‘Lucy Faithfull: Mother to Hundreds’ by Judith Niechcial

Although there were many people who contributed to the development of the personal social services in the latter part of the twentieth century, there are few figures who merited biographies, but Lucy Faithfull – or Baroness Faithfull of Wolvercote, as she became – was one of them. Her career not only spanned several decades, illustrating the changes in welfare services, but she also personally played a significant role in shaping the services, and Judith Niechcial has performed a valuable service in putting this book together.

Lucy was born in South Africa in 1910, and her father died in 1916 from gas in the battle of Arras. Lucy was therefore brought up by her mother, who moved the family to England and was a great influence on her life. But Lucy also spent many years of her childhood in boarding schools and this experience also shaped her character. She did not go to university (though she was later awarded honorary degrees) but played a variety of welfare roles, mainly in inner city community work. Her professional work became her life, and Lucy never married.

During the Second World War she was one of the key figures who organised the evacuation of people from the cities into more rural areas to avoid the blitz. (I won’t spoil the story by recounting its punchline, but on p. 39 there is a hilarious account of the billeting of a verminous old lady.) Eventually she moved up the organisational ranks to become a Home Office Inspector, in those days a very august and prestigious post.

Following the creation of Children’s Departments under the Children Act 1948 Lucy was appointed Children’s Officer in Oxford city, and from this time onwards the author’s sources include a number of oral contributions. It was during this period that Lucy earned the subtitle of the book, “Mother of hundreds”, as her Department was small enough for its chief officer to take a personal interest in all the children in its care. Corporate parenting in those days meant that the top person actually did play a parental role (if only occasionally), and this reflected Lucy’s keen interest in people – children in particular.

Lucy built up a Department with a national reputation, though there was rivalry between her and Barbara Kahan, the Children’s Officer for Oxfordshire. Judith Niechcial does not duck some of the trickier issues such as the tensions between her and Barbara. Lucy went on to become the Director of Social Services, a bigger, more political role, which, one senses, was less to Lucy’s taste.

On her retirement she was surprised to be invited to become a Conservative peer, and the invitation surprised some of her fellow-professionals. It seems that Barbara Kahan’s view that Lucy was “light-weight” was matched by the opinions of others. However, Lucy rose to the occasion. Her charm and determination helped her to get on well with other members of the House of Lords, and she achieved a lot, for example in influencing the Children Act 1989 and ensuring that legislation reflected the requirements of practice. She proved herself the opposite of “light-weight” in stirring up opposition to Margaret Thatcher on several key issues.

Lucy also set up the Foundation which carries her name, offering treatment to serious sex offenders – possibly the least popular group in society. But this was only one of many causes which she espoused. In all this work she continued to display a combination of intense personal interest in people, being a good listener, and a sharp eye for opportunities to fix things, putting direct pressure on people at all levels of society to get things done. She took a party of young offenders to the House of Lords, for example, so that peers could meet them and get some understanding of their needs.

Judith Niechcial’s book is well researched. She has read through mounds of papers and interviewed many people who knew Lucy, organising the material to reflect both the phases of Lucy’s career and the development of the services to which she contributed.

It is a tribute to Lucy that although she was a Baroness people always talked of her as a personal friend. Although she had never made it to University, she was accepted and given honorary degrees in Oxford. Although she was a chief officer, she remained a “mother to hundreds”, taking a personal interest. At a time when single women tended to fulfil subordinate professional roles, Lucy rose to the top and had a real impact. Although seen as being “lightweight”, her combination of personal attributes probably meant that she was more influential than heavyweights would have been.

Judith Niechcial’s choice of cover photograph is brilliant. It is a picture of Lucy, looking straight at camera, in her mature years. Although she is benign and interested, she is also questioning, challenging – the combination of characteristics which made her so influential. I found it somewhat disquieting, as if I were being put on the spot by Lucy from beyond the grave.

As well as being an important figure as Director and Baroness, Lucy had a personal impact on people. We have recounted elsewhere in Children Webmag Lucy’s interest in Curdy stories and the tale of the dead cat. I first met her about 1969, when she was trying to recruit me to work in Oxfordshire, and we met at conferences and other events at intervals thereafter. She joined the first Social Care Association Standing Committee at my invitation about 1973, before she was ennobled, and the Committee produced the Dalmeny Papers, which put forward proposals for the training and management of social care workers which were ahead of their time. I also recall the occasion very soon after her ennoblement when she invited me and my younger son to tea in the House of Lords; Andrew, then aged about six, had just managed to get honey on his fingers and was wondering how one dealt with this politely in the Lords’ tea-room when Lord Hume, the former Prime Minister, was walking past and had a word. No doubt there are thousands of people who could contribute similar personal anecdotes, and who consider themselves to have been treated as friends by Lucy.

In summary, this book is a must for any of the thousands who knew Lucy, but for others who did not know her, Judith Niechcial has provided a picture of a warm but forceful person who helped to shape the lives of individuals and of the personal social services as a whole, and the book will therefore be of interest to those who have an interest in the way in which services were developed in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Niechcial, Judith (2010) Lucy Faithfull: Mother to Hundreds

ISBN  978-0-9532305-3-2

For further information contact jmfniechcial@hotmail.com .

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