Barbara Dockar-Drysdale. By Robin Reeves

Here is a previously unpublished paper given by Christopher (Robin) Reeves to the Mulberry Bush Organisation AGM, October 2012. This was the centenary year of the birth of  BDD. Robin Reeves was formerly therapeutic consultant to the Mulberry Bush School, before becoming Director from 1980-1991.

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale

I’m grateful for the invitation to say a few words about Barbara Dockar-Drysdale as I remember her form her earliest contact with the Bush fifty years ago. She had many personas, and this was reflected in the various ways she was addressed. She could be Mrs. Dockar-Drysdale, or Barbara, or Pip, – but only if you were on intimate terms with her. At the Bush however she was simply ‘Mrs. D’. even when you were talking directly to her. And the second thing worth remembering is that in those days one knew her as one half of a twosome, the other half comprising her husband, Stephen – always known to us simply as ‘Dockar’.

It was Dockar I encountered first. On my initial visit to the Bush in October 1962 as a first year Oxford undergraduate I had no idea what to expect. All that I had been told by a fellow student who had been a regular visitor was that it was an unusual place that did interesting work with children, and I would be kept busy. On arrival I was briefly greeted by Dockar who was busy dispensing Saturday afternoon pocket money to the children in his bluff but kindly way. He had an authoritative, no- nonsense manner yet one that welcomed not deterred a child’s request. If one asked if he could go with this newcomer for a walk down the village to spend his sixpence at the shop he might say either yes or no depending on the child – but there was no arguing or objecting. It wasn’t that the children were in awe of him, they just respected his absolute right to make decisions. My encounter with Mrs D. came on a later visit and left a different, but equally vivid impression. A child had got his allocation of sweets – actually they were tiny chocolate eggs. He burst in to the staffroom where we undergraduate students – just a couple of us – were sitting eating the left over lunch -time mince and mash – it was always mince and mash on a Saturday. ‘Mrs D., will you look after these for me?’ said a small boy. Without waiting to reply he dropped the eggs in her lap and scampered back out to play. This was the cue for an impromptu seminar from Mrs.D. She explained to us something of the boy’s background, his history of neglect then abandonment. She wanted us to understand that symbolically the eggs were the missing babies – the ones his mother might have conceived and given birth to if his Dad had stayed around. As it was, in the boy’s eyes they were lost potential babies, not just non –existent ones. Because she understood how the reality and the worry of this for him she had become a surrogate mother. I looking after his eggs she was taking care not only of him but of his mother also, and this was why he could feel relief, rather than regret at being here at the Bush rather than at home. As she explained these things to us and answered our questions it all began to appear so terribly simple- obvious even – though if we had been faced with this child’s gesture we would never have had a clue to its meaning and of the significance of the wordless, but accepting response she was able to give. This was the Mrs. D. I came to know over the next two years during my intermittent visits – sometimes just an afternoon, sometimes for a day or a weekend or longer. She had endless time for children and grown –ups. What struck me too was her ability to make the subtleties of interactions with a child simple by seizing on the underlying symbolic message and respond accordingly.

Those of you who became acquainted with her professionally later in her life, or who came to know of her through stories about her or through her writings, probably have an impression of Mrs. Dockar-Drysdale  as a rather formidable lady – someone with a very definite presence and sureness of viewpoint. My recollection of her is somewhat different – of an extremely approachable, spontaneous, warm- hearted person, alert and sensitive, to one’s vulnerability and uncertainty as a student or young member of staff. Such was the aura surrounding her later on, it’s perhaps hard to realise that she was largely self -taught in the business of helping and handling emotionally disturbed and difficult children. Of course she had a number of support figures in the psychiatric, psychoanalytic and educational world whom she regularly consulted, notably Donald Winnicott, when so much learning from experience was taking place and a distinctive treatment approach was being forged through trial and error that would stand the test of time. But none of them were people actively engaged or knowledgeable in the practical, day- to –day therapy in child care she was undertaking just then.

What above all I think made her and the Bush survive those early days were two things. Firstly, there was the existence of a supportive environment.  I’m not thinking of the local neighbourhood environment, because this was not often the case. Stories used to proliferate about those mad and maddening children at the bottom of the village, stories which lingered long in the collective memory of Standlake. What I mean rather is a climate of support on the part of the authorities of the day for exploring innovative ways of caring for, and if possible curing, wayward children. It was part of what I have called the post-war Government’s assumption of a quasi-parental ‘duty of care’ enshrined in the 1948 Children Act, one that acknowledged the responsibility to provide, but did not dictate to professionals how it should be done. The second insurance of survival is what I would call Mrs. Dockar-Drysdale’s sensitised and intelligent openness to her own vulnerability and that of the staff and children she and her husband were responsible for.  I use the term vulnerability advisedly. As a young person growing up in Dublin in the period between the two World Wars, Barbara Gordon , as she then was, had experienced the tragic teenage loss  of her admired and admiring father. This event caused her to leave Ireland and travel to Vienna in order to learn German with a view to acquiring some international librarianship qualifications. Hopes of following her father’s career in medicine were doomed, but her spirit of enterprise and her desire for a profession of caring did not desert her. In the event circumstances, marriage, the war, evacuation and its aftermath, all fortuitously combined to offer an unlooked for opportunity of self- fulfilment through fulfilling the potential of others, and with a particular focus on children. These chance circumstances provided the occasion, her resilience and resourcefulness provided the rest.

I’ve already mentioned Stephen as her partner, and to some extent her foil. Mrs. D. was very much what might nowadays be called a ‘can-do’ person; ‘Dockar’ while certainly not a ‘can’t do’ person, was able to tell her occasionally ( and perhaps he was the only one who could): ‘You know, Pip, I don’t think you should try doing it in quite that way’. There’s an amusing story about the buying of the Bush that illustrates Dockar’s inclination to want to take over the reins – it’s a story he told me himself. He had been in Palestine serving in the Army as part of the British Mandate in 1947 when the Home Office offered to provide a substantial contribution towards a suitable place for Mrs D. to  set up a residential school, to meet the stream of referrals of children from London, as well as a core of unclaimed evacuee children left over after the war. So it was left to her to search for a suitable site. She found a disused market garden property called Longwood House and wrote excitedly to Dockar to report on its imminent purchase. Now Mrs. D’s. handwriting was not always ideally clear. On receiving the letter he thought she had written Longworth House. This was a rather splendid, if dilapidated, Jacobean House with ample grounds (nowadays I understand called Clyde House) which later became a nursing home. On learning this news, he managed to get a rapid discharge for the Army and returned post haste thinking to himself ’Pip has really done it this time!’ , only to realise with relief on arrival that she had not been as extravagant as he feared. Longwood was certainly not Longworth. Incidentally the shards of glass lying just below the playground surface of the old school were to be remnants of the Bush’s market garden origins for a very long time.

Donald Winnicott, who she first met in 1954, greatly admired her and the work of reclamation she was doing in these early days at the Bush. He wrote an unusual, yet typically Winnicottian remark in his introduction to the first volume of her papers, published in 1966. This is what he said:

‘’When I first met Mrs. Dockar-Drysdale I was excited to find someone who was receptive in an active way. So often one feels: if you don’t know, how can I tell you ! here was someone who knew , and who therefore enriched what she heard.’’

Like so many Winnicottian passing comments there is more in this than first meets the eye. Around this time, in Paris, Winnicott had encountered a psychotherapist who resembled Pip Dockar-Drysdale in many respects. She too seemed to be blessed with an intuitive sympathy with and understanding of the mind of the small child. I’m not referring to Marguerite Sechehaye whose work both of them quote, but Francoise Dolto, a French pioneer of analytic therapy with children, and like Mrs. Dockar-Drysdale, a single minded woman operating in a field where men tended to dominate intellectually and professionally; like her too, the admired daughter of an equally admiring father who died prematurely. But Winnicott did not warm to Dolto as he did Pip. The reason he didn’t was that in his opinion Dolto relied overmuch on personal intuition in her work, which she conveyed through direct interpretation to the small child who was her patient. For Winnicott this unbridled use of intuition could be wrong even when its content was right: wrong, because it made the child feel that the adult was a magician, seeing things in him that he could not see, and saying things about him he could not comprehend himself.

Mrs. D. was not like this. In one of her earliest papers she wrote: ‘intuition informed is an essential tool; intuition uninformed is a dangerous weapon.’’ (1993, p.31). She rarely made interpretations to the child in a psychoanalytic sense; in fact she actively discouraged the practice. What was important was to know and respect the level of the child’s own capacity for understanding and to recognise the importance of symbolic communication as the currency which children naturally trade in when they communicate with grown –ups. I think that this quality in her is what Winnicott was alluding to when he referred to her as ‘someone who knew’ – knowing here being to do as much with recognising what one does not know about the child as what one does . It links up with her sensitivity and essential vulnerability, so prominent when she and her husband were jointly running the Bush.  It was a form of ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ to use Winnicott’s phrase, and it enabled remarkable transformations to occur in the unlikeliest place. But its efficacy relied on the existence of a benign and supportive network.

By the early 1960’s this could no longer be taken for granted, with war, evacuation and the dire post- war conditions for children beginning to recede in the memory. Also, although Stephen contributed some of the ‘out-sight’ for her ‘in-sight’ the overriding emphasis in those days tended to be on the therapeutic principle of ‘only connect’. The outer world was impacting, and in an increasingly unsympathetic manner. As her writing s attest, Mrs D. while sympathetic and supportive of those who could connect with children at their level, was antipathetic to those who thought they were in touch, but actually were only in touch with their need to feel in tune with the children. These she saw as blind, but unaware of their own blindness. So, when criticisms of the Bush began to arise in the early 1960’s, sometimes from erstwhile supporter, I think there was a sense that these arose from th uniformed. In fact, she admitted as much in the introduction to another of her papers, where she commented that the closing of ranks among the school’s supporters when its future existence was threatened was based to some extent on a paranoia which ultimately was not helpful. Nevertheless, the manner of her relinquishing the leadership of the Bush at this time, along with her husband, was a panful experience, one that was only assuaged over the years of John Armstrong’s headship and the alliance of mutual respect in each other’s complementary strengths which evolved over the decade that followed. Another important event at the end of the 1960’s, and one that likewise left a shadow, was the illness and death of her great mentor, Donald Winnicott. When I interviewed her twenty –five years later she was frail and her memory was fading, and it was noteworthy how her recollections would stray from talk about her father and talk about Winnicott, as if the two were intertwined in her memory. The earlier self –reliance she had displayed in the aftermath of the former was transformed into a forthright self- belief in her later years. It wasn’t based on a refusal any longer to learn from experience – this much is shown in her constantly enquiring and questioning   about all aspects of the care and management of difficult children and adolescents. But it was based on her own conviction that she was indeed somebody who knew –and therefore ought to be listened to – even when this knowledge included – as it always did with her – the need and desire to know more. From in-sight she gained out-sight through setbacks and challenges; and the Bush, its children and its staff as well as the late lamented Cotswold Community – have been its beneficiaries.


Signed in handwriting:  by Christopher REEVES (‘’Robin’’)




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