Obituary: Peter Townsend

At the London School of Economics (LSE) in the 1960s I was taught by its three social policy and socialist giants: Richard Titmuss, Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend. The last to die was Peter who suffered a heart attack on 7 June at the age of 81.

Born in 1928, Peter had no easy upbringing. His father deserted while his mother attempted to work on the stage. Aged 11, he won a scholarship to University College School in London and then to Cambridge University.

His first jobs were in research agencies and then as a lecturer at the LSE. He questioned the way poverty was measured. He studied unemployment, the isolation of elderly people living at home and their treatment in institutions.

With Brian Abel-Smith, Peter used government figures to show that post-war Britain had not abolished poverty. Their book, “The Poor and the Poorest” (1965) had an impact on social workers who had tended to assume that clients who lacked cash were bad managers of money. We had to acknowledge that poverty not only existed but was due to the failings of the state. We developed our welfare rights skills to ensure that clients did obtain their maximum benefits.

In 1965 Peter was the joint founder of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and became its chair. From CPAGs headquarters in a two-roomed attic, he and secretary Frank Field accused the then Labour government of neglecting the poor. Their impact was such that when Labour lost the election, some MPs blamed CPAG.

As a professor at Essex University, Peter and his colleagues launched a massive study of poverty published as “Poverty in the UK” (1979). It showed that 11.8 million people – 21% of the population – were in relative poverty. The newly-elected Thatcherite government poured scorn on the findings with ministers insisting that poverty did not exist.

In 1977, the Labour government had set up a working party on inequalities in health under Sir Douglas Black with Peter as a member. In 1980 it reported a link between poor health and inequality but it too was greeted by a Thatcher government which did no more than make 260 copies available on a bank holiday weekend. Peter responded, with Nick Davidson, by publishing it as a Pelican book. It went to two reprintings and was the accelerator which has since made health inequality a major topic.

All the time Peter continued campaigning with the CPAG and with the Disability Alliance which he helped to found in 1974, and where he remained president. In the last part of his life, he turned to the international analysis of poverty and died having completed, with LSE director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, Conor Gearty, his final book on human rights. He reckoned it was his best book.

Peter Townsend has been Britain’s greatest poverty researcher, writer and campaigner. But there is more. His commitment to fighting poverty has also been shown in his life style. He gave half his professorial salary to anti-poverty bodies and refused all honours.

Years before I met Peter, I was influenced by an essay he wrote in 1958 in which he said you cannot live like a lord and preach as a socialist. His words helped to shape my life.

Peter Townsend, academic and author, born 6 April 1928, died 7 June, 2009.

Bob Holman is a retired but still active community worker and writer

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