For a recent visit to Cheshire Record Office I had at last got round to requesting some archives at the early years of the Mary Dendy Hospital, called at this time, Sandlebridge Special Schools.
Due to the nature of the institution I was warned that some records would be unavailable to me due to their sensitive nature and subject to a 100 year closure clause.
Fortunately though I was given clearance to see an album dating from 1902, and set myself down with notepad and pencil, to make (I hoped) copious notes.
I was entirely unprepared to comprehend what faced me on those first pages.
Each entry started with a photograph of a child, aged anything from approximately eight up to eighteen, taken on their admission to the school, with rough notes on their background and abilities:
“Reads well and sings beautifully…very defective. People respectable”
Also given was their date of birth, admission date and which Educational Committee had referred them.
Most entries were only one page, continually added to throughout that child’s education, sometimes ending but ten years later:
“Died influenza, 1919”
These all too short ‘summaries’ of forgotten lives, together with some of the most haunting photographs I have ever seen, brought tears to my eyes, and for a moment I was unsure whether to carry on looking at something which felt so private.
I then decided that the least I could do to honour those forgotten children was to look at every single one, all two hundred and ninety something of them, no matter how hard I might find it ; in a way it would prove that they once existed and should be remembered with dignity and longevity.
I took no names or personal information, but rather tried to take just a few general details with which to illustrate the tone of the entries:
“Has made a nightgown without help…has been giving a great deal of trouble stirring up others to rebellion”
“Was found hiding by the pig bucket…eating garbage”
“Helps to keep dormitories clean at Norbury House Farm…can scrub well…walks very awkwardly”
“Strong and well…Very defective…sets the table nicely…lives now at Manor House and helps with housework…
no change. Imbecile”
“A dangerous boy…very plausible…great talker and invents big yarns with himself as hero” (This boy ran away five times and was returned, a common occurrence)
“a very funny little customer, tremendous flow of language, immense opinion of himself…died influenza, 1922”
One particularly poignant entry showed a picture of three brothers, all admitted the same day. In the photograph they are all smiling and one plays with a white terrier, surely a likeness we have seen in many of our own family albums.
Another details the life of a young girl:
“very troublesome…mother died and sister and cousin arrived without warning to take her to funeral. Not allowed. Both women …very unreasonable.”
One boy’s record, aged nine, details:
“Mongol. Been laid by with Chicken Pox. Nearly strangled by a shoelace which he allowed a smaller boy to tie round his throat”.
The process of going through this book, I freely admit, was emotionally draining. Do I regret doing it? No.
I had set out to look into the early life of the school and its pupils and discovered it, in all its tragic and heartrending detail.
As a source, it is invaluable to social historians for what it reveals about the behaviours and beliefs of the time, but also to those brave family historians, who may find here the one and only reference to a long lost family member.
Having archives such as these still in existence does not seek to justify or judge the actions or beliefs of those within but to quietly remind us that that the beliefs of the human race have been evolving for hundreds of years.
The next step was to look at two logbooks which would tell me some more about daily life at the School, which I will detail in a future post.
For more about the general background of the Special Schools, follow this link: Sandlebridge Schools and Mary Dendy
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