Over a series of Saturday mornings, we have been digitising, editing and transcribing a series of interviews recorded in 1995 given by people who used to work at Middlefield Hospital, shortly after it closed in 1992. These interviews were recorded by The Knowle Society, who were also interested in capturing people’s memories and recollections of Middlefield before they were lost.
As it was 1995, they were recorded onto cassette tapes, so one major task was digitising them to make them more accessible for today’s researchers! This involved perhaps my [Claire] favourite piece of National Lottery Heritage Funded kit so far – a Tonor USB Tape Cassette Converter.
Working with The Knowle Society, we have compiled a series of extracts from these interviews that offer all sorts of interesting new insights into life at Middlefield throughout the years. As most, if not all, of the people taking part have since passed away, we have kept these extracts anonymous. This means that we are not using the original interview audio. However, to help bring the extracts to life and make them more accessible, we are working with voice actors to produce new audio versions.
If you are interested in listening to the full and original interview recordings, please get in touch with The Knowle Society.
All of the extracts in this blog are copyright of and belong to The Knowle Society. Solihull Action through Advocacy has been given exclusive rights to reproduce these for the Hidden Lives Remembered project.
One of the main things that these extracts illuminate is the huge differences at Middlefield before and after the 1959 Mental Health Act. This act led to many of the “more able” residents, who were the most active members of the hospital ‘workforce’, being discharged from the hospital.
These extracts have been chosen as Jennifer as particularly interesting to her. There are more to come! Some of the difficult words, in bold, are explained at the bottom of the page.
A senior member of staff at Middlefield, speaking in 1995, about the work contracts he helped to set up with important local industries:
[Some residents worked putting Kirby grips onto paper cards for Newey Goodman]
“We had things so that the ones that couldn’t count could fill one in… and then they’d put the 20 into a packet… I went over and found the jobs with people at Goodmans. They didn’t pay us a lot, but it was terribly real”
“And Baker and Finnemore… I had foot presses from them, they used to make these fixed washers. Smith, Stone and Knight, we used to make bags of all description for them… We set up jigs. I had the chaps who were very talented, and they made jigs for them so that they could fold the paper properly… they folded them and glued them, the total job. Thousands of them. But we lost that job, I remember, when Smith, Stone and Knight moved to Bristol. That was a great loss to us. But then we got another firm for whom we used to make polythene plastic bags. Lots of jobs like that… It was a hive of industrial really.”
Jennifer: It is interesting that the residents at Middlefield used to do factory work, which would have helped them to learn some skills. However, these skills are not the most useful for eventually living independently. They also only had little pay and probably no employment rights. To me, it was like they were working ‘on the cheap’, to help these businesses stay open. Even then, one of the businesses (Smith, Stone and Knight) moved away from Birmingham. Some of the work sounds like it would have been dangerous and quite easy to injure yourself, as these tasks would have taken a lot of concentration. If you had forgotten what you were doing, or lost concentration, which can sometimes be the case for people with learning disabilities, there could have been an accident.
The same senior member of staff at Middlefield, speaking in 1995, about the hospital ‘workforce’
“I felt that patients provided 75% of the labour force at the hospital, in my opinion, in the domestic work… in the kitchen, there was 1 cook and 5 or 6 patients, and they were supervised in preparing potatoes and vegetables and all that…
In the hospital block [there was] a group of working patients who made all the beds and supported the dressing and feeding of the more disabled residents. That was the way throughout the hospital at the time, the more able ones helped in caring for the less able.”
A chaplain at Middlefield, speaking in 1995, about how different levels of responsibility created a hierarchy between residents:
“There was sometimes bullying between residents and residents… they were the kind of people who… were given a lot of responsibility by the staff. And they could be a bit officious, to those more disabled.”
Jennifer: To me, this is almost like Middlefield was run by the residents, and the actual staff, who would have been paid properly, gave them a lot of responsibility. But unfortunately this led to bullying between some of the residents, as they could be a bit strict or controlling to those that had more complex needs.
A [different] senior member of staff at Middlefield, speaking in 1995, about the routines at Middlefield:
“[There was] a strict routine of bedtime at 8 o clock, then up at 7 in the morning. It was ran on very very strict [principles]… but here again, Middlefield was years, light-years almost, ahead of other large hospitals. There was very little restriction of any kind, discipline was the smallest possible “d”. There was no discipline in the place at all.”
Jennifer: Although this member of staff does not think there was much discipline at Middlefield, I find it quite hard to believe that there had to be set bedtimes, such as going to bed at 8pm and having to wake up at 7am. I think it would have been awful not having a choice of when you wanted to go to bed and wake up, but for them it was probably just a normal part of life.
I had an experience like this when I lived in a residential home. When we went on holiday with them we were split into two groups. One group got to stay up late and one had a set bedtime. I was put in the set bedtime group. It just amazes me that the way that institutions and people in the past treated people with learning disabilities is still happening today.
A chaplain at Middlefield, speaking in 1995, about Middlefield’s relationship with Birmingham’s Monyhull Hospital:
“Part of the difficulty with the funding and what happened at Middlefield historically was that it was a little sister to Monyhull Hospital, and it tended to get the rag end of everything. This is unofficial, but that accounted for the overcrowding and everything.
They built Unit 4, which was for the ladies who came from [Monyhull] in 1965. Until that time there was only 1 lady living there, for years. She wouldn’t move.”