Obituary - Professor Kay Jones

Posted on 27 October 2010

The Department of Social Policy and Social Work is very sad to announce the death of founding Head of Department, Professor Kay Jones, on Wednesday 13th October 2010.

Professor Jones was the founding Head of this Department and at the forefront of establishing social policy as an academic subject in this country. Her funeral took place on Tuesday 26th October at 2.30pm at Heslington Church, York.

Kathleen Jones - A profile1

Early Experiences

Kay Jones (who never answers to Kathleen if she can help it) is a Londoner, the daughter of a lorry driver and a dinner lady. She grew up on a Council estate, won scholarships first to the North London Collegiate School and then to Westfield-in-Oxford early in World War II. She read Modern History, joined the Oxford University Democratic Socialist Club when Roy Jenkins was chairman, and for a time edited a student paper, The Oxford Socialist. She was also an enthusiastic member of the University Jazz Club.

She met David Gwyn Jones, son of a Welsh company director and a village headmistress, who was a postgraduate student in Theology. They were both only children, and both Christian Socialists. Soon after graduation, they married to the equal horror of both their families. Social class and cultural differences never separated them, though circumstances often did. They were very happy together until Gwyn’s death 34 years later. Gwyn went into the Forces, to France and Germany after D-Day, then to Italy, Egypt and Palestine with only brief leaves. Kay, back in England, became a full-time WEA and Extra-Mural lecturer on Post-War Reconstruction. She lectured in a different town every night from Monday to Friday on the Beveridge Report (she had queued up at the Stationery Office to get a copy on publication), Housing and Town Planning, the new National Health Service and Germany: What Next? This was the period of the ‘White Paper chase’, when the Coalition Government issued a mass of documents on post-war planning, and she bought them all as they came out, often reading them on trains and buses and lecturing on them the same night. If attendance at a class fell below 12 in the first six weeks, the class collapsed, and there was no fee. At least she learned to keep her students interested.

Mental Health

In 1950, Gwyn became chaplain to a large mental hospital of 3,000 beds in Lancashire. He had seen a good deal of the effects of war on both soldiers and concentration camp victims; and he had often stayed at Runwell, the only new mental hospital to be built since the First World War, where his cousin was a psychiatrist. Runwell was a pioneer hospital, experimenting with the villa-system and new methods of social rehabilitation. Winwick Hospital, near Warrington, was developing similar initiatives. Kay was recruited as a volunteer on the public education programme, lecturing to visiting magistrates, medical and social work students and local councillors, helping to break down the isolation from which the asylums had suffered; but with a small son to look after, she spent a good deal of time at home. She became interested in the social history of the mental health services. Nobody seemed to have written much about this. She thought it might make an MA topic, and when she looked around for sources, she found that there was a mass of documentation available. Some hospital authorities sent her enormous parcels: one said that the material had been stacked by the boiler, ready to be burned.

A graduate of the University of London could take a higher degree externally without doing further course-work. She wrote to the Department of History, applying for registration. She was told that the history of the Mental Health Services was not History, and recommended to apply to the Medical School. The medics replied that they would be delighted to accept the dissertation topic – but she would have to qualify as a medical practitioner first. They passed her on to Sociology. The sociologists said that they would be very pleased to accept her – once she had taken a first degree in Sociology. At this point, she wrote in despair and fury to her former tutor, a mediaevalist, who replied ‘How jolly to be a wandering scholar’.

More despair and fury went into a letter to the admissions tutor in History, outlining these wanderings, and quoting passages from Newman’s Idea of a University: all knowledge was one, and academic barriers were a nonsense. Surprisingly, this did the trick. The Department of History accepted her, and appointed the social historian H. L. Beales as her supervisor. She sent him drafts, and saw him only once – for about fifteen minutes; but those fifteen minutes were quality time. He helped her with library sources, and said ‘This is not an MA – it’s a doctorate’. She did not really need any more supervision from London, because that verdict secured her a research assistant’s post in the University of Manchester.


A research assistantship Grade III was the lowest form of academic life, but it was a start in a very good department. The department was called Public and Social Administration. The Public Admin. side, headed by Professor Bill Mackenzie, was the stronger of the two. The Social Admin. side consisted of Barbara and Brian Rodgers, a field work tutor and David Donnison, who was an assistant lecturer. For about two years, David and Kay amicably shared an office in the Dover Street extension, where there were bars on the windows, and the local kids shouted through them and made faces. Bill Mackenzie and Brian Rodgers generously helped with the thesis, which was eventually completed (five copies on an ancient typewriter: Kay could not afford a typist) and sent off to London. The University of London might have asked Richard Titmuss, by then firmly established at LSE, to examine it; but still preoccupied with departmental boundaries, they appointed a constitutional lawyer, a seventeenth century social historian, and Sammy Finer, then a professor of Politics at Keele. It was a difficult viva. Sammy, who had just finished his monumental Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick, kept saying ‘What about the egg-shaped sewer?’, and when she said ‘Well, what about the egg-shaped sewer?’ he said, ‘If it hadn’t been for the egg-shaped sewer, all your lunatics would have died’.

She got her doctorate, and a three-year assistant lectureship followed. People at Manchester labelled her ‘Jones the Mental’, and often enquired ‘How are your lunatics?’. Several publishers turned the thesis down flat. Joseph Needham of the Rationalist Press heard about it, and offered to publish it, but Kay made what she regards as the most difficult moral decision of her life in turning down the offer. She wanted the book published, but not by an anti-religious organisation. A few weeks later, Routledge and Kegan Paul accepted it (Lunacy, Law and Conscience 1744-1845, Routledge 1955), and that was the beginning of a long partnership in which she became a Routledge author and editor of the International Library of Social Policy.


In the mid 1950s, Gwyn, who was still on the Reserve, was called back into the Army, and posted to Singapore – then still part of the Federated Malay States. Kay was coming to the end of her three-year contract at Manchester, and did not regard herself as having an academic career – most married women still did not have careers of their own. So she became a camp-follower, and got herself a lectureship in the University of Singapore, travelling out with their son Steve on a troopship. It took 28 days. By the time she got there, Gwyn had been posted north to Kuala Lumpur. There was still a war going on in Malaya, known as ‘the Emergency’. Reasoning that she had not travelled 9,000 miles in order to stop a few hundred miles short, she resigned the Singapore lectureship (to the displeasure of the Head of Department, Professor Parkinson of Parkinson’s Law) and set out for K.L., where there was no university There she taught British and Asian History to the Sixth form in the leading boys’ school, the Victoria Institution. This carried the splendid title of ‘Senior Historian, Kuala Lumpur’. Her students, most of them in their twenties, were Malays, Chinese and Indians, and some of them are still her friends. They were all strongly anti-colonialist. So was she: she had been part of a Dem. Soc. claque which chanted ‘Quit India’ at visiting politicians in the Oxford Union. Imperialism had to go. After a year or so, the University of Singapore set up a branch in Kuala Lumpur, and she taught there as well. She also wrote a pamphlet on Social Welfare in Malaya, and was surprised to find twenty years later, when she went back, that people were still using it because nothing else had been written since; and she undertook a housing survey in the shanty towns of Kuala Lumpur at the invitation of the city Housing Department. In 1957, Malaya became independent as Malaysia. Kay and her students organised part of the Independence Exhibition, while British troops paraded cheerfully outside with banners saying ‘Brits Go Home’.

Manchester again

When they returned to England after three years, Gwyn became chaplain to the United Leeds Teaching Hospitals, and Kay looked around for an appointment. The University of Leeds then had no teaching in Social Administration or Social Work, and the sociologists were not welcoming. She was offered a research post in the Department of Psychiatry, but without tenure. Manchester, rather to her surprise, wanted her back, and so she returned for another eight years, first as a lecturer, and then as a senior lecturer, travelling back and forth over the Pennines three or four days a week. She wrote two more volumes of the Mental Health history to bring it up to date (the thesis had stopped in 1845) (Mental health and social policy, Routledge 1960. History of the Mental Health Services, Routledge 1972) and became involved in current mental health issues. She had never recognised a break between ‘history’ and ‘the present day’.

In 1961, Enoch Powell, the Minister of Health who was then tipped as a future Prime Minister, announced a new mental health policy. Psychiatric beds, which then accounted for 42 per cent of the beds in the NHS, were to be cut by half within 15 years, and thereafter gradually phased out. Very little was said about what was to take their place, or what was to happen to the patients. It was assumed that the new psychotropic drugs would suppress their symptoms. Kay thought, and still thinks, that the movement to destroy the mental hospital system was primarily a matter of asset-stripping. The NHS had never wanted to take on the chronic services – mental health, geriatric care, the care of the long-term disabled. Now it was returning them to the local authorities with inadequate finance, no research base and no clear concepts for re-training staff. She went public with a mass of publications and speeches to national and international organisations. Enoch Powell became so annoyed by her activities that he wrote her two rather cross letters – both handwritten and posted in Westminster late at night. She tore them up. The new policy was followed by a wave of sociological literature lambasting ‘institutions’ – the sharp and cogent analysis of Erving Goffman in Asylums being followed by many less reputable works. It was also followed in the early 1970s by a torrent of articles in the tabloid press in which almost every mental hospital in Britain was accused of abuses against human rights. Kay got a name for defending institutions, though she believed that the old Victorian hospitals were well past their sell-by date. She wanted smaller, modern mental health units with community links: the United States was building new Community Mental Health centres, but Britain did not follow suit: it built more prisons instead. She wanted guarantees of good community care, new research programmes, a breakdown of the barrier between health and social services. But weasel words from politicians about ‘ring-fencing’ funds were soon forgotten. The old asylums bit the dust, and nothing constructive took their place.

Kay developed other research interests, principally in the teaching of what was then loosely known as ‘Social Studies’ in the universities. At the invitation of Richard Titmuss, she undertook a survey of all the departments in the UK, studying the very varied curricula, the backgrounds and interests of staff, the admissions policies, the relation between social policy teaching and social work teaching, and the qualifications then offered. This study, published in 1964, came at a time when there was much rethinking about education and training in social policy and social work, and the status of the social sciences was very much higher than it is today.


In 1965, the new University of York, which then had some 40 per cent of its admissions in the social sciences, invited Kay to apply for the post of ‘Director of Social Work Training’. She told the appointing committee that social workers should be educated, not trained like seals, and that she was not a social worker anyway: social workers needed a broad base in social administration before a professional training. She was appointed Professor of Social Administration, head of a new Department of Social Administration and Social Work. (‘Social Administration’ was changed to ‘Social Policy’ some years later, when it became clear that the national machinery set up after the Second World War was being broken up and replaced by a variety of public-private partnerships).

Starting a new department was a tremendous challenge. Elizabeth Irvine of the Tavistock Clinic was appointed Reader in Social Work, and they began with only two junior academic colleagues and a secretary. They had radically different ideas about their work, for Betty Irvine was a Freudian, committed to working with the under-fives, and inclined to ignore the problems of older social casualties unless they were parents, while Kay’s commitment was always to the outcasts – mentally ill, neglected old people, physically handicapped, homeless. But they were agreed on basic policy for the department. To the surprise of the professors of Economics, Politics and Sociology, who expected them to ‘provide a postgraduate qualification for our little girls’, they recruited mature and experienced students many of whom had been working with inadequate qualifications in tough industrial settings. They said ‘We’ll take odd-balls’, and they took risks. One of their star students was a man with two convictions for burglary. They put him in charge of the student funds. Two years later, they took the Professor of Economics into a room full of large donkey-jacketed characters, some of them with beards, and said ‘How do you like our little girls?’

The department grew. It developed specialisms in community work, health care research, environmental planning and poverty research. The Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) was set up, and developed a life of its own. For some years, there was a re-training programme for senior NHS staff – medical consultants, matrons, administrators. Much research money was offered to the department, but not for mental health projects. All Kay’s mental health books and papers, increasingly on community care systems rather than institutional systems, were written without outside funding. For ten years, she was the Social Policy and Social Work representative on the University Grants Commission, visiting nearly every department in Britain and Northern Ireland, and defending the subject area during the Thatcher years, when it was very much under threat. She became regional chairman of the Mental Health Act Commission, visiting mental hospitals from Leicester to the Scottish border, investigating patients’ complaints (including those of a practising vampire in Rampton who insisted on being interviewed in private). She was a member of Lord Gardiner’s Committee on Terrorism and Human Rights in Northern Ireland, and spent a hectic year shuttling between York and Belfast, visiting the prisoners in the Maze and other detention centres, who were very friendly, and arguing with some remarkably impervious Ulstermen, including Ian Paisley, who were not. She sat on two lengthy Archbishops’ Commissions – the Commission on Church and State, and the Marriage Commission. She took a turn as Chairman of the Social Policy Association, chaired the Social Science Commission for UNESCO, and became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

There were two further mental health books – Experience in Mental Health, which is about community care experiments in other countries she has visited, including the United States, Italy, China and parts of Africa; and Asylums and After, which covers the whole range of mental health care in England through from the eighteenth century to the 1990s. The Making of Social Policy in Britain sets out all the major twists and turns in social policy from the 1830s to the end of the twentieth century.

Kay was head of department at York for 22 years, and stayed on for a further two to wind up various commitments. She still lives on the edge of the York campus, and writes. Recently, she has concentrated on religious writing, so far completing seven volumes on the saints for Roman Catholic and Anglican publishers. Why the saints? Well, before the social policy pundits got busy, Christians, despite their many flaws and divisions, did most of the work social policy builds on – founding hospitals and schools and leper colonies, visiting prisoners, teaching people to be kind to their neighbours and the strangers within their gates. It’s all in Matthew 25, verses 34-40, look it up. And accounts of saints’ lives are full of pious platitudes and assumptions, often quite unhistorical. So brushing away the cobwebs and the falsities, and trying to get at the truth, is an absorbing occupation for a woman who doesn’t knit or crochet, and can still shin up the library ladders.

1 This is a slightly edited version of an article which appeared In Social Policy Matters the newsletter of the Social Policy Association in June/July 2003. The article was presented as "Kathleen Jones is Emeritus Professor (and founder) of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. She talked to Jonathan Bradshaw about her career." But in fact she wrote it for him and it is so clearly her voice.