Lovely Laindon (Part 5)

"A Question of What's in the Mind" (Continuing the theme of "how is it you became a Laindoner?")

The changes in medical practices of the early 20th century that had come about only slowly and, for some, painfully and in many instances left an indelible mark on the victims’ collective memory have for the most part coincided with the substantial changes to the Laindon area wrought by the Basildon New Town development. No longer is Laindon “sold” for its health giving propensities, only for the general convenience of both its facilities and its proximity to London; a fact that reflects the general improvement in health and environment. However, while this might be true of physical health the matter of mental health, we may be absolutely certain was never considered as a selling point when it came to Laindon. Every community in the land, whether it be urban or rural, has its share of citizens who fall victim to something that others deem to be a mental illness ranging from mere eccentricity to madness, conditions that often cause reactions in others ranging from laughter to revulsion, reactions often based on a complete ignorance of the circumstances that foster the causes of their derision.

While it is no longer the case, perhaps, in a more enlightened world, that those adjudged to be in possession of a “troubled” mind excited the worst of adverse reactions, fear, there remains an element of humour attached to the condition, reminiscent of the time when those dubbed “lunatics” in the past were often retained in foetid conditions, chained and displayed for the amusement of others, in buildings called “Bedlam”, a name itself derived from its allusion to The Bethlem (Bethlehem) Royal Hospital in London the origins of which go back to the 13th century and in which patients with “mental” disorders  were incarcerated.

Although London, in the 20th century was ringed by “mental” hospitals or “lunatic asylums” accommodating thousands of inmates, any such cases that arose in the Laindon area were probably mainly dealt with in the Essex area, chiefly at Brentwood (Warley Hill) and, after 1934, at Runwell. This latter establishment, although constructed to a design considerably less forbidding and gloomy than those still predominating which had been built in the nineteenth century, despite being provided with airy, individualised wards, nevertheless persisted with many of the methods of treatment for its patients that made it little different from the treatment afforded elsewhere.

Initially constructed with a surrounding perimeter wall or fence, the overall effect was of it being a secure establishment, specifically created to keep the inmates safe from the wider community. This was an effect that seemed to work both ways in that the community in turn regarded that it was being protected from the inmates who, by the very nature of their becoming inmates, represented a danger to the wider public.

Although a “specialist” hospitals like the “Isolation” hospitals or the TB sanatoria, the mental hospitals, especially, in an often uncaring unkind world, attract a demeaning stigma to those involved with them, particularly as patients, in any way that engenders either a desperate degree of guarded secrecy or a profound sense of shame. Not surprisingly, the incarceration to which many inmates were subjected willingly or unwillingly can now be seen to have done little to assist with their rehabilitation; and the process now referred to as “institutionalised” has become recognised as being wholly detrimental to that process.

It was, perhaps, for this reason rather than for reasons of cost, although this clearly paid its part, that attitudes and with them methods of treatment began to change in the second half of the twentieth century. That change has seen the disappearance of a vast number of such institutions, beginning with the demolition, in many cases, of the circumventing enclosing fences and walls, together with the regime of locked doorways. The re-emergence back into the community of many of the patients, while regarded as vital by many in the medical profession, has not been altogether seen by all as welcome and some patients who, in the past, would not be considered worthy of citizenship, remain pariahs. This is unfortunate because the stigma that was attached to mental illness often produced a vicious form of insult that was often reflected, through ignorance, in dealings among those who otherwise might have been considered as “normal”. These forms of insult did not, unfortunately, necessarily remain at the level of the school playground where there might be some excuse for such actions based on the ignorance of the perpetrators.

Laindon had its share of the use of such insults through a general lack of understanding in the past as is borne out by the experience of just two former residents, who, while remaining necessarily anonymous, both grew up in the district. The first of these, born in 1927 was Harold H*. From about the age of nine or ten, Harold appeared, to the casual observer, to become over aggressive in his manner and those of roughly his age and slightly younger, mostly his school companions, began to label him as a bully. Furthermore, as he approached the secondary school age of eleven, he began to truant from education and, when challenged by his mother who feared an adverse reaction from the Education Authorities; he became exceedingly aggressive towards her, such that, initially, she too began to fear him. In time it began clear that his “aggression” took the form of a brief outburst of filthy language that seemed to bear no relationship to any ongoing activity in which he was engaged at the time. This was accompanied by an involuntary jerking of his head in which it almost seemed that he was simultaneously denying the intent of the appalling language he was using at the very instant he was uttering it. It was only in retrospect that it became abundantly clear that Norman was the victim of the appalling mental impairment which is now generally recognised as Tourette’s Syndrome and, therefore, fully deserving of our sympathy rather than our derision. Needless to say, such was the shame that his mother felt with regard to her son’s uncontrolled and uncontrollable behaviour (his father had long abandoned any parental obligation he rightfully owed to Harold entirely to Harold’s mother) that she took the earliest of opportunities offered by the redevelopment of Laindon under the creation of Basildon New Town to move herself and her son away from the district.

Michael M* was a different matter. Born in 1929, he was always referred to as “Mickey”(never “Mick” alone) a name that, with the combination of his surname, became an alliterative sounding playground chant for all that, regrettably, was regarded as undesirable in a playmate. In reality it was not Mickey’s shortcomings that were the problem, but those of his mother although, with time, these were, by inference, embraced by Mickey also. The “problem” with Mickey’s mother, who will be referred to as Ethel, although is not her real name in the interests of preserving anonymity, was that, in the eyes of many in the late 20s she was a sinful woman, having fallen pregnant while unwed. Although not an uncommon event at the time, that “sin” only became compounded if no marriage took place before the birth arising from the pregnancy. Unfortunately, in Ethel’s case no marriage did take place, or if it did, it was long, long after Mickey’s birth. To make matters worse no man ever acknowledge that he was responsible for Ethel’s pregnancy, and if Ethel ever made any allegations in that respect, these were never available in the public domain. In the 1920 and 30s and even later there was considerable stigma attached to what is now commonly called the “unmarried mother” and Ethel was the butt of that stigmatisation, particularly by members of her own family who, as long standing members of one of the lesser farming families of the area, regarded her as having brought shame on them. Rather like other families who had long standing agricultural associations with the district there was a general feeling abroad that it was their responsibility, in particular, to preserve the integrity of the community in the face of the onslaught to which its morals were being subjected by all these incomers to the area who had been buying up “their” farmland in bits and pieces. As a mark of their displeasure, Ethel was banished from Lee Chapel and left to raise Mickey as best she could in Laindon,(albeit, in many respects, a slightly more convenient location than her “family home”) a circumstance that, given that she herself was not exactly the brightest of individuals, meant that Mickey’s childhood was somewhat chaotic. Constantly the butt of the unkind humour of his schoolmates, he seemed to take refuge in adopting the role of simpleton; becoming obese, he fitted well into the “Billy Bunter” mode of the popular comic of the day. His indolence coincided with the growth of the New Town and, he and his mother disappeared below the horizon as his childhood home was demolished. It was as if Mickey’s destiny was a mirror for the remainder of his wider family. The farming fraternity into which he had been born remained in the Lee Chapel area but scattered, The decline of their family farm was speeded into oblivion by the needs of Basildon and they also went below the horizon until a chance encounter at the commencement of the 21st century revealed that they were now all predominantly resident in the Thurrock area with the exception of Mickey who had spent his adult years, unmarried in Southend-on-Sea.

The experiences of both Mickey M* and Harold H* are probably little different from those experienced, due to a general ignorance, by many other unfortunates, whose apparent “difference” from an accepted “norm” sets them apart. The subject of derision rather than the help and sympathy that they really needed, a response which only aggravates their general situation, turning their backs on the community in which they grew up was clearly a matter of self preservation. Happily, there are some signs  of a growing better understanding in such cases that has made peoples’ understanding more tolerant. Let us hope it is a trend that continues.

(Names have been changed to preserve anonymity)

To be continued

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