Epping House Special School

Follow:Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutubemail

A Radical Institution

Epping House Special School was a residential school near Ware, about 28 miles from the family home in Berkhamsted. Epping House was not a boys’ special needs school typical of this period – it was radical and experimental under a recently appointed headmaster who was shaking it up when Susan’s brother was sent there early in the summer of 1957.

The Building

The main block was an old building on three floors, dating back to the 17th or 18th Century. It was extended in the 1820s by Sir William Horne, who was Solicitor General for a time whilst he owned it. It is, today, a Grade II listed building, with twelve pane sash bay windows on the first floor, and six pane sash windows on the second.

A Radical Regime

The school’s regime (in the broadest sense) was being shaped by the headmaster, Howard Case. His ideas were revolutionary. This school had a serious impact on (or, depending on one’s view, failed) Susan’s brother. To quote from The Student Voice Handbook:

“In many ways his approach is best understood through the pivotal practice of the Daily Meeting attended by all staff and young people…
…it was here that all significant decisions about how students and staff lived, worked and learned together were taken on a daily basis. The Meeting was chaired by one of the children and normally lasted about an hour…
…The constraining items, such as the Stop or Veto list in which children whose activities were restrained in some way by the will of the Community as expressed in the Meeting, were dealt with first. This was followed by the negotiation of activities that staff were able to offer in the afternoon and evening, after the 11:00 am-12:30 pm class groups, which the school expected the children to attend. Children were free to choose which activities they wanted to take part in or to offer activities of their own or do nothing at all…
…Then came the allocation of communal work such as sweeping and cleaning and looking after the dogs and cats that had an important role to play in the emotional reparation and development of many of the children in the school. ”

Homer Lane and Little Commonwealth

Whether Howard Case’s approach to education was influenced by the American Homer Lane’s views on the education of children with special needs is not clear. There are obvious similarities between Epping House and the policies and running of Homer Lane’s ‘Little Commonwealth’ at Evershot in Dorset in the years 1913-1918. The ‘Little Commonwealth’ took in children with criminal records and up to the age of 19 years.

Children are Accepting

Of course, from a child’s perspective, it was rather different. Children knew little about the debates over special needs education policies. Children were generally accepting of the regime, however strange it might have seemed to many adults.

The practice (as recounted by Susan’s Brother) at Epping House Special School of letting (even encouraging) the children run around unclothed would clearly be totally unacceptable today.

The school was closed in July 1997.

25 thoughts on “Epping House Special School”

  1. I myself was a pupil at Epping house school. Attended this school for eight years from the mid sixties untill the early seventies . Although most of the children were there because of problems at home or sometimes behavioural . I was the first girl to join Epping house, and my brother was already attending the school . I never heard of any of the children being referred to as patients , but maybe it was different before my time there . It was certainly not like any kind of mental institution . I fact it was home to me for the eight years that I lived in that wonderful old house . It was full of love and warmth and I still have very warm memories of my time there. We were taught very important life skills and how relate to other people and actually care about others . I had my own cat from a kitten whom I named Twinkle a fluffy tabby that was born in the bottom of Howard and Mary’s piano in their bungalow in the grounds. We learned to trust , and how to become caring responsible human beings. And when we got things right we received much praise. But when we were abusive or disruptive to others or deliberately destructive the matter would be raised in the meeting and would be discussed by the whole school which was usually around 36people . We would have a large canvas carpet unrolled to put all the chairs around in an oval , with a desk one side this was where the chairman would sit being one of the girls or boys . We took turns in alphabetical order . And on the other side there was a large chalk board where another child would be writer . And write down names in turn after people had raised their hands to comment on whatever was being discussed . Then we would all take a vote and the decision would be final . We could write the the meeting for extra privileges too and sometimes these requests would be granted but if you were considered not ready or too immature . It would not be granted . I could go on forever as I learned so much from this school it was my family and to this day I still miss it . I remember the BBC came to make a documentary about our school and I had my cat in the meeting on my lap as I often did and he was on the telly and I was so proud of him . I think I could possibly write a book about my years at Epping house as I loved it so much . Maybe not everyone felt the same as me but it’s what I needed at that point in my life .oh and the food all health food was delicious. And nary even sent me the recipe for her savoury pie after I was married. It’s still my comfort food . Thankyou Howard and Mary. I love you both you were like my second mum and dad. God bless you both.x

    1. Hi Sandra,
      we were at Epping House School at about the same time. I
      remember you. It would be nice to hear from you.

    2. Hi sandra
      Its lesley martindale we were at Epping House together.
      I shared a bedroom with you on the top floor (Eccles i think).
      I came to stay at yours and we went to see Stray at the Hermitage Ballroom.
      Lesley
      ltatham58@hotmail.com

  2. my mum and dad were teachers there in the late 50s/early 1960s and I was born while my dad was still working there. My parents always had wonderful tales to tell of Howard and the children. I can vaguely remember visiting when I was 5 (so 1965). Dad was an art teacher and has the most fantastic photographs of things he made with the kids – six foot long Santa in a plane etc. Hope one day someone makes a documentary about a truly remarkable school. My parents NEVER referred to the children as ‘patients’ but just as troubled kids.

  3. Hi Sandra

    We were at EHS together would love to get back in touch. I have different memories of my stay at the school.

    1. Hi Dianne,
      I was at Epping house school the same time as you and rember you. I don’t have such happy memories. it would be nice to hear from you.

  4. I was at Epping House from the mid sixty’s for about 4 or 5 years and was forever put on a ‘controls group’ and not allowed to wander free. I was bullied at ‘normal’ school and it was felt I had learning difficulties. I would be very interested to hear more from you about this school as I believe we were there at the same time.

  5. I was a pupil (63 to 66) – I remember Howard, Mary and I remember the art teacher – we called the teachers by their first names and rarely remembered their surnames 🙂

    I believe the BBC did a documentary in 1967 the year after I left – but it is probably lost now.

    We had very few formal lesson time so when I went to secondary school I was bottom in all subjects. But Epping House taught me to value myself and have strong self esteem. That enabled me to use my drive and logic to get my A levels and degree – then to have a very enjoyable career. For me Epping House School and it’s staff were the best thing to happen to me – I am so grateful

  6. Thanks for all the comments. It seems that many of you have positive memories, even success stories. Unfortunately Susan’s Brother had a near-fatal time there.

  7. I went to Epping House 1979-82, long after Howard and Mary Case had retired. Alan Hood was the headteacher and from what I have seen (BBC documentary 1967) and Howard Case book ‘Loving Us’, the philosophy of community and therapeutic living were still very much in practice. Epping House became home for me and I am grateful for the time I spent there; they were good times and staff that worked and lived with us were truly wonderful. I look back with fondness, and only wish there were more schools like this…if only to help today’s troubled children navigate their way in a weary world.

  8. I was at the school in 90/92 and I’m glad the school has shut down, never agreed in them ancient regimes of sending kids away to a old spooky isolated house with a bunch of adult horrible aggressive strangers that treated children like animals. when I was there most of the children was sent their because they was unsettled due to the fact they had unfit parents with problems. so for the benefit of the parent only they had their kids sent away. so the child can go through life questioning it self wondering if he/she really was a terrible person. At the end of the day if people don’t want kids then they shouldn’t be giving birth to them in the first place.

    1. Hi Marc

      Thanks for your reply. It’s interesting to have a different viewpoint, as most of the feedback I get here is from people who had a positive experience. Susan’s Brother had a very negative experience there and attempted suicide.

      Best wishes
      James

  9. Some names here that stir up the past … Sandra … Janet … and Dianne (Hi Again!)

    Obviously, lots of people have different views about their time at EH, and all of those views are equally valid. For myself, I loved the place, loved the regime, loved the sense of freedom I found there and most of all loved (in the widest sense of the word) all the people who were there at the same time as me.

    Looking back, with the benefit not just of hindsight but also personal maturity gained through being a parent myself, I have great respect for the efforts of the staff who made the whole ethos of the school work. Not just Howard and Mary, but also Brian, Alan, Gavin, Wendy, Dennis, Jenny and Brenda and others.

    (one of the great shames that I feel in later life is remembering when Howard announced that Brenda was leaving and the whole meeting erupted in a great cheer … poor Brenda fled the room visibly upset … yeah kids can be cruel sometimes).

    I cant speak for others (and wouldnt want to try) but for myself, EH has left its mark on me and that mark has been extremely positive.

    Personally, I think the world is a poorer place for not having schools like EH available for kids who would benefit from its ethos.

    But, of course, not everyone enjoyed their time there …

    1. Hi Julie

      Thanks for taking the time to write. There must be many other positive stories out there! That must have been quite a moment for Brenda. Maybe she learned from it?

      Best wishes
      James

  10. I was sent to Epping House School in the summer of 1949. My mother had called in social services as she was leaving my father, unknown to him. I had just turned eight. lessons seemed very easy and I was allowed to spend most of the time reading. As a result, when starting at secondary school in 1952 I was way behind and struggled for the next four years. I left in 1956 without any exam results. I still, at age 75, cannot write properly (I print), or spell and have no real knowledge of grammar. My memories of EHS was the tuck shop at the end of the lane where we spent our pocket money on a Saturday morning. I enjoyed singing in the choir at the village church. I also remember the regime at the school being fairly strict, certainly the “cold baths” we were made to take if we were too noisy at bedtime. Still we did get to watch films of George Formby, so it wasn’t all bad. I have made a good life, travelling and working around the world, then married for 42 years and two children who both did well at university. I retired 18 years ago from the civil service, having been promoted several times to middle management. It seems I was good at covering my lack of education and to “think on my feet” and perhaps also “outside the box” were lessons actually learnt at EHS after all.

    1. Hello Brian

      Thank you for your comments. Clearly EHS worked for you, but failed Susan’s Brother. You certainly see to have had a fulfilling career and family life, and it’s great to read another about another person for whom the school worked!

      Best wishes

      James

  11. Hi

    I attended EH School from 74 – 78
    I feel it helped me significantly and I appreciate the time and attention that was given to me
    To this day I often reflect on how the staff and the approach to helping children was exceptional and I feel blessed because of it
    Kind Regards
    Paul H

  12. Hi

    I attended EH School from 74 – 78
    I feel it helped me significantly and I appreciate the time and attention that was given to me
    To this day I often reflect on how the staff and the approach to helping children was exceptional and I feel blessed because of it
    Kind Regards
    Paul H

  13. Hi, I was at EHS when I was 7yo 81-85. I did not settle in normal school so I was sent there I felt very abandoned by my family.missed home a lot. I did catch up on my reading and writing as I couldn’t spell but I found some of the teachers like Richard ash a bully and Alan hood would pick you up and shake you and shout if you was naughty. So not all happy for me there.

    1. Hi jimmyboy, sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy your time there. I went to a regular school and saw much the same behaviour from some teachers. Regards, James.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *