Appreciations of Richard Balbernie’s Life and Work

OBITUARY: Richard W Balbernie

Appeared in 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles Regimental Association, Spring 1987.
When in 1942 Richard Balbernie joined the 4th Battalion – where inevitably he became known as ‘Balbo’ his youthful and slightly saturnine good looks gave no clue that he was barely out of his middle teens. He had, in fact, joined up at the age of sixteen, overstating by several years in order to get past the recruiting authorities. Thus, he cannot have been more than 17 or 18 when he ran the Battalion’s M.T. with great energy and efficiency, though seldom without expressions of the deepest pessimism regarding the qualities and capabilities of the M.T. in his charge. Needless to say these were invariably falsified in the event. He then took over B Company, shortly before the Battalion moved into Burma, and immediately proved himself to be a commander of great dash and gallantry. Indeed, whilst most of us in those days felt reasonably satisfied with our performance if we were able to do what was required of us without visible signs of panic or alarm, Richard appeared untroubled by such human frailties. As far as we could see, he was totally without fear, and it was no surprise when he became the first officer in the Battalion to be decorated – almost the first of any rank, in fact.

He left the Army in 1945, took a degree in Psychology at Cambridge, and for the next 35 years or so followed the calling in which he was to make a distinguished name for himself both in this country and internationally; the training and rehabilitation of delinquent or maladjusted boys and men. In post-war years he was a regular supporter of Regimental occasions, both in London and at the Watersplash, and will be greatly missed by all of us who used to meet him there. Our thoughts are very much with Joy and her family in their sad and untimely loss.


The Eulogy, delivered by Bill Allchin, at Richard Balbernie’s funeral.
Friends. This is a sad and heavy occasion as we come together to bring to mind the recent death of Richard Balbernie. His presence was a very salient one, and the comfort and stimulation of it has, perhaps, only become fully clear to us now that it has gone. Yet, because of the kind of person he was and the creative and healing nature of the work to which he so fully committed himself, our meeting together is also something of a celebration, and an affirmation of our own free commitment to the same objective as his.

I feel myself honoured to have been asked to say these few words this morning, for I know that there may be others who knew Richard as well as I did, or better, and there are certainly others whose eminence, originality and competence in the field of child and adolescent care far exceeds my own. There are things about Richard’s life that I have only learned in recent weeks, on reading what others have written about him. For example, the style, panache and bravery of his army life, suggested by the few details that have emerged, reminded me of that story in Plato’s symposium where Alcibiades the general, is describing Socrates, in the role of a foot soldier, during their defeated army’s retreat from Delium. He noted that Socrates was going along, just as if he was walking down one of the streets of Athens, with his usual ‘lofty strut and sideways glance’, the sort of person you’d never have a go at, because you’d know you’d get more than you bargained for – he was the sort of man who faced up to danger and difficulty rather than running away from it.

Richard was in some ways a very private person, a modest man whose courage, integrity and compassion were great. He did not flinch from hard work, disagreement or disturbance. There was nothing of complacency about him or of wanting a ‘quiet life’. But my task this morning is to make some reference to Richard’s work in the field of child care, particularly its residential aspects.

Firstly, what struck me was that he worked to a body of theoretical knowledge, a coherent body of ideas which made both conceptual and clinical sense. He drew on the work of some of the most important and original minds of our time, such as Winnicott, Bion, Dockar-Drysdale and Bettelheim to name but four who come immediately to mind. Eventually this sound body of theory reached a tangible expression in the Cotswold Community. Thanks to the heroic and persistent efforts of Richard and his staff, not forgetting at this point the work of Bill Douglas and many, many others over the years.

The story of how the healing work changed the conventional Approved School into such a community is told by W David Willis in his book “Spare the Child”. Many of us were aware of the kind of boy from the old Approved School, clean and tidy on parade, full of yes sir’s and no sir’s, outwardly conforming, inwardly with his own priorities such as date of release, extra privileges and supply of tobacco. Not many of us were fully aware of the strengths of the delinquent and perverse sub-culture which permeated the place. The rule of the bullies meant that most of the teaching and learning went on after hours and after dark, and it was a brave boy indeed who would risk defying that rule. Two recent cases of sadistic bullying in the Remand Centre behind the Main Prison in Winchester are typical; in the most recent case, a 16 year old remanded for medical reports, nearly lost his life (through internal bleeding, and he was transferred to the hospital on the other side of the road to have his damaged spleen removed).

In my work over the last 30 years I have seen many special units, small hospitals, children’s homes, hostels as well as approved schools, Y.C. centres, D.C.’s and prisons of all kinds. The Cotswold Community, as Richard and his staff built it up, and through the psychological ruins of the old order, became a shining light. For not only was Richard himself a man of unusual depth and quality of soul, but the staff working with him were, and are, an exceptional group of people. Many have relevant training and experience in the work, others have University degrees, others again will be going through personal analysis or therapy. They work for long hours, and are in the closest proximity to the centres of psychological disaster, in each resident, centres from which emanate fear, distrust, hatred and despair. Richard saw to it that his staff, not only had support systems within the Community, but consultants from outside who came in on a regular basis – Pip Dockar-Dyrsdale. Thus there is a continuous learning situation as well as much needed support in facing the day-to-day tension and crisis. This means that it is possible to check theory in the light of experience, and guide action in the light of theory. This was neatly put in a saying attributed to the late Joseph Stalin:
“Theory without practice is sterile: Practice without theory is blind”.

This unique work at the Cotswold Community naturally attracted attention, some of it critical. It was thus an important occasion when in February 1982 the D.H.S.S. Social Work Services Officers, M. Enright, D. Lambert and T. Strettle, made a thorough assessment of the work of the Community and produced a report on it. Fully detailed, carefully written and checked over with those involved in the work, the report documented the facts ascertained and the real ‘on-the-ground’ and ‘in-the-heart’ achievement. An effective, humane, insightful and compassionate treatment programme which results in many residents leaving the Community substantially integrated, recovered or significantly improved, and showing, on such a crude measure as reconviction rate, a figure of 10% rather than the usual 60 – 80%.

So it has fairly proved to be a light shining in the dark work which is now continuing and developing under the good care of John Whitwell and those working with him, and this at a time when the possibilities of full residential care, prolonged if need be, seem to be steadily diminishing.

We certainly haven’t seen the last of the therapeutic power of the Cotswold Community, but it is unlikely that we shall see another example of it, and I am reminded in this connection of the magnificent pioneering work of Maxwell Jones, whose first therapeutic community in Britain, again a great light and challenge to the darkness, has never been fully replicated. The truly therapeutic community healing, making whole, or holy, those who work within it constitutes in our time, one of widespread and active social pathology (disease), a true island of sanity.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that out of places designed to help the ill, or disturbed, the abnormal or delinquent, should begin to originate the healing impulses and insights that our society as a whole so desperately needs.

So we meet together today to share and acknowledge our sadness (at the death of Richard Balbernie) but also to salute and celebrate his life and work. Together today we can give thanks for him, realising that the world we know is a better place because he lived and worked in it, and that because of his achievement and generosity of spirit, our hopes, too are revived and strengthened. So that we, in our turn, may be able to leave, as Richard has done, something of lasting benefit to some of the children and young people who will build the future.

“amid the darkness the light shone but the darkness did not master it”.

John 1 v.5
Moffatt N.T.
Dr W. H. Allchin

Dedication and Charisma

Eric J Miller offers an appreciation of Richard William Balbernie, who died recently. Community Care, 3 July 1986.
Richard Balbernie died on June 17, three days before his 63rd birthday. Ill-health had forced him to retire last August, after 18 years as principal of the Cotswold Community.

When he was appointed in 1967, out of a field of 120 applicants, the then Cotswold School was a conventional approved school operated by the Rainer Foundation. It was on the brink of collapse: morale was abysmal, delinquency was rife not only among the boys but among the staff, and some 85 per cent of boys leaving the school were re-convicted within two years.

The task that the foundation assigned to Balbernie was to transform the school into a therapeutic community. This was a time when the Home Office Children’s Department was reviewing the future of the approved schools, which under the 1969 Children’s and Young Persons Act were to be converted into community homes, oriented to care and treatment rather than punishment, and accordingly the Rainer Foundation’s plans for the Cotswold were strongly endorsed by the Home Office as a pilot experiment in making such a transformation.

Balbernie took on the task with uncompromising dedication and singlemindedness. In fighting for his principles he was no respecter of rank or power; and in the process he made some enemies, but won the grudging or ungrudging respect of many. His capacity to involve himself heroically with the young was beyond compare. Yet he was not just a charismatic figure, of whom there have been a number in this field: his approach has been based on an explicit theoretical framework, which he developed in the light of experience.

Hence the model of treatment was one that could be tested and replicated elsewhere. He, and the staff he trained, applied it with love and understanding, without sloppy permissiveness, and with firmness without repression – a demanding balance to strike.
A planned transfer of the community from the Rainer Foundation to Wiltshire County Council was completed in 1973.

By that time the approach had demonstrated its effectiveness for severely disturbed young offenders with unintegrated personalities. But the conditions for maintaining it – for example, devolution of budgetary management to small households, long working hours for staff – were often inconsistent with local authority policies and regulations.

Successive directors of social services, subjected to repeated pressure from Balbernie to meet those conditions, were at times exasperated. They nevertheless became his allies: his integrity and his utter commitment to the task of the community were irresistible.

Although Richard Balbernie was characteristically modest about his achievements, a follow-up study four years ago showed recidivism reduced from 85 per cent to around 5 per cent. But for the Cotswold Community literally hundreds of young men would be in and out of prison.

Scores of men and women who worked in the community over the years, and a large number of students, have also carried the benefits of training and experience to a wide range of other settings in residential care and beyond. However, Balbernie’s contributions to residential care of children extend back long before his stint at Cotswold.

His lifelong concern with juvenile delinquency dated from his experience when, forced to leave school when his father, a regular army officer, was killed early in World War II, he began work in the office of a magistrate’s clerk at the age of 15.

His vocation was interrupted by a distinguished war career, which used and developed his flair for leadership. At 16, overstating his age by two or three years, he enlisted in the regular army. Before he was 20 he was a major and company commander with the Gurkhas in Assam and Burma, and was awarded the Military Cross. He was also mentioned in despatches. The wounds he suffered in rescuing a wounded fellow-officer led to his retirement in 1945.

Graduating then from Cambridge in psychology, with a Certificate of Education, he trained as an educational psychologist, and it was while working in this capacity for the City of Oxford that he raised the money to set up Swalecliffe Park School for delinquent and maladjusted boys. He was its principal for five years.

From 1957, he spent ten years first at Oxford, in the department of social and administrative studies, then at Bristol, in the department of education, combining part-time work in a therapeutic community for mentally ill adults with research, consultancy, teaching social work students and writing – and also earning an Oxford B Ltt to add to his Cambridge degree.

His book, Residential Work with Children (first published in 1966, reissued in 1973, and also translated into Japanese) became a classic in the field. It is to be hoped that a book on the Cotswold Community, which was to have been a retirement project, can be completed. But that will not make up for the loss of the person.

Eric Miller was on the staff of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations