Professor Eric Sainsbury 1926-2014

Professor Eric SainsburyIt is with great sadness that we report the death of Eric Sainsbury, Professor of Social Administration 1977-88 and Head of Department 1982-85.

Eric was one of the pioneers of user-centred social work and probation, or what used to be called ‘client studies’. He was also an accomplished teacher, much admired and valued by generations of students. As everyone who knew Eric will recall, he was also the nicest person you were ever likely to meet. His kindness and generosity were legendary.

In keeping with the departmental tradition, which he did much to inspire, Eric was deeply committed to social justice and equal value. Our thoughts and best wishes are with his beloved wife of 58 years, Audrey and his grand-daughter Amy, as well as to all of the many past colleagues and students who will mourn his passing.

Eric’s funeral took place on Wednesday 26th March 2014 at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium, Sheffield. Family flowers only but donations are welcome to Shelter via the funeral directors, John Heath & Sons, Funeral Directors, 16 Earsham Street, Sheffield, S4 7LS (Any cheques should be made payable to Shelter).

A former student and personal tutee of Eric, Professor Joan Orme (University of Strathclyde), wrote a glowing tribute to Eric back in 2009 in Qualitative Social Work (courtesy of Sage Publications). It is a very touching tribute to his professional and personal impact, and captures how well regarded Eric was in his profession.

Professor Alan Walker has also paid tribute to Eric, who championed user-centred social work, in an obituary for The Guardian.

Tributes to Professor Eric Sainsbury


"Eric taught me as an undergraduate between 1978 and 1981 and as a postgraduate in 1981. I can still remember first meeting him in 1978 at the open day at the University and when he interviewed me. I knew when I met him that I was right to have chosen to work in Social Care. He was simply inspirational. His kindness was humbling and legendary. He had a huge impact on me personally and is undoubtedly a large part of the reason I have taken the path that I have.

"When my Father died during my course, Eric’s kindness helped me through. We have bumped into each other a number of times in more recent years and at Professor Alan Walker’s home. He was, as always, concerned and eager to know all that I had done.

"We will all remember Eric in our own ways. For me it will always be sat in his office at the University with the Greek posters on his wall as he helped me to come to terms with the death of my Father.

"Eric – thank you. Thank you for inspiring generations of public sector workers. We hope we have tried to match your care and compassion."

Kevan Taylor, Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust

"In the winter of 2003 my PhD supervisor Geoff Pearson persuaded Eric to come out retirement to be the external examiner of my PhD thesis. It says on the University of Sheffield website that Eric was the the kindest and most generous of people. Even within the confines of a formal PhD viva I found that to be the case.

"He managed to make me feel at ease and yet at the same time that I was being fully tested and engaged in a rigorous academic discussion.

"Although I only came across him for that one experience, it made a deep impression on me in terms of how he conducted himself and led by example. It was a privilege to have had that experience with him."

Dr Russell Whiting, the University of Sussex

"I arrived in Sheffield in 1975, in my first full time academic post, heading up the new four year social work degree at (the then) Sheffield Polytechnic.

"I bumped into Eric on my first placement visit to the Sheffield Family Service Unit. He welcomed me warmly to the City and then sat down and gave me a detailed, and what proved to be, very helpful account of what was happening to social work practice, education and research in Sheffield. For a young academic in a challenging job at what could have been viewed as a rival institution, this was a generous gesture. It was a meeting that has had a lasting influence on the way I have tried to travel in the world of academic social work."

Ann Davis, Emeritus Professor, University of Birmingham

"As a serving Police Officer I had the privilege for many years to serve on the committee of Target Housing, of which Eric was Chair. After one such meeting, Eric asked for a lift to the Sheffield train station to travel to London for a lecture and it wasn't until we arrived at the car that he realised it was a marked Police vehicle.

"Eric loved the short journey and the fact that other road users were slowing down and behaving. As we arrived at the train station people were looking at us, no doubt wondering what Eric had done wrong, so as he left the vehicle I shouted after him: "and don't do it again, sir!"

"My lasting memories of Eric are of him laughing and waving back at me as he continued across the station with people staring at him!"

Dick Pattimore, Retired South Yorkshire Police

"Eric used to be active in the international arena, and although familiar with his work, I initially met him at an IASSW conference in the mid-1980s. Eric was welcoming, encouraging and thoughtful in his comments at the first European Regional Meeting that I attended.

"He became a good friend once I became Professor of Social Administration responsible for social work at Sheffield University after he retired. Eric was a very supportive colleague, always willing to lend an ear. But my favourite memories of Eric are with Audrey and my family going for long walks in the beautiful Peaks and then returning to the Sainsbury cottage for a sumptuous tea.

"Retirement and failing health did not deter Eric. He was always ready and willing to help in any way he could. Eric played a key role in developing social work's capacity to respond to people caught up in the horrors of the Hillsborough Disaster and willingly shared the knowledge gained with me when I began to research social work in disasters a couple of years ago.

"Eric's generosity, good humour and smile, even in the face of adversity, which he knew well, was inspirational and is an enduring legacy that will stay with me. Hard to believe he has gone!"

Professor Lena Dominelli, Durham University

"It is with the deepest sadness that I learned of Eric’s death, and I would like to express my deepest and profound condolences to Audrey and Eric’s family.

"Eric was an exceptional man; he was always warm, kind and generous. He appointed me to my first academic position, for which opportunity I am eternally grateful. He has been an inspiration and mentor to so many people, myself included, throughout my academic career. His outstanding contribution to social work is universally recognised.

"I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you for all of Eric’s support. He will be greatly missed."

Professor Steven Shardlow, Keele University

"I first met Eric not long after I moved from the USA to the United Kingdom with my British husband. I wanted to become a social worker, and was accepted by the University of Sheffield for postgraduate study as an intending social worker. Eric became my tutor. At that time he divided his time between the University and the Sheffield Council of Voluntary Service, where I completed a placement.

"I remember Eric’s kindness, perception, and wisdom that helped to guide my developing practice. Audrey, his wife, was interested in the student group and we benefited greatly from her warmth and hospitality." Read more.

Dr Patricia Higham

"Eric Glowed.

"His presence calmed others. His insights, often profound, were asserted in humility. They frequently illuminated complex matters, but often somehow stimulated in and for others insights of their own. Insights they didn’t even know they possessed." Read more.

Kieran M. Hosty

"It has been my immense good fortune, and a huge privilege, to have worked closely with Eric from my first day as a lecturer in 1975 until his retirement in 1988, and to have relied on his wise advice, support and personal kindness in the following 25 years.

"When I was appointed he was my mentor: as well as being my academic and professional guide, he invited me to sit in on his lectures and we subsequently lectured together. I assisted him in analysing the results of his pioneering research with Steve Nixon on Social Work in Focus, published in 1982, and we collaborated with Pete Marsh and Mike Fisher on the major ESRC-funded In and Out of Care study (1986). Working with him left an indelible impression on me and profoundly affected my approach to welfare and personal wellbeing.

"Eric was at the forefront of British social work education and the personal social services professions. His ideas will live on in his published work but, more importantly, his vision of the good society and his overwhelming humanity and generosity is deeply embedded in the minds of generations of social service practitioners, policy-makers and educationalists who he nurtured, cared for and valued as individuals. It is here that his contribution to enhancing human wellbeing is strongest."

David Phillips, retired Reader in Social Policy, University of Sheffield

"Eric both interviewed me for the Course and was my personal tutor. He was therefore influential in my career for reasons other than those I have documented in Qualitative Social Work (QSW). It was not until after I qualified I realised that his own background in Theology meant that the connections he made for me were so pertinent (my own degree was in Biblical Studies).

"Apart from his intellect and charm Eric always showed interest and concern for all students on the course – which is probably why we nicknamed him 'Uncle Eric'! He always seemed slightly exotic with his winning smile and lectures that felt like conversations rather than ‘teaching’ – while all the while smoking cigarillos! We were a small group of only 12 students and the sense of being a family was heightened by the generosity Eric and Audrey showed by inviting us to their delightful home, giving us delicious food and engaging in stimulating conversation. They were truly caring." Read more.

Professor Joan Orme

"Both Annie and I owe a great deal to Eric and Audrey. When we first arrived in Sheffield, they greeted us warmly, gave us hospitality and a quick tour of Sheffield to help us think about where we might like to live. This exemplified the excellent way that they both approached their lives, and their connection with others. I was appointed as a new lecturer in the Department some thirty odd years ago and invitations to meet other staff, helpful discussions of housing and local life, and house parties to make us welcome, were key components of our arrival in Sheffield.

"We were very thankful for this warmth, and I know others also appreciated the way that this led to good social connections within the Department. My first major research project was equally well supported by Eric, whose wise experience helped temper the unabridged optimism of the younger lecturer. Both Eric and Audrey contributed so much to our lives in Sheffield."

Professor Peter Marsh