It is with great sadness that we share the news that Mary Lower, NACCC’s President and founder of the charity NACCC, has passed away. Mary took the challenge to open the first private law child contact centre in Nottingham in 1985 and subsequently set up NACCC in 1991. Her experience and actions inspired the opening of hundreds of centres round the country helping hundreds of thousands of children stay in contact with family members and people important to them. 

Mary was an inspiring lady – I had the privilege to spend a few hours with her last year to discuss her experiences.

Born in 1934 she grew up in Enfield with her sister and parents who ran a local pub where they lived. As children they experienced the bombings and the Blitz first hand. This might have been where her grit and determination came from… “I got so fed up with my mother getting me out of bed to go to our cellar every time the air raid warning went I said that if we were bombed I’d sooner just have the roof on top of me instead of the whole house and refused to get out of bed any more. My mother wasn’t pleased and was understandably worried, but one of my main memories of that time was being very tired with so many nights’ interrupted sleep.”

As an adult Mary became increasingly aware of the emotional impact of divorce on children. Her husband had grown up not knowing his dad and had always thought it was his fault until they were reunited 34 years later. As a magistrate she saw how children were affected by divorce and that there was a lack of informal venues where they could meet the parent no longer sharing their home. This provoked her to seize an opportunity in 1984 at the age of 50 to start a movement that has helped hundreds of thousands of children stay in contact with family members and people important to them.

Doing what needed to be done. “Children need to know both halves of their identity…”

Mary didn’t run out of steam. With the support of her family and friends she didn’t give up when hurdles came her way – she just got on with it and found a solution…

“When I first had the idea to set up a contact centre in Nottingham it was to deal with a local problem in the city. I was sitting as a Magistrate in Nottingham (in 1984) and we had this seven-year-old boy who wanted to see his dad but mum wouldn’t have dad in her home as she had a new partner and Dad lived in a bedsit which was not ideal. Having seen how upset Tony [her husband] was about not knowing his dad I knew that something had to be done…. I insisted that we retire while they found somewhere. The difficulty was that the little boy was at school during the week and the father was working – so we needed somewhere impartial at the weekends – other than McDonalds! The probation service had a small scheme but that was when reports were required and in this case there weren’t major problems. So we went to the retiring room and waited and waited and another magistrate said to me, ‘you would have thought the churches would do something about this Mary’. And like an idiot I went back to church and said to Hamish Baillie our Minister ‘shall we help?’…”

No nonsense dry humour

Mary’s sense of humour, ability to have a laugh and encourage support and help may have been what helped to communicate her vision to her friends and church congregation. This helped to mobilise twenty people to say that they would help volunteer, the church to offer their facilities and find a £20 grant (which bought a lot more in those days). As she ‘didn’t do mornings’ the first child contact centre in the UK opened in the afternoon. This was to be extended to the mornings due to the numbers of families needing their service… “we did start to open in the mornings after 18 months as the numbers got so big. There were some fathers that didn’t want to come in the afternoons as Nottingham Forest was playing!”  

“It’s too good an idea to keep to ourselves Mary”

Mary’s ‘Reform’ article (1986) that triggered the start of the child contact centre network

Mary went on to tell me about the next challenge that came her way “… it was never going to be more than just our centre but one of our volunteers had links with the national church magazine ‘Reform’ and said ‘it is too good an idea to keep to ourselves Mary – if you write an article, I’ll make sure it gets printed’ – so I wrote 500 words and to my amazement started to get telephone calls and letters saying ‘how can we do it?’ That’s how it took off.”

So Mary went about answering phone calls and letters until it all got too much and she organised a series of meetings for everyone to exchange ideas and network. From 1985–1991 26 centres had opened across the country providing a secure place for local children to keep in touch with separated parents. This then mobilised a steering committee which set about the formation of the charity NACCC in 1991.

“Come on Mum…chaos is your routine!”

I asked Mary about the impact all this had on her family: “At the time I had two daughters living at home and a husband coming and going – he was a buyer for Wilko’s – and I was a magistrate. ‘Come on mum’ they would say – ‘chaos is your routine’. Tony was very supportive and the fact that we had brought our daughters up to stand on their own two feet helped a lot. There was a lot of co-operation with what I was doing.”

“This is our Network and I look forward to us all working together to achieve our common aim of providing an ever improving service to the people we must never forget – the children using our centres week by week to keep in touch with both their parents.”

This was Mary’s message to the original 26 member centres in 1991 when NACCC achieved charitable status. She continued to work with centres to spread consistency, enabling centres to network and solve problems as they arose. She raised the profile of the charity on a national level and kept the ethos that there had to be somewhere for children to keep in touch with both parents and not experience the guilt that her husband had felt for so many years…

The Guardian 1994
And follow up story 2016…

Mary was awarded The Guardian’s Charity Award in 1994 which recognised her achievements in helping establish and build a social welfare charity. She was also awarded an MBE in 1995 for ‘services to children’ through her work for NACCC. This helped to springboard NACCC into the public arena and raise awareness further. Even when she was not involved in the day to day running of NACCC Mary was still keenly interested and informed about new developments and until recent years continued to pop into the office in Nottingham.

“NACCC is our Mum’s legacy to the country and we are sure the good work she started will continue for many years to come…”

Mary will be greatly missed. Tributes, letters and cards for Mary’s family have been sent in from centres across the country expressing their gratitude to Mary for all her practical help and support over the years. In partnership with the four thousand contact centre volunteers and fifteen hundred staff we are committed that Mary’s legacy should continue. Children should have the opportunity to keep in touch with both parents. If you can, please support our #lostparents campaign…

Ruth Miles, NACCC

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