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Dr Helen Bolderson

Honorary Research Fellow

We are saddened to record that Helen died on 8 March 2016. She had many firm friends in academic life and will be greatly missed. Please email us if you wish to contribute your recollections for posting on this page. Her family can also be contacted via email. Read the obituary that appeared in the Guardian.

Karen Postle writes:

I read your obituary for Helen Bolderson in Saturday’s Guardian with great sadness and just wanted to thank you for painting such a good picture of someone who was a truly inspirational teacher. Helen was my tutor on the MA in Public and Social Admin at Brunel in the early ‘80s. I hadn’t shone at school and somehow managed to obtain a none-too-special degree but then left academia behind for a Civil Service career.  The MA, and Helen’s teaching and tutoring re-awakened my love of learning and, after getting my MA, I went on to train as a social worker and later to do a PhD and to work as a lecturer. Her dissertation supervision was excellent and, when I came to supervise dissertation students myself, I remembered the importance of being able to ask the questions which promote students’ thinking - something she did so well.

What Helen, together with other lecturers conveyed about social policy has stayed with me and it certainly fired my own enthusiasm for teaching the subject. During my dissertation, I had a family crisis and Helen was kindness itself and so understanding. You mentioned how inspired Helen had been by Richard Titmuss and I think that was so apparent in all aspects of her work, conveying the sheer humanity and compassion which characterises his writing.

Helen told us one very telling story which has stayed with me and I’ve often repeated it (with full acknowledgements!) to students who are ‘stuck’ about how to start writing. Apparently, Titmuss’ advice to her about writing her PhD was to ‘Just write it like a novel, my dear’ and she took his wise advice to heart. When he was gravely ill, Helen had to transfer supervisors to Brian Abel-Smith. She said that he could not have been more different - being as aristocratic as Titmus was down-to-earth - and, having given him a draft, she found a note in her pigeonhole. I remember Helen saying that even its grammar terrified her as it asked her to see him because,‘There are many things about which we must speak’! When she went to see him he told her, ‘This reads like a novel!’ and she could not begin to explain that she’d only been following Titmuss’ advice! Needless to say, it was Titmuss’ advice Helen gave us, in a gently encouraging way,  and which I’ve tried to pass on! The refinements and the academic style can come later!

John Macnicol writes:

I had the great privilege to have Helen as a colleague when I started my career as a rather inexperienced and apprehensive part-time lecturer in Brunel University’s Department of Government in the late 1970s. She was exactly the kind of colleague that a newcomer needs - enormously kind and helpful, dispensing wise advice with tact and humour and immensely knowledgeable on her specialism of social security. Thereafter, we used to run into each other while working at LSE Library, and our meetings were always a pleasure. I learned an enormous amount from Helen, and I consider myself very lucky to have had her as a friend and colleague.

Francesca Gains writes:

I met Helen in 1989 when I was a CCETSW sponsored student on the wonderful MA in Public and Social Administration at Brunel University.  I took Helen’s specialist social security course and soon came to appreciate the rigour, insight and critical judgement that Helen added to the analysis of social welfare legislation and institutions.  I learned from her not to take quick judgements or leap to easy (or fashionable) conclusions but that it is only by painstaking analysis and empirical interrogation that the implications of policy interventions can be seen.  Subsequently, I was fortunate in working with her on two research projects.  Firstly for the Department for Social Security to examine the payment of benefits abroad and secondly for the Department of Health examining an EU programme to promote the integration of disabled people. Both these projects shared three aspects which were key to Helen’s work. Firstly that they were relatively new issues which addressed states’ relations with citizens as mediated by political institutions.  Secondly that they were agendas that would continue to grow in importance and Helen’s contribution to that scholarship was important in setting the direction for areas of enquiry and how to conduct comparative analysis.  Thirdly that these were research projects which were not seeking to deliver a hands-off, abstract scholarly judgement. They were pieces of robust intellectual enquiry but designed to have an impact as an essential component of the craft of scholarship.

Helen’s influence on my understanding of how political institutions influence the values of welfare and of the responsibility of researchers to draw policy-makers attention to the implications of legislation for citizens, especially the most vulnerable citizens, has been great and lasting in my scholarship.

Helen was a fantastically supportive mentor.  I learned much from her of how to conduct myself as a researcher and academic: and how to combine that with caring commitments.  She was also great fun to work with, often pointing out the absurdity or drollness of situation in a wry but never caustic way.  I feel very grateful to have benefited from her mentoring and friendship and would like to pay tribute to her influence on the discipline of social policy.

Jane Millar writes:

I first met Helen Bolderson in the late 1970s, when I studied at for an MA in Public and Social Administration at Brunel University, where Helen was the lead tutor for the social security specialist stream. Helen was a major influence and inspiration. She introduced me to the key ideas and how to address these critically. Her own empirical work was always meticulous and focused.  Helen provided important links to government researchers in the (then) Department of Health and Social Security, helping to build a shared understanding across the policy and research worlds. And she was generous in her support, great company and good fun. I have many fond memories of her at the DHSS Summer School and at various conferences. I feel lucky that I was able to learn from her, not just as a student but for long after.

Christopher Pollitt writes:

I first met Helen when I joined Brunel as Head of the Department of Government in September 1990.  I then worked with her until I left Brunel in 1999, and continued some occasional correspondence afterwards.  From my then perspective as head of department, Helen was a model colleague.  Her precision, professionalism and unflappability were unequalled.  Her humour was sharp and dry.  She was a source of wise counsel.  And a byword for trustworthiness. Her support of colleagues (perhaps especially junior staff) was unswerving.  Yet at the same time, she was quite fierce.  If she thought I was making a foolish mistake, she told me so in no uncertain terms, face to face - and as a head, one needs at least some who will do this.  If she thought someone was slacking, then they would know about it.

Helen's academic work was not in an area that I had much to do with, but on the occasions when I consulted it, it seemed excellent stuff - constructive, grounded, detailed, authoritative. One felt a rapid sense of trust in the work, just as one did in the person. I was a great admirer of Helen, and it is utterly dismal to realize that I will not be able to meet her again.

Howard Glennerster writes:

I have known Helen for many years, first when she was a PhD student, then teaching at Brunel, as a regular attendee and contributor at CASE seminars. Then again as a fellow Walker and Talker - a regular group of friends who, as we aged, talked more and walked less.

Hers was an exemplary life. A caring and dedicated teacher, she devoted her research effort to topics that were crucial but neglected - disability before it became much recognised as a topic for study, the rights of migrants, the plight of those who had suffered torture. Her comparative work and collaboration with Deborah Mabbett again produced new insights in neglected areas.

She was patient and polite but firm in her contributions to seminars. If she thought you wrong she would say so in the calmest way. We shall miss her regular attendance. I too shall miss our walks. If you spent one of them in her company you would return a wiser person.

Deborah Mabbett writes:

Helen was a huge influence in my life and work. We worked together a lot and our choice of subjects was shaped by her interests, but her strongest abiding influence has been on my values and assumptions.

Helen never believed in quick, neat or clever solutions. Partly from her own experience as a social worker, she was always doubtful about the ability of the state to interfere beneficially in people’s lives, while at the same time being totally committed to collective responsibility for welfare. This led her to hold unfashionable views, such as favouring generous cash benefits with minimal conditionality. She did not believe that employment was somehow a redemptive experience, pointing out that for many people it was tedious or difficult. She also thoroughly disliked any advocacy that hinted at a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving, such as campaigns that portrayed people with disabilities as multi-talented and full of potential. She was interested in the neglected causes of untalented and even unpopular people trying to get on with their lives. She did not pry into those lives; rather, she focused on governments and their administrative structures, examining how generosity and equity were sustained.

She had many original and distinctive ideas and I am proud to have worked with her to develop them.

About Helen Bolderson

Helen BBolderson had thirty years' experience as a researcher in the field of social policy. She held research grants from the UK Social Science Research Council [SSRC] (1972), SSRC/ DFG (1977, 1979), Nuffield (1983, 1985), Commission for Racial Equality (1989), Economic and Social Research Council (1990-1), Department of Social Security (1991-2; 1995-6), Department of Health (1994-7), and the European Commission. (2000-2002).

She published in the Journal of Social Policy (1974; 1980; 1988), Policy and Politics (1982; 1985), the Journal of Social Welfare Law (1985; 1988) and co-authored papers in the European Journal of Political Research (1995) Benefits (1995; 1998) International Social Security Review (1996) and the Journal of Public Policy (1999).


  • Social Security, Disability and Rehabilitation: Conflicts in the Development of Social Policy (1991)
  • (with Francesca Gains) Crossing National Frontiers (1993)
  • (with Deborah Mabbett) Social Policy and Social Security in Australia, Britain and the USA (1991) and Delivering Social Security: A Cross-National Study (1997)
  • Three co-authored chapters in edited books have dealt with issues of discrimination (2002), with migrants' rights (1993) and with methods of comparative, cross-national, research (2002).
  • Her report written for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture on Mental Health Services in Kosovo was published in February 2004.
  • The Ethics of Welfare Provision for Migrants: A Case for Equal Treatment and the Repositioning of Welfare, Journal of Social Policy (2011) Vol 40, No 2, pp.219-235

Research interests

  • Until shortly before her death, Helen was working on an analytical history of UK asylum policies, 1905-2005. In 2005 she completed a short course in International Rights Law and Practice run by the Centre of Human Rights at the London School of Economics. Her chapter on the exclusion of vulnerable groups from equal access to social security is published in Riedel, Eibe (ed) (2007) Social Security as a Right: Drafting a General Comment on Article 9 ICESCR - Some Challenges (Springer).

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