Biography, Source, Women's History

16 Days Against Violence Against Women: Lucy Faithfull (or was she Lady Faithless?) – Mother to Hundreds

An account of Lucy Faithfull’s life is a history of child care in the twentieth century. She was a passionate campaigner for children, Children’s Officer for Oxford, and the first social worker to sit in the House of Lords. In the Thatcher era she chose to sit on the Tory benches, but she opposed, and persuaded others to oppose, so many of the measures which the party supported in relation to the welfare of children, that the Party’s whips gave her the nick-name of ‘Lady Faithless’.

She never married or had children of her own, but she made a difference, directly or indirectly, to the lives of very many children and families. She saw clearer than most that children who are the actual or potential victims of sexual abuse can best be protected by offering effective therapeutic treatment to their abusers.  In the face of horrifying NIMBYism and the widespread belief that sex offenders were the ultimate pariahs, she courageously helped to found, raised money for and gave her name to The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which pioneered such treatment. This was the least ‘cuddly’ charity of the 1990s but is still a leading child protection charity.

I chose to write about Lucy for two reasons; first because of my admiration for her as a woman and for her work, and second because there are so few biographical studies of social workers. Social work is one of the most fascinating, involving and contentious occupations, and Lucy was one of its most admired and respected practitioners among those working in the twentieth century. 

She was born in South Africa. Her childhood was marred by multiple separations. At the age of 6 she waved her father off to War, never to see him again. He was gassed at the Battle of Arras. Her mother, homeless with two children to support, came back to England, sending Lucy to boarding school aged 7. The devastation of being abandoned there, lonely and frightened, stayed with Lucy all her life. Ever after she always felt strongly that children should never be moved from home unless it was absolutely necessary.

At the age of 14 she was already clear that she wanted to be a social worker. After a stint as a nursery teacher in a very poor part of Paris, she came back to England in 1930 aged 19 to do her Social Work training at Birmingham University, living in at her placement at Birmingham Settlement, in a deprived area of ‘back-to-back’ houses. One of her tasks was going round weekly from house to house with a little bag collecting tuppences to deposit in the Birmingham Provident Fund, the only chance people had to put aside small sums to tide them over when times got even tougher. Despite the deplorable conditions in which people lived, Lucy was disturbed by the way slum clearances began to move people out of their social networks and isolated them in distant housing estates with few facilities.

During the Wartime Evacuation Lucy became a Regional Welfare Officer in the Midlands. This role is a unsung part of the history of the evacuation, and involved supporting the foster parents in their formidable new task, setting up hostels for ‘un-billetable’ children, developing day care facilities, organising payments, and trouble-shooting on a major scale. She had to contend with a mass rebellion in Derbyshire spearheaded by a Dowager Duchess. Foster families were threatening to evict evacuee children from their homes because of their bedwetting, head lice and general lawlessness. At a vociferous meeting in Derby Town Hall Lucy managed, by threats as well as inducements, to get them to change their minds. This role with evacuees was the training ground not only for Lucy, but also for others of the influential group of women who would later come to prominence in the child care field.

As Children’s Officer for Oxford City Lucy knew individually most of ‘her’ children in Care. Changes Lucy brought about in her department reflected, and in some cases led, general improvements in child care practice of the period. One example was the early closure of residential nurseries, another the recognition of ‘Non-accidental injury’, and a third the development of work with troubled families to prevent children coming into care.

Fellow social workers were surprised when she took the Tory whip in the House of Lords. She was influenced, partly, by her Conservative background – her family tree is full of Indian civil servants and army officers – and also by her experiences of her mother’s poverty and homelessness. She believed people should be encouraged to be self-reliant. She also knew that as a Tory she would have the ear of Mrs Thatcher. She was instrumental in the passing of the Children Act 1989. During the long process of debates on the Bill, she stunned her fellow peers by introducing them to groups of spiky haired and nose-studded young care leavers, who told them in no uncertain terms what it was like to be thrown out of Care at the age of 16 with no means of support, financial or familial. At the very end of her life she campaigned furiously against Michael Howard’s notorious scheme to build secure units for children in the grounds of prisons.

Lucy died suddenly aged 86, still actively playing her part in the Lords. On the day of her death there was the massacre of 16 young children in Dunblane. Some felt that Lucy, with her quiet faith, had been called to look after the children who so soon followed her.

Lucy Faithfull: Mother to Hundreds, by Judith Niechcial. ISBN 978-0-953205-3-2. For further details see To order, email Payment by cheque, bank transfer or PayPal.

Judith read English before qualifying as a social worker. She has also published ‘A Particle of Clay: The Biography of Alec Skempton, Civil Engineer’, (Whittles 2002)

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