Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Barns Hostel School

In 1939, in the build up to World War II, many children were ‘evacuated’ from large cities, and sent to places thought to be safer in wartime.  ‘Evacuees’ were usually billeted with host families. This was sometimes difficult for all concerned, and alternatives had to be found, especially when evacuees could not be sent home.

Scottish Friends began discussing the problem, and talking with some of the evacuees. The result was Barns Hostel School. It was set up in Barns House in Manor, near Peebles, rent free, in return for the Government's taking responsibility for taxes and general upkeep. Quakers had to select the Warden and pay his salary, and provide most of the members of the Management Committee. An Amenities Committee raised additional funds.

Barns opened on July 1 1940, with David Wills as warden. He had developed a ‘therapeutic community’ for difficult and disturbed young men at Hawkspur Camp in Essex, and brought this experience to bear. Barns had an ethos of shared responsibility and self-government. Art therapy, led by his wife Ruth Wills, was a key activity. He wrote about it later in ‘The Barns Experiment’.

The aim was to create an atmosphere of freedom in the art room (within certain limits). They would not tolerate fighting or the application of paint to surfaces other than paper. Technical advice might be given but Ruth would never succumb to a request from a child asking what he should paint; freedom coupled with praise was thought sufficient. any suggestion of a more structured approach was resisted.

One activity was ‘imaginative' painting with watercolours. Pots of paint were arranged in the middle of tables, and those who wished to paint were given a brush and paper and encouraged to go ahead. David Wills wrote,

It did seem to us that imaginative painting with water colours would provide greater cathartic opportunities... There was no instruction, no guidance; all suggestions about what to paint were firmly withheld. And there were some fascinating results aesthetically as well as therapeutically'. ‘Many of the painters ‘carry out a running commentary on their work... "This is a giant with a big stick…” Half a dozen boys might be chattering away like this, quite oblivious to everything and everyone except the world they are creating. It was fascinating to watch the imagination growing; or to be more accurate, to watch the boys overcome their fear of giving it free expression.'

He was amazed by the enthusiasm and energy the children were able to bring to this work. He also thought that this type of free painting illustrated to what degree emotional conflicts were being resolved, as well as providing a useful means of catharsis. He would often observe a change in the boys' paintings. One boy’s early work contained ‘an indescribable jumble of crosses, knives, daggers, explosions, bombs, aeroplanes, all in the most lurid or the most sickly of colours. Week after week these dreadful monstrosities were produced but very slowly, as Ginger began to get rid of some of his resentment - in paint and in other ways provided by Barns - his paintings gradually began to be slightly more coherent in design and less horrific in content'.

Self-portraiture was another technique. No matter how physically unlike the painting was to the boy who painted the portrait, Wills thought it always indicated ‘the salient features of his character, or his mood at the time'.

The third technique used was oil painting. Wills felt that this was particularly useful for children in need of ‘discipline', and noted that some children who were not good at watercolours could exceed in oil painting.

In late 1944, Barns' status as an evacuation hostel and its war-time tenancy were coming to an end. Barns Hostel and School was relocated on a permanent basis to Templehall House in Coldingham, Berwickshire, and renamed Barns School. David Wills left and Ben Stoddard became headmaster. Sadly, there was a major fire in February 1946, and Barns was temporarily rehoused in Broomlee Camp before moving to Ancrum House. In 1953, Barns had to close, because the owner of Ancrum House wanted the house back, and there was nowhere else to go.

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Further Reading and Credits

Further reading
  • David Wills: The Barns Experiment (Allen and Unwin, London, 1945)

Image of Ancrum House from http://www.otherpeopleschildren.org.uk/barns/