I can still remember the day very clearly, as I waved goodbye to my mother as I stood on the deck of the ferry that would take me to the Isle of Wight. I felt sad, but I did not show any emotion. It was my third time of being removed from my family home. The authorities had decided that I needed a period of convalescence, rest and recuperation.
I have vague memories of when the ferry docked at the Isle of Wight. We boarded an old steam train that took us across to the other side of the island, to a town called Ventnor. I can remember the smoke going past the window, but not much more. Suddenly, there I was, walking through the doors of the convalescent home called St Catherine’s. It was a strange feeling, I asked myself: “Why am I here?”, I did not understand. My mother had told me it was like going on a holiday, but it really did not feel like that.
I remember certain things as if it was yesterday, and what I remember very clearly, to this day, is the storm drain that the boys would use as a racing track. It was on quite a steep slope. We would race small racing cars down this track. It was great fun. I had to have one of those cars too, so I wrote to my mother: “Please, send me two Dinky cars as quickly as possible.” I received a packet from my mother, the content being two of these cars. I put them in my pocket and went to this old wooden building that I remember contained two class rooms.
I can remember the teacher, but not her name. She was very stern and ruled the class with a rod of iron. It did not take long before I got bored and took the cars out of my pocket, and admired them under the desk. Suddenly she was standing before me: “What are you doing?” she said. There was no escape, I had to hand the cars over to her. They were confiscated. I remember the tone of her voice when she put them in a box in the class room and said: “They will be returned to you when it is time for you to return home.” I was mad.
One thing I did enjoy was when we were taken out on long walks, whether it was along the beach or to some hidden cove. That was fun. Or we would be taken up to the Boniface downs, which was the name of the hillside that lay behind the school. That was a long walk, but I enjoyed those times.
I have memories of mealtimes, we had to sit at the same table every day. Sitting by the table was an older boy who was also a resident and he would assure that we ate everything on our plate. I recall one day, to my horror we were served this thing called marrow. There it was on my plate. That I was not going to eat. When I thought the boy in charge, the table monitor, was not looking I quickly removed the vegetable from my plate and it landed on the floor, under the table, but it had not gone unnoticed. Once again I found myself in trouble. On another occasion I remember being confronted with a tapioca pudding for desert, it almost made me vomit if I had to eat it. I cannot remember if I ate it or not.
I found it exhausting when we had to go to the chapel where we had to attend services twice on Sunday. I learnt to deal with it by wondering off into my own inner world. One thing I can remember was when the priest was telling us about the Hungarian uprising (in 1956), and how many refugees were coming to England. I remember the smell of incense, and I found it overpowering.
On day I was sent to the sickbay and there I was in isolation, because they thought I had some kind of contagious rash. However, I did not feel alone, I could adjust to that isolation quite easily. I remember looking out through the window. One of the care attendants spent some time with me one day. She was pointing out the British war ships having left the naval base of Portsmouth and were sailing around the Isle of Wight, into the English channel on their way to Egypt and the Suez Canal. I was later to understand that the Egyptian president Nasser had announced that the Suez Canal now belonged to Egypt.
Was I happy there? At the time I did not know, I was just there. Was it a bad place? No,
there were good things too. One thing I really looked forward too was when my mother would visit me, normally once a month. Very quickly, within a few short hours, it was time for her to leave so that she could make her way back to London. Was I sad to see her go? Kind of, but part of me knew I could not change it, so I just accepted what was, day by day.
I can remember the nuns. I was always in awe of them, and a little afraid. The people who worked there then were doing a god job, considering it was 1956.
After all these years I have had the opportunity to re-visit St Catherine’s on two occasions, once quite recently. During these visits I was greeted with kindness and hospitality, as they showed me around. For me it was very important, it gave me a point of reference. As an adult I can now understand the purpose of the philosophy of St Catherine’s, which followed the philosophy of the Church of England.
What I realised on my last visit was that the experience of St Catherine’s had affected me quite deeply, but not in a negative sense. As I look back I can see that many of the children who went there were removed from home, because the education authorities of the day thought it would be good for them to be taken to a place where they could rest and recuperate. For me, it gave me time to breathe and catch up with myself, little did I realise at the time, but now I do.
So, I just want to say thank you to those who worked in St Catherine’s all those years ago, and to those who now work with children and teenagers with special needs. It warmed my heart to see that what was started all those years ago, going back to the twenties that St Catherine’s heart still beats. With each heartbeat it sends love and help to young people that need support.
I arrived in August of 1956 and left in the early part of December. I will never forget the day when my mother came to collect me, to take me home. When I resumed my normal education at my regular school all my classmates were so happy to see me.
Again, thank you St Catherine’s and those of you who work there today, who give so much to so many.
Terry Evans, former resident of St Catherine’s