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If you know Fir Tree Road, Banstead, and happen to have travelled along it recently, you may have noticed a side turning that wasn't there before. Yet the road surface is not new, and the lawns and gardens bordering it are well matured. How could you have failed to notice it in the past?
The answer is that there were iron gates across the road, supported by brick pillars and bordered by a high brick wall - the entrance, as the local people of Nork know well enough, to Beechholme.
Beechholme is a children's community run by the L.C.C. for children in their care. Once it was an institution; today it is a village. The removal of its gates is a symbol of the completion of a five-year transition from one to the other.
For a quiet revolution has been going on almost unnoticed among that double row of some two dozen, gaunt Victorian houses, around a chapel and a swimming pool. between Fir Tree Road and the railway.
It has been a revolution, sponsored by the L.C.C's Children's Committee, aided by the local house committee, bringing love into the lives of 450 deprived children - bringing more work, more freedom, more responsibility and more satisfaction into the lives of its staff.
A man who figures prominently in this revolution is Mr. G. A. Banner, who lives with his wife in the most elegant house in the "village" - one of the compensations, he says, for "being on the job 24 hours a day at everyone's beck and call."
Mr. Banner. superintendent of Beechholme, is not what you expect a revolutionary. Apart from the obvious love and enthusiasm for his work, he wouldn't stand out in a crowd. He dresses soberly, calls everyone from his secretary to the most humble assistant housemother "dear," and greets the children like a particularly expansive uncle.
I have seen him in his shirtsleeves on his knees before an altar - oiling some new woodwork that a group of the boys had installed in the chapel.
He doesn't even hold any "advanced ideas. He is a Christian, for one thing; and he still believes in the brotherhood of man and the redemptive power of love.
The thing that makes him a revolutionary is that he takes these ideas seriously - to the point of living and working by them.
The first thing he did - in accordance with the L.C.C.'s policy - was to say that the children could go out unaccompanied on Saturdays to the local shop to spend their pocket money. On the first Saturday, they took it as an order - and 450 children invaded Nork.
The next task was to start a gradual process of "mixing up" the children. The result today is 24 "families" all but one of which contain children of both sexes, and all of which cover the average age range of two to 15.
Never, unless there are exceptional emotional reasons, are children from the same family divided between Beechholme "families."
Wherever possible, a family group has both housemother and housefather, nowadays called "auntie" and "uncle" by the children. Sometimes, "uncle" may be one of the permanent staff, sometimes he may go out to work like any other father, leaving "auntie" to look after the children. Husbands of housemothers with outside jobs are allowed to live rent free in exchange for taking an active part in the life of the community when they are at home.
Houseparents are given complete responsibility for the running of their family units of up to 20 or 24 - depending on the size of the house. They do their own catering, within an allowance big enough for a good and varied table; their own budgeting for everything in the household except furniture. They plan their own family holidays for a fortnight every year - in caravans, on canals, in ordinary seaside boarding houses or wherever they like.
Most of the houseparents, and assistant housemothers, are young - under 30 - but they can be of all ages. They are people with a good educational background, and a satisfactory childhood and upbringing in family life.
They are people who have done some other job in the world well; and hobbies and friendships beyond their work at Beechholme are not only encouraged - they are considered a vital part of the people who are needed for work like this.
"You should try to look upon everyone of these children as if they were your own," Mr. Banner tells them, "but without being so demanding or smothering that you create a conflict of loyalties between their love for you and their love for their own parents."
A dedicated houseparent is likely to stay in the job for about seven years, but Mr. Banner would not urge them to stay longer. For the average young married couple who would make ideal Beechholme houseparents ought, after this time, to be wanting a home and children of their own. If Beechholme were allowed to deprive them of this, they might soon cease to be ideal houseparents.
The children, who are some of the 8,600 in the L.C.C.'s care, may come from broken homes or a widowed parent. Their parents may be in hospital, in debt, or unable to control them. Very few of them are actual orphans.
Beechholme is one of several similar types of establishment run by the L.C.C., and one of several different ways of caring for deprived children. Some 21 per cent of them, for example, are boarded out with foster parents all over the Home Counties from Wiltshire to the Wash.
Beechholme draws its children from an area bounded by Paddington, Hammersmith, Wandsworth and Battersea.
It was built In 1880 for the poor of the parishes of st. Mary Abbot in Kensington, and St. Luke in Chelsea. And until the money was recently made available for modernising, it must have looked like it. Now, large light windows have been let into kitchen walls and kitchens are being improved, brighter colours have been introduced into decoration, and dormitories - "bedrooms" in some families - are being divided into cosy cubicles for two or three beds.
A good deal of the community's life revolves round the chapel. A choir is led by Mr. Banner, and the church council is composed of 12 men and women and 12 children.
Their own school, staffed by teachers living outside Beechholme, educates all the children under 11 but secondary schoolchildren travel to schools in Banstead, Sutton, Cheam, Epsom and Carshalton, as well as nearly 30 different London schools. More than 40 children are following advanced courses of some kind.
Weekly lectures and discussions are arranged for members of the staff in which questions can be asked and ideas can be exchanged about various aspects of their work. They are very popular, even though it adds extra time to their average week of 55 to 58 hours.
"The only basis on which people are changed," declared Mr. Banner "is that of a good relationship. And the only one that works always is love. Love is the corner-stone of the place."
On the station platform as I left I saw two girls whom I had caught sight of in one of the houses. '''Lo Sir," they said.
They were sisters, brightly talkative. They clearly loved Beechholme. "I think you get better chances here than you do in an ordinary family outside," said one.
"How long have you both been here?" I asked.
"Five years," they said.