A small settlement in the Cotswolds is the spiritual ancestor of co-op communes, writes Chris Upton.
Ever since the Greek philosopher, Plato first imagined the place, Utopia has been a destination worth considering. A land of liberty and equality, without class or conflict, a place of harmony and co-operation, the aspiration has been reinvented down the ages, from the Diggers to the Amish. But if you were searching for political and social Eldorado, it’s unlikely that you would first think of Stroud.
Not specifically Stroud, but a little quarter of the Cotswolds close to the village of Miserden. Yet it was here, 112 years ago, that a small group of settlers came in search of Utopia.
They called it Whiteway, a rough English equivalent of the Russian placename Yasnaya Polyana.
The model or founding father of the group, though he never set foot in the Cotswolds himself, was Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist.
Tolstoy was as much a philosopher as a writer of fiction, and in later life rejected the hierarchies of life in imperial Russia to adopt the lifestyle of a peasant, and transform his estate at Yasnaya Polyana into a co-operative commune.
Tolstoy’s conversion to a kind of ‘‘anarchic Christianity’’, and his adherence to a doctrine of non-resistance, influenced Gandhi and drew followers across the world.
It was in 1898, while Tolstoy was still very much alive, that a group of eight men and women set out to create his vision in the heart of Gloucestershire. If the idea smacked of socialism, the members were by no means from the proletariate underclass.
One was the son of a baronet, another an auctioneer and yet another was a bank manager from Scotland. They were well-bred, well-educated and idealistic, much as Tolstoy was himself.
Whiteway sought to reject everything that made the modern world what it is. There would be no ownership of land, no currency, no forces of law and order, no taxes and no government. Only the initial purchase of 42 acres of countryside involved cash. After that they burned the property deeds on the end of a pitchfork. All would be held in common, and they would live on what they could grow.
The formality of marriage too, the creation of a bourgeois state, was abjured, and they bravely forsook shoes for sandals.
The early years of the commune were tough. There was no piped water at Whiteway until 1949, and no electricity until 1954. Ramshackle wooden houses, more like shacks, were put up to provide a roof over their heads. In the first year the colonists survived on a meagre supply of parsnips and potatoes, grown in unresponsive soil.
Neighbours’ cows trampled the first years crops with impunity, since the colony refused to call on the help of the police. Arcadia it certainly was not, except in the mind.
To their neighbours, puzzled by such self-imposed austerity, the colonists were “the queer people”, and gossip about what went on at Whiteway spread like wildfire. They were nudists, one rumour had it, and practised “promiscuous fornication”.
The rumours were rich enough to bring coach-loads of sightseers down from Gloucester, complete with binoculars, to see the alternative lifestyle for themselves.
Indeed, even the Government took an interest in what was going on there. In the 1920s, when the threat of communism was keenly felt, the idea of a community modelling itself on the life of an anarchic Russian drew worried looks from Whitehall.
A couple were even recruited to attach themselves to Whiteway to spy in their activities and report back.
Nevertheless, the community grew and other seekers for Utopia went and joined them, as well as a few freeloaders, who came simply to share what they had, and then make an exit. Any new arrival would be given a piece of ground, and help in building a place to live.
It was not easy, even in the Britain of the early 20th century, to live outside society. The refusal to pay rates landed a number of the colonists in court, when they persisted in their refusal to use money. Eventually it was recognised that some kind of cash income was a necessary evil, and some of the colonists went to work for local farmers and turned to handicrafts.
The acceptance of money was probably the first step in Whiteway’s evolution from the heady idealism of socialist utopia to the more practical reality of a self-sufficient community.
If their communist utopia was ahead of its time in 1898, the idea of self-sufficiency was no less so in the 1920s.
The land at Whiteway was eventually fenced in and more permanent houses erected, though often from bricks made on site. Some of the colonists began to sell their produce, whilst others formed themselves into the Cotswolds Co-operative Handicraft Guild, selling their own cloth and sandals and wooden craftwork.
Remarkably, over a century after its creation and more than 50 years after the death of the last original member, Whiteway survives half-way between utopia and Stroud.
The roads remain private and anarchic in direction, and the plots and houses do not follow the straight lines of conventional villages.
The colony itself still makes its own decisions. The land and houses can now be bought and sold on the open market, but only after approval by the whole community.
If Whiteway today looks rather less “alternative” than it once did, this is as much because we have caught up and embraced many of their early ideals. Being a vegetarian, wearing sandals, building one’s own house and growing one’s own food now appears remarkably mainstream. Being an anarchist now requires rather more.