‘children are more complicated than kettles.’ the life and work of Lady Allen of Hurtwood.


Lady Allen of Hurtwood. 1897-1976

The wonderful story of Marjory Gill.

As a little girl Marjory and her four brothers lived in a country house in Kent with their parents Georgie and Sala. Georgie worked for the Water Board, and Sala stayed at home with the children and managed their small farm. Georgie had been born into a family of non-conformist missionaries. His cousin Eric Gill became famous for the beautiful sculptural bas relief work and for his exquisite typography (Gill Sans for example).
Sala had grown up in South London and worked for the civil service, but for her the home and the life of her children was a passion. She had had a very playful childhood especially during times of illness when she was sent to stay with her aunts in Kent. It is there that she and Georgie chose to make their home together.

These memories were treasured by all the children and Sala recognised the importance of the freedom that she had enjoyed to roam the country side around her home as being of the paramount importance for her children. She recorded these child hood memories n a small book called ‘A String of Beads’ which she wrote for her granddaughter Polly.

The dedication reads

‘Like a string of beads, clear cut and constant,
scenes of childhood emerge from my memory.
I have strung these memories together for you.’

Georgie and Sala were founder members of the camping club and the family spent six weeks of each summer camping on the Norfolk coast. Marjory remembers being caught in lightning storms, inventing games of Boules with rounded pebbles, collecting chunks of amber and cornelian that had washed up on the shores.
Back at the farm, during a bout of illness when she could not leave her bed, her brothers rigged up a series of mirrors so that she could watch the garden and the trees, knowing how important to her was her contact was with the natural world.
The children played in the ponds and fields, they built dens and fires and tortured toads on frying pans (and were mortified to remember this in later years.) They cared for the livestock and helped with the dairy chores.
Marjory says.
‘The wonderful simple life or hay-making, milking cows, growing flowers and vegetables and learning the craft of making butter and cheese, and all the lovely sights and scents of the country, remain for me the most enduring memories of my life. When, later, I worked among children condemned to live in barbaric and sub-human city surroundings, my thoughts always returned to my early good fortune. The remembrance has made me more determined than ever to restore to these children some part of their lost childhood: gardens where they can keep their pets and enjoy their hobbies… secret places where they can create their own worlds; the shadow and the mystery that lend enchantment to play.’

She was educated at Bedales where she snuggled into the landscape to read books or walked for miles or did whatever her spirit needed to do to find and explore and discover what was important to her. She left Bedales with no qualifications but having been the Head Girl and discovered, as Sala pointed out, a talent for organisation.

In 1916 she made the first of many brave, eccentric and superbly judged decisions that run throughout her life, she decided upon a career in gardening and gained a place at the University of Reading. She got into trouble early on with the Admissions clerk because she would not declare herself as having any religion. Throughout her time at Reading she felt the disapproval of the college because of this. However it did not prevent her from organising midnight nude bathing sessions in the lake.

Her brother Colin, who was an artist studying at the Slade began to take an interest in her at this time (1917) and would take her up to London to meet with his artistic and socialite friends at the Cafe Royale. Her hair was cut in a fashionable bob and her wardrobe attended to until she cut a figure acceptable for high class mingling. She became part of the In Crowd, mixing with Henry Tonks, Augustus John, Mark Gertler and Lady Ottoline Morrell. Throughout her whole life she seems to have been surrounded by the powerful and brilliant people of the day. She never set out to gather the rich and famous to her as friends, the friendships grew very naturally and lasted years.

She began to get commissions to design gardens and when Colin was in Rome – having won the Prix de Rome scholarship – he suggested that she visit him and explore the wonderful gardens that surrounded him there. She did this willingly and it was a on a brief but idyllic walking holiday she took with Colin and his companions that she met Clifford Allen, known as C.A. to his friends.

CA was an influential member of the International Labour Party and had just been on a friendly mission to Russia, where he had had an audience with Lenin amongst others. While he was there he had been taken sick. This holiday was a convalescence following a narrow escape from death.

During the First World War CA had been a pacifist, refusing to be conscripted for any role in the armed services. He had been imprisoned three times. The last time he had served hard labour, solitary confinement and a bread and water diet. He had contracted TB and lost the use of one lung as a direct result of these conditions. It was this injury that plagued and weakened him for the rest of his life.

He was a diplomatic and gentle man and he and Marjory fell in love, moved together into the flat in Battersea that CA had recently been sharing with Bertrand Russell, and got married. Marjory found that she was pregnant at about the same time that she was offered a contract to design and build the gardens of Glyndebourne. She decided that she could do the two things at the same time and both garden and daughter Polly were satisfactorily delivered on time.

CA was too fragile to stand for a seat in parliament and he spent most of his time in unchosen physical rest. However his political abilities were put to great use throughout his life working towards a socialist government. He saw the best chance of this through Ramsey MacDonald, with whom he did not always agree. His advice was always sound and tactical though often controversial, and he was invaluable to the party even though he had no way of earning a living through this work.
Eventually, and after many traumas, CA was awarded a peerage. He chose to take the name for his title of Hurtwood, from the hills in Surrey where he and Marjory had built their dream home. It was a happy place, filled with children from the independent school they established and writers, artists, poets, philosophers, musicians and politicians. It was something of a haven to the liberal minded community and much loved by the Allen family.

Despite this social and political profile, Marjory needed to find ways to become the family bread winner. Another one of her inspirational moments came from the realisation that Selfridges in Oxford Street had a massive roof which could be converted into a garden for the benefit of the workers in the store and the management alike. She undertook this work, having persuaded Mr Selfridge that it would be a good idea. The garden became celebrated by the public and used for prestigious fashion and sculpture shows. Her name was made and the commissions rolled in. At about this time, she and a few colleagues established the Institute of landscape Architects with the aim of getting recognition for their profession and developing some systematic , high quality training.
Fast tracking through her work, which is a challenge, because there is so much of it, we arrive at the point when she was appointed a leader of the plans for the celebration of the coronation, chairing committees to co-ordinate schemes across the commonwealth which would create a legacy for this event. For me, the main point of interest in this work came from the creation of play parks, scattered throughout the world, these were the first indication of her talents of organising the resources available to her to create better environments for children’s play and melding her skills in landscape design and horticulture.

CA died just before the start of the second world war. He had acted against doctors advice and flown to Germany to try to negotiate a peace deal with Hitler and argue for the release of political prisoners and the change in policy on anti-Semitism.

Typically Marjory, Lady Allen, as a means of personal recovery, threw herself into what she considered an acceptably pacifist contribution to the war effort, and working with her close friend, Herbert Morrison (at this time leader of the GLC and in charge of the mass evacuation of children out of London,) devised a scheme for high quality nurseries to be established throughout the UK.

These Nurseries were supported by the Nursery School Association, of which she was the chair. They were built from prefabricated units, quick to erect and costing about £600 each, staffed by people trained through a fast track, high quality training scheme she researched, developed and put into action and equipped them with toys, loose parts and furniture built from bomb damaged wood by auxiliary Firemen in their waiting times between bombing raids.
A prime example of Lady Allen twisting disadvantage to suit her purposes.

In the course of this work she discovered that orphaned children and those in care were utterly unregulated by the state and that there was no-one monitoring the conditions in which they were living. She was deeply moved by the privations and cruelties that she saw and knew that if she did nothing she would be complicit in these abuses. She researched thoroughly and eventually wrote a letter to The Times highlighting the appalling conditions of these children’s lives. The response to that letter was the largest and longest lasting that had ever been experienced by The Times. The subject was made more poignant by the high profile case of Dennis O Neill who had been abused to the point of death in and ill-supervised foster placement. This case had a similar impact to those of Victoria Climbie or of Baby Peter have had on us recently.

She wrote a pamphlet called ‘Whose Children’ which outlined her findings. As a direct result of this work a government committee was established and eventually, the first Children Act 1948, was introduced into Law.

It was not until almost fifty years later that one of the main recommendations, universal Nursery Education, came into being. The other issue highlighted by her work was the need for joined up governmental systems for the all the issues surrounding children’s well being.

Part of her work with the dissemination of best practice around Nursery education focussed on the making of a film by J Arthur Rank about Nurseries. ‘Double Thread’ sparked a whole new movement of film making for children. Lady Allen was elected as a chair of an independent advisory body which reviewed each of these films. Rank made several hundred films throughout the life of this project, all of which sought out and attended to the thoughts and feelings of the children who watched them. This project eventually became the Children’s Film Foundation.

Her highly successful work with displaced children led to her being asked to join in a post war European initiative to look at the best possible ways of providing security and education for the many children orphaned and displaced as a result of the Nazi actions and occupations. She travelled around Europe, and on a re-fuelling stop in Copenhagen, was taken by the Head of the Froebel Institute there to see a new play space.

Emdrup was the brainchild of the landscape architect C.Th Seorenssen. Even before the war, he had been dissatisfied with the playgrounds that he had created. He had noticed that children preferred to play on building sites rather than the neat municipal playgrounds that had been designed for them. These ad hoc playgrounds were messy spaces, using a lot of left over junk bits that the children found lying around and the children loved them.

Sorenssen ‘ sought to constitute the design of the playground upon the analysis of the play…The imagination at play should be that of the child rather than the architect’. (Kozlovsky 174)
During the Nazi occupation, concerns about the delinquent behaviour of the children of Copenhagen were pressing. There was a concern that children’ over identified the Resistance and its legitimisation or violence and disobedience, which threatened to disrupt the conceptual separation of childhood from adult life.’ (kozlovsky 175)

The Scandinavian response was to ask Sorensen to create more playgrounds. He took the bold step, under the occupying eyes of the Nazis, of creating a junk playground, a scrap of land with little bits of stuff that could be spared, even during these extremely harsh times. For the children to play with and use as they wished.

The playground was staffed by John Bertelman who said ‘I cannot and indeed will not, teach the children anything’. ‘ The use of anti-authoritarian methods was understood to be a challenge to the occupier’s Fascist Ideology.’ Kozlovsky 175)

What Lady Allen saw there led her to a ‘flash of understanding’ that transformed the world of play design from that day to this.
‘.. Sorensen had the courage and perception to give them (the children) what they wanted – the chance to work out their own kinds of play.
‘ I was completely swept off my feet by my first visit to Emdrup playground. In a flash of understanding I realised that I was looking at something quite new and full of possibilities. There was a wealth of waste material on it and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiments with sand, water or fire and play games of adventure and make believe. They were fortunate , also , in their leader, John Bertelsen, trained nursery school teacher and ex-sea-man, he was a great man, a philosopher and a poet, His imagination, confidence and insight made the whole experiment and outstanding success.’

The playground had been established in 1943 and it was generally agreed that the neighbourhood had benefitted from the beginning. In the moral confusion of the German occupation the difference between sabotage and delinquency was not obvious, and many of the children had become unruly and anti-social. But when they had their own playground, where they could find their own balance and stretch themselves to the full, the surrounding social climate took a turn for the better, Indeed, it was claimed that delinquency had disappeared.

‘This was a confirmation of my own belief that delinquency is generally a form of rebellion against thoughtless, unimaginative treatment. All children need manifold opportunity to express their inventive energies, and the Emdrup Playground demonstrated how to give these opportunities. Without them armies of delinquents are likely to go on marching into juvenile courts.
It was some years later that I embarked upon a major campaign for similar playgrounds in my own country. But after I came home I made a number of speeches about this idea, and wrote up my impressions of Emdrup. Tom Hopkinson, the brilliant editor of Picture post accepted and article. He was always on the lookout for new ideas, and this was the first time that playgrounds of this kind- later known as Adventure Playgrounds- appeared in the British press. His cameraman produced a beautiful set of illustrations- a splendid reminder of all I had seen at Emdrup. ‘
(Memoirs of an Uneducated Lady.)

This was not so much the discovery of something ‘quite new’ as the re-discovery of something very very old. Children’s play.

She goes on to describe the remainder of her tour which resulted in her establishing an international organisation with a focus on early childhood education, how this formed into OMEP which was supported by UNESCO and informed the work of UNICEF for whom she worked for a year as information liaison officer. She had to give up being chair of 9 other major and influential committees to find the time to fulfil this post. She used her role, among other things, to raise a budget for an enquiry into the plight of disabled children across Europe as well as those who had been orphaned or made homeless by the ravages of the recently ended war.

Back home, She describes having tea with Queen Mary (who she had last seen when she was very cross with Marjory because of an unfortunate incident resulting in some unflattering pictures of her taken during a tree planting ceremony.)

She sold her beloved house, managed to find another property which she oversaw the conversion of and created a garden for. She disposed of CAs library to a university in America. Wrote two gardening books illustrated by Susan Jellicoe, and then she took up a new campaign.

The campaign for Adventure Playgrounds.

Lady Allen saw the possibilities of Adventure Playgrounds as component in a post war urban renewal and a demonstration of ‘democratic community’ for children working beyond the divisions promoted in fascism, of class nation and race. ‘Allen presented Emdrup as a ‘revolutionary’ playground that could resolve the crisis’. ( Kozlovsky 176)

Following the Picture Post article, written in 1946 when she returned from her first trip to Emdrup, there was a wave of interest in these new spaces. She wrote for a pamphlet for the Under14s Council, (established by a committee of Staff from Oxford House, Bethnal Green,) and a playground was started in Camberwell under the auspices of Cambridge House. It lasted for 3 years before the land was bought and developed. (‘Playgrounds such as ours set in a district which has suffered much during the war can lead a child away from the tolerance and approval of that destruction which is associated with the war.’ Quoted in Kozlovsky. George Burden Chair of Camberwell Adventure Playground 1948)

Her guidance of the growth of the APG movement depended on the participation of local people who would identify sites for development and then see the process through and continue to support the sites through local management bodies. This view of urban redevelopment flew in the face of the modernist remodelling plans of Abercrombie (1943 County of London Plan) which saw the blitz as an ‘opportunity to rebuild London according to rationalist, functionalist principals’. (kozlovsky 178) Abercrombie wanted to create green fingers from the Thames to the countryside. Allen wanted to use the tiny pockets of wasteland to create an urban countryside on the doorsteps of the children. (See the work of Aldo Van Eyck in Amsterdam for an almost direct parallel. Local people choosing sites they know to be workable for play and supporting them, using these left over spaces for a real local function, rather than a massively remodelled Amsterdam with imposed, defined spaces.)

She never saw that playground but became very involved with one in Clydesdale Road, North Kensington. Ruth Littlewood had watched children playing on a bombsite next to her house and although it took a good deal of negotiation with landlords and hostile neighbours as well as fundraising, the Adventure Playground opened in 1951. Marjory was on the committee of this playground. She ‘managed to scrounge a hut for the playground and found a young man to be the playground leader.’ MUL

This site was a ¼ acre and had a budget of £400/year.
Because the space was so urgently needed, the site was opened up before the water board had put in a standpipe and before the international voluntary service for peace came to clear away the dangerous rubble. There was loud mouthed opposition, but ‘the children poured in’.
March 17th 1952

‘It had been the intention to focus on children aged 5 -10 but older and younger children were eager to come in to and experience shows it is possible to cater for a very mixed group. There were fights particularly over possession of tools but real crises were rare. It was surprising to see how many activities were going on at close quarters, without serious friction even when the playground was filled to capacity. Youngest children riding down slopes in a trolley or digging in a somewhat aimless fashion with sticks and trowels; while the older boys were working at pick and shovel excavation the girls were playing some housekeeping games around the huts and various mixed groups were making bonfires or hammering boards or diligently helping the leader to construct a brick seat against a boundary wall.’

The second leader created such a friendly atmosphere that he disarmed local criticism.
‘It is evident that the help children get from the Play-leader is useful to them emotionally as well as practically, in a child’s world a friendly adult who exerts a minimum of authority and is generous with his time and attention, maybe something of a rarity; and the children respond as if they have been waiting for just this sort of friendship.’ MUL

In these two pieces of writing Lady Allen gives us a clear and concise description of the nature of an Adventure Playground and the role of the Playworker. It is hard to understand why people still misunderstand both concepts so profoundly.

When Lady Allen saw a letter in the Times from A.S. Neil in the times on juvenile crime, she no doubt remembered the reactions of the people of Emdrup to the new junk playground, the eager belief that they had that it had put an end to juvenile delinquency.

She responded with another of her own ’letters to the times.’
.’.. Municipal playgrounds are often as bleak as barrack squares and just as boring. You are not allowed to build a fire, you would head straight for juvenile court if you started to dig up the expensive tarmac to make a cave, there are no bricks or planks to build a house, no workshops for carpentry, mechanical work, painting or modelling and of course, no trees to climb…’

She does it again! A perfect critique of the standard municipal play offer and a clear explanation of the effects on those spaces of the children they are intended to serve.

And for her next stroke of genius?
A unifying body to help recongnise and establish the work of the Adventure Playgrounds and Playworkers.

‘Many attempts had been made to improve play grounds but had failed when met with problems similar to those we encountered Clysdale road, It showed an urgent need for the pooling of experience. Doubts about the aims of adventure playgrounds and difficulties with the practical means were out of all proportion because the pioneers never talked to each another. The two groups in Camberwell and Kensington had never even known that the second group existed.’

A meeting at the NPFA (now Fields in Trust) was called for all interested parties. During this meeting it became clear that while there was huge support for the scheme, most people did not fully understand the role of the ‘play-leader’. Lady Allen had strong mixed feelings about this lack of understanding, she knew that ‘the right person was the key to success’. And wanted to see leaders properly paid.

The NPFA agreed to publish another of Her ‘little pamphlets’ to publicise and explain the whole concept.

The playgrounds had, up to this point, been called waste material or junk playgrounds. She thought they deserved better, and invented the name Adventure Playgrounds which became the title of her pamphlet. As she points out ‘This name is used around the world to this day’.
When asked to define it for the Oxford English Dictionary in not more than seven words, she said. ’A creative playground with tools and waste material.’

Again there was a flood of response to this pamphlet and she saw that a central organisation was definitely needed to ‘canalize all this enthusiasm into constructive work’.

A meeting was called in K&C Town Hall and about 200 people interested in starting new Adventure Playgrounds attended. The NPFA offered some support and it was agreed that a national co-ordinating body should be set up. It was not clear however, what the NPFA had actually offered. There was a need for money for administrative support, printed information and a centralized record keeping system for technical advice…. The Clydesdale Road committee had managed to keep on top of this work load so far but quite rightly anticipated a growing demand. There were other concerns in her mind about the understanding that the NPFA had for the concept of Adventure Playgrounds, but it was thought better to set up under ‘the umbrella’ that they offered than to try to establish a brand new organisation. So the NPFA Playground Committee was established and Lady Allen with her two women activist colleagues went along to the first meeting.
It was made clear in that first meeting, that only two of them would be welcomed onto the committee even though it was they who had the first hand knowledge and experience of running an Adventure Playground. The women dealt with this by refusing to leave the meeting. In the end they were allowed to stay, but continued to be referred to by the diminutive collective noun of ‘the ladies’.

Eventually two sites were found one in south and one in north London and an appointment was made to answer enquiries about the Adventure Playground Movement. In addition, a new Adventure Playground opened up in the new town of Crawley. Lady Allen refers to Crawley often in Planning for play. The architecture of the new town was an attempt to create an playable space with mounds and dips and interesting play opportunities dotted throughout all public spaces.
It was about this time that Lady Allen received a proposal of marriage from Herbert Morrison ( now in government) which, despite his being a dear friend, she refused.

She and Polly took a brief but idyllic French holiday together, which I mention only to be able to tell how Polly rejected a delightfully bucolic picnic site because it had ‘ too many nightingales’.

Returning to work in England and she travelled to make speeches in areas where the Adventure Playground movement had made brave starts. In Liverpool a ‘play leader’ had been appointed, in Grimsby, where a piece of dockland had been donated by a timber firm, and in Bristol where the proposed site included trees and a stream. All of these places had suffered enormously from the war and wanted to attend to the psychological hurt that the physical damage to the towns represented for the children and the wider community.

She says,‘ The people who came to hear me speak were enthusiasts. They were just as disillusioned as I , but they took it for granted that existing play spaces would become Adventure Playgrounds if a couple of concrete pipes were cemented down and an old traction engine brought in. This is not so. Children want above all things that they can move about and use for all sorts of purposes. ‘ (Memoirs)

She wanted to make sure that playgrounds had plenty of adaptable materials and a good playground leader. This was a problem because there was nothing to model this role upon. It was utterly new. Also there was a groundswell of feeling that whilst the hours were awkward- the supervision duties were perceived as being light and that the job therefore did not command a reasonable rate of pay. I guess the familiar remarks about ‘getting paid to play with kids’ must have started at about this time and continue to this day. Certainly in many organisations Playworkers are still paid an embarrassingly small wage and are utterly undervalued. However these first ‘play-leaders’ were found in surprising numbers, even though they were not paid a living wage.

Lady Allen was never pleased with the name ‘play-leaders’ which ‘suggested power rather than influence.’ I do not know if she ever came across the term Playworkers, but it certainly seems to address her qualms.

In 1953 the LCC (London County Council) offered a site in Lambeth for an Adventure Playground. They agreed to a peppercorn rent and to fence the area. It was the site of a bombed out school on Lollard Street and, although the local residents had been asking for it to be turned into a playground, only two were willing to serve on a committee. The rest burst into complaints whenever anything went wrong. Lady Allen says that she felt that they ‘did not make clear enough before the site was created, exactly what an Adventure Playground was’. (Memoirs)

The site opened in April 1955 and although the fence was not complete there was a leader in post; there is a delightful description of him that featured in an article in a weekly magazine, ‘Illustrated;.
‘ a man with no pretensions- just an knack of handling children… from the smallest Lambeth child upwards every one calls him ‘arry,. He is a bulky, happy man with a turned up nose, spectacles like Billy Bunters a rumpled shirt, a tear in his trousers and army boots laced with string’. (NB Playworker chic is born.) ‘ Nothing annoys Harry. Nothing hurries him. He is diffident with prim little girls, as large men always are he is on terms of understand and level friendship with the tough little boys and the faintly hostile older ones. He laughs all over his broad face if you suggest he ‘understands’ the children. ‘Nobody understands anybody else’ he says’ I think I just sympathise with them.’
Illustrated magazine
26th November 1955

His job was a hard one… imagine being the first Playworker with a ‘faintly hostile’ community and a committee meeting every two weeks consisting of not only the brave locals but the titled and the former service men and mayors and such like. All of them depending you and you alone to manage this radical new social experiment.
It wasn’t until sometime later that they managed to get hold of an old hut which proved expensive to reconstruct (Over £1000) but it did provide them with lavatories electricity and indoor play space, a tools store carpenters bench and books for the children. Rationing was still in place and there had been a first world war followed by a depression then a second world war. People had nothing. Resources were more than scarce they were not there at all. For children to have access to books was treasure indeed.
The children painted the hut and the signage and took great pride in it… again this is a tradition that Playworkers take for granted now, but imagine the shock of first seeing a child painted sign on a child painted building. The girls cleaned and swept the building, because they chose to, and outside all the kids began digging and building and demolishing and cooking on fires it looked a mess. It was referred to locally as ‘The Ruins’ an eyesore.

The children seemed to have adored it and it attracted not only school aged children but tiny totters and well as older kids already employment, the school leaving age at this time was still 14/15 years. The groups mixed harmoniously and gravitated toward their own spaces and interests without impinging on each other’s play.

It has been suggested that Playground manufacturers now advise on the creating of two playgrounds with small equipment in one and slightly larger equipment in the other not because a wide age range of children find it impossible to play together, but because they can double their sales. Certainly from the very first Adventure Playgrounds were used by all children. All children have always played comfortably together beyond age differences. When the older kids at Lollard said they wanted to build a sandpit for the little ones, they worked hard to construct it and then spent a couple of weeks playing in it themselves. Lady Allen remarks that she was ‘ glad that these tough young men were catching up on a pleasure that they had missed. An Adventure Playground is about the only place where that can be done.’

There was always a shortage of building materials and the playground gladly accepted donations, in one case a lorry load of old LCC blackboards which were quickly turned into dens.
There were mistakes. There was an attempt to build a play mountain. Several lorry loads of top soil were dumped onto the site, unfortunately the soil was London clay and whilst the children enjoyed the pottery and mud slides, the ruining of clothes and homes became too much of a problem and it had to be taken away and turfed over.

Harry took a great deal of criticism from locals and was flooded with good ideas from over helpful committee members. So another learning point was discovered. The committee members made suggestions about the site to Harry through only one committee member. Good management practices unique to the Adventure Playground movement began at this point and are still being developed.

The site was presented with an old life boat which became a huge favourite and suggested imaginative and adventurous narratives, unlike and old van which was just pushed around until it broke. The site was learning about what worked and what didn’t in their particular situation.
Lady Allen had been eager for the playground to be developed on Lollard because of its close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. Visits from MPs would be easy to manage and the place would be a constant reminder to Government of the need for children’s rights to be attended to. Having invested so much energy in the publicity campaign to disseminate information about Adventure Playgrounds, the site now found itself inundated with journalists and TV crews. Apparently the children enjoyed this for a while but eventual it interrupted the ‘business in their affairs.’

Lady Allen found the press coverage that Lollard received, mixed in content and quality. Her main messages were still simple. ‘ A massive supply of materials and a resourceful and sympathetic leader.’

Harry left the site, he had been working long hours in a stressful job for little money and apparently trying to bring up a family. He was replaced by Joe Benjamin, who stayed for while before moving onto the Grimsby Playground. He found that Lollard was run with too much outside interference and not enough involvement from local people. This criticism was held to be true by Lady Allen but she wonders about the right thing to do in a case like this, where local people were still generally unforthcoming about supporting the site through a management committee. Should the outsiders step away from the project it would simply fold. A difficult situation and one that was much replicated in the early years of the movement. She points out that in the places where Adventure Playgrounds were most needed the people who did take on some form of public service were involved in the unions or local government,( to that list, I would add church work. Though it has to be said that Nottinghill Adventure Playground and much of the inspirational playground work in that area was heavily supported by the local ecumenical church consortium. )

She suggests that Joe did very well with the playground in Grimsby getting local support but ended up doing much of the work that should have been done by a supportive committee.

Another staggering and pertinent bit of information coming from this time was the fact that in the face of complaints that the Adventure Playground was dangerous, Captain Bratt of the NPFA and the treasurer of Lollard, managed to get Lloyds of London to insure the site for claims up to £50,000 for £5 per year. They were ‘impressed by the fact that a responsible adult was with the children and by the argument that the children who were deeply engrossed in what they were doing are less likely to have accidents than those who are driven boredom to use fixed equipment in ways for which it was never intended.
After more than 20 years, she says’ no parent has ever made a claim against a Adventure Playground..’ Unfortunately that is no longer true.

When Jo Benjamin left the site it was taken over by Pat Turner, who wrote a fascinating book about the experience called ‘Something Extraordinary’. (1961. Michael Joseph) and by all accounts it was extraordinary. He had no rules, but clear standards for the playground. The children heard classical music and he played the violin as he wondered around the site. He encouraged the kids to be a greater part of the neighbourhood which broke down many of the barriers between the Adventure Playground and the community. He encouraged the craze for camping in tents and cooking meals over open fires. This was a significant factor in the lives of many kids whose parents were working when they had their mid day lunch break. They were able to come to the playground at lunchtime and cook their own meals.

Gardening took off in a big way and the children planted and tended their plots and learned how to make compost from the left-overs they gathered from the Lambeth Walk market.
The site acquired another hut which was used for painting and jiving and poetry writing. The children went on to produce a newspaper and an operetta! The under fives had a supervised playgroup session funded by the save the children fund. Lady Allen was keen to maximise the use of the site all year round, which she saw as another way of making adventure playgrounds unique.

In about 1960 the lease ran out on Lollard and the Adventure playground closed and another school was built on the site.
As far as I am aware this is about the closest we have of an Adventure Playground biography. When Nils Norman was visiting sites trying to collate information for his catalogue of London Adventure Playgrounds(***** An Architecture of play: a survey of London’s Adventure Playgrounds 2003) he found few people with any real sense of the history of their site beyond a few notes and photos fading away in show boxes in the playground attics.

She says that it took many years to argue that an Adventure Playworkers salary should be on a par with other social workers. And she was concerned about qualifications and training. ‘Good leaders with an instinct for following children’s interests are born not made ‘she says’ ‘but there are some skills that can be taught.’

She undertook a fact finding visit to Stockholm 1954, and saw how their parks had play spaces open to the children at any time, without fences and using a great deal more space than the Adventure Playgrounds had. They were open all the time like any other bit of the park, but occasionally a team of play-leaders opened up a storage shed and supported to children in a slightly different play experience. She thought that this should be shared in the UK , so she re-invented for them the term ‘Play Parks,’ wrote an article and a pamphlet (‘Play Parks London’ 1959. ‘I have found pamphlets to be the ideal way to share information. Many of my pamphlets have reached sales of up to 50,000’)

The LCC were persuaded to start looking at the concept of Play Parks and Pat Turner, formerly of Lollard, moved to the LCC parks department and was put in charge of developing this work. He made a great success of the Play Parks and the One o Clock Clubs that went along with them. (Replicating the use of the adventure Playgrounds sites by many groups for play throughout the day.)

Lady Allen then did a piece of work with the Rowntree Memorial Trust on play provision for under fives living in high rise blocks. The research and its’ published results highlighted shocking facts which illustrated that little ‘children living above the third floor of a block hardly ever met or played with any-one of their own age. There were no safe places for them to play’ This received wide spread publicity. But that was not enough for her. Lady Allen wanted to do something constructive about this situation and wrote a pamphlet ‘Design for Play’. 1961. In 1965 there was another pamphlet ’ New Playgrounds’ looking at a greater play offer for all children.

Then in 1968 she wrote a book to help the planners and architects and other involved in public housing who were becoming increasingly worried by the lack of play provision for high rise children. This is the incredible ‘Planning for Play’. It is a comprehensive guide to play space design as informed by playwork theory. The terminology used by Playworkers has changed since the book was written, but the ideas and concepts that she includes are immediately recognisable as the same ideas and concepts that we are re-inventing today. She gives illustrations on playable spaces as applied to shopping centres, housing estates and nearby open parks, she describes the playful use of SLOAP (spaces left over after planning) spaces. She encapsulates the inspiration and wonder of the Adventure Playground, and writes clearly and in unsentimental terms about the vital need for Adventure Playgrounds which welcome children with disabilities and additional needs and describes how to create a site which will do this work. She writes in uncluttered language about the rationale and the philosophy behind each element of play design and illustrates, from her extensive experience across the world the inspired design solutions to the practical problems of creating a sandpit or a water feature, shade and shelter, loose parts, Play Parks, gardens for children, planting, maintenance regimens, the design of Adventure Play Buildings and the funding and management of a playground. She slates the architects who design to adult desires and try to fit children’s play into those ideals. She fights for the aesthetic element of a playspace and for the comfort of the children and the adults who accompany them in their playing, thereby allowing playtimes to last longer. She describes in concise and unpretentious terms the need to preserve the wild spaces in a city, a concept which has recently been marketed as ‘liminal space’ by some ultrapretentious play upstart. ( Wilson 2009)

The book also includes two essays on playground design by Robin Moore. One on the creation of the original Chelsea Playground (HAPA) and the other on the creation of an experimental site developed in Boston, Massachusetts. These are clear accounts of the processes involved in the physical creation of the sites and the additional determination to understand the social impact and usage of those sites in their immediate community. This sensitivity is still an underpinning principal in the work of Moore currently disseminated through his practice at MIG, based in Berkley, California. An interview with designer from MIG in 2009 revealed a deep insight into the need for a strategic approach to play in the wider community and a process of design based on the observation of children at play. There is a scrupulous honesty in the work that shines through. A quality shared by Lady Allen. Reading this book the reader is not baffled with the jargon of a theoretical school. She writes to share knowledge. She wants to spread information about the experiences of play that she has acquired. She does not seek to impress the reader with her own amazing genius, just help them to do a ‘good enough’ job ($ DWW.)

There is in ‘Planning for Play’ a plea from Lady Allen for a centralised home for information and research about playspace design and theory. One senses that she feels that her book should not have been necessary, because this centre was proposed by her in the ‘very earliest days of the involvement of the NPFA in the business of play.’ ‘It is largely because of this lack of a centralised resource on play that local authorities and landscape designers and architects keep on , year after year making the same unsatisfactory play spaces, the same mistakes. It is because we have not given them this information that we have’. Her tone is clear. She wants to communicate these things she knows so much about and has worked so hard to do well. She writes without ego but with passion.

She was invited by the UN to contribute her panoramic view to a discussion about ‘playground activities, objectives and leadership’. To abbreviate this story, it was as a result of that meeting that in 1963, the International Play Association was formed. It is unsurprising that this organisation sprang out of a meeting that involved Marjory. The organisation exists and thrives throughout the world to this day.

She describes how Adventure Playgrounds all over the world have taken on different characteristics, some are very concerned with building others with animals, some are free and are accused of anarchism and some are over regimented and cannot bear to see children engaged in aimless activity, so impose activities more purposeful and acceptable to adults upon them, (she cannot agree with this.) she is bemused by the fact that urban architects and planners of her day seem to have no interest in the success or failure of the playspaces they construct,.’An engineer designing a kettle will worry at the problem it until it pours right’, she says. ‘ It is true that children are more complicated than kettles and there is no absolute way to prove the social and psychological value of playgrounds…. but my approach has been to try anything that has a germ of interest, if it works, splendid. If it fails, scrap it and try something else.’

In 1965 She embarked on a lecture tour of the states, delivered 18 speeches in 11 days, had tea with ‘Mrs Johnson at the White House (how does she make that sound so parochial?) and gave a lecture at the wonderful Guggenheim museum of art (Frank Lloyd Wright) on ‘Playgrounds, the Emerging Art form’ . She was thrown a grand banquet on her birthday on May 10th. The US press loved her, calling her ‘the no nonsense dowager and the filler-in of gaps.’

It is at this point in her autobiography, that she mentions the creation of LAPA (London Adventure Playgrounds Association) which was an umbrella body for London Adventure Playgrounds and of which she was the chair. The aim of the group was to help new sites avoid the mistakes of the past. This sounds like a simple task, but involved a great deal of information gathering and sharing. The organisation was funded by ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority), who also funded block grants for the salaries of Adventure Playground ‘leaders and assistants’. Training and trainee placements were organised for those coming new to Playwork and peripatetic Playworkers were employed to support and work with staff on each of the 200 (1974) 61 – and rising- Adventure Playgrounds. The total number plummeted to about 80 in London by the time that Thatcher closed down ILEA and there was no longer any permitted local government support for this movement.

And one last thing..

‘I saw another gap…’ in 1964 a friend of Pollys’ had a child with a profound disability and Lady Allen suddenly realised that disabled children were not accessing the Adventure Playgrounds that were blossoming all over London. These children and their families felt the stress caused by this lack very acutely. So she did what you would expect, set up a trial scheme to see if it was possible and what was needed for disabled children to play. She trialled 5 of these projects in different parts of London, and saw them running with real success. So she set about starting an Adventure Playground where disabled children could come in the term time and the holidays. She ‘became the chairman of a small committee to find a site fundraise plan buildings and landscaping and interest parents doctors and educationalists.’ Not so much really.

She found a site, drove the bull dozer, modelled streambeds and splash pools and sandpits. The building was designed with the advice of all specialists scrupulously attended to, through the lens of play. Wide doorways, a kitchen, a laundry room, and spacious playroom big enough for children in wheel chairs and the number of adults required to support all of the children’s needs.

‘In February 1970 the experimental playground opened in the gardens of the rectory in Old Church Street Chelsea. Peaceful and spacious with walls of old mellow brick there was a comforting sense of enclosure without shuttering out the busy life going on outside in old church street.’

She believes this was the first ever Adventure Playground designed specifically for disabled children. ( See ‘Adventure Playgrounds for Handicapped Children’ for a complete description of this site.) At the time of writing her autobiography in 1974 , She had found another three sites to develop for HAPA (Handicapped Adventure Playground Association) across London. There were eventually 6 that were run by the organisation she established to co-ordinate the sites. Since that time many of them have lost her initial inspiration as well as the ability to work inclusively, through a lack of engagement in the Adventure Playground agenda and an understanding of playwork in the current umbrella organisation.
Her vision has been forgotten in this respect.

I first started working at the Chelsea Adventure Playground in 1987. It was the successor to the original old Rectory site. Her imprint was still warm in our work even though she had died 11 years earlier. It was a playground with a sound pedigree. A friend of mine once had the chance to take in his hands a stone age adze. He says that he did not feel the thrill of history or of a ghostly ancestor, but of a feeling in his hands of recognising the grasp of a well crafted tool. I recognise that heritage from Lady Allen. Here was the culmination of years of knowledge seeking and honing of a craft of the design and practice for play. Here was a well crafted tool. All of us reading her words are likely to experience something similar. As she says, ‘the passage of time has never yet restricted my opportunities for interesting work.’

In a moving end to her book, ‘The memoirs of an uneducated lady’, she talks about the delights of her busy life and the scaled down joys of her quieter, end days. She needs to re-pot the agapanthus and cut back the roses, but maybe she will just go with Polly and the dogs and take a walk in Richmond Park. She wishes that she could visit her beloved surrey hills again and indeed her daughter Polly showed me a photo of her taken beside a little caravan on those hills take only a few weeks before her death in 1976.
Her closing words of her memoirs?
‘The work I have chosen to do is never finished’.
And that, my dears, is her legacy.

Lady Allen Quotes.
On Risk- ‘Better a broken bone than a broken spirit’ ( Available on a T shirt from Play Wales.)
From ‘Planning for play’ 1968
‘Most of the vast rebuilding schemes in many countries are horrible places, planned without love or understanding. This arrogance, this paucity of invention, this disregard for worth and scale of the individual., represents a worldwide disease and is one of the tragedies of affluence. The designer must devise new means for establishing a connection between the buildings he creates and the people on the ground.’

‘It is too often forgotten, in our brash, practical, modern world, that twilight, shadow and beauty are as important to the growing child as food and air.’
‘At this age, (Under Five) children are governed in their play and behaviour, not by understanding, but by emotion and the immediate impulse.’
On the loneliness of highrise living… ‘an emotionally damaged child has the dice loaded against him as he grows up. It is the old and depressing story of spending endless money and effort in trying to patch up the tragedies we are largely responsible for creating. This is a challenge that the designers and planners must understand. And face.’
‘What goes on outside the school and outside the home during the holidays and long winter evenings may be as important, indeed it may be more important, than what happens in school. There is often nothing, except school, to compensate for the impoverished conditions of everyday life.’

On the impact of design on the life of the child. ‘Not all the so-called ‘youth problems’ are the fault of the young.’
‘Why are so many of the new playgrounds stagnant? And why are expensive mistakes made over and over again? One reason may be that there is no obvious central body whose job it is to collect experience and research throughout the world, digest it, and make it readily available to architects and planners. Everybody is floundering. Architects pick up bits and pieces from here and there and fit the children into the playgrounds rather than the reverse. Their clients, the local authorities, are even less well informed. They are often unaware of the exciting experiments that are taking place in their own areas.’
‘We should be able to learn from our own mistakes (and, as most playgrounds fail, we have an ample supply of mistakes to learn from), but local authorities are too incurious about the causes of failure. Whose job is it to assess the situation and give a new lead?… planners are not learning from their failures and continue to make the same foolish and expensive mistakes: plans bear no resemblance to the individuals for whom they are intended.’(Like the high heeled shoe bears no resemblance to the foot. Wilson)
‘It is often difficult to permit children to take risks, but over concern prevents them from growing up. This is all too clearly seen in the dull, ‘safe’ playgrounds that continue to be devised.’
‘Children and young people of all ages,- like adults- should be able to ‘go shopping’ for their play. They need a great variety of experiences. The essence of our provisions for them must be to give them the freedom to choose.’ (‘Choosing what to do is my favourite thing to do.’ Child at Chelsea Adventure Playground. Wilson.)
‘It is the Adventure Playgrounds, where children can ‘do-it-for-themselves’, that are liberating, especially for those who live in the crowded cities and over regulated and over-tidy housing estates. They are places where children can test themselves against new challenges in complete freedom. Unfortunately, the satisfaction that they give to children is directly proportional to the pain they cause some architects, planners and neighbours. The pain is real- but the conflict is not quite real. It is possible to give children what they need without setting up permanent eye-sores.’
Of a successful playspace, ‘ The children play as if the whole thing might disappear tomorrow’.
‘The opportunities are endless…. Never be afraid to experiment and allow imagination to go hand in hand with simplicity.’

‘Young children live the whole day in and around their homes. Planning for play involves the design of the whole neighbourhood, not just the playgrounds, for children do not play only in playgrounds- they play whenever they move. If the whole housing estate or environment in which they live is planned to take account of this, then we could achieve a better proportion between parking space for cars and outdoor areas for people-small children, school children and adults.’
‘… new homes have been well thought out for indoor living, but the land around them is railed off from use by the tenants, fussily overdressed or serviceably dull. Outdoor living is as important as indoor living, especially for the children.’
‘ why should it be an ‘unusual experience’ for these children (‘handicapped’) to play in a free atmosphere? Are their schools so prison-like that they are denied freedom there, and have to travel long distances to enjoy it?… they visit Adventure playgrounds where they are welcomed. Nevertheless, there seems to be a great reluctance to ensure that handicapped children can have this experience wherever they maybe. Because of the limited life that many severely physically disabled children are forced to lead, everything possible should be done to arouse their active interest in life and to give them as much fun as ‘normal’ children enjoy.’ (Memoirs of an Uneducated Lady.)
…’ the magic potential of Adventure Playgrounds.’

  6 Responses to “‘children are more complicated than kettles.’ the life and work of Lady Allen of Hurtwood.”

  1. […] Un video en el que se ve un espacio de juego pensado para niños y niñas con diferentes grados de discapacidad y movimiento diseñado por Lady Allen (si quieres saber más de su vida, de esta mujer “deseducada”: enlace) […]

  2. Hello,
    My name is Galina Arbeli and these days I am curating an exhibition about the evolution of playgrounds in the western world and Israel at the Design Museum Holon. While working on the subject I met with Lady Allen work and now i am on a search for images of her first adventure playgrounds in London.
    Maybe you have some kind of Knowledge where can I ask for those images? I was writing to the Lady Allen Fund but have not heard from them back.

    I you can assist me I will appreciate it very much.

    Thank you.

    • Your best bet is either the children’s play and information service, a part of the National Children’s Beureau, or the lady Allen archive at Warwick university.
      Good luck!

  3. I think you are telling me about a video showing spaces designed by lady Allen for children with different abilities to play together. It is quitehardto find any video footage of Lady Allen. The complete archive of her tv performances seems to have been lost by the organisation that took overflow rom Kidsactive… Kids. They were not careful guardians of her work of legacy at all. So if you have footage it would be great to see it.

  4. […] instead.  They came in waves, first rising in the rubble of WW2 like phoenixes – Bertelsen, Lady Allen, and the […]

  5. […] are more complicated than kettles’ the life and work of Lady Allen of Hurtwood – http://theinternationale.com A personal account from a Playworker, brings vividly to life the work of Lady […]

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