Primary Source Analysis: AS Neill’s Letter to Dora Russell
The UK Progressive School movement began in the 1920s in reaction to
severe Victorian principles of schooling and to counteract them
using techniques based on Freud‟s writing. With the expressed
purpose of giving students a more relaxed developmental experience
many news articles labelled them the “Do-As-You-Please” Schools1.
The primary source included here is a letter from AS Neill - the
founder of Summerhill School - to Dora Russell, the co-founder of
Beacon Hill School. The letter was sent in the Spring of 1944
shortly after the closure of Beacon Hill and it was retrieved from
Dora Winifred Russell Archives(1906 – 1986) digitally held by the
International Institute of Social History. Russell‟s letters are
archived in alphabetical order of correspondent; only 3 letters with
AS Neill are in the archive. None of the letters in Russell‟s
archive are in AS Neill‟s published correspondence2.
The 1944 letter highlights several themes common across the three
schools I am studying in my project3. These themes are: the role of
romantic relationships, financial problems, staffing problems,
compromises of the progressive ethos and the role of journalism in
spreading the progressive message. The relevant sections for each
theme have been highlighted on the source.
Interpretations & Themes in the Source
1 Unknown author, “A Do-As-You-Please School” The Daily News [Colombo, Ceylon] 21 April 1931, in the Dora Winifred Russell paper 1906 – 1986, #13-
9, Inventory 656, International Institute of Social History. Retrieved online 16 September 2012.
2 Croall, J. (1983) All the best, Neill: Letters from Summerhill, London: The Trinity Press
3 The three schools of the project are Beacon Hill (founded by Dora & Bertrand Russell), Summerhill (founded by AS Neill) and Malting House (founded by
Geoffrey Pyke & Susan Isaacs)
1. The Importance of relationships
Neill‟s wife was dying from a stroke when he wrote this letter. The
manner in which he describes her is somewhat shocking. Similar
bluntness about her death is apparent in his autobiography. In fact,
in all of Neill‟s writingthe school seems of far more importance
than his personal relationships. This contrasts with Beacon Hill
where the co-founders‟ divorce causedmany problems4 and at Malting
House where an affair between the founder and headmistress
potentially causedthe headmistresses resignation5. On a
psychoanalytic historical reading6 it appears that in all three
cases the adults were using the schools to meet their desire for
nurturing relationships they were unable to create within their
adult romantic lives.
2. Financial Problems
Though relationships are important in the history of the schools,
the eventual reason for Beacon Hill and Malting Hill closures were
financial7. In the 1944 letter, Neill describes the financial
problems he is facing and notes that without capital he cannot
expand intake even though the school is popular. Neill continuously
wrote books about Summerhill to bring in extra capital for the
school, and he describes in another letter to Russell how he
downsized location when required to cushion financial losses8.
Without a similar publishing revenue streamBeacon Hill was badly hit
by WWII when the school premises were taken over as a military base
4Russell, Dora, and Countess Russell. The tamarisk tree: my quest for liberty and love. Vol. 1. Putnam, 1975.
5Graham, Philip. Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children. Karnac Books, 2008.
6Cocks, Geoffrey Ed, and Travis L. Crosby. Psycho/history: Readings in the method of psychology, psychoanalysis, and history. Yale University Press,
7Russell, Dora, and Countess Russell. The tamarisk tree: my quest for liberty and love. Vol. 1. Putnam, 1975.
8 Neill, AS. Letter to Dora Russell, 18 April 1932. Dora Winifred Russell Papers 1906 – 1986, #17-100, Inventory 71, International Institute of Social History.
Retrieved online September 25 2012.
and Russell could not claim compensation as she was only renting –
and did not own – the school property. Malting House closed when the
founder lost allhis money in the 1929 stock crash.
3. Staffing Problems
All three progressive schools struggled to find „good‟ staff, but as
Neill‟s letter shows it is difficult to know to what extent the
demanding ideals of the founders were the problem. Neill‟s school
demanded people with patience and an openness to non-traditional
atmospheres yet here he laments „hopeless idealists‟ and desires
someone with pragmatism – a difficult blend to find. Neill‟s
suggestion that “Newman had to leave to have her brat” also suggests
she was not able to stay at school while still teaching, however
Dora Russell was the mother of three children, and the third was
only an infant when Russell‟s husband left her to run the school
alone, suggesting that it was possible for women to teach when
tending to children and perhaps suggesting that Summerhill was not
amenable, rather than unable, to provide such an arrangement.
4. Journalism and Publications
All three sets of school leaders published extensively about their
experiences, initially in magazines and later in books. AS Neill‟s
work became most widely spread in the 1960s, but all three wrote for
(and advertised) in The New Humanist, The New Statesman and Nature
magazine9. In doing so the schools became famous within left-wing
„middle-to-upper‟ class circles which significantly affected intake.
9Advertisements & articles from these magazines are in the ISSH archive for Dora Russell, are published in AS Neill’s correspondence (Croall, ibid) and
are republished in Graham’s autobiography of Susan Isaacs (Ibid).
5. Oceans of Compromise
When AS Neill says that progressive schools have become a
„compromise‟ it appears that he is talking about the fact that so
many of the schools from the 1920s have either closed or had changed
their philosophy to become more „mainstream‟. In order to keep
financially stable and ensure adequate staffing most „gave up‟ on
the Freudian idea.
Synthesis – What parallels can be drawn with US Education?
Although these schools are from a different period than that covered
by the class so far, and from a different country, there is an
First: Finance is an important driver of change. Though
“progressivism” is considered correct it is foregone when its
founders could no longer fund it. In the US decisions regarding, for
example, gender integration often occur because the alternative was
unaffordable. Even if education leaders felt it more morally
appropriate to have separate sex schools, the lack of money
available meant such segregation did not occur. When considering the
history of schools it is therefore critical to carefully judge
whether money funds ideology, or if it works the other way around.
Secondly: If relationships are so important in the creation of
progressive schools, why are they missing from the histories of
education presented by Joel Spring, Tyack & Hansott, and James
Anderson? In fact, a quick glance at the leading educationalists in
their stories would suggest relationships are vastly important:
- Horace Mann’s second wife was Mary Taylor Peabody, a teacher
who was greatly respected in Massachusetts, advised him on all
aspects of policy and was possibly more an inspiration for his
working in education over law (as opposed to the riots!)10
- Thomas Jefferson had a long-term affair and children with
Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, as proven by DNA testing in
199811. Was this important in his views regarding equality?
- Booker T. Washington’s wife, Olivia A. Davidson, was a co-
founder of Tuskagee College. She trained at Hampton, then at a
Normal School, was a teacher and an honors student12.
- W.E.B. Du Bois had continual affairs throughout his life all
with highly „academic‟ and celebrate women some of whom were
white. He had very little to do with his wife and daughter.13
The AS Neill letter is therefore a useful example of the problems
and strategies for success seen in the Progressive School movement
as the schools ambled towards closure or compromise. But more
importantly the letter shows us the importance of human interactions
and how the people in the history of educations had friendships,
romantic relationships and opinions about the people they worked
with. Often in history these relationships are missed out – as is
evidenced by the absence of the women discussed above in US
education history – but these relationships are important and can
help us understand people‟s motives in a new and illuminating way.
The “wives‟ tale” may yet be a missing piece in the history puzzle
that will help us understand how we got from no schooling at all to
where we are right now.
10Marshall,Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three women who ignited American romanticism. Mariner Books, 2006.
11Smith D. & Wade N. “DNA Test Finds Evidence of Jefferson Child By Slave” The New York Times November 01 1998. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
12Darlene Clark Hine Black Women in America an Historical Encyclopedia Volumes 1 and 2 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993).
13Lewis, David Levering. WEB Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race. Vol. 1. Holt Paperbacks, 1994.
Analysed primary source is:
Neill, A.S, Letter to Dora Russell. April 27, 1944. Dora Winifred Russell Papers 1906-1986, #17-102, Inventory
71, International Institute of Social History. Retrieved online September 25 2012.
Cocks, Geoffrey Ed, and Travis L. Crosby. Psycho/history: Readings in the method of psychology,
psychoanalysis, and history. Yale University Press, 1987.
Croall, J. (1983) All the best, Neill: Letters from Summerhill, London: The Trinity Press
Graham, Philip. Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children: A Life Freeing the Minds of
Children. Karnac Books, 2008.
Hine, Darlene Clark Black Women in America an Historical Encyclopedia Volumes 1 and 2 (Brooklyn,
NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993).
Lewis, David Levering. WEB Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race. Vol. 1. Holt Paperbacks, 1994.
Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three women who ignited American romanticism. Mariner
Neill, AS. Letter to Dora Russell, 18 April 1932. Dora Winifred Russell Papers 1906 – 1986, #17-100,
Inventory 71, International Institute of Social History. Retrieved online September 25 2012.
Russell, Dora, and Countess Russell. The tamarisk tree: my quest for liberty and love. Vol. 1. Putnam,
Smith D. & Wade N. “DNA Test Finds Evidence of Jefferson Child By Slave” The New York Times
November 01 1998. Retrieved 31 October 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/01/us/dna-test-finds-
Unknown author, “A Do-As-You-Please School” The Daily News [Colombo, Ceylon] 21 April 1931, in
the Dora Winifred Russell paper 1906 – 1986, #13-9, Inventory 656, International Institute of Social
History. Retrieved online 16 September 2012.