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A Family at War actress Coral Atkins dies aged 80

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Founder of Crossways children's home was “remarkably powerful character," says son

FORMER actress and child welfare campaigner Coral Atkins has died at the age of 80.

Miss Atkins, who grew up in Bucklebury and Kingsclere, died in the Sue Ryder ward of the West Berkshire Community Hospital on Friday morning after a short battle with cancer.

She made a number of appearances on TV and was best known for her role as Sheila Ashton in the 1970s drama A Family at War.

However, it was for her tireless work in setting up and running a home for disadvantaged children at Crossways, Hoe Benham, in 1971 that she will be locally remembered.

Her son, Harry Whitehead, said he will remember his mother as a “forceful personality” who became a “major part of Newbury’s recent history”.

Born in London in 1938, Miss Atkins moved to Bucklebury at an early age with her parents.

She was a pupil at Shaw House School, Newbury, before moving back to London to become an established actress on stage and on the small screen.

However, at the age of 35, Miss Atkins decided to leave the profession at the height of her fame to raise funds and set up the home for disadvantaged youngsters.

In total, she cared for 37 children at Crossways and another home in Gloucestershire.

The 19-bed thatched cottage set in two-acres of grounds, which she renovated herself, eventually closed in 1996 after a string of public fundraisers over the years.

“It never stopped being a battle from start to finish,” explained Mr Whitehead.

“When she decided to set up the home she had no university education and no experience in child care.

“She went on a child psychology course in Manchester and then moved back to where she grew up to set up the home.

“She had to battle for funds and also against social services, who wanted to move children on continuously.”

According to Mr Whitehead, the public perception of his mother was far from the truth.

“She always said she didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, which goes against the popular perception of her,” he said.

“She would say ‘I’m not that great with a child but I’m great with a child in need’.”

The story of the Coral Atkins Children's Home at Crossways was told in TV drama Seeing Red, starring Sarah Lancashire and screened on ITV in 2000.

Remembering his mother, Mr Whitehead said: “She was a remarkably powerful character.

“She was completely fearless as she faced the end of her days, telling me 'there’s no tragedy in an 80-year-old woman dying’.”

She is survived by her son and two grandchildren, four-year-old Nila and Bran, aged one.

The funeral will be held at 1.30pm on Tuesday, December 20, at St Nicolas’ Church, Newbury. All are welcome.

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