Three Pieces on Barbara Dockar-Drysdale

A Note from John

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale was the Consultant Psychotherapist at the Cotswold Community from 1968 – 1991.
The first item in this section is Chris Beedell’s oration when Pip was awarded an honorary degree at Bristol University.
This is followed by an article that appeared in The Daily Telegraph, following the publication of her book, “The Provision of Primary Experience”.
Lastly, the short speech I gave at Pip’s book launch.

Orator Mr C. Beedell | Published in Newsletter – University of Bristol, 21 August 1986 Vol 17 Supplementary Edition ISSN 0143-1951.

Barbara Dockar Drysdale.

Madam Chancellor. The enterprise to which Mrs Dockar-Drysdale has devoted herself for some 50 years is, in one way, supremely commonplace. In other ways it is as philosophically demanding and delicately political as any grander pursuit. I can best illuminate that rather tantalising claim by reference to two writers with very different views of the innocence of childhood. Richard Hughes, in the novel High Wind in Jamaica, claims: ‘One can no more understand the mind of a baby than one can understand the mind of a bee’. In Jerusalem, William Blake says: ‘He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars, General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer; for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organised Particulars’.

For most of her adult life Mrs Dockar-Drysdale has sought to understand the mind of a baby, in particular those remainders of that mind still present to some degree in all of us. She would recognise with Hughes that in some senses the mind of a baby is essentially unknowable, which is what makes interaction with it such a creative affair. But she has striven diligently to come to some workable and usable understanding of it, first through empathy, and then through that skilled metaphorical understanding and reconstruction, tested by experience, which is the psycho-analytic method.

The qualification ‘usable’ is important. Over the same period she has consciously sought to ‘do good to others’: that is, to heal and to enhance the capacity for life and liveliness which is buried beneath the repetitive and tangled behaviour of children who have suffered crucial disturbance in their early lives. She has done this, and enabled others to do it, through those ‘minute particulars’ of physical care, comfort, and our learned capacity for control, which are the stuff of our daily reassurance in the world. Mrs Dockar-Drysdale’s achievements in this can be stated in very ordinary language, though what she helped to bring about in the restoration of health is extraordinary.

She recognised that the behaviour and feelings of a particular group of miserable and troubled children (and to those who live with them, very troublesome children) could be understood by reference to a specific kind of breakdown in their first year of life. These children have come to be known as ‘unintegrated’. They have suffered some breakdown in their baby dependence on their mothers, so that their infant greeds and rages (familiar to those who have held a small baby waiting for a too-late feed) have not been contained by the reliable managing of their parents, so leading to a basic trust that the world will be not ‘perfect’, but good enough.

Such children often become difficult even before they enter infant school, being inaccessible, sometimes violent, and always a disruption to the activities of their peers. Or they may make a dizzy series of superficial charming contacts with adults. Fundamentally they cannot distinguish clearly between what comes from outside themselves and what from within. So, like tiny babies, they continue to live for the moment without a sense of time and its balances, at the mercy of apparent attacks and failures and unable to remember any satisfaction for long. Untreated, they make a rueful progress through a variety of increasingly desperate schools and foster homes. In adolescence, they often become severely anti-social and delinquent. In later years they are likely to end up in prison or mental hospital.

Mrs Dockar-Drysdale first recognised that within these four-, or eight-, or fourteen-year-olds there was still a frightened baby. Then she recognised that such children have to come to some practical realisation, not just by being told, but by coming to understand that their older self, with support from grown-ups, can learn to manage their ‘baby-self’. This can be done, in a technique she invented, by managing their lives so that occasions of stress are diminished. Their difficult behaviour must be deliberately and consistently interrupted when they cannot deal with the demands of the outer world. And alongside this, the people around them must provide, reliably, good and complete experiences that allow them to feel that the gaps in their early life have somehow been filled.

How did Mrs Dockar-Drysdale reach this understanding of the mind of a baby and how did she organise a response in Blake’s ‘Minute Particulars’? First of all she used her own experience as a mother of four children. As she reflected on it, she began to develop ideas which, when she shared them with others, turned out to be surprisingly akin to those of psycho analysis. So to her pleasant surprise, she discovered that she had, as it were, been ‘speaking prose’ for most of her life. Encouraged by a variety of people, she expanded what had at first been work with a single child, and then with a nursery group in wartime Berkshire, so as to found, with her husband Stephen, the Mulberry Bush School in Oxfordshire in 1948. She also extended her skills by undertaking a personal analysis, and by attachment to the Maudsley Hospital and other clinics, in time training to become a fully qualified psychotherapist. She also met Donald Winnicott (perhaps the greatest innovator of the British psycho-analytic school) and found that her discoveries and views were remarkably convergent with his; that they spoke, as it were, the same kind of poetry.

Those early pioneering days of the school were obviously not without troubles: of organisation, of cash, of some considerable hostilities, as well as backing, from the educational establishment. What sustained all its members through stormy times, with the outside world as well as with the children, was her insistence that individual, not institutional, contact with the child at risk was crucial. Second, that it was impossible for one person to sustain the level of understanding and resilience needed alone, or without a strong team of fellow-workers. They all had to provide some part of a ‘web of care’ which would contain rages, withstand a continuous barrage of disruption, and remain non-punitive, while at the same time facing individuals with their responsibility for their actions. Members of this team also had to survive the feelings of annihilation that such children generate and bear the terrible sadness and despair these children experience. In this, Mrs Dockar-Drysdale was a pioneer of what is now widely accepted in social work, the need to care for the carers. All members of staff had reliable, regular access to her as pyscho-therapeutic consultant.

Over 15 years or so, she developed this institution – a residential therapeutic school for 40 maladjusted children of primary school age – into a team of people caring for children and supporting one another to do so. Also as an organisation capable of sustaining the therapy by a host of particular provisions for individual children – for example, hot water bottles and toys to help them to go to sleep; food served so that children could feel each meal special to them; education which might at first be wholly directed to emotional growth but was always ready to structure and expand intellectual growth.

What I referred to as the ‘delicately political’ element of this enterprise also needs explanation here. I mean ‘political’ with a miniscule ‘p’, referring to the exercise of power between child and grown-up. Damaged children have a terrifying capacity to disturb and violate, so adults who have their charge must be courageous in the exercise of adult power. But they must also be ready to acknowledge its limits and, even more so, deliberately to refrain from its exercise so as to give to the children responsibilities and powers for themselves. Many people and institutions have learnt from Mrs Dockar-Drysdale that scrupulous concern for this balance which George Lyward called ‘stern love’.

All this could not have been done without concepts and theories to guide it, so Mrs Dockar-Drysdale is further distinguished by the papers she has published and read since 1953. These appeared in two volumes, Therapy in Child Care and Consultation in Child Care, and in various journals. They remain a remarkably lucid and coherent account of the theory and practice she developed, but they are also intensely personal in her generous acknowledgement of the stimulation of colleagues. They also give some picture of her working style, which could be somewhat awesome to a young student, but also show the bubbles of mischief and imagination, which may or may not be Anglo-Irish in origin but which certainly make her a most attractive and engaging person.

In the midst of this amazing productive and innovative period Mrs Dockar-Drysdale retired from direct leadership of The Bush and became its therapeutic adviser, restricting herself to consultative work with staff and bravely handing over responsibility for the day-to-day running of the school. She then moved to a similar role with another pioneering institution: the Cotswold Community. There she worked closely with the late Richard Balbernie who knew her work well and had developed ideas of its application to adolescents while a Research Fellow in this University. She still does this work and I understand that she is still writing, most recently to the Home Secretary, about the roots of adolescent panic aggression in riotous gatherings.

All this handing over the reins, and developing a role elsewhere, may sound easy, almost inevitable, but it is in fact an almost unique achievement for a therapeutic institution to survive the withdrawal of its founders. The Mulberry Bush School, now nearing its 40th anniversary, is a tribute to Mrs Dockar-Drysdale’s unselfish management of her personal interest in dedication to the continuance of a professional task.

It is her gift and privilege to have been able to articulate the understandings I have expounded this afternoon, and to have inspired many teams of dedicated people in the organisation of ‘Minute Particulars’ for the benefit of children.

She will be pleased, as I am, that her honour today allows this University to recognise the enhancement of mental health as at least the equal of the making of material wealth and, in a country devoting the bulk of its research to the development of ever more ingenious and deadly weaponry, to affirm the value of a small, strong enterprise of reconciliation.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Barbara Estella Dockar-Drysdale as eminently worthy to receive the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.

Spare the rod to save the child.
Do delinquents respond best to therapy or punishment?

By Nicola Tyrer | Publishd in The Daily Telegraph, 7th November, 1990.
At 11 Stephen was deeply disturbed; the slightest hitch would trigger terrifying rages.
At meal times he would throw his plate, glass, cutlery – even the table – over.
He was once seen outside school tearing all the books out of his satchel and hurling them at cars and passers by.
His one release from the effects of life with a single mother who could not cope with a small child was music.
Today Stephen is a concert pianist and lives in Italy with his wife.

The transformation is not a miracle. It is the result of a radical departure from standard local authority childcare techniques, in favour of a system based on psychoanalysis, where the child learns to behave normally by developing self-awareness.

The inspiration behind these communities is a 78-year-old grandmother, whose views on how you change an apparently hardened delinquent into an adjusted, independent citizen are becoming increasingly relevant as the debate over childcare intensifies, fuelled by recent revelations about the way some children’s homes are run.

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, whose account of nearly half a century of work with disturbed children and adolescents has just been published, believes that town-hall bureaucrats have proved themselves disastrously incompetent at meeting the needs of damaged children. Voluntary agencies, she maintains, did a much better job in the past and could again.

“The situation of children in care is very, very serious. There are many more disturbed and damaged children than there used to be. The vast majority are getting no treatment at all. They will grow up and go out into the outside world and do the most awful things. They will have their revenge on society.”

Dockar-Drysdale opened the country’s first therapy based home for disturbed children – The Mulberry Bush – in Oxfordshire during the war. Like many child experts she sees the break up of the two-parent family and the rise of the working mother as creating new difficulties for children.

Boys suffer terribly in divorce cases when the mother is left in charge, she says, and there is no male role model.

“The single parent needs to be exceptional to compensate for the lack of the other. As for working mothers of very young children, every thing shows that it is not good for the child, unless she can make very good arrangements for the child to be looked after by someone they love and trust and who will provide reliability and warmth.”

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, white haired and crisply spoken, is one of those intriguing individuals who became an expert through flair. A mother of three children during the war, living in a house on her husband’s family’s 2,000-acre estate in Oxfordshire, she took in evacuees from London. Sympathetic to the problems many of these children were experiencing, she developed her own intuitive understanding of the unconscious. One day, without having read any Freud, she explained the theory of the super ego to a Jewish refugee who was familiar with psychotherapy. Impressed, he advised her to read Freud. The next thing that happened was that the Ministry of Education asked her to set up a school for disturbed children.

At the end of the Sixties, after more than 20 years at The Mulberry Bush, she moved to the newly established Cotswold Community, near Cirencester, which accommodates approximately 50 adolescent boys. These days she works with the staff, rather than the boys, who need a great deal of support and encouragement to enable them to meet the constant emotional demands of the children.

Dockar-Drysdale believes the two main areas where local authority childrens homes fail are in the area of training – most residential staff learn nothing about children’s emotional development – and in their adoption of the 40-hour week. Her own staff are available for up to 70 hours and have to stay for two years.

“We have had two government reports in the past 20 years which made all the right noises. They said that childcare should stop being institutional, that each child must be treated as an individual….but slowly and surely it is becoming institutional again. You wouldn’t believe how much punishment survives tucked away. The primary concern of the staff is to stop fights. They take a tremendously strong line on manners and swearing.”

At the Cotswold Community, on the other hand, the emphasis is on making children feel valued. They are surrounded by beautiful objects and encouraged to take an interest in art and music. No one gets into trouble for swearing. “It’s very often infinitely preferable to what else they might do,” says Dockar-Drysdale dryly. The children are listened to. “The moment children realise they are free to say anything they like the results are astonishing. The violence is resolved by their developing a relationship with you.”

The philosophy at all the therapeutic communities is based on the belief that, while normal children become fully integrated as personalities by the end of their first year, children who have not experienced the love and security they need from their mother remain unintegrated – or emotionally undeveloped. Before they can experience integration and achieve their own identity they need to experience what a baby feels – primary experience. The therapy provides this missing experience. Many of the children gratefully seize the opportunity to regress and Dockar-Drysdale writes that 14 and 16 year olds at the Cotswold like to be read fairy stories and ask for teddy bears.

Staff at other therapeutic communities – there are five in this country – share Dockar-Drysdale’s anxieties about the crisis, but feel that if voluntary agencies are encouraged to resume responsibility for needy children some good would have been achieved. As proof of the beneficial effect of their approach they point to the low rates of recidivism. More than 80 per cent of their children do not re-offend within two years of leaving the community. In conventionally punitive establishments roughly the same percentage do commit a further offence. They also cite dozens of individual “transformations” – like Stephen’s.

The Provision of Primary Experience by Barbara Dockar-Drysdale is published by Free Association Books.


By John Whitwell | Delivered on the occasion of the book launch for Barbara Dockar-Drysdale’s “The Provision of Primary Experience,” 26 October 1990.

Stephen and Pip Dockar-Drysdale in the late 1980s.

I have worked with Pip Drysdale for more than 18 years and have learnt a tremendous amount from her. Much of this is shared with you in this book, “The Provision of Primary Experience”. It is not a book for armchair theorists, it is borne out of hard won experience. This is very timely as hardly a day goes by without some fresh horror story from the residential care field. We need to know that there are sound principles upon which therapeutic child care is based and this book is very much about those principles. Residential work with children can be a deliberate act of therapy.

One of the main gifts that Pip has given the Cotswold Community during her 23 years of consultancy, is the gift of being non-collusive. She will say what she believes to be important without being compromised by the possible consequences. This comes across in the book. Some practitioners may find some of the things Pip has to say difficult to take on board. There have been times when we at the Community have experienced this, eg, her disapproval of physical holding. My advice is to stay with it and examine the resistance.

It seems to me that this book is about communication and especially the importance of symbolic communication. Pip Drysdale has the gift of being able to step inside the inner world of the child and share the symbols. This is both heartening and disheartening. Disheartening for those of us who do not have this gift. It seems to me symbolic communicators are borne and not made. However, we can take heart from the fact that much can be achieved by truly listening to children.

The Cotswold Community is very proud to be associated with this book and hope that others find it as much a source of inspiration as we have in working with Pip Drysdale over the years.