The SCAT Story by the founder trustees

A full understanding of the evolution of SCAT can only be appreciated by referring back to the beginnings of the NAS and the establishment of Somerset Court. Some time in 1963/4 a small group of parents whose children had received the then rare diagnosis of “Autism” met, and set up a charity which subsequently morphed into what is today The National Autistic Society. The first Chairman of the Society - Michael Baron - came from that group as did many of its subsequent Board and Council members, although none are involved today.

In the context of Somerset Court it is relevant to note that all those first children had been diagnosed according to the Kanner syndrome - now usually referred to as “Classically’ or “Profoundly” autistic. This was well before the days of the spectrum.

Soon after its formation the Society set up the first school for autistic children. This was in Ealing, West London and many of the children of the founder parents went there. It still exists and is known as the Sybil Elgar School - see below. In the early seventies, when these children were in their teens, the parents realised that there would be no provision for them when their education came to an end - by law ,as it then was, at age eighteen. All of the children had made remarkable progress during their years at the school under the direction and guidance of an inspired and gifted woman, Sybil Elgar.. There was a danger that if they ceased to get the kind of structured stimulation, which Sybil had pioneered, when they left the school they would regress to their previous states and the years at the school would have been wasted.

A number of circumstances came together at that point. A little earlier an adjoining house to those that formed the school at Florence Road, Ealing had come on the market. In order to help the school expand the parents set up a charity - The Ealing Autistic Trust - and bought it. This was made possible by a loan on favourable terms from the bank of one of the parents - Don White - who was also very active in helping us with finding and purchasing Somerset Court. At approximately the same time Mrs Elgar's husband who worked for British Rail was told he was being transferred to the West Country. It was therefore decided that we would seek a property for a residential home for Autistic adults in the West Country and that Mrs Elgar would be its first principal.

What followed was approximately eighteen months of weekends going to and fro from the West Country looking for possible sites. This was before the M4 had been joined to the M5, necessitating going through Bristol and adding anything up to an hour to an hour and a half to the drive from London. We parents took it in turn and Sybil accompanied us.

Finally we found Somerset Court which then consisted of the main house and the grounds. It was owned by a supermarket millionaire named Cashman who, when he learned what we were about, sold it to the Ealing Autistic Trust for approximately £120,000. The money was raised by selling the house we owned in Ealing to the National Autistic Society - who already owned the other houses used by the School - and raising loans from parents who wanted their children to go to Somerset. Some parents re-mortgaged their houses to raise the loan and all loans but two were subsequently commuted into gifts.

And so in September 1974, twenty young people who had been at the Ealing School moved with Mrs Elgar to begin their new lives at Somerset Court. All fees were met by their local authorities. The Court was run and administered by a committee consisting of mainly parents and Sybil Elgar, and chaired by Michael Baron.

Below is an extract from a 1974 Panorama report about autistic provision which features the newly opened Somerset Court.


The full programme and other material about Somerset Court and autism can be found here

During this period all residents were housed in the main building, where all indoor activities took place. This continued until 1983 but before then the committee persuaded the Bristol Churches Housing Trust to take a conveyance on the land on which the first new building was constructed and which was then leased back to the Ealing Autistic Trust. That is the present day Mendip House , which is still on lease. This enabled eight residents to be moved out of the main building - easing the considerable burden there.

By 1983 however the initial pioneering parents were beginning to feel their ages and in addition the main house, and especially its roof was desperately in need of repair at an estimated cost of £45,000, which the Trust did not have. In the interests of the long term sustainability of the Court it was decided to gift the Court to The National Autistic Society provided they undertook the necessary refurbishment. The transfer was completed in late 1984 and this led to the formation of SCAT - the Somerset Autistic Trust.- which was registered as a charity in April 1985.

It quickly become apparent however that the NAS could not be looked for to supply the monies that went beyond the essential and basic needs of residents but which could make a great difference to their quality of life. indeed just the opposite. As a large National charity with a number of schools and adult residential units, a diagnostic unit, outreach work, a central headquarters and regional offices the NAS takes a proportion of fees from all schools and units to help meet its overheads and developmental work. It was therefore decided to set up a separate and completely independent charity which had the sole aim of helping residents of Somerset Court. It was to be mainly a parents/guardians/advocates charity, although other individuals could be members if they wished. At its inception three trustees were appointed with Gerald de Groot as Chairman. It has always been run on informal lines out of Mr de Groot’s home and as a result has minimal overheads. 

The NAS completely refurbished the main building and repaired the roof but It quickly become apparent that the NAS could not be looked for to supply the monies that went beyond the essential and basic needs of residents but which could make a great difference to their quality of life. Indeed just the opposite. As a large National charity with a number of schools and adult residential units, a diagnostic unit, outreach work, a central headquarters and regional offices the NAS takes a proportion of fees from all schools and units to help meet its overheads and developmental work. It was therefore decided to set up a separate and completely independent charity which had the sole aim of helping residents of Somerset Court. It was to be mainly a parents/guardians/advocates charity, although other individuals could be members if they wished. At its inception three trustees were appointed with Gerald de Groot as Chairman. It has always been run on informal lines out of Mr de Groot’s home and as a result has minimal overheads.

Over the years SCAT has made a considerable contribution to the Court having among other things sent residents on holidays, bought and maintained bicycles and go-karts, provided furniture for individual houses and the main dining room, supplied televisions and sound equipment in the houses, laid down a cycle track, put in trampolines, contributed towards the supply of iPads and Skype technology to each house, and paid for all the equipment in the Sensory Room and contributed toward the equipment for the new Communication Room. It has also helped towards making the Court a secure environment for residents by installing security lights around the campus and an electronically operated main gate.

The rebuilding came about by chance but it was none too soon. For some time the precepting authority’s (Somerset) inspectors had been pointing out that the residents who were housed in the main building were living in conditions that did not meet current statutory standards and had to be re-housed, either on the Court or elsewhere. In the late eighties Mr and Mrs Burnell - parents of resident Helen Burnell - were at a dinner party where they met a man who had just set up a Charity with the object of building for people in need. They told him about the Court and he asked to meet the chairman of SCAT,. This occurred within a few days and was followed over the next twelve to eighteen months by visits to the site, the gaining of planning permission, the building of Knoll and Lakeside houses and of the woodwork and horticultural units. The individual who planned, initiated and paid for all this has always insisted on his anonymity and is known to us as Our Benefactor, or OB. His legal agreement was with the NAS as they were the freeholders on which he built, but all personal contact, planning and discussion was with SCAT. This rebuilding completely transformed the Court and turned it into the campus we know today. It is probably not going too far to say that without OB and SCAT the Court might well have been closed down.

Below is a video of HRH The Princess Royal opening the new facilities:
 




At about the turn of the of the century the farm which abutted Somerset Court was put up for sale in lots two of which were right up against the Court’s borders. At that time there were many caravan and travelers' sites being set up in the area and we were concerned about the possible effect on the lives of residents should something like that be installed in one or both of these fields. We therefore approached the NAS to see whether they would be prepared to buy this land in order to protect the environment around Somerset Court. However the NAS felt they were unable to so do. SCAT therefore bought the fields and was then faced with the legal necessity of maintaining them. This was a strain on our resources, both financial and in terms of manpower- although the latter was mainly heroically undertaken by parent/trustee John Whitehead who lives locally. In 2004 we managed to sell the field furthest from the Court to a local resident with caveats limiting the uses to which she could put the land and preventing its development or use for commercial purposes. We were still left with responsibility for the adjacent field and although our ownership protected the interests and safety of our residents they were not getting any direct benefit from it. So in 2011 we handed the field over to the NAS and it now has animals in it which are tended by the residents giving them another activity and interest.

In the early days of SCAT some aggressive fund raising was undertaken but in recent years - with ageing officers - this has fallen away and for some years now expenditure has exceeded income. In the 38 years of its existence SCAT has worked with six managers of the Court and with countless staff. With the formation of a new committee of trustees in 2013 new vitality has been introduced and SCAT will continue to be active in helping to make the lives of residents at Somerset Court fuller, safer and more pleasurable than they would otherwise be.




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