J O A N C A W S T O N
I first encountered social services in 1954 when I was five years old, when some ladies came to our house and took me, my 3 year old sister and my one year old brother away from my mother, out of our house, down the cobbled street, lined with curious neighbours and into two waiting cars. I never saw my mother again.
This surely cannot have been my mother’s first contact with social services, but for us it was a bolt out of the blue. We were terrified. We were never told why we were being taken into care, either then or later.
I despised my mother until I was in my 20s, believing that she had simply abandoned us as she never came to see us in the children’s home on visiting days. One day during a visit to the matron of the children’s home who was then long retired, Matron casually remarked that the ‘powers that be’ had decided that when we were taken into care my mother should not be allowed to see us. Matron said she turned up often in the first few months and would get hysterical before being sent away, but eventually she gave up coming. How cruel. Just writing this makes me cry for her.
I grew up in the children’s home, leaving when I was 16 because it was obligatory, and placed with foster parents, who were totally unsuitable. I was given no choice and never met them until I was taken by a social worker to their house to live.
What was life in the children’s home like? Well, it certainly wasn’t the best of times although we did have some very good times; and it was by no means the worst of times, although there were a lot of bad times. Christmasses were good. We got presents and we didn’t mind at all that they were second hand. Easter time we got Easter eggs and Bonfire Night was always brilliant. Fireworks, special food – Matron made wonderful toffee – and there were jacket potatoes cooked in the bonfire to eat once the enormous bonfire had died down and the Guy which we had lovingly dressed and stuffed with straw had burned to a crisp.
I think in those early days Children’s Homes must have been relatively new as everyone called them Orphanages and us orphans. This upset me and the other children in the home enormously and we would always object loudly and say that we weren’t orphans because we did have parents. Why we felt it was worse to be an orphan than it was to have parents who were unable or unfit to look after their own children I do not know, but we all did.
The focus of care was solely on our physical wellbeing. We were punished often, being smacked hard and sent to bed straight from school without any supper – but that wasn’t unusual, as we were smacked as hard at primary school by one of the teachers, too! But we had good food, got plenty of exercise and lived in a big house with a gardener and a cleaner. We were kept fit and healthy but we were never hugged, never kissed goodnight, rarely praised, never given any emotional support, never spoken to lovingly by the women who took care of us. Never loved by the adults in our world. We weren’t treated as children with feelings. In many ways it was cruel and pitiless.
I contacted my friend June with whom I grew up in the children’s home to ask her about her memories. Our birthdays were one month apart and we were inseparable as children. There were many objects we could have chosen, some the same, some personal to each of us, but I totally agreed with her that our ‘object’ had to be our Boxer dog, Bella. This is what June wrote:
“ … Bella our boxer dog comes top of my list because she was always there when I needed something to love. I used to get in her kennel with her, do you remember it consisted of a huge wooden freight case (it stood next to the oven in the kitchen) and it stunk to high heaven of dog!”
We all loved Bella and Bella loved all of us – always, indiscriminately and lavishly. She was a wonderful dog, placid and gentle and endlessly affectionate with us, but the terror of postmen and delivery boys. She would always try, and sometimes succeeded, in biting them, which we knew was quite simply further proof of her love, devotion and desire to protect us. She could do no wrong in our eyes.
So, beautiful Bella, I chose you because …
… you epitomised unconditional love and acceptance, a wonderful antidote to the emotional austerity of life in a children’s home in Yorkshire in the 1950s and 60s.
4 thoughts on “Bella”
I found this an incredibly moving account, Joan. Thank you so much for giving it – the messages could not be more important for social work and social workers. The era might be the 1950s and 60s but the sentiments are timeless, and Bella lives on.
There aren’t adequate words – what a beautiful and touching piece of writing. Hopefully children’s services and care have moved on a bit and there is more consideration of children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, though I fear it’s not always the case. Everyone involved in the care of children should read about this ‘object’ and have it at the forefront of their mind when interacting with children under their care and protection. And Bella sounds just wonderful!
What a beautifully powerful piece. I agree with the previous comment that everyone professionally involved in the wellbeing of children should read this. I confess to having to wipe my eyes and can’t help but feel sadness for all those mistreated by people who should know better. So much more to say on this but I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks you for sharing your ‘object’.
Thank you, Joan, for sharing this important message. I know that I will use it in my teaching to help underline your message about how important relationships are for children in care. It is striking how vividly you and June recall the love you shared with Bella – another important message for all professionals, the meaning of animals in people’s lives.