I believe I was one of the few people who was part of The Community, from this period in its history until we were finally established at Mersham le Hatch. Although due to the fact that I had obtained a job in 1947, I took lodgings in Canterbury during the week and only returned at the weekend to help Agatha Travers and Julian Rhee with the older boys.
I was allowed to sleep in the ‘frying pan’ at the top of the West Wing, having assured Miss Dave that I’d worked out a way of escaping from it in the event of a fire. Very much earlier, in 1937, I arrived as a seven-year-old who had recently lost his father, and was ‘testing the water’ so to speak, so that my mother could decide whether to allow my five-year-old sister Valerie, and my three-year-old brother Gary, to follow.
Whereas the private grounds at The Mote were less extensive than those at either Hyde house or Mersham le Hatch, they were adjacent to Mote Park with its lake, which provided us with interesting walks. Even so, there was a lawn for each age-group, some excellent trees for climbing and two ‘tuck’ shops within walking distance. The Senior Study occupied a schoolroom within the stable yard, which seems to have been the case wherever The Community was located, and we were taught there by Miss Fretter from the age of nine. The ebullient Frances Potts, who didn’t know the meaning of ‘impossible’, was the Housemother for this group.
The Junior Study was based in the Coach House with Miss Watson in charge, but a small room labelled ‘The Hut’, was reserved for those children who had become too boisterous for the Nursery, but were not quite ready to become involved with an academic curriculum. Our Housemother was Elizabeth Lloyd, who commenced my intellectual development during the first week by teaching me to play chess, and continued to act as my Guru if not my Alma Mater, for the next few years. The senior boys and girls who had passed the Eleven-Plus Examination, attended their respective Grammar Schools in Maidstone, and the girls who had not done so were sent to the local Council School. But Miss Leila was not enamoured with the attitude of the Headmaster, at the corresponding establishment for boys. So our boys were driven to Maidstone train station in the morning and despatched to an excellent boys’ school at the nearby village of Snodland!
Mote House was an impressive, squarely-shaped mansion, which possessed an electric ‘lift’ to the first floor. This was used by the caretaker for moving furniture and for those with special needs, but it was out of bounds to all others and was kept locked. The atrium boasted a magnificent marble staircase which was illuminated by a huge skylight, reflecting the affluence of another era; although, needless to say, the children were instructed to use the wooden stairway. Moreover, because the junior boys’ bathroom was continually being flooded, with water seeping through to the ornamental ceiling below, it had been decided to line the floor with zinc!
We possessed a small farm at The Mote, with chickens, ducks, rabbits, and at least one milking cow, and were encouraged to care for these animals from an early age. But what was particularly special was the walnut tree at the farm entrance, for we were able to eat the nuts when they fell to the ground. Several members of staff possessed cars, but instead of journeying to the seaside, which was some distance away, we would either be driven to the North Downs to play hide-and-seek and look for orchids, or taken to the River Medway to visit castles and sites of antiquity.
Several of the staff played musical instruments, and this helped the development of folk dancing. Some possessed skills in pottery, painting and basket weaving, so we were encouraged to get involved in both the visual and the performing arts. In the years before the Second World War began, importance was attached to the therapeutic value of Rudolf Steiner’s form of movement for children, which he called Eurythmics and which was performed in response to piano music. Our teachers at that time were Desiree Martin and Anita Ekmond, and we worked out in a large hall wearing leotards and with bare feet. The emphasis was on the control of movement, so having begun by responding to changes in musical notation, we progressed to a more expressive and dramatic mode, with the pianist leading us in a simulation of the biblical conflict between the Amalekites and the Hebrews. Our teachers were well known within the world of ‘progressive education’ and at some time during 1938, a group of us were taken by coach to London to demonstrate Eurythmics to an audience at the Rudolf Steiner Hall. I was in the Junior Study at the time and my particular group leader was Carmen Marks. Carmen was a beautiful dancer, but I recall being told to ‘find her and follow her if ever I got lost’ which did little to boost my confidence beforehand.
Further recollections of this occasion, include a sea of blank faces that peered at us from behind bright lights, and of rough floor boards! This was my first experience in creative movement, which was to form a significant part in a career devoted to the teaching and organisation of Physical Education. Many years later, when I was associated with The Laban Art of Movement Guild, and took part in ‘Kaleidoscopia Viva’, I was reminded by Miss Leila that her own career had its beginnings at a Woman’s Physical Training College, during the early nineteen hundreds.
At about the same time, 1938-1939, The Ministry of Food had decided that more information was required about the eating habits of the nation’s children, so plans were drawn up to assess our food consumption, by monitoring the diet of individual children within pre-selected groups. Kent County Hall happens to be in Maidstone, and it’s probably because the process of monitoring such a scheme would be easier to organise within a residential establishment, that The County Council asked The Caldecott Community to provide a group for the survey.
Our group consisted of about twelve children, the survey lasted for two or three weeks and we were told that we had been selected because we could be trusted. We were informed moreover, that we wouldn’t be punished for eating anything ‘illegally’, so to speak, as long as everything we ate was declared to the coordinator so that an estimate of its weight could be recorded. And because our food needed to be weighed at mealtime, with the weight recorded in a special notebook, our group sat together at a separate table with a set of scales and our coordinator, who just happened to be Elizabeth Lloyd. However, my abiding recollection of this scheme is that despite what we had been told, we thought that the more food we admitted to having eaten privately, the more pleased our coordinator would be and the more we would be trusted and liked by her. So in this respect, we were probably a poor sample of children for such a significant survey.
When war was declared, on the third of September in 1939, it had very little immediate impact upon our lives. I was now a member of the Senior Study, and we often became spectators as small groups of enemy aircraft engaged in reconnaissance, flew over Kent in daylight and were challenged by the Spitfires and Hurricanes of R.A.F. fighter command. The battle would take place at a considerable height and until the air raid siren was sounded, we would lie on the grass and gaze at the vapour trails as the pilots displayed their skill. In fact, until we were able to witness the shooting down of an aircraft, the activity was viewed as entertainment for us rather than a fight to the death. Nevertheless, when we did hear the siren, we followed instructions and headed for the cellar, taking our schoolwork materials with us if we happened to be in the classroom. The floor of the cellar was situated well below ground level, but it possessed small windows at a point where the walls met the ceiling, and these provided us with sufficient light to read.
After the fall of France, in June 1940, the air raids became heavier and we all slept in the cellar at night on improvised beds. But to avoid interruption, everyone settled down at the same time, regardless of their age. The toilets and washing arrangements were improvised, and the staff took turn to remain on duty through the night, often reading to us aloud when sounds of the bombing and gunfire prevented us from sleeping. I recall that the noise seemed louder at night, for although we were much safer at this low level, our cavernous dormitory acted like an echo chamber and seemed to intensify the sounds outside. But exhausted children will always find sleep eventually, regardless of interruptions, and we knew that we would be able to rest on rugs on the lawns during the following day.
As time progressed, more bombs fell and some fell nearby, so a decision was made to evacuate us as soon as possible. It transpired that two members of staff had ‘connections’ at Oxford University, and due to the fact that it was now July and that the students were leaving their accommodation, arrangements were quickly made to utilise it. Those children who lived in ‘safe’ areas were sent home, and the Nursery, which included my five-year-old brother, was re-established at Wycombe Abbey girls’ School, a building that was also being vacated. I also recall that several of my age-group, were lodged with the de Selincourt family at their stately home near Chipping Norton.
The remainder of us headed for Oxford in two coaches, one for the boys and one for the girls, and we were all provided with a packed lunch. But what I remember most clearly about the journey, as a ten-year-old, is that we weren’t supposed to arrive early. Marjorie Seaver was in charge of our coach, and as any enthusiastic ‘historian’ might have done in her place, she instructed the driver to take diversions to Windsor Castle and the Stone that commemorates the signing of the Magna Carta, stopping en route at just about every public toilet between Maidstone and the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’.
When we did finally arrive at Oxford, it was still too early so we were taken to a park near the river for some exercise. But eventually it became possible to enter Somerville College, which had earlier been the ‘seat of learning’ for our ‘tour guide’! This is a Ladies college, and permission had already been granted for the girls, including my sister Valerie, to remain there for the duration. However, the boys’ accommodation at St Peter’s Hall wasn’t ready for us, so we were obliged to sleep on the Somerville dining room floor for a couple of nights, surrounded by our possessions.
The Principal of St Peter’s was Mary Stocks, a close friend of Miss Leila, and her daughter Helen, would eventually join our staff when we moved to Hyde House. But this was a small college in the centre of the city, and the student accommodation consisted of single study bedrooms. So with three boys assigned to a room, one slept at each end of the bed and the third lay on a mattress on the floor. But despite these cramped conditions, we were now more comfortable than we had been in the cellar, and would take turn to wear the black gown and the academic hood that were discovered in the wardrobe.
The month of August was warm and dry in 1940, so the local park became our classroom during the morning, and the afternoons were spent playing games, visiting historic buildings or watching a film at the nearby cinema. Nevertheless, we were obliged to vacate the students’ premises at the end of the month, as preparations were being made for the commencement of the Mickaelmas term. So we went our separate ways until the following January, when Hyde House in Dorset became available to Caldecott Community, and we were able to re-establish ourselves there safely until 1947.
John Hansen, 2013