Austin Johnson, aged 37, a shipping clerk from Wimbledon in south London, travelled 500 miles last month in an attempt to see his five-year-old daughter, Alice, for the first time in more than a year. It was a wasted journey.
At the isolated farmhouse commune near Bangor, north Wales, where his daughter is undergoing a rigorous course of discipline, education and ‘mental hygiene’, he was told that he had no right to see her. “Go away, and stop harrassing us,” he was told.
Alice, who has been living in the commune run by a group called The Teachers since last September, is the fourth child in the past three months to become the subject of a quarrel between parents and the leaders of the commune, who believe that children suffer from emotional interference by their parents.
Alice’s half-sister, aged 10, ran away from the farm wearing only a nightshirt in the early hours of July 17 and found her way to the police in Bangor. She is now living at a secret address with her father who has been given custody of her in the High Court.
A week later, a boy aged five and a girl aged 12 months were taken from the commune by police and solicitors acting on behalf of their father. He and his wife had joined the commune with the children three months earlier. He had protested when he realised that he was not expected to see them.
He left, made the children wards of court, removed them from the farm and took them to live with his parents. Three days later, he changed his mind and returned to the commune with the children. He now says that he was emotionally disturbed when he protested and that it is better if he does not see the children since he may be a bad influence on them.
The commune is registered as charity number 274059 with the title The Teachers and the declared aim of “acquiring and spreading education and encouraging increased social responsibility.” It was founded in June 1972 by Kevin O’Byrne, a former teacher and computer programmer.
Mr O’Byrne, who has suggested that he is a genius, has published a series of books and pamphlets under the name Kevin of the Teachers. He has produced a philosophical theory which includes a new language, called Choice Mathematics, and described himself as an engineer “in the business of repairing and developing the biological thing we call Homo Sapiens.”
In his pamphlet, Smotherlove, he criticises the permissive upbringing of children and “the constant feeding of sweeties to the mentally young.” He attacks adults who are unqualified to act as parents or teachers. “The most efficient way of stopping a young child biting is to bite the child with similar severity,” he writes.
Two school inspectors who visited the farmhouse last December reported on “an atmosphere of quiet conscientiousness” and a wealth of resources. They interviewed a nine-year-old girl who, they said, was using a text book designed for a 12-year-old and spoke with the fluency of a 15-year-old.
There are thought to be 11 children, aged up to nine, and six adults on the Welsh farm. Nine more adults, including the parents of some of the children in Wales, are thought to live in a terrace house which the commune owns in Denmark Road, Ealing in West London.
Most of the adults in London work as computer programmers or operators. Their wages are paid directly to a subsidiary of The Teachers who are entitled to tax concessions as a charity. Members can take out petty cash on request but they must account for every penny they spend on a form which is fed into a computer for analysis.
Austing Johnson has lost touch with his ex-wife, Angela, and their five-year-old daughter, Alice. They divorced in March 1979. He had continued to visit and take Alice out but in September 1980, mother and child left their council flat in Leytonstone without leaving a new address.
“She had already been involved with the commune for about 18 months. But, as far as I knew, they had turned her down because she lacked commitment. When she finally blew, I though she might be anywhere. I couldn’t even pay her maintenance so I started keeping it in a bank account. I didn’t know where they were,” said Mr Johnson.
When Mrs Johnson and Alice joined the commune, they took with them her other daughter, Jane, from an earlier marriage. It was when Jane ran away from the commune and contacted her own father, John, through the police that Austin Johnson discovered the whereabouts of his own daughter.
In the 11 weeks since then, Mr Johnson has written to Kevin O’Byrne explaining that he wants to see his daughter and that his divorce settlement grants him reasonable access. Mr O’Byrne has not replied.
Mr Johnson has also written to his ex-wife and spoken to her on the phone. She has told him that he is not a suitable person to see their child and that, despite their divorce settlement, she does not want him to have access to Alice.
In a telephone conversation with the Guardian last week Mr O’Byrne and another founding member of the commune, Michele Bland, denied that they were interfering in the relationship between Mr and Mrs Johnson by refusing Austin access to Alice.
They argued that they could not allow him to see Alice unless they had instructions to do so from Mrs Johnson.
Mr O’Byrne added: “Somebody called Angela came to me with her problems. I would suggest you look at her problems and stop worrying about Austin Johnson bleating about how he wants to see his darling child.” He said that Mr Johnson was “an emotional twit.”
When a Guardian photographer and I went with Mr Johnson to the farm last week we were turned away by two men from the commune.
Alice’s elder sister, Jane, is now living with her own father. She has told him and the police in Bangor that she never saw her mother in the commune. Her father has been given interim custody and is going to the High Court next month for a permanent order.
Mr O’Byrne described Jane as “a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth child” who was dishonest, violent and imaginative. She had a history of lying to the social services and of “wrapping adults round her finger with her butter-wouldn’t-melt attitude.”
Mr O’Byrne said that she had left because she was being taught to behave. “I’m quite sure that from her father’s point of view it looks terrible, but my first concern must he for the child.” He said the commune did not want Jane back: she was too violent and she would attract constant interference from her father.
Mark Hastings and his wife, Geraldine, (the names are fictitious for legal reasons) were also impressed by Mr O’Byrne’s views on life. They discovered the commune through an advertisement in the Guardian. The advertisement invited readers to “take your future into your own hands” and offered the address of the Alternative Communities Movement. This is run by The Teachers from their shop in Bangor.
Like others who answered the advertisement, they were sent an invitation to a meeting at The Teachers’ house in Ealing along with book lists and a pamphlet on The Teachers’ publications.
Mr and Mrs Hastings attended meetings and decided to join the commune. They sold their house and agreed to give the commune £6,000 which remained after the mortgage was paid off, as well as their new cooker and proceeds from the sale of their car. They agreed to abide by the 15 basic rules of the commune.
Two of the rules explain that “no member shall own or control another’s actions” and that “one to one relationships are a matter of negotiation between individuals.” Mr Hastings agreed to these rules. Later Mr Hastings discovered that they implied that he had no rights over his children. He was not allowed to see them.
He travelled from the Ealing house where he was living with Geraldine to Bangor. He stayed at the farm but he was told that it would not be right for him to see his children. He protested and argued with his wife. Then in July, after three months in the commune, he left and went to court.
On the day after he had retrieved his children he said that he was horrified at the life-style of the commune. He complained that he had lost all his property and that his wife had been persuaded to give up control of her children. Two days later he returned to the commune, taking the two children with him. He explained subsequently that his return had been entirely voluntary.
He says he is now happy to work as an electrical engineer in London, with his wages being paid into the commune, while his children stay in Wales.
Mr O’Byrne said that Mr Hastings had disturbed the children by his actions. “Then he asked us for help. Despite the fact that he had been spreading crap about us, we gave him that help. He is back with us. His children are now back with us.”
Mr O’Byrne also discussed his own view of the role of parents. “As far as I’m concerned, there is no category of human being called a parent. If someone happens to be biologically related to a child and happens to want to work with the child, I see nothing wrong with it.”
But he continued: “I don’t see any big deal about having a biological relationship with somebody. In the majority of cases in my experience, parents are not suitable to bring up children. Neither are school teachers.”
In Smotherlove, he wrote that: “Our mental climate is NO better than the physical climate of the middle ages, where sewage ran through the streets with attendant disease. A basic factually-based mental hygiene must be developed.”