From Brian Merrikin Hill, 1974
I'm writing from what is for you my new address: actually it is the second since I left Wennington. I don't know how far news percolates about the malicious activities that caused me to depart. I had reached the point of thinking that the kids, staff and I had achieved a loving, caring, very democratic community (also on the verge of a new curriculum scheme which was notable) when the Governors asked for my resignation! After some thought I gave it — but withdrew it when it produced a massive volume of protest (all the kids and over 95% of the parents). They at first refused to accept the withdrawal, then they announced that they had (at a meeting and in a circular), met delegations of parents & children and the Headmasters' Association, nearly agreed to a compromise — then announced that I hadn't withdrawn my resignation (as I legally couldn't) in a circular that made it appear that I'd resigned again. The lies and duplicity were fantastic! — worthy of your satiric pen. So in spite of all the pupils, 98% of the parents, and various other interested progressives, I departed. There's now a new headmaster — and, I gather, hell to pay in the school.
From Brian Merrikin Hill, 1982
Kenneth's book¹ is, as a matter of fact, irrelevant — that's possibly the most appalling thing about it, for him, for Wenningtonians, for anyone involved. Alas, as I may have said before, it's advertising copy for a product no longer available. It isn't a "history of the school" or a real account of even part of it. His remarks on dancing and dances (to choose an innocuous example) are just not true, not faithful to fact, emotion or experience: there were dances with marvellous atmosphere after he left, and while, before that, he sulked elsewhere. At no point in the book, so far as I recall (I don't look at it often) does he really show personal understanding, gratitude, criticism, or real thought, about any member of staff: they're all made anonymous so that KCB can dominate. Of course, it would have been very difficult to do anything else — but the fact that that is so makes the book irrelevant. He isn't Bertrand Russell or an autobiographer of integrity. Schoolmasters exaggerate schools, anyway: the lives of their pupils mainly consist of things they don't know anything about. Hence their reports are usually wildly irrelevant to suffering or triumphant children — if they practise alleged psychology, all the more so.
I think it possible that only poets, novelists, artists, musicians get anywhere near what it is like to be a living human being, and they don't (or shouldn't) dogmatically apply theories and try to classify. (I dread to contemplate the lies that were said about me to my knowledge, and what I don't know about must be horrific — all uttered by "Christian persons" thinking they were acting responsibly!)
1. Energy Unbound: The Story of Wennington School
From Eleanor Barnes, 1982
This is a note from me, Eleanor, because K was at a loss to know how to respond to your letter.
The reason for the thunderous silence was legal — to protect all parties — and compassionate: equally to protect all parties.
I cannot tell you how painful that time was, & indeed the preceding years. Between you and me, the agony of the school's dissolution began in the years before K & F's retirement. It could have been saved if Fred Sessa had been appointed then (when K retired). Poor Brian simply hadn't got what it takes either as a schoolmaster or manager or head. He was a super deputy. The "power" did terrible things to him.
We had an old scholars party at John & Jennie Swifts last weekend, as always in the New Year, & for the first time Brian looked really quite normal, if rather ancient. He doesn't come to the Summer O.S. meeting, quite rightly. Their daughter Sonjia is now a school leaver & just like Irene when she came as a young music mistress & Brian first set his hat at her in my final year at the school.
It is all terribly sad, & it was a bitter & destructive experience which could have been avoided if proper legal advice had been taken in the early stages, and some wisdom exercised in the choice of successor.
Yes of course K's description of you in the book is a fiction. He had to write it up in such a way that you would not readily be identified. And, oh goodness, I do so sympathise with you. How maddening (& hurtful) it is to be pigeonholed even with glorious epithets. K's loving loyalty & tendency to lionise & magnify those he loves is both a strength & weakness.
Don't lose touch, Alan. It means so much to Kenneth. He is so proud of the contact, never mind achievements, with the people he knew as youngsters with all life ahead of them, & it means a lot to get even an annual note. You, especially.
From Brian Merrikin Hill, 1984
Most of my life I have been a pacifist and an anarchist, conscious that governments are not now and never have been the creation of the people but the descendants of the imposed power of the violent and rich. I am not a practical anarchist because anarchism is impractical, but I think every effort should be made to use governments for the benefit of the poor, the oppressed and the deprived: governments have no other legitimate functions, anyway. Experience in the care and rescue of delinquent and maladjusted children has convinced me that few of them are to be blamed — few human beings are ever to be blamed, only those who wield power willingly or exalt fictions like the nation-state, the working classes, professionalism, 'the town', 'the country', etc. over the individual who should be left to live, love, suffer and rejoice in peace. Most organisations seem to prevent human beings from living on the earth, with it and recognising it as their home. The earth is man's hard home; the 'world' as made by man in his folly is becoming his prison.
It might have been possible for man emerging from the cruel Middle Ages to achieve life or the circumstances for living. But capitalism partly caused the Reformation — in any case it took it over (Luther was one of Europe's greatest misfortunes) — and history since then has largely been the record of a great mistake. I sympathise passionately with small nations (Armenians, Cornish, Bretons) partly as symbolic of human persons denied by invented 'sciences' like economics and by fettering puritanism the opportunity to live naturally in some kind of joyous but painful innocence before their death. Modern society seems to me mainly to be a machine for the elimination of mankind. I inherit the Methodist (and Shelleyan) urge for the salvation of man; I detest the Samuel-Smiles puritanism of denial, self-help and economic virtue...
In political and social, as in personal life, forgiveness and understanding, love, caring compassion, are all that matter. I will not give whole-hearted allegiance to any organisation that exalts 'justice', retributive and hard, over compassion. If told that hard cases make bad law, I reply that it would be better to have no law and no hard cases. Our duty (not a word I like) is to arrange to make the best of the situation we find: experience as an educator has taught me that retributive punishment for past acts never did anyone any good — to resort to it is a confession of failure and an excuse for not troubling to exercise understanding.
From Chris Sullivan, 2008
I was in a home for maladjusted children in Salford, Greater Manchester. At the time I was truanting from school rather a lot and had taken up the latest craze — ''glue sniffing''. Thus my behaviour was beginning to worry all concerned for my welfare. It was decided that I would be sent to Ingmanthorpe Hall, where I would also be nearer to my nomadic mother. The year was 1982. Ingmanthorpe Hall was chosen because it had a school on the premises and also because its rural location would prevent me from easily running away or getting up to mischief in the town.
I remember seeing the school from the very beginning of the mile-long winding drive. I was scared stiff! It looked unfriendly, austere and somewhere I would not be happy. On my arrival I lost my temper and wrecked the main office. That's when my first moment of friendship came to me. A member of staff called Mr Smith said, "You will be okay here, Chris. I'll see that you are well looked after!" In the next few weeks I broke every rule possible. I smoked cigarettes. I swore at the staff. I went missing during class and I was generally a rebel. The staff never stopped me from breaking the rules, and gradually my resentment towards them subsided and I slowly settled in alongside the 75 other boys there.
I was housed in the courtyard in a two-bed dorm, and I enjoyed my lessons at school. In the end, the staff became my friends. Most times, they turned a blind eye to my sneaking off for a sly smoke, and in return I behaved for them. In the end, my friendships with other boys at school became deeper and deeper. Many of us had come from broken homes, and we inevitably shared the heartache and pain that each other were going through. I made one friend in particular and on my last day I cried all the way home knowing I would never see him again. For a tough kid from the mean streets of working-class Manchester, that was a severe turn-around in attitude. I left in July 1985, broken-hearted because I would never see my rather large adopted family ever again.
I miss Ingmanthorpe Hall. It was a very special time of my life. It helped me a great deal.
The school was just called Ingmanthorpe; it never had a special name. It was a private company that ran the boys' home headed by a Mr Newsome. They also had a similar school and residential boys' home in Todmordon, on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. (I was nearly sent to the other one, but I insisted on Ingmanthorpe just to be difficult!) It did not have a mission statement as such. Its aim was to school and care for boys from various national authorities, usually wayward boys. But some kids were sent there simply because their parents could not cope too well or were alcoholics, etc. Many boys came from Newcastle, York, Thirsk, Scarborough, some from Manchester, Coventry and even London. It closed down because of a change in national policy on placing children in care. Basically, it was costing the Government too much money and they decided to make it difficult to place children into the care system and they opted for smaller foster-parent-type placements instead. Many children's homes around the country closed in or around 1986/7.
Some of the dorms were pretty big. They had to treat me very gently because I had wrecked several other children's homes and caused thousands of pounds' worth of damage and also turned most of the kids against the staff. So I was given a two-bed dorm, which suited me more. By the time I got to Ingmanthorpe, I had changed and had become more gentle and used my charm to get what I wanted from the staff. We were looked after very well. They even had a scout hut and took us away frequently.
There were many boys there over the few years I was there, and it was fun and we were all very close really. Not much bullying at all, and some of my friendships were amazingly close.
These days, you might be pleased to know I am non-violent, a vegan. I don't drink, smoke or take drugs, so it must have been good for me! I wonder if you knew Mr and Mrs Peas? They ran the school farm and seemed to have been there forever. They must have been in their seventies back then, so possibly you knew them.
The school ran from 1975 to 1989. There was some talk of its being run as a National Olympic School, but that never materialized. I heard it had had a different name. We were told that the school at one point was run by Mormons, and that they used to be keen on skinny-dipping in the pool. I don't know how true that is. We used the pool in summer and often enjoyed it. Mr Newsome was an ill-tempered man, only occasionally kindly, and he lived in the house situated beyond the pool and the yew tree. He was not the headmaster but the head/owner of the entire school.
Some boys ran away frequently, and a couple of lads stole the minibus and were caught miles and miles away. I remember that when they were returned they were frogmarched naked, with their hands on their heads, to the headmaster's office...
It's funny but I was in a normal school in Salford, and they were still using the slipper when I was there. (They never dared do it to me.) But at Ingmanthorpe they never slippered or caned anyone. It was still legal to do it, but I am guessing they considered we had enough violence in our lives when we went home...
The staff were very kind to us, apart from their obsession with stopping us smoking. Sometimes we were strip-searched in public, and that was pretty funny... It seems a far cry from your days at the school. Many of us had a lot of freedom, and we were not beaten up by the system...as you seem to have been, just by the slightest comment out of place, etc.
I think most of the boys at the school see themselves as very lucky to have been sent there. At first it seemed frightening, but then the activities you could choose to do every evening were amazing, and the food wasn't bad at all. Mr Newsome did ask if I wanted to stay on an extra year, and I said no. I regard that as a poor decision, and think I should have stayed. They had already placed me in one of the flats for the previous year, and I would have been very comfortable in there and could have matured slightly better. When I left, I had many problems adjusting, with drink and depression getting the better of me at age 16 to 26.
MY NOTE: Some personal details have been deleted from the third email.
From Anonymous, 2009
Some time ago, Sam (Doncaster) & Pat told me that you had a piece on the net on your experiences at Wennington and that they had found it generally rather negative. I meant to look at it myself at the time but somehow failed to 'get a round-tuit' (as they say) until now. It's interesting — I have to say that because it paints rather a different picture from the one most of us remember of the rogue with an angel's face who organized midnight binges on a grand scale, often provided with food filched from the school larders!
Up until around the age of sixteen, I really enjoyed my time at Wennington but then started to get frustrated with the petty restrictions and the feeling that I was still being treated as a child when I was approaching adulthood. I appreciated Kenneth's teaching of science, which I think he did very competently up to O-level when we came under the wing of H.I. Hall (who was brilliant)...
He [Kenneth Barnes] was socially inept generally. He was unable to engage in discussion on any issue on which he had a strong view (almost any subject, that is) and especially where his own personal authority was concerned. His behaviour did not fit in at all with everything he said — repeatedly said, nay preached at length — about how he thought people should interact with one another. In fact, he was a small man of a basically shy, unself-assured disposition who desperately wanted to be admired and respected. He failed dismally with all of the pupils he couldn't manage to cope with (mostly boys but there were some girls as well)...
So I had no love for this man but I feel we need to bear in mind that without Kenneth there would have been no Wennington and, for many of us, that would have been a great loss. He also had some remarkable qualities. As well as being a reasonably good teacher, he was an artist, writer, gardener, photographer and handyman (if a bit of a botcher with it)...
MY NOTE: This was a thoughtful, well-written letter. Unfortunately, most of it is too personal to be published.
From John McCarthy, 2012
You knew Kenneth Barnes from a much closer perspective than I did, and I never saw him as a onetime teacher. In the same way, I knew Wennington School as a visitor and and from close friends/family — not the same as being a pupil. Perhaps not surprisingly, our views of Barnes differ. Also I see from your writing you have clearly been thinking of him recently and of your memories of past days. Occasionally, I come across some of his writing that stirs faint memories — but it is many years — decades — since he was more than a shadowy figure in the background. So I have to stir my thoughts around to see what surfaces in the pot. A chancy or selective process!
I was never a pupil or staff member at Wennington, but I did see something of the place because in the mid-late 40s I used to visit my mother who was assistant matron or matron there for some of that time — and I had friends amongst some of the boys and girls, and amongst some of the staff. Earlier, my mother and I used to live in a Hampshire village called Steep, and that was where we met the Barnes and, I think, others who moved to Wennington. I knew Rosalind and Roger, and sometimes played with them. Kenneth was a father-figure rather outside my range for most of the time. He once helped me make an electric motor. Frances was always patient and kind to me. I remember her well from those days when I was a shy, grubby six-, seven-, eight-year-old.
By the time I visited Wennington I was an apprentice in the Merchant Navy, getting leave when our ship was in Liverpool or Glasgow. The apprenticeship began in August 1944 and I can't remember now when I first visited Wennington. I do recall the first visit was when the school occupied a grim old mansion in Lancashire. My second visit was to the new location in Wetherby — and seemed a great improvement.
Most of my visits were for a week or 10 days every three months or so (I was on Atlantic convoys at first); but later, when I was studying for my second mates certificate in London (three months in 1947), the visits were more frequent, and once when I was waiting for a ship I stayed for about two months. I picked up the school gossip at the time — and I was interested. It seemed different to anything I had experienced in my own school education. As I got to know people I do recall, even now, how often one heard comments — for and against — Kenneth Barnes and the things he had or hadn't done. And, years later in New Zealand, I read on-line comments by ex-pupils of their strong views about Barnes.
As a child, I had known Kenneth Barnes as a leading Quaker (my mother was a Quaker), a leading Socialist (we were a left-wing family), a science teacher of high repute, and I held him in some awe — as I said before a rather distant figure to me. Then I spent five years at the Quaker coed boarding school at Saffon Walden, then went to sea and didn't meet Barnes again until I visited his school. He and Frances were hospitable to me, and while I picked up the different views people held, I had known him in Steep as a man who often attracted arguments so I was not surprised — and not specially concerned one way or another. My real life was at sea. At some stage, I met and liked Louis ? who taught art, the carpentry teacher (name forgotten) and Martin Eden the other carpentry teacher and the English teacher — Brian Hill? He was most helpful to me.
Then my life moved further away from Wennington. I married a New Zealand girl, my first wife, and in 1952, after a spell in London, we moved to Wellington, NZ. More or less, I have been here ever since — apart from some business travelling on occasions. My family and I visited Wennington on two occasions — the second time, sadly, Frances was in very poor health. I was glad to see them again, but all seemed pretty remote — and even more so once we were back in NZ.
I still had contact, because my mother, who joined us in Wellington, kept in close touch with friends in the school, including Ruth, Frances's sister, and I think with Rosalind. So my mother filled me in with the high spots of news and changes and black ticks — but I do not recall many details now. I should say that from getting to know a number of pupils quite well back in the fifties, the ability to think independently and speak out seemed widespread amongst them, and I recall others commenting the same way. You would know much better than I do if that's a valid comment.
Barnes's writing I found occasionally helpful — often hard to grasp. Somewhere I still have a copy of The Involved Man that I see I marked carefully many relevant passages. One of his earlier letters I found helpful was to Friends in USA about his reaction to the Luftwaffe blitz and the strains on pacifist beliefs of a war that many pacifists (at that stage) saw as being justified. I was interested because in the Friends School, Saffron Walden, that I attended the issue of whether to register at 16 as legally required — or go before a conscientious objectors tribunal — had to be faced by everyone. I had not followed my mother's path and become a Quaker (altho' I am now an "attender") — and at the time I had no strong pacifist beliefs. Others did and the issue was discussed — in fact one of the virtues of that school at that time (early 40s) was the freedom in which the ins and outs of pacifism in wartime was discussed — and the invariable understanding that was shown of contradictory points of view.
Your contact with Kenneth Barnes and Wennington was much closer and longer than mine, but I can only set down my own experiences.