The Beginnings of the Cotswold Community


This is an interesting account of the turmoil and inspiration that was all part of transforming an Approved School into a therapeutic community.

John Whitwell


1967 – 1972. Gordon Godfree.


In the early nineteen-thirties Westham Farm was up for sale. It was bought by a group of Germans who called themselves the Bruderhof. They were a group of Christians who attempted to live very much according to the pattern and principles of the early Church. They had moved away from their native Germany to escape the increasing persecution of the Nazis and on four hundred acres of farmland they established themselves but they also traded some of their produce in the local villages and in Cirencester. In the developing climate of threat and aggression in Europe, as Germans they were not always well received in the locality. Sometimes they were attacked and on occasions their horse-drawn milk float was overturned.

The original farm buildings were not big enough for their activities and therefore, in addition to converting barns and cowshed in the main square into living accommodation they began a programme of building which has left us today with the Poly square, Longbarn, Larkrise, the Larkrise Dairy and the Maintenance Workshops. They also built the four wooden bungalows the timber for which cost a total of sixty pounds! These bungalows were originally not put up as living accommodation. One was designed as a school and another was a maternity unit. A Cirencester doctor, now retired was at that time the G.P. to the Burderhof. He remembers making calls to mothers and babies in the bungalow next to the Cottage and seeing shelves in the corridor with rows of small baskets holding the babies of mothers who were working elsewhere in the community. The buildings in the Poly square provided the main living accommodation, with more accommodation in what is now the Larkrise dairy. Longbarn began its life as a series of workshops and store-rooms and Larkrise was originally built as a printing workshop. For those of the Bruderhof who died, funerals were conducted here and burials took place in the graveyard on Big Down. With the out-break of war in 1939 all Germans living in Britain were subject to legislation and restriction. The Bruderhof were given the option of internment in England or resettlement in South America. They chose the latter and spent most of the 1940s in South and then in North America, some of them returning to Britain after the war and settling in Robertsbridge in Surrey. They have become widely known for the way in which their communal life style has survived severe testing – and also for the making of the attractive wooden toys which they market under the name of Community Playthings.

With the departure of the Bruderhof the site was eventually taken over by the Home Office and became a boys‟ Approved School in the early nineteen forties. The location was ideal for several reasons. It was large enough for the development of the various activities and trade departments traditional to the approved school. It was, at that time away from any large conurbation and the possibility of disruption from air-raids. There was a feeling that a site in the open country-side was stimulating and healthy for the inmates, but it was also conveniently out of sight of the general public who did not want to know about such places. The licence to operate the establishment was granted to the Rainer Foundation and one hundred and twenty boys were eventually housed in the three buildings in the Poly square! Additions were made to the existing buildings. Each of the house blocks was provided with a washroom and a drying room at the rear with a flat for the house master on the first floor. This was linked to the upper floor in the house by an inter-connecting door. This door was kept firmly locked at night. There was no sleeping-in but the whole establishment was patrolled by a night-watchman. Meals were not provided in the houses but were prepared and eaten in a central kitchen and dining room. This was originally in the building which now contains the shop and the central laundry. In the nineteen-fifties the building which is now Northstead was put up together with a new and larger dining room and kitchen. Mealtimes were presided over by just one or two adults and order was maintained by the fact that any boy causing a disturbance was sent to the Headmaster for punishment; usually the cane. At this time also other buildings appeared. The houses on the drive were built, together with the Cottage and a School Room between the Cottage and the back of the Large Barn. The Cottage was originally built as a cell block which was used to place persistently troublesome boys in solitary confinement. There were bars on the windows and all the doors were of heavy metal construction. At the north end there was accommodation for a man and his family. The building which is now Springfield was originally a sick-bay, with a couple of beds and a dispensary managed by a nurse.

Boys arrived at the Cotswold School having been placed on an Approved School Order by juvenile courts. They would have spent some time at a Classifying School, possibly at Redhill in Surrey or at Kingswood in Bristol. There, some attempt would have been made to find a place for them which had some degree of appropriateness. The Order was in fact a sentence and was for a period of three years. In practice boys spent eighteen months here and were then discharged. The first nine months were spent in the school-room where there were three classes of twenty boys, each with a class teacher and the whole lot presided over by a teacher-in-charge. The three class rooms had inter-connecting doors and the teacher-in-charge would patrol from one end to the other maintaining order with a cane. A boy‟s progress was regulated by a points system through which he earned „promotion‟ and which was also used as a set of sanctions. For example points could be taken away for some „offence‟ and consequently a „privilege‟ such as a weekend at home might be lost. When sufficient points had been accumulated a boy would move from the school room to one of the work departments. It was considered important that there was a continuous, smooth flow of boys through the system and therefore whatever the earning capacity of a boy‟s behaviour points, adults made quite sure that at the end of nine months in the school-room he had exactly the required total to move on. The same sort of arrangement was made at the end of nine months on a work department so that the boy left the establishment at the required time regardless of his state or readiness to do so. The work departments were each run by an instructor and included such activities as building, painting and decorating, carpentry, gardening and work on the farm. During the working day there were breaks at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Where we now have tennis courts, there was a hard surfaced area surrounded by a high fence. This was called the compound and was used to contain the whole boy population during those breaks, again with just one or two adults keeping control. Other teachers and instructors would have their breaks indoors and away from boys. The houses, in what is now the Poly square, each had names. They were rather unimaginatively called St. George‟s, St Andrew‟s and St. David‟s. Eventually it was decided that, with forty boys in each house things were a little crowded and in the nineteen-fifties another house was built along with the new dining block. The dining block was demolished in 1988 but the new house is now Northstead. When it was first built it was called Thames House. (In those days there was always water flowing in the „ditch‟ which runs past the maintenance workshop and in front of the houses down the River Thames.) This new building enabled the numbers in each house to be reduced.

Life in this establishment was strictly regimented and controlled. Each boy was given an identity number on entry and this seemed to become so significant and to have been used to such an extent that it took away the real identity of a boy. His clothes would be marked with it, as would be his other possessions and school books. Boys would know each other‟s numbers. They would be scribbled on walls, scratched on furniture and would be required to be written on any letters home. In one sense they became important because they gave a fairly accurate indication of where a boy stood in the queue for being discharged. The points system was an easily administered and effective set of rewards and punishments. Other sanctions included the loss of privilege, the withholding of pocket money, the loss of food, the use of the cane and solitary confinement. Boys who were aggressive or violent or persistently disruptive (what we now see as symptoms of unintegration) were sent to the headmaster and were invariably caned. But this punishment was also used for other, much more minor offences. One boy was caned on each hand for walking out of step on his way to chapel on a Sunday morning.

Institutionalism was another effective means of control. Because large numbers of boys were controlled by few staff it was often useful to use some kind of drill procedure. One of the more bizarre examples of this was used for cleaning teeth. In each of the old washrooms was a row of ten washbasins. Each morning the boys would stand in four ranks of ten facing the washbasins. The adult in charge would then begin to count. „One‟ would instruct the first row of boys to move up to the washbasins. At „two‟ each boy would place his face cloth on the basin. „Three‟ was the signal to take the cap off the toothpaste. „Four‟ – toothpaste was put onto the brush. „Five‟ – the toothpaste was put down. „Six‟ – the upper teeth were cleaned…..and so on until the cleaning was complete, the cap was back on the toothpaste and the ten boys had marched to the back of the washroom, leaving the way clear for the next ten boys. There were also strict rules about how boys should make their beds and great issue was taken with any boy who failed to meet the requirements.

In order to move about the campus boys in groups would have to march. They would march to and from the central dining room for their meals, between the house and the school room or the work department and from the house to any leisure activity in the evenings or at the weekend. During the summer months cricket was played and away matches were organised against teams in the locality. But in those days there was no transport available for such journeys and on Saturdays the cricket team would move off to walk to places such as Cricklade, Wootton Bassett or Swindon. After the match they would have to walk back again. Within the school there was also a sea cadet unit. This was based in what is now the maintenance workshop and on the lawn opposite there was a large flagpole around which the cadets paraded in their uniforms. Their activities included much marching and drilling, the learning of basic seamanship skills and the use of sailing dinghies and canoes on the gravel pit. Although this activity fitted in with the general ideas about control and regimentation it did also have some positive qualities to it, particularly in the high level of interest and involvement which it offered to boys and also because of its leadership which was in the nature of a benign dictatorship and less harsh than in other areas of the school. Incidentally, the sea cadets‟ building was also used as a theatre and the remains of the stage can still be seen in the maintenance workshop. It is now a store place for timber. I have already mentioned the control of the central dining room by just one or two men but the serving of food and the clearing of tables was also a regimented procedure with boys at each table waiting their turn to be served and to clear away at the end of the meal. Boys also marched to morning assembly which was held in the room we now know as the Weaving Hall. Sometimes announcements or comments were made which revealed how much of a gap existed between the boys and the adults. Once the headmaster congratulated a boy on his birthday, only to be told hastily by a colleague that the boy had left six weeks earlier.

The whole organisation and daily running of the place was, to a large extent geared to the needs of the adults. Much of the activity of the building department and the painting and decorating group was around the maintenance of grounds and buildings, especially staff accommodation.

Individual boys were assigned to several specific tasks such as the cleaning and stoking of heating boilers and dealing with dustbins and other items of rubbish. Single men never had it so good. Their accommodation was largely in the building which has now become Larkrise Dairy and Baker‟s End. There were individual bedrooms, a communal lounge and a kitchen. But most of their meals were prepared in the central kitchen and served in a private dining room. They were waited on in more than one sense and were provided for in a way which was denied to boys. Thought was continuously given to the demands and wants of adults and very often boys were seen as awkward but tolerated incidentals. Sometimes the „work‟ done on the various departments seemed to have little value and was often destructive. It was usual for about two acres of ground behind the greenhouses to be cultivated and planted with cabbages. Most of this work was done by boys, by hand. As the cabbages grew boys would carefully weed the area and when necessary would water the growing plant. However when the cabbages were ready a few of them would be used in the dining room, others would be given to adults and local people from outside the school would arrive and fill the boots of their cars and drive off with them. The large proportion which remained unused would then be ploughed back into the earth so that the whole pointless cycle could begin again. No wonder that the level of antagonism and aggression was particularly high in this area.
Such a system was well set up to produce a massive division between adults and boys and to foster a vicious sub-culture among both boys and adults. It is helpful to remember that almost all the adults who had contact with boys were men. The women who worked in the central kitchen were, at one time locked in lest the boys should „get at them‟.

The number of boys in each house was fairly high. Conditions were cramped and boys slept with three or four to a room. The man in charge or warden of each house retired at night to his accommodation and so long as he was unable to detect any noise, was quite content to leave the house to the tender mercy of the older boys. Younger and smaller boys were bullied and abused in a ferocious manner. Particularly appalling were the initiation ceremonies inflicted upon new boys. These often involved tying a boy to hot water pipes or confining him in a laundry basket and pouring boiling water over him. Boys would be sexually assaulted or sometimes just beaten up. When, later on some internal walls were pulled out to create a new Poly area where previously there had been bedrooms a blood soaked pillow case was discovered hidden inside the hollow wall; a relic of some boy‟s nightmare experience which he had been through fear, forced to hide from adult view. Adults were sometimes involved directly in some of these practices and incidents sometimes took place in quiet corners of the grounds to show boys who was the boss. As a background to this terrible situation the three houses in the poly square became known as the Butlins, Bedlam and Belsen!


The situation which prevailed within the Cotswold School in the mid-sixties was typical of the regimes which existed within other approved schools. At this time the level of public and administrative awareness was being heightened and it was decided that radical changes needed to be made in the approved school system. Much of the legislation for such change was contained within and around the Children and Young Persons‟ Act of 1969. To take the existing system with its rigid, harsh and punitive style and to contemplate changing this into something more helpful, positive and healing was a daunting prospect. It was proposed that the approved schools should be replaced by Community Homes. The Approved School Order would disappear and young persons would be referred directly to the new establishments by Social Service and/or Education Departments. The Cotswold School was a very good example of the worst of the old system and it was decided within the Home Office that it should be the basis of an experiment to see what could be done to effect change „on the hoof‟, without closing it down.

In September 1967 Richard Balbernie took up the post of Principal of the new Cotswold Community. He was a man of vast and relevant experience and with an intense, probing insight. These qualities were quickly brought to bear upon the situation which, to a large extent closed ranks upon its own harshness and deeply entrenched vested interests. Almost every day some form of mal-practice was uncovered, sometimes to do with inappropriate or even unlawful treatment of boys and at other times concerning the misuse of facilities, manpower or materials. Changes took place rapidly. The old staff hierarchy was cut into. Some left immediately under a variety of circumstances while others were „rescued‟ and were able to make valuable contributions to the changes which were to take place. The number of boys was reduced from one hundred and twenty to just thirty by the simple expedient of discharging them to their homes. The schoolroom and the cell block were closed and very soon the only remaining work departments were the building and the painting and decorating workshops.

The coming of this new man with his ideas about „therapy‟ and his peculiar, new words provoked a variety or reactions. Some people were openly hostile and threatening. Others sneered at some of the ideas which were being talked about. Many adults felt afraid while others were curious about what was being said. Generally amongst the adults was a high level of restlessness and insecurity which was to be expected with such an onslaught upon the status quo. From these adults there were all sorts of bits of acting-out including arriving late for work, or not arriving at all, „borrowing‟ tools and materials such as paint and wood and an abandonment of regular, established routines. These attitudes were rapidly transmitted to the remaining boys who were already feeling confused. They too joined in the acting out and in some cases actually carried out attacks at the suggestion of the adults, not only on property but also upon the families of those seen to be bringing in the new order.

By May 1968 a small number of new boys had been admitted. At the same time it was found that most of the residue of boys from the old regime were so badly infected and damaged that little could be done to help them. They were gathered together in Thames House (Northstead) and given what support was possible as plans were made for their departure. One of the difficulties experienced at this time by both boys and adults was the problem of not knowing how to exercise controls without the help of sanctions (the cane). Therefore, it was decided to introduce a system of pocket money fines; a sanction which it was hoped would be helpful for a short time and which was considered to be less damaging.

As they continued to leave before their “time” was up so new boys were admitted. Thus by the autumn of ‟68 there was a small, new group of boys, some adults from the old regime and several new adults who had begun to join the Community from the Easter of ‟68. Through the next eighteen months there were several important changes, some of which were slow and hardly noticeable, while others happened over-night. A new household had begun to grow in the building which now houses the Cottage poly. Slowly a group of new boys and new adults came together, almost entirely free from effects of the old regime. It was with this new group that Mrs Drysdale began to work, encouraging adults to read and to begin to gain some understanding of the concepts of therapeutic practice.

Slowly also some buildings were put to new use. The single men‟s block was allowed to lie dormant. Families were moved out of what is now Larkrise. Quietly the cell block was gutted. Its steel doors were taken out and the bars were removed from the windows. As this work was carried out it was distressing to find stuck in holes in the brickwork notes scribbled on bits of paper by boys who had been confined there: – “I‟ve been locked up here for two weeks and I didn‟t get a chance to say anything about what I had done.” or “I can‟t stand any more of this. I think I‟m going mad. If they don‟t let me out I will kill myself.”

One of the changes which happened quickly was the moving over-night of the newly emerging household form the poly square to what had been the cell block. A book called “Cottage Six” had been around and this new group quickly became known as the Cottage. Another quick move was the closing down of Thames as the last boy from the old regime left. The eight new boys who had joined this group were moved into the building vacated by those who had gone to the Cottage. Gradually the numbers increased and a second new group emerged. We saw in this group boys attempting to personalise their rooms, almost making nests for themselves. The group became known as the Rookery!

During those first two years there were many experiments and many changes when they did not work. The Rookery group grew to fifteen boys and was then split into two smaller groups. One group, retaining the name Rookery went down the drive to what eventually became known as Westum. The other small group moved across the square to the building which now houses the Poly Office and took on the name of the Orchard Lodge – or Lodge for short. Eventually this group moved again; this time to the building which now houses Larkrise. However at that time the group adopted the name of the Orchard.

Changes had taken place also in the other house in the poly square. St. George‟s had been in what we now know as Springfield and Larkrise poly. A few new boys had come into this group as older boys had left. Eventually they moved across into the old Thames building and took on the name of Number Eleven.

The old Sea Cadet room was opened up and used as a theatre by a group of staff children. The original central dining room, now the furniture store, was used by the building department as a workshop for practice brick laying. They used very soft mortar to build temporary constructions and boys produced some interesting arches and fire places. Slowly also a new educational set-up began to emerge. Several rooms in the single men‟s block, including Baker‟s End were turned into small workshops with space for art and modelling, customised spaces for individual boys, a reading area and facilities for making our own tea!

This attempt to begin exploring a new way of working was violently interrupted when, one morning we found that during the night someone had destroyed our new workshop with a sledgehammer. All the furniture and work spaces were smashed to pieces. It was later discovered to have been the work of two boys with the active encouragement of an adult. From this setback we moved the new-born educational work into the then empty Thames, using the rooms upstairs. But as this work began to get some shape and routine to it, it was moved again. This time to the poly square as Georges moved out.

From then on the educational work became based in the poly square. A new man was appointed as head of education and several other new people were appointed. These included a sculptor, a motor mechanic, a watchmaker, a horticulturist, a printer, a potter and an infant teacher. Several of us included time for work on basic language and number work. Thus the new skills and activities, combined with the building and painting and decorating activities from the old regime resulted in a fairly wide spectrum and gave most boys at that time an interesting and varied working week. Very soon boys were talking in terms of „going to work‟. The large range of activities resulted in the use of the word „Polytechnic‟ but within days this had been shortened to „Poly‟. At that stage each household did not have its own Poly. With the guidance of an adult each boy made his own weekly programme and care was taken to make sure that the result was a healthy, mixed diet.

This was a time of experiment and change, with ideas being tried and improved or changed or abandoned. The floor which now houses Springfield Poly then still contained five small rooms. A small workshop at the East end was a base for individual project work and also included facilities for maths and language work. One boy‟s project on geology and pre-history led to the setting up of a small museum. Another tried to make a guitar but the end product weighed about sixty pounds so we overflowed into the next room and set up a guitar factory! For several months the afternoons were used for making these and other musical instruments. Eventually there were too many activities for the available space and this group then moved across to what is now Northstead Poly. Some of the internal walls were taken out and space was found for most of the activities which had developed together with individual spaces for boys.

Because of the range of activities within this group several boys were able to remain for the whole of their weekly programme and most of these were from Orchard where I then worked outside Poly hours. Because of this element of cohesion within the group it was possible to think about taking them away during the summer. We joined the Dart Valley Light Railway and spent a week camping in Devon, working with great enthusiasm on locos and track laying in the mornings and spending the afternoons in the sea. The next year we camped in North Wales at the foot of Snowdon and managed a lot of hill walking. I suppose these were the first „out groups‟ but it didn‟t occur to me that with a group of eight boys I might have needed another adult!

As well as the changes in the education area a new pattern of group living became established and went on evolving. Perhaps most important of all was the emergence of new, positive attitudes among the adults. From all this experimental activity, the trying out of uncertain ideas, the willingness to change and the resolve to stay with all the associated anxiety and pain, there came growth; not a great flood but in little bits at a time. The gradually understood new concepts of unintegration and therapy began to be used in our thinking about boys and in relation to the task of the adults.