Royals of the day: Hidden cousins

Last updated 05:15 08/04/2014
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INSTUTIONALISED: Royal Earlswood asylum in Surrey, where the Queen's cousins, Nerissa and Katherine, were kept hidden for most of their lives.

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Sisters Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were nieces of the Queen Mother and first cousins to The Queen and yet they were never seen at family events. In 1963 they were officially noted as dead even though they weren't. Why? Because they suffered from severe learning disabilities.

The daughters of the Queen Mother's older brother John Bowes-Lyon, Nerissa was born in 1919 and Katherine was born in 1926. Disturbingly, in the era they were born into their learning disabilities were seen as a social stigma that would affect their family's name and their other sisters' marriage possibilities (their sister, Anne, later married a Danish prince and became Princess Anne of Denmark; their other sister Diane, was a bridesmaid at The Queen's wedding) and so they were hidden from the public eye and practically disowned from their family.

Nerissa was sent to the Royal Earlswood asylum in Surrey for people with learning disabilities when she was 15, and Katherine when she was 22 - both were there as anonymous patients. Nurses there told the UK Mail that the women never had visitors, "I never saw anybody come," says former ward nurse Dot Penfold. Adding, "The impression I had was that they'd been forgotten." 

IN PICTURES: Nerissa is pictured to the left at this link, Katherine to the right. 

But the nurses add that the women seemed to know they were connected to royalty. 

'If the Queen or Queen Mum were ever on television, they'd curtsey - very regal, very low," Onelle Braithwaite, a nurse who cared for the sisters told Channel 4. "Obviously there was some sort of memory. It was so sad. Just think of the life they might have had. They were two lovely sisters. They didn't have any speech but they'd point and make noises, and when you knew them, you could understand what they were trying to say. Today they'd probably be given speech therapy and they'd communicate much better. They understood more than you'd think.'

While the official guide to the royal family genealogy - Burke's Peerage - said that they died in 1941 and 1960 respectively, the sisters actually lived for far longer than that. The older sister, Nerissa, died in 1986, while Katherine Bowles-Lyons, who is three months younger than her cousin The Queen, died at 87 on February 23 of this year.

The whole story and the treatment of these two women is even more remarkable considering their aunty, the Queen Mother, was the patron of Mencap, the Royal Society for mentally handicapped children and adults, from 1986 until her death in 2002. 

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