8 November 2012


    My bedroom at the mansion was on top floor in nurses home - 2nd window on the right. 

Sandhill Park Hospital, in Bishop’s Lydeard, Somerset, was built as a country house around 1720. It was later used as a prisoner of war camp, a home for handicapped children and later as a military and civilian hospital.
During World War 1, it was used as a prisoner of war camp for German and Austrian Officers. In 1919 it was converted by Somerset County Council into a home for handicapped children.
It was requisitioned by the military in August 1940 and became the 41st General Military Hospital, providing accommodation in tents and huts. From 1941 the hospital was leased to the Americans as a neurological hospital for over 1,000 patients in 32 new wards which were completed in 1942 serving as the 185th General Hospital. The hospital remained in military use until 1944. The psychiatric hospital reopened under the National Health Service in 1948 and further buildings were constructed. And, this was where a social worker and I were accompanying this little five-year-old mentally handicapped girl; a child I had looked after in Nazareth House in Bristol, until the home closed down and she had nowhere to go. The hospital was 30 miles away.
It was still raining heavy as we drove through Taunton and out into the counrtyside. We arrived in Bishops Lydeard which to me seemed bleak and isolated, left the main road and turned onto a lane which ran through an expanse of green fields onto the 141 acres of hospital grounds. A mansion stood out in the distance. I felt so sad.

We crawled past rows of pre-fabricated wards/huts and drove up to an imposing square mansion which stood in the centre of the grounds. I lifted Marie out of the car and carried a very frightened little girl towards the imposing building.

A lady in a blue uniform came out to greet us. She introduced herself as Matron and walked on ahead with the Social Worker leaving Marie and I to follow. We went through the reception in the main hall and into a large room on the left. Marie had only learned to walk in the last 6 months and was not that strong on her feet so it was second nature for me to carry her when she got tired or was in a stressful situation.  An official-looking man was sitting down at an enormous table with some forms for the Social Worker to sign. Marie began to screech.
“That’s a good pair of lungs she’s got,” Matron said cheerfully.
“Yes, she can be quite a noisy child,” the Social Worker commented as she smiled at me. I gave her a filthy look and turned away. At that moment I hated them all. We sat down at the table and Marie sat on my lap. Then the formalities began.  
They must have wondered how a young woman from Liverpool had ended up embroiled in this child's life? One day I was a happy-go-lucky teenager and the next I was holding this little girl as if she had been born to me.
We were only in the mansion for a few minutes before I found myself sitting back in the car with Marie back on my knee heading to a ward that was to be her new home. The rain danced on the windows; the windscreen wipers started the countdown.
Again there was another member of staff waiting outside to greet us. This time it was the sister in charge. I lifted Marie out of the car again.
“I’ll wait here,” the Social Worker said.
I was 17 years-old. Today as I look back over the years, I wonder how she could have left me to go in alone. 
I had never been on a ward for mentally handicapped children before and didn’t know what to expect. I bit my lip and fought the lump in my throat. Sister Green introduced herself and led the way through the main entrance and into a huge room that hit my senses..
I stepped over the children who lay on the floor; so many children. Sounds rose to meet me but no words. Tears ran down my face as we made our way through what was known as the day-room. Some of them were rocking or rolling over and others, staring into space. A young boy was groaning and punching the side of his red swollen face. My eyes rested on a child who had the largest head I had ever seen.
We left the day-room and followed Sister Green through a hallway into her office. Marie was screeching making any conversation difficult to hear. I wanted to screech too; I had no control over the awful things that happened to her.
There was one dormoitory for all the children which sister Green showed me through her office window. She pointed to a cot on the left side and said, “She’ll be No 11.” She was only trying to give me some idea where Marie would be sleeping but in my oversensitive mood it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I handed Marie over to Sister Green and walked out of the office. I was heartbroken.
The Social Worker was sitting in her car reading the paper.
“Matron wants to see you,” she said as I sat in beside her. “I’ll take you there first and then we can have some lunch.” 
We drove back to the mansion. I went in alone. I didn’t have a clue what Matron wanted and I didn’t really care. My mind was full of Marie. Last time she was taken, this time I gave her away; she was free to anybody that would have her because nobody wanted her – she was anybody’s.
“Sit down,” Matron offered kindly when I walked into her office.
“Have you got a job to go to?” she asked. I shrugged, too upset to speak.
“Would you like to work here?” she asked to my surprise. I looked at her sitting behind her desk in her blue uniform not quite believing what she had said. I finally managed to speak; “You mean work here in the hospital?”
She nodded. “Would you like to work with handicapped people?” she asked. It could have been a million pounds this kind lady was offering me. I never dreamt when I was being driven into the hospital half an hour earlier that I would be returning.
“Take these forms with you and think about it,” she told me. I didn’t have to think about it. I’d already made up my mind.
A short time later I was sitting in the staff dining room in the back of the mansion trying desperately to pull myself together. I was relieved that the build up of the past few months was over and saddened that Marie would never be able to understand how I had no choice but to leave her.
"Eat up, Michelle," the Social Worker said, trying to sound cheerful. My tears wouldn't stop. I sat with my head down and watched them dripping onto my dinner. 
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  1. This is wonder Michelle. Your words ring so true I kept checking the date to see if this was indeed fiction. I like your style.

    1. Thank you, Kelly Louise! You know that saying - truth is stranger than fiction. :)

  2. Your first impressions of the ward made me tearful again, although I've already read the marvelous 'Marie's Voice.' Thank God you & Marie found each other.

    1. Jane, it was such a sad sight to see so many little children living on a ward just because they had a learning disability. Thank God that piece of history will never be repeated.