Obituary: Woman devoted her life to people with disabilities

Elizabeth Marais-Taylor. Picture: Supplied

Elizabeth Marais-Taylor. Picture: Supplied - Credit: Supplied

Elizabeth Marais-Taylor

An inspirational and dynamic woman who dedicated her life to making the world a better place for people with severe learning disabilities has died at the age of 91.

Elizabeth Marais-Taylor, nee Farnham, who lived in South Walsham for 40 years, was the driving force behind the state-of-the-art Kevill-Davies School at Little Plumstead which attracted educationalists from afar to learn from its innovative practices.

She set up one of the first clubs in the country to integrate people with learning difficulties with their mainstream counterparts and campaigned for those with severe learning disabilities, who were usually kept in institutions and hospitals, to be transferred from the control of the Health Authority to the Education Authority.

She was awarded an MBE in 1980 for her work.

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Elizabeth was born on June 5th 1923 in West Norwood, London and moved to Norwich at the age of seven when her father Frank opened a branch of Thomas Cooke Travel Agents in the city.

She joined the National Fire Service in 1941 driving buses, lorries and staff cars throughout East Anglia. She moved to Nottingham in 1945 with her partner Bernard, had two daughters, Angela and Marilyn, and became a prolific author of poems, stories and articles.

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After training as a special needs teacher she worked at the Nottingham Junior Training Centre for people with learning difficulties, where she was awarded the Montessori Diploma.

Elizabeth moved back to Norwich with her daughters in 1958 when her relationship broke down and secured a job running Little Plumstead Hospital School for children and adults. She married Michael Marais, a social worker and a fellow published poet, in 1960.

Elizabeth was consulted in the planning and building of the new purpose-built Kevill-Davies junior and senior hospital school on the Plumstead Hospital site and became its first head. In 1971, as a result of Elizabeth and others lobbying MPs, the Government brought in new education legislation which resulted in the school and its staff being transferred from the Health Authority to the control of the Norfolk Education Authority.

The curriculum widened, specialist teachers were employed, and Elizabeth visited Russia to investigate developments in the teaching and training of people with learning difficulties.

In 1966 she founded the Wednesday Club, the forerunner of the charity Build, which is still based in the United Reform Church in Princes Street, Norwich. It became affiliated to the National Federation of Gateway Clubs and Elizabeth was appointed to both its executive and training committees.

Elizabeth's expertise was also sought as an external examiner for the Diploma of Teachers of Mentally Handicapped Adults at Norwich City College, a lecturer at Norwich Teacher Training College, an instructor for MENCAP in music and drama and an adjudicator for courses set up for play leaders and care assistants.

Elizabeth and Michael combined their expertise in their first published book 'Lives Worth Living – the right of all the handicapped'. Then, in 1980, the year Elizabeth accepted her MBE, her beloved Michael died at the age of 57.

As a result of a change in national policy the Kevill-Davies School was closed in 1984 and Elizabeth was asked to develop a new course for adults with learning difficulties at Gt Yarmouth College of Further Education.

In 1987 Elizabeth married Leslie Taylor and together they ran The Heartsease Gateway Club and activities at The Sprowston Adult Training Centre.

Elizabeth died at Heron Lodge Nursing Home at Wroxham on May 23rd, two weeks before her 92nd birthday. She leaves her husband and daughters, a grandchild and two great-grandchildren.

A service to celebrate her life will be held on Monday 15th June, 10.45 am at Greenacres Woodland Hall, Colney, Norwich.

•If anyone would like to contribute to the service they can contact Marilyn Farnham-Smith on 07974804039; email

One of Elizabeth's poems is below:

Norfolk – this breast of England,

moulded by time's exacting hand,

cupped by caressing seas,

fondled by summer's briny breeze.

Winter's arctic winds sweep clean her northern sands,

tumble the waves to steal her lands

which once intruders sought to claim.

Viking and Saxon carved their name

on hamlet, village and the same

seed spread through forest, field and fen

to score the face of Norfolk men.

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