Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

David Wills

1903 - 1981

David Wills’ lifelong focus was young people who were troublesome to others, or to themselves, or both. He was the first British person to train as a psychiatric social worker (in the States). He played a key part in several experimental therapeutic communities, and wrote a number of books describing his experiences and his developing ideas.

In his early career, he worked in a number of hostels for maladjusted boys, and in the Settlement Houses sponsored by Welsh Quakers.

In 1935 he wrote an article for The Friend, which had significant implications for the rest of his life.  The article called for a bold experiment in the treatment of young offenders. His ideas centred round group working on environmental projects, in a community setting. He argued that this would be a more constructive way of dealing with young people who would otherwise have been in custody.

At the same time the new Q Camps Committee, supported by British Friends’ Penal Reform Committee, was developing ideas for ‘Q Camps’ for troubled young people. Its secretary, Dr Marjorie Franklin, read the article in the Friend, and invited him to join them in setting up their first camp. In May 1936, Hawkspur Camp opened, on Hill Hall Common in Essex, with David Wills as Camp Chief.

Hawkspur had many features of what would now be described as a therapeutic community. Communalism (living and working together) was a central idea, as was democracy. Rules and penalties were set and applied by the Camp Council to which every resident could contribute.

He wrote a book about the camp, ‘The Hawkspur Experiment’. It contains many anecdotes about young men who came to Hawkspur, and how it transformed the lives of many of them. Writing much later, in ‘Forgotten Pioneers’, Malcolm Pines wrote:

'David Wills understood that the lads who came to the camp were profoundly dissatisfied with themselves; they were failures who hated themselves. Their protection was hating the world about them. On discovering that they were given freedom, not discipline, they had to begin to discipline themselves. ............ In him the boys sought the loving parent they had not had and with great skill and understanding he lived through the 'corrective emotional experience 'they sought. They attached themselves to him and to his wife. Time and time again the lads would test his capacity to go on loving in the face of delinquency and bad behaviour.’

A key colleague at Hawkspur was a young psychiatrist, David Carroll. In 1944 Carroll led two projects at the Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, in London.  These became very well known, and led to much wider awareness of ‘therapeutic communities’.

Hawkspur was closed in 1940, soon after the outbreak of World War II, and David Wills was soon leading a new ‘experiment’, this time in Scotland.

Early in the war, many British children were evacuated from vulnerable cities to safer places. Scottish Friends became very aware that some evacuees were not settling into the families with whom they had been billeted, and that some other solution was needed for these ‘unbilletable’ children, as they could not go home. They set up Barns Hostel School, near Peebles to accommodate them, and invited David Wills to be its Warden. He and his wife, Ruth Wills, set it up together. She was especially instrumental in using art as a therapeutic vehicle for enabling the children to express themselves and their feelings. He wrote another book about this period, called ‘The Barns Experiment’

Barns closed at the end of the war, and he became warden of Bodenham Manor School for ‘maladjusted children’ in Herefordshire, until 1961.

His work and writing continued to influence many. In the 1960s several Quaker probation officers developed new ways of working with homeless offenders and helped evolve ‘intermediate treatment’ for young offenders. They established Glebe House, and he was a founding trustee. He was one of the first Trustees of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, founded in 1966 by Dr. Marjorie Franklin.

In 1971 ‘Spare the Child’ described how the Cotswold ‘Approved School’ became the Cotswold Community. Finally, in 1979, his chapter in ‘Six Quakers look at Crime and Punishment’ was published.

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Further Reading and Credits

External links
Further reading
  • David Wills, THE HAWKSPUR EXPERIMENT, Allen and Unwin, London, 1941,1967.
  • David Wills, THE BARNS EXPERIMENT, Allen and Unwin, London, 1945.
  • David Wills,  A PLACE LIKE HOME, Allen and Unwin, London, 1970.
  • David Wills, SPARE THE CHILD, Penguin Education Specials, Penguin (Harmondsworth, Middlesex) 1971
  • Six Quakers look at Crime and Punishment, Quaker Home Service, 1979