LEILA MARGARET RENDEL, OBE
Visionary – Philanthropist – Pioneer
Most biographies of Leila Rendel begin with the founding of a day nursery in 1911 which became The Caldecott Community. However, the years which preceded this were rich in personal life experience and led to Leila’s passionate interest in the welfare of children and families. She was born in Kensington London in 1882. Her parents were William and Ruth Rendel, and her paternal Grandfather Sir Alexander Meadows Rendel, a renowned Construction Engineer. His brother George also worked in the family business as did Stuart who became Baron Rendel MP acquiring great personal wealth. Leila’s parents were less well known and somewhat overshadowed by the more prominent members of the family. Her father died when Leila was just fifteen years old and she went to live with Her Grandfather in Bloomsbury. Her mother moved to Surrey with her two other children Olive and Robin.
The Rendel family home was a five storey town house with servants, stables, horses and carriages. Neighbours included other Rendels, The Strachey Family, Architect and Designer Halsey Ricardo, Mary Stocks, Octavia Hill, Beatrice Webb and other reformers, socialites and artists. The creative influence extended into the Rendel home with re-designed interiors and music, poetry, literature, theatre an essential feature of family life. However, it is far from the truth to suggest that they were totally absorbed in making money, as it has been described as “a power house of far flung political preoccupations and social reform” (1)
After finishing her education in Paris Leila was back in London working with enthusiasm as a researcher with Beatrice Webb on The Royal Commission on the Poor Law at the same time wearing the colours and carrying the banners of the suffragettes! Her keen interest was in the support of mothers, infants and children living in poverty which was translated into practical work with her Aunt Edith, a poor law guardian. Edith campaigned to improve the conditions and deficiencies in the workhouses, children’s homes, schools, family homes and extreme poverty of St Pancras and North Kensington. She also ran the St Pancras Girls club for factory girls and Leila soon was soon involved taking weekly exercise classes and providing holidays for children and families at the family country mansion in Surrey.
Trained as a Physical Education teacher Leila earned her living as an Inspector in The Department of Education which she did not enjoy. Inspired by the work of her aunt and motivated and assisted by the generosity and philanthropy of family and friends she founded her own nursery The Caldecott Community in 1911 with her co-founder Phyllis Potter. The nursery was in Burton Crescent St. Pancras adjoining Aunt Edith’s creche and with no regrets Leila left the Civil Service.
From then on, she was an original and creative pioneer for the care of children from a variety of backgrounds. She brought the experiences of her own family life to create beautiful environments with an appreciation of culture which she firmly believed were therapeutic in themselves together with an understanding of the need for love affection and security, at times taking risks in achieving this goal. The Community expanded to accommodate children from nursery to young adults moving to new locations several times and learning from the experience of upheaval and change and integrating the lessons into the daily lives of staff and children. The capacity to negotiate such changes, both internal and external and not be frightened into a static security reflects the personality of its founder, (2) In 1935 Phyllis Potter defected to follow her devotion to the Anglican church and Leila recruited women with few qualifications but willing to dedicate themselves to the service of The Community and its children for little money and hard work. In the second world war the Community family offered support and a home to refugees from Europe without distinction.
Continuing to lead the daily life of the Commuity Leila acted as an advocate for children contributing to Government Enquiries and Committees notably The Curtis Report of 1946 and The Children Act 1948. Her work was directly influenced by her personal connections with John Bowlby, Homer Lane, Donald Winnicott, Mia Kellmer Pringle, Barbara Dockar Drysdale and her close friend Kurt Hahn founder of Gordonstoun School of which she became a Governor.
In 1947 The Community moved to Mersham-Le-Hatch an 18th century Country Estate with a fine Robert Adam House in Kent, acquiring a long lease from The Knatchbull family. This was a perfect environment for Leila’s guiding philosophy. At the same time finance was obtained from the Nuffield Foundation to set up an experimental Assessment Centre in nearby Mersham. under the guidance of the Community Directors. This benefited from the contribution of Dr Hilda Lewis, a Psychiatrist with wide experience of work with Children and a small experienced team including a Matron,psychologist,and support staff. Five hundred children living in Kent were received in to the centre between October 1957 and July 1950. This Centre was the first of its kind with the twofold task of doing the best for the children and to accumulate data which could be used to support children and their families in the future. (3) In the main house the family of children gradually increased to 100 with a nursery, junior senior and young adults. Junior children attended school on the premises while others went to local schools after the 11+ assessment.
In the 1950s a remedial education Centre was added as an experiment in partnership with the Local Authority and The University of Birmingham, psychologist Mia Kellmer Pringle supervising. The brief was to work with several of the most difficult Caldecott Children at the same time as several similar children from the local area. The most interesting aspect of the report is the recommendations for similar units to be set up in Local Authority schools as they did not exist at the time. It also gives pen sketches of some of the families and children illustrating the level of emotional poverty and maladjustment. (4)
As it is impossible to summarize the life and work of 100 years in this brief introduction it seems appropriate to celebrate Leila’s life by reproducing her booklet “The Child of Misfortune” (5) illustrating her perception of children’s needs and vision for the future. Leila stayed at the helm with her co-director and partner Ethel Davies until her death in 1969. Ethel died soon after. Anticipating the inevitable, Leila had already appointed her successor who took no time in introducing change that was in his view “the need to restructure”. The House was re-ordered and the Community was broken up into “family units” Many of the staff who had dedicated their working lives to The Community retired and were replaced by young staff who although designated “professional” did not stay long and at times were more of a problem than the children! (6)
This “revised” model continued for some thirty years until 1998 when the lease on Mersham-Le-Hatch expired. A new site had been built in anticipation attached to an adjoining Mansion House nearby. This was a cluster of houses with a central core, and eventually its own school. The Caldecott Community was renamed The Caldecott Foundation for corporate and fund-raising purposes and although with the best of intentions somehow failed to achieve its ambitions or develop Leila’s vision for the future. Funding issues and changes in local authority policies on placements contributed to this and it came near to closure.
With the appointment of an energetic new Director in 2017 The Caldecott Foundation is again on track bringing the experience enthusiasm and commitment it requires. Individual therapeutic plans are in place in both residential care and fostering with in house Psychologist and Psychiatrist. Improvements to site and properties are under way, and recruitment and training of new staff implemented. A Primary School has been opened which is a hit with the parents as is a new Boarding School for children and young people on the autistic spectrum. Overall there have recently been five “Outstanding” OFSTED Assessments.
In 1952 Leila Rendel wrote “all young creatures need pattern, familiarity and above all continuity if they are to grow but for each child must be discovered the peculiar pattern, familiarity and the continuity he can best tolerate”. In the 21st Century the Caldecott Foundation does all it can to honour this insight.
1: Mary Stocks – My Commonplace Book Peter Davies 1970
2: Bridgeland M-Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children Staples Press 1971
3.Lewis H.K. Deprived Children -The Mersham experiment -Nuffield Foundation/Oxford University Press 1954
4: Kellmer Pringle M – Remedial Education-An Experiment Caldecott Community & Birmingham University 1960
5: Rendel L.M The Child of Misfortune The Caldecott Community 1952
6: King, J -Reflections on 31 years at Caldecott, Association of Workers with Maladjusted Children 1993
7: Rendel L.M ( in) The Child of Misfortune The Caldecott Community 1952
Archive Material used with permission The Caldecott Association, The Caldecott Foundation, Kent County Archives, Kings College London, The Wellcome Trust Library and special thanks to Craig Fees of The Planned Environment Therapy Trust for inspiration and encouragement.
With additional thanks to Simon Rodway, Chair of The Caldecott Association and Nick Barnett, Director of The Caldecott Foundation.
Mark Sevia: Child of The Caldecott Community 1950-1958
Fellow of The Institute of Mental Health (University of Nottingham)