The ‘Spastics Society’ first day covers
I recently came across a hoard of 16 charity first day covers dating from the 1970s to the ’90s. If you’ve never heard of these, you might find the idea rather quaint. It’s an envelope posted on the first date of issue of a postage stamp or set of postage stamps. Even more quaint were the specially printed envelopes sent out as ‘collectables’ by charities to their supporters. Mum and dad must have saved them. After all, the back of each envelope does have the phrase ‘open carefully’ in bold, followed by ‘this is a collector’s item’. As tens of thousands of them must have been mailed out by the UK’s leading disability charity over a period of least 20 years, I doubt if they’re even worth the cost of a first class stamp in today’s money.
Ironic, this ploy of mass-produced envelopes masquerading as highly collectable. Actually, they have become memorable for a completely unintended reason – they’re relics of a time when Scope called itself the Spastics Society – as the backs of the envelopes testify.
If only my parents kept the letters these envelopes contained. The ones that do survive paint an interesting historical picture. The earliest is from June 1979, when the cost of the stamp’s just 9p. It lists five big projects that the charity had been involved with in the months before the mailshot. Two of these were to benefit my twin sister Jenny directly: Beaumont College, Lancaster, where she was a student in the late ’80s and Churchtown Farm, Cornwall, where enjoyed two memorable holidays.
Skip forward three years and the April 1982 letter mentions the shocking ATV documentary, Silent Minority which focussed on conditions in long-stay mental hospitals at the cusp of the transition to ‘care in the community’. Or, as the letter puts it, ‘conditions in long stay subnormality hospitals for the mentally handicapped.’
That letter starts with the address – Park Square W1 (just off Regent’s Park) and ends with the signature of the charity’s director. A certain Tim Yeo, who became one of the more moderate Conservative MPs. Both the address and the director evoke Establishment, and an era of charities being led by the ‘great and the good’. That couldn’t have sat comfortably with disability rights activists of the time, who would certainly have objected to the sympathy-driven charitable acts – as opposed to gaining equality.
Along those charitable lines, the envelope from 1990 carries a picture of a little girl in an adapted, motorised vehicle, with the caption: ‘We call it technology. But for Pamela, it’s a change of life.’
Whither Pamela. With the letter and marketing materials now long gone, I can only guess who Pamela was. And where she might be today. As a woman now in her mid-30s, is she struggling with the bedroom tax, getting squeezed until the PIP squeaks? Peeping through the cellophane window envelope are still some brightly-coloured stickers featuring hot air balloons and those words ‘The Spastics Society’.
It’s now over 21 years since the ‘The Spastics Society’ changed its name to Scope. I remember Jenny going to their offices on the Wakefield 41 Industrial Estate for meetings to discuss this change. She died a couple of years after the name change – a month after the last envelope in mum and dad’s little collection, posted in September 1996. The charity had a major impact on Jenny’s life. Today, I can only imagine what she may have said if she’d come across these relics?