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The origins of Leeds Mencap- where it all began!

  • By Abi Hart
  • 28th February 2023

2023 marks Leeds Mencap’s Milestone 70th Anniversary! Throughout this year we will be publishing a series of blog posts and case studies highlighting our journey, our impact and some of our most important moments.

To kick off our blog post series, we’re taking a look back at where it all begin. Leeds Mencap has grown a lot in the past 70 years but if it wasn’t for the inspiring parents are carers who formed the organisation, we wouldn’t be here now!

The very beginning

The Association was established in 1953 by a group of parents and caregivers who had children with special needs, during a time when there were limited support services available in Leeds and throughout the UK. In those days, parents were often advised to place their babies with disabilities in an institution and forget about them, leading many children to be abandoned. Initially, parents held meetings in their homes and formed a committee for which was originally known as the National Society of Parents of Backward Children. The organization’s name was later changed to Leeds and District Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, and eventually became known as Leeds Mencap.

Mencap House in Chapeltown Road

In 1963, the organization focused on fundraising efforts to acquire their own headquarters, and members and friends organized several events, such as jumble sales, coffee mornings, and raffles. The Local Authority offered the lease of 142 Chapeltown Road, Leeds 7, and the organization concentrated all their efforts into transforming the building into a thriving centre for people with learning disabilities and their parents or caregivers, which was named Mencap House. On  April 23rd, 1964, the official opening of Mencap House took place. Apart from serving as a center for those with learning disabilities, the parents aimed to enhance facilities for their children generally, especially with regard to education.

Youth Club
After the opening of Mencap House in 1964, the organization started the Youth Club on Monday and Friday nights, which proved to be popular among youngsters while parents met. Today, the Leeds Mencap Youth Clubs are still operational and led by paid Youth Club Leaders as well as volunteers.

Nursery

In 1965, Leeds Mencap acquired the lease of the adjacent house during Easter, doubling the available space, and established a Nursery for parents and caregivers of newly diagnosed children with learning disabilities.

Training Centers

In an attempt to establish mini-education systems in the Training Centers, Health Authorities throughout the UK endeavored to incorporate qualified staff. Simultaneously, Leeds Mencap aimed to get newly trained specialist teachers into the Centers as soon as possible, succeeding and thereby enabling Leeds to claim the distinction of having qualified teachers working with its children first. This was initially within the Department of Health’s framework, prior to the Education Ministry’s official takeover – quite an extraordinary scenario!

Respite

Throughout the years, there has been minimal respite care available for parents and caregivers, and even today, the situation remains challenging. In the 1960s, if a family with a child with learning disabilities had an emergency, there was nowhere for them to stay, provided that they were over 16, except for Meanwood Park Hospital. Finding a bed in Yorkshire, let alone Leeds, would have been difficult. In 1967, Leeds Mencap began planning to establish a hostel.

The Rookery
When the opportunity came along for us to lease The Rookery from the Corporation we were delighted to have the chance to fulfil yet another of our ambitions. The house, originally a private residence, was bought by the Corporation, for preservation as a feature in the redevelopment of the old village of Chapel Allerton. The modification to convert the house to hostel use was very extensive indeed. A local architect was appointed to design and organize the necessary alterations and in 1968 the hostel was completed. The Rookery offered places for thirteen people with learning disabilities. The following year we were able to purchase the site.

St. Margaret’s Holiday Home
We had been working towards another major project and this was a holiday home. During 1968 Leeds Mencap bought St. Margaret’s in Bridlington and it proved to be a boon. It was a large, detached three bedroomed house, situated behind the Spa and two minutes from the sea. It was always fully booked and provided excellent facilities for families with a special needs child/person. Over the years additional facilities, furnishings and renovations were added costing thousands of pounds, providing maximum comfort and convenience. However, eventually St. Margaret’s was sold.

Challenge Anneka
By 1992 we realised that the Chapeltown Road building had become unsuitable and did not comply with The Children’s Act. This meant that the Nursery faced closure, so we had to search for new premises, which eventually we found, but £400,000 was required to purchase it. However, miracles do happen and ours came about thanks to ‘Challenge Anneka’ a TV show which had been contacted with our dilemma. We never expected to be selected for the ‘Challenge’ but this made it possible for us to move from Chapeltown Road to a Victorian School building in East End Park in 1991.
On Thursday, 16th September, 1992 Anneka Rice came to our East End Park site and entered the old Special School, then a dilapidated fire-damaged building. She read out the ‘Challenge’. “At 5pm on Saturday exhibit the winning entry of the Mencap Christmas Card Competition at a new Leeds Mencap Nursery. Print 25,000 copies in time for the exhibition”. A simple task, you may think, for someone with her talents. There was a p.s., Anneka was standing in our new nursery! She had three days to complete the task and present it to the country!
The vandalised school was in a terrible state of repair. Anneka immediately sprang into action and with the help of some 170 volunteers from 70 local firms it was being transformed into our new headquarters and nursery. Once they all had begun their work, Anneka turned her attention to the Christmas cards. The competition was launched on the ‘Look North’ TV programme. The winner was Ben Bland with his drawing of Father Christmas and he was a former Hawthorn Nursery Child. (The official name of our Nursery).
By 5pm on Saturday 18th September Anneka had completed her Challenge and the party began. Words could not express our gratitude to Anneka, her team and all the local organisations for all they did for us.

Portage
Amongst other successes we have Portage. A home visiting educational service which we provide to guide parents in how to teach their special needs child.

Playschemes
In the early 1970s Leeds Mencap approached Leeds Educational Authority asking it to fund a Summer Holiday Play Scheme within the framework of the Special Schools. Mainstream schools had held theirs for some years and we felt it was time for some provision for our special children and it would also give parents a little respite during that long summer break. We were instrumental in the first Special Schools’ holiday project taking place. It is now an annual event and, of course, we also have our own Leeds Mencap Summer Holiday Scheme.

Hopefully that summary has given you more understanding about how and why Leeds Mencap was formed. Since the 1970s we have grown and expanded even more, but what has remained unchanged is the joy felt about seeing children and young people with learning disabilities and their families develop, progress and increase in confidence!

If you want to read more about what we have been up to from 1970s onwards then check back for our next blog post.

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