What Robert Smith taught us about disability
I always thought the expression ‘Bob’s your uncle’ came from the Tory Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel giving jobs to all of his chums. A quick Google search proved me wrong. It’s still connected to the same political party but another prime minister, 50 years later, Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil) giving a government job to his nephew (and a further future prime minister), Arthur Balfour.
Anyway, I actually had an Uncle Bob, or Great Uncle Bob to be precise, an elder brother of my grandfather. In a way, Uncle Bob introduced our family to disability.
Twenty-three-year-old Bob Smith joined the 1/19th Battalion London Regiment on 20 January 1915 and by March he had been sent to France. Like his two brothers, who served in different regiments, he was to have a traumatic time. On the first day of the Battle of Loos his right foot was blown off and, as he had to spend two days in a muddy shell hole, gangrene spread rapidly. His whole leg had to be amputated in stages, until only about an inch remained.
On his return to England on 16 October 1915, three weeks after he was injured, a process of months of hospitalisation began – in Northampton, Cambridge and London.
Uncle Bob was of course one of many thousands of his generation, disabled as young men during the war who, by the 1970s were old men. Many children growing up in the ’70s may not have even realised the major social change signalled by these elderly men who, over the decades of age difference, made disability conspicuous for the first time.
For me, growing up with a twin sister who had cerebral palsy, they were a source of fascination. Unlike Jenny, they had become disabled rather than being born with an impairment. And while their disability had a significant effect on their lives, it didn’t necessarily define them.
Uncle Bob did many things. Before the War Bob and had a variety of jobs, including being a bus inspector in Brighton. The 1911 census reveals him working as footman to the Bishop of Rochester. After the war, he became a successful businessmen and one of the first people to drive an automatic car. I can just about remember as a little boy, sitting on his knee – a tin prosthetic.
A hundred years on from the Battle of Loos I post this as an appreciation.