It's hard to believe that in this day and age stories are still coming to light of folk spending years trapped in institutions. Often sometimes simply as a result of a long forgotten petty crime or because they suffered from learning disabilities. Or as in the case of a lovely old lady who is one of my regular fares, simply because she suffered from epilepsy. "Things were different back then" she says by way of forgiveness about the forty years she spent in "the big house." This was her name for the epilepsy hospital that was her home from the age of 16 until her release at the age of 56, too late for children, and any hope of what we would call a normal life? But still as she says "things were different back then” Just how different is illustrated by this recently told true story.
"Seventy years locked up in institutions hardly seems to be a punishment that befits the crime of stealing half-a-crown."
However, it is just such a fate that befell Jean Gambell when at the age of 15, in 1937, she was falsely accused of stealing 2s 6d (12.5p) from the doctor's surgery where she worked as a cleaner. She was sectioned under the 1890 Lunacy Act even though the money was later found, she has been moved from mental institution to mental institution. More recently, she went into a care home and has been lost to her family, who thought she was dead. But last month, by chance, her brother stumbled across correspondence which led to the discovery of her existence and the family was reunited. Her brother David Gambell, 63, who still lives in his mother's old home in Wirral, Merseyside, received a questionnaire addressed to his mother from Macclesfield Mews Care Home. "I thought it was just a survey for old people and I was about to throw it away when I saw Jean's name pencilled in on one corner," he said yesterday. "I couldn't believe it. I suddenly realised that my sister was still alive. I rang the care home straight away and they confirmed that our sister was there." He and his brother Alan, who had last seen their sister as small children when she was allowed to visit home with two wardens as guards, travelled to the Macclesfield home. They were told by staff that their 85-year-old sister was deaf, could only communicate in writing and was very unlikely to remember them. "A little old lady on walking sticks came in," said Alan. "She looked at us and cried out: 'Alan...David'. Then she put her arms around us. It was very emotional. "I am sure that what has kept her going all these years was the challenge of proving to the authorities that she had a family. The trouble was, nobody would listen to her." The brothers spent much of their childhood in orphanages because their parents were so poor. They said that they had later discovered that their father had tried for years to get Jean freed after she was put in Cranage Hall mental hospital in Macclesfield for being "of feeble mind", but was unsuccessful because her records had been mislaid. She spent years, lost in a maze of instutitons and care homes, trying to convince people in authority that she had a family. But nobody would believe her, because as my lovely old lady says "things were different back then."