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New light is shone into Sandwell Hall Boarding School for ‘Mentally Defective Children’

By rob taylor  |  Posted: December 05, 2012

Sandwell Hall's imposing frontage.

Sandwell Hall's imposing frontage.

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SANDWELL may be a name which only came to prominence in the 1970s when a large chunk of the Black Country was renamed, but the title did in fact have quite a provenance.

Sandwell Hall, built on the site of a priory in West Bromwich, was for many years the seat of the Earl of Dartmouth, though by the late ninteenth century it had taken on another role.

Sandwell Hall became for a few years a residential school for those who were then classed as Mentally Defective Children, and some recent genealogical research by reader Stephen Dyer, a member the Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy & Heraldry, has lead him to some fascinating insights into that establishment.

Looking into his extended family, Stephen followed the trail of one Andrew James Garvey, who was unfortunate enough to have been classed as 'feeble minded'. Andrew was taken into residential care at Sandwell Hall, and in trying to find out more about his circumstances, Stephen has unearthed a wealth of information regarding that establishment. Having been founded with the best of intentions, it never quite came up to scratch, it seems.

Stephen writes: "Andrew was one of six children born to John and Catherine, known as Kate to the family. Kate gave birth to all her children in a tiny cramped terraced house, one room down and two up, kitchenette and a communal toilet across the yard at number 1, back of number 4 Hanley Street, in the parish of St George in Birmingham.

Under the same roof were the Garveys’' first son John junior, then aged 6, his sister Frances Mary aged 2, and Annie Gibbons, Kate’s older sister who never married but lived with Kate to help bring extra money in. Kate Garvey had had another three children; Catherine junior, born September 1888 who died aged 11 months; Henry, born June 1892 who died aged 3 months; and Dennis Joseph, born August 1899, who also died aged 4 months.

Working life "John worked as a plumber, a competent workman who was qualified to work at his trade but in the employment of another. Kate worked in a factory as a lacquerer, coating decorative brass objects by dissolving natural resins in a volatile solvent to give the object a hard glossy coating, her sister Annie also worked as a lacquerer alongside Kate in the hot, pungent and acrid atmosphere of the factory workshop.

"Andrew was classified as ‘feeble-minded’, a catch-all phrase for 'those who need care or control for protection of themselves or others.' Sometime after the age of ten, he was sent to the Sandwell Hall Boarding School for Mentally Defective Children in West Bromwich, five miles north of his home.

Slums "This home was established by the Reverend Harold Burden and his wife in 1906. The Burdens had worked in the East End of London slums, and the reverend became clerical secretary of the Church of England Temperance Society. From his work with ‘inebriates’, Harold Burden became friendly with the Home Office and was invited to sit on the Royal Commission for the Care of the Feeble Minded that met from 1904 – 1908. In this capacity he learned of a need to create residential places for ‘mentally defective’ children.

"He rented Sandwell Hall in West Bromwich, and it was soon filled. Another home followed in Bristol, but the Burdens' office base was at Howick Place in London; a matron was left in charge to run the Sandwell Hall Boarding School. This, research has revealed, was the beginning of the problems which finally resulted in the closure of the residential home in 1921."

 Following extensive rummaging through the National Archives at Kew in London, Stephen has unearthed a report by the Boarding School's Honorary Secretary, Mrs Eileen Pinsent, which reveals that conditions at Sandwell Hall were pretty poor. Andrew Garvey and his fellow residents were in far from ideal circumstances from day one, it seems ...

Mrs Pinsent wrote: “I was greatly surprised to find that at the time of opening, the institution was not sufficiently equipped ready to receive inmates. For instance, during the first year the following difficulties arose: 1. There were not sufficient clothes.

2. The clothes in which the children arrived were sometimes worn indiscriminately by other children, and complaints were made by a parent (the institution undertook to provide clothing).

3. No proper wardrobe arrangements were made, and children often wore one garment until worn out.

4. For many months sufficient hair brushes were not provided.

5. There were not sufficient drinking cups, or knives and forks.

6. The nurse had great difficulty in getting changes of night-shirts for sick children, or sufficient bandages for sores. It was often impossible to tell whether the things required had not been supplied to the institution or whether they were merely withheld by the Matron.

7. There were no proper isolation rooms or convalescent wards.

Cleansing 8. There were no proper arrangements for cleansing new admissions; the orders of the Visiting Medical Officer were not carried out.

9. There was not sufficient furniture for the staff.

10. The children in the institution became very verminous.

Even children who came from other institutions and were almost certainly clean on admission, were found to have sore heads from lice. Some ten months after the institution was opened, three very bad cases occurred, and the Medical Officer found it necessary to poultice their heads in order to remove the crusts. A parent complained, and I felt the conditions were so serious that after obtaining leave from Mr Burden, they made an inspection of all heads, and found about 14 girls in such a condition that it was necessary to crop their hair short.

There were only a few girls whose heads were quite free from nits."

 Escape Given these awful conditions, it's no surprise that a number of residents tried to escape, and several were successful.

Mrs Pinsent continued: "Regarding escapes, it is probably impossible to prevent these altogether, but in my opinion many that took place from Sandwell were the result of bad organisation.

The staff had no rules or time-tables given them, and when I asked for them, I was told that it was not Mr Burden’s custom to provide them in his institutions. I obtained leave to draft them, and submitted them to Mr and Mrs Burden in London. When they were approved, they were sent to Sandwell, but the Matron did not see that they were carried into effect.

“There were constant changes in the staff, and I do not think the rules/timetables were given to new members of staff. Children were often left alone because the member of staff went off duty before the relieving member of staff appeared."

 Mrs Pinsent pulled no punches with her concerns, and was not averse to questioning the competence of the Reverend Burden himself.

Further on in the report, she wrote: "Regarding the relationship between the first Boarding School Council and the Visiting Committee, Mr Burden was chairman of both and it was arranged that the Visiting Committee should meet once every three months, but this was not strictly adhered to.

The Council met about every three months. Mr Burden always seemed to me averse to taking any business or difficulties that he could help before the Council or Committee.

When I complained to him of any of the matters mentioned above, he always said that he would deal with the difficulty and put it right.

He gave his staff the impression that they must look to him for everything, and not to the Council or Committee.

"Difficulty with regard to the Matrons, the first Matron who was recommended to Mr Burden by a sub-committee of the Council, proved incompetent, and was dismissed. Mr Burden then recommended Mrs Upfold, an Officer in one of his Certified Inebriate Reformatories, and she was appointed. During the first three months that she was in the Institution I formed the opinion that she was most unsuitable. She had a very hasty temper, and would storm and lose her self-control both with staff and children.

She was rough and uneducated.

One instance will be sufficient: she punished inmates who wet their beds by allowing the smaller children who had been clean to pull up the night gowns of the bigger ones and slap them.

This she confessed to in my presence, and was requested by Mrs Burden not to do it again.

"I repeatedly pressed Mr Burden to dismiss her and was always told that she was a very valuable officer, and saved him £200 a year by her economy. There is no doubt that she was hard working and economical. After a great deal of pressure from myself, Mr Burden said that he would not discharge the Matron, but would appoint a Medical Officer as Head of the Institution, and Dr Farries was appointed in April 1908."

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