When my grief at my loss of Vivien had subsided somewhat, my brother Chris and his great friend Mike Ozga took me in hand and out with them to various venues. We rode around in a little mini. I don’t remember whose it was. As we were all six feet two or three we caused great amusement when we unfolded ourselves from this tiny, yet surprisingly roomy, vehicle. One evening they drove me ‘creeping like snail unwillingly to’ Helen’s twenty first birthday party.
Never, at the best of times, a party animal, I stood in the Amerland Road flat not knowing where to put myself. There were a couple of girls in a corner and I thought I might put myself there. One of them said to her companion: ‘You’re in luck, he’s coming over.’ Unfortunately I only had eyes for the disinterested party.
Although she was, in spirit, rather like Shakespeare’s schoolboy, she was definitely female. Claiming to be eighteen, Jackie, I learned later, was awaiting that birthday before taking up her post as a housemother at Shirley Oaks. Near Croydon, this was a laid out estate of forty two large houses, called cottages, each accommodating twelve children. At that time the project also included a swimming pool, an infirmary, a laundry, a general store, a junior school, and even an unused mortuary. The individual houses were staffed by ‘housemothers’, many of whom offered ‘families’ of children long term consistent care. Jackie was one of these carers, in ‘Laurel cottage’, and the person who introduced me to the world of Social Work that was to provide me with a new direction. Long since out of fashion as a method of child care, these buildings were sold off to form an exclusive, expensive enclave. The seclusion that had been considered too institutional, isolating and ghetto-like for troubled children, had become an attraction for those wealthy enough to buy their homes. Shirley Oaks children were given no experience of life outside the institution until they were thrust into secondary school. They didn’t go to the public baths and pay their entrance fee. They knew no launderettes. A daily truck provided an enuretic service for the wet sheets which were left outside the back door. Their shop issued the housemothers with weekly order forms on which they ticked what they needed and collected it once a week. No money was handed over. No ‘outsiders’ attended their school. When a group of boys from outside began to visit a girl in Jackie’s care, a bunch of Oaks boys attacked them with such violence that there was blood on her doorstep.
This was one of the old style self-contained residential villages that existed in those days for children in local authority care. Visiting Jackie there, I got to know the young people and their stories. How did they get there? Who was responsible? What could be done to prevent it? These were the questions which exercised me and gave me my direction. I soon left my insurance desk and began working as an Assistant Child Care Officer in Tolworth Tower in the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames. That was December, 1966.
I was inspired to attempt to do my bit in changing all this. Perhaps I made a difference to some young lives.