Photographs across a century, and recordings....

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Elizabeth Wills


Craig Fees writes:

Long-time friend of PETT and the Archive, Margaret Sheppard, had told me to expect a package, and one morning it arrived: a small padded envelope dropped through the PETT mail slot. The first adventure was taking it into the Archive office and opening it.   Out spilled memories of her aunt, Elizabeth Wills: photographs taken by various people across Elizabeth's lifespan; two precious audiocassettes, snips from which are shared below.

Margaret recorded the first audiocassette in 1979, when Elizabeth and her husband David (David Wills OBE, eminent pioneer of residential therapeutic care, and co-founder of PETT) visited Margaret's flat, and the three created an impromptu poetry reading.

The second cassette was recorded in 1986 by Anthony Rodway, and was an interview with Elizabeth about David, who had died in 1981. The brief excerpt below concerns David's unhappy ending at Bodenham Manor School, and the brief time afterwards, when he and Elizabeth took  responsibility for an informal children's home run by their friends Godfrey and Gertud White, while the latter were in Africa.

Layers upon archival layers: The interviewer, Anthony Rodway, had worked at Tylehurst School from 1954 until it closed in 1985, the year before the interview. One wonders how much of his experience is in his mind as he listens to Elizabeth's memories and asks questions.

It is a wonderfully unique interview. Elizabeth died the following year.


2017.013/01/01 Elizabeth Wills reading James Elroy Flecker's Rioupéroux


2017.013/01/02 Elizabeth Wills interviewed by Anthony Rodway (excerpt)


2017.013/01/01 David Wills reading James Elroy Flecker's The Golden Journey to Samarkand


about Elizabeth Wills

Most of the people who have given themselves to therapeutic child care are unknown, and unless you have had a special experience, or are an Art Therapist or academic with an interest in Art and Occupational Therapy, you are unlikely to have heard of Elizabeth Wills.

She was born Elizabeth Collyer in Leicestershire on April 3, 1909, and was killed in Chipping Norton just before Christmas 1987, when a lorry mounted the pavement and struck her.

At the time of her death Elizabeth was 78 and was still working with children as an art therapist, albeit carefully tapering her involvement. She had been actively using and developing her training and skills in the therapeutic use of art, craft and movement for the better part of 50 years: since at least 1938, when she answered an advertisement for an Occupational Therapist, and took on responsibility for Occupational Therapy and splint work in the Leathershop of the Birmingham City Tuberculosis Sanatorium - work she was involved in developing throughout the Second World War and into 1955.

When she left the Sanatorium service in 1955, it was in order to become an art therapist at Withymead, the Jungian therapeutic community founded by Irene and Gilbert Champernowne in Devon in 1942.  Her reference from Chief Supervising Tuberculosis Physician Dr. J.E. Geddes explained that Elizabeth had

initiated the work of the Occupational Therapy Department in the Yardley Green Hospital (410 beds) and secured the interest and the co-operation of the patients because of her own efficiency and the quality and the variety of the crafts introduced, and also the co-operation of a large staff who were imbued with a spirit of service and a keen appreciation of the value of such therapy in the life of the tuberculosis patient, attributes which were fostered by the quailty of leadership shown by Miss Collyer.

The occupational service which was originally confined to the Yardley Green Hospital was later extended to all of the Birmingham Sanatoria, and Miss Collyer was appointed to administer and direct the Composite Service. This work, with its very considerable responsibility, she undertook with steady efficiency.

Dr. J.E. Geddes, 10 June 1955 (PP/RUB)

(or, as her sister Ruth wrote, in a set of family notes, "Elizabeth was a pioneer in developing a curriculum and examinations for her profession..." (Ruth Barling, nd. PP/RUB)).

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When she made the 1938 application for the Occupational Therapist position Elizabeth was building on three years at Grimsby School of Art and one part-time year at Hull College of Art, augmented by classes at the Leicester School of Art, through which she had acquired the Art Qualifications of the Oxford Secondary Teachers Art Certification. To this she had added other classes, as well as attending a three year University Extension Course in Psychology run by Hull University College.

There were also her practical skills.

In 1931, at the age of 22 - after her father became ill, left his job as a Sales Manager in Grimsby, and bought a small manufacturing business -  Elizabeth took on its management. "The number of employees" she wrote, in a CV prepared at the beginning of 1945,

varied from four to ten, and I had to see to all matters connected with the running of the business.

In family notes, her sister explained that this included designing, obtaining and printing orders.

During this time I learnt another craft, Silk Screen Printing, and introduced this type of work into the business. I also learned how to set type and print on plates and cylinder machines.

After running the business for five years, in 1936 she took charge of the Art Room at Messrs Bennett & Jennison, a moulding and fine picture framing manufacturer based in Grimsby, but with several showrooms in London. Here she was responsible for twelve young men and women "engaged in painting ornamental fire screens, mirrors, etc. Besides the designing and overseeing work in the Art Room, " she says, "I produced designs and drawings for furniture and interior decoration."

At the same time, in the background, she was helping to nurse her mother, who died in 1937. Perhaps released from the responsibility, in 1938 she moved to Birmingham and the Yardley Green Hospital.


Elizabeth and David Wills: "We have... a programme for the entertainment and education of our patients..."

Elizabeth first met David Wills in 1945. She had just been appointed Head Occupational Therapist at Birmingham's Yardley Green Chest Hospital, and David had begun a year as a Fellow at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college and study centre in Birmingham. Elizabeth wrote her first letter to David on September 22, 1945:


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Dear Mr. Wills,

We have, at this Sanatorium, a programme for the entertainment and education of our patients, most of whom stay with us for at least six months. Informal talks on subjects of general interest form an important part of this programme, and I wondered if you could help us here. These outside interests mean a great deal to patients who are cut off from ordinary activities for so long.

The talks always take place on Tuesday afternoons, and are usually given onthe wards with the id of microphone and loud speakers.

If you can spare a Tuesday afternoon we shall all be very grateful. Perhaps you will let me know whether I may telephone to fix a date, and to learn what subject you would deal with.

Mr. Hoyland, of Woodbrooke College, was kind enough to give me your name, although, of course, he did not know whether you would be able to come.

P.S. For the most part we have light subjects or more serious subjects dealt with in a lively and simple manner.



We don't have David's return letter, but we can gauge something of the response, and the beginnings of a relationship, in Elizabeth's next letter of October 5th, 1945:

Dear Mr. Wills,

Thank you for your letter. Of course, Mr. Hoyland was not pulling my leg - and if you would be persuaded to come and give a talk on your experiences with Juvenile Delinquents, I feel sure it would interest the patients a great deal. It would certainly interest me.


Elizabeth's next letter (October 8th) is two pages long and full of practical details - bus routes and directions to the Sanatorium. The next after that - the letter following up his talk (dated 17 November 1945, "The patients did find your talk interesting, in spite of your doubts on the subject") - concluded with the hook: "I will, if I may, write early in the new year to fix a date for your next visit." From which more talks and letters developed.

Elizabeth wrote on November 26, 1946 of a Jungian medical psychologist, Mrs. Kitzinger, whom she would like David to meet; of Adrian Hill's book "Art versus Illness" (the response to which we do have: "I have read Adrian Hill's book, and found it very interesting in spite of being (as it seems to me!) so incredibly badly written." DW to EC 30.11.1946); and of the work that David and his wife Ruth were initiating with maladjusted children at Bodenham Manor:

You both made me feel rather as I felt after listening to a lecture recently. It was an account, given in very few words, of the starting up of a leper colony and the work in it. It's marvellous work - but it bristles with almost incredible obstacles - and it all depends on who does it. It does, you know - even if the method is all important.

 In all of which we can see the future unfolding, and a woman whose personality was at least as strong as David's, and whose capacity to creatively and deftly manage the opportunities that exist within the political complexities of institutional and organisational processes was considerably better developed.

David's wife Ruth died of cancer in 1956, by which point Elizabeth had moved to live and work at Withymead, the Jungian therapeutic community in Devon where she was an Art Therapist from 1955-1960, "and doing some work in Pottery and Dance Movement" (as she says in her 1961 CV above). They shared their marriage there, and Elizabeth moved to join him at Bodenham Manor in 1960. When David found it impossible to continue at Bodenham (see the relevant section from his unpublished Autobiography here ), she joined him in job-seeking; taking on joint responsibility for the informal children's home referred to in the recorded interview with Anthony Rodway, and at Reynolds House, the aftercare hostel from which they ultimately retired to the Cotswolds.

For Elizabeth's role in the history and development of Art Therapy in Britain, see the discussion of Elizabeth Wills in chapter 9 of Diane Waller's "Becoming a Profession: The history of art therapy in Britain 1940-82", Routledge, 1991.  See, too, references in Imogen Wiltshire's "Painting as Psychotherapy: Arthur Segal's Painting School for Professionals and Non-Professionals (1937-1944)", MPhil thesis, History of Art, University of Birmingham, 2013. She is a profoundly interesting person; and for those of us fortunate enough to have known her, carried her accomplishments and her past with a lightness which made them all but invisible behind her delight in the present.


P.S. On the leaving of Bodenham Manor: A missed opportunity for Pestalozzi?

In 1961 Elizabeth and David were seeking jobs, and assembled their CVs. In his, David explained at some length why, at almost 58 years of age, he was jobless (and implicitly, perhaps, why he had made himself jobless, and what might be expected from any employer references):

1949/61 Warden of Bodenham Manor, a special residential school for maladjusted children. This school was established to carry on the methods with which I had been experimenting at Barns House and Hawkspur Camp, and the principles described in the books I had written about these two pieces of work. Briefly, theses may be described as being broadly Pestalozzian in nature, involving The provision of unconditional affection in an atmosphere of freedom and tolerance, with a large measure of "Shared Responsibility." At the end of 1960 the staffing policy of the Managers made it increasingly difficult for me to carry on the school as originally envisaged, and rather than dilute my methods further, I resigned. (Easter 1961).

The reference to "Pestalozzian in nature" stands out. We know from the creative turbulence thrown up by the Early Pestalozzi Children Project that David visited the Pestalozzi Children's Village in Sedlescombe, East Sussex, as a potential job applicant. Question: Is this the actual CV for that application?

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