Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Whiteway, Gloucestershire

Alternative settlements (3)

‘Funny lot up at Whiteway. Sandal-wearing. Nude sunbathing. Vegetarianism. Beans.’ That’s how the buttoned-up inhabitants of Cheltenham used to refer to the people of the Whiteway Colony, up on the hills towards Stroud, in the 1960s, when I was young. Of course, as we know, the link between ‘alternative lifestyles’ and a kind of sandal-wearing crankiness can be traced in the utopian settlements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Jonathan Meades (hurrah!), for one, has had great fun with it. And some of the early Whiteway residents did speak Esperanto and dress like ancient Greeks. But for all this, the people of Whiteway were probably far nearer to the ideal of the ‘hard-working families’ beloved of our politicians today than to this kind of oddness. But their story is unusual, to say the least.

Whiteway was founded in 1898 by anarchist followers of Tolstoy who broke away from another Tolstoyan community in Purleigh, Essex. Early colonists included refugees, conscientious objectors, and thoughtful craftsmen who wanted to work cooperatively rather than competitively. Having bought the land, they ceremonially burned the title deeds on the end of a pitchfork, declared common ownership, and set about constructing rough-and-ready shack-like houses for themselves. They built this ‘colony hall’, too, and a bakery, and workshops, and other buildings, mostly of wood like something out of the Wild West. And they had a good shot at living self-sufficiently, without money.

It was a noble, if idealistic, effort. Nellie Shaw, whose charming 1935 Whiteway: A Colony on the Cotswolds I read in Oxford’s Bodleian library 30 years ago when I should have been attending to Shakespearian drama, said that while their feet were in the potato trenches, ‘our heads were up with the stars’. But if the ideal of self-sufficient isolation in the end proved impossible to sustain, the communal life went on, surviving the jibes of the 1960s (the 1960s! who were they to talk?) and continuing, after a fashion, long afterwards.

I’ve not been up to Whiteway for ages, hence the photograph from an old book, but some of the original bungalows still survive (variously modified and extended), and the old colony hall (with its new roof), although the bakery, famed for its good bread, is I think no longer baking. Here’s to the continuation of such endeavours. And pass me another helping of cauliflower bake.


Peter Ashley said...

Whiteways made the Cydrax apple drink, once loved by the sandal-wearers of Letchworth. I wonder if there's a connection.

Anonymous said...

Interesting mention of the global language Esperanto!

It's unfortunate that most people still do not know that this comparatively new language has also become a living language.

Confirmation can be seen at

Otherwise ?

Philip Wilkinson said...

That's very interesting about Esperanto. Although my tone was flippant in places, I meant no disrespect to Esperanto or Esperantists: a project that promotes global understanding and peace has my vote.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: The Cydrax people's trade name was a family name, the firm being founded by one Henry Whiteway, a few years before the anarchists moved to Gloucestershire. So it's a quite different thing.

Peter Ashley said...

Thought it might be so. Still, I might use the completely spurious connection in a Meadesian way, if ever I pace up and down in front of any survivors, gesticulating in front of a camera.

Joy Thacker said...

An interesting piece. As the archivist for Whiteway Colony (and author of Whiteway Colony: A Social History of a Tolstoyan Community, 1993) I would just like to correct a few points. Most importantly the burning of the deeds was to symbolise the freeing of the land from private ownership, as Tolstoy advocated being that land should be used for the benefit of the people and not the profit of the landlord. So today, as of then, potential buyers are granted or loaned the land, on which the dwelling that they will own, stands. This is administered and decided upon through democratic vote, within a monthly business meeting of current Colonists.

Incidentally the roof on the hall is more or less original, just well maintained today through a work party including myself (who is scared of heights!). Also, sadly now, no bakery (closed 1989) due to a fire in the bread oven alongside the retirement of its elderly owner-baker. A sad loss.

Happily today we maintain a full Colony of all ages despite the fact that we have none of the features of normal villages (shop, pub, church, school) with the Colony Hall very much our focal point for the myriad of business and social events.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joy: Many, many thanks for your interesting updates and corrections. It's heartening to learn that the Colony still thrives.

Your book on Whiteway is one I mean to track down and read – though it looks as if I'll have to find a secondhand copy, unless a reprint is planned.

Anonymous said...

I have just read Joy's book which I got out of a Gloucestershire Library - will return it on Weds !