In his introduction to Living with Children the second volume of articles from The TCJ, David Lane describes Mill Grove as a most unusual place which “for the purposes of statutory registration is unclassifiable”. This is right on the nail. Some decades earlier, R.J.N. Todd, an inspector from the Home Office, wrote in one of his reports that it is “not like any other home”, and Bob Holman used this as the title for his history of the place. Because it has been my home for most of my life, I am in some ways the least well-placed person to describe it, unable to see the wood for the trees. And what I take for granted may well be exactly what someone trying to fathom it needs to know.
What I would like to do in this piece is to describe a few features of what is going on today, and then to suggest some of the reasons why it has developed differently to most other places that started with similar aims, and that were in former times classified in roughly the same way.
On roughly an acre of land with premises that have 90 rooms, from broom-cupboards and nooks to a spacious dining room and indoor badminton court, between 20 and 25 people live at any given time. There are seven or eight independent living spaces, and these are occupied by families or individuals who have turned to us for help. On occasions pregnant mothers have come to live with us, but more often, families with very young children. There is no leaving age, and we make a commitment to those who come that they can stay for as long as they feel it is the most appropriate place for them to be. This means that there are some individuals living in what we think of as the core of the residential community, and it was only when trying to explain who they were and why they lived here that a penny dropped for me.
So let me share with you a little about four of them; how they relate to each other; and what part they play in Mill Grove and its story.
The first is the granddaughter of someone who came to live here as a young girl in 1928. She represents continuity on a grand scale because her mother had also lived at Mill Grove for part of her childhood following a family tragedy. She has two grown-up children and is separated from her husband.
The second is the daughter of a boy who came to live at Mill Grove with his two brothers in 1980.
The third came to live at Mill Grove as a very young boy in the 1960s, along with three siblings. Like them he moved on, but thirty years later he was struggling with work, housing, and citizenship. In response to a call from his older sister, we welcomed him back home.
The fourth is an adult who came to live at Mill Grove as a girl and who had lived here ever since. (In recent months she has moved into one of the independent living spaces.)
What these four individuals have in common is a long-term connection with Mill Grove, and what is commonly known as the “Mill Grove family”. When people use this term, they are thinking of a global network of those who lived at Mill Grove, or whose parents or grandparents did, and who still identify as part of this extended family. Connections are maintained in all sorts of ways. There are guest rooms, for example, for those who wish to stay for a break or a special annual event. There has been a yearly newsletter, Links, since 1901. There are informal networks of relationships. For each of them Mill Grove functions as home. To get a sense of what this means, it is important to take in the fact that their connections with the place go back nearly a century, and span four generations.
One other feature of Mill Grove that needs to be included in any attempt to understand it, is the development of several local initiatives such as the Pre-School, the Rose Walton Centre (for children with cerebral palsy), a community association, a badminton club, music lessons, keep-fit sessions, and Thursday lunches for senior citizens in the neighbourhood.
There is a lot more to it than this, but this is probably enough to indicate the shape or contours of the place as it has become today. What started as a “Home for Motherless and Destitute Children” (these are the exact words), has become a residential community or extended family, a centre or hub of a neighbourhood. In 1975 it deliberately chose the name Mill Grove as a way of avoiding any such labels or labelling, then or in the future. If you really want to get to know what it stands for or what it is, then come along and find out. Even sociologists have been at a loss to find a generically accurate or appropriate description, so if you do turn up, it is worth keeping an open mind.
Since 1899, like Topsy, Mill Grove has developed into something that seems to be rather unique, not because it has sought to be different, but as part of a process best described as organic rather than planned. Many voluntary children’s homes like say Quarriers, Bridge of Weir, Barnardo’s, Fegan’s, the Children’s Society, National Children’s Home, Muller’s started at roughly the same time as Mill Grove, but all have taken different paths or trajectories. So what I wonder might some of the factors be that have caused Mill Grove to take a road less travelled, and become what it is? Here are a few reflections.
The same location and buildings. The land and the buildings are in the same place, and most of the buildings, though adapted and extended, are recognisably Victorian. The address and telephone numbers have never changed. This means that there was never a revolution when the place was demolished or relocated, and something “purpose-built” erected. Changes have been mostly incremental and responses to emerging needs, requests for help, or insights.
The same family. The person who started Mill Grove, was Herbert White, my grand-father, and like my grandmother, Edith, he lived here until his death. My father was born at Mill Grove and became responsible for the place and family, until he handed over to myself and Ruth. We lived at Mill Grove with our family until they were grown up. Members of the White family were part of, and helped and supported what went on, all through. So, whatever else it might be, it is in fact a family home.
An independent charity. At no point has Mill Grove ever been part of a larger body or organisation. This means that there has never been a corporate decision taken elsewhere that interrupted or influenced its development. Like ordinary families there has been a remarkable degree of independence.
A faith commitment. The story of how the place started and the way it has operated only makes sense with reference to the Christian faith of those who set it up and maintained it, and the wider Christian community who have supported it.
A growing body of knowledge. Over the years, and notably since 1968, there has been continuous reflection on what is going on, informed by insights from psychology, sociology, community work, residential and group dynamics.
Interaction with context. This is implicit in the idea of an organic process, in that no organism exists out of context. In this case the community has developed with reference to local area, neighbourhood, local government, national trends, and global movements. This has happened not least because it has become a global family.
Individuals. The story cannot be told or explained without reference to those whose characters helped to shape the development of the place. This includes the founder and carers, but also those who came to live at Mill Grove as children. Several of the latter have written and published their own life-stories.
North Wales. Since 1984 Mill Grove has been blessed with two houses in a picturesque part of Snowdonia. And three generations have now enjoyed exploring this part of the United Kingdom. Holidays spent on its beaches, seas, rocks, rivers, lakes, and mountains are part of the shared experience and story of all who live at Mill Grove. And as with many families, holiday memories are some of the most treasured and enjoyed.
Bearing in mind that I am not sure I am well placed to explain how and why things are as they appear today at Mill Grove, it would be interesting to hear what others think. But meanwhile the unique dynamics continue to play themselves out. For example: between the time I started this piece, and my conclusion, here is an incident from last Saturday morning. I was mowing the grass when a family of four arrived from Swansea. The father of this family was one of the three boys who came to live at Mill Grove (from Nigeria) in 1980. He, his wife and two daughters, had come to see his eldest daughter, the one currently living at Mill Grove, before they all went off to see his brother and family.
We ambled round outside the buildings taking an occasional photo, and his daughter recalled the times when she came to Mill Grove as a young girl. She paused at the door on a balcony where she used to come in to join us and our Labrador dog, called Drake. The way she spoke, it was obvious to us all that these were eagerly awaited times of great enjoyment, and memories started flooding back. Concurrently, her father was recounting some of his childhood memories of North Wales.
So it was that there were seven of us united by over forty years of shared life and experience. None of this was planned: it was a natural outworking of the story. And as we chatted plans were bounced around for the coming summer, and other anniversaries and events. There is little doubt that the story is set to run for years, possibly generations yet!