Jean Mary Olorenshaw 1921-1958
This is a hard post for me to write, because unlike the other ancestors I have written about, this isn’t just a piece of history that has been forgotten. There are people who knew Jean who are still alive and who remember her final days only too well. This is simply my tribute to my grandmother, a strong and beautiful woman who I wish I’d known.
Jean was born on the second of March, 1921, the third child of coal merchant Roy Olorenshaw and his wife Irene Gilbert. She was very close to her older sister, Zena, who was disabled due to a childhood illness, and got on well with her three brothers, Gilbert, Ray and Ivan. The entire family lived in a tiny two bedroom house, 43 Meeting Lane in Burton Latimer, along with Irene’s elderly, widowed mother, Emma. I cannot work out how all eight of them fitted in or where everyone could possibly have slept.
The Olorenshaws – unlike those pesky Downings and Beales – were a decent, upstanding family who worked hard and refrained from scandalous behaviour. Jean’s school reports were glowing. She was proficient in typing and shorthand and she was a member of her local St John Ambulance group. (So was I, for a time.)
When Jean was eighteen, she met my grandfather, Aubrey Downing, at a regular dance in Kettering and they soon became a couple. However, their courtship was interrupted by the onset of second World War. My grandfather had a comparatively easy time of it during the war – as an electrician, he was not called on to fight, but instead was stationed in Malta where he had the equally important but far less dangerous and traumatic job of maintaining fighter jets. Jean, meanwhile, did her bit for her country by joining the Auxillary Territorial Service (the women’s home service). She was also a member of her local Townswomen’s Guild and the treasurer for many years.
While my grandfather was on leave from the army, on 24th April, 1943, they married at a small ceremony in the local church in Burton Latimer. Since all of my granddad’s friends were away with the war, there was a rather odd crowd assembled, with Frederick Downing’s best friend Jack Tingle as “stand in” best man.
Two years later, my mother was born, and after a long gap, my uncle followed. At first, Jean and Aubrey and my infant mother lived in the aforementioned tiny house in Burton Latimer, making the total inhabitants nine (Emma had died just after the wedding). Thankfully, before my uncle was born they decided to move on and found a council property in nearby Woodland Drive which had room for all the family.
In 1955, Jean’s mother Irene died from cancer and it hit her very hard. Irene was ill for a long time and in a lot of pain. Around the same time, Jean herself started feeling unwell. She was in and out of hospital and no one could tell her what was wrong at first. When the doctors gave her a diagnosis, it was one she didn’t understand: Multiple Sclerosis.
Multiple Sclerosis – we now know – is a disorder of the nerves. The immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin coating and disrupts the signals, causing pain, weakness, visual disturbances, mood disorders, lethargy and a whole host of unpleasant symptoms. Although it has been recognised since the 1830s and has had a name since the 1880s, the medical profession were at a loss to find a cause or an effective treatment for it. At first they believed it to be a virus, then a poison leaking into the bloodstream. In the 1930s, researchers finally started to link myelin to MS and realise that the immune system was somehow involved, but this knowledge had not reached the medical profession, who continued to treat it as if it were a circulatory disorder. Most medical professions were disheartened, not encouraged by the new research: they felt that it showed MS was far more complex that they believed and that it would be impossible to find a cure. Jean was sent home from the hospital without treatment.
Jean became very unhappy and fixated on her mother’s death. She became obsessed with the idea that she too had cancer, and that she would not get better, and suffer horribly like Irene.
On 14th July, 1958, Jean took her own life. She was thirty-seven. Her final note read: “Dear Aubrey, sorry to leave you like this but I dread lying and suffering like our Mum. Dad will understand. Love, Jean xxx”
Just how people in the 1950s viewed Multiple Sclerosis is evident in the local paper’s report. “A Burton Latimer mother committed suicide on Monday because she thought she had cancer” it began “but actually she had something worse – an incurable disease of the arteries”. At the inquest, her GP, Dr Paget, born out this view: “She always thought she had cancer. Actually, what she had was worse”.
The inquest recorded a verdict of suicide and that Jean was not responsible for her actions at the time – a caveat which at the time was actually a kindness, because in 1958 a sane person who committed suicide was committing a crime. None of my family have ever intimated that they thought Jean was mentally ill, or that she committed suicide for any other reason than the logical avoidance of suffering, though I have noted for myself that depression is a symptom of MS and that Jean’s ruminations on her mother’s cancer and loss of hope may well have been a manifestation of this.
The most tragic thing for me is reading how treatment for MS was on the brink of a revolution at the time of Jean’s death. Had she been born ten years later, her illness would have been so much better understood, and while it remains incurable, so many of the symptoms are treatable, and people with MS can live full and happy lives. Their life expectancy, is just five to ten years less than the national average.
I visit Jean’s grave with my mother every year. It’s funny to stand at your ancestor’s grave and to think that you are older than she ever was, and that the child she left behind has now lived twice as many years as she did. When I look at Jean’s grave I think about how much I would like to meet her, to hear about the strength it must have taken to make the decision to die and the pain she must have felt leaving her family behind.