Shotton Hall – An Obituary and A Celebration

By Owen Booker | Published in The Joint Newsletter of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities, with the Community of Communities. Number 10, April/Spring 2004.

One day last summer a group of men and a few women met up in the Bridgewater Arms at Harmer Hill, Shropshire. Some were old friends; others were met for the first time. News was shared of how lives had moved on, enquiries were made, and scraps of facts swapped about others. Later, musing and remembering more, the group walked a poignant exploration of the grounds of Shotton Hall: curiosity, tears and laughter. These were mostly old boys (one or two with partners in tow) who were at Shotton from around the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, together with a few former staff. First time back for me, despite that I can drive past daily if I wish, and so some ghosts and feelings were laid to rest.

Ten years ago this summer, Shotton Hall closed. The Hall and site were later sold to a speculative developer in order to clear bank debts and pay staff redundancies. Shotton Hall had a history dating to Saxon Times, and hosted a TC for a brief forty years; now it is again home to a small community of families, and in the final stages of a redevelopment as flats and houses.

I came to the community as a novice teacher in 1972 with uncertain ambition and task, but inspired to engage adolescent imagination and action and I wanted to belong to something I could believe in. My last task was community closure; but in between there was so very much.

The founder of the community, Frederick Lenhoff OBE, was an escapee from Nazi Germany. He set up a co-educational residential school in 1949 in Corvedale in South Shropshire; this moved to Shotton Hall (north of Shrewsbury) in the 1950s and here the community developed as a 38-week special school for boys.

In the early seventies the management of Shotton Hall School was passed to a charitable trust, and the community placed in the hands of John Lampen. During that decade the majority of boys had high intelligence, and matching rebellious energy. John inherited a community of too many boys and too few staff and a concomitant power base underscored by too much unmet need. Although the community was led with intelligence and humanity, there was not always great practicality. The school was also much dogged by poverty, as fees came predominantly only from Local Education Authority funds for special education and the Trust remained long weighed down by the purchase costs.

This decade saw experimentation, ambitious projects, and all sorts of zany actions and activities, many of which were uncertain then, but would be impossible now for legal and safety considerations. But importantly, Shotton Hall at that time felt strong. The community was guided by a psychoanalytic approach with psychiatric oversight, and we contributed to understanding the needs of ‘maladjusted’ children by producing publications and organising lectures and conferences.

John Hobley became community director in 1982 and he worked tirelessly. The community had to change and progress rapidly, become less radical, present better facilities, and enlarge its adult membership. The excesses were reigned in by improved structures for accountability. Although some of the zany fun and freedoms may have been lost, so too were some dangers and some arrogance. All of this was essential so that Shotton Hall would become increasingly attractive to social services and stay solvent and vital. The criteria for admissions were widened and new measures put in place. The community became more sophisticated and child care and other practice developed so that SH was sufficiently secure to manage the greater range of difficulties presented by its boys and young men.

The proportion of boys who were in care increased, and the community began to remain open 52 weeks. For a significant small number of boys over the rest of the 1980s SH would become home. Consequently, although education became less central to what SH offered overall, the quality and breadth of education continued to improve to a degree of considerable excellence (and for which I remain proud – I became Education Manager in 1982).

Under John Hobley’s direction the philosophy of attending first to the primary needs of warmth, food and comfort was strengthened, and the tension much better resolved between community power and the proper authority of adults – and what adults were each discretely responsible for became clearer. People were attracted to work at Shotton who had valuable experience and professional expertise to offer as well as something to learn. This period saw Shotton Hall focus all its energies internally; it developed stronger and truer TC ethic and practice, and Shotton Hall became a member of the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities.

Personally, it was as if the fresh but unpredictable Spring weather of the 70s had given way to balmier summer days; the 80s summer was long and satisfying but storms were ahead. The demise of the school began as the nineties began. Several damaging factors stacked up over a short period.

Sending children away to ‘institutions’ had lost favour in preference for foster care, keeping children locally, and the mainstream inclusion of children with special needs. With fewer referrals for children’s home placements, and fewer education only placements, the number of potential community admissions had been dropping slowly. On the other hand, we were predominantly only asked to take boys and young men who on the whole had much greater difficulties or more challenging behaviour than previously had been the case, and the admission criteria became stretched.

Although comparatively few in number, some admissions were made of boys whose difficulties had significant impact and tested the community and its management by the adults concerned. Admissions were made of boys less able to benefit from the particular TC milieu that valued choice and freedom; a few were without sufficient intelligence to prosper well in the setting, or had entrenched criminality. Some boys had mental health difficulties, and one or two had uncertain diagnosis, but extremes of behaviour. The community began to lose its self-identity.

However, the factors that caused much greater damage resulted from poor management and leadership of doubtful quality. Trustees were not refreshed by new blood or ideas, and their governorship stalled: no one visited or enquired within the community. A Deputy Headship was renewed that not only ignored what was by now a desperate need for an experienced Care Manager, but the actual appointment was disastrously the wrong person.

John Hobley retired in summer 1991 (he unfortunately died a few years afterwards) and the new director was appointed with little reference to Warner procedures. Indeed, both he and the earlier Deputy had been pointed out as doubtful by those community members, adult and child, who had encountered them. Keen to present well, the new man quickly began to spend in an unbounded fashion. Unfortunately this man had poor understanding of how a TC worked. The community was damaged by his lack of modesty and unwillingness to consult and he lacked professional supervision or external check. The poor leadership worsened difficulties and worsened the rifts in the community and its fractioning into varied sections – of boys, and of adults; a divisive cronyism emerged among boys and staff.

An external counsellor was invited in to work with some individual boys and the adults who had been working with them felt disregarded. At the time of the Cleveland debacle and the universal attitude of righteous belief concerning child abuse, the new director allowed himself to be much influenced by this counsellor. The authorities were then hastily invited to make a Child Protection investigation of the whole community, and the school was closed for three months in the summer of 1992 to enable the investigation (the consultant herself was later discredited).

The investigation found little of critical significance related to the previous state of health of the community and its practices, and desperately little criticism of staff and their quality of care, although technically the school had failed its Children Act Section 87 requirement to safeguard and promote the welfare of boarders – mainly we had relied too much on community practices of meetings, relationships, and the effects of attachment. We were without a formalised complaints procedure. The personal behaviour of those particular boys who had been discounted from their key worker relationship was now public, the therapeutic processes undone, and further work with them made impossible.

The community was massively damaged and never recovered from its communal loss of confidence. The child community returned bewildered about its experience and confused regarding how it might again trust adults. There was irrevocable change to the relationships within the community: between adults within it, between it and placing authorities, between individual boys and their key staff, and (where these existed) between boys and their families.

The community had for a while been suffering deliberate and habitual fire alarms – a sure sign of insecurity. The local fire brigade lost patience and reported to the DES. Other difficulties of fire regulation and of meeting DES approval began to come to the fore – the investigation had stoked up a harsh glare of critical light. Regulatory problems were not well resolved, nor their significance given sufficient consideration. Later, just as the community was beginning to settle back after its closure, it did actually suffer a major fire – probably deliberately set (similarly as happened at Peper Harow). HMI visited in Spring 1993 and made their dissatisfactions clear, but at the time the full measure of these was kept from staff including myself. We all just struggled on.

In October 1993 the director abandoned the community; he resigned and promptly took sick leave until the end of his notice.

I relinquished my teaching duties and stopped running around mending damage and tying loose ends together. I took stock with my colleagues and was assisted by John Woodward, who had previously worked at SH and left to pursue business interests. The Trustees woke up to their responsibilities but had no solutions.

The situation overall was dire: a lot of new building and refurbishment would be needed, the community morale was low among boys and adults and its direction and purpose had become lost. The bank was concerned that the overdraft was running away to over half a year of income. A survival plan was devised and implemented just to hold everything together.

Every one of the three dozen personnel voted for a pay cut when I asked them and fiscal controls were put in place. I began to make good much of the outstanding documentation that inspection would require; although actual practice was reasonable it was not formally delineated. I was very reluctant to make new admissions until the future was more certain but this further strained finance.

The community scraped through a Registration Inspection in early May 1994 and, although those inspectors recognised the developments, a week later a ‘pastoral’ visit from HMI took a much more critical view. They intimated that had the visit been an inspection the school would be found greatly failing. Attention was drawn to the tired state of the residential facilities and how they presented as too institutional. Ironically the Trust had ignored the staff’s suggestion to develop small units in favour of building an imposing residence that would attract a new director of calibre! The DES inspectors particularly highlighted failings in areas of policy and procedures and tensions concerning the educational curriculum that had been too long outstanding. The HMI at that time had very restrictive criteria: they would not accept the lack of a modern foreign language in the school curriculum, nor recognise the validity of much community function as social or moral education, nor accept individualised out of classroom programmes as educationally valid! They gave a three month deadline for improvements before approval status would otherwise be withdrawn.

A decision had to be made very quickly and the debate was difficult. I sought some guidance from Charterhouse colleagues but the devil was in the degree and detail. The lack of cash, compared to the outstanding development needed and the degree of exhaustion, combined to determine that it would probably be best if we folded on our terms rather than have the school and community suffer mortal blows.

Closure was the decision taken and it pretty much had universal support – including among the few remaining well-committed and wiser boys when they were told. Everyone was concerned to do this with as much dignity and the least damage possible. All the usual community function and quality was maintained to the best degree possible – some parts markedly so, despite the anger and sadness – and so the community (already by then only 18 boys) was deliberately wound down, with new placements found and each bridged and supported as best we could. The last few child residents left in August 1994. Staff and trustees marked closure with a formal meal and, later, an open house garden party allowed those adults highly attached or closely associated to release some emotion.

Shotton Hall remains in memory and by past belonging. That belonging over the years did offer new and different chances at life for a great number of young men. And the community impacted on all those who came to work with it. Belonging touched all. This was shown even by the handful of ancillary staff who from ‘94, until very recently, were in the habit of meeting up annually at Christmas. There are some loose associations of ‘old boys’ and some loose associations between ex-staff and ex-staff and old boys. There is no formal contact point, though the Friends Reunited website serves some contact.

I see now, ten years later, how much has changed since those difficult times. From how Child Protection is now viewed and implemented, to how education – particularly for this group – now has a less explicit inspection requirement and a more informed and wiser practicality. I see now how much I knew then but did not recognise at the time.

What I remember is different and empirically real.

I remember we built and sailed a Kon-Tiki raft around Anglesey and how the whole community camped for the fortnight by the beach. I remember one slow Sunday afternoon I investigated wood smoke and found some fire dirtied urchins roasting one of Farmer Mayle’s pheasants on a stick. I remember, on an epic 60 mile yomp, forcing my group to put on wet clothes one cold morning, in a barn in mid-Wales, as I was determined they would keep their dry ones to sleep in.

I remember cooking Sunday lunches with my wife for everyone and trusting the care of our two young sons to the community. I remember Bazza climbing 60 foot to the top of a pine in the woods and being rescued by the fire brigade. I remember the crazy Christmas reviews when, after frenetic weeks, staff and boys would produce magic and sometime hilarious performances. I remember John Hobley playing “green man rising” with lads hiding in piles of fresh cut grass and summer barbecues.

I remember emergency community meetings that began mid-evening and continued into the small hours. I remember sitting in a stairwell for a long period until a particular person gained control over their psychotic episode and handed me the kitchen knife. I remember high emotions, tears and anger, and how when I needed care it was likely to be given by a child as a colleague. I remember the joy of shared achievement, the pain of shared sorrow, and the righteousness of shared anger, and how somehow the community could temper and reforge the individual experience to group benefit. And sports days….. and giving out examination certificates…… and talking quietly late into the night…… and……. and…..

What made Shotton Hall therapeutic? Acceptance, understanding, patience, and safe enfolding no matter what or how the individual hurt or need was expressed. And a faith of expectation that helped you through – a sort of core regard that everyone was valuable and held this true for you even if you could not. This emphasis lay in the core work to rebuild rock bottom self-regard and make young people feel significant. And how there were so very many ways the building up of self-esteem could be done: most obviously and often quite dramatically through adventure education – for long a strong feature; but also music, art or a technical skill as well as unlocking desirable traits of character for community acknowledgement – and by proxy, the warm radiance of family approval. And fun, and always something to which and then someone to whom you could attach.

What made Shotton Hall untherapeutic? The times the community lacked strength and vigour and failed to maintain its own momentum, or meet its own needs and individuals suffered. At times individuals came – adults and boys – who tested the community and damaged its best process. The times also that individuals, whether adult or child, in great need found the experience too confusing or daunting and the expectation of personal change too scary to face – they found ways to leave and we failed.

We were never perfect. And it was always journey, never arrival.

The PETT Archive and Study Centre [now The Mulberry Bush Third Space (MB3)] holds what remains that provides concrete evidence of Shotton Hall, including copies of Shotton Hall publications and Fred’s books, “Exceptional Children” and “The First Thirty Years”, all still valid reads.

The contents of Shotton Hall were mostly sold off to add to the cash fund and a good deal of stuff was donated to a local relief organisation to benefit people in Bosnia where it was needed at the time. My very last acts were to close down the charitable trust and remove it and the school from the Companies Register at Companies House. It has taken me ten years to recover from guilt and bereavement.