Rescuing history from the scholars

November 30, 2001

Long-stay hospitals have played a crucial but ignored role in Britain's social history. Now, thanks to the Open University, former inhabitants have won the opportunity to share their stories. Terry Philpot reports.

Thirty years ago, Enoch Powell, as minister of health, spoke of putting "the torch to the funeral pyre" of the "doomed" psychiatric hospitals. The fire that consumed them also saw the end of long-stay hospitals for people with learning difficulties. A hardly remarked upon consequence of those policies has been the upsurge of academic interest in charting the lives of people formerly behind the walls.

More radical elements in academia have long complained that the voices of people with learning difficulties have been absent from history. Joanna Ryan made the point 20 years ago in The Politics of Mental Handicap : "What history they do have is not so much theirs as the history of others acting either on their behalf or against them."

Now the Open University has responded to this criticism with the creation of an oral-history archive. The reasons are many. The promotion of self-advocacy for those with learning difficulties and the desire of people who were in the hospitals to speak about their lives, to find some pattern to them and to know how their lives ended up, has combined with the realisation that the long-stay hospital presents a fascinating but closing chapter in social history.

Historians such as Paul Thompson and E. P. Thompson have shown that the great men (and great war) view of history offers inadequate understanding of the past. Tony Parker's work, which examines subjects ranging from single mothers to sex offenders, miners to professional criminals; and Lynne MacDonald's oral accounts of the first world war have been influential in rescuing history from rarefied scholarship.

Dorothy Atkinson, senior lecturer in health and social welfare and sub-dean for research at the OU, used to be a social worker and was involved in the early resettlement programme when people with learning difficulties began to leave the hospitals. Some of that work included helping them to tell their life stories. When she joined the OU in 1984 it was to work on "Mental handicap: patterns for living", the first of the university's courses on learning difficulties into which life stories were incorporated. It was this, she says, that stimulated the OU's oral history work.

Oral recording is but one part of the work. There are remarkable and moving stories about how archives have revealed to people unknown areas of their lives. Atkinson describes going to the London Metropolitan Archives with Gloria Ferris, a former patient of the old St Lawrence's Hospital, Surrey, and finding out about the many homes she had lived in before coming to the hospital.

There can be other consequences, too. Another former resident, Mabel Cooper, when speaking at one of the OU's annual conferences on the history of learning difficulty, was told by a relative attending the conference that her mother had not been the learning disabled woman she had always understood her to be. A stern father had put her, a young, pregnant but intelligent and well-educated woman, on the streets. There she was found, with the baby Mabel, begging. From the street, mother and baby were dispatched to separate institutions.

Apart from the beneficial impact the work has had on those telling their stories (see box), it has also produced several books that retell the stories and allow researchers and others - including people with a learning difficulty - to reflect on the work. Know Me As I Am was followed by Forgotten Lives: Exploring the History of Learning Disability and Crossing Boundaries: Change and Continuity in the History of Learning Disability. Good Times, Bad Times: Women with Learning Difficulties Telling Their Stories was first conceived as an academic study, but making Gloria Ferris chair of the planning committee switched the focus to the women telling their own stories. She and Mabel Cooper acted as co-editors.

"Crossing boundaries" has a real meaning. Those whose stories have been told have gone from victims to people in possession of their own lives, from institution to community, from "them" to "us", from "mental defective" to participating citizen, from dependence to independence, from researched to researcher, and from silent witness inside the walls to vocal participant outside. Not only does oral history allow the autobiographers to reflect on their lives and circumstances but it also draws them into understanding the forces and historical context that determined those lives.

The next book will take this form of history a stage further. Family Stories will look at how parents, brothers and sisters and other relatives look back on the lives of the children who went into the institutions. The OU also hopes that those stories that have not been published in book form can be displayed on its website.

"Some things are never written down and it is the things of everyday life that are missing from the documentary accounts," Atkinson says. "For example, there are the songs of resistance of which there's no written record. How people felt and what they experienced - these are things that no documentary source can get at."

She acknowledges that there are sometimes lapses of memory and a level at which certainty always fails but stresses that the important thing is to combine memory with documentary sources. "Some people - especially the people with whom I work - only know so much of their own lives by the nature of how they came to the institutions and how they were dealt with there," she says. "That missing part is what documents can supply." For her, it is this coming together of personal and documentary that enhances history.

Ethical issues apply, as with much research. For example, some people with learning difficulties object that this kind of analysis means their lives become secondary. The combination of historical and sociological disciplines creates another problem. "For many people it is a matter of pride to own their work and so have their name attached to it," Atkinson says. "But for some other people it is important to be anonymous because of what has happened to them. In sociological research names are often invented but in historical work it is common for real names to be used."

The few hospitals that remain will not be with us for long. Most have vanished and new housing estates have sprouted where they stood. A few have been turned into elegant apartments whose occupants may not give a passing thought to the past as they go from flat to swimming pool. But more important than any physical vestige of the past is the memory and knowledge of what happened there. This is what the OU is ensuring will endure.

This year's Open University health and social welfare departments conference, Testimonies of Resistance in Learning Disability History , will take place on December 5.

From a silent witness to a voice of authority

To their fellow Saturday morning shoppers, Gloria Ferris and Mabel Cooper may appear to be two friends meeting for a cup of tea. They are, but there is also something that distinguishes them. Twenty-five years ago, they were living restricted lives behind the high walls of the now demolished St Lawrence's Hospital, Surrey. Since then, both have contributed to books published by the Open University's oral history project on life within such institutions.

Each woman had a long institutional history before entering St Lawrence's - Mabel at 11 in 1955 and Gloria at 17 in 1956. Their biographies offer an insight into the treatment of people with a learning difficulty and the regimes and histories of the old hospitals.

But unlike the thousands of others consigned to similar fates, they have been able to record their lives. This has given them the confidence to develop another voice. Both are frequent conference speakers and chairwomen and sit on a consultative committee set up by Mencap, the charity for people with learning difficulties. Both are members of self-advocacy groups and Gloria Ferris is also an advocate for a woman with cerebral palsy and severe learning difficulties.

Telling their stories was not only important for them but, they believe, for others, so that people can know and understand, they say. It was also sometimes a painful experience that involved dredging up suppressed memories or finding themselves classified in archives as "mentally defective".

"In the hospital I would never speak because they'd tell you to shut up," Ferris says. The OU's work has helped them acquire a voice too long denied.

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