Lionel Lewis: Compassionate and energetic social service administrator and writer

Lionel Lewis was full of ideas. As the Master of Workhouses, where he was responsible for everything from general maintenance to nursing services, he needed to be. His last appointment was superintendent of Bensted House, Faversham, a post he held jointly with his wife for 25 years, and where he also had oversight of the donkey engine which pumped the water supply. When the former workhouse was demolished and a council estate built on the site, Swale borough council named it Lewis Close and preserved the weeping beech tree which had been planted when he removed all the institution's high walls and had flower beds and gardens laid out for the old people in the house and hospital. "I am sad when I remember the sincere caring for patients and residents by the staff in now demolished workhouses, the easy interchange of inmate and patients under the same roof," he wrote in his autobiography, A Requiem for Workhouses (2006).

Lewis was born in Tredegar, a small mining town in Monmouthshire. His father was a collier. The family moved to Newport where he did well at St Julian's high school and at 16, after a tough selection process, he was chosen out of 80 applicants to be a junior clerk at Wooloston House, an institution accommodating 400 elderly inmates and an infirmary of 200 patients. It was the start of a career which was to see him become president of the professional organisation, the Association of Health and Residential Care Officers, and active in the organisation in the days when parliamentary secretaries wore bowler hats when they came to address its annual conferences.

At Wooloston House, as he studied part-time for the Master's qualification, he met a probationer studying for her State Registered Nurse qualification. But it was seven years before Beryl Jarrett and Lionel Lewis were able to secure a joint appointment and get married. The custom of having administrator and matron in married partnership in charge continued from poor-law days into public-assistance departments, with both old people's homes and hospitals being run on joint sites.

Starting married life as Master and Matron of St James's Hospital, Gravesend, in 1940, the Lewises narrowly escaped death when the establishment was bombed in an air raid later in the year. Keen on woodwork at school, Lewis made the cot for their first child.

In 1945, the Lewises took charge of Bensted House, Faversham, which housed nearly 300 sick, disabled and able-bodied persons, had a staff of 90 and occupied 15 acres, 11 of which were under cultivation to provide food for the institution. The building was a typical square workhouse building, with rough paths and high walls; the latter, Lewis removed.

Being in charge of such an institution had its off-beat moments. In these days, casual wards provided night shelter for the homeless or vagrants. "Restraining casuals in one's dressing gown is not an enlightening experience," recalled Lewis, who was liable to be called out to emergencies in the house at night. He was also called upon to witness the killing of the pig for the Christmas dinner. Although he was impressed with the care and attention given to the pig to avoid unnecessary suffering, he absented himself from future killings.

Lewis and his wife played an active part in their professional organization, locally and nationally. He was national President in 1958-59 and subsequently was Treasurer. With the introduction of the NHS, the Association changed its name. Founded in 1898 as the National Association of Masters and Matrons of Workhouses, it became the National Association of Administrators of Local Government Establishments, and was now the Association of Hospital and Welfare Officers. It was to have a further change of name to the Association of Hospital and Residential Care Officers (AHRCO) before the one organisation which bridged the health and social services by providing a common forum ceased to exist in 1984, after 86 years. Lewis arranged for the deposit of its archives with the Wellcome Trust Library and regalia with the Science Museum in London. He also compiled a history of the Association which he published in 1985.

In retirement, Lewis was recalled by Kent County Council to be Superintendent of Medway Homes in Rochester and became Residential Services Officer in Rochester until his final retirement in 1978.

A short, slim, very energetic man who spoke with Welsh fluency, Lewis only achieved his youthful ambition to be a pilot when he was 69. He had volunteered for the RAF in the war but Kent County Council needed his services. His wife having died, Lewis now felt that if he were killed in a crash it would not matter. He did not crash, but in his 12 years as a pilot he did have his scary moments, such as when the electrics gave out while he was flying over the Channel to Le Touquet with a 90-year-old passenger on board. Still active with AHRCO, Lewis now flew to its annual reunions.

Lewis had a lifetime in the Scout movement, and, as he was keen on acting, put on gang shows, as he had once staged Christmas shows at his hospitals. He was also an enthusiastic collector of cameras, and a keen photographer – he had more than 150 cameras, ranging from early Kodak and Voigtlanders to the latest digital. He was a painter, too, and served for a time as president of Faversham Art Society.

A good rugby player, Lewis was offered terms after a trial for Swinton Rugby League Club which were three times his annual salary. He chose to stick with the day job, as it would last longer. Rugby injuries caused him to suffer from cysts in his back which, when he reached 80, began to cause problems. He treated his ailments personally, "as I have no regard for the non-caring treatment offered today either at home or in hospital". He died in his sleep after a pleasant evening with his son and visitors, and a day in which he had been planning for an art exhibition in November.

Laurence Dopson

Lionel William Henry Lewis, health and social service administrator: born Tredegar, Monmouthshire 6 November 1914; Master, St James's Hospital, Gravesend 1940-45; Master, Bensted House, Faversham 1945-75; superintendent, Medway Homes, Residential Services Office, Medway 1975 -78; President, Association of Health and Residential Care Officers 1958-9; married 1940 Beryl Jarrett (deceased; one son); died Faversham, Kent 25 April 2009.

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