WHO WAS ELFRIDA RATHBONE?

Elfrida Rathbone was born in Liverpool in July 1871. She came from a prominent Victorian family. She was one of eleven children and many of them were involved in charitable activities during their lifetime.

The best known of her relatives was probably her cousin, Eleanor Rathbone, who became an MP and who campaigned for many years for children's allowances to be paid to parents, a precursor of child benefit.

Elfrida Rathbone also became interested in and involved with children. In 1916 Elfrida came to Kings Cross to work with another cousin, Lillian Gregg, who had set up a special kindergarten for young children considered to be 'ineducable' and 'mentally defective'. Her aim was to demonstrate that these children could learn and progress if given appropriate teaching.

Already, in the early 1900s Lillian Gregg was challenging the damaging effect of judgmental attitudes implicit in 'labelling' people. She adopted a young child with a learning difficulty whom she taught to read and write and function normally, but both she and the child died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Elfrida Rathbone carried on Lillian Gregg's work after her death. She established an Occupation Centre in Kings Cross in 1919, for children excluded from schools because of their learning difficulty. This venture proved so successful that in 1922 it was taken over by Central Association for Mental Health, a well established charity. In 1923 she set up a Girls Club for children leaving kindergarten and this was followed by a Married Girls class with a crèche. In 1930 a befriending scheme was developed for children with learning difficulties who were confined to Public Assistance Homes.

In addition to creating services Elfrida Rathbone put a lot of energy into campaigning work which was not then seen as such an essential task for voluntary organisations. She recruited members for the Care Committee which ran Islington's Special Schools and encouraged close liaison between parents and teachers. Her emphasis on co-operative working ensured that children who had previously been excluded were invited to share school activities, outings and parties.

Elfrida Rathbone was a pioneer and an astute and charismatic woman. The principles which underpinned her work of respect, equality, integration and choice are now so widely shared that they almost seem commonplace. But at the beginning of this century her ideas were tremendously radical and progressive, and they are still highly relevant. Unfortunately there is still a great need for work that she began to continue, for in many ways the world has changed less than we would have wished. The need to campaign for more choice, equality, access to services and a better quality of life for people with learning difficulties, is still as necessary today.