Peter Townsend, 1928-2009

June 25, 2009

Peter Townsend, a pioneering sociologist and poverty campaigner, has died.

He was born in Middlesbrough on 6 April 1928 and brought up by his mother and grandmother.

Although he secured scholarships to University College School in London and then St John's College, Cambridge, it was only when he embarked on postgraduate work at the Free University of Berlin that Professor Townsend found his calling as a sociologist.

He began his research career at what was then Political and Economic Planning, a British policy think-tank, and moved to the new Institute for Community Studies in London's East End, where his innovative techniques of participative observation led to a celebrated book on The Family Life of Old People (1957).

An appointment to a research fellowship in 1957 led to a long connection with the London School of Economics. Although a lectureship soon followed, he switched to the University of Essex in 1963, where he spent almost 20 years as its first professor of sociology.

By this stage, he had already produced another major work, The Last Refuge: A Survey of Residential Institutions for the Aged in England and Wales (1962).

The intensive research for this book - including several days acting as a bathing attendant in a former workhouse - taught Professor Townsend to seek out the views of those who refused to be interviewed. It also brought home to him the scale of poverty in a nation that complacently prided itself on its welfare state. Such concerns led him to found the Child Poverty Action Group in 1965.

He always remained scrupulously scholarly about definitional issues and data, often derived from in-depth mining of official surveys. Yet books such as Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979) and the major study Townsend co-edited, Inequalities in Health: The Black Report (1988), also developed a more overtly activist stance.

He returned to the LSE as professor of international social policy in 1999 and became acting director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights in 2002.

"In the fight against poverty, the name of Peter Townsend will surely be at least as legendary as that of Robin Hood - and a great deal more universally respected," said Hartley Dean, reader in social policy at the LSE.

"Peter brought courage, commitment and charisma to that struggle - but also unremitting scientific rigour ... He was an intellectual giant with a quintessential human touch."

Professor Townsend died on 7 June 2009 and is survived by his wife, the Labour peer Jean Corston, five children and two stepchildren.

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