Lord Brian Rix
27.1.1924 - 20.8.2016
Actor, impresario, cricket player, passionate campaigner on behalf of people with learning disabilities and their families, and long time friend of Normansfield Hospital and the Langdon Down Centre and Theatre.
The Early Years
Brian was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire and made his stage debut at 18. Following service in the Royal Air Force during WWII he set up his own theatre company in 1947 and married an actress in the company - Elspeth Grey. The pair regularly co-starred in TV, radio and theatre productions, though Brian was best known for his farces which ran at the Whitehall Theatre for more than 16 years before moving on to The Garrick Theatre. He was Chair of the Arts Council’s Drama Panel from 1986-1993 and was responsible for opening up grant funding to a wider mix of performers, including women and ethnic minorities.
In 1951 Brian and Elspeth’s first child Shelley was born with Down’s Syndrome. At the time, the condition was still referred to as mongolism and the young couple were horrified to find that there was no support system for the family – in fact the doctor’s advice was to “put her away, forget about her, start again”. Shelley was taken into care and at the age of five was assessed as “in-educable” – Brian later described their experiences as “painful, humiliating and utterly distressing for all of us”.
With three other children and needing to work, Brian and Elspeth searched for the best setting they could find for Shelley and determined on Normansfield Hospital, run by the NHS in Teddington. Founded in 1868 by Dr John Langdon-Down (after whom Down’s Syndrome is named) as a place where the mentally handicapped could be cared for and educated, rather than condemned to life in an asylum, Normansfield was a model of good practice. An “Entertainment Hall” was built and patients were encouraged to learn music and drama, work in the kitchens, laundry and farm, take regular exercise, attend church services, go on holiday and be well-dressed, well cared for and treated with respect. In the 1950s Normansfield had become a long-stay NHS hospital, benefitting from the same facilities and extensive grounds that the Langdon-Down family had created.
Shelley lived in Normansfield until the early 1990s when, with the introduction of Care in the Community, she moved into a community home in Wimbledon. As her health began to deteriorate, she became blind and unable to walk, needing to be hoisted from bed to bath and from chair to wheelchair. But at Shelly’s funeral in 2005, with a family photo of Shelley smiling broadly and dressed in her favourite red, it was her favourite music of Frank Sinatra’s “Blue Skies” and “Will You Go Lassie Go?” that rang out, and memories of her laughing, singing and dancing that people remembered.
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Royal Mencap in 2006, Lord Rix wrote a history of the charity and dedicated it to Shelley.
The Friends of Normansfield
The League of Friends of Normansfield was founded in 1957 had when Shelley moved in Brian and Elspeth threw themselves into fundraising for the hospital, organising balls, dinners, race days and other events to provide extra facilities for the residents and to fund holidays and other leisure opportunities. By the 1970s there were 200 residents and the Friends funded a hydrotherapy pool, a residents’ club, a shop, a toy library, an activity and education centre, a holiday home at Selsey, a mini-bus and many other improvements. An annual highlight was the Christmas Dinner in the beautiful Victorian dining room of the hospital followed by the AGM of The Friends and a Carol Concert for residents and their families with home-made mince pies and refreshments.
Normansfield closed in 1997 and eventually most of the old hospital and the site were re-developed for housing. But the theatre wing, housing the magnificent Entertainment Hall, a perfect miniature version of a London commercial theatre and Grade II* listed, was preserved and in 2003 it was handed over to the Langdon Down Centre Trust (under a section 106 planning agreement with Laing Homes who had re-developed the site). The original Victorian scenery, which had been stored off-site with the help of Lord Rix and the Friends, was returned and the theatre restored to its former glory and has become a valuable community asset. In addition, the Langdon Down Centre is the HQ of the Down’s Syndrome Association and is home to the Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability.
In 2004, when Brian and Elspeth retired from the Committee of the Friends of Normansfield, Brian had been the Chairman for 27 years. He and Elspeth were presented with two photograph albums on the history of Normansfield, produced for The Friends by Heather Cadbury of the Teddington Area Reminiscence Group. They became honorary presidents of the Friends - later the Normansfield and Richmond Foundation - and the Foundation continues today to support people with learning disabilities in the borough of Richmond upon Thames using the income from the financial legacy created by Lord Rix and fellow trustees.
On the birth of Shelley, Brian and Elspeth became involved with the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults (formerly The Association of Parents of Backward Children, set up by Judy Fryd, a parent of a child with learning disabilities, in 1946) and started the campaigning that would last for the rest of their lives to challenge the attitudes they and their daughter had faced and to try to make the world a better place for all those with learning disabilities.
After stints as Secretary General (1980-88) and Chairman (1988-98) Brian was elected President of the Royal Mencap Society, a position he would hold until his death. He did much to modernise the charity, introducing dedicated marketing and parliamentary functions and starting a housing arm to meet the needs of people moving into the community on the closure of long-stay hospitals. As Chairman, in response to calls from people with learning disabilities to be able to speak up for themselves, he established a Mencap National Assembly (made up of people with learning disabilities, their families and carers) and saw the constitution amended to give people with learning disabilities more say in how the charity was run.
Lord Rix was also passionate about the representation of people with learning disabilities in the media and pressed for learning disabled characters to be included in soaps like Crossroads and EastEnders to help raise public awareness and understanding.
Baron Rix of Whitehall
In 1992 Brian was appointed a Crossbench life peer with the title Baron Rix of Whitehall. He set about using his voice in the House of Lords to influence critical legislation on health, social care, welfare and education to ensure that the interests of people with learning disabilities and their families were properly represented.
He introduced a Bill that would require local authorities to provide respite care for the parents of disabled children – it took 12 years for the measure to be implemented, but he never gave up and in 2006 short breaks for carers became law. In the same year he introduced amendments to the Childcare Bill which extended childcare provision for disabled children from age 16 to 18. He also helped to change a 120 year old voting law that said “idiots” could not vote and “lunatics” could only vote when they were well: this language was still being used as guidance to election officials until it was dropped from the Electoral Administration Bill 2006 – so that voters with learning disabilities no longer had to prove their mental capacity.
More recently, he tabled amendments to the Children and Families Bill in 2014 which strengthened the law for children with special educational needs. And in 2015 he spoke passionately at the launch of Mencap’s “Hear My Voice” manifesto for the May General Election, which led to 150 MPs and prospective candidates pledging to listen to the voices of people with learning disabilities and act accordingly.
Brian was a great supporter of Learning Disability Awareness Week and at the Royal Mencap Parliamentary Reception for MPs and Peers in June 2015 he expressed his grave concerns about the risks to the basic rights of people with learning disabilities posed by the current and threatened welfare cuts.
An Extraordinary Coincidence
In 2002, Brian and Elspeth’s son Jonty and his wife had a son Robbie who was also diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. In 2005 Brian commented “this is a coincidence, it is random, but what is so wonderful is that Robbie lives at home, is adored by his family, and enjoys holidays with his parents and grand-parents doing the normal things”. What a difference in social attitudes, health care and support for children with learning disabilities and their families.
A Glowing Tribute
Brian and Elspeth were married for 64 years. Following her death in 2013 and suffering from increasing ill-health, Brian moved into Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors, where he died in 2016 after a terminal illness.
On his death, Royal Mencap Chief Executive Jan Tregelles paid tribute to this hugely influential campaigner: “Lord Rix was a beloved colleague and friend to so many people with a learning disability and their families. His passion, zeal and humour will be sorely missed. His tireless campaigning has perhaps done more to improve the lives of people with a learning disability than any other. He has played a central role in many of the landmark moments for people with learning disabilities in recent decades, working tirelessly into his 90s. His unique charm and personality have been invaluable in helping Mencap grow into the UK’s leading learning disability charity, and with his passing the charity has lost a very dear friend.”
Denise Carr, Chair of Richmond Mencap added: “Lord Rix achieved so much in his long life and his legacy will live on. But he knew that though so much progress has been made since his daughter Shelly was born, there is still so much more that needs to be done, particularly around health care, social life and equal access to employment opportunities for example. Brian was also very worried that some advances were at risk given the cuts to Council funding and welfare benefits and the economic and financial pressures of the modern world. The need for the work of Royal Mencap and its affiliated local Mencaps up and down the country is as great as ever – and we will remember Brian as we carry on his good work.”
Richard Jeffries, Chairman of the Normansfield and Richmond Foundation said: “Amongst his amazing range of achievements, Brian was such a great leader and fundraiser and his efforts were reflected over the years in the growing funds of the League of Friends of Normansfield Hospital, now the Normansfield and Richmond Foundation. When Brian stood down after many years as Chairman, I was greatly honoured to succeed him: Brian continued as our President and we have continued to implement his vision of supporting people with learning disabilities. His national profile with Royal Mencap and in the House of Lords did not prevent him from taking a keen interest in Richmond and especially the Normansfield Theatre. Until his death Brian asked to receive copies of our Committee agendas and nearly always attended our AGMs, making a robust contribution. He was indeed our friend and his inspiration will continue to be felt.”