Book review of ‘A Finchden Experience’ (Author Alan Wendelken). By Dr Chris Hanvey

A Finchden Experience.  By Alan Wendelken.

It wasn’t a school, it wasn’t a hospital, it was a “third thing”- an “adventure in living”

Finchden book
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This was the view of George Lyward, the founder and head of the therapeutic community Finchden Manor, from its origins in the 1930’s until its demise in 1974.

Alan Wendelken has every right to record his experiences at Finchden Manor, as he knew it as both man and boy. He started as a resident and later returned as a staff member and acolyte – not a unique experience for Finchden – but one which provided him with two major prisms through which to record his life as a member of this  community. Although, as he concludes there is no one Finchden.

A Finchden Experience is a personal account of an extraordinary therapeutic community. After Alan’s death his wife, Claire has shaped the material (some from his memory and some from his jottings) into a compelling read into what she describes as place of “stern loving”.

Alan first came to Finchden, aged fourteen. His father had been traumatised by serving for four years in the trenches during the First World War and his mother experienced mental illness.  She was, in her son’s words, incapable of enjoying life and blamed everything on her son.  As a result Alan became disruptive at school and was eventually sent to Finchden in a chauffeur driven Daimler with huge headlights and highly polished coachwork in the hope that his behaviour could be polished like the car’s bodywork. Having experienced many similar referrals from desperate parents the head, George Lyward simply and non-committaly said “let’s see how we get on”.

The book is partly an account of Alan’s teenage years at Finchden until he left in 1955, to start work. He found employment through his photography, a lifetime passion cultivated at Finchden, moved to a garden nursery and then discovering he could do therapeutic work with adolescents, went to work at Stanford House. In 1967 he returned to Finchden as a staff member, remaining until 1974 when he took a prominent role in its closure, being one of the last to leave.

George Lyward, the founder of Finchden, was born in 1894. He was brought up in Clapham Junction by his mother, as his opera singing father had left home when George was very young.  George won a choral scholarship to study at St John’s College Cambridge and graduated with a history degree. He started training for ordination but left before finishing and in 1930 opened a therapeutic community in a farm building at Guildables, Edenbridge. In 1935 he bought and moved to a larger premises at Finchden Manor where he would then stay until his death in 1973 and a year before the community closed. Finchden had been a family home and also a Benedictine monastery. With some land and outbuildings it was described by Alan as having a “romantic style” with large rooms, difficult to heat via a temperamental and unreliable boiler. But the land permitted vegetables to be grown and an overspill for the exuberance of the community’s young population.  George Lyward had his own quarters where he and his family lived in the Manor but he always saw the residents as his guests – being, as he put it, invited to live with him.

While the book is ostensibly about Alan’s life during his two periods at the Manor, George Lyward towers about the pages like a Colossus and, through Alan’s eyes we not only see how the community grows and develops but is eventually overtaken by a new world order.

The book contains some of George’s favourite aphorisms. He believed in a community that was “diverse but curiously unified”, in “sentiment not sentimentality” and, as seen above, as a place where the boys were welcomed as “guests”.  At one stage Alan describes a three stage process through which the successful troubled and troublesome boys would go, during the passage of their stay. Not all were able to cope and the book records individuals for whom Finchden just didn’t work. Most arrived in crisis, often having worked their way through a series of institutions unable to contain them. They found themselves disarmed by the ease and leisure they encountered, with few formal rules and only a minority of boys doing any formal educational class work. There was no school and formal education was seen as a privileged extra, available only to the few. There was, however a rota of household chores in which they were expected to share. This included maintenance and feeding of the highly temperamental boiler on which their combined temperatures depended.  During this first stage, Alan records how boys would slowly drop their defences, entering into the group life of the community.

The second phase, which came from self-exploration and discovering both strengths and activities in the group context, involved a move from independence to interdependence. Alan has much to say about this and George Lyward’s belief that the sense of community and mutual support was at the centre of the Finchden experience. Lastly, came the growth of a reasonable assurance and shared acknowledgement that they would be able to move on and take a place in society.

Based on George’s beliefs, Alan expresses this in a slightly different way as a result of his own experiences. To begin with was the release of previous pressures to conform and be “the nice little boy” as he puts it. Then, by living by the code of Finchden came a realisation that self-preservation was not the same as selfishness, thus allowing the possibility of interdependence. Lastly, came a belief in one’s place in the wider scheme of things and with that a sense of security.

Finchden did not give answers. It did better than that – it taught you to find them for yourself and the recollections are full of examples of the creativity and ingenuity that finding answers brought.  There are accounts of imaginative school plays, concerts, the building of monster toboggans to race in the snow, the construction of hot air balloons, with cameras attached , which needed to be chased across the Kent countryside and the careful creation of a Finchden incinerator to swallow up the Manor’s waste.

Over all of this towers the figure of George Lyward described in turn as the “Showman”, the “Provider”, the “Boss” (most frequently), the “Chief” and the “Therapist”. As a reader of Carl Jung he was the creator of myths, presiding over this “adventure in living” and the fons et origo of all that happened. His philosophy was to “never explain, never justify and never apologise” and Alan describes him alternately as “saint or sinner”.  As a new staff member Alan had to find his way through the culture in a different way from that of a young “guest” of Finchden. Those expecting answers from George, whether staff or boys, would soon be bitterly disappointed. He would hold group sessions – to discuss the boys’ behaviour – when the whole community would come together, often at short notice and sometimes at night. They were always upredictable. The meetings were irregular and at George’s discretion.  He would dominate them, often with his sharp tongue. He always pursued an argument until he won it – either by his own verbal skills or by grinding down any opposition into submission. As a result, free speech was discouraged as the whole community was cowed by him. Sometimes he would decide on the reallocation of rooms for the boys and the house would go through a period of re-adjustment as residents moved places. And yet his commitment remained absolute and even the most challenging and disturbed boy had an iron certainty that, held by George, he was safe.

Undoubtedly the saddest part of the book lies in its last few chapters. Two predictable things happened: the world changed and George Lyward grew older.  There was a growing awareness that, in L.P. Hartley’s words, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (The Go-Between). Boys who previously came having experienced the war years and relatively straight forward family structures were replaced by young people growing up in the permissive 60’s and 70’s. The life at Finchden Manor became much tougher. As one boy asked George, with a question that exercised the “Boss” for several months, “what’s wrong with self-indulgence?”

George’s grip on Finchden was inevitably not as firm as he aged; numbers dropped and local authorities proved less willing to pay for a regime which could be seen by outsiders as, ironically, self-indulgent.  Interestingly there is absolutely no mention in the book of female staff joining Finchden and the staff seemed to mirror the life of the boys: you needed to accept George’s therapeutic philosophy and failure to do so became a self-selecting process. It is implied, rather than stated, that the shadow side of a charismatic leader, not given to introspective discussion as to what would happen after he stopped, was that the debate didn’t happen.  George Lyward died in 1973 and for about a year his son John valiantly tried to keep the Manor open. John had forged a successful and independent career for himself in the Army and only returned to help out when he could see things were becoming difficult.

A combination of falling numbers and ever growing bills for the Manor’s much needed renovation, coupled with increased health and safety requirements, meant it could not be sustained. There is a sadly elegiac quality as Alan helps preside over increasingly empty rooms, dwindling numbers and a growing number of feral cats.

A Finchden Experience is a fascinating text for anyone interested in the therapeutic care of boys from the immediate post war years to the 1970’s.  The sheer energy, creativity and insight of the founder is evident in every page and yet here is the problem. With all the wisdom that only hindsight brings we can see that an inability to plan for a successor, coupled with a lack of insight into how the world was changing would inevitably end in tears. With supreme energy and skill George Lyward had held it all together in his image but was not able to see either that the world was very different for therapeutic care from the 1930’s or that it was inevitable that any future leader would not be in George’s image. What Finchden demonstrated over the years was a cohort of young men who, able to live in a spirit of interdependence, went on to lead creative lives as good husbands and fathers. And, as Alan asserts, there was evidence that numbers who went on to re-offend or lead dysfunctional lives were lower than some other forms of residential care.

The book ends with Alan, having closed the Manor, setting off for London with one of the cats and comparing himself to Dick Whittington. And yet there is a level at which the fairy story had already taken place.

Dr Chris Hanvey


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