Eleanor Hewardine can still recall with complete clarity the day she was told that she was to be the first ever speech and language therapist to receive “the Honours” of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.
“I couldn’t believe it when the letter came in – to be honoured was just something else,” admits the 80-year-old Belfast lady, who was one of the very first speech and language therapists in Northern Ireland.
“That was in November 1988 – I was 55. I was very, very proud of that. I was in tears, I just couldn’t believe it. I was the first person to get it and I think it was about 12 or 13 years before anyone else got it.”
It’s just one of the many highlights of the formidable Eleanor’s life; to hear the rest, you will have to buy her new book, the wonderfully titled Memoirs of a Peash Ferapis (its name was inspired by the description of her little niece of her job - she was unable to properly pronounce it) which was just published last month, and recounts her long career which has seen her bring hope to countless patients suffering from speech impairments, giving them the gift of communication, and helping them overcome their despair and frustration at their inability to talk.
Her fascinating account is also peppered with humorous and emotional cases she has encountered along the way.
Born in Belfast and educated at Methodist College, Eleanor Hutchinson had intended to do languages – specifically French and German – at university, but before taking her final exams at school, she learnt that the only career really available to someone studying these subjects was teaching. And this was not a career that appealed to her!
So she and her mother Jane set about finding something for Eleanor to do. In the book she explains why her mum was so determined that Eleanor should be able to avail of the best opportunities life could give her.
“My mother had two babies after me, both were stillborn,” she reveals in chapter two. “A few years later she had another baby boy who lived until he was 13 months old and died following convulsions. It was only when my mother died aged 87 that we discovered...she was rhesus negative. It was a condition no one knew about in the 1930s and this was most likely the cause of all the stillbirths.”
Eleanor’s father was killed on active service in North Africa.
And so she adds in the book: “Losing two children and my father in a period of 14 months had a profound effect on my mother. I think she was determined that I, as an only child, should consequently have the best of everything. I was sent to elocution and music lessons and then I was sent off to a prep school. This is the part where I think my life actually changed, although I did not realise this until many years later.”
Schoolgirl Eleanor spotted something on the noticeboard one day appealing to pupils who were interested in spending a Saturday morning with a speech therapist.
“I said, ‘does anybody know anything about speech therapy?’ and a girl said, ‘Oh you don’t want to do that Eleanor, you’ve to put your fingers down children’s throats.’” But I thought to myself, it was the one thing I hadn’t looked at.”
Eleanor managed to secure herself a morning with a practitioner and found it “absolutely fascinating”.
She says in chapter two: “That was when I decided what I wanted to do. I came home and told my mother that I wanted to be a speech therapist.
“ ‘What’s that dear?’ was her reply.”
In 1951 Eleanor commenced her training at Edinburgh School of Speech Therapy, along with just nine other young students.
“I just loved it and I continued to love it,” she says of her career, which started out back on home soil, after she was lucky enough to land a job at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
“I worked there for a year and a half and then I got married, so my husband said, ‘you don’t need to work now you’re married’, and so I did two sessions a week for about a year,” she says.
“And then my son was born and I gave up work.”
But three months after her little boy David came along, she received a phone call offering her some sessions, as there was no speech therapist working in the Belfast area.
She says with a laugh: “I said I couldn’t possibly work as I had a young baby, but I think it was the next afternoon I was washing nappies and I thought: ‘I wonder if my mother would mind David for two afternoons a week? I could go to work and that would be quite nice.’
And so Eleanor agreed to work two afternoons a week for three months until they got somebody else – “and I left 37 years later.”
After the birth of her daughter Valerie – she hastens to point out that her children “never knew I worked because I didn’t work in the school holidays” – she was appointed senior speech therapist for the Belfast area.
In 1973, there was a major reorganisation of the Health Service in Northern Ireland; the Province was divided into four Area Boards; the largest was the Eastern Board, which contained 45 per cent of the population of the country. Eleanor was asked if she would be applying for the area speech therapist post, who would be responsible for all services in the Eastern Board.
“I replied: ‘Apply? I have the most wonderful job here, I work 21 hours a week, I don’t do school holidays, I have my afternoons off to go and play golf, why would I take a job? ‘And four weeks later my husband took this massive stroke.”
Dr Rupert Shaw, whose GP practice was based on the Woodstock Road in east Belfast, never properly recovered from his illness, and Eleanor nursed him at home until he died on March 14, 1976. She had applied for and been successful in getting the job at the helm of the Eastern Board. It seemed the job had been meant for her after all.
In 1991 Eleanor was delighted to discover she had been made an MBE recipient for services to speech and language therapy, and the following year she travelled over to Buckingham Palace to receive it.
“My mother was 87, she was partially sighted and she had lost all her children and had only me, and for her daughter to suddenly get this...On the morning we were going to get it, instead of coming down the stairs at half past 11, like she usually did, she was coming down at 8am with the phone under her arm and it was red hot. She phoned everybody she knew to tell them that her Eleanor was getting an MBE.”
* Memoirs of a Peash Ferapist, priced £7, is published by Pegasus Publishers. Available from all good bookshops or directly from Pegasus – www.pegasuspublishers.com or 01223 370012.