Friday, 1 April 2011

Uncle Ben: Disability in the 1950s





This is autobiography.

For the first seven years of my life (1947-53) I lived in Slade Green near Erith in Kent. Auntie Nellie and Uncle Ben lived round the corner in Howbury Lane in "Delma", a small bungalow built on a plot of land bought in the 1930s. Here it is when built and, much later, decked out for the Queen's 1977 Jubilee:



Nellie and Ben were very positive influences on my early life. Nellie was one of my mother's older sisters, ten years older so about 50 when I was born in 1947. She was childless - my mother said she was unable to hold the babies - but had done a lot of informal fostering. There were always children needing temporary homes. My mother attempted suicide when I was three or four, and it was with Nellie and Ben that I stayed.

Ben [ Benjamin Streeton - photograph at the top from 1962 ] had been part of the labour aristocracy. Apprenticed to Fraser's Engineering Works in Erith, he had become a hands-on gas turbine engineer, well paid enough in the 1930s both to become a home-owner and to buy an Austin Seven, still in use after the War. He was an intelligent and resourceful man with a vegetable allotment adjoining the bungalow and large cherry trees in the garden.

But after the war, he developed tuberculosis. It was said damp nights spent on Air Raid Warden duties were the cause. Who knows.  [ Added 22 December 2012: In this Works photograph he is seated front row, second from left, fag in hand. To me, he looks ill. The photograph is undated but I guess from the 1940s ] :


Tuberculosis forced him into premature retirement and reduced circumstances.

Yesterday, I walked past a bed of wallflowers and it was these which made me think of Uncle Ben. When he was ill, I used to go round to Delma and sing to him as he lay propped up on pillows. One of the songs was called "Wallflowers". I don't know where I learnt it, and it may have been made up - the only words I remember are doggerel.

When he recovered enough, Ben turned himself into a Homeworker. He taught himself leatherwork and produced handbags and purses which Nellie hawked and sold to relatives, friends, neighbours. It was serious stuff: crocodile skins and leather skivers. Ben taught me to make small purses with scraps of leather, hand sewn with thong. I liked the skivers best, exotically coloured and marbled - enough to explain why as an adult I have always liked the end papers of books.

When I visited Ben and Nellie with my mother, the lights never went on until it was dark. You talked in the gloom. It kept down the electricity bill. There was no telephone and, at this time, no TV. The next door neighbours were settled gypsies who kept chickens. When you sat looking out of the window in the fading light, you would quite often see a rat run across the garden.

At Christmas, Ben and Nellie produced and sold decorations. They bought (or gathered) twigs and brightened them up with simple flowers made from melted coloured wax.

Because of these Homeworker activities, there were always people in and out of the bungalow. When Ben had recovered enough, Nellie went to work in the local paper bag factory and I used to go in and stand beside her. Noisy machines made pink and white candy striped bags.

Ben lived to a good age (75) but pre-deceased Nellie by several years. Nellie planned to leave the bungalow to my mother, but she died a year before her older sister so the bungalow came to me by default. I sold it in 1979 and the proceeds helped me bourgeoisify myself: I had just been apppointed to a lecturing job at the University of Sussex and the money helped fund the purchase of a large house in an appropriate part of Lewes, the Wallands.

Postscript, 29 August 2012



I remember Nellie washing my hair over the sink and holding me up in front of the mirror to see my lathered head. I would have been three or four years old. The mirror is now in my flat.

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