A. S. Neill founded the pioneer progressive school Summerhill in 1921; three years before he died, he said simply to his wife Ena: "You can carry on." And so she did, running the school for 12 years from 1973. She held Summerhill together, fiercely protective of Neill's ideology even though, privately, she sometimes disagreed with the way he did things. She was head through difficult times, when freedom for children had dropped out of fashion; the press became ever more determined to find salacious stories to "expose" about Summerhill and the numbers of pupils were low.
The founding principle of Summerhill was, and remains, that children, given freedom to make choices about when they want to learn - lessons have never been compulsory - and a voice in decision-making about the way they live, will grow into happy, motivated, well-adjusted adults. Ena Neill may not have been the philosopher who conceived the idea of the school, but she had a better grasp than her husband of the importance of tempering freedom for children with boundaries and she had no problem with giving a ticking-off when children became anarchic rather than free- spirited.
It was she who would risk unpopularity by standing up, her face set, at the weekly school meeting where the process of self-government took place, to berate the whole lot of us if she felt we were letting the school down. The Neills' daughter, Zoe, remembers how hard it could be for Ena: "Lots of people spoke lovingly about Neill, saying how benign he was, how impressive that he could run the school without ever seeming to lose his temper, but that was because he left it to Mum to lay down the law, to be the dragon."
Born Ena Woof, she grew up in West Malling, Kent, and studied nursing before marrying Bill Wood, an illustrator. She got to know A.S. Neill when, deserted by Bill, she sent their son Peter to Summerhill. When the photographic studio where she worked was bombed during the Second World War, she planned to go to America and told Neill that Peter would be leaving Summerhill. The school was moving to Wales and Neill offered her a job as cook. When his first wife became ill, Ena nursed her and developed sound managerial skills which benefited the school considerably then and later, when it moved to Leiston in Suffolk in 1945.
But when, in 1944, Neill married Ena, 27 years his junior, there was resentment among people who felt she had insinuated her way in and was "not suitable". Throughout A.S. Neill's life, Ena was aware that people saw him as the great man and her as simply his wife, yet she maintained an impeccable discretion and dignity. She was sometimes rattled when Neill's many women fans would visit or write, speculating about how it must be to live with such a great man. But Neill recognised that she would be the wife he wanted: "My wife has to be more than a success with herself and me . . . she has to succeed with herself, me and the work."
ln 1986, Ena Neill retired and handed the headship to Zoe Readhead (Zoe had married Tony Readhead, a local farmer), something she knew A.S. Neill would have wanted. Zoe recollects with amusement: "She didn't really feel ready to relinquish her grip but even though we didn't always see eye- to-eye the friendship we had always remained very strong."
As a pupil at Summerhill for four years during the 1950s, my enduring memory is of Ena's kindness, her ability to spot when you needed her. I was very homesick at first and remember Ena appearing as I sat howling on my bed one day. She sat beside me and talked practical sense in the gruff voice which papered over great kindness and compassion. Ena often talked of needing to be mother to the children (and to staff too) but she was never sentimental, nor did she ever impose or make her acts of kindness a demand for affection or gratitude.
She worked extraordinarily hard to make sure the school functioned and things operated as they should - whether it meant ordering the groceries, getting in a plumber, dealing with inspectors or troublesome pupils, or getting a child who had fallen out of a tree and crushed a limb to hospital. To me Ena seemed like a battleship, a powerful and often daunting presence, but there was great security in knowing that, beyond doubt, she was there to care for us and protect us.Reuse content