Last week I published a post about my cousin (3 x removed) Fred and the story of his sentence for murder in 1877. I’ve discovered a lot more in the past seven days and those discoveries, together with a couple of news stories and the imminent event of Steven’s latest mental capacity assessment to decide whether he has the capacity to consent to the care arrangements in his own home, have truly frazzled my head. All this has returned me to a familiar theme that I’ve written about on this blog before and in “Lines” – how have disabled people, and people with learning disabilities in particular, been included/excluded from society over the past 200 years?
Fred was found guilty of the murder of John Collins in February 1877 and sentenced to death. Two days before his execution, the home secretary intervened and Fred’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He served 17 years of his life sentence, but in 1894 he was released and never returned to jail for the remainder of his life. A week ago, I had no evidence to understand why his sentence was cut short in 1894. I still don’t have a definitive answer, but a couple of useful bits of information have come my way and I think I can make some reasonable assumptions.
The defense case at Fred’s trial was built almost solely on the fact that he had epilepsy and their claim was that he had a seizure at Mr Collins’ house and whilst in an unconscious state, committed the murder. Certainly, not just from Fred’s recall of events, but also from the witnesses, including Mr Collins’ widow, there seems the strong possibility that Fred did indeed have a seizure on that fateful morning. I have read the 19 letters that were published in the BMJ in the months following the trial where eminent physicians of the time argue one way or another about the likelihood of the killing taking place whilst in an unconscious state. The four court medical experts were split into two distinct camps over the issue. What is very clear from the letters is that, although epilepsy had been around for hundreds of years before Fred’s trial, the medical profession were in the very early days of understanding the condition. I’m no medical expert at all, but even I can see that they were all being very speculative with little research or case history to support their arguments. There was clearly enough doubt for the Home Secretary. Did the doubts grow even stronger over the next 17 years?
I was sent a fascinating article from the Prison Service Journal that looked into the experiences of “physically and mentally disabled inmates” in late Victorian era prisons. It’s a thorough document, but also reveals that even by the 1890s, there was still much discussion about whether epilepsy was a mental condition, physical or both. What stands out in the article is that a lot of thought was being given to the purpose and appropriateness of disabled people being in prison and was prison the best place to equip them for a meaningful life on the outside. Even though, he was serving a life sentence (negating consideration of a life post jail), Fred appeared to fall into this categorization and it looks like that it was decided that to prevent his further “sinning”, his rehabilitation would be better served outside the walls of the prison.
It took me a while to track down where he was discharged to, but I eventually found that he was released into the services (?) of St Giles Christian Mission. The Mission had been founded in the 1860s to provide refuge for orphans, but pertinently, two years before Fred’s release, it had extended it’s arm (s) to include ex prisoners. The history section of their website makes for interesting reading. Apart from the obvious of providing shelter and food and a Faith, St Giles also took it upon themselves to equip the ex prisoners with a trade. Prior to his imprisonment, Fred’s short work career had always consisted of shop work, but a couple of years after his release (and in future documents) I see him described as a painter and decorator. I guess it’s possible that St Giles may have been behind that change of direction. Whoever was responsible, and whatever part they played, it seems apparent that someone was interested in him, perhaps not as an individual, but his well-being and the opportunity for the Freds to take their active part in society.
One evening last week, I watched the Martin Freeman episode of Who Do You Think You Are. His great grandfather was blind from about the age of two and spent most of his childhood in a residential school for the blind. Martin was shown several photos of the school from around the time his relative was there and of course, it looks very institutional in appearance. 60+ children housed in the place and pictures of rows of similarly dressed boys and girls sitting down at long trestle tables for their meals. The language used to describe the children was harsh by 2021 standards. However, Freeman was clearly moved deeply by the school’s commitment to prepare his great grandfather for adulthood. The school encouraged his musicianship and he eventually became a church organist in the village he settled in adulthood.
This took me back to something that I’ve written about several times before, and fast forwarding 60 years from Freeman’s ancestor’s experience at the blind school, I thought about the experience of my two “deaf and dumb” cousins in the deaf school in the 1950s and 1960s. The younger brother, Gordon, was trained in car mechanics whilst at the school and that became the trade for the rest of his working life. He also became a very successful international rally cross driver. His brother Philip, showed a similar bent, although not necessarily for motors, and could turn his hand at fixing all manner of household objects that needed repairing. He was never out of work until he retired a few years ago. Whatever their motivation, the school obviously saw it as their job to provide the footing for the children’s future. The kids may have had to attend an institution to get that footing, but the ethos certainly didn’t assume an institution for the person’s future. On the contrary, the ethos was about contributing to and taking your place in society. From their starting point of different institutions, Fred, Mr Freeman, Philip and Gordon definitely achieved that.
When did it start to go wrong? This week George Julian has been live tweeting another inquest; this time a 13 year old boy called Sammy. Each tweet carries it own horrors, but one of the stand out horrors for me is that absolutely nothing was available to support Sammy. His local children with disabilities team didn’t even consider him for an assessment. With the obvious provider/coordinator of a service taking themselves out of the picture, all the other bodies were left scrambling about trying to give the appearance of giving a service. Is an assessment a service? Is a multitude of MDT meetings a service? Is signposting to a local parent’s group a service? I think not, but a huge amount of time, energy and resources went into these activities. The whole question of what might be useful for Sammy and his family wasn’t on anybody’s radar. Nobody could even consider or care about his present, let alone think about his future. There is no sense at all from the professional’s evidence that they saw Sammy as being part of a community, a part of life. He was placed in that strange space that I’ve only ever witnessed within social care that is perceived by the professionals as having no connection to the rest of the world at all. It really is a non human, nothing space, but to double the pain, it is presented as being an active, caring space. If there was a service, it was a self-service; a service for and to themselves. It is a world away from St Giles or the blind school.
On the bus into Uxbridge yesterday, these memories plus the stories of Fred and Sammy were swimming around my head. I was scrolling through my phone and noticed someone had posted a photo of Southall FC first team squad from about 1974. It reminded me of all those games, home and away on the supporter’s coach, that Philip and I went to throughout the Seventies. Philip was the heart and soul of those coach trips. The players, our fellow travelers, the opposition supporters would engage with him and we had a whale of a time. It never once occurred to me on any of those excursions that Philip was ripe to be on the receiving end of a disability hate crime. He wasn’t on the periphery of things; he led things. I arrived in Uxbridge and the supported living crew were having a morning out. Two women in their wheelchairs had been parked up and they were looking aimlessly through the window at WH Smith. One of the support workers was on her phone; the other wolfing down a Greggs sausage roll. They couldn’t have been more disinterested if they tried. Not so long ago, the two women would have gone to one of the borough’s day centres. Far from ideal places. But a darned sight more inclusive than window shopping in the mall.
I hope I’m not accused of wearing rose tinted spectacles. Some terrible, horrible things happened to disabled people in the 1800s and 20th Century.
But something has gone, I think gone forever. The things that meant something, have long gone, but it’s worse than that. In place, is the pretense that something exists, something valuable. That’s the cruelest aspect of the present tense.