‘Social work has lost one of its beaming lights’

Ray Jones pays tribute to pioneering social worker and academic Bob Holman, who died aged 79 after a battle with motor neurone disease

Bob and Annette Holman

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


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31 Responses to ‘Social work has lost one of its beaming lights’

  1. Tom J June 16, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

    Lovely tribute.

    • Lena Dominelli June 16, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

      Well done Ray.

      Bob was indeed a shining light and conscience for the profession. Those of us who have known him through his community work days will miss his tremendous energy, enthusiasm and commitment to working class struggles for dignity, jobs, housing and community facilities which benefitted both individuals and groups. We mourn his loss.

    • Dave Powell June 20, 2016 at 10:17 am #

      A diamond in the coal face of social work.

  2. Nichola June 16, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

    What a wonderful tribute to a shining example of what a human should aspire to be.

  3. Cath K June 16, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    Lovely tribute to a lovely decent human being….I truly hope Bob is “in his heaven and being cared for”

  4. Susan June 16, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    Beautifully written tribute

  5. LongtimeSW June 16, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

    Truly inspiring. Bob has left this Earth spiritually wealthier by his humanity.

  6. Carolyn June 16, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    Great tribute to a man I have much admired throughout my social work career

  7. Roselyn Thompson June 16, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    Brilliant tribute to a wonderful man who helped so many individuals in their social work career. He will be missed by all who knew him.

  8. John Burton June 16, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

    Bob was simply a good man who lived by his principles and showed us what real social work, social care and community work are like. Modest, straightforward and committed. Warm, friendly and funny.

  9. Mel June 16, 2016 at 3:13 pm #

    What a wonderful piece; beautifully written by one top social worker to another. I can’t help feel sad that the world of social work we now inhabit is nothing like the one that Bob worked so hard to create and that was so valued by so many. RIP, Bob.

  10. jo June 16, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

    I read about and was inspired by his work when I studied community work 20 years ago.

  11. Ian Johnston June 16, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    Great tribute to someone who has given so much to social work and the disadvantaged and excluded people he has dedicated so much of his life too.

  12. Hilton Dawson June 16, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

    A great man & a fine tribute to him

  13. Jenny Eckersley June 16, 2016 at 5:05 pm #

    Thankyou for your words, Ray. Bob was a shining light to me as well all through my years in social work

  14. Claire Devereux June 16, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

    Very sad news . Bob (and Annette ) was a huge influence on me as a newly qualified nurse working in the Glasgow Royal Infirmmary 30 years ago, and welcomed me into their home. I no longer share Bobs Christian beliefs ( I did then) but I do still hold on dearly to the socialist beliefs he informed me about as a young woman!
    My thoughts are with Annette and the family at this time.

  15. Pearlene Webb June 16, 2016 at 7:08 pm #

    A great tribute for a beautiful soul

  16. Sally Attwood June 16, 2016 at 9:46 pm #

    My condolences to Bob Holman’s family who have lost a loved one. However, his legacy is left with so many others whom he has influenced for good. I became a social worker in 1979 and Bob Holman’s writings have always inspired me. He is a true inspiration, showing us all the best of practice in social work, lived through the life he chose together with his family. Thank you.

  17. Deborah Barlow June 16, 2016 at 10:10 pm #

    I didn’t know Bob however I am proud of his dedication and as an inspiring role model. Thank goodness for for Bob. With the deepest respect. Thank you Bob for making a difference.

  18. Leo June 16, 2016 at 11:35 pm #

    Great words Ray for a great contribution to social work and community based practice.

  19. Carol Baker June 17, 2016 at 9:18 am #

    I did not know Bob personally only through his writing. However I am confident he made a difference to many peoples lives. What a well written tribute to Bob. Such a legacy to leave behind and all done with such compassion. My condolences to the family.

  20. Stuart June 17, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

    So sad to hear this. Heard Bob speak at UWS. Inspiring Professional who lived and worked for people and communities. Such a loss to Social Work. Lets hope his work inspires others into the profession

  21. Bev Harvey June 17, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

    What a wonderful way to celebrate the life and work of a leading light in social work. Heroes and heroine’s are openly celebrated in most other professions, but we see so few inspirational social workers acknowledged in the same way. This is a fitting tribute….

  22. Terry McClatchey June 17, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    Truly a man of integrity, passion, commitment and intellect. I only met him a few times but you always knew you were in the presence of someone who embodied the very finest of social work values.

  23. Siobhan Hughes June 17, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

    That’s a lovely and fitting tribute Ray. Bob Holman inspired myself and and a lot of others to become a social worker. He truly represented the root values and ethics of the profession.

  24. Gordon Peters June 17, 2016 at 3:02 pm #

    Wholeheartedly agree with tribute.
    Bob was a great bloke, really put his money where his mouth was, and an example to so many.
    I remember when IDS came to Glasgow and I was running Includem [for persistent young offenders] there and Bob was in Easterhouse, and IDS ‘appropriated some of our ideas, both sides of the Clyde, and then went on to attack the poor as a Tory minister.
    Another thing we shared was going to see Alan Milburn when he was going to be a Labour minister— not much better than IDS! Bob outshone these people – steadfast, insightful, critical and fully committed to bettering ordinary peoples lives.

  25. David Holman June 18, 2016 at 10:15 am #

    Many thanks for all the lovely comments about Dad and to Ray for the wonderful obituary. The family really appreciate all your kind words at this time.

    Just in case you were wondering, a private burial will be followed by a celebration of his life at 3pm on Saturday, 25th June 2016 in Easterhouse Baptist Church, Glasgow. All friends are invited. Donations to FARE in lieu of flowers please.

    • Canon Neville Black June 21, 2016 at 8:13 am #

      I met Bob and John Bennington in Coventry in 1975.when I was running the Evangelical Urban Training Project -we had a very stimulating conversation which left a lasting lifetime impact on my work in Everton and Toxteth.

      I’d like to donate to Fare in his memory -could someone please send me contact details.


  26. June Thoburn June 19, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    Thank you Ray for speaking so movingly and powerfully about what we all feel. I first heard the power of Bob’s knowledge and commitment when he spoke to a meeting at the House of Commons critiquing anti-parent aspects of the 1975 Act. I owe my subsequent career to him when he generously gave time to me as an aspirant researcher to critique my first book and help me get it published. Apart from his many inspiring books and newspaper columns, social work should be especially grateful to him as the originator of a special kind of ‘community social work’ (not the same as community work and should be central to ‘mainstream’ social work). Sadly it has rather got lost in the move towards ‘interventions’ and manualised programmes’ in a narrow interpretation of ‘what works’. I hope these tributes will remind todays lecturers to make sure Bob’s work and community social work gat their rightful place in the social work curriculum.

  27. June Thoburn June 19, 2016 at 11:06 am #

    A key sentence of what I wanted to say got left off. Thank you thank you Bob, and thank you too Annette. You were a unique partnership in social work and service to people who so much needed and now need even more the sort of social work you both stand for and put into practice

  28. Karen Postle June 22, 2016 at 10:31 pm #

    Thank you, Ray, for such a fitting tribute to Bob. In his life and his writing Bob was quite simply inspirational. He worked in ways which were truly empowering, constantly reminding us of the injustices of poverty and inequality. Bob used to sign off his letters, ‘To equality’ so a challenge to social work will be to ensure that message never falls off its agenda.