In the summer of 1946 whilst enjoying a quiet post dinner drink together at the 400 Nightclub in Mayfair, London, Sheila, my grandmother, and her then husband Lt. Col. Robin Stuart-French, spotted a young man, Michael Nettlefold, with no hands and one eye who performed the remarkable feat of striking a match with his steel hook to light his cigarette. Sheila decided that Michael, with his dark good looks, would be an ideal boyfriend for her daughter Angela.
On return to their London flat, Sheila related the story to Angela, who had been invalided out of the F.A.N.Ys (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) having previously worked attached to SOE at its Baker Street Headquarters, so thus had no medical training for what would become her life for the next 65 years. After a meeting and courtship Angie and Mike were married at St. Michael’s Chester Square on June 2nd 1948 with a Reception at 27 Knightsbridge and a honeymoon in France, just like any newlyweds!
So what brought these two people together and how did a young 23 year old woman, with no medical training, come to marry and care for a 27 year old disabled man? We will look back in time to find out.
My father came from the GKN steel family, his mother, my grandmother was the great granddaughter of Alfred Wagg who founded stockbrokers Helbert Wagg in 1823 whilst Mum was the daughter of Geoffrey Lowndes and accomplished cricketer and heir to the Lowndes Square Estate, no heritage in caring or medicine apart from the fact that Marjorie, Dad’s mother, had been an ambulance driver in World War 1! But what all the women in this story have an abundance of is unselfish love, tenderness, patience, personality and forthrightness, key facets for anyone involved in caring.
My father joined the Welsh Guards at the outbreak of World War 2 and, after an induction period at the Guard’s Depot Pirbright, 2nd Lieutenant Michael Nettlefold, 3rd battalion Welsh Guards, was put on a boat to Tunisia as part of Operation Torch, the Allies invasion of North Africa.
On arrival, the Welsh Guards made camp and developed a training programme prior to any engagements with the enemy. In one of these scenarios my father was dressed as a German to repel a mock attack by the Welsh Guards. As the mock attack began, a guardsman in his trench picked up a ‘Bakelite Bomb,’ a simulated grenade for training and then dropped it after the fuse, a tail of fabric, fell off. The occupants fled the trench at the same time as my father picked up the bomb to throw it out of the trench to protect his soldiers. Sadly it went off before he could dispose of it and as a friend of mine’s Uncle said he was, ‘enveloped in smoke and shrapnel.’
Pulling him out of the trench he was rushed to hospital in his own words in an old ambulance which he felt every bump in the road through his pain, as they crawled to the Base Hospital. He arrived with his hands blown off at the wrist, his eyes covered in blood, with the right one gone and the left one hanging out, with every part of his body covered in shrapnel. Quite by chance the American Third Army had one of America’s top eye surgeons on its staff and he operated on Dad and saved his left eye.
Putting him back together he was shipped back to the UK where he attended Roehampton Hospital to have his prosthesis fitted and a glass eye. He was released to convalesce with Marjorie at her Scottish home, Yester in East Lothian, a perfect place to recover, fresh air, fresh food and magnificent grounds. Later when we went for holidays we could never understand until told, why the door handles had rings on them! They were so Dad could fit his hook in the ring to open the door.
He gradually learned the art of living with false hands in the form of a hook on his left arm and a false hand on his right, both worked by a pulley system from his shoulders. By the time he met Mum in 1946 he had developed the art of lighting matches, drinking with a glass, eating, although at first with plug in knives and forks, driving, playing golf, swimming and most of all gaining back his self-confidence and the ability to face life with such disabilities. The only thing he couldn’t do was tie his shoelaces or tie and had many gadgets to enable him to undertake run of the mill jobs such as carpentry, sports and gardening. He had to report to hospital once a year to prove his hands hadn’t regrown and was not allowed new prostheses, resorting to running his first pair over with the car to get a new set after 10 years!
So, on June 2nd Mr & Mrs Michael Nettlefold walked down the aisle to start a new life.
During the service Robin, seeing how difficult how life could become, whispered to Mum, “You’ll never be able to leave him you know.” She didn’t and looked after my father until the day he died on June 28th 2012, she died just over a year later on September 12th 2013.
Given their background one would have expected that money would solve all their problems, but, coming from two lots of divorced parents, money was not abundant so Angie and Mike settled down to life in London where he attempted a number of jobs in post-war England whilst still getting used to his disability albeit with a pension and a Constant Attendance Allowance for Mum.
What was remarkable about these two is that they faced their new life together as any newlywed couple, Dad’s disability just being part of what they had agreed in her vows, he still had shrapnel coming out of his body many years later and his stumps where his hands had been were constantly worn red and often infected and his eye socket was constantly causing problems.
Mum took all of this in her stride and in 1949 my sister Tessa was born to be followed by Charles in 1951 and myself in 1954. By this time we had moved to Wiltshire and had a large garden, ponies, dogs and cats, like any normal family living in the country.
What was it like to be a child of a disabled father?
Like any other childhood, it was only other people who noticed and made remarks like the little boy in Scotland who said to Dad, “What’s wrong with your fingers?” Dad took all of this in his stride and even joked about it, he carried his disability with pride and never let it get him down. Small things like not being hugged and not being able to teach us to shoot were a small price to pay for being with him. He was often with us when we played sports and had a set of golf clubs converted to allow him to play, he refused to have an automatic car and drove us up to Scotland every year from Wiltshire. He loved gardening and taught us all how to make the best bonfire ever! One of his great holiday pursuits was building sandcastles using a bucket and spade as any other father. Later when my brother and I got married, he played with our children in the same way that he had played with us and they loved ‘Grandpa’ as we loved ‘Dad.’ Our wives had no qualms in introducing him to their relations and were proud of having such a brave man in their midst who just shrugged off what he had and got on with life. One friend of mine said, “Whenever I’m down, I think about you father.”
None of this normality could have been achieved without the iron will, tenderness, love, strength and dedication of my mother, who quietly behind the scenes got on with cooking, housework, feeding the dogs, cats and ponies, making beds and most importantly bringing up her beloved children. She was quite content to let my father have the limelight, he was charming good looking man who had a wicked twinkle in his eye and, like a lot of disabled people was sometimes spoilt and demanding.
The years went by and both of them developed a way of life which allowed the children to stand in when Mum wanted to go out canvassing as she developed a love of politics and was a Conservative Councillor for 15 years, representing Kennet District Council.As they grew old together, they adjusted to old age like any other couple, certain tasks became difficult for Dad, writing was the most notable, so he arranged a Power of Attorney so Mum could write his cheques.
His dementia became apparent in 2009 and after a fall he was admitted to a care home where he was looked after in the Dementia Ward. Mum soldiered on aged 85 in a five bedroomed cold house, and visiting Dad religiously every week. It was during this period that she found life hard and money short; she asked me to see if she was allowed an Old Age Pension, typically she hadn’t checked when she was 65! After many calls to the MoD, DHSS and other Agencies I found that Mum was not eligible for a Pension as her Constant Attendance Allowance did not allow her to have a stamp.
Eventually it all became too much for her and she went into the same home as Dad. They put them in adjacent rooms but it was so painful for Mum to have the man she had cared for for 63 years coming in and shouting at her, because he didn’t really know who she was.
She took this behaviour on board, as she had done in the run up to his diagnosis, but that really was the straw that broke the camel’s back and they died within a year of each other.
One of the last things she said to me a month before she died was, “I shouldn’t have gone out so much leaving your father alone or with you children.”
I said, “You did exactly the right thing as you deserved a life as much as he did.”
So, in memory of my darling mother and the thousands of male and female careers who unconditionally give up their lives to look after those they love who have been wounded in war, I salute you all and hope that the money we raise will make all your lives easier and the disabilities you live with easier to bear and mend, mentally and physically.
When I was on Radio 2 on the Jeremy Vine Show on Armistice Day in 2009 I said then that every disabled soldier has a force behind him or her to make their lives bearable, a mother, wife or husband. It is not just the physical disability they have to live with, but the mental trauma resulting from the incident, that is often the most difficult one to heal, confidence and love being the best cure.
This Memorial Fund is in Memory of my darling mother who looked after us all and never complained right up to her final breath.
Wife of Martin Payne Former SGT Royal Marines
Sunday the 11th January 2009, I was just about to tuck into a roast chicken dinner with my Mum when the phone rang and changed our family life forever.
The IED had gone off underneath Martin’s seat of the vehicle he was in.
The injuries he sustained involved, neck, shoulder, back and hip damage. The worst of his injuries was the brain trauma he suffered.
Martin looks normal but don’t let that deceive you. He often struggles with walking as his pelvis can pop out of position at anytime. Lifting anything, even getting out of a chair or a bed can be a struggle. The result of the brain trauma has left him suffering migraines from 1 to 6 times a week. He can have 3 in a night and will then spend 2 days recovering in bed. He became unemployable due to the randomness of the migraines and the severity. So in December of 2011 Martin was discharged after 20 years service.
SSAFA came into our lives after an unsuccessful appeal for the Disability Living Allowance led us to a phone call from Kathy Howard at SSAFA in Plymouth.
After learning that both our Armed Forces compensation appeal and PACS Insurance claim had not been sorted out, Kathy came round to visit to see what could be done to help us. We were getting ourselves into debt as the sudden change from full pay to a pension took its toll on our life. She was able to organize £500 worth of TESCO vouchers, which helped ease the financial burden hugely.
Since SSAFA have become a part of our lives we have had our bathroom converted, a stair lift fitted and the entranceway to our house re-designed to make access to our home easier.
My two boys of 8 and 6 have also received help. We were invited to attend 2 family weekends in Manchester and Edinburgh. They loved all the attention they received and did their own bit of fundraising by selling pictures they had drawn over the weekend raising a whole £10!
I also enjoyed and benefitted from the weekends, as it gave me a chance to speak openly to others who, if not going through the same ordeal, are going through their own turmoil. They won’t judge if I’m having a moan about how hard and frustrating life can be, but they will help to remind me that our family is not alone.
Kathy Howard was the first person apart from family that we told that after 4.5 years Martin had won his tribunal. Further to that PAX insurance finally agreed to pay out in full of April this year, again Kathy was the first to be told.
I’d like to pay tribute to all the other members of our family and to friends who have been there for me and for Martin and our boys throughout all of this, THANKYOU.
God bless you SSAFA and all you do for families like us.
To those families whose loved ones have paid the ultimate sacrifice
WE SALUTE YOU xx
Siobhan is a Trustee of the charity ‘Heroes on Water.’