Everything Is Just Dandy!

Sarah Mills – Colin Ward: the ‘gentle’ anarchist and informal education

The Anarchist Library

Author: Sarah Mills
Title: Colin Ward: the ‘gentle’ anarchist and informal education
Date: 2010
Notes: The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education.
Source: Retrieved on 7th October 2022 from infed.org

Colin Ward (1924–2010) has left a legacy of radical ideas grounded in direct action.These were communicated through a number of thought-provoking and in-depth social histories.Indeed, Ward’s political beliefs shaped his objects of enquiry and can be clearly seen running through his arguments. His interests were diverse: planning, camping, housing, allotments and, significantly, education. The contribution Colin Ward made in the context of informal education can be seen in his most famous pieces of work on children’s everyday lives and street culture in The Child in the City (1978) and The Child in the Country (1988). These, as well as other publications on school design and education ‘outside’ of the school, have inspired a number of academics in various disciplines to consider young people as a marginalised group and explore their lifeworlds.

Life, work and political thought

Colin Ward was born in Wanstead, Essex in August 1924. After leaving school at fifteen, Ward worked as an architect’s draughtsmen until he was conscripted in 1942. This would prove a critical moment in Colin’s life as during his time with the British Army in World War Two, he became an anarchist. Infamously, a subscription to War Commentary led to Ward giving evidence in a trial of its three editors, who were eventually sentenced to nine months in prison on grounds of endorsing disaffection. After the war, Colin Ward began to write regularly for journals, with much of his early journalism focusing on the squatters’ movement. He subsequently became editor of Freedom, the British anarchist newspaper (1947–1960), eventually founding Anarchy and serving as its editor between 1961 and 1970. In 1973, Ward culminated his ideas and political thought in Anarchy in Action. Here, inspired by anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Gustav Landauer (see Baldwin, 1970; Esper, 1961), Ward outlined his theory of anarchism:

The argument of this book is that an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism….Of the many possible interpretations of anarchism the one presented here suggests that, far from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society. (Ward, 1973: 11)

For Colin Ward, conceptions of ‘anarchy in action’ manifest themselves most clearly in the built environment. Inspired by his architectural training, he was interested in how ‘ordinary people’ self-motivated and self-designed spaces and communities. Colin continued as an architect in the late 1950s and 60s, and by the 1970s he was appointed Education Officer for the Town and Country Planning Association. These roles inspired Ward to publish about the relationships between architecture, planning and education. Most famously, The Child in the City (1978) explored the way in which children make creative use of urban environments. As Ward’s anarchist beliefs were rooted in everyday relationships and experiences, he also channelled these values into social histories of the quotidian practices of organisations, stressing the value of co-operation. For example, he praised organisations such as the RNLI, housing associations and worker’s co-operatives. This focus on the voluntary sector, and his belief in the everyday ways that individuals can galvanise social change through direct action, led to Ward being described as a ‘gentle’ anarchist proposing a ‘grassroots’ revolution. His later writings included social histories of holiday camps (1986, with Dennis Hardy) and allotment gardens (1988, with David Crouch), with the theme of ‘self-made’ communities most strongly communicated in Arcadia for All (1984, with Dennis Hardy). As well as ideas of self-organisation, Colin Ward was also interested in the potential of mutual aid. For example, writing in an introduction to Peter Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow (1975), a book which Ward also edited and contributed to, he spoke of how ideas of self-sufficiency and mutual aid were relevant for the current economic and energy crises.

Colin Ward is quoted as saying that “all my books hang together as an exploration of the relations between people and their environment” (Worpole, 1999: 12) and this can be seen right through into his final publications, most powerfully in Cotters and Squatters (2002) – an examination of the rural poor that connects ideas of housing, architecture and everyday use of space. Indeed, it has been Ward’s focus on people’s relationships with their environments that gets to the heart of his writings, political beliefs and legacy. This perhaps ‘quiet’ or ‘banal’ aspect of study could easily be overlooked or dismissed, particularly when compared to other anarchist writings and ideology. However, it is the real connection to the experiences of everyday life that makes Ward’s contribution so powerful, relevant and timeless. Colin Ward died on 11th February 2010 aged eighty-five, survived by his wife Harriet, whom he married in 1966, and their children.