Coral Atkins

Coral Rosemary Atkins (13 September 1936 – 2 December 2016)[1] was an English actress who opened and ran a home for disadvantaged children.[2] She cared for 37 children over a period of 26 years.[3]

Coral Atkins
Coral Rosemary Atkins

(1936-09-13)13 September 1936
Died2 December 2016(2016-12-02) (aged 80)
Known forOpened and ran a home for disadvantaged children
Notable workEmmerdale
A Family at War
Jeremy Young
(m. 19601960)


Atkins was born in Richmond upon Thames, Surrey.[2] Her parents were Eric D. Atkins and Lilian L. Millson. The family moved to Bucklebury when she was young, and she attended Shaw House School in Newbury before returning to London. During World War II Atkins and her sister, Sylvia Vivian Atkins (1933–1990) were evacuated from London to rural England. In her memoir, Atkins stated that she and her sister had been beaten and neglected by caregivers.[4]

Atkins began appearing on British television in the 1960s; her television credits included episodes of The Sweeney, in which she played Brenda Keever the wife of a career criminal, Dixon of Dock Green, Deadline Midnight, No Hiding Place, Survivors, The Avengers and The Likely Lads.[5][6][7] She also starred as Ruth Jameson in Emmerdale.[5] Her best-known role was that of Sheila Ashton in the 1970s drama series A Family at War.[2]

Atkins became interested in helping needy children after being invited to open a fair at a children's home in Manchester in 1970. She was upset at the level of deprivation and distress that she witnessed, and it reminded her of her childhood trauma as a wartime evacuee.[4] That same year, Atkins bought and renovated a thatched cottage called "Crossways" and sought funding to run it as a home. In 1971 she started taking in disturbed and needy children, all under the age of 10 and some as young as 18 months.[3][8] She had no training or education in related fields, so she educated herself through reading books by psychiatrist R. D. Laing and studying child psychology and psychotherapy.[8][9]

During the 1980s, Atkins made occasional performing appearances, such as in the BBC One series Flesh and Blood in 1980.[10] She also lobbied for funding and other support to run the home, such as a promotion run by a pharmacy to seek donations.[8]

In 1987 she was offered free use of Gyde House, an Edwardian mansion in the Cotswolds which had more recently been used as an orphanage. She moved 15 children from Crossways into the mansion and local authorities sent her additional children to care for.[11] Some of the children had experienced severe abuse, and attacked the house by setting parts of it on fire, or graffiti-ing the walls.[11]

In 1990, Atkins published her memoirs as Seeing Red. The following year, Atkins adapted the book into eight episodes for radio, which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4.[12] In 2000, ITV dramatised the story in a TV drama of the same name,[4][13] starring Sarah Lancashire as Atkins.[11] She was also the subject of an episode of the Thames Television show This Is Your Life in 1994.[14] In 1997, she was severely injured in a car crash and had to give up running the children's home.[4]

Personal life

Atkins was married to British actor Jeremy Young. After divorcing him, she had a six-year relationship with film director Peter Whitehead, with whom she had a son, Harry Whitehead.[9][15] Atkins died in West Berkshire Community Hospital, Thatcham, West Berkshire on 2 December 2016, from cancer.[2]


  1. Hayward, Anthony (23 December 2016). "Coral Atkins obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 December 2016.
  2. Ord, Chris (9 December 2016). "A Family at War actress Coral Atkins dies aged 80". Newbury Today.
  3. "Coral sees it like it is – and survives; Former actress Coral Atkins talks to Olivia Convey about a moving TV drama on her remarkable career working with disturbed children". Birmingham Post. 14 March 2000. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  4. "Masterpiece Theatre | Seeing Red". Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  5. Agius, Nicola (10 December 2016). "Emmerdale actress dies aged 80 following battle with cancer". mirror. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  6. Cornell, Paul (2013). The Avengers Dossier. Hachette UK.
  7. "The Likely Lads: Double Date – BBC One London – 12 March 1965 – BBC Genome". Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  8. "Dettol's Charity Challenge to Chemists and Customers". Chemist & Druggist. Vol. 212, no. 5186. 15 September 1979. ISSN 0009-3033. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  9. Mikhail, Kate (16 February 2003). "Significant others". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  10. "Flesh and Blood – BBC One London – 4 March 1980 – BBC Genome". Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  11. Stock, Jon (27 November 2001). "Ghostly echoes of a troubled past". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  12. "Woman's Hour – BBC Radio 4 FM – 12 August 1991 – BBC Genome". Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  13. "Helping Hands: I Never Really Liked Children". Central Television. 1983. Archived from the original on 14 December 2016. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  14. "This Is Your Life[06/04/94] (1994)". BFI. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  15. Fabian, Jenny (November 1996). "Peter Whitehead profile". Harpers & Queen. Archived from the original on 16 May 2016. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
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