A Knight’s Tale (42: I Find My Direction)

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.


  1. There is no doubt that you made a difference in the lives of many young people. Sometimes we can never be sure (only sure that we tried our best) and rarely, we might hear years down the line that we actually did. The ‘we’ here refers to everyone who works with young people.

  2. So now we know how Jackie changed your life in another way! I’m sure you did make a difference.
    That old system is interesting. It sounded kind of cozy until you described the isolation, and I was struck by how a young woman just 18 would be a housemother for 12 children.
    I’ve probably told you that my older child is a social worker, as well as an artist.

  3. What a story! And what a responsibility for an eighteen year old. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. On a more positive note…how I love your description of Jackie when you first met. No wonder you were drawn to her!

  4. Anyone striving to make the lives of those less fortunate better has my admiration. I’m sure you and Jackie made a big difference to many young peoples’ lives.

  5. It’s amazing how an individual can change the course of our life as Jackie did for you. Without a doubt, you and Jackie have made a great difference in the lives you have touched.

  6. Fascinating. You leave as much untold as you have revealed. I didn’t didn’t realize that you and Jackie went back that far. A whole other world back then. We await the next chapter with alacrity.

  7. I am sure you have made a difference in many lives Derrick. I can’t imagine how many have been uplifted during this pandemic by your blogs of country drives, rose gardens, and Jackie’s culinary skills. ?

  8. “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.” Brilliant writing there, Derrick.

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating story. I bet Jackie has some stories, as well. I was mother to (eventually) 3 beginning at age 28. I cannot imagine mothering 12 at age 18!

    I’m pretty sure that anyone who goes into such a field with the hopes of making a difference, truly DOES make a difference.

  9. Derrick, what a great sharing of how people in need can impact our life choices. Jackie’s dedication to her very young charges must have made a difference in their lives. And clearly in yours. I’m so glad for you that insurance desks were abandoned for the endeavors of compassionate support of others. I understand that call.

  10. Oh, I’m sitting here with tears flowing. Joy-tears. This is so beautiful!
    I KNOW you and Jackie HAVE positively impacted many lives! I am so proud of, and grateful for, both of you!!! 🙂

    I had a similar job during my university years. I got hired at age 18 to work at an Emergency Care Shelter Home for abused, abandoned, and neglected children ages birth to 18. Those children changed my life and I hope I helped to change theirs. 🙂
    (((HUGS))) <3 🙂

  11. Wow! That is a stunning photo of Jackie. I don’t think I’ve read about the group home before (or maybe there is a glimmer of memory in the back of my mind), but I found it extremely interesting. My mother and my aunt were placed in an orphanage in the 1920s. It was progressive for the time, as it was a cottage system, with around 30 per cottage, and one or two housemothers per cottage. No such thing as social workers, etc. The idea was to transform these unfortunates into farm labourers and domestic servants, and so “lift” them up. Run by Presbyterians, with all that denotes of hard work and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps etc. Their story occupies a portion of my current manuscript (on which I still await my agent’s opinion).
    How you progressed through the social work system will make interesting reading.

    1. Thank you so much, Gwen. She really was a stunner. You are right – I have mentioned the group homes before. This time I have filled out the description from Jackie’s recollections because this is as much a tale of the era as of my life. So I am grateful for this additional information.

  12. I am certain that you and Jackie made a positive difference in many lives and that you were meant to get together. Thank you for your service!

  13. I enjoyed reading about how you and Jackie met, Derrick. For some reason I didn’t think you two went back that far. It was a brave and inspired move you made, when you left your job and began one where you could help less fortunate people. I’m looking forward to your next instalment.

  14. The introduction to Jackie is a delightful moment in the saga. She looks cute, and going by your description, she had already made up her mind about the path she would choose in her life. It was decidedly a life defining turning point in your life. You must be particularly fond of that first meeting on Amerland Road.

    1. Never to be forgotten, Uma. Many years later I was to become consultant to an adoption agency across the road from the phone box on the corner with West Hill. Thanks very much

  15. Being relatively new to your blog, I’m fuzzy on many details, including your social work career. My original degree was in medical social work, which I made use of for a few years before changing direction myself.

  16. A lovely photograph. And I’m sure you did change many lives. Those who could or would of course. Nothing can be done about the others… Compliments. (I did find one of your Knight tales…) (41 more to go)

  17. I’ve been wondering how Jackie would enter the picture! I love the header photo of her. It looks like a birthday celebration? Did she continue in a social work career? As others have noted, taking on the house mother role at such a young age must have been quite a challenge. I have no doubt that both you and Jackie made a positive impact on the people whose lives you touched.

    1. Thank you very much, Liz. She stopped work when we married. Later she returned to the caring role with elderly people. The photo was taken on an evening celebrating our engagement.

  18. As I have commented once before, when I saw a photo of young Jackie, she was gorgeous!
    There is a private residential facility of the kind you have described in South Florida, Derrick, with cottages for 6 and house parents, rather than single house mothers, but those children are supposed to be SED (severe emotional disabilities), rather than troubled. Of course, a good portion of them are troubled as well, obviously.
    To be in charge of 12 of them at the age of 18 is nothing but astonishing!
    I am sure both you and Jackie have made a lasting positive impact on your charges. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, one said, “If you save one child, you save the world,” and you have saved many.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: