A well designed freesheet called Managed Retreat came our way at the recent Essex Book Festival. Principally about land and environmental issues in Essex, it contained a timely essay by Marina O’Connell on ‘Land Settlements in East Anglia’, made all the more interesting by the fact that the author manages a small-holding on a former LSA (Land Settlement Association) site near Manningtree.
Land settlement or colonisation has a long history in Essex, important strands of which are highlighted in a new history by academic John Field called Working Men’s Bodies: Work camps in Britain 1880 – 1940 (Manchester University Press). Field makes the obvious but often forgotten point that while ‘Work camps may seem strange to us, before 1939 they were a normal part of the landscape.’ Having spent part of my childhood in Hadleigh, Essex, it was common during school holidays to play in and around the large Salvation Army colony nearby – despite our parents’ warnings. At this time the colony was largely involved with the rehabilitation of what were then known as ‘juvenile delinquents’, with whom we were strictly forbidden to fraternise. Today the Hadleigh colony, which opened in 1891, remains the longest operating land colony in Britain, and is now managed as an organic farm with training facilities for young people with learning difficulties. It seems to be thriving.
As Field explains there were as many different motives in establishing these settlements as there were colonies themselves: some were corrective, others experiments in communal living and self-sufficiency. A number were designed as therapeutic regimes for those suffering from physical or mental illnesses, while other settlements functioned as vanguard political outposts, or were exercises in small-scale food production. Whatever the philosophy or rationale, working the land was a common principle, and the idea that physical work in the open air was inherently beneficial to both mind and body was common to nearly all of them.
Essex was a favoured county for such experiments for several reasons. It lay close to London’s East End, where social reformers were thick on the ground and keen to export slum-dwellers to a healthier way of life, as well as being a hotbed of radical politics which was also attracted to the idea of creating utopian experiments in living and working communally. Radicals such as George Lansbury espoused both socialism and muscular Christianity, as well as a yearning for reclaiming rural England as the ideal setting for the socialist idyll.
Today the organic food movement, localism, adaptation to climate change and biodiversity action plans are amongst the driving forces in new forms of land management and cultivation – yet the gap between urban politics and rural environmentalism remains wide. It was ever thus, according to Field’s engaging history. When George Bernard Shaw was asked what he thought of the split between ‘new lifers’ of Merrie England and the ‘new unionists’ of London’s industrial working class, he observed that one group wanted ‘to sit amongst the dandelions, the other to organise the docks.’ Does the future now lie in the suburbs, or newer versions of the popular 1970s television comedy, ‘The Good Life’?