|Dictated to Jenny Traveller, Community Nurse. Typed verbatim by Jane Tinkler, Team Secretary - 18 October 1996. This story was passed to Burton Latimer Heritage Society for safe-keeping by Pat Woolmer and Julie of 'Countdown' in 2008.|
This is the story of two sisters, Annie and Valerie. Valerie was 66 years old when she died in 1995, after living all her life with her sister in Burton Latimer. To some people that might seem remarkable, because Val had Down’s Syndrome. To me, the remarkable thing was Annie’s simple statement to the Vicar when Val died - that Val was ‘God’s gift’ to her. If you read Annie’s story you may understand why she said this, and agree with her.
My name is Annie Marguerite Savage.
I have lived in Burton Latimer all my life. The cottage where I live now belonged to Mother and Father - they moved here when I was three months old, there were just four of us, my elder sister Millie, me, Mum and Dad. Later on my brother Tom was born and we were very happy. When he was nine, trouble struck. Mum took Tom and me on holiday to Great Yarmouth where he was suddenly taken ill. He was taken to hospital in Great Yarmouth where they diagnosed severe sunstroke. Many years later, when Tom was a lonely young man, they took some X-rays of his head at Killington Research Centre, they told us he had actually had meningitis all those years ago and it had never been treated. Part of his brain had been destroyed by the disease.
When I was 17 I was ill in bed with scarlet fever. My Mother was almost 48 by this time. She came into my bedroom and I said, “Mum, I dreamed you had a baby girl last night. She answered “Stranger things in life can happen than that! I told her the baby girl in my dream looked just like Grandmother Smith, who was always wheeled about in a cane wheelchair and wore a black bonnet and cape. The baby girl wore a white bonnet and a short dress, and, in my dream, they told me I’d got to look after her.
Well, time went on. I got over the scarlet fever, and Mother got bigger. At first she thought it might be the change of life - she was 48 - but not for long. My elder sister Millie (4 years older than me) never guessed. It was just a secret between me and Mother (and Father too I suppose!).
When the baby was born, I was itching to see it. I wasn’t allowed in the room, but Millie was, being older. Standing outside the door, I heard Mother say to the midwife “Cover that child’s head over”. So when I first saw the baby, she was wearing a bonnet just like the baby in my dream. I understood why later on. The bones at the back of her head didn’t seem to have joined together properly yet.
The doctor had to come back later on because Mother had to he stitched. The doctor was at the bottom of the stairs as Father came down, he said, “What have I got Doctor?” The doctor said “You’ve got a child” Father was a blacksmith and of course used to go out and help the farmers when their horses were ill. He said “I don’t suppose I’ve got a ****** filly! and the Doctor replied “No Tom, if a baby is born and they tell you it’s a child, they mean it’s a girl”.I stood there with my mouth wide open and to this day I can remember it.
Baby Valerie had to have feeds every three hours day and night, so we had a little cane chair at the side of Mother’s bed with a primus stove on it to heat up her feed. Father said, “I’ll do it one night Dinah and you do it the next” but as usual, like most men, he was fast asleep when his turn came.
One night, in the middle of the night, Father came rushing into my room, in his nightshirt, and said, “Nancy,
Well the saga continued. Mum knew something was wrong. She took her to see the GP, a Canadian Doctor, Dr Warner. He advised her to go to
Afterwards they went to Selfridges, up to the roof garden to have tea. Mrs. Moore told me that Mother went right to the edge of the roof garden with Val in her arms. She said “What are you doing Dinah?” Mother said “I’m going to throw her over, she’ll have no life at all.” Mrs Moore said “Don’t do that”
At 9 o clock that evening I went down to the bus to meet them and brought Valerie back in the pram. Mother was very downhearted and despondent. She had a great list from Dr Patterson. The first thing on the list was one Macintoshes toffee. I said to Mother “How on earth is she going to eat a Macintoshes toffee?” Val was so floppy, she seemed to be all rubber and no bones.
So we carried on looking at this list. ‘Sea salt’ it said, and ‘Olive oil’. We had to bathe her every night with sea salt in the water, and afterwards massage her legs and arms and rub her all over with olive oil. We did this religiously for months and months and still she seemed as if she was made of rubber and would never be able to walk.
Next on the list came, ‘veal bones and cod liver oil’. We had to get the marrow bone stock and cod liver oil and add this to the Glaxo baby milk in her feed. Lovely! The village butcher used to say to us, ‘If that child ever walks it will be my veal bones that did it’. If the Macintoshes toffee was supposed to encourage her to suck, then it must have worked, because she used to suck away at that feeding bottle right enough.
At this time I was working in a clothing factory in the village, learning to be a tailoress. Father wanted me to go into an office because he remembered how much I used to admire the lady in the Penny Bank when I was a child, and how I used to play at offices. But mother wouldn’t hear of it, nor would she let me go to be a nurse, like my Aunt Liz, because she thought I would just get into trouble in a hospital. Later on in life I had my own way. At 17, I did as mother said, I went to work in a clothing factory. Mother used to look after
Val during the day while I was at work, (Father was at work as well of course) I used to take over in the evenings while she and father went to a whist drive. For mother, it was her only outlet, because she worked so hard during the day. After a while, she started going to the whist drives in the afternoons as well. Then I began to get fed up, and I was courting by this time. Horace, my young man, wasn’t allowed in the house at this stage, Val was still a baby in the pram and I had to bath her every night when Mum and Dad were out. I found a way to see Horace while they were out. I couldn’t let him come in the front door because everyone would see him. At that time you could get round the back of our house and right down the back garden and no-one could see you. He used to come knocking on the back door and I would let him in while I was baby-sitting. This particular night I offered him a drink, knowing that my mother had made some damson wine and there it was in little beer barrels in the pantry. I went out to the pantry, down the two steps and turned the little tap for a tiny glass of damson wine. He drank that and helped me bath the baby as usual and again, as usual, at 10 o’clock he rushed off out the back way, down the
Time went by. Horace had a half day off and we were sitting in our back garden. I was sitting on the ground and Horace was standing nearby hanging on to the clothes line. What a beautiful place A yard f of wild flowers and a great long washing line. I looked up at him and said ‘Shall we get married?’ He said, ‘If you like’ I said, ‘Do you want any kids?’ ‘Not particularly’ Because, although I wasn’t thinking of Val, she must have been in the back of my mind, and we never did have any kids.
So our wedding was all arranged for 1 June 1936. Yes. Annie Smith was going to have a big wedding.
Some months before the wedding Val was really ill. Dr Warner, our Canadian GP, with his Stetson hat and bicycle, was really concerned about her. He came to see her, he sent me out of the room because I’d been ill as well and he gave Val an injection. He told mum to stay i all night with her. He warned her that she might have convulsions. Mother sat up with her until 3 o’clock, zero hour. But somehow or other, Val came out of it. At 6am, she suddenly pulled herself up in the cot and then walked all the way round the cot, just as the Doctor walked in to see how she was. He was so pleased. She only did this the once. After that she took to crawling on all fours which was a big improvement.
By this time my wedding was all arranged. The wedding of the year! I was sitting with Valerie in what was the kitchen, or the living room then. The door was wide open. because you could leave your doors wide open in those days. My brother’s cricket bat was on the floor. I just said to her ‘Oh Val, if only you could walk you could be my bridesmaid’ and with the grace of God, she just pulled up this cricket bat, pulled herself up onto her feet and she practically ran out the door, just like a baby’s first steps and off she went up the street. I just screamed with excitement, the whole row of cottages must have heard me. ‘Mum, dad, Val’s walking’. We rushed our and found her half way up the street. ‘Right Val’ I said, ‘you’re going to be my bridesmaid’ Mind you, the other bridesmaids weren’t very pleased. We had to quickly get a little dress made and little poke bonnet to match and a pair of gloves. You couldn’t get nylon gloves then like you can now. I had to get her some cotton ones and machine the ends up because her fingers were so small. If you look at the photograph you can see that. There she stands next to my cousin Brian, in his first long cream trousers. The lady who came to dress me said she would dress the two small ones first. She said to Valerie and Brian the two little ones, ‘If I give you a halfpenny, will you behave yourselves?’ She had four bridesmaids, to dress plus me, and I wasn’t the easiest of customers to dress. But eventually it all went off beautifully, and I’ve treasured the photograph for years.
After we married, Horace and I moved into a little cottage just a bit higher up the street. My brother was still at home and there were only two bedrooms in mother’s house and I wanted Val to come and live with me. Not that I thought I knew everything. But I said, ‘Mum, let Val come to live with me. You can keep Val’s ration book. Horace, Val and I can manage on just the two ration books and what we can get on the ‘black market’, and I’d love to teach her things’.
She had her own little bedroom, and we managed right enough on my ration book and Horace’s. With the milk, eggs. rabbits, pigeons that father could get from the farmers being the village Blacksmith. We managed well enough. (Horace didn’t go to the War because he worked at Cransley Furnaces, which was a ‘reserved occupation’. Also he had a bad chest).
As I was married, I got my way at last, and I got my chance of going to work in the hospitals as a VAD. I taught Valerie how to make the beds, hospital style. Though her life until she became ill at the end, whenever Valerie made the beds they were made hospital style. That meant that once you got in, you never got out!
When Valerie could walk, we sent her to the village infant’s school until she was eight and then she had to go to the big school. She was only at the big school for about a week and then she was off with bronchitis for the next six, and the school inspector came, in a black bowler hat. Mother used to be frightened to death of him and I said, ‘Leave him to me and I’ll see to him’ and we didn’t see him any more after I’d spoken to him. So that was the end of Valerie and school.
By chance, we met a lady at the bus stop with her little boy who had a stutter and she told us about the speech therapist who helped her son. She said the education authority paid for the lessons. We asked the school if they would send Val to this speech therapist. We had a letter from the County Council which, in my temper, I threw in the fire. I wish I’d kept it now, it would have made wonderful reading. It said. ‘We only help normal children, not abnormal’. I was so annoyed! We went down to see Miss Bicheno ourselves. She said she could take Val as a private patient. We had to come home and get a letter from her doctor. Not Dr Warner anymore, another doctor. He gave us a letter for Miss Bicheno but we never knew what was in it until after she’d finished.
Apparently it said there was no hope of improvement. We paid 2 guineas for each lesson, I’ve still got the receipt. Val learned to talk beautifully.
Times were hard. We hadn’t got two halfpennies between us, so we took a job at a little infants school, just a bit further down the street, to pay for the speech therapy lessons. We used to shovel coke into galvanized buckets, walk across the road down into the school and stoke the boiler. My husband, who was on shift work then, would come in, in between shifts. Three of us did the work for the price of one and each month we were paid. To start off with it was pretty poor pay, but it gradually got better so that we could give mother something towards Val’s keep and I can’t remember who I coaxed to give me some pay envelopes. I used to give Vat so much a month. I used to say to her ‘I’ve taken your insurance out and your income tax and your stamp money. I’ve taken it all out, me duck’. Right up to the day that she had to leave me and go into hospital I always said to her ‘I’ve taken your stamp money and income tax’ and she used to say ‘Fair enough’ ‘Fair enough’ The head teacher who was at the infants school were we worked, loved our Val. One of the little jobs that Val had to do was to dust about a hundred of these tiny little chairs, that would break your back to get down to them. But Valerie being small, it suited her just right. The school was a lovely old Jacobean building which is now a doctor’s house in Burton Latimer. There were little wash basins and little beds.
Val used to make about 20 of these little beds with blankets, every evening and wash the basins. I always used to go and do the outside loo’s and that sort of job. We continued with that until the day the school closed and we got a letter to tell us our jobs were finished the same day the Head Mistress was told her job was finished too. We found out later they had to close it because they thought the building wasn’t safe to be used for a school.
I remember the first time she went shopping on her own. I brought her a basket on wheels almost as big as she was, and I said. ‘You’re going shopping on your own Val’ and gave her the shopping list. I wrote it all down clearly, which is very unusual for me, and then my dear little Aunt Mu came down and sat with me and said, ‘You’re surely not going to let her go on her own, Anne?’ I said, ‘Yes I am’. I asked Val whether she would be alright. ‘I’ll be alright, of course I’ll be alright’ We hadn’t got any idea how she managed crossing the road on her own. Of she went, out the door, by the window, put her hand up giving the royal wave and off she went. This was at 9 o’clock. I can remember the church clock striking 9. My aunt and I sat on this settee, started to smoke, we smoked and we smoked and it got to 12 o’clock. We had smoked about 3 packets each, the air was blue. My aunt kept saying ‘Please Anne, Anne go down and see’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going’ I was absolutely petrified inside, hut almost on the stroke of 12 little Val went past the window waving the OK sign and in she came, basket full.
Everything I’d asked for and she’d doubled up on an order of her own out of her own money. From then on I let her go on her own. Somehow or other, she taught herself kerb drill. When I used to go down with her, I used to let her take me across the road. She used to know how to look left and look right. I used to go s out as usual without taking any notice, but she knew her kerb drill.
One particular day, when rationing was still in, Valerie had gone down to the Co-op as usual, and came back, beaming away, with a lovely pound of tomatoes. A bit later, my next door neighbour came by and told me what had happened. Everyone had been queuing up, because word had got out there were tomatoes to be had. After a time, they were told ‘Sorry, they’ve all gone, no tomatoes left!’ Everyone started to mutter and moan, and all at once Valerie’s little voice piped up. ‘No they ain’t! What’s all them under the counter there?’ Being small and sharp-eyed, she’d spotted all the tomatoes stored away under the counter. Of course, they had to bring them out then. ‘Good ole Val’ said my neighbour, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, we shouldn’t have had any!’
She really was smashing, you know. She’d go to any of the shops if she thought there was a chance of getting something, rationing or not.
During the war, I had a very varied career. There was my nursing at St Mary’s and then I had another little job at the cinema in Burton Latimer in the evenings. Horace used to help the projectionist while I was an usherette. My cousin still remembers the row they all used to make when the ‘Lone Ranger’ came on, and how I used to tell them all to shut up, and he remembers how they used to chuck their apple cores at me and I’d threaten to bar them.
In the end I got the sack for letting the soldiers sit in the shilling seats and only pay ninepence. (They used to buy me chocolates, I was very popular, and I think the cashier got jealous and told the boss.)
I was in the St Johns Ambulance brigade for years, too. They wanted me and my friend
Well, we both passed the course.
The other side to being in
We spent Valerie’s 21st birthday at Great Yarmouth. We had two rooms in a little house, and we didn’t half have a happy time. We asked the Landlady if we could have a little birthday party. It was magnificent. All the people from Burton Latimer who were Valerie’s friends, sent her cards. I’ve got a lovely photo of her standing there with all the guests and cards around her. Father sent her a letter saying he had bought her a watch. Oh! she was that chuffed. She had a really happy time.
There was a honeymoon couple staying there, they’re in the photo. After the party I showed Valerie how to make an apple-pie bed. She couldn’t understand at first why 1 should put a brush in the bottom of the bed and turn the sheet the wrong way up, because she’d been taught how to made beds hospital style and that’s the way she always did make them. Right to the end of her life if I said to her “What did we make that lady and gentleman on holiday, the honeymoon couple?” she’d say, “Apple-pie bed” and she’d laugh.
We went to that same place for years and years because the landlady was so nice to us. But later on we started to go caravanning which she really enjoyed because she enjoyed being on the camp site. She’d go off to the supermarket every morning, because she loved her shopping.
One year we went, we got the taxi into
About 18 years ago, we were finding things a bit difficult with Valerie. I can’t remember now what the problem was. So we contacted the Learning Disability Team, as it’s called now, and someone came to see us from
So, in we went to see Dr Martin. Val was her usual self, spoke to him very nicely, and was all dressed up. Dr Martin was quite surprised because she answered him quite normally. In fact he was amazed. I felt quite a ‘Charlie’ because he had gone to all this trouble because I said I was having problems, and there she was talking as normal as next week. There was a secretary there, taking all these notes down and I had decided to take all these home made bandages with me because I thought, Dr Martin didn’t believe me last time so I’m going to take these and show him. I had all the bandages rolled up in a bag with my shopping list because I know he didn’t really believe me when I told him that Val used to do all the shopping. We sat around, and again he said, ‘No, it’s impossible,’ He didn’t believe that anybody who had Down’s syndrome could do the things we had said. So I said, ‘Right, and I picked up my bag and dropped this heap of cut off towels and sheets to make bandages and the shopping lists on his desk and he just looked at me and burst out laughing, and he said, ‘Well, if I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t believe it, It’s incredible, do you mean to tell me, she ‘ I said, ‘Yes, she bandaged herself, she remembered how I was doing my first-aid training and she copied me’
When Val was about 30, I think it was, we had to take her to the Dentist. She’d been born with two sets of teeth. She had a double row all gone rotten in her gums and she was starting to get tooth ache. So we took her to a dentist. Mr Colin Forsythe, on the Headlands in
Up to the hospital we went at 9am. Here we went to Mr. Forsythe and his anaesthetist. Val went in so bravely and I sat outside. The Casualty Sister kept going by and she said, ‘I’ll keep you posted’ She came in and out, in and out. After a while, she came out and she was laughing and I said, ‘What’s up?’ She said, ‘It’s all right, she’s all right’ I waited over an hour after that, feeling as though every one of my teeth was being taken out. Then at last, a white haired man opened the door and called for Mrs. Savage. My legs were like Harry Lauder’s walking stick by then. I wobbled over to him and he said ‘you’re to be congratulated, my dear, she’s been absolutely marvellous’. I said ‘What’s happened?’ M.r Forsythe explained. ‘We got her all ready to have the anaesthetic, put the gown on over her coat, and started to put the mask over her face, and then she said ‘I’m not going to have that’. So we tried again, and she said ‘Wait a minute, hang on mate. Take this white thing off me. And take my best coat off, don’t get anything on my best Sunday coat.’ He said they had to un-gown her and take off her best coat. ‘She’s been absolutely marvellous’ he said, ‘She’s had every tooth out just with an injection, and she hasn’t complained a bit’. So there was no need for me to sit by her all day - we just went home. Bless her, she was so brave.
Then of course they made her a set of false teeth. Oh dear! They never did fit the shape of her mouth; they kept falling out all the time. In the end I said ‘Take them out gel, take them out for God’s sake. You look better without them’. Right until the day we lost her, if you gave her anything new to eat she’d say ‘Thank you very much, I can’t eat it, I ain’t got no teeth’. But she managed very well, her gums hardened up so that she could manage almost anything.
Thinking back to the war time again, I remember our next door neighbour Phil, had an evacuee to stay with her. His name was Billy, and she got him a pet rabbit, a Belgian hare they called Joey. We all used to play with this rabbit and I taught him to jump. Then food got really scarce, especially meat. Billy didn’t want the rabbit any more and the family decided to kill it. They cooked old Joey and we all sat round the table to eat him. Val refused, she wept. She said it wasn’t fair that Joey should be killed, and she wouldn’t eat a mouthful.
I remember how Val used to get on so well with Horace my husband. He used to call her ‘Smithy’ and me ‘Savage’ if there was anything not right. We used to say ‘What have we done now?’ Val always called him ‘Mate’.
It was a sad time for Val as well as me when Horace was taken so ill. He was in bed for about two months, and we nursed him at home. Val helped me every morning to change his bed, carried his washing water up and downstairs, ran upstairs whenever he knocked, shouting ‘I’m coming up, mate!’ and ran down again to tell me what he needed. She did everything she possibly could for him and he was ever so grateful. There was a great love between them. He gradually got worse, and I knew he was dying, but I didn’t say so to Val. I sent for the doctor, and I tried to be brave. I said to her ‘Are you going down the street, me duck?’ for she had her shopping to do as usual. ‘Yeah’, she said, ever so reluctantly, and off she went. She hadn’t been gone very long when there was a knock at the door. A lady stood there with Val. She had found her crying in the street. Val had said ‘My brother-in-law’s dying’. She knew. I thanked the lady, brought Val indoors and wrapped her up warm with a hot water bottle. In just a short while, Horace died in my arms. I came downstairs again to poor Val. I said to her ‘Horace has gone to Jehovah’, and she just looked at me, didn’t cry or anything. My brother Tom came rushing in ‘Is he gone?’ I said ‘Yes, me duck, there he is’ Tom said ‘Oh, who’s going to drink all his beer?’ for it was nearly Christmas and we’d stocked up on the diabetic lager Horace liked. I just said ‘I expect you are’, for he didn’t mean any harm.
I remember the funeral. All my in-laws came, and they just ignored poor Val. I felt like a dead duck in a thunderstorm, and they were just talking among themselves. When they’d gone and it was all over, Val sat there looking so lonely. I said ‘It’s just me and you now, duck. He’s happy now, because he suffered terribly’ and she knew he had.
She always talked about Horace, and always referred to him as ‘My brother-in-law. She loved him. After Horace died, it was a lonely time for Val and me. I took up drinking sherry. I would start drinking at 9am, and by lunchtime the bottle’d be empty. Valerie would be sitting nearby, making rosettes out of bits of wool. After lunch I’d sleep most of the afternoon, have me tea, then off to bed at 7pm.
Val used to get our hot water bottles ready for bed while I did my ablutions. I’d leave the bathroom door open so I could see her in the kitchen, just in case. Then one night I was violently sick. I was literally hanging on the washbasin and I looked over at our Val. ‘I don’t half feel bad’, I said. Val just looked back at me, in disgust and said, ‘Serves you right!’ There and then, I decided ‘Right, I'll never touch another drop as long as I live’.
And thank God, I never have!
As I said, it was a lonely time for me and Val after Horace died. I had an inspiration and got in touch with the Community Learning Disabilities Team. Sue Sprague, the Occupational Therapist, came over to see us. She took to Val s away, and Val took to her. Sue will never forget the hilarious time we had when Val had chicken pox.
Then Cathy Huxtable, who is the support worker on the Team, started to take both of us out shopping once every week. We did this for a few years, and we became great friends. As time went on, walking got too difficult for Val and Cathy would take her out in the wheelchair. I used to stop at home because it was getting too much for me. Val used to think of anything we needed for the house and bring it back. When it was time to come back from her shopping tips, she’d look at Cathy and say ‘I’m not speaking to you any more’
Later on, Val was taken very ill and had to go into hospital with pneumonia. I pleaded with the doctor for her not to go. I thought she’d die. She went into
I visited Val every day until she died, about five weeks later. I’d always sing ‘All things bright and beautiful’ to her and then say a prayer before I left. She died on 27 July. I was with her when she died. I know she is still with me in spirit.
I would like anyone reading this who has a child with Down syndrome just to pray for patience and enough love to carry them through. My sister was marvellous - she was God’s Gift to me and to everyone who knew her.
Thank you to all of the people who have helped us, especially Sue and Cathy, and who are helping me still.
Dictated to Jenny Traveller, Community Nurse Typed verbatim by Jane Tinkler, Team Secretary.
18 October 1996