Archives and Oral History
“How do we know who cared? and what they cared for?” A life story approach to archives of therapeutic environments and a celebration of the people who saved them
[This is based on a paper prepared for the Oral History Society’s 2008 annual conference, “WHO CARED?
ORAL HISTORY, CARING, HEALTH AND ILLNESS:
Marking 60 years of the National Health Service”
held in the Medical School of the University of Birmingham,
July 4-5 2008]
Innumerable therapeutic environments small and large have come and gone leaving no trace, except in the rapidly disappearing lives and memories of those who were in some way associated with them. When even some extremely important and influential places leave virtually no surviving archives for key periods and episodes – Summerhill School and the Cassel Hospital for their pre-war manifestations, the Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital for the whole of its pioneering war-time existence – , and considering the conditions of therapeutic work in pioneering environments and the events and disasters affecting them over the last hundred years, the miracle is that some archive collections do survive. The question is How? Why? What does it mean? And does it matter?
In this celebration, I will focus on the archives of the Q Camps organisation. Why?
1. The significance of Q Camps in its own right: In its brief life (1935-1948) the Q Camps organisation brought together some of the 20th Century’s seminal names in group and residential therapeutic work particularly (but not exclusively!) with children and young people, including Marjorie Franklin, David Wills and Arthur Barron, founders of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust; Denis Carroll, Director of the Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency (ISTD), now the Portman Clinic, and Commander of the Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital during the Second Northfield Experiment; Otto Shaw, founder of Red Hill School; Hermann Mannheim, a founder of the British field of Criminology; Donald Winnicott, the eminent paediatrician and child psychoanalyst; artist and therapeutic art teacher Arthur Segal. In its two camps in rural Essex – Hawkspur Camp for Young Men (1936-1940) and Hawkspur Camp for Boys (1944-1946), the organisation pioneered a way of living and working with disturbed and delinquent people which stands at the beginning of the history of therapeutic community in Britain, and is still influential.
2. The origins of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust. The Planned Environment Therapy Trust was the formalised product of a long-standing collaboration among Founder Marjorie Franklin and founding trustees David Wills and Arthur Barron. It began in the first Q Camp at Hawkspur Green in 1936 where the three first met, and culminated in the creation of the Trust in 1966 to explore, research, build on, and communicate the therapeutic approach they had developed in communication together over the intervening thirty years. In a very real sense, P.E.T.T. is the successor organisation to Q (which “stands for ‘Quest’, according to Marjorie Franklin writing in 1938).
3. As part of the David Wills Collection, the Q Camps archives led directly to the founding of the Archive and Study Centre in 1989.
David Wills, awarded the OBE in 1974 for his contribution to the field, died in 1981. Elizabeth, his widow, was killed by a lorry at the end of 1987. All of David’s extensive personal and professional archives – going back to his childhood and up to correspondence just before he died – went to his literary executor, Robert Laslett, a senior lecturer in the School of Education here at the University of Birmingham.
Robert began to sort and annotate the papers, but quickly realised that the task was a massive and specialised one, and that the papers were of immense historical significance and needed to be made available to researchers as fully and professionally as possible. His quest for a solution led ultimately to the decision of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, of which he was a Trustee, to establish the Archive and Study Centre, which remains the only facility of its kind devoted to therapeutic environments in the world. The David Wills Collection, including the Hawkspur Camp/Q Camps records, was the first of what are now over 200 large and small archive collections, with over 7,000 volumes in the Research Library, and over 1,500 audio and video recordings in the oral history collection (not all of which are interviews. Recordings include conferences, seminars, events).
4. As an illustration of the theme of the talk on the vulnerability of archives.
Of the records relating to their work originally held by the three founding trustees, of huge significance and accumulated over many years, only David Wills’ have survived. Marjorie Franklin’s, including the records of the post-war Arlesford Place School and all her own personal papers, were destroyed after her death in 1975 by a helper whose father had been a doctor, and who had been taught that a doctor’s records should be destroyed after their death. Arthur Barron’s were destroyed in the early 1990s after a severe stroke, and included the records of the second Hawkspur Camp, for Boys.
Oral history has been a central pillar of the Archive and Study Centre’s work from its inception, and one of the things we have attempted to do, where we can, is to record with people as we go over and through their archives or the archives they are placing with us. A part of one of these, with Dr. Anthony Rees, regarding the Frank Mathews Collection – Frank Mathews was a Birmingham philanthropist who founded the Birmingham Society in Aid of Nervous Children (1937) and the Birmingham Society for the Care of Invalid Children (1923) – is on the Internet, on RadioTC International. Last week I recorded an entire day with the daughter of the late Richard Crocket, a psychiatrist with a strong sense of the written record. But despite a remarkable set of surviving archival materials, professional and personal, which are now in the Archive and Study Centre, she was able to tell of an immense amount that had been lost. A fire destroyed the Scottish cottage where many records were stored. An earlier group had simply turned to pulp in the damp underground coal cellar of their house. His war-time diaries, a key period when he served as an RAF psychiatrist in Britain, and then in Europe, preceded by a locum period at the pre-war Cassel Hospital – had gone, leaving a gap in a remarkable series. And a sad set of papers turned up as we were going together through his material – a few pieces of random family material stapled together in the centre, with a paper wrapped around saying that this was all that had been recovered following a break in and theft from his car in Edinburgh.
The miracle of archives is that any of them survive. If they are paper, from the moment they are born they are subjected to things that destroy them – finger grease, food smears, coffee spills, dirt, grime – this is true of tapes, disks, film and photographs as well. Paper, as an artificial matting of fibres, is always working through temperature change and humidity change to tear itself apart, and if the acids used in its production have not been leached out sufficiently in the manufacturing process, or if it is cheap wood pulp as opposed to fine rag – and how many therapeutic units running on a shoe-string, perhaps in wartime austerity conditions or their equivalent – can afford fine paper – it is actively destroying itself. The inks fade in light and run in water. Film seeks to separate into its various constituent components – and generally almost everything we create to make a record of our lives or business is actively working to destroy itself.
And that precedes the external influences – the rodents who make nests of it and insects which eat it; fire; flood; theft; mould; inadvertent loss or destruction.
So, the lives of archives are punctuated by a series of crises.
In their youth, as Records, they are politically charged; are handled as transitional and ephemeral objects, gaining and losing value in daily transactions; subject to loss and subject to envy, curiosity and fear. One of the first members at Hawkspur Camp gained access to his records and private correspondence about him, which focused minds in the Q Camps organisation on the lack of locks at the Camp (there were no locks on principle), the need for records to be held locally and therefore useable but also safe and therefore the need to return them to London far from the camp in rural Essex where they could be locked up. It is a recurrent theme in therapeutic environments, certainly in the oral dimension. Two boys in a school whose archives we hold held staff captive in the staff room at knife point, and went through their papers, and such things have happened elsewhere.
But these crises focus the mind on archives when they are still alive and young, when they are Records. When they cease to be current they become Problematic. Very few places make a specific provision for non-current material. In a therapeutic environment where the care and treatment of the individual and the group is the primary and overwhelming task, it is generally no one’s specific business to look after records which are no longer current. If they are not disposed of, then spaces out of the way are found for them. If it is no one’s specific task to look after them, it is also no-one’s specific task to get rid of them. They accumulate.
A nurse manager will leave the Cassel Hospital and several generations of nurse manager later one will mention the records still stored in an awkward upstairs cupboard. Visiting a therapeutic community for children there is a pile of old log books stacked almost ceiling high in an old disused bathtub. Non-current records are placed in outbuildings, in lofts and cellars and garden sheds, where birds, rats and the other processes of nature go to work.
And here in this no man’s land of temporal silence, human things occur. Stored in black bags to protect them, archives of the founder of Hengrove School – one of the earliest to arise out of the Second World War, when so much innovation was needed and bloomed – are mistaken for rubbish and thrown away. Contrariwise, a new head of another special residential school, which also arose from the ashes of World War Two, throws everything out, and the little that now remains – a photograph album from the 50s with little else – was pulled surreptitiously from the skip by staff. Archives themselves rarely tell their own story directly. Their history is contained to a certain extent indirectly, in their absences and structures. But more fully and exclusively their story is contained in the oral testimony of those, and about those, who have cared for them. Without that recorded recollection, we often know nothing.
Archives which are able to go on living in the home or around the buildings of a person or place to which they belong – and in which they have proximal meaning – have one set of possible stories. When a place closes or a person dies, or the records are moved elsewhere for someone’s convenience, another set of stories enters. The old ones remain in place, but the archives now become orphans. And then who cares?
A house with wall-shelves full of personal records where I go to record an interview is refined by the time they come to the Archive to a suitcase and a box. An academic specialising in Education, who spent part of her childhood in care, is visiting a residential school, and to her surprise discovers the head destroying records relating to the place where she had been, which had been left at some point presumably for safekeeping. Collecting archives and recording about a recently closed school, the former Director [with whom I’m in the midst of a recorded interview] takes a phone call about another therapeutic community, a place for mothers and children, which is closing. He mentions the Archive and Study Centre to them, but the metaphorical line, as it were, subsequently falls silent and the records disappear. Over a decade later I am gathering the archives of the Cumberlow Community, in London, which has closed, and out comes a pile of salvage bags, material from the lost community, put together hurriedly in its closing and left at Cumberlow for safe keeping. The Wennington School Archives went with the school’s last head to his new school at Great Ayton, where they were looked after, and from which former Wennington students intent on ensuring their permanent welfare could give them a further temporary home, carry out research into possible placements, and ultimately bring them to the Archive and Study Centre.
Several years ago another collection from another residential special school was loaded off the back of a van on a rainy night into the vaults of an accommodating city archives, where they remained unaccessioned before coming here because they really didn’t belong there. Remaining school staff had brought them in before the school and its people evaporated entirely into the aether, almost literally: The wall of absence of information about a place and the children and staff who were there is almost fully impenetrable once the place is closed and the archives disappear. A West Midlands county official phoned me once to find out whether the County had responsibility for an old closed children’s home mentioned on our web-site. They themselves didn’t have any records. We had a single sheet of letterhead among the correspondence of one of our archive collections, which showed that, yes, it did, or at least the County’s old Education Department had. The loss of archives creates an impenetrable silence, which can only be pierced, when it is pierced, through oral history.
Academics, former staff, researchers sometimes hold onto material after a place closes with the intention of doing something with them; and those too, more often than not disappear; and reappear, if they do reappear, through the connectingness of oral history.
That any archives survive is remarkable, and that they survive closure [of a community or institution, or death of an individual] more remarkable still. So the Q Camp records, and the people who saved them, are even more significant.
But does it matter?
A Brief history of the Q Camps archives
The conditions in Hawkspur Camp itself ought to have prevented their survival. When compared with the fate of places which had their own buildings, in cities and towns, many of which are still standing, the improbability of this rural pioneering venture securing its records – living in tents and building their own wooden huts and meeting rooms, trying to grow their own food, living in rain and mud, nearly closing before the end of the first year due to the lack of funds, taking a wide range of members, from neurotic to psychotic, because the Camp could not fully choose their intake – and passing the camps’ records through the beginning of war to our own time is awesomely impressive.
The breach of confidential files early in the life of the camp meant that confidential material had to be sent and stored in London; Marjorie Franklin [Hon. Secretary and psychiatrist] said she would resign otherwise. There were several postal deliveries a day in those days, and the Camp Chief, David Wills, was inundated with correspondence from the Honorary Secretary, Marjorie Franklin, in her dreadful handwriting. She would write two or three letters a day, each day, sometimes repeating herself, demanding responses, sometimes forgetting answers, and, of course, with the crossing of posts. David Wills had no secretary, and himself seems to have had to produce the duplicates which case conferences and such like required (‘4’ she notes in one letter) not always with the benefit of carbons. “The Camp Chief is sometimes called from his office by “crises” which can prevent documents being copied by a definite date,” Marjorie Franklin helpfully explained in a 1936 letter to the administrator at the ISTD (Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency – now the Portman Clinic) “but the work does get done eventually and will be sent you for the files.”
With the beginning of war the Essex camp came to an end, and briefly relocated to the poorhouse in Bicester, Oxfordshire, where a new intake of unbilletable boys mixed with the rump of older disturbed campers, in bare and unfriendly buildings and with a bit of a hostile local police force thrown in. After several months in which the old campers were found alternative accommodation and the initial chaos settled into a kind of therapeutic milieu, David Wills [left Q Camps and] moved up to Peebles in Scotland, to open a hostel and school for unbilletable boys for the Edinburgh Society of Friends. It was 1940, and with bombing in London, and with the danger of damage through damp, the Q Camps Committee agreed to send the case notes and other Q Camps records up to [David Wills in] Scotland for safe keeping. Their train was bombed near Birmingham, the package containing the archives was burned and then doused with water. But the records had been insured, and were therefore given special handling, dried, returned to the Q Camps Committee where T.C. Bodsworth (who had been instrumental in arguing that damp and bombing would damage the records; described as the ‘resident camp bursar’ he had previously and subsequently been on the staff of the Lingfield Epileptic Colony. Given that David Wills’ mentor, Stuart Payne, was also on the staff there, and that David Wills had first met Arthur Barron there, it must have been a dynamic and progressive institution), fully dried and repackaged them again, and sent back up by what turned out to be an anxiety-inducingly series of slow trains. That it was a right decision is laid out in a letter Marjorie Franklin wrote to David Wills on May 6, 1941:
The West Central Jewish Girls’ Club and Institute and the day settlement (and of course Q Camps office) attached had a direct hit from a land mine and are now a heap of stones. The 27 killed include Miss Paynter (Secretary) and Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson (caretakers) and 2 of their children – a third was evacuated.
Records of 50 years social and other work have been lost.
Well, good bye
Then the Q Camps records as identifiable entities disappear. There is an early note suggesting that when David Wills moved he boxed the files and included them with his personal furniture. From Peebles he moved in 1945 to Woodbroke, the Quaker study centre here in Birmingham; had several short-term appointments while waiting to open a new school for maladjusted children for the Birmingham Society for the Care of Invalid and Nervous Children, in Herefordshire; was finally able to start there in 1949 and stayed till 1961, his plans to retire from Bodenham interrupted by intractable disagreements with the governing body; and then moved several times again in short-term appointments before finally retiring and moving to Hook Norton in the Cotswolds. He died in 1981, and his widow Elizabeth (who had once been Head of Occupational Therapy at Yardley Green Chest Hospital, in Birmingham) in 1987. The records of Q Camp then resurface, in the hands of David Wills’ literary executor, Robert Laslett. At that point they had an enhanced meaning, as the records of a place, a generation, a man, and a team which directly and indirectly had an immense influence on 20th century residential child care and policy; and (as outlined above) led to the founding of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre.
In his 2002 notes to Oral History Society trainers, Rob Perks quotes Dr. Johnson on the origins of the term ‘oral history’ – “You are to consider that all history was at first oral.” And he notes the work of the Venerable Bede, which brought oral and archival stories together into the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Oral history is defined by the presence and absence of archives, and archives-based history. The absence of archives makes oral history absolutely necessary. Their presence – archives and oral history together – gives our understanding of life and the past a much greater fullness than either does alone. By and large archives – except in their structures and absences – are silent about themselves. They are an essential part of the story, but it is a largely occluded part of the story.
It does matter, and this is a plea to oral historians, when conducting oral history, to record the story of the records and those who care for them. It is the story of the memory of community.