The Bowes-Lyons at Earlswood: “a peg to hang it on”

Picture of Katherine Bowes-Lyon, first cousin of the QueenTV review: The Queen’s Hidden Cousins; Waking Up To Insomnia; Symphony | Television & radio | The Guardian

Last night I saw a documentary on Channel 4 titled The Queen’s Hidden Cousins (that is a link to 4OD, where you can watch it, if you’re in the UK, until about this time next month), which was about two women from the Bowes-Lyon family, the family of the late Queen Mother, who had learning disabilities and spent most of their lives in an institution for “mental defectants” in Earlswood, Surrey. One of them is still alive and, since the closure of Earlswood, lives in a nursing home; the other died in 1986 and was buried in a pauper’s grave, attended only by nurses from Earlswood. Neither of them ever received visits from their family. The review linked above condemns the programme for failing to bring any new information about the Bowes-Lyons themselves that has not already been known since the 1980s, when news of their situation became public. However, the review totally ignores sections of the programme that deals with the history of care for those with learning disabilities in general, which may have been intended as the real focus of the documentary: in broadcasting terms, the Bowes-Lyons’ story was “a peg to hang it on”.

Earlswood was founded in 1855 as an “asylum for idiots”; when the NHS took over such institutions in the 1940s, it came to be called a hospital. The conditions, however, gradually deteriorated until the place closed in 1997, due to underfunding and understaffing. A documentary broadcast in the 1980s (a clip was shown in this programme) exposed the shocking conditions and practices in places like it: someone strapped to a post (standing) for hours, with others imprisoned in an outside grassy area, with the staff on the outside pushing food through the wire fence, with one half-naked man, who was said to crave attention and “mothering” (from anyone, male or female), laying his head down on another patient’s body, and shown to have marks on his body from the violence of staff and other patients. A male nurse, who worked at Earlswood at some point, related that he had witnessed a man being locked outside, naked, in the snow as a punishment for challenging behaviour; when he reported this abuse, the staff were told he had informed on them and immediately set him to the dirty jobs and made his life difficult, eventually leading to his resignation. Patients had to wear communal clothes, and one man complained that the underwear had urine stains on it.

This man now lives semi-independently, doing his own shopping and getting round town (somewhere in Sussex) on a scooter. He would presumably, always have been capable of doing this, but the powers that were at the time did not consider it worth enabling him to do so. A woman who had lived at Earlswood, also now in a nursing home, is said to have blossomed since the institution closed; her younger sister said that it had now been a joy to visit her, rather than a duty which she dreaded. The programme-makers managed to find various nurses that remembered Bowes-Lyons, and one in particular recalled that the sisters would be glued to the TV if any royal occasion were on, in their younger days curtseying to members of the royal family in front of the TV, but later simply saluting (presumably as they got stiffer in their old age).

The BBC have, in the past, made a history of the mental health system in post-war Britain, from the over-crowded asylums of the 1940s to “care in the community” in the 1980s and 1990s. There were some echoes of this in the Channel 4 documentary, with a speech that sounded a lot like Enoch Powell’s “water tower” speech replayed. The programme traced public attitudes to learning disability to the early 20th century, when eugenics began to gain popularity. Learning disabilities came to be associated with all manner of negative traits including criminality, and having a relative with such a disability became a matter of shame as it was assumed to be hereditary, so it automatically lowered the value of anyone related to them. This may have been one of the reasons why Elizabeth and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon were hidden from view and ostracised; the family misinformed Burke’s Peerage that the sisters had died in 1940. Another reason was that the family may have found it difficult to cope, as the support network was not there as it is now. While that may be credible for a family of modest means, it has no merit as far as a family as wealthy and privileged as the Bowes-Lyons. They could have provided for the girls, and could have paid for drastic improvements to the conditions at Earlswood or even founded their own institution, but chose not to — they simply abandoned them instead.

I don’t find the criticism that it reveals nothing new to be particularly significant, anyway. Documentaries often aren’t meant to be revelatory; very often, they are simply retellings of history. Not everyone alive now was alive in 1987, and certainly not everyone was an adult in 1987 (I wasn’t) and therefore might not remember the original scandal very well. It could, perhaps, have focussed more on the history of care for the learning disabled, and how not everyone released from the long-stay hospitals blossomed in provincial nursing homes — others were dumped on housing estates and became targets for gratuitous harassment and violence (in some cases murder) from local yobs. It presented institutional abuse of such people as a thing of the past, when in fact, abuse persisted after the long-stays closed, as the scandal of the Longcare homes in the 1990s and the more recent Winterbourne View exposé, featuring some of the same type of abuse mentioned in this programme demonstrate. So, in a sense, the programme does disappoint and presents an overly rosy view of how we deal with those with learning disabilities since the closure of the big rural “hospitals”, but the lack of new material about the Bowes-Lyons is a pretty trivial criticism.

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