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Haven for the rebel spirit

Generations have puzzled over how to deal with young offenders. Gerald Haigh believes an Edwardian altruist's experiment still has resonance today

A Dorset Utopia: the Little Commonwealth and Homer Lane

By Judith Stinton

Black Dog Books pound;11.95

Here's the Dorset County Chronicle of July 1913 on young people and crime:

"It is now recognised that much which used to be called 'crime' among the rising generation, especially in the slums of our great cities, is rather the result of such a combination of evil heredity and prejudicial environment as largely to reduce the moral culpability of the young offender."

In other words, "It's not their fault; it's down to how they're brought up and where they have to live", a sentiment that would probably only appear in a local paper today as the heavily ironic summary of the beliefs of some bleeding-heart liberal. It's a reminder that it wasn't always thought eccentric to consider alternatives to punishment for badly behaved adolescents. From the 1850s well into the 20th century there were government-run "industrial schools" and "reformatories" in this country: residential and day institutions (over 200 at their peak) where children up to 16 who'd offended, or were believed to be at risk of doing so, were given an education and taught a trade.

It was against that background that the Little Commonwealth of Judith Stinton's book came into being in the summer of 1913. Deep in the Dorset countryside near Sherborne, it was a self-governing community of young people, some sentenced by the magistrates, some referred because they were destitute or believed to be at moral risk in their homes.

Moves to start the community began two years earlier, driven by George Montagu, a politician with a deep interest in juvenile delinquency who had visited the "George Junior Republic", a community for young offenders in New York State. Well-connected nephew of, and heir to, the Earl of Sandwich, he set about raising support and funds for a similar British venture. The sum needed was pound;15,000, and Judith Stinton tells us that it was soon forthcoming. "In those prosperous, pre-war Edwardian days, it was comparatively easy. Social reform was in the air, and many an altruistic scheme had been launched."

She describes some of the projects: Lord Baden-Powell's Boy Scout Farm in Sussex and the Fellowship of Reconciliation's Riverside Village at Melton Mowbray, run by F. Russell Hoare, "an anarchist by temperament, who had no desire to turn out good 'citizens', but rather rebels - individuals capable of thinking for themselves."

Homer Lane, first superintendent of the Little Commonwealth, was recruited by Montagu from the United States where he had recently left a "republic" similar to the George Junior. (He'd got his secretary pregnant; Lane's baroque social life undid him on more than one occasion and eventually brought him down.)

The Commonwealth began with three girls - Ellen Stanley, Mary Derbyshire and Annie Scott - who had been caught stealing. Homer Lane, Judith Stinton tells us, "saw the girls' thieving as a healthy and legitimate reaction to their surroundings and upbringing. He seemed to relish their bad behaviour."

His belief was that, left to sort themselves out, feisty, bright and rebellious kids will devise a way of getting on, keeping order and sorting out the ones who won't play ball.

Lane's commitment was severely tested many times, not least by the arrival, two weeks after the girls, of the first group of four boys. These were described by Lane as "swaggering and laughing boisterously, smoking cigarettes, dirty and unkempt".

Judith Stinton reports that his nerve held. "The boys had shattered the peace, and Homer Lane refused to do anything about it. He was not, he said, a policeman."

Before long, though, the children had devised their own court, with Ellen Stanley as judge. She was, we're told, fair and thoughtful, sometimes including herself in the judgments: she sentenced herself and others to go to bed without a light for a week, as punishment for leaving a candle burning dangerously.

Of all the ingredients in this complicated and remarkable tale, one of the most surprising is the attitude of the government. In 1917 the Home Office visited the Commonwealth and the inspector wrote to Lane giving him the stamp of official approval as a reformatory for 45 children.

"While I do not see eye to eye with you in every respect, I am immensely impressed by the great value of the work you are doing and, in particular, by the appearance and manners of the children, for it is evident to me that something has been driven out and something else put in."

The following year, though, it all came to an end. Lane was accused of "improper relations" with two of the girls. Was he guilty? Who knows? The author is loyal to the prevailing idea that he was "almost certainly innocent".

Without him, the Commonwealth failed to survive the Great War. Lane went on to private psychotherapy practice and, ultimately, to more scandal involving a young woman patient. He died in Paris in 1925.

Judith Stinton gives us an immensely readable account of a period during which unorthodox radical and democratic ideas were encouraged, paradoxically, by powerful and wealthy aristocrats (the Duchess of Marlborough, the former Consuelo Vanderbilt, was one of the Commonwealth's sponsors). It's difficult to see how ideas like Lane's could be put into action now, enmeshed as we are in a culture that can't see beyond controlling children and locking up young offenders. The Montagus and Marlboroughs - unaccountable, unafraid, infinitely rich - have become shadows, and the industrial and business sponsors who might be said to have replaced them are irredeemably in thrall to convention.

So, although Judith Stinton's story confirms for us that love and respect really do work, even in the hardest cases, we finally put the book down with mixed feelings, given expression in lines of WH Auden, quoted by the author.

"Lawrence, Blake and Homer Lane, once healers in our English land; These are dead as iron for ever; these can never hold our hand.

Lawrence was brought down by smut hounds, Blake went dotty as he sang, Homer Lane was killed in action by the Twickenham Baptist Gang."

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