Tributes to Gillian Corsellis

Gillian Corsellis died on 8 August 2013 at the age of 93, and her funeral ceremony was held at Grantham Crematorium on 21 August.

The tributes below are based in part on the eulogy delivered at the funeral service and in part on personal recollections. It is often only at funeral ceremonies that we find out about facets of the lives of our former colleagues, friends and family members of which we were previously unaware, and people have frequently achieved much more than we know. In the case of Gillian, we suspect that there are aspects to her career and personal interests which are not mentioned below, and some deserve to be expanded. Further contributions will be welcome in filling out the picture of the life of this remarkable woman.

Extracts from the Funeral Eulogy

Gillian did not practice any particular faith and so, in accordance with her wishes, the ceremony did not have any specific religious references. In giving thanks for the life of Gillian, the words of Michele de Montaigne were recalled, who wrote, “The value of life lies not in the length of days but in the use you make of them”.

Gillian was born on 6 November 1919, just after the First World War, in Oxford, one of four children born to Douglas Henry and Helen. She was the second child, having an older sister Mary and younger brothers Timothy and John.

She understood that her parents met when her father, a young army Captain of 23, had lost an arm and had been nursed by her mother, a volunteer Nurse. A family joke was that all four had different fathers, Mary a soldier, Gillian an undergraduate, Timothy a Gas Board representative and John a Barrister, echoing their father’s career.

He returned to university life and progressed to become a well-respected Barrister, until he was killed when his bi-plane crashed in a London fog in 1930. Gillian had enjoyed flying with him and often spoke of controlling the plane in the air when she was eight years old, and of once being flown with her sister to boarding school, landing on the playing field.

Until her father’s death the family lived on a farm or in a water mill in East Anglia, where the children enjoyed the freedom of country life. In 1931 they moved to a terraced house by Regents Park in London and her teen-age years were equally free, exploring the city and being part of the crowd outside Buckingham Palace at royal events. The family enjoyed membership privileges at London Zoo, as her mother had presented them with a very tame gibbon.

The next exploration for Gillian was when she was 15, and it was a six-month trip by cargo ship to a Borneo jungle gold mine. Her mother had married again to a previous suitor who had emigrated to seek his fortune. Gillian’s first employment was as a Deputy Supervisor in the goldmine.

But destined to work with and for children, she equipped herself with experience in a children’s convalescent home and as a Nanny before training as a Nursery School Teacher. She ran a nursery school in the east end of London during the blitz, where she was instrumental in the start and spread of wartime nurseries.

She had a special empathy with the more disturbed and deprived children and gained valuable experience with pioneers Leila Rendel and Beatrix Tudor Hart, running nurseries at Caldecott and Fortis Green later in the war.

Whilst at Fortis Green she was investigated by the police because her name sounded foreign, but in fact she was the only non-communist on the staff. Moving with a friend into work with older children she took the job of Deputy Matron/Cook in a hostel in Kent. At interview she admitted that she couldn’t cook but was willing to learn, and she got the job!

When Children’s Departments started she thought she would like to be a Child Care Officer, but quickly decided that she didn’t want the responsibility of placing children away from their parents. So she trained at the London School of Economics as a Psychiatric Social Worker and worked with families in child guidance clinics for fifteen years, which is where she first met Ann Foster. The two of them had many things in common, both work and outside interests.

Ann became a priceless and loyal friend for 50 years, giving the sort of support which allowed Gillian to have confidence in being herself. Ann also tolerated the numerous embarrassing situations and eccentricities Gillian managed to achieve.

Gillian’s hobbies were riding and dog training, and for a few years she lived in a converted pantechnicon in a friend’s field, where her horse grazed. A change of job meant leaving this behind to become an Inspector with another pioneer, Clare Winnicott, in the Home Office Children’s Department Training Section. There she set up and assessed more than 30 courses throughout the country for 16-18 year olds who wanted to work with children.

Transfer to the Regional Social Work Service Inspectorate brought her back to the East Midlands where her work included training staff to work with children in Secure Units, and particular responsibilities in Leicestershire. These were to be significant as, after she retired, she became the first Chairman of Home-Start Consultancy, which started in Leicester. Also, with the Voice of the Child in Care, she founded a consultancy service for children in Secure Units. She was proud that these two developments grew and spread to serve many children and families in difficult circumstances.

After her first retirement, as a Social Services Inspector for the Department of Health and Social Security, Gillian was still living in Bingham in Nottinghamshire. On one of her regular visits to Ann’s home in Ruskington, whilst walking down Holme Lane, she noticed that No. 6 was for sale. It was exactly the type of house she wanted, a chocolate box cottage! It had a drive and garage, and a garden with lavender and honeysuckle, and Gillian bought it!

Activities in retirement included serving on the Lincolnshire Adoption Panel and membership on three national Inquiries, causing a colleague to comment, “Gillian has retired from retirement”. Another description of her which she valued was by Margaret Harrison, founder of Home-Start, who commented “- a large, rather formidable woman – in a different league – I need not have worried. When she had a particular concern I learned to listen loudly, for she was usually right”.

Gillian got involved in local bowling, being the first and at that time only woman on the committee that planned, built and started the Sleaford Indoor Bowls Club. Gillian always enjoyed her holidays, the highlights being horse-riding in Ireland, the Lake District and Spain, and a pony trek on her own with two ponies, a tent and her dog, around Kent and Sussex.

Other significant holidays included a walking safari in Zambia and eight weeks with her sister in India, Kashmir and Nepal, where they were guests at a three-day Buddhist dance. She visited the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala and met the Dalai Lama’s sister. To her surprise she found that much of Tibetan child care put English practice to shame.

In her leisure time she undertook wood-carving classes and produced some fantastic sculptures which adorned her home. She and Ann enjoyed caravan, canal and cottage holidays, which allowed Gillian to take her ageing Burmese cat with them. Two unique and memorable experiences were the Rome Olympics and a flight on Concorde, combined with the Orient Express and the Q.E.2.

The history of her home interested Gillian and the deeds to the property did not take her very far, so she visited the Archives in Lincoln. Whilst there, she became fascinated by a document produced by Thomas Ogden, the first schoolmaster in Ruskington. He recorded all the deaths in the village, was a poet, wrote wills and a column in the paper. In the death records Gillian found the ‘germs’ of a book. She was helped to put it on computer by Valerie Dear and in 2007 Notorious Disorderlies was published. It is an interesting and entertaining account of life and death in the village.

In later years Gillian’s heart problems and increasing mobility issues meant she was unable to continue living on her own and Ann invited her to move into Number 2 with her.

Those who knew her will recall that Gillian enjoyed her work and her play and, as Gillian herself commented, though her work stopped when she was 80, her play continued.

Ann Foster’s Tribute

I cannot imagine what life will be like without sharing it with Gillian. We have known each other for approximately 50 years and throughout have enjoyed a happy and relaxed relationship. During these years we have learnt a great deal about each other, which has enabled us to feel free to discuss whatever happened to be on our mind at any time, whether of little consequence or of importance. This has proved to be valued by us both.

There are so many things that I shall miss now that Gillian has died, to name a few; her companionship, her constant support, a caring and loyal friend, a rather wicked sense of humour, her practical advice and above all her optimism.

I have heard Gillian described as a ‘one off’, a ‘character’; certainly Gillian did not fit into any specific category. She won the respect of many people, always appearing confident, fearless and unconforming with little time for authoratism.

I was often intrigued and occasionally looked the other way when hearing her with her excellent use of the English language and Oxford accent demolish those that she felt had behaved badly and without justification. This ability was of great help to her when appearing at court on a parking offence where she defended herself successfully. It also proved a boon for getting out of various tricky situations.

The fact that Gillian was all these things in addition to being great fun, helped her to work successfully with many young people.

Gillian at CCETSW : David Lane’s Tribute

When I arrived at the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) in 1972, I was told that I was to share an office with Gillian, who was then on holiday. A few days later I arrived at work to find that the whole office had been moved round and Gillian had sited my desk where she wanted it to be. Although I had come from a responsible job as head of an Assessment Centre, she did not trust me with her electric kettle lead for the first month. I knew where I stood.

Gillian could be fierce, usually when she thought that someone was not thinking clearly, or was behaving badly, or was not acting in the best interests of children. This kept one on one’s mettle. But she was also charming, with a great sense of humour and a big smile, and she put herself out to be of help.

She was an excellent colleague to share an office with. We took to playing chess at lunchtimes, but this practice came to an end when Sir Derman Christopherson, the Chair of CCETSW, put his head round the door one day and we realised we were still playing at 3 p.m.

Gillian was a champion of children, and in her work at CCETSW this was demonstrated in a number of ways.

Prior to the establishment of CCETSW in 1971, responsibility for the training of residential child care staff had rested with the Central Training Council in Child Care (CTC), and a system had been devised which ranged from the Preliminary Residential Child Care Certificate (PRCC) courses for 16-18 year-olds, through the In-Service unassessed courses for workers who found training daunting, to the dozen or so qualifying courses which led to the Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People (CRCCYP) and the three advanced post-qualifying senior courses leading to the SCRCCYP.

Gillian had first been an Inspector in the Home Office, then in the Department of Health and Social Security when responsibility for children’s services was moved, and in this capacity she had worked with the CTC. When we met, she had been seconded to CCETSW to help the new Council get established.

I think that she looked on the PRCC courses as her baby, as she had played a major role in developing them. A very high standard of training was established, which was good in preparing young adults to be residential child care workers, but the two years of the course had a secondary purpose in delaying their entry into the work, which was (and is) very demanding, until the students had matured and learnt some skills. While we were at CCETSW this course was reviewed and renamed the Preliminary Certificate in Social Care, to reflect the broader ranges of client groups and settings with which PCSC-holders might work.

Gillian also had a keen interest in the qualifying CRCCYP courses, and during our time together we worked with Elizabeth Wulff-Cochrane as the team which serviced the review of qualifying training for residential child care workers. The Working Party under Denis Allen first produced a Red Book as a discussion document, which led to massive interest and a huge response. Our office turned into a mini mail-room as we tried to keep up with the demand for copies, and we had several reprints, keeping the man from Rank Xerox busy. At that time the income from sales went to the Treasury but the cost of printing came from CCETSW’s budget, and the demand was such that the budget had to be renegotiated. The Working Party then produced the Green Book with its proposals under the contentious title Residential Work is a Part of Social Work, and there was a minority report, whose views eventually proved more acceptable within the CCETSW Council. This report resulted in the adoption of the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work for residential workers and later the introduction of the Certificate in Social Service. Gillian played a central role in these major changes.

In our dealings with training courses I was struck by the way that Gillian made demands on the tutors, but also defended them and backed them up. One of the results was that tutors often treated their students in the same way. Their level of commitment was very high and clearly had an impact on individual students as well as the students as a group. This approach ran quite contrary to the accepted thinking at the time, that it was not politically correct to influence students personally in this way, but it worked, and was impressive.

I made visits to courses and attended conferences with Gillian. I recall that one day she was picking me up at Guildford station and I had no idea what sort of car she had. Having learnt something of her personality, I decided that it would either be a racy sports car or something very practical. She turned up in an ancient Hillman, full of gear, with space for her cats and a sink fitted in the boot. Not long afterwards Gillian attended a conference and during her lunchbreak she bought a sports car on a whim.

After Gillian returned to continue her work as an Inspector with the Social Services Inspectorate we lost touch for a while, though I was aware of her later work, for example with Home-Start, a first-rate charity helping families with young children.

When she settled in Ruskington near Sleaford on her retirement we resumed occasional contact. I recall her telling me about the study she was making of the diaries of a nineteenth-century Ruskington teacher, of the widespread use of laudanum to quieten babies and reduce women’s hunger pangs while working in the fields, and of the way that lads used to sit on the church wall to watch the girls go by, as they still do today.

We also exchanged Christmas cards, though this became one-sided when Gillian declared that having reached the age of 90 she was sending no more cards. We last met in 2012 when Gillian was in a nursing home in Sleaford. She did not seem quite as fierce, but she still had plenty of humour and sparkle, and could still be challenging.

This country is fortunate in having had a number of independent-minded women prepared to fight for children’s services. (We have just heard that Olive Stevenson has died.) Gillian was certainly one of the fighters, and without her the world would have been a poorer place. Either directly or indirectly, she had an impact on the lives of thousands, whether as a child care worker in war-time nurseries, or as an Inspector, through the tutors and students whom she influenced. I am grateful to have known and worked with her.

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