthy teeth and strength as work machines – but they are measured just as slaves were – they are examined for every penny of worth.. to be traded in the market – this time – in this century – to be sold to the cheapest offer.

    Perhaps the never to be spoken of institutions of a century ago offered more humanity – more, friendship and kindness and a home to these…. ‘other peoples’ tarnished babies.

    of ……………..100 years ago –

    Perhaps these asylums were kinder and more humane than the panel and the market place. – now.

    …………………..What a thought to ponder on in 2016.

  5. Putting aside old institutions (unlikely really to have been kind, but it’s all about good people then and now), the people sitting in judgement today are of no high class, but often very ordinary backgrounds.
    It is about money now, go all people of different backgrounds, minimal work or effort (at finding solutions for someone else’s happier life), but eager to do quick ‘tasks’ like making a best interest decision about someone else – and then not revisit that to meet the ‘least restrictive’ principle, without the most enormous effort (usually made by the unpaid parent).
    All designed to drive a parent mad.

    Did anyone listen to the Radio 4 production yesterday about a social worker being very good at jargon, but not any good at finding practical solutions?

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