Miss Seaver says little about the Caldecott Community except that “… it taught me my trade and something of the human material with which I would work.” The following personal1 memoir is offered to make sense of her claim, to provide essential background and to show something of her character.
Founded by Leila Rendel2 and Phyllis Potter in 1911 the Community began life as a nursery school for children whose parents, through poverty, had no option but to work. Leila, born 1883, was the elder daughter of a comfortable middle-class London family. Having a lively mind but not considered academic, she went to the Chelsea College of Physical Education, 1902/3, but found herself physically and temperamentally unsuited. Having a small private income, she joined her aunt, Edith Rendel, doing unpaid social work in the East End. Thus she found that working with children, especially those with problems, was what really interested her.
Finding a desperate need for good nursery day-care, Leila and friend Phyllis Potter raised money, prams, cots, truckle beds and other equipment from family and others of their circle; found suitable rooms3, and opened a day nursery for babies of working mothers. Those mothers who could afford it paid a penny a day towards the cost of a lunch. Needing decoration, they used prints taken from Randolph Caldecott’s book illustrations to make a dado height frieze around the nursery. Hence it became the Caldecott Nursery.
The next stage came with the bombing of London during the 1914-18 war. Mothers asked that their children, growing in number and in years, be taken out of London for safety. The supportive family circle - now given the title ‘Committee’ - found a suitable house in Kent, overlooking the Weald near Sutton Valance. The staff now included a teacher and a nursery nurse.
Leila Rendel believed that the single most important thing for children is stability. Her aim was to ensure that both their surroundings and the people who cared for them should be as stable, unchanging, as possible in an unstable world. She was adept at choosing staff who were ‘stayers’.
Whenever possible, Leila Rendel selected children on the basis of their IQ score, not as an easy option - intelligent but disturbed children are often the most difficult - but because she felt that these were the ones she could offer most help to.
By 1930, the Caldecott Community (as it was now named) cared for some 50 deprived children, many of them classed as ’difficult’. Recognition of the results which could be obtained by good residential childcare came from official bodies such as the Home Office4 and Kent County Council, and from the world of child psychiatry centred on the Tavistock Clinic. Children were now given a primary education, based on Montessori methods. Those aged eleven and over lived the normal life of the Community but attended local secondary schools. This was the Caldecott Community that Marjorie Seaver first visited in 1929.
Miss Potter was High Anglican in her religious beliefs and wanted the Community to follow her lead. Leila Rendel, with a Quaker background, believed that every child should be offered a basic Christian teaching but with little or no dogma. On this issue, neither would give way. Miss Potter left to set up her own establishment.
The ad-hoc fund-raising committee of friends had by now become an established governing body. Leila chose Ethel Davies5, a newcomer to the Community, as her fellow Director. This was an inspired choice; they made a very good pair. ‘Miss Leila’ was always a vigorous, flamboyant visionary whereas ‘Miss Dave’ was a quiet, calm, no nonsense woman who got on with running the household.
The Community moved to a new, intended to be permanent, home in 1930. The Mote was an early-Victorian mansion , set on a rise overlooking the lake, in Mote Park, Maidstone. Built for the few, upper-class rich, it now accommodated the many, largely classless and impecunious, very well. Marjorie Seaver, having had several short visits, became a permanent member of staff in the Autumn of 1936.
‘I don’t find it at all easy to describe the Community. None of the conventional labels like ‘boarding school’ or ‘special school’ or ‘childrens home’ will quite fit. It was simply ‘a community’; a collection of children and adults whose sole aim was to provide for children from ‘broken’ homes and to fit them for life as adults in the wider world. I say that adults and children worked towards the same end advisedly. Very early on we learnt that, while the adults were nominally in charge, responsible, the children themselves were expected to play their part; to be, as the Caldecott charter put it, ‘careful and helpful with those younger than themselves …’. [JB]
‘What I now realise were the guiding principles upon which the school was founded, were instilled in us without the need to be ’ground in’, seldom even stated, the ethics of respect for authority, consideration for others and a sense of honesty in all things. These ideals we understood and respected and, apart from occasional lapses, they have guided me in my life ever since’. [M.S-H]
‘In 1938, the Community accepted a dozen or so refugee children from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany. They spoke little or no English and as far as I am aware, our staff spoke no German. Add to which, all the newcomers must have been in a state of shock having had to leave one or both parents behind. I didn’t notice them getting any special treatment but, with the resilience of youth, they seemed to settle down quite quickly.’ [JH]
‘….. then I was sent out to join in a ‘rounders’ game while my father was seen alone. Nor do I remember what happened afterwards; whether I was accepted into the Community there and then or whether it was days, weeks or even months before I became a Caldecott boy. Leila Rendel being the person she was, if she decided that I was in need of care and protection she would offer it there and then.’ [JB]
‘We called all the staff “Miss”, it made no difference to the warmth, or otherwise, of our affection for them. It was simply a recognition that they were adults and we were not; but we would be one day. ….. Miss Leila believed strongly that space and beautiful surroundings were of great value to deprived and unhappy children. We lived at The Mote for eleven years, from 1930 - 1941. When I think of my childhood, it is always of The Mote and its surroundings and of the life there.’ [SB]
‘In 1940 the Army requisitioned The Mote and we had to move; for a time staff and children in small groups until, in 1941, we came together again in Hyde House, an interesting but rather primitive house in the middle of Hardy’s ‘Egdon Heath’. At any other time Hyde House would have been considered quite unsuitable, but wartime needs mean that many rules and regulations had to be relaxed. The war brought other changes too. We had some children evacuated from London but found to be unbilletable in ordinary families. We also had a few boys and girls who were quite beyond any help which the Community could then offer.
After the war, in 1947, Caldecott returned to Kent. The Community was offered a fifty year lease of a large Adam house, Mersham le Hatch, the family home of Lord Brabourne, near Ashford. Leila Rendel’s work was widely recognised and the Nuffield Trust agreed to finance the setting-up of a Reception Centre and other innovations.
That was seventy years ago! Since then there has been a big, but gradual, change. Children tend to come deeply traumatised by extremes of neglect and abuse, generally after several fosterings and attempted adoptions; violence and sexual abuse is a feature of most case histories. Instead of one, possibly amateur, adult to about five children, the ratio is nearer five trained professionals to one child. The Community has become a refuge/treatment of last resort. Nevertheless the ethos, as far as I can tell from an occasional visit, remains much as it was in my day.’ [JB]
1 ‘Personal’ in the sense of extracts from memoirs by John Brown, Sonia Brown, John Hansen and Martin Spenser-Hogbin who all experienced life as a teenager in the Caldecott Community, and for the boys, in Miss Seaver’s charge, some time during the period 1936-48.
4 Sir Alexander Maxwell (1880-1963) who had a distinguished career in the Home Office, becoming Permanent Under-secretary (1938-48), was a personal friend of Leila Rendel and maintained a keen interest in her work.
5 An interesting light on how Leila Rendel managed to recruit ‘stayers’ to her staff. Ethel Davies and Betty Hillyar both joined the Community after seeing an advertisement reading ‘…… we want two women who will work hard for very little money. ….’ Both women remained on the staff for the rest of their working lives.