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  5. Part 2 - My quest to find out

Part 2 - My quest to find out

My need to know

This is the second part of my life story. It's in a different version from the first one. Now I can say, right, this is how I've done it, but the next one is different because I know more.

It was something I needed to find out. And I'd rather know than not know. I think if you don't know then it isn't fair, it's not the same as knowing. So, for me, I'd rather know.

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Finding out

This story is about my quest to find out; how I went to St Lawrence's and went through their records to see how I was put in there and all the rest of it, and all the things I didn't know when we first wrote my story. I also went to the archives in London and we went to the record office in Bedford to look at a diary from a children's home which was run by nuns. Dorothy and me have done a lot of other things as well. We've made phone calls, we've got photographs, we've got bits out of newspapers and I've talked to my family. I didn't even know about my family when I was in St Lawrence's.

There's so much I didn't know that I'm finding out now. I went to St Lawrence's and I went to the archives. Some of it, like the names they called you in them days, hurt a little bit but otherwise I think it was great. It was something I needed to find out. And going to the archives, that was great again, that was somewhere I've never been, and I enjoyed it. It would be smashing if half of this could be put in another book so it would say this is what Mabel said about this.

I went with Dorothy to St Lawrence's, and Gloria came, and we went up, and we had a look. They said we could look through their records, my records, and they were very nice to us. We sat in a little room for ages, it was 12 o'clock when we stopped, and then we asked could I take some of them away, that I would like some of them. They said to me, 'The ones you want you put on one side, and the ones you don't want put on the other side'. The ones I didn't want were not about the family, and they're not about anything that would interest people outside. I put to one side everything about me and my family.

I asked for the family records because I'd always been told that I had no one, except Aunt Edie. But Aunt Edie didn't want the rest of the family to know about me at all. Aunt Edie just wanted me for Aunt Edie, and the other parts of the family, no way! And then when Aunt Edie died, we went to her flat, and I found out I had another cousin, Marjorie, and her husband, Pom. And it all came back to me that I had people, a family.

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What I found out

I found out about my mum from my records. I found out that her name was Mabel Lucy Cooper. I was called after her. Her surname before she married was Staines. She was labelled as 'feeble-minded' in the records. She married a man called Cooper. The papers said that her parents were of 'superior standards' whatever that means. Posh! I had a sister called Margaret who went to Barnardos, but there are no records about her. We tried to find out more, but we couldn't. Nobody seems to know. I found out from my records that my mum was begging on the streets of London with me as a one month old baby. The police took me away from my mum and put me into the Easneye Nursery. They put my mum in Darenth Park Hospital. She ran away from this place in December 1944. She has not been seen since. I have not seen my mum since that time. All this I know from the records.

I also found out from the records that Easneye Nursery was just the first home I went to. There was plenty more. I went there in September, 1944, just four weeks after I was born. When I was a bit older I went to Stowlangcroft, wherever that is, and then to Ashford in Kent. For some reason I was sent to Mariston House boarding school in Devon. The records say I went there on 28th February 1955. Why Devon? I don't know.

The records say that I lived for a time at St Etheldreda's children's home in Bedford. I never knew its name before, but I remember the place. It was a home run by nuns, with bars at the windows. After that I was sent to Hutton Residential School near Brentwood in Essex. This was all news to me. Six homes, and the only one I remember is the one in Bedford.

I went to St Lawrence's from the children's home in Essex. I only know that from the records. I also know the date now; it was the 21st November 1957.

A young Mabel

I've talked to my family as well. I've talked to Marjorie. She says different things. She says my mum was not 'feeble-minded'. She went to a good school. She may have had difficulties because of living on the streets. She was thrown out of her parents' home when she met up with Cooper. He was not good enough, or so they thought.

Marjorie says it's because she was living on the streets that she got how she was. She was not born like that. She could do everything. Her father wouldn't allow her back in because she married Cooper, and then mum went off with somebody else so, in them times, it was a disgrace and, of course, specially to my family because they were all so strict and well-to-do.

These are two different stories! But I've enjoyed finding out. I've enjoyed it, it's just that mum's not here to tell her bit of it. A lot of things have happened in my life but I'm who I am. I'll always be what I am, always! I will never change from what I am. You have to be hard. I've been in care since I was four weeks old so, for me, being in care doesn't bother me. I think you have to be a lot harder in the hospital where some of the staff were tough. I had no trouble with them because of Eva, (one of the nurses) but I think, if I hadn't, they could make life very difficult for you.

These are some of the things the records said about me when I first went to St Lawrence's:

  • I was an 'imbecile'. This really hurts.
  • I was 'educationally very backward'.
  • I was 'ignorant of the four rules of numbers'.
  • I was 'dull and slow in response' and that I did not seem to have any general knowledge at all.
  • I was 'not able to learn to tell the time'.

You see, for me, it did upset me for them to say I wasn't teachable. I think if someone goes around and says something like that are you going to learn? You are not! And then they turn round and say 'Oh, you're not teachable'. And for them to say, you know, that I need to be looked after, trained for life. I don't know who made that decision, or who makes those assumptions. Who were they to make these assumptions?

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Proving the records were wrong

I left St Lawrence's in 1977 after 20 years. I've done lots of good things since then:

  • Chair of People First
  • Travel to Canada, Europe, Zimbabwe
  • Speaking at conferences
  • Running workshops
  • Teaching people about speaking up
  • Talking to children in schools about bullying people with learning difficulties
  • Writing my life story
  • Visiting family and friends
  • Drinking plenty of half lagers!

They were wrong to make those assumptions. I've proved them wrong. Some people have helped me and I want them to be put into this story. There's Flo, she's my friend, we both worked at the same factory when I first came out. I stayed in touch with her. She's great. I really like Flo, she's one person who is really important to me. She's been a great help to me. I used to go and have dinner with her on a Monday night, but not now because about six years ago something happened so I can't do that. But I do go and see her, she's a great lady to me - for me, she's like a foster mum. She's older than me but she doesn't act old! She's one of those old women who's got a young mind. She's lovely. She is helpful, she's very helpful! She's great, I like her.

Mabel in the kitchen

I want to say about Mary, the lady I live with, because she's so good and so understanding and she does help with, like, the things that we can't do at home. This is something to appreciate her for. I went to Mary's from a big home. Since I've been there she has helped me to do the things I can't do, like matching clothes up, like using the shower, like keeping me calm so my face doesn't swell, and like reading, if she has time.

And Foxley Lodge is a great centre, and I would like them to be put in just a little bit. It's a day centre for 22 people, and a home for two people with learning difficulties. They help us with things like knitting, sewing, cooking, telling us how much we weigh, reading and writing. It's quite small, and very nice.

There's Rita. I meet Rita on the bus, and I've made a friend of her. She works in Allders in Croydon. I'd just like to mention her. Last but not least there's Pauline and John. I've known Pauline for years. I have a week's holiday with them every year. I go to their home to stay.

Pauline and David

Of course, St Lawrence's has gone now. I was a guest of honour at the party when it started to come down. Not long ago, me and Gloria went up to have a look at what they'd done to the old St Lawrence's. They have changed it to houses. The old nurses' home is now all offices. It's for the Lifecare Trust. We walked through the new houses with Alison, from the BBC, pointing out where the old wards used to be.

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Knowing what I know now

I was shocked only by the names I was called, and for the places they'd put me in, and from where I'd been expelled. I didn't know that. It shocked me, and I think it makes you different if you know that, it makes you harder than you would be normally. Some of it is upsetting but I think, for me, it's been great now that I know most of it.

I think you understand what's going on if nothing else. It helps you in understanding yourself a lot more. And after being in hospital for over 20 years I think, you know, it makes you a lot stronger when you come out. It has me anyway, it's made me a lot stronger. It's because of all the things that you do now that you didn't have the chance to do when you were younger. It gives you that and, OK, you've got it, you've got it for life, and it tells you everything.

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What I don't know

We found out some of the bits I wanted to know, but some of it is not in the records. It tells you what happened to mum and me but it doesn't tell you why. I didn't know anything about mum because Aunt Edie always kept me apart from the rest of them, and I never saw any of them till she died.

It's great what we've found out, but what I'd really love to find out is why I was separated? Why did mum get put in hospital when she had a child to look after? She probably would have stayed if she could. Why did they separate us? OK, so mum was begging, well people still do that nowadays but their children don't get put in care.

I'd love to know why. It's very unfair really. Mum didn't have any say in it, and it's wrong. Why were we separated? Mum hadn't done a crime or anything. If I'd known where mum had gone I would have gone looking, but it's taken me over 50 years to get this far. And we asked just in time because my records were just about to be thrown out.

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About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA

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