Monday 30 July 1990

With All Hopes Dashed In The Human Zoo


During Easter 1990 Mary Baker (nee Cutler), my mother’s cousin, came to stay for a short break at my home. It was the first time Mary and I had met and despite an age difference of 34 years between us (she is 68) we got on really well. I had absolutely no idea of the life Mary had led and there was certainly nothing in her deportment to suggest that she had been through tragedy and heartache during her younger days. Indeed she appeared to be a happy-go-lucky soul with a constant smile on her face.

At the time of Mary’s visit I was preparing the manuscript for my eleventh book, one that featured the transcripts of interviews I had made with five senior citizens whose paths had crossed in Somerset and Wiltshire. Mary, glancing over my shoulder, read some of the potted biographies I was keying into my word processor. It was then, with some modesty, that she told me a few things about her life. She told me she had been born with a dislocated hip and that her father, a farm labourer, was disabled from an injury received in the First World War. She also told me that when she was eleven her mother had died suddenly, which meant the break-up of family life.

Mary, who hardly knew her mother because she had spent so much of her childhood in hospitals, found herself in workhouses for a short sojourn before spending her teenage years at Halliwick School for Disabled Girls in London. She didn’t see her father again until she was 17 and remained in care until she was 21. Despite the difficulties, Mary, to her credit, went on to pursue a successful nursing career and, against all expectations, married and raised a family of her own. She also fostered nearly 50 babies; something she says was worthwhile and gave her life a purpose.

I was quite taken aback by what Mary had said, and immediately realised there was a heart-rendering story behind her happy smiling face. Quick-thinking I asked her if I could tape-record a “conversation” with her and she readily agreed. Over the Easter holiday, for two evenings and one afternoon, Mary chatted away to me, either answering my questions or remembering aloud the twists and turns that fate had cast upon her life.

With All Hopes Dashed In The Human Zoo features the edited transcript of the tape I recorded with Mary. Her words are reproduced ad verbatim but the text omits all or any questioning I did. The only change made by myself to Mary’s story has been to put her memories into chronological order for the benefit of readers. I have also checked and confirmed names and dates where possible.

In the closing paragraph of this book Mary says “I hope my story will serve as a record of what life was really like for a motherless, disabled child, growing up.” I am pleased to say this book does serve as a worthy record. It also reminds us that no one today should ever suffer in such circumstances. Progress, often much maligned for its detrimental effects, has also brought improvements including some with regards social conditions and the introduction of the Welfare State. Mary’s story relates how the physically-handicapped and the mentally-handicapped were shut away from society years ago, in stark contrast to today when the handicapped are encouraged to play their rightful part in the community.

Danny Howell, July 1990.