100 Little Known Things about Summerhill & Neill

Trying to post 100 things that most people are not likely to know. Some general Summerhill things and some personal things that were part of my many long years at Summerhill

1. A.S.Neill was known to his birth family as Ally. His sister, my Aunt May, continued to call him that when they were both elderly folk and when I go North to my family roots in Forfar, Scotland, he is still referred to as Ally by those who knew him there.

2. The actress Rebecca De Mornay, star of the horror film ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ was at Summerhill for a few years as a youngster.

3. Neill loved playing golf but because he was not at all competitive he tended to play alone at a local club. He took the dogs and sometimes a few of us little ones. We looked for other people’s lost golf tees and golf balls, getting paid sixpence for a ball and tuppence for a plastic tee.

4. Neill’s younger brother Neillie was a doctor. He lived in the south of England and used to cycle up to Yarmouth for his holidays on his old fashioned “sit-up-and-beg” bicycle, calling in to visit us on the way. They were very fond of one another and would spend time doing the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword. I remember him looking very like Neill but where Neill was tall, thin and craggy – Neillie was short and round with a jolly face.

5. In the early 1960s Neill joined Bertrand Russell on a sit in demonstration for CND ( Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) at a port in Scotland against the Polaris missile. Neill was taken by the police and spent a night in jail. How proud was I, his then teenage daughter, of her dad! Talk about Street Cred!

6. During World War 2 Summerhill was evacuated to a small town in Wales, Blaenau Ffestiniog, for the duration. Neill complained that the locals were rather hostile, the pubs shut on Sundays (due to religious reasons) and he swore that the local vicar stole his wheelbarrow!

7. When Summerhill attended the Royal Courts of Justice in London in the year 2000 to defend itself against the Department for Education, they said that the children could not come into court as it was too small and there was a gallery upstairs. However, it was not clean and was full of packing cases. After a bit of heated discussion, the Head Judge, John Wroath, took charge and allowed all the children into the court where they sat along the steps and alleyways just as we all do at home in our meetings.

8. Neill was a practical man who loved to work with his hands. He made lovely brass ashtrays in his workshop and was a very good artist when a young man, though he did not do much art later in his life. He was also a real worker, digging the garden and painting buildings with tins of paint donated by a parent. He painted the out-buildings in stripes often in ghastly colours. We always knew when Neill had been doing the painting!

9. Summerhill was inspected by OfSTED every year during the 1990s except for one. This came to light during the court case against the DfE when, under questioning by the school’s QC, Geoffrey Robertson, they admitted that the school was on what the judge called a ‘secret hit list’ called TBW (To Be Watched). Only a few other schools were on this list and none of the schools on it actualy knew it existed. Most other schools at that time were inspected every three years or more.

10. Joan Baez, the famous folk-singer and friend of Bob Dylan, once held a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London, to raise funds for the new Summerhill swimming pool.

11. The Big Beech tree is over 300 years old and one of the largest trees in Leiston. It is much loved and much photographed. It’s status is not unlike the ravens in the Tower of London – though hopefully when it finally falls it will not mean the end of Summerhill. We are planning to make some special Beech Leaf Gin from its leaves for the 100th celebrations….

12. Before the book ‘Summerhill’ was published in the early 1960s, the school was reduced to 25 pupils. The book became a non-fictional best seller in the whole of the US and for a while the school was almost entirely filled with Americans. As a pupil at that time, most of my contemporaries were from the US. So I grew up knowing that a ‘trunk’ was a ‘boot’, a ‘lift’ was an ‘elevator.’ As a little girl I knew (and still know) the first verse of the patriotic US song “The Marine’s Hymn” by Goldman Band which we all learned as 9 or 10 year olds from an American pupil.

13. On Summerhill’s 90th birthday, Neill’s grandson, William Readhead and some friends cycled from Neill’s birthplace in Forfar, Scotland to Summerhill to celebrate. They were joined by various friends along the way and kept a blog aptly called ‘A Dominie’s Blog’.

14. Neill was once refused visas to both the USSR and the USA at the same time….

15. There has always been an elderly piano in a room in the main building. Many children have learned to play without a teacher over the years. Some really great Jazz and Boogie-woogie players learned their trade at Summerhill.

16. Neill was very careful with his money. Some would say he was a true Scot!. He could never leave an electric light burning if nobody was in the room and many is the time that one would be sitting reading quietly in a bedroom on the top corridor and suddenly the light would go out. Neill was always very apologetic about it but his nighlty walks along the corridor on ‘light patrol’ were common. One result to me is that, to this day, I am contantly switching off lights at school!

17. Neill died in September 1973, a few days before the new term began. We had managed to take his first grandson, William, to his hospital bed in Ipswich not long after the birth. Later, in Aldeburgh Cottage Hospital, we took a bouncy 15 month old Amy, his first grandchild to see him. She climbed on his bed and they had a chuckle but he was very weak by then so it was a short visit. He died, very peacefully, a few days later.

18. In 1999 when the school was regularly being inspected and viewed by judges or other observers (for the ‘other’ side) before our famous court case – we had our own secret system of messages that we posted on our school white board so that everybody would know that somebody important was coming! 

19. The well-known author of children’s books, John Burningham – known at Summerhill as John Brum, sent a copy of his books to Neill as they were published. One of John’s early books was a plain but lovely ABC book. It was dedicated to A.S.Neill and in the copy that he sent to Neill, under the dedication, he had written: “ I managed to pick up the alphabet upon leaving Summerhill”.

8 thoughts on “100 Little Known Things about Summerhill & Neill

  1. I remember going to the Aldebuergh beach with Neill & his dog Biscuit. Every time, Biscuit would find a large stone & carry it around & drop it & bark wildly at it. Neill was embarrassed, but he allowed Biscuit to take it home.

    1. One of my main memories of Neil was of him sitting in his chair and when ever Biscuit would come up and bother him for a walk he would push him away and mutter “get away. I don’t want you ”
      But he truly loved that dog.

  2. My major memories of Neill were his size – he was enormous, at least to my small self – his gentleness and his humour. I spent a lot of time with him in PLs, in his tiny room at the top of the front stairs. I made him a plaster pipe holder in the shape of a toadstool in the workshop one year for his birthday (with a fair amount of help from Humphrey the workshop teacher). Balkan Sobrani tobacco – it came in cool little tins and I can still smell it 🙂 Every once in a while he’d let me and Ally wash his car for a shilling – god knows how many shillings he gave to how many kids over the years! Biscuit followed him faithfully wherever he went, including the meeting. He died the year before I left, and truthfully that was partly the reason I left. I loved him dearly.

  3. I would like to add that Summerhill was started in Hellerau Germany by Neill and my grandmother Lillian “Mrs Lins” Neustatter and Neill spoke of how important she had been in making the school a success. While old Summerhillians who were at school with her when she was alive (she died 1943) have recalled her with touching warmth

  4. My first PL with Neill, when I was 11, felt strange & sweet. I mentioned I was fat. As I was walking out the door he said “you’re not fat”. I’ll never forget that kindness. ❤️

  5. I remember reading that one of the only highlights of Neil’s time evacuated to Blaenau Ffestiniog was when his friend, Clough Williams-Ellis, invited the children to come and play on the beach at Portmeirion. As a regular visitor to Portmeirion, both before and during the time my sons attended Summerhill, there was a special awareness on every visit following me gaining this knowledge. I would look out of window of my accommodation in Portmeirion and imagine the children of Summerhill on the beach some 60 years earlier.

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