Anna Freud and the Robertsons

Memorial tribute to Anna Freud

delivered by James Robertson

on Friday 28th January 1983

Anna Freud was part of the lives of my wife Joyce and myself for more than 40 years, and I am honoured to speak about her today.

My first meeting with Anna Freud had nothing to do with psychoanalysis, but was about young children in the community. Although I later became a psychoanalyst, and met her often in that capacity, young children in the community remained the focus of’ our long association.

During the war my wife and I were conscientious objectors, and in the Blitz period of’ late 1940 we were with a Pacifist Service Unit working in East London where the destruction, death, and social chaos caused by the heavy bombing were great. Then in January 1941 we heard that a woman in Hampstead was giving simple overnight shelter to a few East End mothers and children who had been bombed out of their homes. Joyce went to help, and a few weeks later I joined her to do the heavy carrying and to keep the boilers going.

The woman was of course Anna Freud, who together with her family and a few colleagues had quite recently escaped from the Nazis and been given asylum in Britain. Within a short time, with funds provided by the American Foster Parents Plan for War Children, the simple accommodation was extended to become the Hampstead Wartime Nurseries.

There were two main houses, one in Hampstead primarily for the under - 3s, with a deep air raid shelter and near a Tube Station so that mothers could visit easily; the other, for the over-3s, was sixty miles away in the relative safety of rural Essex. Maintenance and air raid precautions were provided by a unit of’ six conscientious objectors.

The responsibility for the wellbeing of about 100 infants and very young children in war time was enormous; but Anna Freud brought to the task her profound knowledge of young children and her delight in them, her moral courage, and the serenity with which she engaged the loyalty of’ hard working and deeply committed staff.

Most of the staff were refugees from Germany and Austria. Some were highly qualified and took charge of departments, but many were young girls and quite untrained. Regularly thirty or more of’ us would crush into the common room to learn from her, sometimes against a background of distant anti­aircraft gunfire.

The psychoanalytic view of child development was gradually taught, but not in a pedantic manner. Whatever Anna Freud taught us she could illustrate from the children in our care. It was teaching which held us enthralled, as we experienced attributes of’ Anna Freud which are often spoken about - the simplicity and clarity, the beauty of her use of English, the absolute control over her material. She knew every child in the Nurseries and kept track of’ their development. She taught her staff’ to observe and record - lessons Joyce and I never forgot.

There was no doubting where authority lay in the Hampstead Nurseries, but Anna Freud was never threatening. Whenever she visited the Country House, or walked into the London House which was near her home, her appearance brought a surge of pleasure to children and staff’ alike. Throughout the stresses and dangers of war, especially when bombing became indiscriminate and the V2 rockets began to fall at random in nearby residential areas so that the London children had to be evacuated to overfill the Country House, her personality and the deep affection she evoked in the large staff held the Nurseries together as a well - functioning community. Staff morale remained high and focussed on the children until the war ended and the Nurseries closed.

In the light of modern knowledge, some aspects of the Hampstead Nurseries could be criticised; but 40 years ago - the Nurseries were far ahead of their times. There was unrestricted visiting and accommodation for mothers, family grouping, a high ratio of staff to children, and a basis of’ psychological understanding.

When 25 years later Joyce and I made our film JOHN, about a young child in a residential nursery, a film which caused controversy around our view that it is impossible to meet the emotional needs of infants and young children in residential group care, Anna Freud was one of’ the first to support us.

Recalling the war years she said “We did not know then what we know now. We were all learning.

To have worked in the Hampstead Wartime Nurseries gave one membership of an exclusive club. Even in these last years, when Anna Freud talked about children she would sometimes look around her audience asking, ‘Do you remember Graham, the child Dr Hoffer filmed?’ and several heads would nod vigorously. Or she might ask, ‘What was the name of the child who said, “I’m nobody’s nothing?”’ and several voices would call out his name.        

We all still remember, and are proud to do so. These were important years which inspired many of us to go on working with young children in one way or another.

After the war many of the staff’ went on to train as child psychotherapists or psychoanalysts, and are dispersed around the world. Many remained in Britain, some on the staff of the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic, others like the Robertsons working elsewhere but retaining positive links with Anna Freud.

There are many like the Robertsons who treasure memories of’ Anna Freud’s having had a special interest in their work. Busy person though she was, she always seemed to find time to be consulted. When one went into her study she was welcoming and relaxed, all her attention available for the purpose for which you had come. She had a remarkable ability to grasp detail and to get quickly to the heart of things, and such a retentive memory that if one returned to the topic on a later occasion she would have instant and accurate recall of all that had gone before.

During discussion her concentration focussed down on the matter, everything else excluded, if ones ideas appealed to her, one would leave feeling valued and invigorated. The focussed attention, and the friendly interest, were such that one could have imagined oneself to be in a special relationship with her. But then one would remember that others were having similar experience of wholly committed attention, and that they too enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the genius of this unique woman.

Anna Freud was admired, loved and even venerated by a great number of’ people in Europe and America; but although in that sense she was known by many, Anna Freud remained a very private person.   

Anna Freud and Robertson Centre

After 8 years from 1957 to 1965 studying Infant development In the Well Baby Clinic with Dr Josefine Stross, Joyce joined me at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations to do our 10 year Young Children in Brief Separation study.

Then in 1975, we established the Robertson Centre whose purpose is to promote understanding of the emotional needs of’ infants and young children. Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham became founding members and were active in support until their deaths.

It was as if Robertson Centre became one of Anna’s windows on to the world of’ applied psychoanalysis - in paediatrics, social work, child care, and, most recently, in family law.

Joyce and I were drawn into work as expert witnesses in the Family Division of the High Courts. In one of’ the first cases under the new Children Act 1975 we acted successfully in support of foster parents who resisted the intention of a local authority to remove from their care a young child they had fostered for more than three years.

We brought to the Court the concept of ‘the psychological parent’ as formulated by Goldstein, Freud, and Solnit in their book Beyond the Best Interests of’ the Child, and we supported this with our own findings on the hazards of’ disrupting early attachments which we had published in print and on film.

At this time we had frequent discussions with Anna Freud about the problems of giving evidence based on clinical experience, when the opposing side could produce experts who would use research statistics in attempt to discredit clinical findings. Anna Freud was unshakeable in her confidence in the value of clinical evidence, and shared our satisfaction when a judgement reflected acceptance of our recommendations.

She felt strongly about the ways in which law could affect the lives of children, and when referring to us a custody case involving a child of’ 3 years she confided with feeling that had she been 40 years younger she would have wanted to work in the Courts as we were doing.

Robertson Centre meetings are held in our home, and in the intimacy of the small group of professional friends Anna Freud’s droll sense of humour came to the fore as she told stories from her earlier life to illustrate points in discussion. She and Dorothy Burlingham always came early to walk in the garden, so much at ease that each year Anna Freud tried to eradicate the same persistent nettle.

So in 1982 there ended more than 40 years of association in the field of psychoanalysis applied to promoting the emotional health of infants and young children - just where we began in 1941.

Recently we came across a German newspaper published in 1929, in which a staff’ reporter captures facets of Anna Freud which will remain with us. Anna Freud had spoken at the founding of’ the Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Society. She was then 33 years of’ age.

 I quote:

“Anne Freud, the schoolteacher daughter of Sigmund Freud, a slim young woman with dark hair crowning a serene and open face, stood yesterday on the platform of’ the little meeting house where every seat had been sold, so that many who wished to hear her could not gain admission.

Her presentation is so perfect in its smoothness and clarity, and in its objectivity so far from rhetorical pretension, that to listen to her becomes an aesthetic pleasure; intellectual grace which captivates without effort.”

            February 1929


James and Joyce Robertson