Book review: A Dorset Utopia: The Little Commonwealth and Homer Lane
A Dorset Utopia
Black Dog Books, £11.95: ISBN 0-9528839-4-5
We probably all know three things about the Little Commonwealth (1913 - 1918): the first is that it was an inspiration for A. S .Neill and Summerhill, the second is that Homer Lane produced a wonderful effect on a destructive child by offering him his own expensive watch to smash, and the third is that it was closed as a consequence of the allegation sexual relations between Lane and his pupils. This book fills some of the enormous gaps in this knowledge.
The children who attended the Little Commonwealth were known as Citizens. There is a detailed account of how the experiment was set up, where the Citizens came from and what buildings were specially constructed. The daily routine is described, and there are many photographs, including one of the Citizen's Court, run by the young people themselves, and another of four boys (or perhaps three boys and a staff member) working on the construction of a pumping house. There are three versions of the expensive watch story; we are not told which one to believe, and we are given full details of the allegations against Lane with a similar impartiality.
Most of the children who came to The Little Commonwealth were sent by the courts. The official descriptions of them used terms that would never be used today - 'erratic, obscene, dishonest and lazy', for instance, 'hopelessly incorrigible', 'a moral imbecile' - but though some of their criminal records included shop-lifting and theft, there were others whose only crimes were loitering, wandering or gambling. Lane's own two young daughters lived as part of the community, and there were other children who were sent to the Little Commonwealth by their parents rather than by the courts.
In her introduction Judith Stinton says that she has tried to create a picture of the Little Commonwealth years from the children's viewpoint. She has not been able to give first-hand accounts, because many of the children were almost illiterate and little has survived of their conversations, but her descriptions of individual children, where they came from and what happened at the Little Commonwealth and afterwards give it a lively population of individuals. The book also has chapters on Homer Lane's life, the places that had influenced him and the people and organisations that he has influenced; these are relevant historically, but it is the lives of the Citizens themselves that make the book so particularly readable.
This is an important book for anyone interested in the care of young offenders. Ninety years later, Lane's approach still seems radical; sometimes it was magical and sometimes it went wrong. There is as much to be learnt from the failures are as from the successes.