by Gillian Doherty
I arrived at the London Metropolitan archive with a mission: to track down evidence of Walter Ridpath, a resident at the Normansfield Hospital in the late nineteenth century. I’d seen a couple of his distinctive drawings in a book and was curious to find out more about him. I had no idea what the archive contained, so when I discovered that the contents of the first search item alone extended to 34.45 metres I gave an audible gulp.
The archive is incredibly well organised, but there didn’t seem to be an obvious place to look for residents’ personal documents. I started by ordering 12 large box files of John Langdon-Down’s correspondence from roughly the right era. As I pottered through the ‘R’ section of the very first box, I began to feel quite emotional. There’s something about the intimacy of old letters and the way they connect you to the past. Many of these letters were from parents who had committed their children to the care of the Normansfield Hospital. My three-year-old son, Jack, has Down syndrome and lives happily at home with his family. I can’t help feeling grateful that times have changed.
I turned the pages carefully, not expecting to find anything for a while at least, and then there it was in the very first box: one of Walter’s drawings. There was no mistaking the bold, precise writing and artwork. I had found him. It was a drawing of a watch with a note beneath: 1/GUINEA SILVER WATCH. It was accompanied by a letter, addressed to Dr Down. The handwriting is beautiful and clear (unlike many of the letters my fellow researchers have been deciphering). Walter’s written English is a little broken, but the message is obvious. He would like a new watch, a large silver one. It’s an intimate insight into the relationship between Walter and Dr Down, and into Walter’s expectations of life at Normansfield.
I kept searching. There were other letters, lots of them, as well as more intricate personal drawings of Walter himself. I’m going to review these in more detail, and look forward to sharing what I find in my next blog.