Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

1976 Janet Cresswell to Polyvinyl acetate

It is astonishing how much more hazy my memory is about 1976 than about earlier years. There was always a series of crises going on at Mayola Road, but mostly these were concerned with people. In 1976 the main crisis looming was about the house itself. Would the single people from Mayola Road and from Derby Road, Woodford be rehoused?

Meanwhile we were still having visitors, who expected MPU to be as fully active as it was in previous years, despite the exhaustion of the people at Mayola Road. Valerie was still completing her honours degree at Enfield Technical College, and was concentrating on this. I was unemployed but exhausted. Andrew was as busy as ever producing leaflets and drugs directories, but I believe he was beginning to apply for employment at Enfield Technical College, where he had obtained a first-class degree about two years earlier. Now they wanted someone to lecture in the Mental Health field and he was hoping to make a start on this. But first he had to deal with the rehousing problem.

Early in 1976 he was promised a house at 177 Glenarm Road for his family. But he wanted another house to rehouse all the single tenants who wished to stay in Hackney. I asked for a room at 177 Glenarm Road because I was very nervous of staying at a house where Matthew O'Hara was in charge. I was always nervous of Matthew. Besides this I did not think that I could tolerate living as perhaps the only woman in a house filled with male tenants. This would probably be the case. Most of these people were very untidy and the tidying up might fall on me? But I wanted to try hard to resume a career in chemistry. I was qualified to try for a Ph.D. and was actually accepted for this at North East London Polytechnic early in 1976, but I was not eligible for a grant, and as I was unable to support myself for three years, I had to turn this down. But there was a possibly of getting paid employment as a research assistant, and though the work would mean filling in the gaps in what the Ph.D. students were doing and generally helping them, I thought that this was my best option and filled in a form for this.

Meanwhile it was necessary to stay at Mayola Road until suitable housing had been secured for all the tenants. When Andrew and Valerie had moved in February 1976, I was left on my own at Mayola Road together with Tony O'Donnell and Mary Wade. Tony was friendly but not much help to me as he had his own agenda. I believe he was still in unemployment and was out most of the day. As soon as Valerie and Andrew had left, he took over the kitchen at Mayola Road and started filling this up with junk. I moved downstairs to Andrew's large bedroom and took my books and food into this room. I still went upstairs to wash privately at the sink in my old room. Both the bathroom and the kitchen had now become unusable and I lived on Chinese take-aways, making tea from an electric kettle, and occasionally warming up a meal at home from the contents of a tin. This was in done what would be considered a dangerous fashion, in a saucepan placed over the casing of an electric fire laying on its side. I was careful and watched the operation closely the whole time. I would not recommend this to anyone else, and the modern electric fires make this action impossible, but I had an old-fashioned fire.

My tins of food were kept on the shelves of an empty book-case. Leonard visited on one occasion while I was in this state. He laughed at me. He had often laughed at the way I lived when he visited. On one occasion he said, "Move out at once and move into a Peter Bedford House." He did not believe me when I told him that Mayola Road was a Peter Bedford House. He believed that all Peter Bedford Houses were run by resident social workers and he thought that I needed to be in this sort of house. It is true that most Peter Bedford Houses were run like this, but Mayola Road had been granted to MPU to be run independently of any staff by a sympathetic employee of the Peter Bedford Association. There were eulogies of Peter Bedford himself in the papers Leonard had been reading and descriptions of his wonderful work, so Leonard could not possibly believe that Mayola Road, now dilapidated and filled mainly with rubbish could possibly be a Peter Bedford House.

Mayola Road was now becoming a frightening street. It was depressing to walk through our end of it. Gradually at the end of 1975 and the beginning of 1976 all the houses were being vacated. One of the last to go was a group of young doctors who called themselves "Marxists in Medicine". There was a sign to this effect in their window. I had once obtained help for Andrew from a doctor living in this house. Though I never got to know the people living in this house, it had been a comforting landmark, when I walked to Lower Clapton Road to do my shopping. Usually I bought vegetables at a small greengrocers in the High Street. Surprisingly during the whole time I lived at Mayola Road I had never visited the market at Chatsworth Road which was fairly near. In the vicinity there were the Hackney Marshes, which is now a Nature reserve. I never went for a walk there until I had moved out of Mayola Road. Valerie had told me about the Hackney Marshes and said she often went for walks there.

After the Marxists in Medicine had moved away the street was deserted containing only a row of derelict houses except for 37 Mayola Road and the house next door occupied by Phyllis and her family of two teen-age girls and a young boy. Then Phyllis left for a new house in Queensbridge Road. She had stuck out until she got what she thought was a really satisfactory house.

I was truly on my own but still receiving knocks on the door. I no longer answered any knocks after dark. Often I spent the evening in my old room higher up the house, just going down to sleep until about midnight. I had thought this safer as no-one could see the light in this room from the street and thought the house unoccupied. But one night there was a frightening loud knock at the door, and a man screamed "I demand to see the secretary of MPU". I was the secretary of MPU. I was horribly frightened. I am not sure whether I still had the telephone but believe that this had been cut off. Tony O'Donnell and Mary Wade were both out. In any case I did not believe that Mary would have helped me. In these last days Tony O'Donnell tried to help me and often invited me into the fortress he had built in the old kitchen. There were no windows. He had blocked them all up. A light was fixed up inside. He believed that it was safe living inside this structure. I felt all right for a time sitting with Tony and his new wife Nina and talking about Tony's theories on life. It distracted my mind from the frightening situation at Mayola Road, because some of the visitors might be violent people. We had experienced this in the past.

I spent much of the day saying prayers. I believed in God and that he was helping me and my prayers at this time were answered. The man knocking at the door went away. I thought "Perhaps he was someone in real need of help and perhaps I should have answered." But I could not do everything.

Usually I answered to a woman's voice and the next visitor was Janet Cresswell. I allowed her to stay the night and was quite glad of her company. I did not dream that a woman could be violent though Janet had often uttered threats against her old doctor. At that time Janet was living at her mother's flat in Devon or Cornwall. She told me that she had been asked to vacate it by her mother's solicitors who wanted to sell the flat to pay for nursing home fees for her mother. Unfortunately Janet had let her own flat in Hampstead to a group of ex-patients. These turned out to be feckless people who let the flat get into a mess and did not pay the rent. I could not offer Janet any help because the house at Mayola Road had to be vacated soon, and we could not take any responsibility for more people. Janet returned that night to her mother's flat in Devon. She still owned the flat in Hampstead. I wondered why she could not tell her unsatisfactory tenants to leave.

Wen Janet had left, the next day I was alone. That night there was another very loud knock on the door but no-one spoke. I did not answer thinking it was some stranger, similar to the person who had demanded to speak to the secretary of the MPU. The I heard a sound of breaking glass. The man had got in. I had locked myself into the room upstairs and I cowered inside hoping that the man would not find me. The light was out and I hoped he would go away when he found no-one in the house. Then I heard a voice on the stairs. "Joan what are you up to? Why didn't you let me in?" It was Tony O'Donnell. I sighed with relief. I opened my door and spoke to him and told him I thought it was a stranger. "I had forgotten my key," said Tony, "and I've had to break the glass to get into the house." The house was now more unsafe than ever, but I reflected that anyone could have broken the glass to enter the house. Next day Tony covered the broken parts with am sheet of wood, nailed into place.

In the day time things were not so frightening, but a group of children sometimes gathered outside and threw stones at the window of the house. I went down to see Andrew and Valerie to tell them about this. "You should have lace curtains at the front window, then they would not see you," Valerie suggested. I hurried back and rigged up some lace curtains. Previously I had not minded passers-by looking in during daylight hours and I did not stay downstairs during the evenings.

Meanwhile there was some legal business being carried out by Andrew and I have a few diary entries concerning this. I believe that I was living at Mayola Road after Andrew, Valerie, Lily and the six cats had departed for about three months, February, March and part of April.

[29.3.1976]

A serious incident happened on 30.3.1976. Janet Cresswell visited me for the second time since I had been left in charge of Mayola Road. She had travelled up from Devon, and though I was reluctant to accommodate anyone in this derelict house, I could not turn her away, but agreed to let her stay for one night. We probably ate a chicken take-away meal that evening, and I made cups of tea by boiling the electric kettle. I had moved down to occupy the room formerly occupied by Andrew and Valerie, but that night I decided to stay upstairs in my old room where I had left a mattress on the floor. We slept in this room that night as I regarded the upstairs room to be safer. Janet was dressed in a very smart trouser suit. I told her to return home to the flat in Devon the next morning but she told me she was going to travel down to see her former doctor to have it out with him. She said she would enter the hospital as a voluntary patient. I never knew that Janet was carrying a knife.

The next morning in the Epsom Evening news of 30.3.1975.there appeared a short passage. "A consulting psychiatrist, Mr Desmond McNeil, who was stabbed at a mental hospital in Epsom, was seriously ill in hospital today. A 45-year-old voluntary woman patient at Horton Hospital is helping police with enquiries."

On April 1st, 1975 there was a longer passage in the Epsom and Ewell Advertiser as follows:-

A woman secretary was charged on Tuesday with the attempted murder of a doctor at Horton Hospital, Epsom, the previous day. Mrs Janet Myra Cresswell, 45, of no fixed address, was remanded in custody by Epsom magistrates until Monday, April 5. She is charged with the attempted murder of Dr. Desmond McNeill at Horton Hospital. She is said to have stabbed the doctor. Det.-Insp Stanley Clegg asked for the remand in custody for further inquiries. Mrs Cresswell did not oppose this. It is expected the case will go to Crown Court for trial. A spokesman for Epsom District Hospital, where Dr. McNeill was taken, said on Tuesday that his condition was "satisfactory".

This news devastated me, but I had no time to dwell on it as I had to continue to occupy Mayola Road until a house had been obtained for Matthew O'Hara and others. I had to stay until the official eviction took place. In the meantime Matthew O'hara, an amateur expert in legal matters tried to help Janet, but she refused his offer of help. To this day Janet has remained a patient in Broadmoor Hospital.

I have three diary entries for 1976.

10.4.1976. I moved from 37 Mayola Road to 177 Glenarm Road. Vans and a car provided by Peter Sneddon assisted. We had a Community remover. Everything is in a muddle.

Sunday 18.4.1976. I visited Mayola Road and went to the old church in Kingsland Road. It was Palm Sunday. On Monday to Wednesday I visited Mayola Road most days. I was trying to help Tony with his moving. Tony did not seem to be making much progress with this. He persisted in sitting for long periods in his old blocked up room in the kitchen with Nina. Valerie and Andrew came down to help. We had to pack up most of his stuff for him. Then one day, the council blocked the premises up. They had promised that they would give Andrew access, but they did not, except in writing, legally. Fortunately, Andrew arranged to have the premises unblocked later in the week, and all the stuff was moved in quite a hurry by Peter Sneddon and Roger from Centerprise.

Sunday 25.4.1976. All the troubles with Mayola Road appear to be over. The place is empty now and bath and toilet have been smashed up by demolition men, awaiting the destruction of the entire building. Saturday 1.5.76. Tony's property has been stored in the house next door (179 Glenarm road). I had quite a hand in sorting it out and repacking it in boxes in the front room on the ground floor downstairs. The films which I took of Nina and Tony's wedding did not come out. END OF DIARY for 1976.

I cannot convey the terror of my last days at 37 Mayola Road. yet it was also a constructive period of my life. In conclusion we thought we had achieved something at Mayola Road, some kind of turning point for disadvantaged people; the experience had value and the negative side of it was never the whole story. I would never have stuck it out in the conditions at Mayola Road if I had not thought that it worthwhile and would achieve better treatment for people who had spent time in psychiatric hospitals.

I must point out that with all our failures no-one had died violently or through suicide while living at Mayola Road. The same cannot be said of many psychiatric hospitals.

There is an official entry from Council documents which concludes this account of 1976.

Extract from minutes for meeting of the Council at the Town Hall, Mare Street at 7.30 pm on 28.4.1976.

A short extract follows:-

To the leader of the Council by Councillor Lois Jaques

1. Will the Leader please state what policy has been taken regarding the request from the Mental Patients' Union for property to be provided by the Council for their use?

Answer by Alderman M. Ottolangui, J. P. (Leader of the Council). Members of the Council will be aware that there have been difficulties in finding new premises for this organisation and I asked the officers to give all possible assistance to them in their efforts to find accommodation. I understand that new premises have now been acquired through the good offices of the Newlon Housing Association and that members of the Mental Patients' Union were able to move in last week.

The Council is concerned about the difficulties encountered by Hackney residents in finding accommodation after treatment for mental illness, and I understand that, at the request of the Chairman of the Social Services Committee, a report will be made to that Committee at its next meeting.

During summer 1976 I had settled down in the top room in Andrew and Valerie's house in 1976. There was nothing much for me to do and I was looking forward to starting work at North East London Polytechnic. From the Department of Employment I had a grant of about £3,000 for retraining. This was a generous amount of money especially for 1976, when employment pay was about £20 per week. I was thankful and hoped to return to employment in chemistry at the end of the year.

I started work at North East London Polytechnic on a very interesting project and began to have a better more constructive type of life.

At North East London Polytechnic I was employed as a research assistant. The difference between me and ordinary research assistants was only that my pay came from the Department of Employment and theirs came from the Polytechnic. All research assistants were given only one-year contracts. It was not a settled way of life. Some people had been employed on these one- year contracts for as much as ten years, never knowing each year whether their employment would continue. To make up for this, the work was very interesting.

Dr Pritchard immediately asked me to investigate the papers recently published on azides. He thought this would make a suitable topic for a research project, and would be a change from the research on polyvinylacetate, which in its various aspects constituted the main work of the Ph.D. students who were being supervised by Dr Pritchard.

However, I soon found out that numerous papers had been published by a researcher in Poland, covering most of the ground which we intended to investigate. As publications had to be original we decided not to pursue this topic, and I was asked to do some work on polyvinyl acetate. This was the safest work as the department had made it a speciality for many years. It also meant that I was gained enough experience to help the Ph.D. students by checking their experiments independently from time to time.

On of these students (Mr. Ahmed) came from Bangladesh. He could speak English reasonably well but his written work was very poor. For this reason most of the other lecturers said he was not up to standard but Dr. Pritchard had every confidence in him. His practical work on polyvinyl acetate turned out to be satisfactory. He gained his Ph.D. and at the end of the course went to America to work in the same company as his uncle.

During my first week, Mr. Ahmed who did not always speak English distinctly appeared to have a problem which I could not answer, so I took him over to the students' welfare department. Fortunately I did not have to spend much time on such problems, because the research project took up all my time.

My work concerned "The determination of polyvinylalcohol-polyvinylacetate copolymers in solution by means of spectrophotometry of the red iodine complex."

The Ph.D. student called Mr. Joshi was also studying this and eventually we published a paper entitled "Analytical behaviour of polyvinylacetate and its hydrolysis products with iodine."

A summary of this paper is as follows:-

Formation of the red complex between poly(vinyl acetate) and iodine in the presence of iodide is quantitatively independent of the method by which the polymer is prepared. In contrast, the amount of complex formed in the case of partly hydrolysed products of poly (vinyl acetate) depends strongly on the source of this polymer and may vary from sample to sample by as much as a factor of five, while the use of different hydrolysis methods gives rise to even greater differences in the amount of complex formed by the products. The determination of partly hydrolysed poly (vinyl acetate) through the red iodine complex is recommended only when the standard polymer sample and the unknown have been prepared in the same batch. Details of these systems are discussed.

At the end of Mr Joshi's time after he had successfully obtained his Ph. D. he came back to visit us in an unhappy frame of mind. Unfortunately owing to family pressure he was being forced to work in his brother's sari shop, whereas he wished to pursue a career as a chemist. He had found it impossible to obtain a suitable job quickly, so financial pressures had forced him to abandon the search. Such problems often happened to ethnic minorities and women at this time (1976).

I had been working three months at the research project by Christmas 1976 and felt happily settled down.


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.