Reading the Silences

Posted by Jessica Meyer

It has been a bit of a banner week for the project.  The prototype for our database has been completed and loaded on to our workspace.  For the next few weeks, we will all be spending time inputting data from the nearly 350 files we have photographed so far, identifying any kinks in the system and, I hope, starting to get a sense of how the database will take shape as a reality, rather than just a promise to the funding body and project partners.

The process of designing the database so far has been an interesting one, not least because it has required me to articulate to a non-historian the precise nature of the information we will be culling from the PIN 26 files for publication in this form. [1] The sheer range of material that is there has been brought home to me as never before as it has been distilled into a series of related information boxes, ranging from ‘yes/no’ tick boxes to free-form miscellaneous ‘notes’.  And this is after we have stripped out much of the medical detail which, for ethical reasons, we can’t include in the database itself.

And yet, even with all this detail, neither the database nor the files themselves can, necessarily, tell us the full story of the men whose lives they record.  Even in the most detailed, there are inevitable archival silences, the spaces which historians attempt to fill with analysis. Just as I was struck by the amount of information available to the project through the PIN 26 files, the vastness of the silences in this archive was brought home to me as I prepared my presentation for the ‘Bringing Conflict Home’ conference, held at the University of York on 11th and 12th May.  The file I focused on in my 20-minute paper tells the story of JM, an officer in the Yorks. and Lancs. Regiment who was paralysed by a gunshot wound to his spine.  It is made up of eight folders, although two appear to be missing as only six were delivered to me when I called the file up.  One of the missing folders contains, I believe, the copies of JM’s enlistment and demobilization documents which were a standard inclusion of all PIN 26 files.  The six I did look contain almost exclusively receipts and correspondence relating to the medical supplies provided by the Ministry to aid JM’s mobility and ease his related physical symptoms.  There is almost nothing in the file as I viewed it which speaks explicitly to JM’s domestic situation, how care was provided to him in his home, his employment or financial situation. And yet, as I argued in my paper, in reading the silences of these documents, a remarkably rich domestic story can be revealed.

JM’s injury left him unable to stand or walk and caused ‘loss of control of bladder and rectum’ as well as ‘much spasticity of legs’ [2], for which he was prescribed massage, to be carried out in his home, three times a week.  In addition to the massage, he used two wheelchairs, one indoor and one outdoor, for mobility.  His incontinence required the provision of rubber urinals (supplied in duplicate for reasons of hygiene), and his chronic constipation necessitated the daily use of aperients such as liquid paraffin.  All of these were supplied by the Ministry, either directly in the case of the urinals (which were replaced approximately every nine months) and replacement parts for the wheelchairs, or via reimbursement for the massage and chemists’ bills.  These expenses were regularly challenged by the Ministry over the course of Marshall’s lifetime, requiring him to respond with detailed explanations of the reasons for specific expenses.  In the case of some items, such as the autowheel for his wheelchair, to help him get up hills without assistance, which he applied for in 1924, or the increased expense of a massage therapist during a period when he was living away from home in Hereford, he was expected to cover the difference between the Ministry’s budget for the appliance or service and the actual cost.  While in the case of the massage treatment, JM appears to have forgone treatment until he returned home, in most cases he appeared willing and able to absorb these additional expenses, although it is not clear from the surviving files if he followed any employment.

JM quite clearly falls into the category of pensioner whose communications with the Ministry were a route to expressing dissatisfaction with the official assistance on offer, as noted by Helen Bettinson. [3] While unfailingly polite in his correspondence, and almost always successful in getting his demands met, JM’s correspondence indicates his particularity when it comes to medical equipment.  In requesting the autowheel, he asserted that it ‘is more of a necessity to me than a luxury’, even as he added ‘that I should be prepared to meet a portion of the cost myself if a full grant were not possible.’ When applying for a new set of rubber urinals in 1929, he asked that the Ministry ‘send me the name + address of the supplier, and I will forward him one of the old appliances, so that the new one may be to the same specifications.’  He defended his need for Magnesia Oil in addition to liquid paraffin on the grounds that, ‘The usual Paraffin was not satisfactory alone, and other aperients, which you have paid for before, were too strong.  I was advised to see if the Magnesia Oil would be more satisfactory, which it seems to be.’  Here was a middle-class individual, apparently with a certain amount of disposable income, who was willing and able to articulate his specific medical needs in detail.

JM clearly made good use of a full range of medical supplies in order to maintain his independence at home. These enabled his domestic accommodation to adapt to new limits enforced by his impairment.  This can be seen most clearly in the provision of mobility aid from the moment he left hospital in 1919.  In 1920, on the advice of his doctor, he applied for ‘a wheeled carrying chair in order to enable him to be moved up and down stairs.’ This was in addition to the house chair, deemed to be ‘absolute necessity in order for me to move about the house’, for which applied in as part of his discharge from hospital in June 1919.  In the range and specificity of JM’s requirements for medical paraphernalia to support his day-to-day life within his own home, we can start to read a history of domestic adaptation to accommodate the war-attributable condition that he was to live with until 1950.

What is not articulated explicitly in these files is the impact that the accrual of all this paraphernalia had on JM’s day-to-day life and the lives of those around him, including his wife. Yet a hand-propelled invalid chair containing a man large and heavy enough to require particular specifications be sent to the carriage-maker employed to supply them would be heavy to push up hills. Rubber urinals required regular cleaning in rotation, hence the duplication of each order, and the results of the aperients that JM took so regularly would need to be dealt with within the home.  References to ‘2 yds. Cloth Waterproof’ on one chemist’s bill gives some indication of the possible domestic labour involved in ensuring his medical comfort and hygiene.  The massage therapy he received three times a week took place in his home, presumably requiring space in the house to be regularly set aside for the therapist to undertake their work.

In addition to the medical paraphernalia, medications and medical services that JM received, he also required a variety of personal services to enable him to continue living in his home. In 1921 his doctor certified that he ‘is unable to do anything for himself; but he is fit to be left alone at times providing a nurse attendant is within call night + day.’ Despite the fact that ‘He certainly keeps his general condition wonderfully’, and that he was independent enough to visit Hereford for up to a month on several occasions, he continued to ‘require an attendant within call’. He thus received an additional constant attendance allowance, starting at £64 and rising to £100 per annum by then end of the 1920s.  At the moment, because of the two missing folders from this file, I can only speculate that this sum was used to employ a nurse to provide care in addition to that provided by JM’s wife.  If so, it would have altered the pattern of JM’s domesticity, just as the provisions made for his incontinence would have had an impact on domestic cleaning and household chores, and his need for multiple appliances to aid mobility would have affect the layout of the home.

Many of these conclusions are, of necessity, speculative. The adaptations required of JM’s household can only be deduced from reading between the lines of receipt reimbursement requests and medical reports on treatment. Many silences remain, not least of his wife, whose domestic life and order would have been the first thing to require adaptation to accommodate her husband’s newly acquired impairments. I hope that, if I can locate the two missing folders, more detail, particularly of JM’s economic situation and the use he made of his constant attendance allowance, will enable me to add more detail to the story of his and his wife’s post-war domesticity. Yet even without this additional information, by examining the objects of care provision, large and small, medical and domestic, files such as JM’s show us how war attributable disability shaped interwar domesticity at a granular level.  From alterations to household routine and the makeup of domestic staff to changes to domestic layout and architecture, disability shaped home and home life for disabled men and their families.  This process was enabled by the resources provided by both the State and charities, often working in concert, as well as the persistence and ingenuity of disabled men and their carers, a foreshadowing of the structures of the modern welfare state that would emerge more formally in 1948.

[1] At this point I need to make public my thanks to Dr Matthew Daws of the School of Geography, University of Leeds, for the time and patience he has spent on converting my incoherent attempts at explanation into workable computerized form.

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are taken from documents contained in PIN 26/19946, The National Archives, London.

[3] Helen Bettinson, ‘”Lost Souls in the House of Restoration”?: British Ex-Servicemen and War Disability Pensions, 1914-1930’, PhD. diss., University of East Anglia, 2002, p. 9.