A New World in Essex

The week before last former Essex County Archivist, Victor Gray, gave a splendid talk at the Essex Record Office to launch A New World in Essex: the rise and fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony, 1896 – 1903, which adds a new chapter to the fascinating story of utopian Essex. Thanks to the pioneering work of W.H.Armytage (Heavens Below), Dennis Hardy (Utopian England), Colin Ward (Arcadia for All) , Chris Coates (Utopia Britannica) and Gillian Darley (Villages of Vision), we are only now realising how much the British landscape is marked with the remains and memories of so many experimental communities.

Unsurprisingly, Essex provided a home for many of these, largely because of its proximity to London, a capital with a long radical tradition and concern with social improvement, often based on ‘back to the land’ principles. Nowhere was nearer than Essex where land was cheap and easily accessible. Such radical enterprises were often energised by an influx of refugees from other parts of the world, bringing new ideas of how best to live now and in the future.

The Brotherhood Church was the creation of two dedicated Christian Socialists: John Bruce Wallace and J.C.Kenworthy. The latter was very much under the influence of Tolstoy, whom he had visited in Russia, corresponded with, and for whom he acted unofficially as a literary agent in London. At the end of the 19th century Tolstoy was seen by many as a new Christ-figure, whose preaching of brotherly love, pacifism, and the simple life, gathered hundreds of thousands of converts around the world.

The story of the Brotherhood Church has been confined largely to marginal references or footnotes, but in Victor Gray’s lively and detailed monograph we have the full story of one of the Church’s most intriguing experiments at Purleigh, a small hamlet on the Dengie Peninsula in Essex, where finally members were able to put their principles into practice.

Starting out with premises in Croyden, before moving to a former Congregational Chapel in Hackney, Kenworthy and Wallace eventually managed to raise enough funds to buy land in Essex where, with fellow ‘colonists’, they intended to establish a model community. Which they did for a short while, though not without difficulties. None had any agricultural experience, few even of manual labour itself, but the pioneers worked hard and within two years had managed to build accommodation for themselves and establish a working farm that sold produce to like-minded radicals in the small shops they had in Croydon and Hackney, or to fellow Tolstoyans elsewhere.

Aylmer Maude, the distinguished translator of Tolstoy, as well as friend of Kenworthy, moved close by to Wickham’s Farm with his wife, acting as supporters and friends of the experiment. They took over a large house (now standing empty for decades, but still standing) where they entertained Tolstoyans from other parts of the world, as well as providing Sunday suppers for the colonists. Things went well for a while but then outside events began to distract the work of the small-holding.

Gray suggests that the effect so many ‘foreign’ visitors to the Purleigh colony aroused the suspicions of the locals, a scattering of poor farm workers whose lives had been seriously impoverished during the agricultural depression and who lived very much hand to mouth nearby. These suspicions would have been exacerbated when a small group of Russian peasants in traditional dress, members of a persecuted Christian sect, the Doukhobors, arrived at the colony, having been thrown out of their homeland. Though they did not stay long, it was long enough for the Purleigh colonists to feel a chill wind of disapproval from their neighbours – and probably the interest of the police, since the well-known Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, arrived (with snow on his boots?) soon after. Both the Special Branch and the Russian secret police always followed Kropotkin’s activities with close interest.

Another factor which may had contributed to the slow dissolution of the colony was that J.C.Kenworthy, one of the key proponents of the scheme, was a man who couldn’t stay still, spending increasing time away from Purleigh promoting the cause of ethical socialism. He may not have been in Purleigh when the founding group of colonists decided to expel two new members whom they found wanting in some regard, causing a split which failed to heal. Soon after some of the original group moved to Gloucestershire – two of them walked all the way with their belongings, relying on strangers to give them food, as they had earlier renounced the use of money – and set up a new colony at Whiteway which still survives a century later with some of the founders’ principles still intact.

Seven years may seem a very short time for a new world to last, but its influence was significant. In nearby hamlets other land colonies were established over the next two decades, and the culture of make do and mend self-sufficiency created the conditions for the emergence of the Essex plotlands culture which involved many thousands of people in the decades that followed. Kenworthy took up other New Life interests, including spiritualism, while Wallace helped Ebenezer Howard establish the Garden City movement. Out of the great ‘new life’ ferment of the 1890s, many things grew, still influencing the way we live a hundred years later. In this fascinating study, Victor Gray tells us why.

A New World in Essex: The Rise and Fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony, 1896 – 1903, Victor Gray, Campanula Books, 2019