The Challenge of Biography Writing

When I set out to become a writer, my eyes were firmly focused on fiction. I had list of plots (which I am still working my way through) and set out on the journey. Then, I was introduced to a man – a successful and highly intelligent professional – who, I was told, had an interesting story to tell and was looking for someone to write it. We met for a coffee and the project started.

He told me that the book would be called ‘Susan’s Brother’.

Writing biographies had never been in my plans, but this story just had to be told. I agreed to write a trial chapter and I delivered it a week later. I strolled into the centre of Lyndhurst whilst Susan’s Brother read the chapter. When I returned from my stroll and he opened his door to me, there were tears in his eyes. Reading what I had written had clearly been very emotional for him.

I submitted the trial chapter for review by a coterie of writers at a well-known writers’ café . It was favourably received and I was accepted into the circle. It seemed that I was on the right track.

The next three months included a series of interviews, research and writing. Interviews were occasionally very emotional and the whole process was obviously cathartic for him. Some of his memories were sketchy and others were crystal clear. It took well over six months before a working draft was ready and further meetings followed to finalise details and make corrections.

Even then, there were issues about some content. As an adult some family relationships remained strained and there were disputes about family estate matters which could not easily be addressed, as well as salacious details which I did not feel it appropriate to write about in any detail.

From a writing perspective this was no ordinary biography – the subject was alive and I wanted to try capture his thought processes and emotional state at critical times in his childhood, as he recalled them after more than fifty years. I achieved this using a particular writing construct to uncover these aspects.

If you read it, let me know whether you think I succeeded.

James Marinero

Boxmoor House Special School

Boxmoor House Special School was close to the village of Boxmoor, near Hemel Hemstead.

In 1958, Boxmoor House was the senior-school equivalent of Epping House, the senior school for the ‘malads’ as the maladjusted boys were known.

Progression from Epping House

Many of the boys there had been fellows of Susan’s brother at Epping House, so going to Boxmoor was in some ways, for him, taking a step back in time and reviving painful memories. Not all patients were ‘malads’ – there were some who boarded because of difficult home circumstances, ranging from physical neglect to problems with parents, step-parents and ‘lodgers’. Other boys had criminal records which were not serious enough to warrant being in an Approved School or a Borstal.

The boys slept in dormitories, in three separate groups: Ages 11-12, 12-14 and 14+.

Progress towards Adulthood and Work

At the age of 15, they would move out to their own accommodation, and hopefully started work full time, with maybe night school for the cleverer ones. That was what the education policies were geared towards. Unfortunately, the reality usually fell short of those laudable aspirations.

Nevertheless, there were successes. The headmaster, R. A Carrington (later awarded the M.B.E.), proved to be a hugely positive influence in the life of Susan’s brother.

James Marinero

The Progression of Child Abuse and Neglect Legislation

Child abuse is very much in the news, all over the world. Most of us know what is right and wrong when it comes to children, and what is wrong appals us. In the United Kingdom, legal definitions have some fluidity. Current UK definitions of what constitutes child abuse appear to have widened considerably since the late 1940s and 1950s.

Legislation that enables the prosecution of people accused of child cruelty has been in force since the late 19th century.

1945 saw the first formal child death inquiry in England, into the death of Dennis O’Neill who was killed at the age of 12 by his foster father.

1973 7-year-old Maria Colwell’s death led to the establishment of our modern child protection system.

1984 Several other child deaths, including that of 4-year-old Jasmine Beckford, prompted further further changes.

2000 Victoria Climbié was killed at the age of 8 and her tragic death led to major changes in the way children’s services were structured in England and Wales. These changes were progressively introduced between 2006 and 2008.

2010 A change of government led to a review of the child protection system in England.

2011 A further wave of reforms (led by Eileen Munro) were focused on making the child protection system more child-centred.

Child Abuse – Changing Definitions?

NSPCC Child Protection Factsheet

The NSPCC ‘Child Protection Factsheet’ includes criteria such as providing a child with ‘inappropriate clothing’ as being abusive. Susan’s brother would have been considered to have been abused under this definition. (Retrieved August 2011)

Children Act 1989

In the Children Act 1989, the term ‘significant harm’ replaces the terms ‘child abuse’ and ‘neglect’. Significant harm is defined as ill-treatment or the impairment of the child’s health (mental or physical) or development (physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural) attributable to a lack of adequate parental care or control: section 31.

Crown Prosecution Service

Quoted from the Crown Prosecution Service Website as of 21st November 2011

‘Abuse and neglect are forms of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting, by those known to them or, more rarely, by a stranger. They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children.’

Susan’s Brother

Susan’s brother was born shortly after the inquiry into Denis O’Neill’s death, but that enquiry had little effect on child care services. Much of the population (both civilan and military) was still suffering some degree of disturbance (in the most general sense) as a result of the trauma of war. Children with emotional and other special needs were just lumped together. New ideas about care facilities were emerging (see Epping House)

Fortunately we have moved forward in terms the provision of child care services, but as a society I’m mot so sure we have progressed.

James Marinero

Beech House at St. Augustine’s Hospital

Certainly not a Preparatory School

Every one of the boys in its care was a patient and suffered with a mental illnesses or emotional disturbance. Their conditions had led many into conflict with the law, family or the wider public.

St Augustine’s Hospital was a psychiatric hospital, originally founded as the East Kent County Asylum in 1872. The hospital was incorporated into the National Health Service when it was established in 1948.

Requirements of the 1845 Lunacy Act

The 1845 Lunacy Act made it a legal requirement for counties to provide mental asylum facilities. A site at Chartham near Canterbury was chosen for the second Kent County Asylum (the first was at Margate).

The ‘Commissioners in Lunacy’ selected the site which satisfied certain basic stipulations, being on elevated ground with a bright vista, near to a town and railway station so that family members could visit easily. Trees were planted around the boundary, as was usual, lest the local population be reminded of its existence. No doubt, the architects would have said that the trees were to provide shelter in the exposed position.

Enlightened – for the times

Other, relatively enlightened requirements were for there to be enough land to enable employment and leisure for patients (or inmates as they were known), with segregation from the local population. The site, on a ridge overlooking the valley of the Great Stour, is on the edge of Chartham Downs, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As was usual, the hospital had the full range of facilities expected in a small, self-contained community, including a cricket pitch, shop, chapel and even a cemetery. The hospital was dominated by a huge seven-storey water tower.

Where do we House and Treat Challenged and Damaged Children?

The most challenged and damaged children have to be housed and schooled somewhere, and Beech House was such an institution. This is where Susan’s brother became a patient. It could become worse for him – and it did.

Notorious Alumni

Susan’s brother told me that Patrick Mackay was a patient at Beech House in the early 1960s. In 1975 Mackay was sentenced to life imprisonment for three murders (having been charged with five). He eventually confessed to a total of eleven murders.

Epping House Special School

A Radical Institution

Epping House Special School was a residential school near Ware, about 28 miles from the family home in Berkhamsted. Epping House was not a boys’ special needs school typical of this period – it was radical and experimental under a recently appointed headmaster who was shaking it up when Susan’s brother was sent there early in the summer of 1957.

The Building

The main block was an old building on three floors, dating back to the 17th or 18th Century. It was extended in the 1820s by Sir William Horne, who was Solicitor General for a time whilst he owned it. It is, today, a Grade II listed building, with twelve pane sash bay windows on the first floor, and six pane sash windows on the second.

A Radical Regime

The school’s regime (in the broadest sense) was being shaped by the headmaster, Howard Case. His ideas were revolutionary. This school had a serious impact on (or, depending on one’s view, failed) Susan’s brother. To quote from The Student Voice Handbook:

“In many ways his approach is best understood through the pivotal practice of the Daily Meeting attended by all staff and young people…
…it was here that all significant decisions about how students and staff lived, worked and learned together were taken on a daily basis. The Meeting was chaired by one of the children and normally lasted about an hour…
…The constraining items, such as the Stop or Veto list in which children whose activities were restrained in some way by the will of the Community as expressed in the Meeting, were dealt with first. This was followed by the negotiation of activities that staff were able to offer in the afternoon and evening, after the 11:00 am-12:30 pm class groups, which the school expected the children to attend. Children were free to choose which activities they wanted to take part in or to offer activities of their own or do nothing at all…
…Then came the allocation of communal work such as sweeping and cleaning and looking after the dogs and cats that had an important role to play in the emotional reparation and development of many of the children in the school. ”

Homer Lane and Little Commonwealth

Whether Howard Case’s approach to education was influenced by the American Homer Lane’s views on the education of children with special needs is not clear. There are obvious similarities between Epping House and the policies and running of Homer Lane’s ‘Little Commonwealth’ at Evershot in Dorset in the years 1913-1918. The ‘Little Commonwealth’ took in children with criminal records and up to the age of 19 years.

Children are Accepting

Of course, from a child’s perspective, it was rather different. Children knew little about the debates over special needs education policies. Children were generally accepting of the regime, however strange it might have seemed to many adults.

The practice (as recounted by Susan’s Brother) at Epping House Special School of letting (even encouraging) the children run around unclothed would clearly be totally unacceptable today.

The school was closed in July 1997.