‘Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth’ by Elsie Bazeley

The Key Texts are the classics from the past, which helped to shape today’s services. Some are books, some are research reports, some are papers or chapters in books and one is a Government policy document. We have selected a score of texts, and are offering a “digested read”. They are being published at a rate of two a month. The digests cover a standard pattern, setting the context of the text, describing its contents, analysing its impact then and its relevance now, and suggesting further reading.

The digests prepared to date have been written by Robert Shaw, but if any reader wishes to contribute, please get in touch, to ensure that we have not already prepared a digest on the text in question. We are pleased to announce that the series is sponsored by the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, and we are most grateful to them for their support.

Elsie Theodora Bazeley (1928) Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth London: Allen & Unwin

Elsie Bazeley joined the Little Commonwealth as a staff member in 1916, two years after its opening, and worked there until its closure in 1918; she produced this memoir of the Little Commonwealth after the death of Homer Lane (1875-1925) from typhoid and pneumonia in Paris shortly after his expulsion under the Aliens Act for failing to notify a change of address to the police.

The Little Commonwealth was not Homer Lane’s idea but that of George Montagu, later to become the Earl of Sandwich on his uncle’s death. Homer Lane was recruited by the Management Committee which George Montagu had set up to oversee the project as a result of his successful management for six years of the Ford Boys Republic in America.

The introduction to the book is contributed by Lord Lytton and the first chapter is based on a paper by Homer Lane; thereafter the author takes up the story in her own words, adding as an Appendix the paper prepared for the Management Committee in July 1918 which they would have published had the project not closed.

Key Ideas

  • Love
  • Freedom from arbitrary authority
  • Self government – given the opportunity, people will create their own ways of regulating their behaviour.
  • Elections to office for set terms
  • Coeducation
  • Girls view justice differently from boys
  • Encouraging bad behaviour can sometimes be more constructive in the end than inhibiting it.
  • Staff have no special privileges over children.
  • Economic self-sufficiency.


In his ‘Introduction‘ the Earl of Lytton says that, while in a sense the Little Commonwealth failed because it was closed in 1918, in many ways it succeeded. It did not rely on Homer Lane, who always denied his central role, but at the time the Management Committee was not prepared to carry on without him.

The original founder of the Little Commonwealth was George Montagu (later Lord Sandwich) who “had conceived the idea and chosen the site for its establishment before he had heard of the existence of Mr Lane” (p. 12).

Homer Lane stuck to his principles throughout:

  • the law of love in which love is not motivated by pity but by admiration
  • freedom from arbitrary authority
  • self government in both the cottages and the school as a whole.

In the community everyone had to work to support themselves; so people usually started in debt and gradually paid it off. It was also co-educational.

Though Homer Lane was good at understanding and explaining the actions of others, he was bad at explaining himself and remained an enigma to those who worked with him. In the inquiry chaired by Mr Rawlinson, Recorder of Cambridge, he appears to admit that his love was sexual and that the story of an assault told by the runaway girls was true.

In the event, the Management Committee was faced with sacrificing Homer Lane whom they believed to be innocent or closing the Little Commonwealth; they chose the latter.

In Chapter I ‘The origins of the Commonwealth and the history of the first months’, Elsie Bazeley draws heavily on a paper given by Homer Lane.

Begun as a farm community in 1914 it consisted of around 50 people including nine children from 9 months to 9 years, four or five adults and thirty-eight young people from 14-18. Mr George Montagu (later Lord Sandwich) had visited America to look at miniature republics and his uncle (the Earl of Sandwich) had offered Flowers Farm in Dorset for the experiment. A committee had been formed which in 1913 invited Homer Lane from the Ford Republic for interview; Mrs Lane and family joined him after he accepted the job.

The Ford Republic had been boys only but Homer Lane wanted girl delinquents as well. The magistrates were initially reluctant to send hard cases but he eventually managed to get custody of three hardened girl delinquents whom he escorted personally by train to the Little Commonwealth.

Soon after they arrived, they began to share in the household tasks and, once they were settled, he arranged for some boys to join them. Though the girls spent quite a lot of time preparing for the boys’ arrival, they were not initially impressed with the boys and, when they did begin to interact, the boys tried to annoy the girls, who became reproving. Homer Lane did nothing about this and the boys became so noisy that one member of staff resorted to punishing them. However, Homer Lane did not step in because he wanted the whole group to accept responsibility.

In the end, noticing that the boys, though in single rooms, seemed to prefer being doubled up, he consulted them on the design of the new units. After a lot of arguing the young people decided to appoint a ‘policeman’ to run the discussion and concluded that there should be single rooms and they should have a 10 o’clock curfew.

Thereafter meetings were called nearly every evening and they soon realised that they needed a method of recording decisions. Then they found they were spending so much time discussing violations that they decided to have two types of meeting – ‘judicial’ and ‘legislative’.

However, the girl judge who was appointed was ousted because the boys didn’t like having a girl judge and the ‘court’ ceased to sit; then a very delinquent boy was elected as judge and did very well for several weeks until he was impeached and replaced by the original girl judge who continued in post for a long time.

Home Lane encouraged both good and bad activities; for example, he eventually confronted a boy who continually flouted the court and had gained a band of followers. The boy said he wanted to smash the place up; so Homer Lane dared him to do so. However the other young people stopped him and so Homer Lane gave him his watch. He wasn’t able to smash up Homer Lane’s watch and the next day he began to take part in community activities. He later became a judge.

Citing the example of a hardened criminal for whom a girl judge awarded a week home with his Mum, provided his Mum was not told the reason and the boy told her the reason before the end of the week, he notes that girls make “decisions with reference to the effect upon the offender, often ignoring the law, to find exactly the right action to take” (p. 53).

In Chapter II ‘Educational forces in the Little Commonwealth’, Elsie Bazeley argues that concerted action only takes place in the right circumstances. At the Little Commonwealth, these included the fact that the adults ate at the same table as the young people and that George Montagu, now the Earl of Sandwich, could be seen mucking in round the farm.

The staff were treated with respect in meetings and everyone was involved in the routine decisions about the household budget.

The young people were accommodated in two houses each with a separate boys and girls landing and much of what went on was similar to what would have gone on in any family setting. There were no organised activities; often the girls would be found in Homer Lane’s sitting room and the boys in Mrs Lane’s or Elsie’s. There was a library and books were generally valued.

To solve a problem at Bramble House when three of the boys applied to move to Veronica House, Homer Lane instituted the Bramble Workers Club. Starting with one member, the only members who could be accepted were those accepted by other members; soon a group had been assembled which lasted for a whole month before they resumed the normal arrangement of operating as a ‘family’.

In Chapter III ‘Educational forces (continued)‘, she describes how the boys and girls worked largely separately, the girls on domestic tasks or in the kitchen garden and the boys on farming, construction and maintenance. Wages were paid in the Commonwealth currency and used to pay for accommodation, clothes, and so on. She notes that the young people tended to be quite hard on the equipment and says that, if they had had the resources, they could have extended the facilities and the range of work.

The young people were loyal to their own families; one young woman tried to go home but realised she wanted more and returned to the Commonwealth. After becoming a housemother herself, she returned home to help her family and then returned to help the Little Commonwealth during the inquiry.

In Chapter IV ‘Other educational forces’, Elsie Bazeley describes how, by the time she arrived, there was normally a court one evening a week and a legislative assembly another; the qualifying age for citizenship was 14; offices were held for six months and the young people nominated themselves. There were fluctuations in the amount of order and disorder but it never fell as low as that in some adult institutions she later encountered.

A 1915 decision to have compulsory evening attendance at school had lapsed by the early spring, being replaced in the autumn of 1916 with an obligation to learn something. However, participation had dropped off by the summer of 1917 and the idea was not taken up again the following winter. Few of the young people were really ready for formal education; though some picked up from her that they could learn things from a book, most were prejudiced against teachers.

Initially there had been a church service in the Little Commonwealth every other Sunday and those who wished attended the Parish Church on alternate Sundays; however, after the vicar left to join the war effort in 1917, services ceased after an unsatisfactory attempt to continue without him; some young people attended the Roman Catholic church and some were confirmed.

In Chapter V ‘Some of the citizens’, she focuses on Edmund, Annie and John as examples of a very varied clientele.

Initially Edmund was hopelessly unreliable; after he had improved, he then started absconding. Once he had got through that, he managed to save 19s 11d (99p) for a new suit which he bought. However, when he discovered another boy was in debt, he pawned it for 13s 6d (67p) to pay the other boy’s debt. Fortunately, he was able to save enough to redeem it before his mother visited.

Initially Annie caused considerable problems, running away with two other girls but, when she caught influenza in January 1917 and was isolated to Heather Cottage, she read to the other girls. On her recovery she started outdoor work, progressing to standing in with farm work to replace the boys who had enlisted.

When Jane, a girl with learning disabilities, arrived Annie took her under her wing and ultimately became a houseparent. Though in December 1917 she ran away with Florence, she remained loyal to Mr Lane and sadly died in a later influenza epidemic after she had left the Little Commonwealth.

John developed into a supporter of the Little Commonwealth and was one of those chosen to stay on and wind it down.

Homer Lane’s ‘treatment’ cannot be described; things were allowed to go wrong and, in spite of the emphasis on collective responsibility for the economics of the Little Commonwealth, some young people were never able to handle this and remained supported by the cottage family. He believed that “[t]here is always some emotional disturbance at the bottom of delinquency or neurosis” (1928, p. 136) and that love may be creative or possessive but only creative love encourages freedom.

She ends the chapter with examples of girls saying things to make mischief, in particular Florence whose absconding in July 1917 had initiated the crisis which led to the closure of the Little Commonwealth.

In Chapter VI ‘Homer Lane An account of events up to July 1917 The report prepared by the committee’, Elsie Bazeley begins by observing that Homer Lane took risks and seemed to have little sense of self-preservation.

The Management Committee had decided not to expand because of war pressures and to focus on making the farm self supporting; the lack of boys, many of whom had gone off to the war, had placed extra burdens on Home Lane and the older girls.

In Chapter VII ‘Homer Lane – continued’, she recalls that, when the girls ran away in July 1917 and made the initial accusations, Homer Lane was greatly fatigued and the other girls were grief-stricken at the accusations. After she had brought the runaways back, they had “taken back all their lies” (1928, p. 153) and during the subsequent inquiry Homer Lane tried to protect them.

When in December 1917 Florence and Annie ran away and, to justify themselves, made the accusations against Mr Lane to the police which prompted the Home Office to withdraw its certification and instigate an inquiry, the young people carried on throughout the inquiry which ran into the summer of 1918.

By July 1918 the Management Committee were divided over the future of the Little Commonwealth and this led to the decision to close it. Homer Lane went off to work with adults in London and died of heart failure after typhoid and pneumonia at the American Hospital, Neuilly, Paris 5 September 1925.

In the Appendix ‘Report of the Committee on the closing of the Little Commonwealth July 1918‘, the Committee set out the problems with Florence following her arrival in 1916. She had actively tried to undermine Homer Lane and by May 1917 was making insinuations against him. Following an argument among the girls when they were out in the fields, two girls had written to their mothers saying that he was an improper person.

On their return from absconding in July 1917 Florence and Ethel had made insinuations at a meeting at which Homer Lane was not present leading to arguments between the young people. Homer Lane had brought out the allegations at a subsequent meeting and suggested they make the allegations to the police but this did not resolve the issues as he had hoped. He subsequently fell ill.

Later that year, he had invited Ethel on a family trip, a move which suggested a degree of naivety in the light of what had happened.

In December 1917 Florence had once more absconded to London, this time with Annie, and her allegations to the police triggered the inquiry, the loss of Home Office certification and a demand to wind up the Little Commonwealth.


The story of Homer Lane raises questions both about the Little Commonwealth and about his character and it is probably useful to separate these two issues.

The Little Commonwealth is possibly unique in being constructed on principles of economic self-sufficiency; starting with each individual, a young person had to earn enough through their work for the Commonwealth to pay their way. Each cottage had to receive enough from its residents, both staff and young people, to be able to pay its bills and the community as a whole had to earn enough from the farm to become financially self-supporting. Though it was financially supported by the Earl of Sandwich and others through the Management Committee and also for a period through Home Office grants, it would appear that this was seen more as a means to improve what the Commonwealth could offer than as a means of covering its running costs. There is no assessment in this book and I am unaware of any other assessment of the impact of encouraging young people to become self-sufficient on their behaviour.

Homer Lane clearly believed that, if you gave people the responsibility for making decisions, they would ultimately accept it. Unlike Makarenko who had no such preconceived ideas or Neill who planned how he would provide it, he started with both the intention to grant self-government and no plan of how to put it into practice. Interestingly, the model that evolves, involving officials elected for set terms as well as a ‘court’ and a ‘legislature,’ is very close to those that evolved among the children’s republics that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War (Brosse, 1950).

Whether or not he knew anything of her work, Homer Lane implicitly accepts the view of Mary Carpenter (1853) that delinquents need to be brought up in a family. Though family models have dominated the care of deprived children, the Little Commonwealth may be unique in putting this into practice with delinquents. But he differs from her in supporting family contacts, anticipating the first Report on the work of the Children’s Branch of the Home Office in 1923 (Heywood, 1978).

Some of Homer Lane’s observations are remarkably perspicacious. For example, his observation that girls make “decisions with reference to the effect upon the offender, often ignoring the law, to find exactly the right action to take” (1928, p. 53) anticipates research by Carol Gilligan (1993) over sixty years later while “[t]here is always some emotional disturbance at the bottom of delinquency or neurosis” (1928, p. 136) anticipates that by Rutter (1978) by nearly as much.

Elsie Bazeley’s comment that few of the young people were, at fourteen to eighteen, ready for formal education should certainly give pause for thought. In practice, the young people were learning, among other things, through the need for self-sufficiency, through their daily work in the Commonwealth and through the meetings each week. While Neill (1962) was to make the idea that children will learn when they want to a principle, Homer Lane appears to have dispensed with formal learning in favour of building a learning community.

This also makes sense of the lack of formal activities for the young people; after a day of hard work on the farm, in the kitchen garden or around the houses, time to relax with the Lanes or the other staff may have been just what they wanted. It is interesting to note also that Redl and Wineman (1951) found that within three months the young people had shifted from largely from noisy to quiet games at Pioneer House.

Though Mary Carpenter (1853) had advocated coeducation, as did the Advisory Council in Child Care (1970), coeducation was not adopted for delinquents within the UK, in spite of the fact that Homer Lane, Anton Makarenko (1936) and August Aichhorn (1951) all showed that it was feasible. That may in part be because Homer Lane is the only person who explicitly uses coeducation as a means to socialise delinquent boys and his fall from grace was precipitated by one of the girls he had accepted into the Little Commonwealth.

Though the Earl of Lytton attributes to him the ‘law of love,’ it seems that possibly Homer Lane’s Achilles heel was that, as Bettelheim (1950) was argue in a different context, Love is not enough. Some people are so damaged by their early experiences that, when love is offered, they either avoid (O’Neill, 1981) or set out to destroy the source of the love because they do not believe that they are worthy of it.

That would make sense both of Florence’s apparent commitment to the Little Commonwealth, in that she was prepared to take on responsibilities within it and she stayed on after the initial allegations and his ineffectual attempts to deal with the allegations and their consequences. He simply did not recognise that Florence needed more than just love.

It makes equal sense, given the other evidence of his naivety, that he did or said something which was culturally acceptable in middle class America but which was not culturally acceptable to a working class London girl. Lord Lytton certainly believed that the explanation he gave to the inquiry appeared to confirm rather than deny that something improper had gone on.

As we now know that victims are routinely not believed (Dziech and Hawkins, 1998), we cannot exclude the possibility that something improper did go on, in spite of the belief among everyone else around Homer Lane that no such thing did happen but, if it did, Homer Lane’s response to it was also not the normal response of someone who has had genuine allegations made against them. So the enigma of Homer Lane remains.


Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) Care and treatment in a planned environment: a report on the community home project London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office See also Children Webmag December 2008

Aichhorn, A (1951) Wayward youth London: Imago First published 1925 Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag

Bazeley, E. T. (1928) Home Lane and the Little Commonwealth London: Allen & Unwin

Bettelheim, B (1950) Love is not enough: the treatment of emotionally disturbed children Glencoe IL: Free Press

Brosse, T (1950) War-handicapped children: report on the European situation Publication No 439 Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008

Dziech, B W & Hawkins, M W (1998) Sexual harassment in higher education: reflections and new perspectives London: Garland

Gilligan, C (1993) In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development London: Harvard University Press With a new introduction

Heywood, J S (1978) Children in care: the development of the service for the deprived child (Third ed.) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott. Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poema

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz

O’Neill, T (1981) A place called Hope: caring for children in distress Oxford: Blackwell

Redl, F & Wineman, D (1951) Children who hate: the disorganization and breakdown of behavior controls Glencoe ILL: Free Press.

Rutter, M (1978) Early sources of security and competence. In J S Bruner & A Garton (Eds), Human growth and development chapter 2, (pp. 33-61) Oxford: Clarendon Press Wolfson College Lectures 1976.

1 thought on “‘Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth’ by Elsie Bazeley”

  1. It is always good to see articles about the Little Commonwealth, from where I am writing. This year is the centenary of its founding. The buildings are now a Franciscan community, Hilfield Friary, but we have invited the Child Care History Network, who have the archives, to host a conference for teachers and others to remember the Little Commonwealth. It will be on Nov 9th. details of speakers, booking form etc on http://www.cchn.org.uk
    Please could you kindly let people know about this day. We expect people from long distances.
    Br Hugh Hilfield Friary, Dorchester Dorset DT2 7BE


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.