Francis Edmunds. A Waldorf pioneer in the English-speaking world

Nana Goebel

At the conclusion of his work as a teacher at the International School in Geneva, he completed a short training as a Waldorf teacher in Dornach. As soon as 1932 he took on a first class at the New School in London, thereby starting a 30-year career as a class and upper school teacher. “He appeared at our school like a ball of fire,” wrote his subsequent wife Elisabeth. From 1936 onwards he set up the first Waldorf teacher training course in England in connection with the school in the London district of Streatham. This was continued after the War years at Michael Hall School in Forest Row. 

After the Second World War, the New School moved to Forest Row under its new name of Michael Hall School. His impulse for a renewal of education, the creation of a place for healthy human development and the liberation of education from the corset of bourgeois conventions, which he shared with his leading Waldorf colleagues in Britain, shaped Michael Hall School as much as the other schools in Britain founded before the War. An impulse of renewal came from him. He taught there until 1960. 

Edmunds never restricted himself to Britain but naturally participated in all international tasks. When in August 1948 there were important discussions and international meetings in Dornach of the teachers working in Waldorf schools, Edmunds attended as the British representative. From 1950 onwards he met with representatives of the German and Dutch school movement for regular conferences in The Hague which laid the seed for supra-regional cooperation. In order to carry westwards the impulse for greater collaboration and deepening of the work which resulted from an important Stuttgart conference at the turn of the year 1952/53, and to prepare such future development, Edmunds wanted to invite about twenty leading colleagues from Europe and the USA to Michael Hall School at Easter 1953. “It could be an occasion for experiencing anew the position in the world of our education with reference to the West, which now must increasingly play a part in all European and world affairs.” 

Edmunds travelled to the whole of the English-speaking world from Forest Row, but particularly intensively to the USA and Canada, Australia and South Africa. In America, the mood surrounding Edmunds and his intention was particularly well understood, as a result of which he exerted a strong and lasting influence on all the Waldorf schools which were set up during this time and on many people. 

He developed significance influence in the British Steiner school movement through the Steiner Schools Fellowship which was established in 1953 at his suggestion and instigation, which he chaired for many years, and through Emerson College which he founded in 1962, offering a foundation course in anthroposophy and the British Waldorf teacher training. 

For a long time he could not decide whether the college should be founded in America or Britain. America seemed to him more open for spiritual seekers whom he wanted to show a path, Britain and its familiar people more pragmatic and less expensive. Michael Wilson invited him to make a start in the Sunfield Homes special school and children’s home in Clent (West Midlands). After an inconspicuous first two years with twelve pioneering students, Emerson College grew relatively rapidly. At the invitation of Michael Hall School, Emerson College move to its second provisional home in the 1964/65 academic year – war-time barracks at the edge of the school grounds of Michael Hall School in Forest Row. 

“Transformation, not just information” was a motto with which Edmunds expanded the teacher training into a two-year course. From the start, Edmunds was concerned not with occupational training in the conventional sense but with the inner needs and inner development of the human being, with the students finding a motif for their work and tasks, with freedom being something that was not just talked about but practised. Eventually a property with a large mansion house and a neighbouring farm could be acquired near Forest Row in 1967. At this time there were fifty students attending the foundation year and twenty-five the teacher training course. His productions of Shakespeare’s dramas were seen as a highlight of his work. 

The reputation of Emerson College grew and from the late 1970s onwards more than two hundred students from over thirty countries gathered there each year. Edmunds und his wife Elizabeth Edmunds shaped generations of young people from the whole of the English-speaking world. No one could be left unimpressed. 

Edmunds was a person the encounter with whom directly brought out and strengthened the best in people.