Mr Lyward's Answer
by Michael Burn
The story of George Lyward and Finchden Manor
First published 1956 by Hamish Hamilton Ltd - All Rights Reserved
Abridged for the World Wide Web
IT is easier to say what Finchden was not, than what it was. I soon ceased to think of it as a school, or clinic, or 'place for the delinquent'. It was not an experiment; the boys were nobody's guinea-pigs. It evaded categories. No one called it anything but its name.
At the time I went there, Mr Lyward had about forty boys in residence, between the ages of fifteen and twenty, with an occasional fourteen-year old. The average age was seventeen and a half, a time, as one visiting psychiatrist remarked, 'when many people used to this work think it's too late'. Roughly half were private 'patients', paid for by their families and sent from public schools; local authorities paid in part or entirely for most of the remainder. There were and always had been some half-dozen whom Mr Lyward kept for nothing. He had no money of his own. Financially Finchden had to support itself For twenty-six years it had existed on a precarious margin, and looked like having to continue so. No one had endowed it. It received no State grant; as long as the boys remained there, Mr Lyward bore sole responsibility. His reputation as healer and teacher stood so high that most authorities and doctors were content to leave them to him; this, naturally enough, was not always quite true of parents
He had a staff of six, most of them in their thirties. There were no fixed hours, except for meals, which the boys cooked and served themselves, and bed-time; no fixed term-times; and no fixed holidays. The local doctor, a wise and co-operative friend, looked after the boys' health. The staff had holidays, weekends, days off; but could not be spared for the much longer vacations of an ordinary school. Although the house itself and the general sense of being immune and harboured reminded me of one of the old public schools, Finchden had no speech-days; no old boys' tie; no blazers; no chapel or school-hall; no Board of Governors, Visitor or Patron; and no conventions, written or unwritten, of what was or was not correct behaviour. It did not publish a prospectus. It was not Borstal nor an approved school. No boy, once there, could feel that he had been sent as a punishment and he found no punishments imposed. The rebel child of blue blood lived for years alongside the potential cosh boy. None seemed curious why any of the others had been sent. Once settled there, they had crossed a frontier from the past
For the first few days I was given time to find my feet. I had no duties yet. Changes, an occasional crisis, occurred all round me, situations and odd entanglements developed, of which I was only vaguely aware; some I did not know were happening at all. I could understand Mr Lyward when he was talking to the boys; but when to me, I continued to feel as if I had walked into a labyrinth. First to the morning's mail, then to an article he had written during the war, then to a memory twenty years old and still fresh; and so to the New Testament, Shelley, Shakespeare, and back to some inquiry sent him from a County Council. (He spoke of local authorities as if they were the nobles in Shakespeare's historical plays: 'Kent wants to know', or 'Northumberland is now asking ...'). I followed him, never fewer than two thoughts behind
It became clear within a week that I had stumbled on something far more than rehabilitation. This indeed was achieved; but incidentally, as part of a much larger liberation. My first clue became the small word 'respite'.
'Ponder over this word,' Mr Lyward suggested in a lecture to a learned society. 'I say it as one who loved teaching subjects, but has not officially taught them for twenty-one years; not since I decided that some young people needed complete respite from lessons as such, in schools as such, so that they could be shepherded back from the ways ... by which they have escaped for a while their real challenge...' I resolved to investigate why and how the boys had come, and what happened on their arrival.
Mostly, the parents, guardians or responsible authorities arrived at Finchden hot-foot, after a boy had either done something that had got him into trouble, or begun to behave in a disquieting manner that might. This was the immediate reason; behind lay the deeper causes. The immediate reason was brought to Mr Lyward's attention in a variety of ways.
A boy might be preceded by a letter from a mother who described the hours he would spend sewing laces and buckles and jewels, and duelling with imaginary foes who had sullied his good name, all with much bowing and kissing of hands. She had tried everything to interest him in ordinary life, but it was hopeless. Or this: 'He told me it would be a good thing for him to come home and have it out with his father. He said he would like to have a row with him. I asked if he felt that if we were both dead he would then progress, and he said yes.'
The correspondence might be prolonged over weeks or even months, before Mr Lyward decided to accept the boy, or before the boy himself decided to come. Often the parents, unwilling to agree that there could be anything seriously amiss, would state that their son 'has been much better during the past few days', and change their minds. But hope proved illusion and the request would be renewed on a more urgent note. One boy had been in rebellion against family discipline for ten years and had now begun to steal jewellery from his mother, which ended in his being bound over for two years. Or it might burst out of an apparently blue sky, as with a quiet obedient boy who suddenly broke into his own home, smashed all the glass, disappeared for four days and was found sleeping in a field. The parents added 'he has always had a happy temperament, then suddenly did not know what to do with himself - and we did not know what to do with him.'
Most of the boys had been interviewed by at least one psychiatrist and arrived complete with past history and analysis. Interpretation of course varied according to the psychiatrist; some giving a picture of an individual human being, others pedantic and technical. Or the story might start with a letter from a headmaster: 'I found out that he had been stealing, smoking, breaking bounds, and instructing other boys in the art of masturbation. It is quite impossible to get him to tell the truth. I and other masters had to persecute him fairly systematically for laziness, and I had to beat him twice or maybe three times.'
If the boy came of poor family and had been charged in a police court, his 'record' arrived with him: 'There are eight previous offences, and he has been treated by four psychiatrists. In-patient treatment at the Maudsley Hospital has been suggested, but would serve no useful purpose'. Sometimes the story was given by a social or psychiatric social worker: "The boy's mother has left her husband. The boy has had to leave seven boarding schools because of bed-wetting and running away."
It would give a very false impression to suggest that all the boys who came to Finchden had suffered from a lurid or desperate youth. Outwardly, some had been no more than "difficult" - and done no more harm to themselves or others than many who have not been 'deemed maladjusted'. Of one public schoolboy nothing more startling could be found than that 'his main defects are extraordinary unsociability and preference for his own company, so that it has always been a great bother to find anyone to share a study with him.'
A minority did have stories of sensational cruelty and neglect. Abandoned in infancy by a mother who drank too much, one boy was adopted by foster-parents, who later separated. He returned home, but continually ran away. His father bullied his mother and sister, made the boy call him 'sir', compelled him to stand still for hours, and often beat him. His mother held him to the electric switch as punishment, got the children to do all the housework, and went away during the blitz, leaving them alone. They had no beds for two years and slept on newsapers and coats. The boy had run away just before he came to Finchden, lived for a week in an old car, and been found sleeping in the fields. The mother of this boy had been described as genuinely fond of him, but herself mentally disturbed, and unable to look after him for any length of time.
Some boys who lived in homes as orderly as this was disorderly, had not experienced even spasmodic affection. Some had experienced too much, and of the wrong sort. Several had suffered from bad schoolmasters. The head-master of one preparatory school had been a drunkard who (the mother wrote) 'used to subject my son to all kinds of indignities. He put drawing pins inside his shirt and tied his hands behind his back to stop him fidgeting. Several times he was compelled to eat until he was sick, and then not allowed to change his soiled clothes for days.'
A great number of boys had stolen - often from their parents. Many had been bed-wetters. Some had been violent. Others were afraid of the dark. Dozens had run away. Some were merely called backward and unable to pass examinations. Two or three had threatened suicide, and one had written: 'I give myself up for mad.' Several were described as psychopathic. Four or five had some form of religious mania. One, on the other hand, had set fire to churches. Several 'had illusions' and two or three had 'worn women's clothes'.
Such were a few of the labels with which the boys at Finchden arrived, and immediate reasons why they came. Concerning the deeper causes, one could not do more than notice certain features and say that they tended to recur. For example, a number of boys had parents living abroad. 'We are astonished,' wrote two such absentee parents, 'to hear of his lying, stealing, and blackmail, after two years at what we thought good schools' - the postmark Burma.
A large number, through death or absence, had no father, though fewer than ten were motherless. Often those without a father were described as 'spoilt' and 'pampered'. I had often read that 'broken homes are the chief cause of maladjustment', yet barely one in ten boys at Finchden had divorced or separated parents. Nonetheless some had homes where the parents were absentee although they returned to the house each night. There were divorces and separations of the heart, more destructive than any sanctioned by law.
One characteristic the majority of these stories did seem to have in common was that whoever had looked after the boy had tried to make him lead a life that was not his own. His own life had been 'usurped'. Each boy could have expected to come into his own life as into an inheritance, a throne; yet when he sought to claim it, he found the grown-ups entrenched there. This word of Mr Lyward's, 'usurp', became my second clue. There were degrees, and usurpation ('unjust encroachment on the rights of others') had been perpetrated in many ways - frequently with that 'best will in the world' which is so often disastrous. Parents are trustees for their children; yet so many think of themselves as owners. Some of these owner-drivers drove the child openly, some subtly; in fear of him, or with what passed for love. A great number of fathers and mothers had done their best; and their best had been too much as often as too little.
Parents had their own experiences, difficulties and standards to keep up. The child must hurry, he must get on. Examinations were not passed, and failure interpreted reproachfully as ingratitude: 'It is disappointing to have done one's best and get no results or reward.' A molehill the parents had struggled to establish was elevated into the mountain which the son must hold; 'We have quite a good business, built up by myself; and it would be a great pity if he, the only son, should prove unfit to carry on."
Sometimes the standards held before the boy were not material, but no less worrying and premature. 'By a simple receiving of the Lord Jesus into your heart, the whole outlook of your life can be changed,' a mother wrote to her fifteen-year-old. Over and over again some moral judgment was either implicit or expressed. 'I am intolerant,' wrote a father, 'and especially of laziness, funk, lack of keenness, and impertinence. I have not hesitated in my letters to the boy to try to prevent these, but have not failed to praise and encourage on every occasion. I have probably been too heavy with it all.' A friendly guardian begged his ward, aged fifteen and exceptionally childish, to 'go very slow and above all be dignified. You may want to enjoy things to the full, but keep your enjoyment comparatively quiet, and avoid being a buffoon.' The boy, arrived at Finchden, wrote back in a round unpunctuated scrawl: 'I have been into the woods here and I thought that they were lovely I have been in the fields collecting acorns and the fields are lovely ones.'
The answer was not always mild and passive. A boy could become desperate, like a wild animal tethered to a stake. One wrote: 'When I got your card, I went raving mad. Must I crawl about with my head downcast, saying I am a miserable sinner, when I think no such thing? More than once I have contemplated doing away with the black sheep. It would be a great relief to you to have no abnormal son to pay for, only I can't stand being cursed, and so I've had to resort to prep school tricks for the sake of doing something, and that's why I've destroyed your property.'
Examples such as these gave an unforgettable meaning to the word 'usurp'. One boy who had just arrived at Finchden received a letter, six pages long, from a brother several years older than himself. The brother began by telling him to live to a timetable. He must learn a list of words from books his brother would send to him, and spend one afternoon a week writing an essay to be sent to his brother for correction. He was to get a book on physics and another on anatomy, read the preface first, then read each page slowly, listing the words he did not understand, and then read all of them a second time. 'You say you are happy,' the letter went on, 'but I doubt ifyou are. You can kid your mother, so as to keep her free from worry, but you can't pull the wool over my eyes. So never lie to me.' This warning was followed by a fresh table of instructions, each of them numbered. The boy is to:
(1) send home a list of everything received,
The boy is on no account to let anyone sleep in the same room. 'If your privacy is threatened, write to me, and I shall act. Don't be surprised if one day you find me walking through the gate, because I shall be visiting you when you least expect it. And if I find you are unclean, with an untidy room, or unhappy or ill-fed, I shall give you a good hiding. Never lie to me, because I trust you implicitly, if necessary with my own life, and I expect you to trust and confide in me. Nothing could shock me so much, as to find that you are lying to me.' A questionnaire is enclosed, which is to be returned with answers.
The younger brother to whom this letter was written had arrived at Finchden, diagnosed as being 'in an agitated and depressed condition, with ideas suggestive of schizophrenia'. After observing him in a home, the doctors had come to the conclusion that he was suffering from 'a severe anxiety condition'. No wonder. The letter is, of course, an extreme example; but it contained much which appeared in modified forms in many stories.
'I would like to feel,' Mr Lyward once wrote, 'that no boy comes to school with any great ambition. I am appalled at the monotonous regularity with which they are urged to work for this or that reason or end. Over and over again I have seen a big boy near to tears at the thought that "father doesn't care for me apart from wanting me to succeed"'. And so, by seeking to possess their child, some parents lost him; struggling to make him 'normal', they drove him into 'abnormalities' of which they had never dreamed. From all these censures and pressures, Finchden released its boys, and accepted them as they were.
Often the first interview with Mr Lyward decided them to come. Tense
and unable to communicate while his parents were still in the room,
the boy unfolded as soon as he was alone with Mr Lyward; he became easier,
responded, began to laugh.
One boy, dangerous to himself and others, said after the first encounter: 'I've never met a man who gave me such a feeling of strength.' And yet Mr Lyward did not look at all strong. What he conveyed was immediate friendliness and warmth, which made these first meetings more like a reunion. Several of the boys told me they had known, after the first few minutes, that here was the man they had been looking for. They had felt deprived of something, and had taken their revenge in many ways; yet Finchden was that 'somewhere' in the world which they had always known to exist; they had only not known the address.
And so they turned up, often with visible idiosyncracies. Henry Collingwood brought four dozen butterfly collars and a hundred ties. Tom Salford had on five vests. One arrived in a Rolls Royce, wore dark glasses, a floral shirt, and a sombrero, spoke French, German and Italian, and at once taught baseball. Harry Nevin was put on the train by the police and told it was either Finchden or an approved school. He refused to speak, eat or look at anyone; ran away after three weeks, returned on a stolen bicycle, and put himself completely in Mr Lyward's hands. Norman Ferguson wore a paste sapphire on one finger and a jewelled chain round his neck. Bill Noble said he would come if his mother could come too. Mr Lyward made an exception (which remained an exception), and had two rooms prepared for her in the annexe, paying for the alterations and charging her no rent. Paul Nevill arrived with a loaded revolver. On Jack Stormonth's first day at Finchden, a tile fell on his head, and he assumed it was part of every new boy's treatment. Edwin Mills fasted his first two days in penance for stealing a potato. Fitzy came for three weeks, stayed seventeen years, and later started a place of his own; his own first pupil wore a sword and brought him his meals on roller-skates.
And after they had come, what happened? They found security, emotional
security from exterior pressures; from the mother who had badgered them
with her griefs and the father with his ambition; security from ideals
and from immediate goals. No one judged them. They lost their labels,
and were offered their lives. I asked a man who had been a boy at Finchden
twenty-three years ago what had been his first impression.
The rambling house, with its black and white timbers and warm brick, the garden and the lawn, the sheep-cropped marshes below and the encircling woods, breathed an English tranquillity. To the boys from rich homes and public schools, this was something they knew; to the boys from suburbs something they sought on bicycles or on foot; to the boys from slums something they had never known. Day or night, no door in their part of the house - inside or out - was locked, except the larder. The staff seemed friendly, without being either painfully understanding or hearty. They did not coax you into corners and get you to tell them things. Neville might seem to be in a dozen places at once, and David might be equally elusive, but Sid - Sid was a rock. He walked across the courtyard, leaning on his stick; at one time, to please the boy who had given it to him, he wore a fez. He made jokes. If you died and were met by Sid, you would feel that all was well; if all was not well, at least you had the right companion. Mr D. was a brilliant teacher of mathematics. He kept himself to himself, was sometimes taciturn and gruff, and pretended not to like people, although he did. Peter Goddard was six foot three, a skilled carpenter and engineer, who had worked out his own method of teaching. It was he, chiefly, apart from the building firm, who had saved the house. I believe, given time, he could have repaired Westminster Abbey single-handed. He was the sort of man who seems to have an intuitive relationship with engines. Neither Mr D. nor Peter took any part in the 'psychological treatment', and at times made a point of talking jokingly as if they thought it waste of time. The boys enjoyed the dry asperity of Mr D. and Peter's rough directness, and respected both of them.
And the animals! Hamsters, rabbits, guinea-pigs, a hawk, an owl, pigeons, a tortoise, budgerigars, dogs, a monkey. Perhaps on your first day, you went into Sid's room, where you found a skeleton piano, a printing press, a hand-made television set, and the atmosphere of an alchemist's den. You might be allowed to make a tape-recording of your voice. You saw the things that other boys had made. You heard stories about old boys. No one, staff or boy, was inquisitive or censorious. You could cry if you wanted, and nobody would sneer. It was all unusual and intriguing and you felt you wanted to see more, that you might be happy there. Sandy Morton took to the place so much at first glance, that he went straight home for his baggage, without even waiting for an interview.
Sometimes I would be working in Mr Lyward's oak-room; collecting reasons why the boys there (and elsewhere) had 'gone adrift'. Upstairs Mr Lyward and one of them were singing and playing the piano. I went to the boys' concerts. Two might be playing the guitar, one a year ago a 'thief and gangster', the other described six months before as morose and full of hatred for himself and the world. Now they were easy, carefree, and young. I went into the yard. A boy looking like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter's tea-party was sitting under a tree playing happily with a dog. His mother had pampered him, his father despised him, and he had been wretched at home and school; already, after two weeks, he looked relaxed.
It seemed to me that if all those who asked, as I had asked: 'But what on earth do they do?' could only know the boys' stories even as little as I, then see them now, they would need no further answer. If the visitor could only have known a boy's face when he came, taut and hostile, and have seen it again a little later, that would be enough. Finchden had given emotional security and a last long holiday before the stress of life. If Mr Lyward had done no more than afford this blessed pause, he would have done much. In one first interview he recalled 'The boy wept for joy and my other assistant almost wept to see it. The only explanation the boy could give of his tears was: "I can do as I want here". Before that he had been telling me: "I think I ought to work", but soon he was laughing at the idea that it was Daddy talking and not himself. It was one of those interviews I shall never forget.'.
Mr Lyward's adventure straddled the twenty-five years between mass unemployment and the building of the Welfare State. Through the experience of Finchden one could see that the rich were now less rich, and more worried for the futures of their children; while the children of the poor, less now from poverty than from monotony, sought distraction in the cinema and the gang. The good and brave impulses of parents strove desperately with rising costs - the dangerous injunction to 'get on' at any price received the sanction of what was called 'realism'.
The post-war legislation which enabled local authorities to pay for a boy's keep showed the makings of a wiser approach to troubled children than England had ever known before. Meeting many probation officers and social workers showed me how much dedication still went unknown. People seemed never to have time, or to leave their children time, to grow gradually into fulness. Did they even desire it? The term 'maladjusted' itself begged so many questions. Maladjusted to what? Should one admire adjustment to war, fear, and the hydrogen bomb? I preferred the phrase 'emotionally disturbed'. It stated a plain fact without reference to any doubtful standard. Inevitably, Mr Lyward's work laid bare nearly all the deeper human relationships. The liberation of the child led often to a reconciliation of the parents, and the parents' failure with their children exposed their own inadequacy to one another.
It is unfortunate that people should believe that any story about 'maladjustment' is bound to be violent and sensational. One boy said as he left: 'You are the most wholesome people I have ever met.' It was the world outside which seemed troubled, and Finchden that was at rest. Whenever I left to return to London, I seemed to be leaving an oasis - long after I had grown used to the general sense of relaxation, and the calm humour Mr Lyward and his staff never lost, at moments which would have driven other people distracted.
The boys at Finchden did go later into the same kinds of job as everyone else, several becoming eminent. They did become good citizens and good husbands and good fathers. But that was not all. Their liberation was a major operation. It came about by a freeing of the whole personality from the deepest level, so that those 'immediate reasons', for which they had been sent to Finchden Manor, did not so much 'undergo cure' as fall away. Finchden's influence remained with them long after they had left.
How deep it was, many did not understand for years.