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I had the privilege of reading Marion Hughes’ memoir of her life as a Barnardo’s child (Not Written Off, Backworth Publishing,2017) before it was published.

Born in 1947, one of the ten children of a widowed Northumbrian miner, Marion, along with four of her siblings, was sent into an orphanage at Hexham, where she remained, more or less continuously until she was eighteen. It is a remarkable account of 1950s life, not least because it is told, seemingly without the intention to do anything more than recall what was an enjoyed childhood and adolescence.

I got no sense of any wish to expose or whitewash the practices of the time, but merely to tell of them. Perhaps this is why what is exposed seems all the more shocking. We all know that old adage of L.P.Hartley’s that ‘the past is a foreign country’. Well, here is an account of that country from one who lived there, an insider’s account, apparently unconscious of what its norms, and peculiarities will look like to us outsiders.

Three little examples picked at not quite random might give a clue. Early on in life, playing with friends at the nearby infants’ school, the subject of ‘mums and dads’ comes up:

‘What’s a Mam and Dad? And why haven’t I got them?’

And following an accident with a knitting needle, illicitly carried in the pocket:

‘I started to cry, not because my leg was hurting but for fear of what might happen to me for disobeying that rule.’

            Perhaps most shocking of all though, in this post Saville world, was when the children were encouraged to write to ‘pen pals’ and Marion Hughes received a letter from a sixty year old bachelor who was a friend of the Superintendant.

‘…saying he wanted to befriend me and that I could call him Uncle Mac.’

This relationship, always uncomfortable, was continued throughout her life at the home, and involved presents, trips away and holidays. She was always accompanied by a chaperone it must be stressed, but even so, to contemporary eyes it seems extraordinary.

The memoir is frank and affectionate. Marion Hughes enjoyed her childhood, and was grateful for it, grateful in fact for elements within it that might now make us shudder. The story is told with clarity and simplicity, and, where even she was conscious of something not quite right, with surprise rather than bitterness. It shows a world where ‘right’ was striven for, but seemingly without any affection or real human contact.

Having worked for thirty years in Child Care, she says things are different now, and of that we should be glad. She says too, that she survived ‘unscathed’.

[this review first appeared on the Good Reads web platform – should that be decking?]

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