[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2006, 11:53 GMT
Breaking camp
Copyright: The Planned Environment Therapy Trust
Staff and boys lived in the most primitive conditions

By Jolyon Jenkins
Producer, the Q Camp

The government has unveiled its latest idea to tackle anti-social youths, but it is still a far cry from a utopian WWII experiment which placed them in their own self-governing community in Essex.

In the middle of World War II the authorities had a problem - what to do with those children who had been evacuated but who were too disturbed or delinquent for the average family to handle.

So when a group of earnest young conscientious objectors offered to take them off to rural Essex and "cure" their antisocial tendencies with a mixture of fresh air, unconditional love and radical democracy, nobody asked too many questions.

Q Camp was a utopian experiment which tried to get troubled boys to operate a self-governing community in the middle of the countryside. Not much was known about it until I uncovered newly released files at the Public Record Office.

Copyright: The Planned Environment Therapy Trust
Staff included university students
Its approach was radical and a far cry from the strict authority imposed at the reform schools and borstals where the boys would otherwise have gone. But while it was an extreme experiment, Q Camp anticipated many of today's ideas about treating children with behavioural problems.

Originally the camp had been set up in 1936 for adults, but was shut when the war started. It was opened again for the young boys in 1944 and came under the control of the Home Office - not that the authorities knew much about what was going on.

According to the newly-discovered records, the Ministry of Health complained that the first it had heard of the camp was when it received a letter from a local fuel overseer saying he was astonished children were permitted to live in such conditions.


The Q stood for query or quest and the camp chief was a young man named Arthur Barron, known to everyone as Bunny. Said to be full of "ideas and ideals", his philosophy was that children could learn self-discipline through shared responsibility.

"The whole philosophy was that these kids were unliked, unloved, unwanted at home," says Edward Thomas, a pacifist conscientious objector who worked at the camp.

"The theory was that if you could form a relationship with them and show that you still cared for them, that they would become civilised youngsters."

We was allowed to do virtually what we liked
Daniel O'Keefe
Q Camp resident

The idea that the community was non-hierarchical and self-governing completely baffled the authorities.

Staff and boys lived in the most primitive conditions, in ramshackle wooden huts without windows or sanitation. A Probation Service inspector described the camp as "dirty and dismal" in one report. She said the sleeping huts filled her with "horror" and the beds "looked grimy".

Work was shared, but the youngsters weren't compelled to lift a finger. A camp council of staff and boys imposed what little discipline there was. There was also a school but attendance was voluntary and the school hut was set on fire on several occasions.

Unconditional love

It was Mr Barron's belief that the young boys should not be told what to do. Smashed windows remained unfixed and obscenities were left daubed on walls because he believed it was better to leave the jobs until the boys responsible agreed to do them. They rarely did.

Daniel O'Keefe was 12 when he was sent to Q Camp after getting into trouble. After a series of court appointments he was seen by a psychiatrist who thought he could benefit from the exciting new "therapeutic community".

Evacuees in Somerset
Thousands of children were evacuated
"We was allowed to do virtually what we liked," he says. "We didn't have to bother with school or nothing."

The other principle the camp ran on was that, regardless of their behaviour, the children should be given unconditional love. The staff did their utmost to accommodate them.

One youngster who liked horses and made a speciality of stealing them was bought one in the end.

Records show the staff themselves were considered by the authorities to be just as troubled as the youngsters they were trying to help.

"They are not conventional people and one gained the impression that they themselves are maladjusted," wrote one visitor.

'Masters and slaves'

Concerns were raised by some of the families of the boys. Mr O'Keefe's father complained to the Home Office after one visit. He had tried to take his son out for a meal and was shocked that no decent trousers could be found for him to wear.

In the end it was health and safety concerns - and one too many fires - that caused the government to put an end to the experiment. The boys were removed and the camp deemed unfit for human habitation.

So was it a failure? The Q Camp probably only got away with it for so long because in the middle of a war, and a manpower shortage, the authorities were glad to find anyone prepared to take on difficult children.

The boys' troubles were blamed on fathers away at war
But in its determination to move away from the authoritarian model of the approved schools, it anticipated many of the ideas on residential childcare that became common in later decades.

Many of those involved went on to become senior and influential in their field.

Mr Barron trained as a psychoanalyst with Anna Freud and became an eminent child psychotherapist. Mr Thomas became a director of social work in Scotland. He counts the Q camp a success. Another member of staff, Chris Beedell, became an academic and a guru in the world of children's social work.

But others say Q Camp failed because the children themselves didn't want to share the responsibility, but wanted to feel the adults were in charge.

So much so that they organised themselves into two groups, masters and slaves - the ones who wanted to control and the ones who wanted to be controlled.

"This was the exact antithesis of what the theorists wanted to achieve," says author Maurice Bridgeland, who knew Mr Barron. "It was the opposite of all their principles."

The Q Camp is on Wednesday, 22 November at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

Your comments

"Many of those involved went on to become senior and influential in their field". Well that explains a lot of current thinking in this field, then. Interesting that presiding over such a shambles didn't dent their unassailable belief that their ideas were correct.
Nick Hill, Wakefield, England

Its not surprising that those responsible for Q camp count it a success - their ideas have gone on to become conventional. The corollary is the creation of several generations of semi-literate children with no idea of self discipline and no hope of personal or social advancement. Bravo.
Richard Edwards, London

Certainly although the conditions in the camp weren't very good, some of the reactions to the boys behaviour shows a good philosophy, children need to learn that what they do in everyday life-all the tasks given to them are so that they can learn to do things for themselves. Not reacting to broken glass and bad surroundings may help children to realise that they need to do things for themselves that everything they do effects others, and that to live a better life it is important to create a sense of responsibility, so in some respects the camp-if better run may have helped the boys understand how they can make their surrounding better
Leo, London

It didn't work then and it wouldn't work now,talk about namby pamby liberalism. What kids like that need is dicipline, national service would be perfect. And judging by the recent TV series taking 'bad lads' and putting them in a 1940's boot camp, it works pefectly. Why was this never pursued further as a way of treating kids like that?

Other comments have emphasised discipline as something children need. However, the aim of Q Camp was to try to instil SELF-discipline, not to create more unthinking robots. Whilst the camp itself may not have produced all the results the organisers may have hoped for, it was still a brave attempt to break away from brutally forcing people to conform. If people don't try things, then there would be no advances - something which appears to have eluded some of the other people who've posted up responses.
Edward McKenna, London

Very interesting. It just goes to show that without boundaries, objectives and consequences nothing will be achieved. Love and understanding are just not enough, necessary for balance, but not enough by themselves.
Graeme, Eastbourne

When I lived in Devon as a youth I remember a school in Dartington (forget the name) which worked on a modified version of the establishment in this article. It was (admittedly) for "gifted" children. As I recall it ran really well and acheived it's aims of developing the child to a mature and responsible adult. Is this a case of a single occurrence being held out as the norm?

This just goes to show what many people have been saying for a while! You can't expect children and teens to learn discepline without teaching it to them. Everyone in their teen years would like to take the easy route and live the easy life, but only with guidance and correction can they develop into well rounded adults.
Heather, Wolverhampton

Yes, I can believe that this utopian nonsense anticipated the utopian nonsense floating around in the heads of today's social workers.
Neil Hoskins, Aylesbury, UK

This scheme sounds like an over-reaction to the previous disciplinarian thinking, and the liberal tradition has itself been over-reacted to. What most people above, except Leo, seem to think is that a good beating will fix these kids. Er, it's the lack of love that has led them astray in the first place. That's just upping the ante, building up more problems for later. Would you try to fix the flu by leaving patients out in the cold?
James, Edinburgh

Although trying to give shared responsibility may be an admirable approach, I'm not surprised that it was not a great success, because many people just can't handle not being guided, can't handle responsibility and decision making. There are many people out there who make many decisions, who are very responsible, but I'd guess they've all at some time wished that someone else would take responsibility and make the decisions for a change. Some people are like that all of the time, they need to be told what to do and feel uncomfortable otherwise!
Nigel, Coventry

My wife & I have just become foster parents for the first time.We all try in our way but the main thing is LOVE.I'm sure with more guidance the programme would have yielded better results.Nice try though.
James, bathurst canada

Was William Golding ever there?
Mike, East Lothian

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific