‘Through work to health’

Bristol’s contribution to World Mental Health Year in 1960 was the creation of the Industrial Therapy Organisation.

It all began by happenstance, when Bristol General Practitioner Dr. Owen Sampson, who chaired Glenside’s Hospital’s League of Friends and Bedminster’s Rotary Club, sold his house to local businessman John Turley.

It was Turley’s belief that “Employment is nature’s best physician and is essential to human happiness”. When he was introduced to Glenside’s Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Donal Early and the the hospital’s Occupational Therapy Department, he offered to supply a supervisor and components for ballpoints produced by the Tallon Pen Company for whom he was manager.

It was 1957 and patients could earn ten shillings (50p) a week on menial tasks. Those working on the new scheme could earn as much in a day. Red tape kept patients’ earnings capped, but the health benefits to the 380 patients soon involved were self-evident.

Dr Donal Early and John Turley celebrate 21 years of ITO

Supported by local worthies from industry, the churches and the city council, Early and Turley registered the Industrial Therapy Organisation Ltd (ITO) as a charity. Their plan was to provide patients with a route back into mainstream employment and life outside the institution.

With a certain irony, the ITO was based at first in Ferndale, a former family home near the hospital which had once been a private ‘madhouse’, then served as Stapleton’s Poor House and, from 1877 to 1946, had been the Fishponds Steam Laundry.

The charity was not without early difficulties. Despite the fact that the Regional Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) had a seat on the board, there were rumbles of discontent from Bristol Trades Council, whose members expressed concern about the risk of exploitation.

And the Inland Revenue blocked a £1,000 donation from packaging firm Robinsons, suggesting ITO was not charitable. Despite Turley pointing out that other donations of up to £250 had met no such impediment, it took a year and minor alterations to the charity’s constitution before the cheque could be cashed.

By then Turley had leased the disused St. Silas School in York Street, St Philips and, with the help of local residents, converted it into a finishing and packaging factory. It opened on 7 March 1960 with a workforce of seventy, and received the blessing of TGWU General Secretary Frank Cousins who paid a visit soon after.

Later that year the ITO took charge of a forecourt near Temple Meads where it ran a successful car wash for 15 years, providing work for 14 patients at a time.

ITO’s success in supporting psychiatric patients and those with intellectual impairments excited the interest of government departments, encouraged the creation of similar initiatives across the UK, and brought visitors from around the world. An industry-sponsored film about it, ‘The Right to Work’, won a bronze medal from the British Medical Association.

The ITO’s Labour Loan Scheme enabled patients to work alongside staff in factories, and the support of trades unions and industrialists overcame officialdom’s opposition to plans for ‘sheltered workshops’ within existing workplaces.

The heyday of the ITO came at a time of significant change in mental health policies and practice, with the notion of ‘care in the community’ gaining ground over institutional care.

To provide accommodation ITO formed a Housing Association (BITHA) and took over the Vale Private Hotel in Clifton. Refurbished with gifts from Imperial Tobacco, the health service and the Rotary Club, and with central heating and hot water installed courtesy of a £10,000 loan from TGWU Region 3, it was opened by Frank Cousins, now Labour’s Technology Minister, on 26 March 1965.

Later that year 10 men, 14 women and a resident supervisor were accommodated in 6 council houses near Glenside at a weekly rent of £5 15s 6d (£5.78) each. ”For these quite ordinary council houses we consider this charge much too high,” the BITHA Chair told its AGM.

In 1970 Richard Crossman, Labour’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, intervened to allow BITHA to lease Belgrave House, a former Nurse Training School on the Downs, and by the time they rented the house next door to the Vale Hotel, BITHA had 89 tenants.

ITO was now producing the bulk of files and folders for the local health service, and Princess Anne opened their new Lystep Terrace workshops in Dean Lane, Southville, on 29 October 1969. The premises are now upmarket private houses.

By 1984 ITO’s turnover had reached a record £325,000, on services ranging from weighing, filling and labelling birdseed and exotic spices to finishing and packing fridge magnets and foil containers. But they would lose their hospital stationery contracts when the National Health Service (NHS) centralised purchasing and awarded it to W. H. Smith and Son to whom ITO had unwittingly revealed their charges.

When Labour leader Michael Foot visited in September 1983 he had warned of “[T]he danger that whenever there is a slump people forget the less fortunate because they have problems of their own,” and indeed ITO would fare less well in the following years of economic downturn.

Presenting his 37th medical report to the ITO AGM, Dr. Early said it would be his last. “A minority of our present clientele has suffered psychiatric illness, there are few if any referrals from psychiatrists and all health service nursing and medical support has been withdrawn,” he explained, reminding the Board, somewhat tersely, that they had ‘“promised to install a nursing and occupational therapy social work presence in the factory, but this has not materialised.”

The ITO logo

By then ITO was a shadow of its former self and went into liquidation in 2003. The housing association had been dissolved in March 1996 and ITO transferred BITHA’s financial assets to the John Turley Memorial Trust which continues to house vulnerable people.

ITO had been ahead of its time, providing dignity and new horizons for many people.

There is a permanent ITO exhibition at Glenside Hospital Museum, complete with newspaper cuttings, artefacts, the ‘coat of arms’ picturted above and a Victorian loo from Belgrave House.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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