1882 – 1969


phoca thumb l leilaWherever the treatment of difficult or deprived children is under discussion by responsible social workers, someone is pretty certain to say: 'But have you seen the Caldecott Community?” And someone else is sure to say: 'Why yes – the Caldecott Community. Of course Leila Rendel...You must see what Leila Rendel is doing.' But now it is a question of 'See what Leila Rendel has done'; because in 1969 she died at the age of 86, having completed a plan for her own retirement in favour of chosen successors.

At the Caldecott Community are something approaching a hundred children, from babies in the nursery to teenagers in the grammar school. The under-elevens are taught in the community's own primary school, the over-elevens go out to the local secondary schools. They comprise divers social classes and both sexes. Some are emotionally well adjusted, some are emotionally disturbed. None are mentally sub-normal, though some, for earlier environmental reasons, are educationally backward. Their habitation is a superb Adam mansion, the ancestral home of Lord Brabourne at Mersham-le-Hatch in Kent, set in lovely surroundings of field and woodland. The children have this in common: that all for some reason or another have been deprived of a normally satisfying domestic background and are in need of something that they would otherwise have missed, a sense of personal security in a home where they are regarded as well-loved individuals. And the staff have this in common: that all are dedicated child-lovers doing a job which they find intensely interesting under the enduring inspiration of Leila Rendel's half a century of leadership.

From time to time at the Caldecott Community its past impinges on its present. Old boys and girls come back – and would bring their wives and husbands and children to report progress to Leila Rendel, who always remembered them and always wanted to see them. Nor did the multiplication of numbers as the years rolled by appear to strain her memory of who they were and what they had done since. She knew and cared and they knew that she knew and cared. From a public school master to an exuberant cockney hop-picker, the variety of their destinies reflects the variety of their origins. There are, of course, some who do not come back, because the Caldecott Community, like other human families, has its failures. Which is not surprising because maladjustment or discouragement has sometimes gone too far for permanent redress.


From her grandfather's house in Russell Square Leila Rendel trained as a teacher of physical training and later taught P.T. Her teaching landed her in the Board of Education as an inspector, by one of those professional side-doors through which in those days it was possible for women to become civil servants. But nature had not intended Leila Rendel for an athlete, not did inclination intend her for a civil servant. When in her spare time she joined Phyllis Potter in running a nursery class at Whitfields Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road, nature's intention became crystal clear. She was doing what it had always been in her to do, and what she did supremely well. And her grandfather's sympathy for her work expressed itself in a financial endowment just enough to set her free for unpaid work in the sphere of her choice.

Now just about this time, Leila's aunt, Edith Rendel, who ran a working girls club, had moved it into new premises in what was once Burton Crescent but had become Cartwright Gardens in order to dissociate itself from a murky past. But the club only functioned in the evening after working hours. During the day the house stood empty – which seemed wasteful – more especially since the conditions of women's work in St. Pancras urgently demanded a communal day nursery. So the St. Pancras Day Nursery, supported by contributions from Rendel family and their extensive circle of philanthropic friends, came to play box and cox with the Working Girl's Club. To begin with, its babies lay in cots; but soon it became obvious that the day nursery contained toddlers – and unoccupied toddlers for whose development the crèche regime was clearly inadequate.

Here then was Leila Rendel's starting point. In partnership with Phyllis Potter she took over the care of the day nursery toddlers. It was clearly the beginning of a more extensive assignment because the toddlers like the cot babies were destined to grow up and indeed had a long interval of social neglect ahead of them before the L.C.C. Elementary school was prepared to absorb them. Leila Rendel and Phyllis Potter acted decisively and (from a financial point of view) dangerously. They took the next-door house and by the end of 1911 the Caldecott Nursery School was in being with a dozen children and an address of its own. Its first year's receipts amounted to £69.11s.5d., of which £45.6s.11d. came from private contributions, £21.19s.2d. from an entertainment organised by Phyllis Potter, and £2.5s.4d. from the sale of milk. On the expenditure side wages absorbed £4, but as yet no rent had been paid.

One item, however, deserves special attention: '£6 for the decoration of the schoolroom'. This must have covered the cost of turning the illustrations torn from the Caldecott children's books on which the Rendel family had been brought up, into an attractive frieze. In so doing it gave the School not only an attractive living room, but a name which outlived the walls of 26 Cartwright Gardens.


Among the gifts recorded in the first report of this financially precarious venture is a significant item: special thanks for 'the gift of an entire set of Montessori teaching apparatus'. The free development idea embodied in the Montessori system was certainly an early inspiration for the Caldecott Nursery School. But it soon became clear that the degree of freedom suitable for Italian young was in the case of young Londoners not incompatible with disorder, not indeed wholly conducive to a sense of security on the part of the children themselves. At an early stage, therefore, the School which had become the Community, evolved on Rendel-Potter lines rather than on Montessori lines. But Mme Montessori must be given some credit for an initial inspiration.


Thus launched, the progress of the Caldecott Community became rapid. By the eve of World War One, it had acquired a written constitution, and an impressive list of supporters. The Professor of Education in London University was its Chairman. Princess Louise was its President. Its receipts and expenditure had risen to nearly £500. Its subscription list showed that the Rendel and Potter families and their friends had been well and truly mobilised. But a new and revolutionary development lay in store for it. Its children continued to grow up, and as they grew it was increasingly clear that home and street conditions in St. Pancras as a background to the rough and tumble of an urban elementary school were, to say the least of it, not conducive to the development of a healthy and happy childhood. So in 1917 the Caldecott Community acquired the lease of an ideal country house in Kent and became a boarding school for working-class children.

It has remained a boarding school from that day to this, though not always in the same place. In 1924 it migrated to Goffs Oak in Hertfordshire. In 1932 it returned to Kent: to The Mote near Maidstone from which it was bombed and machine-gunned into exile by the Germans in 1940. After a nerve-racking period of dispersal it re-assembled under pioneer conditions in the wildest part of Dorset, familiar to readers of Thomas Hardy as Egdon Heath. But the end of the war brought it back to civilisation in its present stately home under the benevolent eye of its landlord, Lord Brabourne.

During the years, the community suffered perpetual financial crises mitigated as time went on by the generosity of trusts and the availability of government and local authority grants for special purposes. In face of them all, Leila Rendel displayed a monumental imperturbability. Perhaps the worst blow she suffered was the break-up in 1931 of her long and fruitful partnership with Phyllis Potter. Miss Potter felt that she could only work on specifically Church of England lines. The Caldecott Community, though working on a religious basis, indeed its chapel was the centre of its spiritual life, was non-sectarian and Leila Rendel was determined to keep it so. From 1931 onwards, therefore, Ethel Davies and not Phyllis Potter figures as co-Director with Leila Rendel.



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Some people grow tired with advancing age. Others become set in their ways. There have been many developments in the treatment of difficult or deprived children since the Caldecott Community set up house in Cartwright Gardens. Leila Rendel was abreast of all of them and leading in most. Year by year she would meet her Council with some new project for which money must be raised: for instance, a clearing house for children in care of the local authority, so that they can be directed to the appropriate destination instead of being chivvied from pillar to post as potential failures. It must be done – it is done – and local educational authorities take notice. Or – an experiment regime must be tried out for intelligent children who have lost ground for environmental reasons. It must be done – money must be raised for it . . . thus the Caldecott Community has through the years served as a power house of ideas for the better understanding of children and their needs. In its own day-to-day existence it reflects the Rendel achievement of a synthesis which in other spheres has baffled generations of statesmen: the integration of freedom and order. The visitor is conscious that its denizens are very free. They talk freely, they play freely, they laugh freely. At the same time one is conscious that order prevails there – a kind of unforced underlying discipline. They actually behave well at meals.

One is also conscious that behind it all is the personality of Leila Rendel. It would be inadequate to say that she loved children. Many women do that, and some men. But she loved each individual child, and after fifty years of dealing with every variety of juvenile contrariness, she loved the latest maladjusted recruit to the community with the same dynamic activity of understanding as was accorded to the twelve little cockneys who settled into Cartwright Gardens in 1911.

And, of course, the children knew it; and that is what makes them feel secure.


From Leila Margaret Rendel - Memorial Booklet.  

Reproduced by Eileen Northam during the Caldecott Community Archive Weekend, May 2011