Discovering Homer Lane

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 19, 2018

HOMER LANE WAS A PIONEER in the non-punitive treatment of delinquency and of freedom in education, whose life was, from one point 6f view a series of humiliations, but whose influence has been fruitful in both these spheres. After his death his friends produced two books on his work, both published in 1928, Talks to Parents and Teachers, put together from notes of Lane’s lectures, and Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth by E. T. Bazeley, a training college principal who had worked with him there. These two books found their way onto students’ reading lists, and Miss Bazeley’s was reprinted in 1948 while Talks to Parents and Teachers (Allen & Unwin 8s 6d) has been reprinted many times. Two men above all, through their own work and writing have kept Lane’s name alive: his most influential and best-loved disciples, A. S. Neill and David Wills.

Wills so often remarked “What a pity no-one has written a life of Homer Lane,” that in the end his wife answered “You’d better write it yourself”, and over the years they collected the material for a biography—not a small undertaking for people with limited resources and an exacting occupation, especially when it involved a journey to the scenes of Lane’s early activities in America. The book has at last appeared*, too late, unhappily, for Ruth Wills to share the author’s and the readers’ pleasure at seeing it in print. David Wills has given us an utterly candid account of Lane’s life: there is not the slightest attempt to put his hero on a pedestal; where he is speculating he tells us so, and where he has an embarrassing truth to tell, he tells it, with the result that we are left with an enhanced respect for both subject and author.

* Homer Lane: a Biography, by W. David Wills (Allen and Unwin, 40s.).

Homer Lane was born in a small New England town in 1875, the second son of a large chapel-going family. After leaving school he had a variety of errand-boy jobs and at 19 became a grocer’s assistant at Southborough, Mass, where he later married the police chief’s daughter. A local physician and school board member Dr. Claude Jones was an enthusiast for the Sloyd Movement (Sloyd is a Finnish word for skill, and it was this movement that introduced manual training into the school curricula). Jones wanted to run a voluntary Sloyd class to persuade his fellow managers to adopt the method and offered to finance Lane’s training as a teacher. So Lane commuted daily to a Sloyd Training School at Boston, at the same time running the voluntary evening classes, which were a great success, but suddenly, soon after the birth of their second child, Lane’s wife died of pneumonia. In the following summer he graduated from the training school and took a vacation job teaching woodwork in the Pennsylvania State Reformatory. It was here, Dr. Jones later told Lane’s son, “where he first learned that the reform school made the bad boy worse.” In the autumn of 1901 Sloyd classes were started at Southborough, but by the end of the school year the conservative element on the school board succeeded in getting them discontinued as an economy measure. Lane then obtained a job as a Sloyd teacher a thousand miles away in Detroit, where he was later joined by his son and his first wife’s sister whom he subsequently married. After a few years he became Superintendent of Playgrounds, in which job “his method was to allow the children the maximum of freedom to play their own games, and in watching them, he learned much about spontaneous childish behaviour that was later to be of great use to him.” Or as Lane himself was to put it later, “A study of the causes of juvenile delinquency with reference to opportunities for free play led me to the conclusion that by far the greater proportion of juvenile crimes are merely a form of play.”

In Detroit Lane gained the reputation of an ebullient and sparkling speaker, but, says Wills, “he would allow himself to be so carried away by his argument that any ‘fact’ that would support it would become for him—a real fact, and would be passed on as if it were the solemn truth.” This characteristic was to bring him endless trouble, the first example of which happened in Detroit:

He was “carrying on’’ in his “anarchistic” way about the problem of the unmarried mother, and defending the practice of abortion … “Why,” he said, “I have myself borne the expense of an abortion in this city of Detroit. rather than see another child enter the world condemned to all the sufferings and odium of illegitimacy.”

How much truth there was in this assertion it is impossible to say; the very great possibility is that there was none whatever. It was merely his way of saying that he felt so strongly on this subject that if he knew of any girl who had got into this kind of trouble he would be willing to act in that way. It is not so very dishonest—in the heat of an argument—to say one has done what one is perfectly willing to do, and it is so very much more convincing!

But the story found its way to a newspaper man who told Lane that the City Fathers would not like to hear what kind of man was running their playgrounds. Lane meekly took the hint and resigned. Now while teaching in Detroit he had become friendly with a young lawyer, Fred Butzell, among whose interests was the Hannah Schloss Memorial Building, a Jewish settlement house, where Lane was invited to hold manual training classes. “From the first he took a very broad view of the scope of the proposed classes. Indeed, he did not organise them as classes at all but as a club—and a self-governing club. He told Butzell he was most anxious to experiment in self-government which he was not allowed to do at school during the day.” Lane’s success at the Hannah Schloss led Butzell to seek his advice about another activity, the Boys’ Home, a kind of probation hostel for school-age boys. Lane’s view was “Shift the whole thing out into the country. Take the kids right away from the environment that’s made them what they are. Let them get some fresh air and some wholesome outdoor work. Let them create a new environment for themselves.” Butzell persuaded the Committee of Management to agree and they bought a farm outside the city. In March 1907, Lane, now 32 with his wife and three of his four children together with twenty boys moved out to start the new home which was called the Ford Republic (not after the motor maker).

It was superficially similar to another famous experiment startell a few years earlier by William George, the Junior Republic at Freeville, New York. George’s rather naive concept of the self-governing institution was a kind of miniature United States constitution, with an elected legislature, a judge, public prosecutor, police force and President together with an economic structure of “free enterprise”. Lane’s notion was different. As Howard Jones says, describing theLittle Commonwealth in Reluctant Rebels:

Lane did not believe in systems, even “freedom” systems. “Freedom,” he said, “cannot be given. It is taken by the child in discovery and inventions.” True to this principle he refused to impose upon the children a system of government copied from the institutions of the adult world. The self-governing structure of the Little Commonwealth was evolved by the children themselves, slowly and painfully and to satisfy their own needs.

However the Ford Republic certainly had more in common with the George Junior Republic than with the Little Commonwealth, and when David Wills visited the place in 1947 he was astonished to find it run in exactly the same way as when Lane was there forty years earlier. “I mention this,” says Wills in another of his books, “only to deprecate it. An essential element of shared responsibility, it seems to me, is that its forms must be devised by the living community, and clearly be seen to have been devised by it.” In spite of rows with the committee and a continual financial muddle, the Ford Republic was an obvious and acclaimed success, until one morning a Committee member chanced to see Lane and a young woman teacher from the Republic coming out of a house in Detroit. He was asked to explain this at a Committee meeting:

He loved her. There was never any doubt about that, and no man in love can be ashamed of hIs. feelings, so why should he deny it or attempt to explain it away? He dId neither, and to the Committee he seemed simply brazen, talkmg a lot of Shelley and clap-trap about a menage-à-trois. It might be good enough for William Godwin and nineteenth century Naples, but for God’s own country in the twentieth century it simply would not do.

Once more he resigned, and this time got a job with a construction firm at Buffalo. (David Wills’ speculations about the importance of this period are included in this issue of ANARCHY). A year later, in 1913, Lane came to England at the invitation of George Montagu, later ninth Earl of Sandwich, who had visited the Ford Republic and reported full of enthusiasm to a committee of wealthy and influential people interested in penal reform who were anxious to start a self-governing colony for delinquents. Impressed by Lane, they asked him to stay and run their Little Commonwealth in Dorset. This was in May 1913, and the first “citizens” were admitted to the Commonwealth less than two months later.

The success of Lane’s methods there soon became evident. By the following year it was being approvingly described in the Times Educational Supplement, and Lane was addressing the Howard League. “It was in the summer of that year, however, that the movement started which was to carry Lane’s name throughout English educational circles. In July an informal but enthusiastic conference about New Ideals in Education was held at East Runton, on the Norfolk Coast, as a result of which a small committee was set up with the duty of arranging an annual conference on the same subject.” Recognition by the Home Office (which was needed to enable local authorities to spend public money on the support of children sent to the Commonwealth) was not given until March 1917. As Wills says, in view of his own experience:

It is highly improbable that the Home Office would recognise such a place as the Little Commonwealth even today, when many of Lane’s ideas are common currency, and the Home Office is, so to speak, fifty years more enlightened than it was then … How then does it come about that a seasoned inspector of this cautious Government Department fifty years ago, in spite of all the muddle and confusion, the lack of order and routine, the absence of a normal discipline and the presence of both sexes at the riskiest age—why, in spite of all this, was Russell prepared to recommend approval?

He finds the answer partly in Lane’s charm and persuasiveness and partly in the character of Charles Russell, a very unusual man who came relatively late in life to the Home Office staff. Unfortunately he died soon after recognition was given.

The story of the Little Commonwealth has been told in Miss Bazeley’s book, and her readers will be familiar with the events leading to its end. Two of the girls, in the course of a dispute there, alleged that Lane had been sleeping with them. The affair died down, but at the end of 1917 the girls absconded from the Commonwealth, got into trouble with the police and repeated their charges. The Committee made an enquiry and passed a vote of confidence in Lane, the Home Office held an enquiry and in June 1918 withdrew recognition from the Commonwealth. Wills, who gives all the available evidence, believe that the Home Office in fact concluded that Lane was innocent of the charges brought against him, since they had permitted the life of the Commonwealth to go on for six months after the enquiry as usual, with new children being admitted, which they would scarcely have done if Lane was seducing the girls. (There was no case for a trial since the girls were above the age of consent). He further concludes that “What was really objected to was not Lane’s alleged misconduct, but Lane’s methods—the whole system by which the place was run. Realising that Lane and the system were inseparable, the Home Office insisted on his removal, after which there were to be ‘certain modifications in the arrangements and methods’ to be indicated by Norris”, (who was Russell’s unsympathetic successor.)

Lane stayed at the Commonwealth to see to the dispersal of the children—the Home Office accepting his recommendations—and in October 1918 moved to London with his family and two of the small children and four of the citizens for whom he had not been able to make satisfactory arrangements. (As Wills points out, if the Home Office had really believed the charges against him they would scarcely have countenanced this: as he was an alien nothing could have been simpler than to have withdrawn his residence permit.)

So here is this man—and his wife; for the large heart of Homer, which could find a home for all the world, would have been useless now without the equally large heart, and willing, capable arms of Mabel-here is this man, with four children of his own whose ages ranged from eleven to nineteen; with a total capital that could not have exceeded £200, no income and an uncertain future; providing a home in a rented furnished house for six children who had no legal claim on him. Here his virtue of open-handed generosity goes hand in hand with its defect of reckless extravagance.

He set up in London as a “lecturer and consultant in psychoanalysis”. As an untrained layman he was careful never to refer to his ‘patients’, they were called ‘pupils’. They came to him on the recommendation of the well-connected patrons of the Little Commonwealth. There is ample evidence that these pupils derived great benefit from their sessions with Lane, but it was through one of them that his final disaster came. She was a fairly well-off and highly neurotic woman who spent most of her subsequent life in mental hospitals, and who had made him gifts of large sums of money. Her anxious father complained to the Home Office that his daughter was in the clutches of an undesirable alien. In March 1925 Lane was arrested and charged with “failing to register as required of an alien”. In spite of the testimony of many prominent people he was awarded a month’s imprisonment and a recommendation for deportation. An appeal was lodged, with “battalions of defence witnesses” in court, when suddenly the appeal was dropped. “Lane had in effect made a bargain with the Court, through his counsel: Drop the deportation order and the imprisonment, and I’ll leave the country voluntarily.” He died in Paris a few months later.

Miss Bazeley remarked of Homer Lane that “he had extraordinarily little sense of self-preservation, but an equally extraordinary vitality and recuperative power.” After the final disaster, he lost this resilience. David Wills’ interpretation of Lane’s inability to defend himself, as well as an assessment of his character and achievements are printed in this issue of ANARCHY.

There are many other extraordinary things about Lane. One concerns his use of psycho-analytical techniques. Some people have suggested that Lane’s downfall at the Commonwealth was due to his analysing the citizens. But Wills establishes that he made no attempts at analysis of individuals until nearly a year after the events and allegations which. led to the Home Office enquiry. He prints as an appendix a paper read by Lane to the Committee in 1918 explaining Freudian principles (or rather his version of them) and his difficulties over transference. It is difficult for us to grasp today what a dirty word Freud was in those days, and Wills asks “Where did this uneducated teacher of woodwork pick up his knowledge of psycho-analysis?” especially since at both the Ford Republic and the Little Commonwealth much of his time quite apart from running the places, was spent in building and farming. The likeliest guess it through the writings of G. Stanley Hall and Ernest Jones, but as Wills says, “what is not possible is to understand how a man whose days were so full as we have seen Lane’s to be, could have found the time and the energy to absorb these difficult, highly technical and revolutionary teachings, with none of that advantage enjoyed by a later generation, of hearing Freudian concepts casually discussed among the hands that rocked their cradles.”

Lane’s embroiderings of the truth are also interesting in many ways. They are creative myths. For instance, he used to tell a story of how he joined a street-corner gang in Detroit and, having got himself respected by its members, re-directed its activities into socially acceptable channels. As Wills remarks somewhere, he probably made it up, but it is essentially true nevertheless, not only because since Lane’s day other people have successfully done just this, but because of the principle it illuminates. Similarly, Dr. David in his introduction to Talks to Parents and Teachers tells a story he must have heard from Lane of how, when he worked for the contractors in Buffalo, he was soon put in charge of a section of the work and immediately “abolished all foremen and clocking-on, and established a record for low prices”. Probably pure invention, but again it illustrates a principle which has emerged since then in other people’s experiments in self-government in industry.