The Grace Eyre Foundation help people with learning disabilities in Brighton & Hove and Sussex gain independence, obtain housing, find employment and join activities. They support families, help people to maximise life skills and live independently, and offer courses in sports, arts, health and well being and work training. This dynamic organisation came from the progressive ideas of a Hove born woman, Grace Eyre Woodhouse (1864 – 1936) who swam against the tide at a time when children with learning disabilities were sidelined, institutionalised and kept apart from the rest of society. This is her story:
Grace Eyre Woodhouse was born at Norfolk Terrace and attended Brighton and Hove High School and Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford. As a young woman living in London she became aware of the injustice faced by people with learning disabilities who, at that time, were assumed by the majority of people to be deficient and of no use to society. Eyre Woodhouse was concerned about the poor treatment of children in special schools and despaired that many people with learning disabilities and facing mental health issues could face long periods in institutions, such as mental asylums and workhouses. As early as 1898, swimming against the official tide and far ahead of her time, she started to arrange holiday homes in the Heathfield district, and even her own house in Hove, for London children with special needs. Here they were treated with dignity and helped to access activities, education and training which would enable them to get jobs, homes and take their place in society. Following the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 which required local authorities to arrange institutional care or guardianship for people considered ‘mentally deficient’ in the terminology of the day, Eyre Woodhouse created the Guardianship Society and started to work with Brighton Borough Council, taking on the supervision of members of the community and placing people with learning disabilities in family homes. In 1914 she created a day-centre in Brighton, considered to be the first in the country, where both children and adults could go to obtain work training and experience while still offering a ‘boarding out’ option where people would live with others rather than in institutions. Other local authorities soon started to take an interest and further day centres and boarding out schemes started to spring up, modelled on Eyre Woodhouse’s successful Brighton operation. The Society in Brighton continued to go from strength to strength. In 1923 Dengates Cottage Farm at Waldron was opened to provide accommodation and farming training for young men. In 1927 a second cottage farm was established in Rotherfield to provide accommodation and training in gardening, rabbit and pig farming. In 1931 two further day centres open in Peacehaven and Heathfield, and an occupation therapy class was established in Haywards Heath. When Grace Eyre Woodhouse died in 1936, the trustees of the Guardianship Society paid tribute to her, saying: ‘Her enthusiasm, her deep sympathy with the afflicted, and her calm determination to do all that was possible for the welfare of those placed under her care, will always be remembered with gratitude by those with knowledge of the magnificent work to which Miss Woodhead so nobly devoted her strength and energy.’ The society she had built up and supported all her life continued to thrive, changing its name to honour its founder in 1988.
In November last year the Society launched ‘Sharing Our Voices’, an exciting new project assisted by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to document its groundbreaking history and plans are afoot to create a landmark oral history collection of people with learning disabilities who have lived in Shared Lives arrangements from the 1950s to the present day. The work of people with learning disabilities, learning key heritage skills, utilising local archives, recording oral history, and creating a performance for the Brighton Fringe Festival in 2021, is key to the project.
At the end of 2019, as well as having just finished a Carol Concert and Christmas Open House of artwork, and putting on The Rock House concert of learning disabled bands at the Green Door Store, the Society was able to celebrate placing 74 tenants into Grace Eyre housing, supporting 113 people in the Shared Lives scheme in Sussex and London, providing activities for 309 people through day centres and projects, helping 209 people to live more independent lives through their supported living and community outreach services and securing funding for people to stage a drama performance at the Purple Playhouse.
Although Grace Eyre Woodhouse died over 80 years ago, she would surely have been proud of the organisation that came from her determination to see things differently and act on her principles that everyone has the right to access housing, work, and the chance to participate in society, and that these ideas have gone from the fringe to mainstream thinking. This leaflet was produced for the Foundation’s Centenary in 2013.
For more information about the Grace Eyre Society and to read a timeline of their history go to http://www.grace-eyre.org/
(The above was written for Brighton Museum and appeared as part of a series of posts celebrating women from Sussex to accompany the landmark exhibition ‘100 First Women Portraits’by photographer, Anita Corbin.