`Apart from being a fascinating slice of history, Prince John's story also illuminates attitudes to children with disabilities in the recent past. They often were hidden away'
King George V who was of course the grandfather of the present Queen — and his wife, Queen Mary had a daughter and five sons. George V reigned from 1910 until 1936, and after his death, his eldest son, Edward VIII, would inherit briefly. and then abdicate to marry Mrs Simpson.
The youngest was a little boy called John, whose existence has been almost hidden from history until now. Prince John was born in 1905, and it emerged that he was born with a disability. At about the age of five he became subjected to violent epileptic fits. He also suffered from some form of brain damage, which was not well diagnosed at the time: it was not severe, but it caused him to behave oddly. It could have been something akin to autism. It also made him unusually outspoken, almost like the child in the fable of the Emperor's clothes, Prince John's appearance was perfectly normal: indeed, in the photographs that survive, he seems quite a sweet-looking young boy, invariably dressed in his sailor suit But Johnnie, as he was called within the family. was hidden away from the world.
The British Royal Family at this time were 'not under the spotlight in the same way as they are today. To be sure, their public activities were seen and photographed, but their private lives were left undisturbed. Johnnie's existence was not concealed: he was just never seen.
He was also isolated within the palaces of Sandringham — the King's favourite home in Norfolk — and at Buckingham Palace too.
Queen Mary was a German who found it very difficult to express emotion. It is now said that she was not a cold person, but she found it impossible to show affection. Her eldest son became a philanderer and her second son, who became George VI, was a nervous wreck.
Biographers claim that he was never kissed by his mother. King George was a martinet who never praised his children, and forced his second son, who was known as Bertie in the family, to write with his right hand, although the boy was naturally left-handed: he devel oped an agonising stammer. He was finally helped by a speech therapist whom his wife, who became the Queen Mother, called in.
So poor little Johnnie not only had epilepsy: he had a mother who could not show him love, and a father who believed in treating his children harshly. Fortunately, John did have a carer. Lalla. who was warm and encouraging.
But his life must have been very isolated and lonely. When he died at the age of 13, his eldest brother wrote that it was a relief for all concerned. To do her justice, Queen Mary was outraged by this statement and made the Prince of Wales apologise.
The story of The Lost Prince has now been dramatised by the playwright Stephen Poliakoff and will be shown on BBC1 this coming Sunday.
When Poliakoff went to research Johnnie's letters — and he did write letters — at the Royal Archive, he had the feeling that he was the first researcher who had ever read them.
Apart from being a fascinating slice of history, Johnnie's story also illuminates attitudes to children with disabilities in the recent past. They often were hidden away. Many people did think it was for the best if they died.
Apart from those kindly souls who really lived the Christian principle that every individual was equally dear to God. shame and superstition were attached to an illness like epilepsy. Not a lot of research was done into the causes of brain damage.
Although we might sometimes lament the many ugly developments in the modern world, this is one area in which we have grown more enlightened. Disabled chil dren are no log er hiq away in secret oms. rightly so.
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