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How speech therapist Eleanor overcame tragedy to make her profession one that everyone was talking about

At 81, Eleanor Hewardine, from Belfast, has written a memoir about her pioneering work despite being widowed three times. By Stephanie Bell

We only get to scratch the surface of Eleanor Hewardine's fascinating life during a chat that lasts well over an hour, but it's long enough to appreciate why at the age of 81 she has just become a published author.

It's not just the highs and lows of a life well lived or the great achievements of her career that will compel people to pick up her autobiography.

There is a lovely humour and warm sincerity in Eleanor's conversation which translates naturally to the page in her storytelling, making Memoirs of a Peash Ferapis as easy to read as it is intriguing.

Her active life, which includes a love of family, gardening, travel and friends, has not in the least been constricted by the fact that Eleanor is blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other.

While this did cause challenges for her when she decided to write her book, she found a way round it when her grandson agreed to type as she dictated her story "exactly as I am telling it to you now," she says.

She is chuffed to have published a book and, like most things tackled for the first time, it has been a learning curve, as she points out that there are a couple of things she would have done differently.

Eleanor has been widowed three times and during her long and outstanding career as a speech therapist – through which she made a huge contribution to pioneering the modern service we enjoy today in Northern Ireland – she was better known by her previous married surnames, Shaw and Gildea.

"You don't know these things at the time but with hindsight most people who I worked with will not recognise me as Eleanor Hewardine, which probably was a mistake, but I couldn't have signed it Eleanor Shaw Gildea Hewardine as that would have been a bit of a mouthful!

"Also the title I think is wrong. When my granddaughter was small she would mispronounce my job title to say I was a 'peash ferapis' and I thought it was nice to use that, but nobody knows what it means so I think that was also something I could have done differently."

They are minor issues which haven't taken away from her enjoyment of seeing her book in print and her family is now trying to persuade her to write a second about her equally remarkable mother. She hasn't ruled it out but will first enjoy a cruise around the British Isles this summer before making her final decision.

It's with her mother, the late Jane Scott Hutchinson, who passed away 17 years ago, aged 87, that Eleanor's story begins and to whom her book is dedicated.

"After I was born, mum had two babies who were stillborn and then she had a boy, John, who died at 13 months old from convulsions. She then got pregnant again and lost that baby and shortly after that my father was killed in the war at just 31.

"So within about 13 months my mum had lost not only John, but another baby and my father.

"Mum was very ill after losing the baby and it didn't look like she was going to recover. When my father died they decided to tell her about his death hoping it would spur her on to fight to get well because she had me to look after.

"I was about seven at the time and mum had always been this nice wee plump woman and when she came home from hospital she was only six stone. It wasn't until she died that we discovered she was rhesus negative, which, of course, they can treat now and babies have a better chance of survival, but back then in the 1930s no one knew about it.

"She was a wonderful woman. She came through all that, then nursed my grandmother for 25 years and then when she died she looked after my grandfather."

Eleanor's father, also called John, was killed in North Africa during the Second World War. He was working in the family furniture removal business when war broke out, and felt it was his duty to enlist in the Army. "When the war came he joined up because he said he couldn't sit and watch other men fight to protect his family," says Eleanor. Whether through self-preservation or because the trauma was too much for seven-year-old Eleanor to cope with, she has no memories of her early tragic years.

"I don't know if it was a conscious effort on my part to forget as I have a fantastic memory for everything but I don't remember (my brother) John or anything that happened before my father's death. I only have two small memories of my father."

Eleanor's mum was determined her only surviving child would have the best in life and she sent her to prep school and then Methodist College, Belfast, at the age of just nine.

She and her mother looked into numerous careers and it was after spotting a notice in school about pupils interested in spending a morning with a speech therapist that Eleanor first considered it as a career.

"Mum had no idea what a speech therapist was but she made calls and arranged for me to go and sit in with a speech therapist in the Royal Victoria Hospital. I found it absolutely fascinating. I loved children and I loved languages at school, so it really appealed to me."

In 1951 she started her training at Edinburgh School of Speech Therapy, along with just nine other young students.

Her first job was in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children where she worked for a year and a half, giving it up when she married her first husband, Rupert Shaw. "I was 22 when I met Rupert who was a doctor and we were married for nearly 20 years when he had a stroke. He died two years after that."

Shortly after getting married she had her first son David, now 56, and then her daughter Valerie (53). She also has a stepson, Andrew (42), from her third marriage, and six grandchildren.

Although she had given up work to raise her children, when approached to work part-time she agreed to do two afternoons a week.

After her children started school, this became two mornings a week which soon grew to four and then five. Then, in 1970, she was offered the post of Senior Speech Therapist working in schools. It was at a time when speech therapy was not widely available or even recognised within the health service.

"We had seven staff covering an area with 675,000 people. It was just crazy. The Royal was the only hospital in Belfast that had a speech therapist," she says.

"We had to fight to get equipment and rooms to work in and it was a standing joke that speech therapists worked in cupboards.

"Some of the nurses didn't even understand what our role actually was."

During reorganisation of the health service in 1990, Eleanor was offered the full-time post of Area Speech Therapist and she accepted.

Her book provides a fascinating insight into attitudes towards people with speech difficulties at the time. It also recounts Eleanor's efforts to establish dedicated clinics and services for patients, young and old. While at an event attended by the Minister for Health some years ago, she seized her chance to put forward her case and was heartened by an announcement shortly afterwards of 20 new posts in Northern Ireland.

Even after she retired in 1991, her passion for the job continued to drive her. She founded the charity Speech Matters which has had a massive impact on the lives of thousands of people across Northern Ireland.

"A man called John Travers Clarke, who was president of Action for Aphasia Adults, was retiring and he contacted me to see if I knew anyone who could use £5,000 to help people with speech problems," says Eleanor.

"I couldn't find anyone, but I went to London to meet him and told him if he was happy to give it to me I would take it, as I always wanted to provide intensive speech therapy to people with aphasia. It's an absolutely horrific condition which affects people to varying degrees, causing them to have difficulty speaking, reading and writing.

"I set up the first course and 15 people and 15 carers came; within four weeks people who hadn't been talking were talking.

"I raised enough money to do it again and then set up Speech Matters with 24 staff, for which we had to raise £365,000 a year to keep running. It had 13 centres all over Northern Ireland and was eventually taken over and run by the British Stroke Association."

In 1987, Eleanor was awarded the Honours of the College of Speech and Language Therapists and, in 1992, she picked up an MBE (left) for her services to speech therapy.

However, Eleanor was to face more tragedy in her personal life. She had spent two years nursing her first husband following his stroke before he finally passed away. She then married her second husband Jack Gildea, who she lost after 11 years from an aneurism.

Then, in 2001, she married her third husband, George Hewardine, a BBC producer who died after five years from illness.

"I used to think to myself 'Why me?' All I ever wanted was to get married and have lots of children. Then I realised how very lucky I was to have met three lovely men and married them.

"It was George who told me I should be writing down the stories from my career. When he died I decided to do it but with my eyesight it was hard.

"My grandson then agreed to type it into the computer as I dictated it and I just talked about it off the top of my head. It took about three to four months to get it all down."

She sent her manuscript to three publishers and it was accepted straightaway by Pegasus. Now available in bookshops across Ireland and on Amazon, she is delighted that her memoirs are finally in print.

"It's very exciting to have the book out there. I hope it gives people a better understanding of speech therapy." And, ever the professional, she adds: "Patients used to come to be treated until they were cured. Now they are restricted to a certain number of sessions, which I feel is a retrograde step.

"I wanted the book to be amusing as well as informative and I hope people find the stories funny and enjoy it."

  • Memoirs of a Peash Ferapis is available now, £7

A problem even the famous face ...

Many famous people have struggled with speech problems from lisping to stuttering.

  • King George VI was so embarrassed by his stutter that he hired the services of a speech-language pathologist to improve his public speaking. The story behind this was featured in the Oscar-winning 2010 film, The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth
  • Actress Nicole Kidman – best known for her performances in Dead Calm and Moulin Rouge – suffered from stuttering as a child which she overcame with speech therapy
  • Action star Bruce Willis, had stuttering problems throughout his youth and was always scared it would affect his acting career
  • Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps confessed to being teased about his speech impediment as a child. "When I talked fast, I'd drop my Ls and add Ss to words, and if I tried to tell people I didn't have a lisp, I'd usually lisp the word lisp," he wrote in his book Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface
  • Tiger Woods, one of the most successful golfers of all time, had stuttering problems in childhood, doing everything possible to conquer his speech impediment including talking to his dog until he would fall asleep

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