Friday 2 December 2022

How did Cheshire care for people with learning disabilities years ago?

A story from our collections that starts and finishes in the Knutsford area over the course of three hundred years. It is an important part of the story of how communities have tried to care for people with learning disabilities through the centuries.

In 1647 William Barlow from Cranage presented a petition, not the kind with hundreds of signatures, but in effect a request to the county court held at Knutsford for a decision on who should care for his nephew. The document below tells us that William Barlow was a poor man and could no longer maintain the eight-year-old boy with disabilities who had been left in a shippon (an old word for an animal shed), in Sandbach after the death of his father. The decision at the bottom of the court record is tricky to read but instructs ‘The parish to keep the child’. This is the 'old' poor law in action, in 1601 local communities had become officially responsible for people who couldn't support themselves.

As populations grew and moved around for work and economic and social conditions changed people who couldn’t look after themselves had no choice but to enter the institutions that were the solution offered by the new poor law – workhouses. In the census record for Knutsford Workhouse in 1881 which is just a snapshot of who was there on one night, out of 159 inmates 15 are identified as people with learning disabilities, the majority from birth, they are men and women of all ages, none with usual occupations, so perhaps unlikely to leave.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Victorians were looking to solve society’s problems with the same zeal for science that they had applied elsewhere. Darwin’s theory of natural selection led to the thoughts behind the failed so-called science of eugenics, named from the Greek words that mean ‘good birth’, and in 1913 an Act was passed to separate people with learning disabilities out of other institutions and society and into colonies.

In Cheshire the first home in England for the permanent care of children with learning disabilities, the Sandlebridge Colony, was opened at Warford near Alderley Edge in 1908. It was later renamed the Mary Dendy Home after its founder. Mary Dendy had observed children with learning disabilities excluded from education and on the streets of Manchester. Her record-keeping survives with us and suggests that she certainly considered what conditions might be inherited and had the intention of keeping young men and women permanently apart for life. But realistically could she have raised the funds to open the home without embracing the solution that had captured the popular imagination? And what of the people she wanted to look after – before medical treatment or therapies that would have helped some, was a safe place in the Cheshire countryside with meaningful activities around food production and looking after each other not a better outcome than the alternative? It is impossible to put ourselves entirely in other people's shoes from the past, but what we can do is voice people's stories who are talked about in the records to try and understand more.

The All Our Stories project has researched the lives of some of the children who Mary Dendy kept records about, including boys who ran away to serve in the First World War, and one of these is Harry Hetherington. He arrived at Sandlebridge from Salford in 1906 after the death of his mother and younger brother, he ran away and enlisted to fight in the First World War and was discharged with a gunshot wound to his right wrist, in 1922 he had found work as an attendant at Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester. He later married and died aged 76. Of course, not all stories are so hopeful, there is a moving account of what it is like to encounter these records on the Warford history site.

In the spirit of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 2022 we hope that the stories told in the archives in a hundred years' time about today are a departure from the past and demonstrate 'the active participation of persons with disabilities in their full diversity, and their full inclusion in all decision-making processes.' António Guterres, United Nations

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