Seeing her way clear to a new life Cherrill Hicks
Tireless blind campaigner and now author Jill Allen-king tells why she’s written a tribute to her six guide dogs and their sometimes comical moments alongside British royalty
OF ALL the guide dogs she has owned in the past 40 years, it was a beautiful golden labrador called Brandy who won Jill AllenKing’s heart.
“Brandy and I were in love,” she sighs. “She would sit with her head on my knee – she was so affectionate. But then she was attacked by another dog and it made her aggressive. Every time she saw a dog, she’d forget me and go for it.
“It was dangerous for me – a guide dog only has to make one mistake and the owner could be killed. The last straw was when we were on the platform waiting for a train and she saw a dog on the other platform and went to go across the track. After that they [the guide dog trainers] wouldn’t let me keep her. When they came to collect her, it broke my heart. I used to send her Christmas and birthday cards every year.”
Allen-king’s early life was marked by a double tragedy. Born into poverty during the war years, she lost her left eye around the time of her first birthday, after contracting measles. At 24, on her wedding day – June 6 1965, the 20th anniversary of Dday – she suddenly went blind in her remaining eye, having developed acute glaucoma. Forced to give up her job as a cook for a company in central London, she spent the next seven years depressed and virtually housebound.
Yet, at 72, this remarkable woman plainly relishes life – whether relaxing at the tiny holiday bungalow in Clacton, Essex, she shares with her second husband, Alvin, dancing the night away (both ballroom and Latin) on the cruises she regularly signs up for, or rubbing shoulders with the great and good in her tireless campaign to promote a better life for the blind.
What helped her not only to survive but prosper, she says, were her “best friends” – her beloved guide dogs. She has had six in total, all pure labrador bitches – her “leading ladies” to whom, in a new book, she pays emotional tribute.
First on the scene, in 1971, was Topsy, a “glossy black”, who gave her the confidence to finally leave the house and take her daughter Jacqueline, born a year after she went blind, to school each morning. “Topsy gave me back my life,” she says simply. “She was with me until she died at the age of 12 and we laid her to rest under the lawn.”
Then came Bunty: almost white, strikingly pretty – and too excitable by half. “Bunty would pull ahead of me all the time. Her prettiness made people want to talk to her when we were out – which is disastrous when a guide dog is meant to be ‘working’. I was at risk of walking into lampposts and worse.”
Bunty was replaced by Brandy, who saw her through a miserable divorce (after 19 years of marriage to her first husband, Mick) and who, in 1983, accompanied her to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for services to blind people. But when they arrived, Brandy wasn’t allowed to go with her for the ceremony, a memory that still makes her cross.
“It was ironic, because the main reason for my getting an MBE was for all the work I’d done to improve access for guide dogs.”
Next came Quella, “a stately dog and so calm”, who was at the altar with her when she married Alvin; then Lady – the “perfect” guide dog. Her last and current pooch, a silken-coated bitch called Amanda, lies contentedly at her feet in the sitting room of her home in Southend, where photos of her family (Jacqueline is now 47, grandchildren Joseph, 18, and Emily, 16) line the walls.
Amanda accompanied her back to the palace in triumph last year – this time to collect an Order of the British Empire (OBE). On this occasion, mistress and pooch stayed together. “Amanda stood up for the national anthem and I could see Princess Anne smiling,” she giggles. “She was the first guide dog to be allowed into an investiture.”
Jill’s book is sentimental but it is not soppy, revealing a fascinating world of working guide dogs, their volunteer breeders, walkers, boarders and trainers; their intense and lengthy training, which is funded entirely by charity; their differing personalities and the crucial importance of getting the right match with an owner; and their ability to provide thousands of people such as Jill with companionship and confidence, guiding them around overhanging branches, posts and bikes, and ensuring they are safe in today’s increasingly cluttered streets and shopping centres.
Also chronicled is a shocking history of the stigma attached to blindness, which she believes still exists today. She recalls her mother (“quite a bitter person“) refusing to tell anyone, including the school, about her daughter’s glass eye and poor sight. As a result, Jill had no access to larger print books. “I used to sneak up to the blackboard and memorise everything,” she recalls.
When pregnant, she was first advised by doctors to have an abortion and then, straight after having the baby, was sterilised on medical advice. “I signed the form only hours before my daughter was born. I’ve regretted it ever since,” she says. “It happened a lot in those days. A doctor told me, quite wrongly, if I had any more children, my sight would never improve. Yet later, I found out from eye specialists nothing could ever be done about my sight because the optic nerve had been destroyed by the measles. It was simple: the earlier doctors didn’t think a blind person could bring up a child.”
Yet rather than turn her anger inwards, this extraordinary woman has spent her life campaigning on behalf of the blind, particularly on the issue of access for guide dogs. “I remember in the past that restaurants, holiday camps and cinemas were all out of bounds,” she recalls. “On my first day out with Topsy, we were refused entry to the local library – Jacqueline went in on her own.”
Jill has served on local, national and international
I remember in the past that restaurants and cinemas were all out of bounds’
committees too numerous to mention (she still works for the European Blind Union and the National Federation of the Blind); given hundreds of talks to schools and church groups; raised thousands of pounds for charity; and worked her formidable charm on many politicians, including former ministers for the disabled Nicholas Scott, Sir John Major and Lord Newton.
There are further battles ahead. She is particularly concerned about the growing trend for “shared streets”, which involve removing pavements, crossings, signs and signals, and which she argues from bitter experience – she was almost killed in a “shared space” in Rome – are a hazard for blind people. She is deeply worried about how proposed changes to disability benefits will affect the blind, and claims more support is needed for the 100 people in the UK who go blind every day.
“In Southend, people have to wait for five months for the first visit from social services,” she says.
Despite the worthiness of her cause, Allen-king is determinedly down-to-earth and has a wicked sense of humour. One of her most precious memories is a palace garden party in 1981 to mark the International Year of the Disabled, when along with others she was invited to tea in the royal tent.
“The queen thought it very unfair we were still not able to take guide dogs into the House of Commons,” she remembers. “It was a week before Diana’s wedding to Charles. Diana sat on the grass, chatting to me and stroking Topsy for about 10 minutes.
“Outside the tent, there were about 40 guide dogs, all sitting completely motionless, as they are trained to do. I remember Princess Anne saying they should be allowed to have a jolly good romp – but then, she added, her mother wouldn’t like it.” — ©The Daily Telegraph