Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Finding a voice

A most poignant story came into my knowledge this week. It has made me realise all over again why storytelling workshops became so important a part of my work and why I’ve always tried to take an open approach to storytelling with children and adults. It’s quite simply the huge importance of giving people a voice.

The story cropped up in a very fine book I finished reading during the week. Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey is a history of several generations of the Fitzwilliam family, the fabulously wealthy owners of Wentworth House in the North East of England, and of the desperately poor mine-workers in the collieries they owned. One of many incidental stories in the book is of the son of a poor young woman by the name of May Bower who lived and worked in Wentworth village. Her son Edgar was believed to have been one of the numerous illegitimate children fathered by Billy Fitzwilliam, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam.

A man without a voice:

Edgar Bower was born in 1922. As he grew, the villagers of Wentworth couldn’t get on with him at all. They thought he’d been born deaf and dumb for it was not only hard to communicate with him, it was almost impossible to know what if anything he comprehended. When outside, he’d do nothing but shout and moan and make strange screaming noises. At the age of 6, in the same year that his mother died, Edgar was sent to the Royal School for the Deaf and Dumb at Derby. Upon finishing school at the age of 16, he returned to his village. But in the following year, he was certified insane and sent to the West Riding Paupers Lunatic Asylum at Wakefield. There he remained for the next 53 years, terribly abused in every possible way and known in the hospital as The Dummy.

Then in 1988, thanks to a hospital social worker, Edgar Bower was brought back to his village. The reason he was able to return there was that, uniquely, a hospital social worker called Lily Fletcher had found a way to communicate with him. At her first meeting with him, she’d handed him a pen and a piece of paper. The first word he wrote on the paper was Mother and then, with Lily’s help, he wrote an articulate and moving letter to his mother who’d by then been dead for 60 years.  The letter described what it felt like to be him.

Edgar Bower’s mother had always promised that he’d come home. When the social worker, Lily Fletcher, got him there, having found him a place at the Residential Care Home established at the Vicarage where his mother had worked, the first thing he did was run across to the cottage where he’d spent his first six years and try to open the door to get in.

By giving Edgar pen and paper, Lily Fletcher had enabled him to give voice to his thoughts and feelings. That letter he’d written to his mother described how, when he was growing up, people had not understood his handicap. They’d not realised  he could hear what they said. They’d not understood that for some reason he couldn’t speak. ‘You see I cannot use my tongue properly. I have a voice, a proper man’s voice, but I have difficulty speaking like other people, something I so very much want to do.’

It’s not clear why Edgar Bower couldn’t speak. Lily Fletcher suspected that someone must have cut out his tongue. Whether this was so or not, it was effectively true that, until her intervention, he had been tongueless.

A powerful symbol:

Edgar Bower’s story will remain in my mind as a terrifying symbol of what it must be like not ever to be heard.  Whatever the reason – poverty, skin colour, ethnicity, imprisonment, handicap – an inability to make oneself heard is a denial of humanity. If helping people to become able to speak, to tell their story and get themselves heard, is something that storytelling can do, then we must all speak for it. Storytelling can help in so many ways.

For instance, there was that skinny young black boy I encountered at one of the nurseries I used regularly to visit in the time, years ago, when I worked part-time for the Lambeth Library Storytelling Scheme. The boy was new. I was quickly told he never spoke. And no, he didn’t, at least not in my hearing. So I’ll never forget the day I was reading the group a book about night-time. On every alternate page was a bright yellow moon and suddenly this boy was standing up, leaning urgently towards me, arm outstretched towards the book, and from him, in a rusty kind of voice, kept issuing the repeated word, Moon.

PS: My top picture is an old image of Wentworth House near Rotherham, erstwhile home of Billy, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, reputed father of Edgar Bower. The bottom photo speaks for itself – a very special moon.


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5 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Finding a voice”

  1. Jean Says:

    Dear Mary
    Thank you for the sad and moving story of Edgar Bower – and the finding of his voice. It reminds of storytelling in a school for autistic children many years ago. The small group of 9/10 year olds gathered to listen to a story – the teacher held out little hope of the children following or indeed understanding the story — but you never know she said.
    I told the story of my son as a small child finding a flint pebble and discovering sparkling quartz inside the pebble, and the follow up tale of a boy in a storymaking group I was leading discovering the lost rainbow and his imagination in my son’s pebble.
    One child listening surprised us all — he didn’t speak but indicated he wanted to tell a story — he then retold the story of the pebble and the rainbow in wonderful fluid movements and mime – I’ll never forget – it was remarkable, and the other children were thrilled and excited in a good way, and the teacher and i cried silent tears and applauded. Stories – and well you never know.
    With lots of love and best wishes
    Jean xx

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Dear Jean, this reply to your comment on the Edgar Bower story is very belated but no less grateful for that. Your corresponding story of the flint pebble and the rainbow inside is so moving. I’m so glad you have shared it on this blog. Much love, Mary

  3. Meg Says:

    Thanks for this moving story, Mary … much to ponder about helping children tell of their experiences in new ways.
    Best Wishes for the coming week.

  4. Pam Says:

    Thanks Mary for a very moving story. I can’t help wondering – why did it take until 1988 for Edgar to be given pen and paper?!
    And how sane he was after all he’d been through. I’d like to read the book.
    Best wishes, Pam.

  5. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Dear Pam, Sorry my reply to your comment is so belated. But, yes, why did it take so long to provide the small bit of help that got Edgar on his way? I hope you do get to read Black Diamonds. Well worth it in so many ways. All the best, Mary

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