After a chance discovery in a box of old letters, Jo Faulkner got in touch with a relative with a learning disability who had been hidden away since childhood
Growing up, Jo Faulkner often wondered about the mysterious Fred Burdon Charlton – the only child of her grandmother’s sister. She was only ever told that he ‘wasn’t right’ and had been taken away to be cared for.
Like many people with a learning disability in the middle of the 20th century, Fred had been viewed with shame and hidden away. “My grandmother mentioned him in the course of looking at family photographs,” says Jo, 37, from Yarm, in North Yorkshire. “Though he was very rarely talked of.”
It was only after Jo’s grandmother died, in November 2007, that Jo found a clue about her relative. Sorting through some of her grandmother’s paperwork, she chanced upon an envelope addressed to her grandmother and her grandmother’s brother. “It contained information about money that had been put aside to pay for Fred’s care,” says Jo.
The envelope also contained a report on Fred, which mentioned White Lodge – a Mencap supported living service in North Yorkshire. Jo says: “It was very lucky. Had it not survived, there would have been no clue whatsoever to his whereabouts.”
Jo found a phone number for White Lodge on the internet and called it the next day. “I didn’t know if he would still be there, or if he was even still alive.” Thankfully he was, and Jo arranged to meet Fred at a local park the following week.
Jo was thrilled to finally meet Fred. “I thought I might feel sad or guilty,” she says. “But it was a really happy and positive experience. He looked so much like his mother – there was no mistaking who he was.”
Fred, now 67, has profound and multiple learning disabilities. He is also registered blind and has epilepsy. “It was difficult to know if he understood who I was – I needed to get to know the mannerisms that he uses to communicate.” In hindsight, Fred’s support staff and Jo agree that he was in a calm and happy mood that day.
Fred and Jo now meet every fortnight. “Each time, I take him a bunch of freesias in the hope that he makes the link between their smell and my visit,” she says.
Naturally, Jo has begun to seek answers about Fred’s life before he moved to White Lodge. As a researcher for a local museum, it’s a task that matches her skills.
Fred, born in 1944, was an only child. Jo believes that it was his domineering father who made the decision to put him into care. “I understand that back then it must have been daunting to have a child with all those conditions, but I think it was still quite heartbreaking for his mother to let him go.”
Jo discovered that in 1948, an institutional place was requested for Fred. “Then in 1956, he was admitted to Aycliffe Hospital in County Durham.” It’s unclear what happened between 1948 and 1956 – Aycliffe Hospital had a children’s section, so Fred could well have been living there.
Although the last NHS-run long-stay hospital closed in 2009, they were once prolific. In 1969, there were around 60,000 people living in the institutions. ‘Patients’ commonly slept in large wards, had very few personal freedoms and often shared clothes and everything they did with a large group of people.
Jo has discovered that the hospital made a request for Fred to visit his parents for a holiday when he was 21. “But Fred’s father replied, saying that they couldn’t have him, as he was off work sick and his wife was too busy looking after Fred’s grandfather.” There is no record of any family visits to Fred at Aycliffe.
Fred remained at Aycliffe Hospital until 1993, when he moved into the newly established White Lodge service. Since then, Fred’s life has changed immeasurably. Jo says that Fred likes to be outdoors and enjoys theatre trips and 60s music. Together, they go for coffee or to a garden centre, and have visited stately homes, where Fred likes to listen to the audio guides.
Over recent years, Fred has enjoyed a number of holidays. “His holidays seem to do him the world of good,” says Jo, who has helped his support workers to plan the trips. “He’s had a few holidays in parts of Britain, but for the last two years, he’s been on cruises. There is everything that he loves on a ship – musical entertainment, people to meet and formal dinners to go to in his tuxedo.” Fred can also go to the different port towns to soak up the atmosphere. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s all about him trying new things,” says Jo. “He’s got so much lost time to make up for.”
The chance rediscovery of Fred has also had an effect on Jo’s life. “Fred has taught me a lot about patience, trust and all the qualities he has,” reflects Jo.
“He has also opened my eyes to some unpleasant things as well. When I’m out with Fred, I sometimes see people staring or moving away – it makes me want to change things and try to alter people’s attitudes.
“But above all else, he’s a long-lost relative that I’m pleased to have finally met. It’s led me to wonder how many other people are out there who don’t know if they have a relative like Fred.”