Miss Foster went to Gloucester

Mary Ellen Foster was born on 24 July 1893 to Joseph, a coal miner and his wife Margaret. They lived  in Rainford – a small village in the North West of England; and Mary Ellen was the sixth born of fourteen children. On the 1911 census we find 17 year old Mary Ellen in service at a farm. Five years later she enters nurse training at the Prescot Union Infirmary, the hospital associated with Prescot workhouse and the forerunner of Whiston Hospital. I imagine she had seen an advert something like the one below.

In 1920 she moved to Gloucester to commence midwifery training and later moved to London. We have the privilege of seeing her nursing register entries, reporting Mary Ellen as a hard-working nurse, popular with staff and patients. My favourite entry though is from September 1922 that reports her as “lacking in courtesy towards the honorary secretary and committee”. I am going to assume that this identifies her as being brave enough to question her superiors; a bold move for a woman from such humble beginnings.

At the end of 1924 Mary Ellen leaves nursing to enter a course of massage training. This indicates her move to the Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics, the organisation that twenty years later will become the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

On 3rd May 1930 Mary Ellen, 36, married John Henry Philo, her occupation detailed as Masseuse at the Orthopaedic Hospital. They marry in Stanmore so I assume the Orthopaedic Hospital is the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital.

Over the next six years Mary Ellen and John David have three children together, all boys, David John, Harold Joseph and Paul. Sadly, in what must have been particularly difficult for Mary Ellen to bear with all her training, Harold dies at just five years of age having contracted septicaemia from a bone infection.

On 19th July 1949 John Henry died from a cerebral haemorrhage.  

As far as I can tell Mary Ellen continued to work until at least 1937, maintaining her registrations for nursing and the Chartered Society of Massage and Medical Gymnastics. She died in 1988, aged 95 from a stroke.


My Second Life

On this day 19 years ago I went to the operating theatre to have my left breast removed, it had developed a significant invasive cancerous tumour and it had to go! I am, as far as I know, in remission. I celebrate this day as my second birthday, the last 19 years as the second life I was given; and I try to use it well. So here are 19 of the things I have learned:

  1. There’s really no such thing as the “all clear”, I have given up explaining this but really no-one can be guaranteed “cancer free”, the correct term is “no evidence of disease”.
  2. I am still me, a work in progress but always me. Cancer didn’t take anything from me, I am not my disease. I am not “the one who had breast cancer” because I am so much more than that.
  3. Who I am is far more important than how I look.
  4. Who I am is a gazillion times more important that what anyone else thinks of me. Their judgement is about them, not me.
  5. Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people. Lightning does strike twice or even more times. Heartbreak is a part of life, as long as you have love and joy, you will have grief and sorrow; but the love and joy will prevail and it is worth it. Oh, and cancer is a lottery – I didn’t `deserve’ it, no one deserves it. We constantly look for explanations but sometimes there just is no explanation. If you have been diagnosed, please, please know that it isn’t what you did or said or took or didn’t take. Yes, there are health risks and if you want to reduce yours and live a healthier life, please do – you will no doubt benefit but as the bible says “Todays burdens are enough for one day”, don’t add to your load with blame or shame.
  6. Everything changes, all the time, regardless of whether you want it to or don’t want it to. You are not in control, you cannot change it – accept it, go with it.
  7. Anything is possible, good and bad, so stay open that possibility.
  8. Perfection does not exist, you aren’t perfect and nor is anyone else. Your parents aren’t perfect, they are just doing the best they can and they know you aren’t perfect – they just want the very best for you and sometimes it comes out a bit twisted. But really, they love you just exactly as you are.
  9. As Maja Angelou says “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
  10. There are no bad feelings, just your feelings. Listen to them, let them tell you what they mean. You are not your feelings, but they are important.
  11. I tried to say this better but couldn’t, so take it away Emily Dickinson
    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul
    And sings the tune without the words
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land.
    And on the strangest sea,
    Yet never in extremity,
    It asked a crumb of me.
  12. Count your blessings, gratitude has been proven to improve well being and it’s a great practice to get into.
  13. Forgive and send love to everyone, especially those who don’t seem to deserve it – they are usually the ones who need it the most.
  14. You can do it, even in the fiercest storms of your darkest days – you are stronger than you know.
  15. Breathe deeply, practice slowing and deepening your breathing as a means to steadying yourself when life churns you up a bit.
  16. As the wonderful Matt Haig says “notice the beauty”, look around you, there is always something to appreciate.
  17. Everyone has something to teach you.
  18. Learning is a wonderful gift, stay curious, ask questions and listen.
  19. Love is everything – to love and be loved.

Say Her Name

One of the joys of exploring family history is uncovering the stories of lost souls who may not otherwise be remembered. This is one such story, that of my great great grandfather’s cousin Esther Cowley, 1847 – 1876. A short and sad life, different times, very different times. A story with so much resonance, not least that she suffered from epilepsy – a disease that has touched our lives with tragic consequences; and that during her short life she lived on the very same row of cottages where we currently live. Sadly, having lost both parents whilst very young, Esther was in the care of her aunt and uncle and became too difficult for them to manage and was admitted to an asylum for her care. I feel blessed to have been able to see the records from the asylum and whilst it has taken me days to recover from the emotional impact of reading them, I am incredibly grateful to all who were involved in preserving them and particularly to the records staff at Liverpool Library who facilitated my visit and examination of those records.

My dear Esther, I am so sorry for your suffering, and I hope that it helps in some way that I can share your story and say your name, God bless you and keep you.

Let’s start at the beginning when her mum Anne Shaw (b 13th March 1823), pregnant with Esther, married Robert Cowley (b 5th September 1823) on 15th March 1847. How much hope must they have had on that spring day, their whole lives ahead of them, their first child on the way? Two months later their daughter Esther was born on 23rd May 1847.  Seven months later, when Anne and Robert were just 24 years old, Robert died from “malignant fever” a term that described typhus. What a difficult situation for Anne to find herself in, widowed with a young baby.

On the 1851 census, just a few years later, we find Anne and Esther living with Anne’s mum (also a widow) and her family. Later that year, on 17th November, Anne marries bachelor John Lyon. A few months later Anne gives birth to twins who they name Jane (after John’s mother) and Moses (after Anne’s father). Their joy is short lived when both infants die in the December of that year. They must start 1853 hoping for better times but the year will bring more loss when Anne’s mum passes away in August that year.

On 3rd March 1855 Anne again has twins, Elizabeth (named for her mother) and Thomas (named for John’s father) but again fate strikes a cruel blow when Thomas dies the next day and even more desperately Anne dies on 13th March from typhus.  Elizabeth doesn’t fare much better when she passes away in the August, just five months old. What happens next, I am not sure but the next time we find Esther is on the 1861 census living with her mum’s sister Ellen, her husband Richard Parr and their daughter Ellen.

The next event in Esther’s short life is her admission to the asylum on 13th December 1866. It’s so difficult to imagine the circumstances and how the Parr family felt at this time. Their daughter Ellen was about to get married. They have presumably nurtured little Esther, with her epilepsy, depression and difficulties for the last five years at least, and possibly as many as eleven years. Esther is nineteen at this point and perhaps with no sign of ever being independent. Did they know what the asylum would hold in store for Esther? What alternative was there?

At this point I will let the asylum records speak for themselves, just to note her admission record states she is “dangerous”.

Admission #2643
December 13th, 1866
Esther Cowley
19 years old
Previous occupation – none
Previous place of abode – Bickerstaffe
Parish – Ormskirk
By whose authority – TM Ashton (Justice of the Peace)
Form of mental disorder – Imbecility & Epilepsy
Cause – unknown
Bodily condition – moderately well
Congenital idiot
Imbecility from birth
Facts certified “is constantly wandering about and will not speak, sleeps very little and requires
constant watching. She is violent and has struck the inmates.”
Physical symptoms “in fair bodily health & physical condition, has a goitre swelling on the right side
of her throat”
A case of imbecility, accompanied with occasional excitement, her memory is such impaired & she
talks in a childish manner, mentally incapacitated from occupying herself

Case notes (supposed to be completed once a week in the month after the initial admission and in chronic cases every three months)
DateCase NoteMy commentary
Mar 1868
(15 months after her admission)
No improvement. In fact, she seems to get more stupid. Her fits are more frequent than they were.21 years old, lost her dad as a baby, mum remarried, by the time Esther is 8 years old three of those siblings and her mum are dead, her surviving sister died a few months later. Is there any comprehension here of the grief? She has epilepsy, a misunderstood condition that some people interpret as evil, she will be confused.
Oct 1868
(7 months since last)
Remains in about the same condition. 
Sep 1869
(11 months since last)
This girl has improved slightly since she took the bromide of potassium her fits have not been so frequent neither have they been so violent in character. She is about as surly as ever & sometimes refuses her food but when shown the stomach pump she will begin to take it. Bodily condition very good.Potassium bromide discovered as an anti-epileptic by Sir Charles Locock in 1857, an obstetrician who believed that epilepsy could be caused by masturbation and was associated with menstrual periods.
Apr 1870
(7 months since last)
Remains about the same. She has had to discontinue the Potassium Bromide as it was affecting her physical condition. She is now in fair bodily condition again. Mentally if anything she is not so well.                                                                     Sir Samuel Wilkins and Sir William Gowers are credited with popularising bromide treatment and noting it does not cure epilepsy but only causes relapse of symptoms, needs titrating so dosages remain below a toxic level, and should never be abruptly discontinued.
Aug 1870
(4 months since last)
This girl is again taking the bromide and so long as she takes it in 30 gram doses her fits are kept in abeyance but return when it is discontinued, she has taken it now for some time and her system has not suffered from in this time. In other aspects the same.Now 23 years old
Dec 1872
(2 years and 2 months since last)
This girl remains in the same conditions both mentally and physically, she is still taking the pots bromide 30g and has but a few fits.25 years old
Nov 1873
(11 months since last)
Is credited with having 35 fits since last note. Is rather more feeble, still taking the bromide which has been increased to 40g26 years old
Oct 1874
(11 months since last)
Very feeble. Still has numerous fits. Taking pot bromide 40g27 years old
Feb 1876
(16 months since last)
Now taking the bromide mixture at night only. Does not seem to have had more fits (the change was made in Dec 74)29 years old, she died on 10th March and I wonder how much of this entry was reconstructed after that fact?

Pit Brow Lass

My grandfather was a quiet and dignified man. He was principled and loyal, hard-working, intelligent and with a passion for laughter. His whole body would shake when he laughed and if he was trying to suppress a laugh his belly would wobble, an endearing memory that can bring him back to me in an instant. Grandfather, Paddy, had been a prisoner of war (PoW) in the second World War. Like many of those sent to serve he did not share stories of those days, until, one day in the late 1980s when I was telling him about a visiting dignitary to our Civil Service office. This sparked in him a memory from working in the fields of an Italian Count in a PoW detail; he recalled the Count coming to inspect the troops as they worked. There followed a selection of funny stories of his time in the camps or on the run in Italy. In me, it kindled a need to understand more about this incredible man and my family history in general. It’s a hobby I have stopped and started many times over the thirty plus years that followed. Digitisation of records, community online forums, DNA testing and matching have transformed the process; an enduring pass-time and I love it! I have no desire to have the highest count of people in my tree, or to reach back the furthest in history, or to find fame and notoriety. For me, family history is about the stories. For that reason, I have come to accept and treasure the `rabbit holes’ of discovery that I frequently tumble into. This story, of Catherine Ratcliffe-Duncan, a pit brow lass from Billinge in Lancashire, is one such rabbit hole.

But let us start on the main path, with my three times great grandparents James and Ellen Duncan. James and Ellen married on 18th November 1839, the marriage registered at All Saints Church in Wigan. I know that their daughter Jane, my great great grandmother was baptised Catholic, which makes me think it probable that James and Ellen were Catholic. At that time a marriage in a Catholic Church would not be recognised as legal and therefore couples had to marry in Church of England. I have much more research to do on James and Ellen so I will leave this thread, tantalising as it is, here to be picked at later! The registration of the marriage tells us that James was 26 years of age, a bachelor and a Collier. Ellen was 23, a spinster and weaver. Both were from Winstanley. Due to the timing of their marriage and their likely Catholicism, I cannot be certain about how many children they had. The first record of a child is on the 1841 census, a son Richard, born on 15th January 1841 at Gustavus Hillock, Ashton in Makerfield. Other children were Peter (registered as Harry in Wirral in August 1842), Hugh (also registered in Wirral, born on 8th November 1844), Mary (born 18th December 1846, in Billinge), James (born 28th February 1849, and baptised at the local Church of England, St Aidan’s) and finally (my great great grandmother) Jane (born 14th January 1852, as I mentioned earlier baptised Catholic, at Birchley St Mary’s in Billinge).

On 13th June 1854, Ellen died from Phthisis, probably tuberculosis lung, at just 44 years old. The death certificate notes that she had been suffering with the wasting lung condition for nine months. James (43) was left with Jane, 2, James, 5 , Mary, 7, Hugh, 9, Peter, 12 and Richard, 13. Later that same year, 30th October 1854, James married local girl Sarah Lea at Wigan All Saints. Sarah also had a child, James, born 18th October 1844, so just ten years old when she married James Duncan. It’s difficult not to disappear down another rabbit hole here and hard to prove or disprove the details, as there are a few Sarah/Sally Leas, I have so little information to go off, and having children out of wedlock seems a commonality. But, I think our Sarah may have had, and lost in infancy, some five children.

On 29th January 1859 (four years and three months after they married) James dies, aged 48. His death certificate states “dropsy” which I understand to be the term applied to oedema, a fluid retention/ swelling of the body, perhaps due to heart or some other organ failure. There’s no way for me to know where the children go at this point but by the fact that they are mostly with Sarah on the 1861 census, I would say she takes care of them. My heart is so grateful. 

I say mostly because I do know that Peter died at just 17 years old on 21st May 1860, his cause of death is stated as consumption, again this is almost certainly tuberculosis lung. His occupation is collier, which may have caused or exacerbated any lung condition. Peter’s burial takes place at St Aidan’s, the Church of England chapel where Sarah has attended. It makes me wonder how difficult it would have been for her to observe the Catholic faith that the children had perhaps been raised in? But how sad for Sarah and scary for the children that Peter should die, so young and so soon after their father died?

Jane’s story I will tell another time and in detail, part of a series that will focus on my great great grandmothers and how I relate to their stories; for now, let’s go down that rabbit hole which starts with her brother James.

To recap the story so far, James lost his mum when he was five years old, his dad when he was nine and his older brother Peter when he was just eleven. He marries at nineteen years old, no doubt wanting to pack as much into his life as soon as he can, who could blame him? So, on the 28th October 1868 he marries Mary Teresa Blackster, she is also nineteen and from Liverpool; at least that’s what the wedding certificate says, again so little to go off and I cannot trace Mary Teresa. Blackster is the name recorded on the marriage certificate but I wonder if her name was Baxter? Mary has listed no father’s details on the marriage certificate. The witnesses at the wedding are James Lea (Sarah’s son) and Elizabeth Hurst, the woman James Lea will marry. On 22nd August 1869 the happy couple are blessed with a daughter who they name Ellen. On the 13th July 1871 they have another daughter, Catherine. On 29th June 1873 they are blessed with a boy who they name James, sadly he dies at just five years old. Another boy is born on 29th November 1878 and they also name him James.

On the 1881 census, the family: James; Mary Teresa; Ellen, 11; Catherine, 9: and James, 2, is living at Holy Fold in Billinge. Living next door to the Duncan’s is the Taylor family, Thomas, Rachel and their children: Margaret, 23; Ann, 18; John, 14; Thomas, 12; and Alice, 8.

On 12th October 1882 James and Mary Teresa have another daughter Theresa. Then tragedy strikes in the following July when Mary Teresa dies at just 34 years old. The death certificate states the cause of death as “Debility 7 days”.

The next step in James’s journey is his marriage to Margaret Taylor, remember her, the 23 year old daughter of his neighbour in 1881? Before we come to their marriage in 1884, let’s fill in a bit of back story on Margaret. She was born on 27th January 1857 to Rachel and Thomas Taylor, a coal miner from Billinge. Margaret was the eldest of their eight children, six girls and two boys, her oldest brother John James is ten years her junior – but we will come back to him! Margaret had a baby boy, Peter, on the 1st May 1882 when she was 25 years old, an illegitimate child. Her second child Rachel was born just sixteen days after her marriage to James. On the 1891 census we find both Peter and Rachel living with Margaret’s parents next door to James and Margaret, who perhaps have enough on their hands at that point with another two children, Thomas born 12 September 1886 and Francis Henry born 16th April 1889. 

The next ten years were eventful for our family with the two eldest girls, Ellen and Catherine, making their progress to adulthood. On the 1891 census eldest daughter Ellen is in service and Catherine, at this point 19 years of age, a Pit Brow Woman. 

I get the opportunity to wander off into a little social history at this point. Until 1842’s Coal Mines Act, women and children could, and did, work underground at collieries. Apparently, families of the time were none too happy about the regulation of work and loss of earnings to the household, as there were no inspectors until the early 1850s, many ignored the ban. The regulations did not prevent women from working above ground and in Lancashire the women who did so were know as Pit Brow Lasses. They would unload coal from the trolleys, sort it and load it on to wagons. No doubt a tough job, made harder by the emotional pay load of their proximity to the mines when any accident happened. 

On 22nd September 1891, Ellen marries James John Taylor, you’ll remember him from next door – he is Margaret’s brother. At this point I guess Ellen can call Margaret her step-mum and her sister-in-law! James and Margaret have a son William born 19 December 1891; and, on 31st December,Ellen and James John have a daughter, Ethel.  Catherine is the next to have a child, with Margaret Ann born out of wedlock on 5th March 1893; sadly, Catherine’s baby dies on the 3rdAugust the same year, cause of death being diarrhoea for 7 days. The death certificate for Margaret Ann notes Catherine’s occupation as “labourer at colliery”, her death is reported by James Duncan. 

The next year, 1894, Ellen gives birth to a son, Thomas, on 24th March and Margaret has a baby boy, John on August 24th. Sadly, just two days after giving birth to her son, Margaret dies from a pulmonary embolism, and there is further heartbreak when William, aged 2 years and 9 months, dies in October 1894.

Happier news follows the next year (1895) with Catherine marrying Thomas Ratcliffe on 12 Jun and the arrival of their baby girl, Alice on 17th September. Ellen has a baby girl, Margaret Alice, on the 15th July in the following year (1896). Catherine and Thomas have a son, James, born on 11th March 1897, sadly the baby dies on 1st July the same year, the cause of death Tabes Mesenterica, this a form of tuberculosis that destroys the gut and causes wasting.

1898 gets off to a better start with Catherine and Thomas having a baby boy, James, on 19th April but it does not prove any better a year when her father James dies on 30 October 1898. At this point the couple has four children under sixteen:Rachel, 14; Thomas, 12; Frank, 9; and John, 4. I hope to fill the gap of 1899 and 1900 but for now we know that James has made provision for his death and probate is granted to Catherine on 14th November 1898 “to Catherine Ratcliffe (wife of Thomas Ratcliffe) Effects £100” (that’s around £15,000 in today’s money). 

Ellen has a son, whom she names James, on 27th June 1899;sadly he dies in January 1901.

Catherine has a daughter, Margaret, on 20th March 1900.

The next record I have (so far) is the 1901 census. Margaret’s parents are living in Dorothy Street, Thatto Heath – they are 69 and 68 years old. Ellen and James John live nearby but collectively they live, what then at least, must have been some distance from Catherine and her family in Billinge. On the 1901 census, Margaret’s son Peter and her daughter (with James?) Rachel, live with her parents. Rachel is something of a riddle as she is listed here with her grandparents, also living with Catherine and Thomas, and at the same time in Pemberton with the family of her future husband Willie under his surname, Ashall. 

Also with Catherine and Thomas, are their surviving children Alice, 5, James, 2 and Margaret, 1; as well as her siblings James, 22, Teresa, 19, Thomas, 14, Frank, 11 and John, 6. All in a small stone cottage with a total of three rooms! I am guessing there were some interesting sleeping arrangements. 

There follows what seems, from this perspective of free health care, health visitors, immunisations, antibiotics, social careand clean air, a devastating period of loss. I cannot weave a story without unnecessary melancholy, so I will let the bare facts speak for themselves. For Thomas and Catherine it goes like this:

– 2 October 1901 daughter Teresa born;

– 14 April 1903 son William born;

– 16 January 1904 William dies, cause measles;

– 18 March 1905 son Thomas born;

– 24 April 1905 Thomas dies, cause enteritis and convulsions;

– 18 September 1906 son Harold born;

– 16 December 1906 Harold dies, cause debility since birth;

– 13 June 1907, Teresa dies, five years old, cause meningitis;

– 15 August 1908, daughter Lizzie born.

On the 1911, Catherine (39) is living with Thomas (40), her brother John, son James, 12, daughters Margaret, 11 and Lizzie, 2.

In those intervening years her siblings have married, James to Margaret Corday, in 1901; Teresa to James Rimmer in 1901; Rachel to Willie Ashurst in 1905, Thomas to Sarah Ann Nelson in 1906; and Frank to Rachel Roby in 1906. 

Catherine has wages coming into the house from Thomas and John, life was surely becoming more settled. On the 11th June 1913 she has another son, Thomas.

On 25th October 1914 Catherine dies from pneumococcal peritonitis, a primary bacterial infection of the peritoneum (abdominal membrane). Typically associated with use of IUD coils in adult females today. Cleared up by antibiotics which are some way off (Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928) and, of course, would come at a cost until our free health care through the National Health Service began in 1948. So a very sad end for Catherine, my little rabbit hole, my pit brow lass; rest well Cath, your kindness and love shines through all these years later and I hope that your story is heard.

What would you say to your younger self?

I regularly see this same post pop up on social media platforms, I’m not sure how much younger we are aiming for but here is mine.

  1. There is no such thing as perfection – please stop reaching for it, you are human, you are supposed to make mistakes and be imperfect. There are wonderful people in your life who want you to be safe and happy; and to be the best you can – and it might seem like they want you to be perfect, but they don’t! They love you for who you are; they may not be able to tell you that, so I am here to tell you that. Always, always know that you are loved and you are loveable.
  2. Stop rushing around, the most beautiful things in life are there with you now, all you need to do is notice them. Life is wonderful – nature, people, books are just amazing and you can enjoy them. Just breathe and live in the moment.
  3. You don’t need to change who you are and whilst this is third on the list it’s probably the most important thing I want to tell you Jean. You are lovely, you have such a kind and beautiful heart and an amazing skill for empathy. Stay true to that, it will get you hurt but that is fine, because it will also bring you such unbridled joy and it will save lives. You are a kind and beautiful person Jean, always; and you are loved, respected and admired for that.
  4. At times your life will be touched by such sorrow, you will be brought to your knees and you will suffer tremendous pain. In that hurt lies your strength, your courage to move forwards, the humility and spirituality that will help you to grow and to use that growth to help others. You are a helper Jean and it is beautiful; you are loved and you make a difference. Also give yourself time to grieve the losses and the trials; know that you are strong and full of courage.
  5. Every emotion is valid, you are allowed to feel sad, to feel hurt, to feel pain, to feel depressed, to feel angry and frustrated; and to feel joy, to feel loved, to feel happy. Don’t turn away from any of those emotions, others might try to tell you that it is right to ignore the bad emotions, but it isn’t. Those emotions are part of being human and they are helpful to allow you to understand what is happening and to process the pain and sadness. But you are not your emotions, they are just passing by, like the weather. You are kind and you are loved. Allow all your emotions to pass by, notice them but don’t become them.
  6. Hopefully by this point you understand that it is what is inside you, your character, that matters the most. This is beauty. If you can learn this and believe it, my hope is that you will not waste years worrying about how you look. But if I cannot save you from that, please know that for all the years you worry about being too thin, you will spend years worrying about being too fat! You are beautiful.
  7. Love yourself my darling. No-one else’s love will be with you all the time; the way you need and deserve to be loved. They are all human like you; their love is fallible. Lots of people will love you and you will also find that one special love; you managed that even here because the universe brings together those who are meant to be together. Know that your one true love is out there but, before you meet them – learn to love yourself.
  8. Be creative, don’t believe what they tell you, just because you have a gift for business and organisation it doesn’t mean you cannot be other things. You are an artist, and you have creative capabilities that potentially will lie untouched for too many years while you believe the narrative others provide. You are creative.
  9. If you haven’t already found it, you have a love for stories, particularly in books and poetry, but also in theatre and film. Keep those passions alive, stories will be your escape, they will allow you to rest and they will feed your soul and broaden your horizons. Listen to others’ stories.
  10. Travel, as much as you can. Perhaps start with university – if you think it is right for you. But travel to the places of your dreams, the places you see in those stories. This is the way to live a rich life, always travel and notice the beauty in other places.


“Selfcare isn’t selfish” is often quoted these days and I truly agree. The equally popular adages “You cannot pour from an empty cup” or “Put your own oxygen mask on first” are helpful to those who perhaps have been raised, as I was, to believe that everyone else comes first and your purpose is to serve. I don’t think these were messages meant to harm us, they were meant to create “good” human beings; I guess our caregivers believed that inherent instincts would stop us taking the messages to the extreme where we would put our own survival in jeopardy.

This summer I have battled with the self-care message. I wrote my self-care charter and broke it – still a work in progress! But then I read a couple of books that (I hope) are life changing. The first, thanks to a dear friend, was “The Choice” by Edith Egar and, from a reference in that, I read Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”; and then I got confused. Clear messages from both were that how you perceive something is critical and that only you have control of that perception inside your mind; I was fine with that. The harder message is that you shouldn’t seek happiness, that happiness is a biproduct of service to a larger aim; in service of something or someone else. That shattered my little self-care campaign until I decided to order things (here I go again, there’s a theme already from my blogs)!

So, I see it as a spectrum from Selfish to Selfless; at one end I’m “all about me” and at the other end I am exhausting myself in service of others or some form of work (not necessarily paid work). But there is a happy medium. What to call this? I have seen it referred to as “Self-full”, so a place where you take care of your own needs first and from that position of strength serve others. It’s maybe my conditioning but that terminology doesn’t really appeal – to me it suggests I cannot serve others until I have done everything I need; which sounds a little bit selfish. Perhaps a more appealing term would be “Unselfish”? In my mind this suggests a sensible balance of self-care and purpose. It might also be seen as equal measures of hedonic and eudemonic wellbeing – hedonic being pure pleasure/ enjoyment and eudemonic being more about feeling worthwhile.

We need both and, I believe, our self-care charter needs both.


Mental Health is for life .. not just an awareness week

61024946-4FC0-4A6A-8330-9A8955EE2AF4.jpegLast week was mental health awareness week, a great opportunity to raise the profile of mental health and mental illness. After a difficult week this week, it struck me this morning that mental health isn’t just for mental health awareness week. I was drawn here to share how I am taking care of my own mental health, I hope this will encourage whoever is reading this to consider their own actions to promote their wellbeing.

Step 1 is acknowledging that it’s been a tough week; and allowing myself to “sit with” and reflect on some of the challenges and my feelings and emotions. For me, I work best by journaling this or by drawing images that reflect my thoughts and feelings. I’ve always been a writer and a scribbler. Mindfulness always sounds so powerful but I am not sure I manage it very well; although I think it’s a bit like yoga – it’s not a competitive sport, you find your own level (and the more you practise the better you get). Allowing yourself this reflective space, exploring your feelings and understanding, as best you can, what those feelings are telling you, deepens your understanding. If you have a good friend, coach or therapist it is a step further to have them ask you about things and listen to your reply – they can often notice something that is just outside of your awareness; and this can be helpful to deepening your understanding. And the power of being listened to is often enough to help you heal.

Step 2 is being grateful, acknowledging all the positive aspects of life or even just one – as the amazing author Matt Haig says “look for the beauty”. This can also help to bring perspective, for many years after my cancer diagnosis I would look at all issues from the perspective “am I dying?”; sadly it’s not a perspective that sticks but occasionally life is kind enough to kick me in the rear and remind me that living to face another day is a privilege. I remember, many years ago, seeing the great Maya Angelou in an interview where she was asked how she maintains her positivity and she said that her mother would say “no matter how miserable you feel, whatever you are going through, you need to remember that everyone who died last night would give anything for five minutes of what you are going through”. I have always remembered that.

Step 3 taking care of me – rest, exercise, good food and for me a beautiful bunch of flowers, finishing the presentation I am delivering on 6th June, tidying up and doing my physio exercises for my impinged shoulder. I think self-care is a very personal thing, I’m aware the tidying wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Our personal tastes, preferences and abilities dictate our rest, exercise, food and treat choices. Sometimes the pressure for 15 minutes vigorous exercise, 5 a day of fruit and veg and 8 hours sleep can lead to inertia through our perception of “not good enough”. My philosophy is that 1 portion of fruit and veg, getting my backside out of the chair and allowing myself the opportunity for sleep is better than nothing. We are all climbing our own mountain.

So, I encourage you to consider your mental health today and do what you can to nurture it. I wish you success and peace.

Meet my Inner Critic, she’s lovely …

Meet my Inner Critic, she’s lovely ….
…don’t get me wrong, she can speak with a venom that belongs to the most powerful of reptiles but her heart’s in the right place. Let’s take a recent example. A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the British Psychological Society inviting me to speak at their Coaching Psychology Conference next month. Prior to the email I had attended a brilliant workshop from Creative Expansion on `The Inner Critic’, I had done the work and Inner Critic was quiet and peaceful; and I was moving forward to a deserved and joyful future. But the very moment I read that email she was back, laughing raucously, pointing her bony figure saying “You! You are going to tell a room full of psychologists that you don’t need to be a psychologist to give people help at a deeper level”? There is more, louder, raucous laughter, she’s holding her tummy now and can hardly spit her words out. “You, who didn’t even get a first degree, you – a northerner who mumbles rather than articulates, you’ll be lucky if they can understand what you’re saying” (this accompanied by a film reel replay of everyone I have ever met saying “pardon?”. Well I could go on, but you get the gist. So, why do I think she’s lovely? Well, what I learned on my workshop and what has worked well, and is working well here, is understanding where that response is coming from. The Inner Critic, as I understand it, is a version of all the sage parenting you received, given a personal twist (sometimes of the knife) to try to keep you safe. If you’re a fan of Brene Brown or Marianne Williamson, it’s what they refer to as “playing small”, keeping out of harm’s way. If I decline that amazing invitation, I will not be hurt – I don’t risk making a fool of myself, I don’t risk being heckled by those psychologists, I don’t risk seeing crumpled faces, whispering to each other “What’s she saying?”, I don’t risk the inevitable racing heart rate and anxiety of public performance. You see? My Inner Critic is trying to protect me, just in the same way she tells me to check for traffic before I cross a road. So, how to deal? Well I have to look her in the eye and thank her for her concern, I have to understand where she is coming from and, I have to acknowledge those risks but be brave and have the courage to do it anyway, in spite of all that . Theodore Roosevelt said it best and if you don’t know it, I recommend a read through his April 23rd, 1910 speech at the Sorbonne, the bit that starts “It is not the critic who counts ….”. Meanwhile, I have a presentation to write.

Pause, Breathe, Connect

One of my hobbies is photography; thinking about why I enjoy it always brings me to the same thing – that opportunity to slow down and do something “different” from my day to day. As a general rule I am busy, rushing around – if not in physical terms at least mentally. My thoughts race and I am always thinking about what’s next. Any photographer, at any level, will tell you that such frenetic energy is not generally conducive to good photography! The digital era has made it easier to be “snap happy” but the best photographs and the greatest enjoyment (to me at least) is in `stopping and taking notice’. So that’s my step one – pause, stop rushing, just “be”. Take notice of what’s around you, as Matt Haig says “Look for the beauty”. I believe this step incorporates several of the cornerstones of good mental health – mindfulness, taking notice and practising gratitude.

Step two, breathe, always a good idea, but actually a top tip for taking good photographs. The key to a sharp image is the steadiness of the photographer’s hand (unless you resort, as is necessary sometimes, to a tripod and remote shutter release); and the best way to get a steady hand is to steady the breath. Taking your shot at the point that you finish releasing a deep breath is usually the steadiest you can achieve (although it also depends on your stance – feet flat on the floor with a good centre of gravity is pretty important too).

image1Step three, the one that has achieved the most appreciation for my photography, connection. You might think this is just in people shots but it is possible to find a story and connection in any shot. This breathes passion into your art. My favourite photograph, of my own, is a shot of a fallen tree at the Johnston Observatory in Mount St Helens. I knew as soon as I saw the scene that, for me, there was an emotional connection to the blast of 1980, I could imagine the tree being blasted into its current position which connected me to the force of the blast and the emotion of the event. I have entered the print into competitions and no-one makes the same connection but they “get” the shot as a powerful image.


As a photographer and artist, I have much to learn but the joy is in the learning and the experience. I hope you have a hobby that brings you peace and happiness, even if it’s accompanied by a certain level of frustration!

Grief is three dimensional

All of us, at some point in life, will deal with grief. It can be the loss of a person, a pet or a part of ourselves (a relationship, a career, a job or a skill).

I am no expert, but I have lost people and a dear dog who were very precious to me. It is only with this most recent loss, my beautiful two-year-old female German Shepherd, that I have started to find some structure to my grief.

When my mum died four years ago, an extremely close and complex relationship for me, I was lost. I started on a course of study that would take me into the realms of psychology and help me to pick apart that relationship and who I was as a result of it. I sincerely hope it has led me to a better and happier place; but during the journey I struggled with my grief. One of the things I struggled with, was the perception I came across in the texts that anyone still grieving after a year was `stuck’ and probably `pathologically depressed’. Maybe I was? I was doing a bloody good job of living with clinical depression if this was it! More texts told me what I absolutely needed to hear, that there was no arbitrary cut off at 6, 12, 48 or even 360 months! My grief was my grief and it depended who I lost, how I lost them and what our relationship was.

Our dog taught me lots of things. She had character to spare and it took me a while to accept that this mischievous, funny, beautiful, stubborn and loving little character was okay to open my heart to. Looking back now it seems silly to have taken time, but I was still heart sore from mum, I had unrealistic expectations of that puppy and I was doing too much in general. After a year or so our relationship blossomed and became an unconditional love, an often-used phrase but one that I had never truly understood before. Then in, what seemed, an especially cruel twist of fate she became seriously unwell. A part of me wanted to lower my head again and see this as a slap in the face of happiness; to surrender myself to misery and depression, but I managed a balanced view that this was just a challenge, that our darling girl was just extra special, and we would love her even more for it. Then fate took her from us.

So here I am, determined not to bow my head and wanting (as I always do) to make some sense from this; so here is what I have learned. I see three dimensions to grief:

• How the loss occurs, in the loss of a person this includes how they die, how much time you have with them, whether this is an “out of time” death (such as the death of an infant or your child), whether you can be there, whether you can make any sense of the events that happen;

• The loss, having the person ripped from your life, what’s the timing, where are you at in your career, your relationships and what part does that person play, how is your relationship with them at that point in time, how much are they woven into your life and your story;

• Missing them, not having them in your life, not there to share things with, not there to give you advice or for you to help them. Not there to enjoy the activities you used to enjoy.

These three aspects are interwoven but my hypothesis is that the first two dimensions can be processed and progressed in some way. The third dimension will never go, the shape and presence of that person, pet, relationship, will always be in your life; a part of who you were; a part of who you are; and part of the memories that you see, feel and (hopefully) cherish.