Nana – Louisa Harvey – lived as a former ‘workhouse inmate’ in a hospital that changed hands as part of the establishment of the NHS in 1948. For the last three months of 1947 she was attempting a brief spell of time away from the ‘workhouse-cum-hospital’ by accompanying the ex-master and matron to Devon. She was to work in-service in a ‘big house’ in Barnstaple carving out a living for herself. I like to think she wanted to support her daughter, my Mum, and take her outside of the institutional life that ‘cradled’ them both. But ‘My Nana’ only lasted 3 months outside of the institution and returned to St Mary’s Hospital in Tattingstone to a now reformed ‘hospital’. She was mentally and physically exhausted; and so this time she was re-admitted as a patient rather than an inmate.
My ancestral story, like many, owes much to the dawning of the care that came about because of the formation of the Welfare State in which the NHS was integral. It’s a great shame that today there is such a compartmentalisation of services fraught with navigational difficulties between medical and social care. In particular, this pertains to mental healthcare and the passage from treatment to the right to a ‘roof over your head’. Although rudimentary in its foundation days it could be seen as so much more integrated then.
By 1968 Nana was part of a social reform that experimented with moving institutionalised people into independent living. ‘Nana-in-hospital’, moved to a sheltered housing scheme in Halesworth, Suffolk. Though we were unwittingly complicit in her institutionalisation, we used the name ‘Nana-in-hospital’ to differentiate her from our other ‘foster nana’, the one that Mum had been sent to live with. It was from Halesworth that she corresponded with me and so, at the age of 12 my quest to understand her life began. There is another creative work here and so I am looking for ways to take this narrative forward with all the political and personal insight it brings to my understanding of the celebrations of 70 years of the NHS.
I am curious about other ‘Nana’s’ who lived in hospitals and experienced the beginnings of the NHS and the foundations of the Welfare State. I am curious about their children and grandchildren and the long-lasting effects, distance and helplessness such experiences leave us with.
My Nana lived a total of twenty-four years at the hospital, straddling the patient/worker role that comes from institutionalisation and it appears she gave her services voluntarily. She earned her keep so to speak. She cleaned, sang and worked in the laundry. She also sewed beautiful embroidery that she sent us in the form of dressing table sets, tablecloths and antimacassars.
I knew her during her happy times through her brief letters but my research into the context of her life has found expression in such works as ‘The House’ (2016) and ‘Looking for the Tallyman’(1998). This creative research has given me an insight into her soul.
My mum became a social worker. Her own adoption/hospital/”social worker’s” notes about Nana in 1948 reveal a distressed mind and an exhausted soul. In 1948 my mum would have been almost 14 and living in a foster home a few miles from the Tattingstone hospital. She too was distressed by her mother’s silence and apparent depression. Distance and lack of knowledge made for years of misunderstandings and confusions concerning identity. One thing is clear though, Nana lived a life of service to the NHS.
I am curious about the semi-voluntary workforce that underwrites many institutions, including the zero hours brigade of today, of which I am one of the many. I am curious about its value to the donor and the institution. Nana’s work was highly valued. A nurse I interviewed concerning her recollection of Nana said she always wondered what Louie (her nickname) might have become. This suggests Nana had potential which wasn’t fully realised – all because of her social circumstances: born in poverty, living through her brothers’ conscriptions to the First World War, her mother’s mental ill health making her a young carer, then being an unmarried mother in her thirties and suffering from mental anxiety herself as a culmination of these factors. But the photographs reveal a figure that I share so much with: holding a microphone, singing, dressed for a performance, and playing – you can tell from her costume – with the past.
Now I find myself as part of a family network caring for my mum who has forgotten much but not all of this, so much of which is key to her identity.