[This article is based on material sent by Dr Jimmy Whittaker, Feb 2018.]
Coral Rosemary Atkins was born on 13th September 1936 at Kingston on Thames and died, aged 80, on December 2, 2016 at the West Berkshire Community Hospital, Thatcham. At the time of her death, she had been living at Edinburgh House, Priory Road, Newbury with Keith Skinner, her partner for the previous 16 years.
Her gravestone in St. Saviour’s Cemetery bears the inscription “Actress and Children’s Campaigner”. It is hardly surprising then that these two activities featured largely in her life.
Coral’s father Eric was an electrician by occupation but was also a budding painter whose works were exhibited at the Royal Academy.
The family were on the move for many years. By 1939, the Atkins family were living at 57 Langley Avenue, Sutton but just a few years later, during WW2, Coral and her sister Sylvia were evacuated from Tooting, in London, to a remote farm in rural Wiltshire. Just after the war, Coral’s parents moved to Bucklebury and then to Kingsclere and Coral attended Shaw House School in Love Lane, Newbury.
After leaving school, she tried following her father’s passion for art and attended Winchester School for a short period. She finally realised it was not to be her vocation and instead joined Armstrong Productions, a travelling rep company.
In 1960, she first appeared on TV in a bit part in Emergency Ward 10 and in following years enjoyed roles in Dixon of Dock Green, Deadline Midnight, No Hiding Place and The Likely Lads, to name a few.
Her big break came in 1970 when she starred as the downtrodden and neglected wife Shelia Ashton in the ITV drama Family at War (1970-72) which followed the lives of a lower-middle-class Liverpool family from 1938 to 1945. At its peak this TV series had over 20 million viewers.
Later TV appearances included Callan, The Sweeney, Flesh and Blood and finally the soap opera Emmerdale in 1993 in which she starred as Frank Tate’s former girlfriend.
In 1970, she opened a fete on behalf of a children’s home near Manchester where she encountered a disturbed young girl who seemed to be ignored by her carers. This had such a dramatic effect upon her that she turned her back on her acting career at the end of the Family at War series and decided to open up her own home for disturbed children.
Around 1972, she rented a 20-roomed thatched cottage set in a couple of acres of land called Crossways in Marsh Benham, near Newbury, and after renovation, which she did herself, she opened up her premises for disadvantaged children with behavioural problems in the latter part of 1972. In 1981, she qualified as a psychotherapist.
In 1985, Coral opened up a second children’s home, in Putney, south-west London. Five years later, both homes were merged into Gyde House, in Painswick, Gloucestershire. Over a period of 26 years, she cared for a total of 37 children aged between 10 and eighteen months old. Sadly, her home had to close in 1996 after suffering financial difficulties.
Following the 1990 merger, her autobiography, Seeing Red, was published and in 2000, it was turned into a TV drama of the same title, starring Sarah Lancashire.
In 1960 she married the actor John H (Jeremy) Young in Newbury and following their divorce she had a six-year relationship with the writer and film director Peter Whitehead. Her son Harry Dominic Whitehead was born in 1967 in London.
In 1994, Coral was the subject of This is Your Life.
Her sister Sylvia V Atkins (Pope), who was born on 17th October 1933, was buried in her sister’s grave at St. Saviour’s, Eddington.