Would knowledge of the origins of village communities help us to understand them?

Simon Jarrett looks back on a controversy about village communities that erupted in Community Living 16 years ago and wonders whether a knowledge of history might help in understanding how some unusual ideas come about.

In 2000 Jean Collins of Values Into Action (VIA) wrote an article for Community Living that caused quite a stir. Called Are villages really ‘a suitable option’? (1) the article launched an attack on the whole concept of the ‘village community’, as exemplified by organisations such as the Camphill movement. She argued that ‘dispersed housing schemes’ were ‘the kind of service provision most likely to deliver what people with learning difficulties want’ and that village communities naturally fostered an institutional climate. She also called them secluded and service-dominated.

The article was accompanied by a provocative illustration of a ‘village community’ sign being nailed over a ‘hospital’ sign, in grounds surrounded by a high institutional fence topped with barbed wire.

A year later a strong response appeared from David Coe, Colin Haldane and Robin Jackson of Camphill Scotland, who argued for a ”more informed, mature debate on the subject“. (2) They argued that generally accepted concepts of community were ”largely mythical“ and that ‘homes in the community’ as professionals choose to call them, ”often tend to be islands in an ocean of indifference“. They suggested that ”rights have no meaning in a social vacuum“ and that Camphill communities were in fact strongly linked to the wider community. Furthermore, they were structured on consensus, shared values and beliefs that included people with learning disabilities in a way that rarely happened in what they called the mini-institutions of ‘dispersed housing’. They condemned the tendency of those who clung to the ”narrow inclusive agenda“ to ”dispense stereotypical notions of village communities based on a blend of myth and prejudice“.

Heated exchange

It was certainly a heated exchange and further fuel was added to the fire three months later when Simon Lynn wrote an article called Ravenswood: ‘village ghetto’ or ‘thriving community’? (3). In it he condemned the Ravenswood Village in Berkshire, a village community home to 179 mainly Jewish people with learning disabilities, as a ”segregated and isolated service“. He criticised the absence of Jewish staff, which for him further exacerbated the sense of these people having been ”torn from their communities“. He argued that because Jewish people in Britain are still predominantly urban and suburban, the segregation of a village community was particularly isolating for them, in the same way as it was for black Londoners placed far from home in predominantly white communities.

Clearly village communities rouse strong passions, on both sides. So how did they come about in the first place? Will an understanding of their historical origins help us to understand what may appear to be a strange way of seeking to achieve this thing called ‘community’?

The founder of the Camphill movement was Karl König, a German-speaking Jewish refugee from Austria who came to Britain in 1938. He and a group of like-minded friends, most of them Jewish, had had to flee Austria, which had been annexed by Hitler in that same year. To have stayed behind would have meant almost certain death. The group were all followers of the teaching theories of Rudolf Steiner and his philosophy of ‘anthroposophy’. Anthroposophy is a spiritual therapeutic approach which draws from a number of religions, including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is based on rhythm and routine and building a close connection between time, nature, spirituality, community and learning in everyday life. There are many Steiner schools and pre-schools in Britain and the rest of the world today – it is not a system of therapeutic learning only for children and adults with disabilities.

Refugees from Nazism

König became a follower of Steiner when he witnessed a group of severely disabled children participating in an Advent celebration at a Swiss anthroposophical curative home in the 1920s. He claimed that this experience first put the idea of Camphill into his mind. When König first arrived in Britain, a penniless, non-English speaking refugee from the murderous creed of Nazism, he initially experienced despair: ”Here I was, thrown out of my work and I felt like one who, after a shipwreck, is cast on to a lonely, unknown island“. (4: p. 13). Seeking dignity and hope in the face of Fascism, he made the connection between the Nazi campaign to destroy the Jewish race and their genocide against disabled people. Even outside the horrors of Nazism, Jews and disabled children were excluded: ”We dimly felt that the handicapped children, at that time, were in a position similar to ours. They were refugees from a society that did not want to accept them as part of their community. We were political, these children social, refugees“. (4: p.15). He committed himself to the idea of curative education in a therapeutic community.

So it was that a group of European Jewish intellectuals fleeing persecution and a group of disabled children and their parents came together in the unlikely setting of the Aberdeenshire countryside. As one writer has summarised it: ”Scotland didn’t do ‘fancy‘ when it came to education… that the band of foreign settlers might think that the Northeast of Scotland might provide a hospitable environment to set up an alternative community reflects something of a triumph of the will“. (5: pp. 136-137).

Triumph they did, however, and, with the support of a group of local parents Camphill Aberdeen was born. For parents it was an alternative to the bleakness of the asylum or struggling alone, without support, with their ‘ineducable’ child. The system of co-workers was established where children lived within the families of the unpaid workers of the community. The idea was that the teacher must eat and sleep near the child and share their life. Children were taught reading and writing but also handicrafts and music, gardening and farming. For König, to handle a spade and use a saw was as important as being able to draw or make music. (5: p.45). The community was self-sufficient. Fascinatingly, in its early years, the language of the Aberdeen community was German.

Community or institution?

It was from these beginnings that the Camphill movement grew. Further communities were established across Britain, for both children and adults, most famously at Botton Village in Yorkshire, as well as in other countries across the world.

The origins of the movement explain a lot. There was an intimate link between Camphill and the Holocaust. While at first sight the connection between these middle-European intellectual types and Scottish disabled children looks puzzling, in this context it makes sense – both were the object of a concerted movement to remove them from the face of the earth. It is no surprise that they wanted their own community, removed from that always warmly regarded idea of the ‘mainstream community’, which seemed to have no place for them. In the minds of the founders of Camphill their community was no institution, it was an idealistic alternative to the death camps and mass murder that were engulfing Europe at the time. (It was this that evoked such a strong reaction from Camphill Scotland to the cartoon of a barbed-wire topped high fence around a village community, in Jean Collins’ original article).

Is the village community simply one ghetto replacing another? Are they now an anachronism, maybe necessary in 1939 but with no part to play in our modern world? Have the existential threats that brought them about gone away? Do they risk, whatever the ideals of their founders, becoming closed, institutionalised communities? Do we know ‘the type of service provision most likely to give people with learning disabilities what they want’?

All of these are legitimate and important matters for debate. An understanding of the history of the village community is, however, essential for anyone participating in that debate.


(1) Jean Collins, Are villages really a ‘suitable option’? , Community Living Vol. 13 No. 3, 2000

(2) David Coe, Colin Haldane & Robin Jackson, Village Communities: time for an ‘informed debate’?, Community Living, vol. 14, No. 3, 2001

(3) Simon Lynn, Ravenswood: ‘village ghetto’ or ‘thriving community’?, Community Living, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2001

(4) Karl König, The Camphill movement, Camphill Books, 1960

(5) Robin Jackson (ed.), Discovering Camphill: new perspectives, research and development, Floris Books, 2011