Touching the lives of thousands of children

Obituary – Maureen Oswin, researcher and writer. Born 4 June
1931, died 27 July 2001.

Maureen Oswin, who has died aged 70, was a 20th century social
researcher whose work truly made a difference to the lives of
thousands of children. She witnessed the everyday lives of children
with very severe learning difficulties living in the institutions
of the 1960s and 1970s, and she kept meticulous records of what she

The results were devastating. Her books, The Empty
(1971) and Children Living in Long Stay
(1978), laid bare the plight of children in
institutions up and down the country.

The books received a huge amount of publicity and they helped
fuel the drive to move children out of hospitals and ultimately to
the closure of the institutions.

Maureen was born in Staines, Middlesex, and although she had a
happy childhood, her education was interrupted by the Second World
War. At the age of six, she was ill with tubercular glands and
spent six weeks in an open-air school for “fragile children”. This
was her first experience of institutional life, and she never
forgot it.

However, for her it was a short stay and, cured by fresh air and
cabbage water, she was able to return home. It is not surprising,
perhaps, that in her adult life Maureen took up the cause of
children who could not speak out, and never went home.

Committed and determined, Maureen’s research was part of her 30
year campaign to improve the lot of children with severe learning
difficulties, and for which she paid a high price.

At the time she was thought by colleagues to be “disloyal” and
by the authorities she criticised as “a nuisance” or “mad”. She
spoke out for the children in her care at Queen Mary’s Hospital in
Carshalton, where she worked as a teacher from 1959 for nearly 14
years, taking every opportunity to point out how deprived the
children were.

She was an early whistle blower for which she suffered her own
exclusion from promotion and a reduced pension in later life.

At first, Maureen’s research was done in her own time at
weekends and from 1974 as a researcher at the Thomas Coram Research
Unit. In all, she spent 20 years visiting institutions all over the
country, making her detailed observations in children’s wards.

Maureen observed at first hand the loneliness of the children,
and noted that in every 12 hours they received, at most, five
minutes personal attention – often from a passing cleaner or a
kitchen porter.

Social workers were little help in those days, generally
steering clear of the special care wards where the children lived.
Excluded from the children’s legislation of the time, they were by
and large abandoned to their fate.

Her other books, relating to this work, were Behaviour
Problems amongst Children with Cerebral Palsy
Holes in the Welfare Net (1978) and They Keep Going

Her last book, Am I Allowed to Cry? challenged the
denial of loss and grief by people with learning difficulties.

What Maureen called her “archives”, her folders and notebooks of
neat handwritten notes and sketches from her many years as witness,
advocate and tireless campaigner, are to be housed at the Open
University. They are a treasure trove for present and future
historians. Their author was herself a national treasure.

Although she suffered at the time, and subsequently for speaking
out, Maureen has secured her rightful place in history. Invited out
of retirement in 1997 to “revisit the Empty Hours”, she gave a
spell-binding talk at the Open University about her research,
transporting her audience back through time to the children’s wards
that she had witnessed.

In 1999, she won the Community Care Readers Millennium
Award for her outstanding contribution to modern social care. This
most recent recognition of her work came just as the cancer, which
she had fought for 30 years, finally began to claim her life.
Having nursed her mother through Alzheimer’s disease and her sister
through a brain tumour and its aftermath, Maureen was herself cared
for in recent months by her close friend and travel companion,
Olwen Davies.

Devoted to her research and writing, and to the children whose
lives she recorded, Maureen never had time for holidays – until she

Travel, according to Olwen, opened a whole new vista for
Maureen. Together they made 41 trips in 13 and a half years, 27 of
them to Italy where they visited every major art gallery and
museum, and attended the opera in Verona.

Looking at the garden of her hospice four days before she died,
Maureen said, “Aren’t I lucky?” And she meant it. But it is those
of us who have benefited from knowing Maureen and her work who are
the really lucky ones.

Dorothy Atkinson

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