A life not forgotten
Given the transient lives many homeless people lead, their links with family and old friends are often lost. When they die, their life story remains unheard and their funerals may be attended by only a handful of people.
Ken Eveleigh, a resident at a Thames Reach hostel, expressed a wish to see his family again in March 2003. Hostel staff made this possible. Ken met with his brothers and sister-in-law a number of times and they spent his 54th birthday together.
In August that year, Ken passed away. Ken’s brother Trevor wrote this obituary with his wife Viola.
Ken Eveleigh remembered, by Trevor and Viola Eveleigh
Ken and his older brother Trevor in 1954
My brother Kenneth was born at my parents home, 378 High Street North East Ham, London E6 on 21st June 1949. He was premature and did not take to feeding, so after a couple of days he and our mother were admitted to hospital, where more intensive attention could be given. They returned home in a fortnight.
Ralph and I (Trevor), his brothers, were 17 and 15 years older than Ken and out to work while he was growing up. Mum was 41 and Dad was 39 when Ken was born. When Ken was three years old I was conscripted into the forces and posted to Malaya.
In Ken’s earlier years he did not mix with other children very much, as he lived over a business premises which had security problems that made it difficult to invite other children in.
Ken Eveleigh as a schoolboy
When I returned from the forces, Ken was five years old and had just started school at Essex Road Primary School, Manor Park. He then went to Dersingham Road Junior School. This was between 1954 and 1959.
Staff at Dersingham Road Junior school suggested Ken should see an educational psychologist but his father did not agree. By this time both Ralph and I had left home and were married.
Ken went to Cornwell Secondary Modern School from 1960 to 1961. The family moved from East Ham to Canvey Island, and temporarily shared a small bungalow with my wife and myself, until they moved into a flat in Dawlish Drive, Leigh on Sea, where Ken attended Belfairs High School.
He didn’t find school very easy and didn’t make friends easily. His parents had purchased a confectionery shop, which was open seven days a week, considerably restricting family socialising.
Ken started work for a pneumatics company, then moved to M.K. Electrics (a switchgear manufacturer). His next move was to Kitchen Units, then to a boat building company, then Ferguson Radio, then Marconi, Basildon. He had difficulty with time-keeping and, while able to get employment, was unable to keep it.
In his early twenties he had a period of unemployment and, when put under pressure to seek work by the employment authorities, lost control and was admitted to Runwell Mental Hospital on a Mental Health Section.
Social life and hobbies
Music was one of his greatest pleasures and he developed a good record collection of modern music. He took pride in his appearance and was very fond of having new clothes.
He had one friend, Albert, a bachelor, who was quite a lot older than Ken and close to retirement. He was very supportive towards Ken, and understood his difficulties.
Ken was very fond of animals and enjoyed visiting zoos.
Ken was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and was registered disabled as he was unable to work. After a period in hospital, Ken went into Runwell Hospital as a day patient but lived at home and could cope while he was taking medication.
Ken as a young man in the 70s
However, he didn’t like taking medication and was very restless. He liked to travel and would leave home for days at a time. Medication would be missed and Ken would run into difficulties.
By 1978, Mum had reached 70 and her health was suffering. Dad was in the process of selling the shop and wishing to retire. I was called when they had difficulty coping with Ken.
I found it very difficult to be loyal to both my parents and Ken when there was conflict between them. While I had to be protective of my parents, I never experienced any resentment from Ken. He never bore a grudge.
When Ken disappeared from home, Dad would phone me and insist we go and search for him. I would the drive the 35 miles drive up to London and we would search the streets and enquire at hostels.
I arrived home at 3am one morning, having taken Dad home first, when a hostel phoned to let us know Ken was safely in a bed there. We appreciated this, but after three hours sleep, a day’s work wasn’t easy.
Ken enjoyed travelling, but trying to travel and live on benefits with no fixed address meant he often didn’t receive the benefits he was entitled to and he lived on very meagre funds.
Trying to get from London to his home in Leigh on Sea one night, he tried travelling by train without paying the fare and was caught at Leigh Station. He was given until midnight to return with the money owed or proceedings would be started.
He arrived at our house, very worried, as it was approaching 11.00pm and he was very tired. We provided him with a bed for the night. I went to Leigh Station to settle his fare, then informed Dad. He was very angry at my interference and tried to insist I get Ken out of bed that night and return him home. I returned Ken home the next morning.
Finally, in the late 1970s, Dad and Mum couldn’t cope with Ken. Mum was suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease, so they closed up their home and lived in a caravan for several months, having found their home unbearable with Ken living there.
Ralph and I both had young families and could not take responsibility for Ken, who was now 30. Rumwell discharged him, as it seemed to be policy to move mental health patients into the community.
Ken tended to travel around the country in the 1980s and did not keep in contact. On one occasion he was picked up by police when found walking along a motorway in Scotland and taken to a mental hospital.
Ralph received a phone call from Ken to say the hospital in Glasgow had discharged him and given him £5, which was the only money he had to provide for his food and shelter.
He asked Ralph to collect him but from 400 miles away this was not possible. Ken rang off. The next morning Ralph answered a knock at the door to find Ken on the doorstep.
The story Ken told was that he had travelled from Glasgow to Euston, London, on a night sleeper, made his way to Liverpool Street, and travelled to Clacton in Essex.
He still had £4.50 of the five pounds.
For about 23 years we did not know Ken’s whereabouts, apart from the Glasgow incident and one other occasion when a kind landlady contacted Ralph from Nottingham. Ken had moved on when we tried to make contact.
Ken’s last years
After Dad passed away in April 2000, we tried to contact Ken through the Salvation Army but after six months they advised us that they were unable to trace him.
We were reunited with him in March 2003 when Lara Mepham, a social worker at Thames Reach Bondway’s Graham House, placed a notice in the Southend Standard seeking information about Ken’s father.
Both Ralph and I contacted the hostel. Ken had been living there for over a year and the staff there had known him for the past six years.
I visited Ken on 6 March 2003, the same day I made contact with the hostel. It was the first time we had met for over 20 years.
We went to the Public Records Office to order a copy of Ken’s birth certificate and then went shopping, returning almost too late, but not quite, for his evening meal. Ralph visited Ken on 9 March.
My wife Viola and I visited Ken again in April. It was nice to see him happy and settled in his environment. He obviously enjoyed the company, friendship and humour at Graham House.
I visited him again in May and on his 54th birthday in June we visited a local animal farm, went for a drink, took a cruise on the River Thames and a bus to Clapham and had a meal out.
It was a sad loss to learn that Ken had passed away.
He went to bed in the late evening on 4 August, looking forward to an outing to Brighton the next day, and passed away in his sleep.
To explain the last four years of Ken’s life, the following was extracted from a letter from Lara Mepham, member of the project team from Graham House, to Trevor and Viola:
Ken Eveleigh meeting Ken Olisa, chair of Thames Reach's Board
“When I first met Ken in 1999 at the old shelter, 35–43 Bondway, he was still quite unwell. He would often come to the shelter and stay only a few weeks at a time.
“He was very difficult to engage most of the time, becoming anxious if people approached him, refusing to sign benefit claims or to see health workers and sleeping in the bath to escape from the chaos of the shelter.
“Many attempts were made to link Ken in with mental health workers but it seems people have a sixth sense when it comes to this and they are often off before anyone can see them.
“It’s hard to know what Ken really did during the times he wasn’t with us. We know that he stayed at various other hostels for short periods; he probably targeted the hostels that put little pressure on him. We know that he was picked up by the police and sectioned to hospital.
“Ken loved roaming around the country and this desire never left him. He said to me several times that he loved visiting new places and missed waking up in different parts of the country.
“As you know, part of the problem was that Ken was always being discharged from hospital without any after-care. We felt that the only way to stop this from happening was to have him sectioned from Graham House. It was a major risk because it may have stopped Ken from ever feeling safe at Graham House.
“The section at hospital was quite traumatic for Ken and he went AWOL several times. But it all seemed worth the risk and pain to see Ken’s personality develop.
“There was a downside to this, and it was something I battled with my conscience over. Ken hated taking medication. He didn’t really have much of an insight into his mental health and was never able to see how the medication had changed him.
“He also hated feeling stigmatised and felt that taking the medication meant that people would always see him as having a mental health problem.
“So, when Ken was discharged from hospital, it was a daily battle trying to convince him to take medication. It’s very hard on my conscience to talk someone into doing something they don’t want to do.
“However, everybody felt the pressure was worth it. Ken was so different. He seemed so much happier. He would talk to staff and residents all the time. He seemed to love being around people.
“It was funny to hear how Ken loved his music and clothes when he was younger, as these were two things that he continued to be obsessive about.
“He had been given a radio from another resident and was amazed when he realised he could tape things. He bought loads of blank tapes and recorded stuff all the time. Even during the times when Ken was unwell he would carry a radio around with him.
“But he was a total nightmare when it came to clothes. His wardrobe was stuffed top to bottom with clothes he probably only wore once. He just seemed to love having them. He would harass staff all the time to take him to the clothing store and Ken was very hard to say no to.
“Ken hoarded quite a lot of stuff. He had a terrible sweet tooth and was always buying sweets and fizzy drinks. His room was always packed with sweet wrappers, empty bottles, empty carrier bags and cigarette butts.
“Helping Ken clean his room took hours and I used to have to make deals with him about throwing stuff away. For example, we would let him keep ten carrier bags if he would agree to throw the other twenty or so away! Each bag had to be checked first. Phew, it was such hard work.
“But Ken always managed to make me laugh, which is one of the reasons I loved working with him.”
We are most proud of the way Ken, with tremendous help and courage from Lara Mepham and the team at Graham House, turned his life around to become such a caring and popular person.
Roaming the countryside without funds can be a hard life. The knocks taken in that kind of living make trust very difficult.
We admire Lara and the team at Graham House and thank them for rekindling that wonderful asset of trust, which led to much happier times for Ken than he had known for many years.
Compiled by Trevor and Viola Eveleigh.