Dame Barbara Shenfield

Sociologist and no-nonsense chairman of the WRVS

Barbara Shenfield had a fine career in voluntary work, and from 1981 to 1988 chaired the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, for which she was appointed DBE in 1986. But she saw no contradiction between her concern for the disadvantaged and hawkishly right-wing views on social and economic policy, views which she broadly shared with her late husband the economist Arthur Shenfield.

Barbara Estelle Farrow, sociologist: born Smethwick, Staffordshire 9 March 1919; Lecturer in Social Studies, Birmingham University 1945-56; Lecturer, Department of Economics and Social Studies, Bedford College, London 1959-65; Academic Director, University College at Buckingham 1972-73; Chairman, National Executive, National Old People's Welfare Council (now Age Concern) 1971-73; Vice-Chairman, Women's Royal Voluntary Service 1976-81, Chairman 1981-88; DBE 1986; Chairman, Pornography and Violence Research Trust 1996-2002; married 1941 Flt Lt Gwilym Lewis (died 1941; one son), 1951 Arthur Shenfield (died 1990; one son); died London 17 June 2004.

Barbara Shenfield had a fine career in voluntary work, and from 1981 to 1988 chaired the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, for which she was appointed DBE in 1986. But she saw no contradiction between her concern for the disadvantaged and hawkishly right-wing views on social and economic policy, views which she broadly shared with her late husband the economist Arthur Shenfield.

The Women's Voluntary Service (WVS - it became the WRVS in 1966) was founded in 1938 and recruited a million members before the end of the Second World War. It is perhaps best known for its "meals on wheels" service to the elderly. Shenfield took over as Chairman from the former MP Baroness Pike in 1981, having served as Vice-Chairman since 1976, and she had also previously been Chairman of the National Executive of the National Old People's Welfare Council, the precursor of Age Concern.

Shenfield was dismissive of complaints that the WRVS was for middle-class do-gooders, but was also mindful that it should not be fossilised. "We are not all Lady Bountiful," she once declared. "We have women from all walks of life." Among her initiatives was for the WRVS to provide a counselling or "agony aunt" role for young soldiers facing army bullying or psychological problems. Another part of her modernising zeal was to computerise the meals-on-wheels delivery rota and to expand the scope of the WRVS in urban areas.

She was fond of recounting how she once asked an old lady what she would most like to have if she could have anything she wanted. "I'd like to go to Marks and Spencer and buy my own knickers," came the reply. There followed, as a special project to mark their Patron the Queen Mother's 80th birthday, provision for electric wheelchairs to take the elderly round shopping precincts - "so they could choose their own colour," Shenfield declared.

In order to take up her job with the WRVS she gave up a successful academic career as a sociologist. She was a champion and co-founder of the independent Buckingham University in the 1970s which had a battle with the then Education Secretary Shirley Williams to be given official recognition, before eventually being granted a Royal Charter under the Conservatives. Shenfield was Academic Director of the fledgling University College at Buckingham from 1972 to 1973 and a member of the university's Academic Advisory Council until 1987. Earlier she had been a Social Sciences lecturer at Birmingham University (following her degree there in Social and Political Science) and then at Bedford College.

When some expressed surprise that she should give up subsequent visiting professorships in America for a mere voluntary organisation, Shenfield replied: "It's not a voluntary organisation, it's an institution." She was remembered for her no-nonsense approach to the organisation, once remarking, "If you're 85 a 10-year programme is not going to be much use." She felt an advantage of the WRVS was that "there are no forms to fill in and no follow-up visits. People don't feel they've been social-worked or therapied." She took great pride that many thousands of people were able to stay in their own homes who without the WRVS would have been institutionalised.

For many years the Shenfields lived in Windsor, latterly as neighbours of Elton John, whose celebrity had passed them by. "We've had terrible trouble with noise since this pop singer called John Elton moved in," Dame Barbara complained. Socially, the couple made something of a contrast. Arthur was a difficult person with an abrasive manner while Barbara was charming and calmed him down. She was a great fan of Shakespeare and could quote lengthy chunks of Macbeth or King Lear.

Both the Shenfields were key players in the free market think-tanks that rose to prominence during the 1980s and contributed to the cutting edge of the Thatcher revolution. In 1945 Barbara Shenfield had stood as a Liberal Party candidate in the general election for Birmingham Handsworth but her views were always classical liberal rather than centrist and she had little in common with the Liberal Party in its subsequent Keynesian reincarnations.

She was a trustee of the Social Affairs Unit, who debunked received wisdom on an array of subjects from diet to social work. As a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international group of liberal intellectuals, she would attend their prestigious international conferences with Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. She also played an active role in the Institute of Economic Affairs and was a judge of the Adam Smith Institute's Economy in Government Competition. Arthur Shenfield was one of the ASI's first authors. He had earlier been Chief Economist of the Federation of British Industries, which later became the CBI.

Barbara Shenfield was Chairman of the Pornography and Violence Trust from 1996 to 2002. In 1999 she described the sentences handed out to people caught looking at child pornography on the internet as "derisory", and called for new laws to tackle internet pornography. Since 1991 she had been Chairman of the Friends of the Imperial War Museum.

She is survived by one son from her marriage to Arthur Shenfield, who died in 1990, and another son by Flt Lt Gwilym Lewis, who was killed in action only three months after their marriage in 1941.

Harry Phibbs

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