RLSB Interview: Mary Phillips

Mary Philips standing at a podium

In January 2017, RSBC merged with the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB). Although we are now called RSBC, there may be some references to RLSB in the following article.

Mary Philips and her sister Jane joined RLSB’s school at the age of seven. Mary went on to study Child Development before becoming a school governor of Dorton. Here she shares her experiences of growing up as a blind young person.

When did you join the school?

My sister Jane and I joined the school in January 1954 at the age of seven. We went to Drayton Manor first for six months – that was the infants’ school in Hertfordshire – before it moved to Seal in September 1954. Dorton House, the main school, was in Aylesbury. That moved to Seal in September 1955.

Do you remember your first thoughts of Dorton House in Seal?

As it was just the infants for the first year in 1954, we had the whole of the place at our disposal. There was loads of building work was going on at the time. I don’t know what Health and Safety would say these days! I fell down a hole one day; it was only a little hole, I think it was right by the panelled dining room.

It was great. We rattled around the place like anything. We were sleeping in the East Wing, our playroom was in the silent corridor. I do remember that it was quite a cold winter.

So what was it like being a pupil at Dorton?

Like everything, you always have mixed feelings, and of course I am talking about nearly 60 years ago. The ratio of pupils to staff was very low. There were the teachers, and the cleaners and maids, but there were very few staff on the care side.

We had a young girl looking after us when we were eight, who could only just have left school. She decided that because we had been talking after lights out we would be on silence, which meant we couldn’t talk to each other for a week. One of my friends, she broke down in class. We had a very nice teacher called Miss Jones, who got it out of her that we had been put on silence, and another House Mother came and made this young woman withdraw that punishment.

Audrey Slater was our class teacher and she was a wonderful teacher. I think everybody would agree with that because we all left her being able to read and write Braille well. I will always remember that Miss Slater let Jane bring her doll to class on the first day because she was upset, which was nice.

What memories and images best paint the picture of your time at Dorton House?

I will always remember the Christmas parties with great happiness; they were fantastic. Also the music was good; we had good choirs. I was no good at sport – that really in a way was my weakest area. I didn’t like P.E. I didn’t mind swimming, and we used to go to Sevenoaks baths at lunchtime.

One particular teacher stands out for me and that was Adrian Pickles. He was fantastic. He was a fantastic teacher. He used to read to us for hours, and was so kind, and really, really understood our needs, I felt.

There was a set of twins called Marilyn and Yvonne and Marilyn was also a good mimic. One day, Marilyn and Yvonne decided they would play an April Fool on our arithmetic teacher Miss Brown. So before she came in to give us our lesson, Marilyn hid in a big cupboard, so of course Miss Brown came in a said ‘oh… where is Marilyn Jacobson?’

We all said she had gone into surgery and after about 10 minutes, she opened the cupboard and shouted ‘April Food!’ Miss Brown took it in good heart. She didn’t tell us off. She thought it was quite funny, I think.

Do you remember the opening of the school when Vera Lynn came?

Oh, yes, definitely. I didn’t meet her, but I definitely do remember because I was in Class 4. Princess Margaret and the Countess Mountbatten came into our classroom and I was making a basket with cane. I had a lovely girl with me called Sheila, who I am sorry to say has now passed away. We were sitting at the same table, and cane was all over the floor.

We had new bedspreads put on our beds specially for that one day, which we thought was very strange. We were not allowed to put them on; the housemother had to put them on so that they were absolutely straight, because apparently Princess Margaret was going to look into the dormitory.

What was it like being a vision impaired young person in the 1950s?

I would say that I felt pretty secure; the only down side was that there was very little connection between our parents, the local authority and the school. I think this is why our Dad found things so difficult.

Mum and Dad came down to the school whenever there was an opportunity, but of course when you have got parents of lots of children on a parent’s day nobody can spend a lot of time with them. There weren’t reviews like there are now. Social Services might come in the holidays to see how we were, but they never made a definite appointment, so that my Dad could say ‘what’s going to happen to Mary and Jane in the future’? That, I think, was a very bad side to things.

How old were you when you left Dorton?

We left when we were just over 15½. We went on to RNC, the Royal National College, which was then in Shrewsbury, to do shorthand and typing, because we were good at English.

When or why did you decide to become a school governor?

I had done Child Development with the Open University and quite a lot of psychology, and a couple of education courses. I felt that once I got my degree, a 2:1, that a lot of it was down to how I was taught at Dorton. I don’t honestly think I could have done it, if I hadn’t had the education at Dorton. The strange thing was, when I graduated in 2002, Adrian Pickles said to me, ‘Mary, I knew you could do this’, and I said “Adrian, I never thought I could”.

I felt that I wanted to give something back to Dorton, because as I say, you have good times and bad times. I was concerned as to how the psychological side of things were dealt with. Partly because of Jane’s experience I wanted to know that the children were happy, not just with their education, but residential, that they were being cared for adequately, and that their needs were being met.

How do you think Dorton prepared you for life?

The one thing I will say about Dorton was that they taught us to do our washing, they taught us to cook, and I think that is almost as important as our academic education. Mobility had only just started to be taught. I remember Miss Brown saying to me in my last term ‘I never thought Jane and you would have had the confidence to go down to Seal Village on your own’ but we did and we used to do it as part of our domestic science lesson, which I thought was good, because it got us used to going into shops.

We made friends for life. Although we may not see each other regularly, we are in contact with each other and I think that is a lasting legacy. We saw more of our friends, than we saw of our brothers and sisters.

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