(T) CF225a [section 2]
HAZEL POWELL [HP]
Interviewed by Craig Fees [CF]
25th September, 1997
[Please note. The interviewer had an intrusive and then-undiagnosed asthmatic cough, whose failure to disrupt the interview underlines the interviewee's generosity, patience, and capacity to focus.]
CF When were you actually born?
HP I was born in 1931.
CF Right. So you went to Forest School Camps - Forest School in 1936.
HP '36 to '38 seems likely. We were there probably till the Christmas of 1938, because we left - we did two years and an extra term.
CF Right. And then you went straight on to Summerhill.
HP And then I went straight to Summerhill.
CF And where was it at that point?
HP Summerhill was at Leiston then.
HP And then we had a year, in 1940, when Summerhill had to evacuate to North Wales. This was the same period when East Anglia was regarded as unsafe to have schools in, and the Army or Air Force took over your building. So that was when Whitwell Hall - Forest School - closed down for the war. And we were evacuated to North Wales. And so we had our summer holidays early, so that they could get on with moving everything. And you wouldn't believe how terrible it is to get home and all your friends are in school. So I decided I would go to school with my friend Barbara. And she went to a little dame school up the road, and it was - it was lovely. Complete contrast to Summerhill. There were about ten children in total being taught by two spinster sisters called the Greys in a house called Greystones. And at the end of term we all got a prize for something or other. Mine was Robinson Crusoe. So then Summerhill evacuated to Wales, and I was there right through the war years. And then we came back to Leiston. I would have left in '47. And that was when I moved on - I said earlier, didn't I? - to Battersea.
CF That's right. That's right. You were only two years at Forest School.
CF What - where did you leave? How did that - what was that like? What was the day like?
HP Well funnily enough I know it much more from what I've read and heard later. I don't have any strong memories, but I mean while it was in the New Forest it was in these two tiny wooden bungalows, which were sort of ordinary sized little houses for families. And so there can't have been many pupils. And I've got a list which Beefy put together a few years ago, in the other room again, of all the staff he can remember that were ever at Forest School, and all the pupils. And it's not long.
HP You know, it might be forty pupils in total, and they won't all have been there at the same time.
CF No, that isn't very many, is it?
HP So it can't have really grown, you know, very big, even when it had that big house at Whitwell, which I believe has something like twenty eight beds in it now. Or perhaps thirty eight if you're counting bunk beds, and so it would - the building wouldn't really have slept a lot more pupils, though there were one or two outside buildings that might have had - been made into bedrooms.
CF Your parents' involvement in Kibbo Kift and the nudist kind of things, and all of that, where did that come from? How did - do you have any idea how they became involved in that?
HP Where the first links were? No, I don't know where they were introduced to it. But this friend, Maurice Snell, for whom they built the house at Kings Langley, was also in the Kibbo Kift, and it's his wife who is still alive that we could go and see at Cranham. But they were quite - there's a funny newspaper photo from 1931 which I've got, which somehow my father dug out and we sent to Kushar on her eightieth birthday, but we did two or three photocopies. And it shows them marching in procession and all wearing cloaks, and bows and arrows, and it's really quite a back to nature movement in itself. And this was before it went political. And it's, you know - it was definitely get away from all this modern world, and a lot of the words in it are sort of old English - old German, perhaps.
CF And did that have any impact on your - on you as a child?
HP We were very happy, and very free, really, living around Rutler’s Lane. You know, you could walk everywhere in those days, and you didn't get accosted. And so children had a lot of freedom, and my friends and I used to build huts all over the woods opposite, and they didn't belong to us, they were just there, and public paths going through them. So that - and we had one wonderful time when we took two donkeys that belonged to a Summerhill friend who lived up in [Syret], and in the holidays she and I used to keep going from one house to the other and spending a few nights there. We had bicycles we could ride from one to the other, and nobody sort of was bothered. And we took these two donkeys, and there were three of us, because Barbara Snell actually owned the donkeys, and we walked to Whipsnade, which was, I don't know, ten or fifteen miles, with the donkeys as pack ponies, and camped on a farm near there. And, you know, you could do this sort of thing at fourteen or whatever we were. Or even younger, possibly, twelve. And, you know, nobody ever thought that you were in any danger. And so that that sort of freedom has gone. And we had that at Summerhill of course. We used to roam very freely in Wales.
CF Did you?
HP Yes, there was a - in fact probably the most dangerous point that I've been in I was with Hilda, and we were in the woods by the river. It slopes down from Lord Newberry's grave all the way to the valley below, and there's a river in it, and we'd somehow got on to a very slippery slope that we could - you know, we felt we were going to slide down, and sort of fall into the river, which was very rocky and steep at that point, so that it was pools and foam and rocks. I think that was physically quite a dangerous spot to be, but we managed to get out of it.
CF But that's very different from being in danger from other people, isn't it?
HP Yes. I mean there was - you know, we played - they were very lonely woods, and we had a little cave that we used to play in. But one day we got there and there was a bundle in it which - you know. And we unwrapped it and it had a lot of long, thin shards of glass in it. And that really worried us that some tramp had been there sleeping in our cave. And just at that moment, just as we'd undone this horrible bundle and wondering what we would find, one of our school friends, Paul Skeeping, spoke - we didn't know he was there, and he suddenly sort of said, "What are you doing here?" And we thought it was a landowner. We sort of looked up in absolute terror, and it was such a relief that it was somebody we knew. And we just never went back to that little cave again, it put us right off. But, you know, we'd played in it time and again, Hilda and I. It was a, you know, really, really remote place. But the rest of the wood was still there. We didn't not go to the wood at all, it was only the cave we didn't feel was ours any more.
CF That's a funny thing, isn't it? It takes on a kind of vibration.
HP That's right.
CF It's not the same again, ever.
HP No, that's right. So we - then it was - I can't remember which way round it was, but as we undid this bundle, one of us expected a severed hand, and the other expected a severed head, we told each other afterwards. So we must have felt very alone while we undid it. And these odd bits of glass, I don't know. It makes you wonder what he was planning to do with them. Yes, it was probably wise to keep away.
CF Did you have much direction from adults at Summerhill at that point?
HP The interesting thing about Summerhill is that the lessons were there, but there was no hidden coercion to go to them. Neill really did not care whether you went or not. Most schools or situations you can think of like that, the teacher would really be aiming that you attended the lessons, but just try to do it subtly. But Neill was not bothered. He felt your development would come along regardless. And so you didn't have to go. Most of the lessons we went to. For some odd reason I took against Chemistry, and I never went to that, but I liked the Chemistry teacher. And I just missed out Chemistry for ever, as it were. I must have gone once or twice at the beginning, and not liked, or not understood, I don't know. But I mean he never tried to get me to go. I expect if he'd tried I would have gone again and accepted it. But Neill himself taught Maths at one stage, when we didn't have - I suppose the Maths teacher must have left. And that was all right. He was - he was very amusing because I came back from having sat the General Certificate, which I had to go somewhere else to sit, and then it was holidays. On this occasion I'd been to stay actually on a farm at some friends of my fathers to take the School Certificate, because we couldn't take it in our own school, and I don't know why we didn't combine and take it down in Leiston at the grammar school there, but we didn't. And so I didn't hear the result, so I came back after the summer holidays. How unimportant they were in Neill's eyes is shown by that. But you had to pass all five subjects in those days. So I hadn't passed in French, but I would have had a Distinction in Maths, he told me proudly, which was the subject he had taught me. I felt that was lovely.