Exploring the Braziers Park Archive
Annebella Pollen, researcher at the University of Brighton, reports on a memorable weekend exploring Braziers’ history.
In a large Victorian walk-in safe, at the side of the former butler’s pantry, lies a treasure trove of boxes and files. Piled high and deep, in a dusty condition and with only a fraction catalogued, the miscellaneous papers, photographs and artefacts are – depending on your perspective – a researcher’s delight or terror. For this particular researcher, they were definitely the former.
As part of a two-year Research Council funded project, I’ve been exploring the British woodcraft movement, that is groups of pioneer educationalists, utopians and free thinkers who established outdoor organisations for adults and children during and after the First World War. Inspired by the original back-to-nature ideas that also informed the founding of the Boy Scouts, woodcraft groups were, however, strongly pacifist and attempted to wrest camping and hiking back from the militaristic and imperialistic tendencies that they saw developing in scouting.
What has this to do with Braziers Park? Quite a lot, in fact. Two of the founders of Braziers in 1950, Norman Glaister and Dorothy Glaister (née Revel), had been central members of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, the first of the British woodcraft groups to split from the scouts in 1916. Dorothy had radical ideas about child development and her books, Cheiron’s Cave: The School of the Future and Tented Schools, outlined the importance of outdoor education and child-centred practices at a time when such thinking was far from mainstream. Dorothy had been a teacher at the experimental Priory Gate School, led by Theodore Faithfull – a name that will also be familiar to those with knowledge of Braziers’ history. The ideas that these figures shared – about the application of new psychological thinking for social and personal reform – were developed prior to the establishment of Braziers, and their woodcraft groups were the place where they tried their ideas out in practice – including, in Norman’s case, the sensory / executive meeting method that is still at the core of Braziers’ organisational approach today.
On 19-20 February 2016, at the invite of Aggie Forster, Braziers’ Educational Convenor, I came to the extraordinary Strawberry Hill Gothic house at Ipsden, Oxfordshire, to look for woodcraft references among the papers, to meet the community and to give a talk on my recent research on one particular woodcraft group, the mystical and artistic Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. To coincide with my visit Aggie developed a rich programme of activities as part of what she called a Wider Community Weekend, where visitors and friends who would like to know more about Braziers, past and present, were welcome to attend and explore the library and archival material.
It was a delight to me to not only consult the fascinating materials in the safe but also to discuss the ideas with longstanding Braziers folk, including the very knowledgeable Alan Clark who has been connected to Braziers since 1956, and the highly entertaining Nick Glaister, youngest grandson of Norman and Dorothy. In appropriate woodcraft style, there were also woodland forays and a Druid ritual at the bonfire. I also had the opportunity to witness group meetings in process and I was joined in my archival rummaging by many interested community members along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my Kibbo Kift research with the gathered members and visitors on the Saturday evening, and learned a lot from the informed audience, which included researchers of intentional communities, members of present day woodcraft groups and curious locals. It was also my great privilege to be joined in my talk by Hazel Powell, child of Kibbo Kift members in the 1930s, a pupil of the original Forest School, and a longstanding member of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and Forest School Camps. This was a particularly touching experience as Hazel had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer but was determined to participate, against all odds. Her trip to Braziers was in fact her last public outing before she sadly died on 1 March.
As a lecturer and researcher, I spend a lot of my time in archives but my experience at Braziers was definitely one of the most distinctive; the warm welcome, the vegetarian catering and the charming accommodation were all exceptional. My reading room on the first day was the dramatic, if chilly, gothic panelled study, complete with wood burner, glitter ball and resident ghost. On the second day I was much warmer by the fire in the library, amidst its rich and eclectic mix of titles on art, psychology and utopias. I was delighted to donate a copy of my book The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians to the collection; it will be in excellent company.
The Braziers Park archive covers a lot of ground far beyond my particular research interest. It is a fascinating resource for the study of a living community and its methods, and it deserves to be better known. To this end I am working with Aggie and other community members and friends to raise funds to store and organise the material in better conditions, and to develop future projects that will make the most of this fantastic historical resource in its extraordinary historical location.
Annebella’s talk at Braziers Park, ‘The British Woodcraft Movement: Origins and Legacies’ can be listened to here.