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How Kesgrave man Tony helped thousands around the world but didn't want to bask in glory

PUBLISHED: 19:23 05 May 2019 | UPDATED: 17:33 07 May 2019

Tony is missed by his partner, family and friends, but they know his lasting legacy is the part he played in creating a communications system that lives on and helps thousands of people around the globe                     Picture: Christopher Fay

Tony is missed by his partner, family and friends, but they know his lasting legacy is the part he played in creating a communications system that lives on and helps thousands of people around the globe Picture: Christopher Fay

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Obituary: Former Suffolk nurse helped create a new sign language for children and adults frustrated by not being able to communicate

Tony Cornforth in New Zealand: A  kind and generous man – a very private individual who did not seek public recognition for his part in the creation of Makaton   Picture: Christopher FayTony Cornforth in New Zealand: A kind and generous man – a very private individual who did not seek public recognition for his part in the creation of Makaton Picture: Christopher Fay

Imagine helping to create a new "language" - one that lets children and adults communicate at last. It eases their frustrations about not being able to get across their thoughts, feelings, dreams and needs.

Imagine, too, this new invention carrying part of your name - and helping thousands of people decades later, from Japan and India to Kuwait and beyond.

It came about after Tony Cornforth joined the staff of what was then the Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb (today it's the Royal Association for Deaf people). He worked with folk who were deaf and did not speak, and also with those both blind and deaf.

Over in Surrey, in the 1970s, Margaret Walker was a senior speech therapist at Botleys Park, a long-stay hospital for people with learning disabilities. She noted how many of them had no or little speech, how frustrated they could be, and wondered if there was a different way of helping them communicate.

Margaret put together a collection of signing gestures to signify 30 basic concepts, such as "drink".

Tony and colleague Kathy Johnson joined the team to teach the hospital staff some British Sign Language and help develop a system called the Makaton Vocabulary.

The word Makaton recognises their achievement. The MA is the first two letters of Margaret, the KA is from Kathy and the TON comes from Tony.

Tony, at about the time he was working on the development of Makaton   Picture: Christopher FayTony, at about the time he was working on the development of Makaton Picture: Christopher Fay

Today, The Makaton Charity says more than 100,000 youngsters and adults use the symbols and signs. "Most people start using Makaton as children, then naturally stop using the signs and symbols as they no longer need them. However, some people will need to use Makaton for their whole lives."

Tony has died after a long illness. Friends and family remember him as a kind and generous man - a very private individual who did not seek public recognition for his part in the creation of Makaton.

Worked at Cliff Quay power station

Anthony Cornforth (everyone called him Tony) was born in Trimley St Mary in 1934. His family moved to Kesgrave in 1941, where he went to school and was a member of the church choir and the local scouts.

After leaving school he worked for a time for British Fermentation Ltd in Ipswich and then at the Cliff Quay power station before national service in the RAF at the age of 18.

Later, he trained as a nurse at St Clement's Hospital in Ipswich and St Audrey's in Melton before going on to St James' Hospital in Balham.

Tony Cornforth. Cooking was one of his hobbies   Picture: Christopher FayTony Cornforth. Cooking was one of his hobbies Picture: Christopher Fay

As a Queen's Nurse in the district his duties covered Balham, Battersea, Wandsworth and Clapham. He was later a charge nurse at St James' Hospital.

Tony went on to become a night superintendent at Bolingbroke Hospital in Battersea, during which time he studied hospital administration at Battersea Polytechnic.

In 1964 he joined the Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb (in his capacity as a psychiatric hospitals visitor for the Home Counties), and the development of Makaton followed.

In 1976 he was appointed an area manager, organising services for the elderly in Kingston upon Thames.

After the introduction of the Registered Homes Act 1984 he became the principal officer responsible for the inspection and registration of Kingston's residential care homes, as well as the health authority's nursing homes in the borough.

His final appointment was in 1987, when as a member of a team of inspectors he worked for Surrey County Council until early retirement in 1993.

Justin Fletcher, the children's television personality Mr Tumble, who uses Makaton in his programmes on the BBCJustin Fletcher, the children's television personality Mr Tumble, who uses Makaton in his programmes on the BBC

Cruise cut short

In 1973 Tony met Christopher Fay and they were partners for almost 46 years. They came to live in Kesgrave when Tony retired. Chris continued with his own nursing career at the local Nuffield Hospital until he too retired. They entered into a civil partnership in 2005.

Tony occupied his time with his many hobbies, which included cooking, computing, overseas travel and entertaining friends.

In January, 2008, Tony and Christopher embarked on what was to have been a world cruise. Sadly, it all too soon became clear that Tony was suffering from cancer.

The cruise was cut short at San Francisco, where he received life-saving emergency treatment. Tony had further treatment back in England at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

For the next decade he suffered a variety of health problems. Although he had to forgo his regular water workouts at both the Deben Pool (Woodbridge) and Felixstowe Leisure Centre about five years ago, he continued his daily walks, stopping for a chat with the friends he made along his route. He did this until shortly before Easter.

Following a brief stay in Ipswich Hospital he transferred to nearby St Elizabeth Hospice for palliative care.

Tony is missed by his partner, family and friends. "His legacy is the part he played in creating a communications system that lives on and helps thousands of people around the world," says Christopher.

More about Makaton

The Makaton Charity says: "Makaton is a language programme using signs and symbols to help people to communicate. It is designed to support spoken language, and the signs and symbols are used with speech, in spoken word order.

"With Makaton, children and adults can communicate straight away… Many people then drop the signs or symbols naturally at their own pace, as they develop speech.

"For those who have experienced the frustration of being unable to communicate meaningfully or effectively, Makaton really can help. Makaton takes away that frustration and enables individuals to connect with other people and the world around them. This opens up all kinds of possibilities.

"Makaton is extremely flexible, as it can be personalised to an individual's needs and used at a level suitable for them. It can be used to:

* share thoughts, choices and emotions

* label real objects, pictures, photos and places

* take part in games and songs

* listen to, read and tell stories

* create recipes, menus and shopping lists

* write letters and messages

* help people find their way around public buildings

Makaton on CBeebies

American comedian, actor and writer Rob Delaney last November became the first person to use Makaton in telling a story as part of the BBC's CBeebies Bedtime Stories show.

The actor and his family had in the past used Makaton to communicate with son Henry, who had a tracheotomy after being diagnosed in 2016 with a brain tumour.

Henry died early last year, aged two and a half.

His father co-wrote and co-starred in - with Sharon Horgan - the Channel 4 relationship comedy Catastrophe.

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