A file of decades-old letters can be mesmerising. Especially in a quiet library or archive with 2017 locked outside. Fragile, handwritten letters, typed and faded carbon copies, annotated missives. Who wrote them, why, and what was happening? What energy, and battles motivated them to write and, significantly, keep this material for future researchers?
This is an historian’s happy place. But the serendipitous merging of research passions makes for an even better day. This happened to me recently and although the material dated from 1949 it still resonates.
Some topics entrap researchers. One of mine is Janet Fraser, the influential wife of Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser. She died in midway through his term as Prime Minister, following which he lost much of his reformist spark.
Another of my favourite subjects is the history of the organisation now known as the IHC. Deborah Hill Cone wrote recently that if there was a militant activist wing of the IHC she would join it. There is. They are called parents.
Stroppy parents founded the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Parents’ Association in 1949 because they wanted schools and day programmes and community participation and rights and justice for their disabled children ‒ and for themselves too. They were supreme and fearless lobbyists. Generations of IHC parents since have continued this advocacy for their children, young and older – always striving to ensure a sustainable, good-enough life for when they are no longer around to lead the battle.
Janet Fraser, like her future husband, was born in Scotland and immigrated to New Zealand in the early years of the 20th century. Both staunch practical and intellectual socialists, they met in the political ferment that became the NZ Labour Party and soon became a partnership. She was married to someone else, although apparently separated, and had a young son so Janet could not marry Peter until her divorce came through. By then Peter had served a jail term as a wartime conscientious objector had been elected Member of Parliament for Wellington Central.
In another era, Janet would have been a Cabinet Minister, or even a Prime Minister. In those days when the activist left women made policy as a well as tea, she assisted the cause in less noteworthy ways. Those Labour women were a stroppy lot too. She was on the Hospital and numerous other boards and committees through the tough days of the Depression, and when Peter became Prime Minister she acted as his unofficial administrator and policy advisor, vetting visitors and bringing him meals during the famously long hours he worked. (Her granddaughter told me she was not the type of grandmother you hugged with floury hands.)
Her influence led to the decision to bring Polish refugee children to New Zealand, and numerous arts and health initiatives of the First Labour Government. She hosted a war time visit her of her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, before dying of TB in 1945. But as there was little publicly recorded about her (or indeed many of the Labour women and wives) history quietly forgot her.
The other day I was back immersed in the early days of the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Parents Association in the extensive IHC collection held at the Turnbull Library, searching for historical evidence that the modern day IHC needed to honour a bequest.
Those stroppy parents who founded the IHCPA in October 1949, had, after much negotiation, persuaded the Wellington Education Board to allow them to build a school for their children (who until then rarely attended schools, as institutionalisation or staying at home all day were the only two options for disabled children) in Oriental Bay, near the bottom of Grass Street. Correspondence documents the support of Peter Fraser for their cause. But just a few weeks later, at the end of Novermber, the Labour Government lost the General Election.
Then I came across a faded carbon copy dated Dec. 8th, 1949 from Margaret Anyon, the formidable founding secretary of the IHCPA, asking Peter Fraser’s permission to name this new venture “the Janet Fraser Memorial School” because:
The work of the late Mrs. Fraser in pioneering activities pertaining to these children is known by all those who have been interested, and her sincere interest and kindly understanding of social problems needs no comment. The Committee felt that this would enable her name to be coupled with a work in which she was interested, and if the Rt, Hon, Mr, Fraser approved, the parents would feel privileged that the school should provide this tribute.
But the Janet Fraser Memorial School was never built. The residents of Oriental Bay took a petition against allowing disabled children to be educated in their neighbourhood and the new National Party Minister of Education acceded to their wishes and withdrew funding. In the last few months of his life Peter Fraser, still the local MP, helped the parents find an alternative site and the children camped for a while in inappropriate rooms in the Basin Reserve before finding a property in Coromandel Street, Newtown. Families dug out the steep section and eventually built a school, a pre school and sheltered workshop there.
Almost 70 years on, in 2017, support for disabled children is just as political. The current National Party Minister of Disability Issues has criticised IDEA Services, the service provision arm of IHC, for discontinuing programmes for which the Government provides insufficient funds to provide quality services. Hence Deborah Hill Cone’s column seeking a militant arm of the IHC.
But parents are still fighting for their disabled children, young and old. Some are planning a political response with a general election only months away. The dismissive prejudice which killed the idea of the Janet Fraser Memorial School is still out there. Quality care and services for disabled children and adults are not considered worthy of Government attention. Instead they get crumbs.
But without neatly typed files, how will history record the current stroppiness?