Yesterday I read on the Telegraph’s website that Katherine Bowes-Lyon, a cousin of the Queen who was severely mentally disabled and had lived in an institution most of her life, had died aged 87. Her sister Nerissa, who had a similar disability and life history, died in 1986. The story was first revealed to the public in the late 1980s and Channel 4 ran a programme on them in 2011 (reviewed here), which also served as a study on attitudes to people with such disabilities in the early to mid 20th century and on the way conditions for them have changed over the years, which was panned in the media as giving no new information on the Bowes-Lyon sisters than was revealed in the 1980s. The Telegraph’s coverage was shocking, however; it claimed that she and her sister had been subject to “crass intrusion” and called her death “peace at last” in their headline. She was buried in a “private family funeral” and her death, on 23rd February, has only now been announced “because of the sensitivities involved”.
It’s disappointing but, I guess, not surprising that the Torygraph chooses the death of a neglected, disabled cousin of the royal family to display a bit of sycophancy towards that family. The article claims that the feelings of various royals were “hurt” by the 2011 documentary (which I reviewed here):
Two years ago, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, emotively entitled The Queen’s Hidden Cousins, that suggested the Royal family had behaved uncaringly towards the daughters of the late John and Fenella Bowes Lyon, who were the older brother and sister-in-law of Queen Elizabeth. In a rare insight into the Queen’s feelings, Lady Elizabeth Anson, her cousin, told me that the programme had “hurt” the monarch.
Lady Elizabeth considered it to be “an intrusion of privacy” and accused its makers of “capitalising on the royal connection and ignoring the facts, as the sisters have always been looked after by that family”. Of Katharine she said that, contrary to what was claimed, the Queen’s cousin was well looked after in a care home that was suited to her needs. “She has regular visits, too,” she added.
This may be true as far as Katherine’s life in the nursing home since the closure of Earlswood is concerned, but it must be remembered that Nerissa did not live to see that and that people who worked at Earlswood said that the two did not receive any visitors. People whose relatives were there said that they found the place forbidding and were nervous about visiting them because of that, a feeling that went away after she left the institution; people described having to wear communal clothing that was stained with urine. Now, did this happen to Nerissa and Katherine, or just to the ordinary disabled people there? One would have thought that such a wealthy family would have been able to buy their daughters their own clothes and keep them in clean underwear.
It’s true that their father died in 1930, when they were children, and that their mother looked after them until they became adult. However, this was a very rich family — rich enough to get a daughter into the royal family, and that got them very strong connections. All the usual explanations for why families left their disabled relatives in places like Earlswood, such as having too many responsibilities and not enough money or support, do not apply to the Bowes-Lyons or their in-laws: they could have afforded to overhaul that institution themselves, or set up one to care for Elizabeth and Nerissa and a few others (it is known that in the 19th century, wealthy families would hire servants to care for mentally ill relatives, such as the character of Grace Poole in the book Jane Eyre, as the asylums of the time were hellholes; the same was true for many of the large long-stay hospitals in the mid 20th cen. The excuse about how mental disability was a source of shame in the 1920s or 30s was no longer an excuse in the 50s or 60s, which was after the war when eugenics and social Darwinism was largely discredited and after their aunt had become Queen Consort and then Queen Mother, so nobody could say they were a family of imbeciles then (except those who say that of all the royals, of course).
This is not to say, of course, that I think the way the disabled people at Earlswood were treated was any more deserved for the non-royals, but the royal family was in a position for decades to make a difference to their lives and to the lives of those around them, if not for everyone with that kind of impairment, and chose not to. If Earlswood had not closed, Katherine would likely have died there, much as did Nerissa, perhaps sooner than February 2014. Still, the way the Telegraph covers this whenever the story appears gives the impression of a sycophantic newspaper in a dictatorship rather than an independent one in a democracy. In their review of the C4 programme, for example, they say the programme “used the fate of the Bowes-Lyon girls to illustrate the shocking way (to us) that people with learning disabilities were treated not so long ago”. It should have been shocking to them as well, and probably was to anyone forced to endure it, but why shouldn’t we be shocked? Surely if we can judge poor, under-educated people in places like Somalia for things like FGM, whose perpetrators believe it is beneficial to its victims, we can judge rich, well-educated people in the UK for prolonged cruelty to very vulnerable people? And why do they choose to believe royal sources now that the sisters were visited, when their actual carers say they were not?
The comments section on the Telegraph’s announcement of Katherine Bowes-Lyon’s death is full of ridiculous arguments about the Queen failing to show emotion after Lady Diana’s death, and in that situation she may well have been looking after her grandsons (then aged about 10) who had lost their mother, and had no obligation to cater to the public’s grief, but that does not mean she does not have a duty to care for her own family. The fact remains that the miserable conditions for disabled inmates at Earlswood are well-known, and the two sisters were left there for decades when they had very wealthy family who could have done better for them. I am sick of hearing the excuse that people “did not know any better” — they did.