‘A lady of unusual ability and force of character’

Elizabeth Valentine on Lucy G. Fildes.

A chance conversation at the 2018 British Psychological Society ‘Stories of Psychology’ event has led to the naming of a building in Tunbridge Wells in memory of Lucy Fildes. It houses Canterbury Christ Church University’s Salomons Institute of Applied Psychology. Who was Lucy Fildes and why should we remember her?

Although best known for her pioneering work in child guidance, Lucy Fildes did not enter this field until her mid-forties. Like so many women of her generation, she started out in teaching; then a degree in psychology led to a distinguished research career in learning disabilities. Indeed, her career illustrates very clearly the transition from very limited employment opportunities at the beginning of the 20th century to the opening up of professional psychological careers mid-century, a process in which Fildes herself played a significant role.

Lucy Gratia Fildes was born in Worcester in 1884, the youngest of the four children of a cabinet maker. Her original training as a teacher, during which she obtained a BA degree by private study, was followed by nine years’ lecturing in a teacher training college: a common employment destination at a time when there were few academic posts for psychologists in Britain. Then in 1913 she entered Bedford College, London to study psychology under Beatrice Edgell, who observed that her ‘general ability and maturity marked her out from the beginning as a first class student’.

Fildes did indeed graduate with a first class honours degree two years later. During her time at Bedford College she conducted an innovative investigation of object recognition (published in 1915), requiring the identification of objects from a drawing of parts of them; or from a photograph of the object from an unusual angle; or by handling it in the dark. This may well have given her ideas for some of her later investigations. After graduation Fildes spent a few more years lecturing in university training departments in Scotland.

But in 1918 C.S. Myers invited her to undertake research on the causes of mental subnormality and specific disorders in people otherwise without handicap, in the Cambridge laboratory, funded by the Medical Research Council. Frederic Bartlett, who succeeded Myers as director of the Cambridge laboratory, considered Fildes ‘without exception the most capable research worker in her subject’ that he had ever met – quite an extraordinary accolade from so eminent a man. In support of this claim, he goes on:
She has dealt extraordinarily well with the children who have come under her observation, all her research has been directed by real ideas; none of it has been the mere collection of unrelated facts. She can write well and concisely. She has an independent mind and has throughout formulated her own problems & dealt with them by her own methods. In fact I cannot think of anybody who seems to me nearly as well qualified to take the post for which she is applying and to make a success of it.

This post was that of Chief Psychologist at the London Child Guidance Clinic, of which more later.

Sir Henry Head invited Fildes to submit an article on so-called word-blindness (dyslexia in current terminology) to the journal Brain, of which he was then editor. This paper (Fildes, 1921), which became a classic, aimed to provide a psychological analysis of dyslexia. It reported 12 experiments comparing readers and non-readers on visual and auditory discrimination and retention, and the ability to associate spoken names with shapes.

Non-readers had difficulty with discrimination and particularly with retention of visually similar forms (the same form in different orientations, or when a part was repeated in a different surround). They were also likely to confuse mirror images. Some children showed similar problems with auditory materials; in consequence, they had difficulty attaching meaning to symbols. Fildes demonstrated that dyslexia was not associated with intellectual ability, nor was the difficulty confined to words (non-readers had difficulty with shapes and numbers as well). She concluded that it was a defect in either visual or auditory brain regions, or in some cases both.

MacDonald Critchley (1964), writing more than 20 years later, considered Fildes’s early researches ‘an important contribution’ and described the evidence behind her conclusions as ‘interesting and important’, and whilst commenting that her results were limited by the fact that almost all her subjects were of low intelligence, pointed out that she was the first to document auditory factors in dyslexia. Even more remarkable is the fact that her research was featured at some length in a recent commentary in Brain (Compston, 2016), in the same issue as a study reporting a neurological basis for the condition (Skeide et al., 2016).

Fildes published several other studies in the British Journal of Psychology, on topics such as left-handedness, mirror writing and learning in what were then termed mental defectives. From 1925 to 1928 she worked with violent adult defectives in State Institutions for Dangerous and Violent Offenders at Rampton and Warwick, funded by a Board of Control Research Studentship. She also investigated psychological aspects of aphasia and other disorders in patients at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen Square, London. And in 1929 she completed a doctoral thesis on word deafness.

In 1929 Fildes was appointed Chief Psychologist at the newly opened London Child Guidance Clinic. Recognised by London County Council and aided financially by the Rockefeller New Commonwealth Fund, it was a multidisciplinary enterprise, combining the expertise of medically qualified psychiatrists, educational psychologists and social workers, with a strong emphasis on training (the first place in the UK to offer an organised course of training in all aspects of the work). Fildes undertook casework, staff training and the administration involved in setting up a new service.

The Clinic dealt with 1900 cases in its first four and a half years, conducting over 9000 interviews in 1935 alone. According to a report of its work for 1932/33, the problems and characteristics for which cases were referred included: difficult and unmanageable children, backwardness, stealing, nervousness, temper, enuresis, speech difficulties, lying, sex difficulties, truancy and wandering, night terrors and fears, restlessness and sleeplessness, screaming, spitefulness, depression, defiance, overactivity, nervous movements, anxiety, fits, feeding difficulties, unwillingness to attend school, lack of concentration and hysteria! Lady Lawrence, chairman of the Clinic, in a foreword to the 1934 report, stated that ‘in its efforts to adjust the groping child mind to life, to make useful citizens of difficult or abnormal boys and girls, the Clinic was doing the work of civilization’. And in 1937 The Times proclaimed that it was a ‘spiritual adventure nobly conceived and most gallantly accomplished’.

Several accounts testify to Fildes’s skill in dealing with both individual children and those in authority. Evelyn Fox, of the Central Association for Mental Welfare, in her reference for Fildes for the job, wrote that she had… great understanding and experience, which, together with her psychological training and knowledge, make her eminently successful in winning the children’s confidence and cooperation. This combined with her scientific approach to the subject, her clear and logical mind, and her vivid and lucid exposition, make[s] her unusually fitted to deal not only with the children themselves, but for educational work with teachers and others concerned with the care of children and young people.

Olive Sampson, in her book on child guidance dedicated to Fildes and whose publication was funded by Fildes’s memorial fund, provides this charming account of Fildes’s interview with a child, which she describes as a ‘totally insulated exchange’:
First, she would rather solemnly shake hands with the young client and then work would begin in a matter-of-fact atmosphere. Often she used the Healy Picture Tests as ‘Ice-breakers’ watching intently and critically as the child concentrated on the game-like task. This done, the original Stanford–Binet revision was usually employed. This test has been rightly criticised and faulted, but in her hands it was a first-rate diagnostic instrument. She gave it straight and did not overload the child with praise. Afterwards, at the clinic conference and in discussion with students, the diagnostic fruits appeared.

When William Moodie, medical director of the Clinic, rejoined the Royal Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Fildes became the Administrative Officer of the Clinic and Training Centre. It was evacuated to Cambridge and then Oxford. She also negotiated three further changes of accommodation in London after the war. Then in 1943 she initiated and chaired what was known as the Fildes Committee, which became the Committee of Professional Psychologists (Mental Health). This was the prime vehicle within the British Psychological Society for engagement with the National Health Service to achieve elements of professionalisation (Hall, 2007), and led to the formation of the Divisions within the Society, Fildes being the senior founding member of the Division of Educational and Child Psychology.

Fildes had a profound influence on policy, partly through teaching but also by serving in an advisory capacity to a wide range of organisations concerned with mental disabilities. She served as a member of the Curtis Committee, which reported in 1946, to inquire into the provision made for children deprived of a normal home life. This formed the basis of the 1948 Children Act, which revolutionised provision for child care. Her work was recognised nationally by the award of an OBE (recommended by the Ministries of both Health and Education) in 1951. In 1944 Kent Education Committee had asked her to set up a Child Guidance Clinic in Tonbridge, Kent, which later moved to Tunbridge Wells. She worked there part-time until she was 80 years old, dying four years later.

What was she like as person? Grace Rawlings, in the appeal for a memorial fund to her, wrote:
Dr Fildes was a strong personality, formidable at times, but those who knew her longer and better found their respect grew into affection. She was a ‘character’, fondly referred to as ‘Lucy G’, with very penetrating judgment and sharp wit, not always patient but a great support in times of trouble. Personally she was modest and not ambitious but through her personality and her strongly held convictions she was, almost surprisingly, a great inspiration to many different people in many ways. It is worthwhile to remember such people and their achievements.

- Elizabeth Valentine is Emeritus Professor (Psychology) at Royal Holloway University of London.
[email protected]

Canterbury Christ Church University will host a Public Lecture for the official naming of the Lucy Fildes Building, 1 Meadow Road, Tunbridge Wells, on Wednesday 20 March from 6pm. 

Fildes had strong connections with West Kent. She helped set up a Child Guidance Clinic in Tonbridge, which later moved to Tunbridge Wells, and was a resident of Tunbridge Wells at the time of her death.

Light refreshments will be served from 6.00pm and the lecture on the life of Lucy Fildes will commence at 6.30pm.

Please confirm attendance by e-mailing [email protected].

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