Obituary: Barbara Dockar-Drysdale

Christopher Beedell
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:02

BARBARA DOCKAR-DRYSDALE was the last survivor of that influential band of mid-century contributors to the advancement of therapeutic understanding and care of children in Britain whose work was crucially shaped by their involvement with wartime evacuees.

The other three, Anna Freud, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott, came to this experience already trained as psychoanalysts. This particular clinical perspective influenced how they saw bereavement, separation and interruption of family life affecting the child, and what the desirable remedies were. Unlike them, Dockar-Drysdale came to therapeutic child work largely innocent of theory. Yet her therapeutic legacy deserves to stand alongside theirs, or, at least, to be seen as complementing it.

She was brought to a gradual realisation of the importance of understanding and responding to the inner world of the child through her own experience of family bereavement (she lost her much-loved father, Thomas Gordan, Professor of Surgery at Trinity College Dublin, when she was just 15), then as a young adult by the practical experience of ordinary child care and motherhood.

This led her towards an interest in childhood psychopathology, but first and foremost she was a woman of action. The popularity of her writings with social workers and educationists derives from the sense that her clinical observations spring from her work in situation and with experiences like their own.

In 1935 Dockar-Drysdale began her childcare career without any special training by running a village playgroup in Blewbury, then in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire), with a friend. She discovered she had a knack of understanding small children and resolving their difficulties and tantrums without recourse to the usual nostrums of the time - of ignoring, making the child stand in the corner, or remonstrating with the child or its parents. She was popular and appreciated. Word spread about her success with particularly troublesome children.

The following year she married Stephen Dockar-Drysdale and moved to Radley, nearby, where he was farming. By the outbreak of the Second World War she was sufficiently well-known as one who "understood" children to become involved with the emergency evacuation programme in Berkshire.

Her house in Radley (first the Home Farm, and then, when her husband joined the Army, a large Victorian house in the village), where by now she was bringing up her own small children, doubled as a home and a school. Not just toddlers, but some of the most intractable youngsters gravitated to her household, and stayed. The combination seemed unpropitious, but proved fruitful.

She came to recognise through direct experience rather than theory the basic similarities between the disruptive and aggressive displays of an unloved or abandoned teenager and the ordinary petulance of the distressed infant who might be afraid, however unrealistically, of the absence of its mother; she also realised that, if the older child's panic attacks were to be alleviated (for this is how she saw them), he would need to experience the sustained reassurance of a reliable parent figure, one who did not reject and abandon him whatever the provocation.

These wartime experiences, and the lessons she learnt from them, in due course became embodied in the therapeutic philosophy of the Mulberry Bush School, which was founded formally in 1948, opening not far away in Standlake at the invitation of the Home Office. She ran the school with her husband for the next 16 years. Later she became its Therapeutic Adviser before, in 1969, turning her attention away from the emotional casualties of primary-school-age children towards their adolescent counterparts.

She teamed up with the psychologist Richard Balbernie, who had recently begun to turn around a decaying and decadent approved school in Ashton Keynes, Wiltshire, helping him to run it on therapeutic lines similar to those she had pioneered at the Mulberry Bush, with an emphasis on the development of close therapeutic relationships in a community setting and the provision for regression and what she called "primary experience" - the recovering of lost childhood containment and contentment.

Her last 20 years of therapy, consultation and writing were centred on this work at the Cotswold Community. Like the Mulberry Bush it has continued to survive the changes in childcare thinking and practice, particularly the changed emphasis in the last two decades on family as distinct from institution-based therapeutic care. The continuing vigour of these establishments is testimony to her therapeutic resourcefulness in finding creative ways to meet and mend the deficiencies stemming from failures in the earliest bonding between mother and baby in a non-family setting, one resilient enough to cope non-punitively with the inevitable quotient of acting out entailed in such a programme.

Not content with founding and directing a special school, Dockar- Drysdale between times trained as an individual psychotherapist, in which capacity she worked closely with Donald Winnicott among others. She also lectured and published three volumes of papers, Therapy in Child Care (1968), Consultation in Child Care (1973; reprinted with the first as Therapy and Consultation in Child Care, 1993) and The Provision of Primary Experience: Winnicottian work with children and adolescents (1990). Though sensitive to the implied criticism that her therapeutic enthusiasm outran her judgement, that in the parlance of psychoanalysts "she wasn't sufficiently trained", she had studied assiduously the works of Anna Freud, August Aichorn, and Winnicott especially.

Dockar-Drysdale was generous with her ideas, and had the gift of drawing out the therapeutic potential of colleagues in ways which also enlarged them personally. Above all, she was sensitive towards children and their experiences, without being sentimental about them. She respected the reality of their capacity to suffer, a respect which freed her from illusions about the child's own considerable capacity to cause suffering in another and in the adults responsible for them. Her writings show that it is possible to identify and to treat the future psychopath, provided intervention comes early enough and is appropriately based (which does not necessarily mean being family-based).

She also showed that debates about "treatability" are as much to do with the adult world's willingness to pay the (human) price, as about the causes or reversibility of the original disorder. At a time when the therapeutic potential of community-based treatment for youngsters was more readily countenanced than it is today, Barbara Dockar-Drysdale's was a voice that was heard and heeded in childcare circles.

Perhaps as the problems of childhood and adolescence seem to multiply before our eyes, whilst the solution to them continue to elude us, her work will be found to have a continuing relevance.

Barbara Estelle Gordan, psycho-therapist: born Dublin 17 October 1912; married 1936 Stephen Dockar-Drysdale (died 1996; two sons, two daughters); died Fairford, Gloucestershire 18 March 1999.

When Jill, a withdrawn child aged seven, came to the Mulberry Bush School, she drew two squiggles on a piece of paper. What were they, Barbara Dockar-Drysdale wondered?

Jill: A pair of socks they are . . . baby's socks . . . one was lost.

BD-D: I am so very sorry - how cold the baby's foot must have been.

Jill: Yes, they took her into a room with an electric fire and a television, but it wasn't any good.

BD-D: She needed the lost sock?

Jill: It has never been found . . . will she ever find it?

BD-D: I am afraid not. I wish it could be so.

Jill: Is there anything that could be done?

BD-D: Well, there is one thing which occurs to me. Could you perhaps learn to knit, and then you could knit another sock for the baby - but this would be very difficult, you would have to find a pattern and the right wool, and someone to help you to do it. There would be dropped stitches, and you might even lose the knitting and have to start once more.

Jill: I would like to come to you, and learn to knit.

from The Provision of Primary Experience (1990)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments