Obituary of Harriett C Wilson

Issue 113 (autumn 2002)

Dr Harriett C Wilson, the founder of CPAG, died on 14 July 2002 at the age of 85 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for many years. She organised the meeting to campaign against family poverty and set up a pressure group, on 5 March 1965, from which it grew.

Harriett Wilson was a sociologist who believed strongly that research into social problems must be followed up by collective action to deal with them. In the 1950s when ‘problem families’ were victimised by social workers for ‘immaturity’, her research documented the importance of poverty in causing juvenile delinquency and problems at school. She organised an experimental pre-school play centre on one of the most deprived housing estates in Cardiff to develop the children’s social skills and help the parents, so successful that it was adopted by the local authority. This work was a forerunner of the current government’s Sure Start programme. Her book Parents and Children in the Inner City (Routledge 1978), written with the educational psychologist Dr Geoffrey Herbert, gave a finely-grained account of her research findings on the problems of parenting in poverty. Her obituary by Frank Field MP in the Guardian (26 July 2002) reported that ‘no subsequent study has equalled the importance of this book’.

Harriett was a central pillar of CPAG during its first 16 years, as vice-chair until 1981. She brought both idealism and practicality to its deliberations and provided successive directors with warm support and common-sense advice. A decade ago she wrote about the formation of CPAG and corrected erroneous accounts, and a shortened version of her paper is given below.

When we demand the right of poor people to be heard, we need to remember that many of those who are not poor now have been poor or may become so, and Harriett was among them. Born into a wealthy Berlin family, Harriett grew up in very constrained and squalid conditions following her parents’ divorce and losses in the catastrophic German inflation of 1923. Forced to leave school at 16 and marrying at 18 to escape her circumstances, Harriett left Nazi Germany in 1935, but her marriage ended in divorce in London in 1938, leaving her as a single parent. She found work in Cambridge as a department store window dresser, and completed her secondary education by correspondence course, gaining entrance to the LSE as a mature student in 1943. Her sociology degree and PhD followed, but it was not until her second marriage in 1946 that she escaped the poverty of the low paid and students. Her own experiences deeply affected the respect she always had for families struggling in adversity. The continued success of CPAG is a worthy memorial to this champion of poor families and campaigner for their right to a decent income.

John Veit-Wilson