Account of Charles Irwin’s time spent at the Victoria Childrens Home in 1938/9

Five years old and time to start school. We now lived in Station Road, Sutton, Surrey. Surrey County Council did not have provision in its system for the education of physically handicapped children, so I was temporarily accommodated in a local school until I could be ‘suitably placed.’
Placement eventually was in the Victoria Home for Crippled Children in Bournemouth, Southern England. Being taken away from my mum, dad, gran and extended family for no apparent reason was very upsetting for me. I have certain memories of this ‘Home’ – not many of them very pleasant. In retrospect, I suppose the administrators and staff did what they thought was best for the inmates. We had to make our own beds and the bedcovers all had to have boxed, hospital corners. I can assure you, making a neat bed when merely five years old and only having one controllable hand, was not the easiest thing to manage. However, in hindsight, it instilled a degree of independence into me. When we went to bed at night, we were tucked in, with about a nine inch turn-down of sheet with our heads sticking out. This turn-down was smoothed by the nurse. If we moved and crinkled this turn-down, we were in trouble in the morning and punished accordingly!
Every Thursday we were given a dose of Californian Syrup of Figs and every month a dose of castor oil in orange juice. If you’d been well behaved, you also got a quarter of a fresh orange. This is a reflection on the ‘dietary excellence’ of the times. Porridge was served for breakfast every morning. I have a palate which causes me to gag on any food with a slippery texture, porridge being one of them. I have not been able to eat porridge ever since that time. At afternoon tea we often had bread with demerara sugar on it. I became quite expert at losing it under someone else’s seat, as did we all with whatever we could not eat or disliked.
A big thing with the ‘Home’ was sharing which, in hindsight was fair, but at the time, was very painful. One Christmas or birthday, they are within two days of each other so it’s hard to tell which, I received an aeroplane with lights in it and propellers which went around. It was given to me to play with for about ten minutes then it became communal property and was broken almost at once. At Easter, all the chocolate eggs were displayed then broken up and a piece given to each child. I’m sure not all the eggs went to the children for we should have had at least two eggs each. Once a ripe pear dropped from a neighbour’s tree into our playground. It was divided up into about quarter-inch cubes for everyone to have a taste. So small a taste, I don’t remember the taste, but I do remember the size!
My favourite time at the ‘Home’ was when were taken by school bus to the beach. There was a hut which contained all sorts of beach implements for us to play with, including buckets, spades, barrows, rakes and an assortment of bits and pieces to tempt our imaginations. My favourite was a hand-roller with which I used to make, to my mind, the most intricate road layouts in the sand. I was always sad to leave the beach and my network of roads to wherever.
A memorable occasion occurred when we were informed there would be no lights at night and we must keep our gas masks close by us. Of course I deduced later this was the beginning of WWII. By this time we had each been allocated a gas mask and shown how to use it. That night I saw the shadow of a witch on the wall which frightened me immensely. On looking back, it must have been the night nurse doing her rounds. She carried a masked torch which threw her shadow, complete with nurse’s headgear, giving a pointed witch-hat shadow, on to the ward wall. It scared the shit out of me!
My observations and feelings about this ‘Home’ were confirmed years later by another person who had been institutionalised there, just before I was. She was about five years older than me. Our times of incarceration could even have overlapped. Her name was Lily Leach. She had been born with a stump slightly above where her left hand should have been. Lily was a shorthand-typist at the firm where my mother worked. Despite having only one hand, her shorthand and typing speeds were of the highest calibre. When I was about fourteen, my mother and I had a week’s holiday at a bed-and-breakfast lodging in Brighton. Lily spent a day with us. We went swimming. Lily was wearing the latest fashion in swimming costumes, made of nylon. She looked very glamourous, specially to my fourteen-year-old eyes, for when she emerged from the water the wet costume was totally transparent!!! My mother was a widow and Lily promised she would initiate me into the art of lovemaking if my mother ever became engaged to be married again. When my mother did, Lily didn’t!!! She was a gutsy lady. When I last saw her, she was married with a beautiful child, performing marvels managing the complexities of baby-handling with her stump.
Finally I was released from the ‘Home’ after eighteen months of frustrating bureaucratic battle by my parents. The uncertainty of war and what it might involve allowed the authorities to set me free, back into the custody of my parents.

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