Saturday, May 05, 2007

Blind May

There is a room at The Old Bell Museum in Montgomery which tells the story of the Workhouse at Forden - sometimes called the 'House of Industry'. Built in the late 18th century to deal with the poor of neighbouring border parishes it could accommodate roughly 1,000 inmates. This was where no one wished to be. It was the last resort - no holiday. If my researches are correct, Richard Cross (brother to my ggg grandfather) was there in 1901. In that census, still clinging to his individuality - his identity - he described himself as a 'Lead Miner'. He was aged 79 and the lead mines closed in 1895. The enumerator described him as a 'Pauper'.

Richard died in 1907. I've not found out if he was still an 'inmate', or if by then his family had offered him a home. (I doubt it.) There is a bleakness to the situation.

The Old Bell's Workhouse exhibits do nothing to dispel that bleakness. We read of rules and regulations, discipline and privations. We see a lash and a scold's bridle. As if poverty were not enough, the poor must suffer physically too.

The story of 'Blind May' coincides with the ending of the workhouse era but sits uncomfortably close to our own day and age. Her story really speaks for itself:

'Hannah Phoebe May Thomas was born in Newtown on 13th May 1897.
At 4 years of age she was placed in the Poor Law Institution at Caersws because she was regarded as being 'Mentally Defective'.

She was transferred to Forden on 23rd August 1921, where she remained until her death on 17th November 1986 aged 89 years.

She was blind, deaf and dumb, and thus, regarded as being 'Feebleminded', however, she could sew well, thread a needle and cotton with her tongue and recognise her own linen by smell. She would immediately know if anyone had interfered with her own cupboard, here displayed, containing her total worldly possessions.

She was lovingly cared for by the staff at Brynhyfryn Hospital and was greatly missed after she died.'

I don't know whether May's story is a sad one or not. I'm in two minds. This is the life she lived. By today's standards it could be better and more fulfilling. We perhaps shouldn't be too judgemental about what went on in so-called 'less enlightened' times. We'll be there one day. It's certainly a poignant tale though. 65 years in Forden - a needle and cotton, dolls and toffee for company - hopefully some affection. I suspect her artefacts (which of course she will never have seen) will speak more loudly (which of course she was never able to do) of her situation than any number of well meaning historical reports.

'Please leave May's cupboard as it was when she was alive, undisturbed.'


mutterings and meanderings said...

I'm surprised Mr Blair hasn't reintroduced the idea of poor houses. After all, he doesn't see anything wrong with the idea of locking certain sections of society up before they have had a chance to commit a crime.

Poignant story.

Mopsa said...

It's a life almost impossible to imagine.

ZHP said...

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mountainear said...

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