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History of West Kent Mind

As part of our 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2013 we wanted to plot the history of West Kent Mind. We interviewed early pioneers John London and Pat Downing MBE…

Many years ago, Pat Downing MBE was asked to take over the running of what is now West Kent Mind. She was told that there was nothing to it, just four meetings a year to attend. Well, that was 34 years ago and as I discovered when I met and interviewed Pat in June 2013, there really was more to it than that!

Pat was a physiotherapist but began volunteering when her children were young, setting up and running a day centre for people with physical disabilities.

 “In 1976 when I set up this day centre, there were a lot of people with disabilities at home with nowhere to go. Over the 27 years I ran this day centre, needs of and attitudes towards the disabled changed. The volunteer group were wonderful and I still see the people that helped.”

Pat acknowledges that she did not have any knowledge of mental health back then, and believes she was asked to join West Kent Mind because of her involvement in the day centre. West Kent Mind, known then as the Sevenoaks and District Association for Mental Health (SDAMH), was started by Mr John London and Mrs Brackett in 1962/63. There is very little archived material dating from this period, but one early flyer states:

“WE TRY………….

To help, in any way possible, those suffering from mental illness. The road to recovery is a hard one for those who have been mentally ill, and their rehabilitation calls not only for medical care and skill but for the intelligent and sympathetic help of ordinary people.”

Whilst some of the language used in this flyer would not be acceptable now, it does demonstrate that in its 50 year history, the object has always been to support and integrate into the community people suffering from mental health problems.

John London had been a young Urban District councillor in 1962 when he lost his seat for a year. John recalls that he was contacted by Mrs Brackett who asked for John’s help in establishing the Sevenoaks and District Association for Mental Health. John confirmed that the choice of Association name was deliberately selected to be fully inclusive as they did not want to miss an area. John became the first Chairman of SDAMH. There was no President at this time, but Lady Rodgers, wife of the then MP, took a close interest in the Association, attending all the AGMs.

When I met John London this July, I asked him why he thought Mrs Brackett had approached him. He said: “My name was known in the area as I had a track record of being a Councillor.”

In the 1960s attitudes towards those with mental health issues was very different. In 1959, new mental health legislation had been introduced. It was aimed at re-orientating mental health services away from institutional care and towards care in the community. However, as acknowledged by John, adequate community care provision was still a long way off. John recalled that from the start of the Association, the committee wanted a residential property for people with mental health problems to live in. At the time, it was just a dream for a newly formed SDAMH. So when Elli Jenson, founder of the Richmond Fellowship, approached the Association for help in finding a rehabilitation home in the area, she was given full support. The home in Oak Lane, called Newlands, was founded and launched with hands-on help from the SDAMH committee. It took until the early 1980s for the organisation to realise its dream of purchasing its own home when Pat Downing was in the Chair.

John recalled his wife, Merrill London, visiting mental hospitals and seeing patients in locked, padded cells. Another committee member, Peter Pearson (local dentist and founder of the London House Dental Practice) volunteered as a student at hospitals for the mentally unwell and was shocked at the system. His involvement with the Association was inspired by his desire to change the attitude towards mental illness. The same applied to a Sevenoaks Bank Manager and the Association’s Treasurer, Ken Arthur.

Other committee members from the early days included a Miss Kathleen Johnson (later qualified as a social worker); Bella Thompson; Anne Taylor (local Vet’s wife); Marie Rainey; Brenda Stimpson and Dr Chapman. If anyone reading this has any information about the involvement of these people please can they contact me at West Kent Mind.

The early days of SDAMH involved regular lectures, generally held in the old St Nicholas Church hall or the clinic at the top of St John’s Road. The lectures were given by eminent professionals in Mental Health. They covered all aspects of mental health and John recalled that in order to understand mental ill health better the Association even had lectures on child development which helped all attending recognise the many differences between people. So 50 years ago West Kent Mind began raising awareness of mental health issues, and interestingly used the examination of child development and experiences to do so.

Today, West Kent Mind continues to strive to raise awareness of mental health and believes that any education on the subject should target children as well as adults.

On 21 July 1964 the Sevenoaks and District Association for Mental Health entered in the Central Register of Charities in accordance with Charities Act, 1960. On 23 July 1964 Sevenoaks and District Association for Mental Health registered with The National Association for Mental Health. The National Association for Mental Health, subsequently called “Mind” in 1972, was established in 1946 by the merging of three major mental health organisations.

John explained that during his time as Chairman, he had worked with the library to have them stock books about mental illness. Now, 50 years on, West Kent Mind receives “self-help” books from the library for anybody to borrow so John’s early efforts have had an effect.

John recalled that Edna Wolfson, a social worker and wife of a former Sevenoaks MP, became the first President. Edna was succeeded by Lady Gough, and following Lady Gough is the current President, Pat Downing.

Commencing at SDAMH in 1979, Pat worked closely with psychiatrist Dr Dick Symonds. She recalled that together they identified the needs and Pat successfully applied for funds and purchased the first residential property, “Freshfields”, for £99,000 in 1982. This was when the partnership with Hyde Housing first started. Pat explained that she was insistent that any residential property be centrally located to enable access to all facilities for residents who most likely would not have money for travel expenses. Freshfields is in Vine Court Road in Sevenoaks and this is most certainly centrally located.

Previously an Overseas Missionary Fellowship property and prior to that a doctors surgery, Freshfields required extensive work to convert it into the residential accommodation West Kent Mind required. It took 4 years for planning permissions and all works to be carried out. Pat recalls that a caretaker lived in the basement rooms and a housing manager was appointed. These were the first staff to be employed because Pat was still volunteering. Pat recalls:

 “On 6th June 1986, the day we opened Freshfields, it was a sunny day and the Chief Executive of Hyde Housing, Len Bishop, said to me that I would never open another house in Sevenoaks because it was far too expensive. Well, I was determined to prove him wrong.”

In the early 1990s, a semi-detached residential property in The Drive was purchased for £365,000. Instead of choosing a name for this property it was decided to leave it as number 42 The Drive. As with Freshfields, there was much opposition to the opening of this residential accommodation by West Kent Mind. Pat recalls that she received irate telephone calls and attended residents’ meetings to answer their concerns. However, Pat also remembers that shortly after the house was opened, the neighbours living in the adjoining property said to her that the residents were the best neighbours they had ever had.

When first set up, Freshfields was for residents to stay for up to 3 years as a “moving on” residential property and The Drive was a permanent residency for people with mental health issues. This has changed now with the supported housing programme which is designed to help people develop independent living and move-on with their lives. For the first seven years, Pat as a volunteer did all of the out of hours duties for the houses as West Kent Mind couldn’t afford to pay someone. Pat remembers, “This experience gave me a big insight into mental health and later to what my staff had to deal with.”

Pat also started CABAT, meaning “Coffee And Biscuits And Tea” in about 1981 and it ran for approximately 8 years. The location of CABAT moved around. Whilst at St John’s Clinic Pat also ran a sheltered work scheme that included a weekly paper collection in the area. In those days, old newspapers could be sold on.

CABAT moved from St Johns Canteen to a hut in the local hospital until it was removed. Once the hut was lost, Pat recalls the need to find a day centre. Glen Dunlop centre (the current centre in St John’s Road) was found. It was a home for the over 60s with individual bedsits, shared bathroom facilities and a communal lounge. Initially West Kent Mind only had downstairs as it was too expensive to have both floors. There was immense opposition to the centre with a demonstration taking place outside whilst the centre was officially opened by Mr John Bowis MP on 28 July 1993, the then Health Minister.

Subsequently the funding changed and Kent County Council acknowledged what West Kent Mind was doing such that the rest of the building could also be obtained and used. Pat recalls that she was privileged to open it.

The minutes of the Annual General Meeting on 8 October 1994 noted the then President, Mrs Edna Wolfson’s remarks:

 “Mrs Wolfson said that she was aware of the hard work of the volunteers and staff, who at times work after hours in difficult situations. She wished to thank all those concerned with the successful running of the two houses and the day centre, as well as everyone serving on the committees and those involved in liaising with other groups concerned with mental health locally.”

Seemingly West Kent Mind has always been integrated in the local community.

On 24 February 1985, the Association was incorporated under the Companies Act 1985 as a (private company) limited by guarantee.

West Kent Mind appointed its first paid Chief Executive, Linda Leonard, in 1999 and she stayed for 12 years. Pat Downing was awarded an MBE in 2006 for her services to both West Kent Mind and the ambulance service. At this time Pat handed over the reins of Chair of Trustees to the current Chair, Mary-Ann Palmer. Jill Roberts became Chief Executive in 2011. Stevie Rice is the current West Kent Mind Chief Executive and she took over in 2019.

Pat acknowledges that the best part of the 34 years has been finishing the houses and seeing people moving on. This has been so rewarding for her because the people in the houses move on and live very good valued lives. “Anyone can have a mental health problem and so seeing this is very encouraging” she added.

Pat finished, “I have enjoyed the time with West Kent Mind. It has been a challenge and “my baby”. I am so proud of what everyone is doing there now.”

Pat Downing receives the keys to The Drive

Pat Downing receives the keys to The Drive

After 9 years of being known as Sevenoaks Area Mind, in 2015 we changed our name to West Kent Mind to better reflect the area and the people we serve.