By Ray Jones
Yesterday Bob Holman died, following a period of being increasingly unwell with motor neurone disease. Bob was, and will continue to be, a beaming light and beacon for social workers and all who came into contact with his writing and his life.
This was a man, a Christian socialist, and a social worker of tremendous integrity, humility, humanity, care, commitment and compassion. He was a champion for those who experienced the brunt end of inequality, poverty and discrimination, and for all who are marginalised, trodden on, and vilified by the powerful and privileged.
I first met Bob in 1975. He was still young and I was even younger. He’d already worked as a child care officer and social work lecturer and was widely admired as a new and youthful professor of social administration at the University of Bath. He appointed me as a lecturer in social work.
‘Insightful, inspiring and committed’
By this time Bob was already publishing widely. ‘Trading in Children’, the book based on his PhD, remains a seminal text, reporting a comparative study of privately fostered children and children in local authority foster care. It is a shining example of well-designed and well-delivered research that highlights the positive contribution social work can make.
Bob continued as a prolific writer throughout his life. He made regular contributions in the social work press, The Guardian and other national newspapers. He produced academic papers and wrote numerous books both on his experiences of being a community worker and about others – including political leaders, thinkers and activists who were socialists inspired by their Christian faith.
As a writer, teacher and conference speaker Bob was lucid, engaging, insightful, inspiring and committed. There was never any doubt whose side he was on. He always backed families and communities neglected, stranded and pushed down by the wealthy and powerful.
But it is not Bob’s academic work or writing why he is so admired. Indeed after only a handful of highly successful years as a university professor he took the decision to pack it in. During his time in academia Bob had immersed himself in community activism. He’d also not been enamoured with university politics, procedures and privilege. He wanted to live and work in a community.
‘He stood beside people in times of crisis’
From being a rapidly upwardly mobile and highly esteemed academic, Bob and his family moved to Southdown, a large housing estate on the outskirts of Bath. Families there had much more than their fair share of poverty and were isolated and trapped on the fringe of an affluent city.
It was a bold and brave move not only for Bob but for his wife Annette, and their two young children, Ruth and David. After arriving at the estate, Bob managed to rustle together some funding for community work from the Church of England’s Children’s Society. It wasn’t much but just enough to get started, and it was replenished through insecure and unreliable grants from the local council and others.
Bob, with Annette, who was then a social work lecturer at Bristol University, went from being outsiders new to the area, to major confidents within the community. They stood beside children and adults at times of crisis and chaos, and were always there – available and accessible every day, day and night.
This was real community social work writ large. It concentrated on helping children with families in often tremendous difficulty. It was also there for parents, and for adults who were on their own, may be lonely, may be disabled, and may have had lives out of their own control.
But this was not a patronising and paternalistic approach of an intruder. Bob was someone who was willing to commit his life, and his family, to be a part of the community. He recognised the tremendous strengths, capacity and contribution made by others within the residents.
It was these residents who became increasingly acknowledged as leaders within their community. They included Dave Wiles, a local young man who’d had a track record of being on the wrong side of the police and courts, who went on to lead the increasing range of activities and services which the community had created and were maintaining.
‘A tremendous role model’
When Bob and Annette left Southdown, it was to an even more challenged and challenging community. They moved to Scotland and Glasgow, where Annette had her roots. There they lived and worked in Easterhouse and Rogerfield, an area which then had a reputation for violence, gangs and crime amid urban decay and increasing poverty.
With the commitment and contribution of local people, Bob and Annette co-founded Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (FARE). The organisation has blossomed since and become a major resource for local people and families. It has been going more than 25 years and is both impressive and inspiring.
What a man. What a team. Decades after leaving his professorship at Bath, Bob was awarded an honorary doctorate for his work. Last year Bob and Annette were jointly recognised for their outstanding contribution to social work at the Social Worker of the Year Awards.
Bob would never have accepted a gong from the privileged – indeed he turned down an MBE in 2012 on the grounds the honours system hindered equality – but he was willing to accept acknowledgement from his peers.
Bob was not well enough to travel to London to receive his social work award. It was collected on his and Annette’s behalf by their grandson, Lucas. Here was a young man of considerable charm and poise of whom along, with their other grandson, Nathan, and their son and daughter, Ruth and David, Bob and Annette are justifiably and rightly proud. Something special has passed down the Holman generations.
Bob himself grew up in the East End of London. He was a child evacuee during the 1939-1945 war and a fervent West Ham supporter. He was always loyal and keen on the under-dog.
We played football, hockey, and table tennis together. He also played cricket. I had the opportunity to work during the summer for several years with young people in Southdown through the neighbourhood activities Bob spawned.
Bob’s was a career which intertwined practice, research, teaching and writing with buckets full of personal commitment. He was and is a tremendous inspiration and role model for me and many, many others.
I do not share Bob and Annette’s Christian faith but if Bob is right and I am wrong he will surely now be in his heaven. He will certainly live on through what he has given and shaped within others – in Southdown, in Easterhouse and Rogerfield – and all those influenced by his thinking and writing. He was a modest man who had a mammoth impact on so many people and all for the good. Thank you Bob.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University