1966 and All That
By Bob Billingham
Date Posted: Tuesday, 24 June 2008
Bob Billingham was born in Middlesborough 1944 and was educated at Cannock Grammar School. When he left school he became a bank clerk and then trained as a teacher at Westhill College of Education. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Open University and later completed an M.Ed (Administration) at the University of Birmingham. He started his career in education as a secondary school teacher and retired at fifty years of age when he was a deputy principal of a further education college. Since then he has run a guest house and hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland. He has now fully retired and resides in south-west England.
In this article Bob recounts his time as a temporary residential child care worker in a large children’s home in England in the 1960s.
1966 And All That
Having worked for three years as a bored bank clerk, I found myself completing the first year of a teacher training course. Looking to gain some experience of working with children, and earn some money in the holidays, I responded to a college notice board ‘ad’ for an “assistant house parent“, working in a residential children’s home down south, with board and lodging paid…… plus pocket money!
The tree-lined avenue of large semi’s impressed, but I was a little overawed by the sheer size of this ‘village.’ The staff were welcoming and I was assigned to work with Mary, a senior housemother who was in charge of one of the big houses. As a 21 year old teacher in training, my relevant experience consisted of a short teaching practice and a few lectures in educational psychology. The teaching practice, in an inner ring Birmingham junior school, had been reasonably successful, but not without its challenges. My class teacher was a well experienced 50 year old male, with a big personality and a relaxed control. Being an only child, my experiences of 9 year olds was but a distant memory. My initial nervousness and lack of confidence must have been very obvious, but the class teacher was very supportive and anxious to leave me to get on with it. All well and good, but one of the girls would repeatedly get up from her desk, walk around the class, throw books around and shout at everyone. This happened on a regular basis throughout the four weeks. The class seemed used to this strange behaviour, but I was not and had no answer….except to fetch the class teacher to resolve it. I had tried persuasion, reasoning, bribery and shouting, but nothing worked for me.
Two or three other college friends were due to come down after a couple of weeks or so and this would give an opportunity to compare notes and share anxieties.
Working longish hours left little time to socialise and there was no common relaxing area for staff. I slept in a small room in a staff house: adequate but with no television to watch the World Cup. Naturally ‘world cup fever’ had taken hold of the children’s home and it provided for a common talking point between myself and the children.
Work in the house was fairly routine. In the morning most of the children went off to local schools and we all helped to set tables and prepare for breakfast. Housework followed, some time off, and mid afternoon a return for further meal preparation and making ready for the children’s arrival from school. We also supported children who were ill or excluded from their school.
Mary, the housemother, was strict with the children, and not afraid to raise her voice and show anger. Their ages were between 5 and 16 but the younger ones seemed to get on with her better. I, rather like my teaching practice, tried various approaches with the children. I’m a fairly open person but wasn’t sure how much to give of myself. Mary warned me to be guarded, but at the same time to stand no nonsense. I wasn’t totally clear what she meant, but I often heard her housemother friend next door verbally laying into the children and smacking them. I was brought up by my grandmother, who wasn’t afraid of smacking or punching me, and my best friend’s father regularly took his belt to him. Physical abuse of that nature wasn’t abnormal in families of the 50’s and 60’s, but I expected more constraint in a children’s home.
Early on I was asked to run a weekend camp in the top field with two other assistant house parents. Whilst there I saw a housefather take great amusement in tying a 14 year old boy to his car and driving it around the field. The boy, roughed up and clearly distressed, was further ridiculed by the assembled audience. What should I have done? I hadn’t seen the build-up and they were a separate group; nothing to do with me. I felt outrage, but sadly did nothing!
The children’s background was naturally important to me, but I was very concerned not to ask them questions which may cause upset. Often they would volunteer sensitive information, ‘My dad’s in prison’ or ‘My mum doesn’t want me’ and I wouldn’t be sure how to react. Mary provided some background information though there were many questions she didn’t or couldn’t answer.
Parents usually visited on a Sunday, after church; and everyone went to church! I found Sunday the hardest day: children with no visitors, promised visitors who didn’t show, and the happy children who had had visitors, but who couldn’t understand why they had not been taken back home. Then there were the “old pros”, who always put a positive spin on their disappointment, or created their own fantasy world. My problem was trying to work it out, choose the right response, be caring but not patronising.
Mary was a spinster who didn’t seem to socialise very much, however she went out once a week with her housemother friend next door. She had her private lounge off the hallway: strictly off limits to children and staff, and always locked. Inside was well furnished, lounge suite etc. and…….a television.
The housemother and I got on well, and she duly invited me into her inner sanctum to watch an England World Cup match. Having little else to do in the evening I would stay on a while, have a sherry, some cake and chat. We talked about ourselves, shared a few confidences and I learned something of the children’s backgrounds.
This pattern continued up to the World Cup final and we duly celebrated the England victory with a bottle of wine.
In the week following the World Cup my friends arrived and we spent time catching up on the latest gossip and sounding out the local pub. As a consequence I spent less and less social time with the housemother, and, when off duty, little time hanging around the house with the children.
Suddenly her attitude began to change, being less friendly, less cooperative and sometimes quite confrontational. Then, the penny dropped! Could it be she fancied me? She was around 50 and had made no advances, and neither had I! Or was she feeling let down, missing the attention and companionship. I feared the worst, I didn’t know what to do and began to feel more and more uncomfortable.
Then, with little warning, there arrived a passing cloud…… with a silver lining. I developed food poisoning! Proper stuff: staff commotion, talk of appendicitis, doctor in the middle of the night. Anyway, I was off work for a week and out of my difficult situation.
When ready to go back to work I was summoned to see the vice principal. A pleasant and relaxed man, he informed me that my housemother had formally complained about my inability to work with a twelve year old boy called John who was classed as “maladjusted“. I was astonished and told him that this was a major exaggeration. He listened carefully, seemed unconcerned about the complaint, almost insinuating a problem with the housemother. Surprisingly, he invited me to join him and his wife to be in charge of one of three rented caravans for a holiday at the coast.
All houses had their holiday at the same time and we would be taking those children with whom the houses felt unable to cope. Ironically John, the boy cited in the housemother’s complaint would be allocated to my caravan!
The caravan park in Yarmouth had everything, and the children loved it. We all got on very well, but John continued to give me a lot of cheek. The ‘maladjusted’ boy wasn’t liked by the older ones and he therefore tended to mix with the youngsters or do his own thing. His bed-time was 9pm and he was always a little later. I warned him that he must be on time, though I wasn’t sure what sanctions I had. At 9pm on the fourth night he was no where to be seen. I gave him 15 minutes, then went to look for him amongst the static vans. Suddenly he emerged in front of me laughing and gave me loads of abuse. I shouted for him to come in but he ran off. As I walked on he continued the behaviour so I decided to chase him. He tore through the caravans, weaving in and out, but just when I felt I was getting closer……. Wham! I was on my back wondering what had hit me. It transpired that the clothes line between two caravans was low enough for him to run under, but not me. Dazed, I staggered back to my van, and, looking in my mirror, saw a rope burn right above my upper lip. I was shocked and very angry.
“Knock, knock”…….someone at the door, no time to recover! Three of the older boys who, knowing what had happened, had decided to “get” John and bring him to me. Oh, I wish I had had more time to compose myself, but there he was, held by the boys, still shouting abuse, and being pushed in through my door. I didn’t want him delivered by the others but it was a fait accompli and I had to act. Still angry and hurting, I told him to go to bed or I would slipper him. Why I picked on a slipper I don’t know, perhaps it was the experience of my school days. Anyway he continued to call me everything so I grabbed him and whacked him on his backside. He wailed and shouted and I promised him another slippering if he didn’t shut up. My anger was giving way to anxiety but I felt I had to see things through. I daren’t let him leave the van, I had to control him. I was shaking, I had never done anything like this before. By now it was after 10.30pm and I couldn’t risk leaving for help from the other vans. My problem, I had to deal with it. At first he went quiet, got into bed and disappeared under the bed clothes. But then he started shouting, threatening to walk back home and tell the authorities about me. So I slippered his backside a second time, as promised. He then decided to be quiet and eventually went to sleep. Terrified he would wake up and abscond, I spent the night awake watching him and mulling over my future.
Eventually the morning arrived, and I had decided to act as though the matter was closed. I was warm towards him, but he remained suspicious and quiet. I told him that as far as I was concerned we were starting again.
I was anxious to speak to the vice-principal as soon as possible, to tell him of my guilt and to apologise for my behaviour. I expected to be finding my way back home, but he listened carefully and fully sympathised with my actions. Wow! Off the hook!
During the rest of the holiday John and I became friends, he couldn’t do enough for me. What a turn-around; was I vilified? His father had regularly beaten him, so what did he expect? Did I do the right thing?
No, I don’t think so!
The following year they had me back for another stint, and I returned to find that Mary, and her colleague next door, had been summarily dismissed for child abuse!
© 2008 R.Billingham and goodenoughcaring.com