Chris Beedell


I first met Chris Beedell in 1976 when I started the Advanced Residential Child Care training at Bristol University. Chris and David Perryer were the two tutors running the course.

I’d heard a lot about Chris from Richard Balbernie, who’d known him a long time, especially when they were both running the Advanced Course just before Richard was appointed Principal at the Cotswold Community.

I kept in touch with Chris after completing the course and when I became Principal of the Cotswold Community I persuaded Chris to join the Managing Body, a role he carried out for a good ten years.

My other point of contact with Chris was through the Charterhouse Group. Like myself, Chris was one of the founder members and joined the “conversation days”, convened by Melvyn Rose and Mike Jinks, which led to the formation of the Charterhouse Group. We shared many a train journey from the West Country to London, to attend the meetings, and generally put the world to rights.

In the early days the Cotswold was a severe working environment and I found Chris a most useful counterbalance. He was passionate about the work with children but he was also a great believer in enjoying the pleasures of life. He had a more benign superego.

I have included in this section an obituary that appeared in the Guardian, written by Phyllida Parsloe and Christopher Reeves’ address at his funeral. If you would like to see a photograph of Chris, take a look at the entry on The Charterhouse Group on this website.

John Whitwell.

Christopher Beedell

Christopher Beedell committed his professional life to improving the lives of children living in residential care; in children’s homes, hostels and special schools. His base for this endeavour, from 1956, was Bristol University, first in the Education Department, then in the Department of Social Administration and finally in the Social Work Department, where he held a senior lectureship until his early retirement in 1982.

Beedell was a man whose teaching and writing were founded on his strongly held beliefs about the ways in which one human being should relate and behave to others. Perhaps it was these beliefs that made him a conscientious objector and led him to work in David Wills’s experimental youth camp, at Hawkspur in Essex, during the Second World War.

Previously, after schooling at Bishop’s Stortford College, he had started on a Chemistry degree at University College London (evacuated to Bangor). Now he decided to take a Psychology degree at UCL.

He was a man of many talents. He had been drawn towards a career in the theatre as an actor or director. After gaining a first class degree, and before joining the Bristol Child and Family Guidance Service as an educational psychologist, he joined the Old Vic Theatre Company for a season, taking part in the first Edinburgh Festival. The skill that he harnessed as an actor of getting inside the characters and personalities of other people made him an outstanding teacher.

It might have been his experiences at Hawkspur that gave him an understanding of how valuable good residential care can be, when staff are well trained, well supported and work to a shared philosophy. Beedell was a major force in keeping alive this belief in the value of residential living for some disturbed and unhappy children, through a period when it became almost the accepted wisdom to advocate family care, through fostering or adoption, and, by implication, to view residential care as a last resort.

In 1970 his book Residential Life with Children was published. Its title gives a clue to the philosophy within it. For children who cannot live at home it is their life that they take into residence and the staff who are there with them must live with them, not just work with them. Such conditions can, in many cases, unlock the innate capacity of a child for growth and change: a capacity, which Beedell believed, all children have.

Beedell lived out, in his teaching, the philosophy he spelt out in his book and in his many lectures and talks. At Bristol University he developed one of the two national courses for senior staff in residential childcare. He and his students learned together; he was a challenging teacher but never unkind, prescriptive or envious. He had, too, a long-standing attachment with the Mulberry Bush School at Standlake in Oxfordshire, where he was a governor, and with Highdene in Bristol. Both provided a residential life for very troubled and sometimes very troublesome children.

Chris Beedell was a West Country man. Born in Highbridge, in Somerset, he was brought up in Devon and Wiltshire. He returned to Bristol after his marriage and lived in the same house in the city for half a century. He and his wife, Gill, contributed much to the life of their local community and to the Liberal politics of the city. Family life was the focal point of their lives, but never to the exclusion of others, as their many friends will testify.

Phyllida Parsloe

Christopher John Beedell, child psychologist: born Highbridge, Somerset 14 December 1924; Lecturer in Education and Social Administration, Bristol University 1956 – 78; Senior Lecturer in Social Work 1978 – 82; married 1950 Gillian MacLean (died 1997; one son, three daughters); died Bristol 24 August 2001.

Envoi for Chris

An Address given at his funeral, Bristol 6th September 2001.

I have been invited to say a few words about Chris and his work for The Mulberry Bush School. This was an important focus of his time and energy for almost forty years. Still I know it only represents one strand of the interests and investments that make up the many-faceted Chris whose memory we cherish and whose passing we mourn. So I hope that what I briefly say here will resonate with your own personal memories of him and not jar with, or displace them. In saying this I feel his gentle warning hand on my shoulder.

Chris’s lecturing work at Bristol University was only just getting under way hen he first became directly associated with Mrs Dockar-Drysdale and the Mulberry Bush at the beginning of the 1960s. He told me that he had initially been taken aback at the invitation to become a Manager of the school whilst still relatively ‘green’. Later he asked Pip Dockar-Drysdale why he had been proposed as a manager, a question that was met slightly equivocally, with some mutterings to the effect that her ‘soundings’ showed ‘he was up to the job’.

As indeed he quickly proved to be. At the time the Mulberry Bush was going through a sticky period in its history. When he joined it the School’s Committee of Management was still a very informal and heterogeneous group. It was also proving to be hopelessly divided over how to deal with attempts by the Department of Education of the day to impose a greater degree of order on its external and internal affairs as the price of its continued recognition. The position was further complicated by the fact that the Dockar-Drysdales themselves were not only the founders of the school but in some respects its financial as well as its therapeutic guarantors.

Far from being fazed by this introduction to the School, Chris set to and produced the first of many organisational rethinks – though thankfully this proved to be the only one that the Mulberry Bush itself was to need from him for the remainder of his life-time. His blueprint demarcated the respective roles of the management’s educational and therapeutic functions on the one hand and its financial and administrative ones on the other. But true to his ideal of unity through diversity he proposed a system of governance that ensured that one side would never monopolise power and decision making at the expense of the other and that the really crucial decisions would have to be agreed by representatives of both

It was a marvellous achievement of insight and intellect that he could grasp the issues and formulate a response so early; and it is testimony to his genial personality as well as to his powers of advocacy that his proposals won such quick support.

A decade later when I first had dealings with the Bush’s Management Committee I had no inkling from the way it conducted its business that it had once been so riven with division and dispute.

This first managerial contribution of Chris to the Mulberry Bush School was perhaps his most lasting, though over the next 30 years his input remained constant and creative. In due course he became the chair of the Education and Treatment Subcommittee and Vice-chair of the Managers. Then, in the mid-80s, halfway through my time as Principal, he was invited to abandon his managerial role and take up instead the newly created post of Staff Consultant.

He never asked me why I had suggested he took on the job. Had he asked, I might have given him the same, slightly equivocal response as Pip Dockar-Drysdale had done years before. Heads of therapeutic establishments like the Mulberry Bush need their mentors, not to say their foils, people with discernment who know, appreciate, sympathise when necessary, but never flatter, or falsely idealise.

Chris had this capacity to grasp the measure of the task, and then, without envy and mostly without rivalry, to provide constructive
support. Above all he possessed a generosity of spirit that allowed him to put his intellect and creativity unreservedly at the school’s disposal.

That same generosity of spirit showed itself in his respect for the individual style of working of therapeutic institutions, even their quirkiness in certain respects. He didn’t try to impose his own order, so much as to bring out implicit ordering in organisations, groups of people, even groups of words. Of course in the process there could be some nudging on one side and grudging on the other, as I came to experience at first hand.

Over the six years or so that Chris was Staff Consultant to the Mulberry Bush he used to visit the school every couple of weeks, usually staying for more than one day at a time. He and I would meet at the start of his visits and then again at the end. These extempore briefing sessions were mostly pleasurable, open-ended affairs. But a day or two later, a missive would drop through the letterbox in Chris’s familiar, bold handwriting, and it would often contain several pages of ‘further reflections’. I have kept these epistles ever since, and I’ve reread them during the past few days. They typify his restless mental energy, his need to discipline feelings by the exercise of thought; above all to avoid ‘fudges’ – something he particularly disliked, whether moral fudges, fudges of sentiment, intellectual fudges.

With my psychoanalytic background that happily countenanced ambiguities and tolerated a certain level of ambivalence in staff relationships, I admit to not always welcoming these further thoughts of his, for all that I recognised the shrewdness of his observations. Looking at them again now I am struck above all by the love they exhibit, love for the school as a unit, as well as for children and staff individually. Love is a strong word, but it is one he himself was not afraid of using in the context of professional care. He could be outspokenly critical, but always constructive. Chris wanted to enhance without encroaching. Sometimes it is true, it felt at the time like the latter. Yet the goodness, the concern were always there – sometimes good like a balm for raw feelings; sometimes good like a wholesome plate of porridge; sometimes good like a dose of salts.

By the early 90s, as you probably know, his legs were playing him up. Standing around was getting difficult; so, metaphorically, was taking a stance, having a purchase on the issues of the day, particularly in matters of childcare policy. In 1992 he wrote a poem called Standing, and sent me a copy. It was one of several written at the time, when he and I were beginning to go our separate ways, both of us having withdrawn from active day-to-day involvement with the Bush. It isn’t perhaps his most successful poem simply as a poem, but it sums up as well as anything how he saw himself and his role. This is how it ends:

Sometimes standing
Is all one can do
It doesn’t hurt anybody
But yourself.
So is one rooted?
No leverage on the world?
Not so,
You can smile, shout, murmur, converse,
Speak love and anger.
Some of the world will come to you.
You don’t always have to go to it.
One is still standing
You’re free standing.

I would like to say that above all he was a man of rare integrity. However, ‘integrity’, I think, wasn’t a word that Chris much cared for. For one thing, it has Latin roots and he preferred those of Anglo-Saxon origin. Besides, integrity, like integration and ‘unintegration’ were to his mind too much ‘terms of art’. So let’s just settle for calling him ‘free standing’, a person sure on his own two feet. Chris, I guess, would be happy with that.

Christopher Reeves.
6th September 2001