OPENING OF GARDEN BUILDING AT OAKFIELD HOUSE
IN MEMORY OF WINNIE AND GERALD PRICE
ON 4 SEPTEMBER 2022,
WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN GERALD’S 95th BIRTHDAY
The talk I gave was as follows - extracts only are included in the film:
I would like to start by thanking everyone here for attending this event – as we know it is to formally open this garden building which I have given in honour of the memory of my parents.
The story here is about my parents response to what might have been seen as a great trauma – the circumstance that their eldest son turned out to be autistic and how they turned this around to make it a key element of their rewarding lives. To set the scene, I would like to invite my cousin Nicola to read a message from Mum’s cousin Eileen (who is not able to be with us), largely about those early days:
I think this sets the scene very well. As Eileen says, Autism was something that was not widely understood. In times before Jimmy’s birth severely autistic people would have been put away, removed from the public gaze, starved of stimulation and human affection to lead unhealthy lives which very often would not extend into old age.
That this has changed is in many ways due to remarkable generation of parents who were not prepared to write off their children’s lives as being beyond hope of fulfilment. They pushed for more understanding, more schooling, more facilities, here in Birmingham certainly, but in other parts of the country and internationally as well.
When my parents first discovered what was then the Birmingham and District Autistic Society, it was a revelation to them. In observing other autistic children, they saw patterns of behaviour which they had previously thought were confined to Jimmy alone. They also learned of steps that were being taken to help both parents and their children. However, as Jimmy was one of the older diagnosed autistic people, development often came too late to help him.
As he approached adulthood and beyond, the problem of how he would lead his life loomed larger and larger. It was clear that any form of self-sufficiency would be way beyond his capabilities. And yet there were very few specialised services available, such facilities that were being brought in existence, generally concentrating on children. Early steps were being taken though. Somerset Court, near Burnham-on-Sea, was one example of a pathfinder in this respect, creating a lifelong home for autistic people where they could not just exist, but thrive in a safe and sympathetic environment.
Having seen this and other similar places dotted around the country, my parents, and other parents in a similar position, saw how badly such a facility was needed in the West Midlands. In the 1970s and 1980, my father was very busy in his job, so it was my mother who served for many years on the committee of the Birmingham and District Autistic Society. When Dad took early retirement however, around 1983, it was with the specific intention of leading a project which would found a home in the West Midlands for autistic adults. The first stages were a huge communication campaign, raising awareness amongst MPs, Councillors, Social Services and Health Authorities of the pressing and urgent need that was growing all the time. The geographical reach of the society was extended by merger with the Worcester Society, and it became the West Midland Autistic Society, its boundaries being aligned with the local Health Authority.
He acquired very many valuable allies, none more so than John Williamson, who was Director of the regional Social Services who was 100% committed to trying to meet the need that Dad had so clearly articulated. He could only do so much though – funding could be found for much of the day centre needs, and ongoing costs but the residential capital costs were harder for him to meet – and this is where Dad, who was always meticulous in following up all ideas, picked up a suggestion that substantial Housing Associations grants might be available. This was a new idea for projects of this nature but it was to be the key that made The Oldfield House project possible. Dad established links with the Family Housing Association, represented by Anthea Mills who we are fortunate to have with us today. Anthea, perhaps you could share one or two memories of those times:
And so – the Oakfield House project came into being. I remember many setbacks when all seemed to be lost, but thanks to Dad’s persistence and the goodwill of all the authorities, difficulties were overcome. One story I remember Dad telling is at the meeting to agree the project, in 1985 I think, there was a funding shortfall of £35,000 and there was not a single avenue left that had not been exhausted. John Williamson resolved the situation – he said that he had no idea where the money was coming from, but he was not prepared to see the project collapse so he would guarantee the money from government funds.
And so it happened. Aside from the finance there was a huge amount of work in converting the properties to make suitable for their intended purpose. Staff were recruited – notably Hugh Morgan as principal, who has gone on to be a widely respected figure in his own right in the world of Autism and whose secretary Marian Wallis is her today. Also Eve Mathews, who is with us today. Princess Anne formally opened the facility in 1989. Perhaps Eve – you can share some memories of the early days and bring the story up-to-date.
I think one of the factors that reflects so well on those who played a part in the set-up of this wonderful place is that it runs today along very similar lines as to the way it started. Some resident have been here since day 1, I am thinking especially of Simon Woodhouse, someone who parents were heavily involved in Autism West Midlands for many years, and whose mother was Chair of the society when the Oakfield House project was taking place. Rachel, Simon’s sister is with us here so Rachel, is there anything you would like to say, perhaps about your brother’s life here?
So, I hope that this has given a little insight into the history of this facility. Other care homes followed in due course and places like this set standards for other care homes which utterly transformed the standards of care. As you will know Dad’s efforts were recognised with the award of the MBE in 1990. John Williamson continued to be involved with Oakfield House as a volunteer on the management committee for many years after his retirement from Social Services. Sadly, Jimmy, being Jimmy, refused to take up a place here but instead went to Somerset Court.
As we know, Dad who would have been 95 today, died nearly two years ago, and I would like to also remember my Uncle John who sadly died very recently. Out of Dad’s four brothers, only Tony in Australia is still with us and has sent a warm message of goodwill to us all today. Dad was also one of the last survivors of that generation of parents who by their love, courage, persistence and refusal to accept the status quo began the process of transforming the care of and status of autistic people. And this modest building here is tribute to my parents of course, but also to these other parents as well.
And I would like to invite my Aunt Sheila, widow of my Dad’s brother Jim and also my Mum’s cousin, also president of the great Old Hill Cricket Club which meant so much to Dad, to formally open the building by revealing the memorial plaque. Sheila…
4 September 2022
Tribute to Gerald Price