Lady Allen of Hurtwood:
You would be forgiven if you read the above and, in your mind, immediately pictured an elderly aristocratic woman in a stately home surrounded by splendour and inherited privilege. But this was not Lady Allen.
Lady Allen was born Marjory Gill in 1897 and grew up in the Kent countryside with her four brothers and parents Georgie and Sala. Georgie worked for the Water Board and Sala stayed at home and managed their small farm. Georgie was born into a family of non-conformist missionaries and Sala had grown up in South London and worked for the civil service however her home and the life of her children were always a passion. Sala had a very playful childhood and spent a great deal of time in her aunt’s house in Kent. It was as a direct result of these happy memories that she and Georgie chose to make their home in Kent.
Georgie and Sala were founder members of a camping club and the family spent six weeks of each summer camping on the Norfolk coast. It was these times that instilled in Marjory the importance of play and the sense of freedom that being outside gives a person, particularly a child. However, like most things in life, that realisation only came years later when in her own words “…I worked among children condemned to live in barbaric and subhuman city surroundings, my thoughts always returned to my early good fortune”.
Marjory’s husband Clifford Allen died just before the start of the second world war, as a means of personal recovery, Marjory threw herself into her work. She worked with her close friend Herbert Morrison (who was in charge of the mass evacuation of children out of London during the Second World War) and developed a scheme for high quality nurseries to be established throughout the UK. It was through this work that Marjory discovered that orphaned children and those in care were completely unregulated by the state with no monitoring of the conditions in which they were living. She was so moved by the plight of these children that she could not stand by and do nothing as they suffered. Once she had completed her research, she wrote a letter to the Times highlighting the cruel and inhumane conditions that she had witnessed children existing in, she also wrote a pamphlet called ‘Whose Children’ which outlined her findings. As a direct result of this work, the Children Act 1948 was introduced into law.
Following the conclusion of the Second World War and as a result of her successful work with displaced children, Marjory was 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 war. It was during this period of her life that she was taken by the Head of the Froebel Institute to see a new play space.
In 1943, the first Adventure Playground in the world opened in Emdrup (Denmark), inspired by the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen and in cooperation with the Copenhagen schoolteacher Hans Dragehjelm. The playground inspired child-care workers all over the world and is still in operation. Sorensen had noticed that rather than playing on the neat municipal playgrounds that had been designed for them, children preferred playing on building sites. These building sites were messy spaces where a child’s imagination could run wild using the left-over junk and material lying around. It was what Marjory saw there that inspired her to eventually create what would be known as adventure playgrounds, indeed in her own words, “…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 and no man-made fixtures. The children could dig, build houses, experiment with sand, water or fire and play games of adventure and make believe.”
The remainder of Marjory’s tour resulted in her establishing an international organisation with a focus on early childhood education, this organisation was OMEP which was supported by UNESCO and which informed UNICEF. Marjory actually worked for UNICEF as an information liaison officer for a year and amongst other things, used her role 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 Second World War. Once she returned from her tour, Marjory took up a campaign for adventure playgrounds.
She soon became involved in a playground in Clydesdale Road, North Kensington. Ruth Littlewood had watched children playing on a bombsite next to her house and eventually, following a lot of negotiation and fundraising, the Adventure Playground opened in 1951. Initially met with a great deal of local criticism, the leader of the playground created such a friendly atmosphere that he disarmed local criticism and Marjory recognised the importance of these play leaders. She is quoted as saying, “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.”
One afternoon in 1964 Marjory visited a friend of her daughter’s (Polly) who lived in a basement flat with her three children. the oldest boy who attended a special school in term time had cerebral palsy, needed full time care and could not easily be taken on family outings. The mum had no relatives or anyone to help, Marjory recognised the strain and isolation on the mother and the whole family. She then realised that disabled children were not accessing the adventure playgrounds that were by now blossoming all over London. As a result, Marjory set up a trial scheme to see if it was possible and what was needed for disabled children to play. The trial schemes were a real success and following that, she set about starting an adventure playground where disabled children could come during term time and holidays.
Marjory eventually found a site, drove the bulldozer, modelled stream beds and splash pools and sandpits. The building was designed with the advice of a wide variety of specialist input, wide doorways, a kitchen, a laundry room and a spacious playroom big enough for children in wheelchairs and the number of adults required to support all of the children’s needs. In February 1970, the playground opened in the gardens of the rectory in Old Church Street, Chelsea. There were eventually six specialist playgrounds across London that were run by the Handicapped Adventure Playground Association (HAPA).
To this day all of our families benefit from the incredible work of Lady Allen of Hurtwood. From the development of high-quality nurseries established throughout the UK after the second world war and her campaigning for children in institutional care which led to the passing of the Children Act 1948. The Children Act is still in existence today and has protected our children for over 70 years.
Lady Allen founded the very first Adventure Playground for disabled children in 1970 in Chelsea, it was the first in the UK and we believe the first in the world.
The fact that our children have the opportunity to play locally in specialist services, St Quintin’s or Chelsea Adventure Playground, in mainstream Adventure Playgrounds or school-based provision is attributed to the work of Lady Allen.