Christine Wells was born on the 16th November, 1906. She lived in London. Her parents were not married when they had her. Her mother died in 1908. Her file does not have much information about her parents.
Christine went to live with an organisation called MABYs. MABYs supported working-class girls and young women. MABYS often encouraged the women to become servants in upper-class homes. MABYS gave young girls with learning disabilities a place to stay.
In 1921, MABYS wrote to the Guardianship Society. They said they couldn’t find a family home for Christine. They said “if only she can settle in with good foster parents, it will be the happiest thing for her”. MABYS said Christine was “very backward intellectually”. Today we would say Christine had a learning disability.
Good early times with carers
On May 26th 1921, the Guardianship Society found a carer for Christine to stay with. Christine and her carer lived on a farm near Horsham. In 1922, Grace Eyre Woodhead came to visit Christine. She wrote that Christine looked “very well”, and was “improving mentally”. Christine was “fond of gardening”. She had her own part of the garden where she grew flowers. In 1923, another visitor came to visit Christine. Christine told the visitor she was excited because she was going away for a holiday.
Christine seemed to have a lovely time growing up on the farm. Christine said she was “very happy and comfortable” living at the farm. Her carer said she saw Christine “almost as my own now”. It sounds like they had a good relationship. Christine shared a bedroom with her carer’s daughter and son. This was a “fair sized room”.
In 1926, Christine went to live with Mrs Chart in Horsham. She worked here until at least 1932. It is unclear why she moved or what work she did here. It was likely Christine helped out with things like cooking and cleaning. In 1932, London County Council said that Christine was “slightly useful with simple work” and had “quite childish speech”. They said she had a mental age of 8.
At some point in the late 1940s, Christine went to live with some new carers. In 1952, an old friend saw Christine. Her friend was worried about her, and wrote to her nurse. She said Christine was very pale, nervous, and ill. Christine’s friend thought Christine was very stressed.
It is worrying that the Guardianship Society hadn’t noticed the level of neglect Christine was in. People with learning disabilities were used by some carers as cheap workers. The carers didn’t let Christine wash her clothes. She had no time to mend her clothes. Her friend said this was because she was too busy working. Her friend told the nurse that Christine had sore knees from working too much.
Christine’s friend asked the Guardianship if Christine could have a holiday soon. The Guardianship allowed the holiday to go ahead. Christine stayed with her friend’s aunt. Christine’s carers were not happy about this. The carers said it was bad for Christine to be in touch with her friend. The carers were unkind about Christine. They said she was a “very poor specimen” and had a “bad record”. The Guardianship found a new home for Christine to stay in. The Guardianship did not let anyone else stay with these carers.
Getting good support
In 1952, Christine went to live with her friend’s aunt. A report says that Christine was “treated as one of the family”. She helped with cooking and cleaning. She helped look after the family’s pet birds, “which she adored”. In 1968, a report said Christine was a “high grade woman”. Today we would say that she had a mild learning disability. This contrasts with earlier reports from the council, which said she was much less independent. It sounds like Christine spent a happy 20 years here. She lived here until 1972.
Moving into a home
In 1972, Christine moved to a home for the elderly in Horsham. Christine was keen to stay in the local area as she had spent most of her life in Horsham. She helped out at the elderly home. She ran errands and did small jobs like laying the table. A report from 1986 says Christine sewed “cushions, aprons and table cloths”. She gave these to the home for them to sell. It is not clear whether she made any money from her embroidery. She paid for some of embroidery materials herself. She often talked about her “past life in service”. Being in service meant you did cooking and cleaning for a house. You also lived in the house. You were paid, but not much. Christine also was interested in “current affairs and local activities”. She had “good relationships” with staff and “often knits for their families and exchanges gifts with them”.
A report from 1990 suggests that Christine found living in a home frustrating at times. Christine would have lived a more independent life if she had been around today. She was described as having a “mind of her own”. She was sometimes “impatient” with other people in the home. Christine found it hard to understand why they didn’t talk much and why they slept so much. She often said she “has no time for those who sit around idle”. Christine found it “strange that others do nothing but watch TV”. A report from 1993 says Christine saw herself as “younger and more able than her fellow residents”. It sounds like she enjoyed some parts of living in a home, but struggled with other parts. Christine was “never still – she is always knitting, sewing or going out”. It sounds like Christine liked to keep busy. She was described as “lively and full of life” and “a little bossy”.
How the home affected her independence
Around 1995, Christine moved to a family placement in the community. Christine had spent the past 20 years in a care home. She found it hard to adjust to the family placement. Her carer thought she had become used to the routine of a large care home. Christine would “clear cups and saucers away before they are finished. She wanted to “stick to a fixed timetable”. This clashed with the other people in her new smaller home. They had a more relaxed way of doing things. Her carer also said Christine didn’t respect others’ privacy. Perhaps the care home she lived in did not respect others’ privacy. A staff member “tried to explain the differences” between a “large home and a small home” to her. The staff member described her carers as understanding of her needs.
In some ways she sounds like quite an independent person. Her carer felt she “needs to meet more people as she gets bored”. Christine sounds like quite an outgoing and active person. Her carer suggested Christine could attend “a daycentre where she can be with more people”.
Christine often talked about her life on the farm and working for her friend’s family. Her carer complained that she repeatedly told these stories. If only we could hear them! Sadly, there is no record of this.
In 1996, Christine’s carer suddenly retired due to health issues. Christine was sent to live in a care home. She shared a double room with another woman. A report from 1996 said they appeared to “enjoy each other’s company”. Christine seemed happy and “very interested” in the Home. She liked to go to the Church, a coffee group, and a Ladies afternoon meeting.
Sadly, Christine developed cancer in 1997. A note from her carers said they were “very concerned” as “it appeared no one had helped her to eat” in hospital. There were also “inconsistencies in the exact story” of her healthcare. In August, she returned to the care home. Christine asked if her carer could take her out. Christine said “you get a bit of life out of going out”. By September, Christine’s cancer was worse. She was in a coma. Her carer wrote that she was a “fighter” and “must have great hidden strengths”. On 7th October 1997, Christine passed away at Crawley Hospital.
Grace Eyre’s presence in her life
Grace Eyre still kept in touch with Christine during this time when she lived in all these places. A staff member from Grace Eyre took her out every 2 months. The staff member says that she visited Grace Eyre’s daycentre. Some of the people there remembered her from the “1920s and 30s”. The sons of one of Christine’s previous Grace Eyre carers were now “in their late 70s” and “visit regularly”.
She attended Grace Eyre’s 80th anniversary party. A support record said that she “enjoyed it all very much”. Christine often talked of her “early life and having no family”. She also told the staff member “how kind” Grace Eyre Woodhead was to her “all these years ago”. The staff member describes her as “a lady who has lived her life in a state of ‘innocence’, protected from the harsher realities of life”. She saw the Grace Eyre Foundation as “family”. The staff member said this may have helped her “cope with a number of major moves in the past few years” without the “distress these sort of changes can have on the elderly”.
A staff member from Grace Eyre wrote about Christine after she passed away. He said “All of us who knew [Christine] will miss her, for our part, not only because she was a living link with the Foundation’s past [we loved her reminiscences about Miss Woodhead, our Founder, and the way things were “back then“], but also because she was a charming lady and a character.“
What can we learn from Christine’s story?
There is a big change in how Christine is described. In her early life, she was described as “intellectually backward” by the council. In the 1950s, her neglectful carer described her as a “very poor specimen”. This is a very negative way to describe someone with a learning disability. This language would not be used today.
In her later life, Christine was described in a more positive way. Her carers described her as helpful and “lively and full of life”. She is seen as having a mild learning disability. A report says she “requires very little supervision”. It sounds like she was more independent than the council thought. In her later life, people describe her abilities, her individuality and her interests more. This shows a positive change in how others described her.
What would Christine’s support be like now?
If Christine were alive today, hopefully she would not be sent to live in a care home. She liked helping the staff there but she found it hard to relate to people living there. If Christine hadn’t lived in a care home for 20 years, perhaps she would have developed more independent living skills. Maybe today Christine would live in a Shared Lives placement or in her own flat with support workers visiting her.
All names have been changed to preserve anonymity. All addresses have been removed where possible.