Most of the subject matter for the columns I have written in the TCJ is fresh, in the sense that it relates to what has been going on in the days or weeks immediately prior to writing it, but the content of this piece is so fresh that it is raw. In fact I am using this reflection as a way of trying to digest, even off-load some of the heaviness and shock that I have been absorbing over a sustained period of four hours.
Today the person I will call Eric came back to Mill Grove for the first time since he had left on 20th March 1963 (that’s 56 years ago). His daughter came with him, and it was her visit to the place where her dad had lived with his brother and sister for five years of their respective childhoods. Only after the visit did I learn that he had driven a long distance to come to Mill Grove in 2010, but that he then sat outside and decided not to enter, before returning home again. So this visit was nine years after that.
He was instantly recognisable to me because of his eyes and smile, even though his hair and frame had changed a bit over the intervening decades. He told me that the reason for the return was the need to try and understand more of his life-story, why he had been placed in a home so far from his home in Hampshire (and across the Thames, at that!), and if at all possible, to find out who his father was.
Before we got going on any of this I told his daughter that I had been chatting about him with my wife over breakfast, and that I remembered him as a child who seemed to be to be centred, mature, neither withdrawn nor defiant. This was in contrast to his brother, and to many others who lived at Mill Grove. She smiled and nodded. “That’s him,” she said. “He is just that sort of person, always has been, and he has been a great dad.” She then surprised me by telling me that she was grateful to me for saving his life. This I could not recall, so I had to ask him for more details. He told me that it was at Lowestoft, where we were on holiday in the early 1960s. He was playing in the sea, and when he got on to a Lilo (an inflatable mattress designed for use on water) an offshore breeze took him out into the North Sea and beyond the groynes that are a feature of the beach south of the Pier. Apparently I swam out to catch him and then brought him safely to dry land. I have only very hazy memories of the incident, possibly because I thought he was playing or it was part of a game. But there was no doubting the truth that for him it was a matter of life and death, and that he and his family were eternally grateful to me for preserving his life.
I reminded him of contemporaries of his at Mill Grove during the later 1950’s and early 1960’s, but apart from one, an unforgettably energetic and flamboyant character named Henrietta (as I will call her), and possibly one or two others, he couldn’t remember them.
At this stage we began looking into the folder that contained forms, letters, reports and one or two photos all relating to him and his two siblings. We started with his admission form, and this provoked a simultaneous gasp of astonishment from both father and daughter: for the first time in his life, he was seeing the name of his father. Until that moment he knew that the surname by which he had been known was not that of his biological father, but despite much effort spent tracing his family roots, he had not been able to find out what it was. His father had emigrated to Canada before Eric came to Mill Grove, and he had never seen him or heard of him.
Then there was the question of why he had been placed so far from home (Aldershot was his family home town, and South Woodford is a long way both physically and in terms of mental maps). He only remembered that he and his brother had spent a couple of nights before they came to us in a big house. The riddle was solved by documents and correspondence in the folder. A welfare officer had contacted a local Christian children’s home, called Mr Fegan’s Homes to ask if they would receive the two boys into their care, but they did not have the necessary staff at that point in time. So they referred the family to Mill Grove, the home founded by Herbert White, and known to them on the Christian grapevine.
But why did they need to come anyway? The reason on the form was that the father was living abroad, and the mother was homeless following a recent eviction. Eric was tenacious in his view that the problem was a deeper one: his mother had four children by different fathers, and was trying to settle down with her new partner, and wanted him and his siblings out of the way. She was, in his view, and this was confirmed by his daughter, always hoping that she could make a new start in life, at the expense of any commitment to her own children.
So how come the three children (the sister came to Mill Grove a year later than her brothers, but left at the same time as them) went back home with Eric at the tender age of 10? What had changed, and what were the attachments and bonds? Sadly the records made it clear that their mother was under pressure from her family to have the children home, despite the fact that she was never attuned to them or their needs, and that one of the boys had been on the receiving end of physical ill-treatment.
There was lots more that came out of the woodwork as we nosed our way through letters and reports, and it was heavy stuff. There was deceit all through, like Brighton through rock, and letters that had been written under duress. The mother and the current step-father put pressure on them to give the impression that things were going well at home, when this was anything but the case.
As the time drew near for their return journey (to avoid the London rush hour, and keep child-care commitments) he got up and put a gift of money into my hands. It was, he said, a way of thanking me and my parents for the love he had received while living with us. He would not have it back, even when I assured him that just seeing him again was worth it’s weight in gold.
With that we started to head for his white Renault van (he was a builder), when his daughter said she would like a brief look around the place where he had lived for five years of his childhood. He was a little reluctant, but agreed, and so we looked around the familiar garden and orchard, and then the lounge, kitchen and dining room. Last we headed up to the room we call “the hall”, which houses an indoor badminton court, and is the indoor base of the Mill Grove Pre-School. I said that the handrails and the brickwork were exactly as they were when the pair of us were boys. He stopped by the window half-way up, and suddenly recalled that this was the place where one of the staff, Miss Baker, by name, had told him at exactly this spot that he would be going home to live with his mother.
He said he had no idea what this might mean or entail, but over fifty years later he had found the spot where the news that transformed his life was broken to him. It had not been easy, but on reflection he was pleased that he had taken this fork in the road. Life had been OK for him, and he had two wonderful children (as well as grand-children). Things hadn’t turned out as well for his brother or sister.
The time had come to leave, and we hugged each other and promised to sustain the conversation and relationships. I agreed to scan and then send them all the relevant documentation from the family folder. And then a final word to his daughter from me in which I told her of my admiration for his resilience and good-faith in and through a very rocky childhood, and of my joy that he had been such a good father to her. It was my parents who had provided the primary care for him (along with Miss Baker): I was effectively an older brother who enjoyed the fun of having so many brothers with whom I could play all day long. But what a blessing to see her thriving, and their relationship so obviously caring and kind.
We are often asked about “outcomes” at Mill Grove, and whether we have analysed them. We haven’t, for two main reasons: the first is that the story is never over (there are always more generations), and the second, that the whole ethos of the place since 1899 has been to welcome each child by name and to love and care for them. In this statistics have little or no place. Perhaps someone will feel it encumbent upon them to do an analysis, but I will continue to to focus on welcoming children, and children’s children, by name, and by listening to their stories, laughing, smiling and as today, sometimes weeping with them. And being guided by them so that when the time is ripe they can stop on the stairs and recall the moment when the next chapter of their life-story began.