For one North East family, history has come full circle, with a daughter working with the same charity which saved her mum’s life 70 years ago. Sarah Bell is part of the team at Children North East, supporting local families and young people to grow up happy and healthy. With a 130-year history, the charity also established and funded services at Stannington Sanitorium in Morpeth, which her mum Brenda Bell stayed with to recover from tuberculosis in the 1950s.
In September 1953, 13 year-old Brenda was diagnosed with TB, a memory which stands out because it was a time people rarely used healthcare services – so a doctor’s visit meant something was very wrong. She soon left her family in Darlington to receive treatment at Stannington Sanitorium, which would become her home for the next 14 months.
Opening in 1907, the sanatorium was the UK’s first purposely built hospital for children with tuberculosis. In the 50s, the infection was responsible for 1 in 20 deaths across the country, but rates were much higher in the North East. Until the NHS took on the costs of running the Sanitorium, it was funded by local charities, including its founders Children North East, then named the Poor Children’s Holiday Association.
Despite not being able to see her family often, it’s a time Brenda talks about fondly. “I don’t remember all the details, but there were wards of about 20 of us and we mostly stayed in those groups. Girls in one part of the building, boys down in a different ward. It wasn’t like today, you didn’t have TV and internet for entertainment but we weren’t in bed all the time, we were outside and went to school. We did the same things any young people then would do really, except then you would have to rest a lot.”
She made friends, including two girls, Margret from Benwell and Dorethy from Darlington, who she has lost touch with over time. They would go on walks together in the local countryside, supervised by staff. One particularly fond memory includes a Christmas trip out to the theatre, where she got to meet Reg Varney from ‘On the Buses’, whose autograph she still has today.
Although she doesn’t remember it feeling serious at the time, archive letters shared with Brenda by the Woodhorn Museum highlighted the seriousness of the condition at the time for children affected by it. They read, ‘one does not look very far into the future. So much depends on her home, the sort of life she leads and the work she takes up’. Reflecting on the letter Brenda shares, “It could have been different if you didn’t have good food. You might not have survived.”
Fast forward to 2023 and the story has a new chapter, with Brenda’s daughter Sarah working with the charity on the frontline of young people’s health. Currently she works delivering its Ways to Wellbeing project, that provides help to parents and carers supporting their children through mental health challenges.
“One of the most rewarding parts of my work is when you meet a young person or a parent and they are in a difficult place – but when you get to the end of the journey with them you can see they leave feeling more confident to tackle challenges and also less isolated.
“Mental health is one of the biggest health challenges faced by young people today, like TB would have been back then. It feels like this story has come full circle!”
When asked if she thought much had changed for the generation of young people Sarah works with, Brenda shared, “When I was there [at the Sanitorium] people just had to get on with it. I didn’t see my family much, because my mum would have had to get two or three buses. Today we can speak to each other even if it’s on the phone.”
She also said she is proud of Sarah, “It’s really good what she does for the young people, it seems like they have a lot to worry about today, more than we did, and she makes a big difference. I’m very proud”.