Glimpses into the Community

Sallie Roberts, London.

Finchden Manor is a community consisting of between 50-60 boys and young men, and some ten members of staff. The boys have always been known as The House; the staff are called by first or nicknames. Mr Lyward was known to many, many people – parents, teachers, students and patients – as the Chief.

One of the questions often asked by bemused visitors was “What is the structure of Finchden Manor?” Once I heard Mr Lyward reply: “Four meals a day and cocoa”. Such an answer would mean little to people accustomed to visiting homes and boarding schools where meals are provided by housekeepers and cooks but when it is known that at Finchden the cooks and cleaners are the boys themselves, many of whom are too disturbed to organise so much as a cup of tea, the structure of four meals a day begins to make sense. One glance at the kitchen would convince the enquirer that to produce one meal a day for upward of 60 people let alone four and still have enough milk left over for cocoa demands resourcefulness, imagination, physical strength and the ability to marshall help from friends and repel marauders.

To the casual visitor and indeed, to many new members of the House, Finchden seems at first to be a ‘do as you like’ place. It isn’t. It doesn’t have rules but here are customs. One doesn’t ask for chits or money in the mornings. If you want to go out you ask first. If The Chief calls a session, everyone turns up including visitors and students. Knives and forks and mugs (‘vessels’ in Finchden parlance), had an annoying habit of disappearing but the hoarding of vessels and utensils was much frowned upon.

Mr Lyward had a great sense of importance of ceremony and celebration. Plays were a great feature of the place and when they were produced, parents, friends and local people were invited. I am sometimes asked why we didn’t sell tickets to defray massive production expenses. (Only the best in props and costumes would do.) The answer is that Finchden is a private house and home of its members and you don’t charge people to visit your home. Four or five dances were held each year as well as magnificent feasts at Christmas. But to me the most exciting occasions were done by the House for the House and were known as Command Performances. Mr Lyward would issue an edict that a command performance would take place in, maybe, 24 or 48 hours time. Most of the boys were excellent natural actors and many were good musicians of all sorts. The staff joined in and everyone had a great deal of fun.

Visiting football and cricket teams and bus loads of students were regaled with special teas. Cake-making sessions for these occasions took place late at night and the results were professional. The House had ambivalent feelings about being looked at by visitors. I have met people who were shocked that some of the boys drank out of jam-jars (their choice, of course) and many more who remembered their day at Finchden as liberating and joyous.

Stern Love

This phrase of Mr Lyward’s has bewildered many. Perhaps it is best discussed by quoting an example of treatment. When a boy came who had had a particularly deprived background he would often spend much time testing out how much we cared about him by demanding things, usually money or clothes. He expected denial; he was used to it and it would confirm this conviction that he was unvalued and unwanted. He would come to the Oak Room and ask for money for fishing gear, a drum set, trousers, shoes or whatever. He would be given what he demanded. Surprised he would soon have another try, daring Mr Lyward to reject him. Again he would be given the goods. In cases of extravagant demands the House was occasionally asked to contribute or a visitor would help out. Of course, some boys were so certain of not getting anything that they just stole. Mr Lyward would consult his staff about how strong the boy might be, and the question he was asking them and eventually would ask the boy himself, was whether he had become strong enough (more confident of being worthy to be loved) to ‘take a No’ (the stern part of the love) possible. The boy knew, also, that when his blackmailing ceased, when he accepted the no, he had done some growing up.

Learning from Mr Lyward

People have said that nothing could be learnt from Mr Lyward because he worked through intuition. I am not sure about whether intuition can be learnt but I am sure that it can be awakened. (It certainly can’t be imitated), and that as time goes on one can come to trust it. But in any case, he taught other things more easily understood. One day I drove him to London to the retirement party of David Wills. He had undertaken to pick up two 15 year olds who had been spending a few days in London tripping on pills and had got exhausted and phoned to be taken home to Finchden. As we reached the party, he told me the place at Piccadilly where I would find them and told me to bring them to the party. I had been at Finchden only a few months and my job was supposed to be research! I hired a mini-cab and was lucky to have a sympathetic driver who held up the traffic in Jermyn Street while I persuaded the two that the mini-cab driver was not a policeman and that the Chief really was in town. Back at the party Mr Lyward was having his photograph taken with David Wills and A.S. Neill and was in no hurry to leave. My two friends stood at the door and offered obscenities to the guests as they left. After a while we started back on the sixty mile journey, through fog and with one of the boys screaming and trying to get out of the car as he came down from his ‘high’. I made things worse by mistaking my way on the Maidstone by-pass and travelling several hundred yards on the wrong side of the dual carriageway. When we got home the boy who had been so very upset and frightened offered to cook up a meal. We were all very hungry. After some two hours we faced a mess of tinned suds, ravioli and baked beans. The other boy and I washed up and I began to reckon my chances of going to bed.

Our cook then asked if he could spend the night in the Chief’s side of the house because he didn’t feel safe in his own room and he was told to make up a bed for himself in an attic room usually used for visitors. After some moments he came down to the kitchen, white and shaking, saying that the door of the room wouldn’t open because a ghost was pulling it from the inside. Slightly unnerved myself, my temper broke and I told him “not to be so silly”, and opened the door for him. He went to sleep at once. Back in the kitchen Mr Lyward showed every sign of settling into a discussion on the two boys. Still angry, I told him I thought they were just a couple of hysterical little boys. He rounded on me and told me my views were too often facile. Then, more gently, he told me that if I wanted to work with disturbed and disturbing people I must be prepared to go on working 100% of the way (in his words “to go with them twain”) and not give up and lose patience when the job was almost done. Human nature being what it is this is not an easy lesson to put into practice but the lesson itself is simple enough to understand.

I stayed at Finchden because it felt like home. Like many others, I came to have a larger family at Finchden. There are people who don’t respond to it – who react against it – I have even met a few who are shocked by it, but I have met many more who remember their time there as liberating, joyous and full of fun.

Sallie Roberts graduated in English at the University of Liverpool in 1961 and spent two years at Finchden Manor, from 1968-1970 as Mr Lyward’s research assistant. After leaving Finchden, she ran a Remedial Department in a comprehensive school in Manchester and at present is the School Counsellor in charge of the Sanctuary at Holland Park School, London.