A QUITE remarkable old woman, physically and mentally handicapped for all her 91 years, visited Portadown for the first time last week in the hope of learning something about her family's past.
And Miss Patricia Collen enjoyed the experience so much that she has vowed to return next year.
She visited Killicomaine House, formerly her grandparents' residence where her father grew up as a boy. The current owner is Mrs Patsy Irwin, who, having met Patricia and her two full-time minders, invited them to come back for a holiday in 2008. They promptly agreed.
Patricia's story is quite remarkable. Her grandparents, John and Mary Collen, had 11 children, one of whom was her father, Richard.
He made his name - and a considerable amount of money - in linen. He married an English woman and together they lived in London. Patricia was their only child.
Alas, her mother contracted German measles during the pregnancy, as a result of which when Patricia was born - in Garretts Cross in February 1916, months before the Battle of the Somme - she was severely handicapped. And sadly, when Patricia was just 18 months old, her mother died.
Left to care for a blind, disabled, year-and-a-half old baby, her father was rich enough to be able to employ a series of nurses and governesses. Even so, as Patricia grew older, looking after her became increasingly difficult.
Finally, no longer able to tend to the needs of his largely helpless 10-year old daughter, in 1926 Richard Collen admitted her to Normansfield Hospital in the Toddington area of Greater London, close to the English Rugby Union's Twickenham headquarters. The hospital, founded in 1864 by John Haydon Langdon-Down - after whose work Down's Syndrome was named - was a private nursing home 'for the care, education and treatment of those of good social position who present and degree of mental deficiency'. Patricia met all the criteria, and more.
Her father died in 1953, two years after Normansfield had become a National Health Service-run psychiatric hospital. By that stage, however, a member of her extended family had been made aware of her existence, for realising that his life was coming to an end her father had informed Anthony Shillingford, Patricia's full cousin, of that fact. To him was granted the status of receiver.
Being a man of considerable means, Richard Collen left a substantial sum and, with it, strict instructions that his daughter was to be cared for as well as was humanly possible.
In1997 she emerged from Normansfield, which was closing. The family bought a house for her - complete with a glorious garden - in nearby Munster Road. By that stage she had been in psychiatric care for 73 years.
In 2004 the family members advertised for a full-time carer of carers to look after her. South African husband and wife, George and Michelle Whitmore, were among the hundreds who replied and, following an exhaustive series of interviews designed to ascertain their motives and desirability, they were chosen to care for the frail, blind, disabled old lady.
Patricia's life has been transformed. For decdaes largely ignored and dismissed as being unreachable and unteachable, she has blossomed. Although she has the mental age of a six-year old, is totally blind and is wheelchair-bound, she is able to converse, spell, count, laugh, joke - and sing.
“When we first met Patricia, she was practically in rags,” Michelle explained. “She was wearing old clothes which had come from a charity shop. This was totally unnecessary; more than enough money had been left to ensure that she would be properly looked after, which always was her father’s wish for her. But I just knew there was something in there, if only it could be reached.”
Today Patricia’s clothes come from Harrod’s.
“Look at her now - beautifully dressed,” Michelle continued. “I’m not saying she was neglected in the past, but she was looked after only in physical ways. There doesn’t appear to have been any attempt to communicate with her or engage her. There was nothing to suggest that anyone had tried to stimulate her mind at all during all those long years.”
Now, rather than sitting in a hospital bed, Patricia lives in a beautiful house in one of Greater London’s most desirable boroughs. Michelle and George are with her all the time; she goes where they go - to restaurants, the theatre, in aircraft, on holiday, to flower shows, to visit National Trust properties and anything or anywhere else that takes their fancy.
Patricia had not spoken for years, other than to say “I want to go out.” Now she communicates non-stop, “albeit at the level of someone with quite a slow mind,” in the words of her carers.
She has vivid memories of when she was 10, the stage at which she was admitted to hospital. She spells names and simple words with total accuracy. She knows the words of more than 100 songs and she loves to sing, a point she was quite happy to make in the dining room of the Seagoe Hotel, the lunch-time crowd notwithstanding! ‘Danny Boy’ is her favourite.
Realising that this had gone down well, she followed it up with ‘Just A Song At Twilight’. It was a touching moment, the song having been written in 1916, the year of her birth. The words added to the poignancy, too, given that, in the twilight of her life, she is enjoying more pleasure than she had ever known in three-plus decades of darkness.
‘Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flickering shadows, softly come and go.
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight, comes love’s old song’.
When she laughs - and she laughs a lot - it is with child-like innocence.
Michelle says, “Patricia’s body was looked after, but not her mind. We like to think we’ve managed to liberate her spirit and you can see the results. She’s a beautiful person. People benefit from being in her company.
“At first it was like working with a very young child. And, just as you would with a very young child, I used to read her simple stories. Now she can tell me the story!
“So it’s quite astounding what is locked up in that tiny, frail body. Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for her to have been ignored for all those years? She’s so much more capable than they ever realised or gave her credit for.
“Today she receives no medication at all, simply because she doesn’t need any. She is in great health; her blood pressure, for example, is perfect. And she eats everything!”
In the course of her Portadown trip, as well as visiting her grandparents’ and father’s Killicomaine Road home, Patricia attended Thomas Street Methodist Church, where she sang three choruses with the children’s choir. When her story was told to the congregation by Mrs Elizabeth Lutton, there wasn’t a dry eye.
She also visited the family’s burial plot at Seagoe Parish Church, and met members of the Shillington and Hadden families, who are relatives.
How? Well, away back in the 1830s, Dr David Hadden married a sister of Patricia’s grandfather, John Collen.
Another of her grandfather’s sisters, Louisa, married Graham Shillington. One of Louisa’s claims to fame of was that she played the organ in Thomas Street on Sunday mornings, following which she hot-footed it to St Mark’s, there to do the same for the Church of Ireland parishioners!
“She has been intrigued by all of this,” Michelle said. “With her father having come from Portadown, she wanted to find out what she could about him, his family, and her relatives. She has loved this experience. I’m working on compiling a family tree for her, so it’s all very exiting.
She continues, “There is a very old family photograph of her father and his brothers and sisters - Patricia’s uncles and aunts - and their parents - Patricia’s grandparents - taken at the entrance to Killicomaine House in the late 1800s. She has now stood on the same spot as did her father and his family all those years ago and that thrilled her.
“She has thoroughly enjoyed the whole Portadown experience, which is why she is so keen to return next year.”
Before that, however, she will be celebrating her 92nd birthday. Patricia is quite specific; an Eastern-theme party with lots of curry at the Normansfield Theatre, which she remembers from childhood. She also wants a concert by a three-piece ensemble and with so many members of her family being accomplished musicians, she wants them to perform and shine, too.
In 2005, nine relatives attended her birthday party. In 2006, 14 came. In 2007, some 25 were present. And 2008? Patricia’s target is 60!
A Londoner, yes, but part of her family tree is rooted firmly in Portadown. As was said at the outset, she is a quite remarkable old woman...