Thursday, November 15, 2012

St. Edward's Mental Hospital, Cheddleton.

Last night I watched a documentary on TV called, "Hitler's Children." It told about the grandchildren of Hitler's henchmen, and how they were coping with the notoriety of living with the names and deeds of their grandfathers. One part of the documentary focussed on the idyllic life of one grandchild's parents as that parent, the child of the commander of a concentration camp, lived in a beautiful villa. This villa sat right by the walls of that death camp, Auschwitz. Black and white photographs showed the beautiful gardens of the villa, the play toys of aircraft and model cars the child had to play with, and  gate that opened into the wall of the concentration camp.

The documentary brought back memories of that idyllic life I had as a child that also had some horror elements. From the age of four to seventeen, I, along with my siblings, lived on the estate of a mental hospital, St. Edwards Mental Hospital in a beautiful English village, Cheddleton. My Father was the baker for the hospital and we lived in staff housing on the huge two-farm estate. As a child I was free to roam over the hundreds of acres of the estate. In the spring I picked armfuls of blue bells in the aptly named Bluebell Woods. In late October, I united with other estate children and collected quantities of deadwood to build a huge pile  of wood in readiness for Bonfire Night. It was a great place to be a child.

Across the fields at the back of our house was the estate's cow sheds. Here farm employees and mental patient assistants looked after the estate's dairy cattle. The cow sheds, and the hay barns were wonderful places for play. One memory is when I, and a group of children, were engaged in a competitive game at a hay barn behind the cow sheds. A truck load of potatoes gave us ammunition as we threw the potatoes into the barn, scoring points if the potatoes lodged in spaces between the hay bales. Suddenly a huge patient burst out from the cow shed, whirling a heavy tractor chain around his head. He took umbrage at our game and the waste of the potatoes. As a group, we took off down the lane pursued by the angry patient. I still remember the sound of the chain thwacking the structure of a five-bar gate just after the last of us kids cleared it.

Another lasting memory is going on Tuesday nights to"the pictures" at the hospital. Every Tuesday, current movies and newsreels were shown at the hospital, beginning at 7 00 pm. The estate children would gather at the locked entrance doors of the hospital and be admitted by staff (guards) there. We would sit at the back of the huge hall and wait for the patients to arrive. They would file in, ward by ward and silently sit in front of us. The men would sit on the right, and the women, separated by a ten foot gap, on the left. The movie would begin and complete silence would envelop the hall. To this day, I find it very difficult to laugh out loud in a movie theatre or while watching a play.

There were other benefits to living of such an estate. We had free run of the athletic facilities: the soccer field, the cricket pitch and the tennis courts. And we had, during the English football season, access to the bus that took patients, staff and their children to English league soccer in the nearby city of Stoke-on-Trent. Some patients could get day passes to go to such games. The arrangements for the outing were made not by staff at the hospital but by one of the patients. Many years after my childhood, I asked my father why this patient, with his obvious administrative skills, was a patient at the hospital. "He was a prisoner at one of Hitler's concentration camps. His job there was to unload the gas ovens of the dead, and then bury or burn them. The hospital is a safe place for him to live since he cannot face the outside world." From the horror of the death camps had come service to his fellow men. Later, I asked my father for the name of this remarkable man. This was in the years after my Father had had a stroke. He could no longer remember him.

The hospital is now closed and the houses are privately owned. But my last memories are of the time I spent there during my university years as a summer student employee. I was placed on what was called "The Idiot's Ward", a politically incorrect term these days. There the severely sub-normal were warehoused, 50 to the ward with perhaps 12" separating the beds. The ward was equipped with showers, a day room and a fenced in courtyard. One day I was handed an electric shaver and told to shave the men there. The smell of burning stubble still affects my nostrils as I remember. Another job was to cut toenails. For some I had a difficult time deciding where nails ended and flesh began with the growths beneath the nails. I still have nightmares about the ward.

Like the villa next to the concentration camp, the hospital was a great place to live, but also a place of horrors. Last night's documentary brought all these memories back.

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