The Story of Helen Arkell
Helen Arkell, who sadly passed away in August 2019, overcame her own dyslexia to become an inspirational figure for many who felt the benefit of her support, advice and expertise. Children who were chronically dyslexic but successful in adulthood give her the credit for changing their lives.
She spent many years battling to ensure that dyslexia was taken seriously, by the education authorities in particular and by the public in general. Hers is a wonderful story of triumph over adversity.
Helen received an MBE in 1999 for her work in dyslexia and further royal recognition followed in 2003 when she was honoured as a Pioneer to the Life of the Nation at a Buckingham Palace reception.
The Centre was founded by Helen, Joy Pollock and Elisabeth Waller and first opened its doors in London on 26 April 1971. It has been based at its current location in Frensham, Surrey, since 1987.
Susan Hampshire, who conquered her own dyslexia to become a successful actress, was one of the Centre’s most high-profile supporters in the early days. She said:
“I have remained a devoted admirer of Helen since meeting her 40 years ago. Without her pioneering work, countless dyslexics would still be struggling at the back of the classroom.”
Helen devoted a life’s work to helping others and her wonderful story is told in The Spellbinder, written by Adrian Williams and first published to mark both Helen’s 90th birthday and the Centre’s 40th anniversary.
For a flavour of Helen’s story, here is the first chapter of The Spellbinder:
Helen Huitfeldt went through her entire childhood and early adult life believing she was stupid. Not until she was well into her twenties did she become aware that she might be suffering from a condition which at that time was known as word-blindness and is now recognised as dyslexia. The discovery was to change her life in ways she could never have imagined as she struggled through her schooldays.
Helen was born in Holland on 17 August 1920. Her father Emil Huitfeldt was in the Norwegian diplomatic service and her English mother Dorothy Latham was born and bred in Frensham, the Surrey village which was eventually to become the home of Helen Arkell.
Emil’s job meant that the family changed countries regularly. After Holland came Berlin and then a posting to Denmark, which was where Helen was to spend most of her childhood.
“But because my parents didn’t know how long we would be there, they thought a Danish school would be a bit useless for me because it wouldn’t apply much anywhere else,” recalls Helen. “So they sent me to a French convent school in Copenhagen. This was for oddities like me who didn’t have much of a background in education. It wasn’t a very conventional learning school.
“All of the lessons were in French, so I spoke fluent but bad French at school. At home I spoke Norwegian to my father and English to my mother. And when I was out I spoke Danish with my friends. But it’s easy when you grow up with it.”
Despite Helen’s adaptability and capability with languages, coping with the lessons was another matter altogether. “I was very bad at school. I read very inadequately and very, very slowly and my writing was atrocious. I found putting my thoughts on paper was extremely difficult.
“I was lucky that it wasn’t a conventional school because everybody thought ‘oh, poor thing, she’s mixed up with her languages,’ so nobody blamed me for it. I was never teased but all the time I was terribly aware of my own inadequacy. When you’re with a group of people who can do things without too much difficulty and you just can’t, the inevitable conclusion is that you’re thick.
“And when you think you’re stupid it not only affects your school life, your confidence gets a big knock. Since I’ve come to understand dyslexia I’ve felt much the most important thing is not the reading or spelling but the knock to the confidence.”
Helen had spent a couple of years being educated at home before going to the convent school, where the teachers merely felt she was slow on the uptake rather than having any insight that her problems might be more serious.
“It was desperate being told to do a page of homework, to read it and then write about it. I used to wake up at night and put a couple of hours in to try and keep things turning over. Not that it was very successful but I was trying to compensate in some way.”
There were no formal qualifications but the school provided its own exams. “One of my abiding memories is being told to read a poem in Norwegian. The nuns thought they were being kind to me and I stood up with everyone looking at me and all I can remember is a blur. I couldn’t see letters or words at all and that made me feel absolutely awful.”
So how did she come to terms with the lack of confidence and feelings of inadequacy? “I was unhappy and upset but I didn’t think about it too deeply. But I had then and for years to come the feeling that I wasn’t as good as anybody else.”
However strong the feelings were, Helen kept them to herself. “My parents were very busy and I suspect they didn’t think too much about me. They were the last people I would have talked to about it – I didn’t talk to anybody. I had friends who might have helped me by correcting my spelling but I never really confided in them either.”
Helen struggled on at the convent school in Copenhagen until she was 16. Her father retired at that time and decided that rather than returning home to Norway, he would relocate the family to England. Helen’s maternal grandparents, Morton and Agnes Latham, who had both died recently, had lived in Hollowdene, a rambling Victorian house with vast grounds in Frensham. The house overlooks what is now Frensham Recreation Ground, an area of land which was presented to the village by Dorothy Huitfeldt in memory of her husband and parents.
The Huitfeldts moved into the empty house and to Helen’s alarm her parents then began to discuss which English school she should go to. “I was absolutely horrified because I didn’t think my English was very good, but in the end I received private tuition from a retired Eton schoolmaster who lived nearby. Sometimes an extra teacher might have been brought in for maths, but I never could add two and two together! My mother was quite musical so I was sent to piano lessons and I was absolutely useless at that too.”
The family were on holiday in a remote part of Norway when the Second World War broke out in 1939. There was an immediate shutdown on petrol sales, so they were stranded for a while, but eventually managed to make their way to a port. Sailing as neutrals under the Norwegian flag, they made it to the Firth of Forth some days later.
Eventually they returned to Hollowdene and it was not long before Helen met and fell in love with an army officer called John Arkell. “He was in the Territorials and he was going to be sent to Finland – everything happened in a tearing hurry and I was married when I was 19. But in the event my husband didn’t go to Finland or anywhere else – he was an instructor at Catterick Camp for most of the War and two of my three children were born there.”
The War, marriage and the job of raising a family meant that Helen’s educational difficulties faded into the background for several years. “I think I was aware that my husband thought I was rather stupid, but it wasn’t a big issue,” she said with one of her characteristic peals of laughter.
When the War ended the Arkell family came back to Frensham and moved in with Helen’s parents at Hollowdene. But the marriage did not run smoothly and it was to end in separation and eventually divorce.
This left Helen as a single mother who, in her own words, was totally unqualified for anything. But the end of the War had also allowed her to resume contact with other members of the family. Her sister Binkie and her family were in Denmark and her brother Paul and his family were in Norway. As both countries were under German occupation, communication during the War had been virtually impossible apart from an occasional Red Cross letter.
“We were able to start writing to each other again and we heard more and more that Binkie’s eldest son Carl was having difficulties at school. He was the made class buffoon and the teachers pinned up his essays for everybody to look at. Carl didn’t take defeat at all kindly and he got very difficult and very awkward. He and his father didn’t get on and there were all sorts of ructions. Everybody thought he was a difficult child but I then discovered that the sort of things he was doing were what I also did and this gave me a lot of food for thought. It was the first time I had realised that anybody else might have similar problems to me, although his were much worse.”
Helen then received a letter from her sister to say that Carl had been diagnosed as word-blind. He had difficulties with spelling, reading, number work and organisation, just like Helen. “I made up my mind that next time I went to Denmark I would go and see the person who had diagnosed my nephew and was now teaching him.”
That person was Edith Norrie.
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