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Reflections on 31 years at Caldecott
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Reflections on 31 years at Caldecott

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This article was written in 1993, by retired Caldecott Community Director James King, for inclusion in the house magazine of 'Association of Workers for Maladjusted Children'.  He has kindly given permission for its inclusion on our website.


Words in square brackets [ ] are editorial amendments for clarity.



Reflections on three decades at the Caldecott Community, by a Practitioner



I had travelled 6,000 miles with my family to take up an appointment at the Caldecott Community. The year was 1961. Apart from an unrelated degree and a desire to work with children, my only real qualification was that I was a father. My wife, who was an SRN, and therefore more qualified, and my two very young children were part of this venture into looking after children residentially. I had given up a post in South America, where I had been sent by a large British company. The main object of that enterprise was to make huge profits for one of the wealthiest families in the United Kingdom. This we did successfully, but working in Commerce in those days involved spying on competitors, wriggling endlessly to avoid paying legitimate taxes and not trusting anyone, not even myself, with anything approaching the truth. I was therefore amazed at the strange Community which I now joined.


There were 115 children in term time residence at that time, of all ages and at all stages of development. Some 20% were deeply disturbed, a number were neurotic, many were gifted, some were delinquent and they were collectively, and individually, a highly attractive lively characterful bunch of children.

The staff group consisted mainly of an assortment of formidable, equally characterful and remarkably gifted ladies, mostly reaching the end of their working life and, not unnaturally, well rooted in the system. At the head were two Directors; Miss Leila Rendel, the founder, who had just celebrated her 80th birthday and Miss Ethel Davies, who was in her 70's. This was indeed a strange world, compared to the place I had come from but the stately home of Mersham-le-Hatch made a wonderful, if rather grand and remote, setting for the task; remote because few people then owned a car.

Miss Leila, as she was known to everyone, was demonstrably passed her prime and lame. She looked like a cross between Margaret Rutherford and Winston Churchill and was the epitome of the charismatic leader. She seemed to me to be frighteningly certain and knowledgeable about children, extremely well-read, and given to wearing large exotic hats when she was about to embark on an outing.

She held forth to her staff every day at tea-time in the hall, rather as I imagine Albert Schweitzer did in Lambarene, and had her audience equally in awe. But not so the younger children. They respected her, but she was by then just too old. The older children, however, still had much to learn about life from the combined unique wisdom of the two Directors. I also shall not forget, in my early days, watching Miss Leila craning forward, hand over her ear, straining to hear every word that a very young child was saying to her at her lunch table. This was, I discovered, a common enough occurrence and I frequently witnessed how accurate she was in repeating to others what a child had said.

Her own sayings were much quoted, and I will record here two in particular: "thou shalt not touch" and "smacking a child is the resort of the destitute." The latter statement has, of course, since been enshrined in law, while we often wondered exactly what she meant by the former. It seemed to discourage action on the one hand and any show of demonstrative affection on the other.

Without touching, the Community in the sixties was a rather affection-less place. But the ultimate sin, I learned, was to be 'over emotionally involved'.


Just the same [as] any institution which often had hot chocolate and cheese and Ryvita for breakfast, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding frequently on Sundays, and the best assortment of English puddings, probably, in the British Isles, [Caldecott] clearly had something special to commend it.

It also held two interesting Chapel Services in its own attractive Chapel every Sunday, and a Meeting at the beginning and end of every term which everyone attended and at which the Community's 1932 Charter was read [out loud].

Moreover the familiar relationships between adult and child, right across the board, were impressive indeed for someone like me coming from the wicked world of business. We had one day off a week, which started at 9 am and finished at midnight. In my early days I found it difficult to believe that what I was doing was actually called work; swimming, going to the Cinema, eating a meal even, were inextricably part of what I considered was leisure. No one could pretend that anything very special was happening in the way of treatment for the children, but the quality of the care - clothes, shoes, food, the culture, standard of cleanliness - was outstanding; the environment was pretty special too and, vitally so, the children felt safe.

Many children flourished in this stimulating atmosphere, but none of us, except Leila Rendel, had any real knowledge. In the Eighties knowledge was to replace care. In the nineties I just hope that care is given equal attention.

I drove for an hour to Westgate on one occasion to hear the already legendary Mrs. Docker Drysdale speak, only to find out on arrival that [her time] had been switched and she had already spoken in the morning. But there were her writings and I had had two boys from the Mulberry Bush in the first group I looked after, and I just knew something beneficial had happened to them. And there were of course, Bowlby, Winnacott and Bettelheim as well as practitioners like Neill, Lyward and Balbernie, but they were shadowy figures to the people on the coal face.

When you start out and are completely ignorant, as we were, you seek the Holy Grail so earnestly for immediate answers as to why John wets his bed, Peter soils, Michael has 10 tempers a day, Judy destroys everything that belongs to her, Patrick disrupts and Edward steals. We sought to have trained staff and, failing that, we wanted to have training ourselves. Leila Rendel agreed (she had already drawn up plans, in the 1950's, to introduce on-site training for Residential Social Workers, some 35 years ahead of the Warner Report's recommendations) .

But she never liked to be pinned down on her philosophy. "I have always believed in sitting on the wall and soaking up the best that is around". Her eclecticism included more than a passing flirtation with Kurt Hahn and the ideals of Gordonstoun. Caldecott boys rose early, ran a mile to the woods and back, and immersed themselves in a cold shower daily before breakfast. Individual punishment runs were supervised by senior boys on bicycles and a system of 'earned privileges' for older children was maintained.

About 10 boys, one at a time over the years, moved from the Community on special scholarships to Gordonstoun and many of these blossomed in later life. Leila Rendel was a Governor there and definitely liked the blending of the Gordonstoun and the Caldecott principles of progressive education.

Men, or House-Fathers as they were then known, were still fairly thin on the ground in residential work. And women at the Community were expected to dress like women (so as not to confuse the children perhaps). Trousers were banned. Skirts and dresses were de rigueur. Without being unkind to the Caldecott ladies, dressing in skirts hardly made them more feminine. One morning the boys at my breakfast table were more than fascinated by a female visitor from the Mulberry Bush [School]. Her hair was beautifully coiffured, she was elegantly dressed, adorned with jewellery and was wearing an intoxicating scent. I knew then what Leila Rendel meant.


But it was the sixties and much of the old order was about to crumble. The successful Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, open necked shirts, short trousers and hair were to be put on the shelf for a couple of decades. The Beetles, Flower power and assassinations dominated. Television was a powerful influence already. And Society's values were rapidly changing before our eyes. This coincided with the end of the Children's Departments. Those rather straight laced, respectable middle class Children's Officers were to be replaced, after Seebohm, by hippy, jeans-clad, roll-your-own, Social Workers in the Seventies. These changes also coincided with the retirement of [many of] the older staff from the Community. Leila Rendel even accused one of being ‘a rat’.

The fact was that the whole world was turning upside down and the Community was reflecting that process. One day [early March 1969] while attempting to sit at her dressing table, Leila Rendel missed the chair. Her large frame never recovered from the resulting fall and she died in hospital 10 days later. We were totally numbed. I was by [then] a Director and I was kept so preoccupied with keeping the enterprise going that I hardly had time to worry about anything beyond immediate survival.

At [Near] the end of her time, at an extraordinary staff meeting, a vote of no confidence in the Directors and in my appointment as a Director was narrowly defeated, but it left its mark. More staff left. And as the old staff were quite irreplaceable by new young staff, gaps appeared everywhere and even the young adults who joined sometimes took off in the middle of the night, too overwhelmed by it all. The difference in calibre between the old and the new was impossible to reconcile. We simply had to restructure if the Community was to go forward into the Seventies.

While the world was in a state of anarchy, I was just thankful to be inheriting a badly leaking ship in an age of change, rather than the pride of the fleet.

Nevertheless over the next two years I, as one of two 'Captains' (Ethel Davies was about to retire), spent most of my time plugging the leaks myself or with teachers from our school, who slept-in at night and taught the next day. It was a close run thing



Before Leila Rendel died, I had warned her that I would have to restructure the Community so that new staff could work together in groups instead of working in isolation. "If you have to, you must," was her response. So family groups were born. Apart from a need to have staff working together, the long-term vertical, so-called family, groups would enable the children to have continuous adult support when they most needed it (i.e at the transition between primary and secondary school). It was also clear that the old staff who had stayed with the Community for enormously long periods, sometimes as long as 50 years, were being replaced by staff who could only guarantee us one year with an absolute maximum of two.

Built into the thinking, therefore, was the idea that when the children felt let down by constant changes of staff, they could gain some strength and continuity from long term relationships with each other. Dr. Turle, our Consultant Psychiatrist at the time, likened the developing relationships between our children as similar to those described in "The Children of the Dream." In later life former Caldecott children often link up for special occasions like birthdays and holidays and help each other out in difficulties as in an extended family. In the event, family groups served us well for the next 23 years.

I was not always sure that I would be staying at the Community (especially in my first few weeks!) In the early seventies when I attended Dr. Andre's course at the Institute of Education at London University, I was made to feel quite unsettled by my colleagues, many of whom were moving sideways and upwards. However at exactly that time our Head Teacher asked me if I saw myself as staying at the Community. I remember answering "Somebody has to. It had better be me.“ Hence my commitment to stay, which I felt I had made as soon as I had said that.

From the late sixties onwards the children were the least of the problems. In fact talking to that generation now, while I felt they had been let down, they seemed to have failed to recognise our adult crisis. Perhaps they were so self absorbed that they wouldn't have noticed an earthquake. Two things made life difficult; the pop culture and an overpowering desire to obtain cigarettes, both of which negatively excluded adults and made it particularly difficult for them to tune into the world of young people. This phase continued until that generation produced staff members who could tune in with equal facility.

Whereas the sixties had seen the collapse of the old order, the seventies came in with a tremendous burst of new energy. After prolonged staff meetings, which traditionally took place after the children had gone to bed, we thrashed out a way forward every Friday night between 9 pm and midnight. Our maintenance team made cubicles for the dormitories. The change round was otherwise completed without spending any money - because we quite simply had none.

In the Summer holidays of 1970 we allocated every child to a 12 strong family group and recruited staff. Whereas before it was the energy and zest of the children that recharged the staff batteries at the beginning of each term, now it was the new staff themselves. As if by a miracle our advertisements for graduates and others that Summer produced an amazing group of young adults, and just enough of them, to carry us forward on the crest of a new wave of hope. We now had all the children completely reallocated in living groups in the house and cared for by 3 adults per group. Most of these staff members were new to the work as well as to the Community, and they completely contrasted with their predecessors. They were intellectually extremely stimulating, bursting with energy and fun which enabled the new family groups to take off from day one. Sadly few stayed long. As time went on, almost inevitably these young adults or their replacements caused problems. While the children's difficulties are to be expected, the staff's are not and are much more difficult to control. The liberated sexual lives at the Universities overflowed into the Community's off-duty private lives and created complicated role models for the children. At times this became much more of a burden than anything the children could possibly have produced.

At the same time the same adults were having to cope with more difficult children, with poor Social Service support, and the very long hours which the Community demanded. The seventies were a challenging time and though the young adults certainly gave us the greatest possible encouragement, there was undoubtedly a cost.

Some of the children who came to us at that time were much too difficult for us to hold onto, and they had to move on. This was both sad and damaging, but we had little choice. We also still had to learn our limitations.


There were, of course, other factors. Margaret Stirling, who became a Director in the seventies wrote later:-

"within the first flush of enthusiasm for generic social work and the appeal of ‘radical’ social work which dominated much professional thinking and training in the seventies, residential care seemed increasingly marginalised. The Community felt this keenly at the time; difficulties in maintaining effective liaison with key people in a child's home area; ill-maintained contact with a child after placement; lack of consultation over planning for a child's needs and future needs. It needed a firm hand on the special needs of its children and a constant reaffirmation of its commitment to the value of each child for the Caldecott Community to hold its head high at this point. That, and a determined effort to improve the quality of its care, to justify its claim to still be a special place."

It didn't feel like a special place at the time, nor did we say that we were, though our psychotherapist, Clarence Wollen, was impressed enough to encourage us to call ourselves a Therapeutic Community. The seventies were essentially a time, for the Community to consolidate. Without ever planning it we were rebuilding brick by brick in every department, looking for the way that worked best, taking risks, experimenting and rejecting.

It was a long, slow, struggle. One of the first steps,because the opportunity now arose, was to put together a revamped Council, the governing body of the Community, with a good mixture of professional expertise: of legal, financial and business knowledge and of former members of the Community under the strong chairmanship of Lord Brabourne.

An extremely able team began to emerge in the seventies which was to serve us so well in the next decade. When I have heard how other governing bodies performed their task, they seemed to be like ‘other’ soap powders in the advertisement. By contrast our Council, collectively, not only had considerable expertise, but had the time, commitment and knowledge to make the various sub committee specialist 'think-tanks' which supported the Directors and made us feel part of a vast shared experience. It was also a highly exhilarating experience working with them.

They were also fun, which is more than can be said of most meetings! If Leila Rendel was the original powerhouse of the Community, the Council combined with the Directors now took on that mantle. Moreover, in the next decade they were able to translate thoughts into action, with considerable aplomb.


With the end of the sixties the whole ethos of the Community went into the melting pot. Punishments, runs, cold showers, the lot had all gone, as well as bells and dormitories, in our endeavour to soften the boarding school image and replace it with individual space and decoration. And Leila Rendel's "thou shalt not touch" had been somewhat transformed by piggy—backs, hugs and other demonstrative displays of affection. The other side of that exhortation, that you should avoid taking hold of a child unless it is absolutely necessary, was constantly re-examined without us ever being content that we had a satisfactory answer to this essential tool of the residential worker with EBD [Emotional Behaviour Disorder] children. In the early seventies we watched the "Warrendale" film and tried to adapt their semi-affectionate, non-threatening techniques.

In the light of recent difficulties in "holding", it might be wise to look at "Warrendale“ again.

Residential social workers have constantly to look at ways of making themselves more and more professional and "holding" needs the most expert scrutiny and wisdom. Unless we find an acceptable solution we put ourselves at risk every time we take hold of a child for whatever reason. There are of course other ways of holding, but physical holding is fundamental to the job, we cannot afford to leave it until later [for] much longer.

Our seventies children meanwhile showed what they were made of whenever they competed outside. Two boys held county athletic records; two years running we overcame the Boy Scouts of Kent in their Nightmare exercise and ours was considered the crack crew of the ocean-going "Arethusa." [training ship] They weren't just pretty faces. And throughout the decade any child leaving Caldecott, however unqualified, could walk straight into a job.



At the beginning of this decade, Michael Jinks came from the Cotswold Community to join me in the Directorate of the Community and we worked together for the next 12 highly productive years. The children who we were asked to admit in this period were considerably more damaged and abused than in the previous decades. "Sexual abuse" became commonplace in referral papers and the Community's long standing educational system was being tested sorely.

All Community children were educated in our school until they reached secondary age when they were expected to transfer, albeit gradually in some cases, to local mainstream schools. We had spread our favours, so that all schools in the area had up to a van full of children. We liaised closely with their teachers, escorted them to and from school, sometimes removed them at lunch-time and generally stretched ourselves to the limit in our attempts to sustain their educational progress. But cracks were appearing.

Even before Keith Joseph's demoralising teachers strikes it was clear that our more vulnerable children had a poor deal at school and we found ourselves withdrawing children before they could be excluded. We set up a secondary support class back at the Community which worked for a time and benefited a few - a kind of beefing up exercise - but it was becoming obvious that we would sooner or later have to establish our own full time educational provision through to [age]16. If, in the sixties as I believe, England was beginning to have a highly skilled preventative system - thanks to a combination of the work of the Children's Departments and the Child Guidance Clinics - by the eighties the battle was well and truly lost. Extremely disturbed children of all ages were being referred and "gifted neurotics" were unknown. What we had to offer could only ever assist a tiny percentage of the population, but the need had become yearly greater. For our part we had to be able to provide for these very damaged children and give them something special. Unlike Leila Rendel who secretly sought a ‘Messiah’ among these children and could be distinctly selective (her head was turned by a high IQ and she was very dismissive of what she called "poor stock"!). In order to survive we now had to accept most referrals and prepare ourselves in every way to serve them better.


Early on in the eighties Michael Jinks and I took on a Bursar. It seemed to be ‘a good idea at the time’, since we had in mind several expensive projects. But it didn't work out and it became clear that if we were to make the improvements we wanted, we needed to control the finances ourselves. Michael Jinks took on that exacting task and we were soon able to manage our finances to the greater benefit of the Community. This turned out to be the single most important factor of the eighties. We introduced a whole truckload of improvements and capital projects to make Milieu Therapy more of a reality.

Building the right staff takes time, and that includes administrative, maintenance and domestic teams. They are all an essential part of the whole. The Director is merely a facilitator, an enabler, and may just as easily find himself cleaning a lavatory as being the Community's figure-head.

When Sir Leon Brittan, then Home Secretary, made an unannounced visit one Sunday afternoon while he was walking in the park, he asked where he would find the graffiti. He seemed impressed when I told him there wasn't any and genuinely surprised by the excellent state of the decor. Afterwards I wished I had asked him why he was so surprised.

The exciting part of the eighties were the leaps and bounds we achieved. By building and opening our new unit at Lacton House in 1985 for example, we not only achieved an outstanding environment for this work, but the repercussions through the Community were for once the beneficial aspect of "the tail wagging the dog." We were obliged to update all areas so as to stand comparison with this parvenu in our midst. We also set Lacton House up as a 52 week provision. Within 3 years all our groups had the same facility. This was a great step to take and it took several years for the adults to feel comfortable with the change.

It completely altered the way we worked and our lives. Many former 'Caldecotts' have come to tell us "if only you had had 52 week provision when we were there." These included the children of the sixties and seventies who had endured holiday sexual abuse-from parents and foster parents; besides others whose families provided a damaging environment.

We now know that Residential care needs to be of excellent quality, be well monitored and provide the service that the Country needs. Just as there are children who should be fostered, there are those for who fostering or adoption would be a disaster. Such children can only be catered for in a residential setting where there is a good chance that many carers, teachers and therapists will see them through. It should never be an either/or situation. In the sixties and seventies we had children going onto University, even two to study music.

Marian Bennathan, whose excellent article was reprinted in this journal last year, assured me recently that I was wrong in thinking that the "maladjusted" child of the sixties was fundamentally better educated than his equivalent in the nineties. It must just have seemed that way from my practitioner's point of view, or, more likely, the Caldecott Community's selective process weeded out the children who had not begun educationally. Whatever the reality, there is no doubt that today's Community child has really not had a chance before arriving with us and we have become, of necessity, not so much a place of last resort as a place of hope.

It is even noticeable that new children quickly perceive what the Community offers them, after what they have been through, and can settle remarkably well, while the young adult staff who join us find themselves needing considerable support.

But then it is intimidating in your twenties to make such a personal commitment, let alone show yourself to be the adult role model that is suddenly expected of you. I personally believe that becoming a Christian, which didn't happen till my late fifties, would have solved any role model problems I might have had as a young ‘house-father’.


The last few years have been marred by the disappearance recently of some fine Communities - Chelvington, New Barns, Peper Harrow, Red Hill. The rollback must not go further or all that is worthy of the word 'Therapeutic' will be lost and will not be replaced. It is unthinkable that the recession, Government indifference or other causes will allow all the pioneer work with these vulnerable children to be lost, but we fool ourselves if we believe it could not happen.

The eighties were also marred by the appallingly detrimental affect of television for children and possibly all of us. It has been likened to "an open sewer into our homes," and we kid ourselves if we think it isn't. How have we reached the point where our children - and I don't just mean EBD children - are so unprotected from what has become a polluting influence of the highest degree? We now don't seem to care any more about our children as long as "the public wants it" as if the public has any real choice.

In the sixties children were fairly safe watching television till about 9 pm though by no means invariably. Now they are not safe at any time.

By the end of the eighties there were 75 children at the Caldecott Community and some 150 adults were employed there. These numbers are testimony enough to show the contrast with the sixties when there were 115 children and only 40 staff altogether. Then for one thing you just couldn't be ill!


As I bow out after 31 years as a practitioner, I can only say how much enjoyment I have had in working with these special (needs) children; how rewarding they have been and how committed I am to ensure that provision is always made for these damaged young people. The Psalmist calls God "A father to the fatherless." How much they need Him. It would also seem neatly to describe my Director's role over the past three decades.