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Utopian Dreams, Earthly Realities

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Vera Pragnell, early twentieth century. Courtesy the Creator.

The dream of escaping to the nation retains a robust maintain on our creativeness. It had a selected buy throughout the interwar period, as demonstrated by the rise throughout Europe of a back-to-nature philosophy that embraced everybody from ramblers to nudists and folklorists to craftspeople.

The Sanctuary, based within the Sussex countryside by the Christian mystic Vera Pragnell, was one of many extra bold schemes to emerge. It was the tried creation of a rural Arcadia meant because the mannequin for a brand new world motion.

The daughter of a rich textile producer, Pragnell was born in 1896. A former social employee within the slums of east London, she had develop into pissed off with reforms that failed to handle the basis reason behind city poverty. With the outbreak of the First World Conflict she skilled to develop into a Crimson Cross nurse, an expertise that instilled a way of anger and despair on the mindless waste of human life, together with that of her personal brother.

Pragnell discovered a brand new sense of path via her deep spiritual religion. Her beliefs have been rooted within the Christian socialist philosophy that took form in response to the commercial revolution across the center of the Nineteenth century. She was a selected disciple of Edward Carpenter, who claimed that up to date city life was a illness and prescribed because the treatment a return to a ‘less complicated life’ rooted within the pure world. The smallholding he transformed into an alternate group at Millthorpe close to Sheffield was the inspiration for the Sanctuary.

Having first arrange a small refuge on Kingsley Inexperienced close to Haslemere, Pragnell invested £850 of her inheritance in 27 acres of land at Heath Widespread in Sussex. Right here among the many heather and bracken masking the foothills of the South Downs she hoped to create her new Eden, an alternate society that turned away from ‘that horrible monstrosity, the commercial machine’ and in the direction of a extra peaceable and non secular life. There, Pragnell erected a big wood cross on prime of a close-by hill to name these searching for redemption from the malaise of the trendy world.

Quickly they got here. The Sanctuary was a magnet for mavericks and misfits who had misplaced, or by no means discovered, their place in mainstream society. Pragnell described the enterprise as ‘a queer place by which a queer conglomeration of individuals congregate’.

Residents and common guests included a poet who claimed the black magician Aleister Crowley as soon as turned him right into a camel, a phallus-worshipping pure well being devotee who named himself after Dionysius, the Greek god of fertility, an anarchist veteran of the Mexican Revolution and a fiddle-playing monk who, it transpired, was a needed man. The Sanctuary additionally hosted summer time camps for everybody from the British Communist Occasion to the Lady Guides.

Edward Carpenter in his garden at Millthorpe, c.1905 © Picture Sheffield/ Sheffield Libraries and Archives.
Edward Carpenter in his backyard at Millthorpe, c.1905 © Image Sheffield/ Sheffield Libraries and Archives.

For a time, the group flourished. Pragnell married one in all its residents, the Royal Academy-trained artist Dennis Earle. Along with fellow painter W. Heaton Cooper, they revitalised conventional rural folks crafts. From leatherwork to wood furnishings, the objects created on the market have been ‘impressed by a love of the stunning’ that they believed absent from mass-produced shopper merchandise. Every bore the image of the Sanctuary, a door via which heavenly mild shone eternally. The Sanctuary additionally supplied demonstrations of hand looming and folks dancing, dainty teas and different delights.

After a decade, nonetheless, the utopian dream dissolved. The Sanctuary had lengthy been a supply of gossip due to the unconventional actions of its bohemian residents. There have been tales of nudity and free love and a public scandal in March 1929, when John Bull journal revealed a narrative a few younger girl allegedly led astray into a lifetime of petty crime below the corrupting affect of Pragnell.

But the actual reason behind the rot got here from inside. Accounting for the causes of the Sanctuary’s decline factors to the inherent paradoxes of many utopian experiments. Intentional communities have a tendency by their very nature to attract dreamers and deter pragmatists. Earlier schemes, such because the Nineteenth-century socialist Robert Owens’ Concord Corridor in Hampshire, failed for that motive. Within the case of the Sanctuary, the very folks attracted by the potential for a return to the land have been the least capable of obtain it, missing expertise in or urge for food for demanding agricultural labour. A lot of the already comparatively infertile soil on which Pragnell based the Sanctuary subsequently remained untilled.

Making a society by which everybody was free to do as they happy launched its inhabitants from the stifling conventions of society. Nevertheless it was this very emphasis on particular person freedom that meant the Sanctuary was by no means greater than a free collective as an alternative of a socially cohesive group. Pragnell had not needed to discovered a cult however relatively a spot the place folks may reside based on ‘Any ism – or none’. Mockingly, a much less egalitarian system may need instilled a stronger sense of collective id.

When residents started to demand the authorized deeds to the plots of land the place they’d made their properties, Pragnell deserted her dream of a communal house free from competitors over property possession. She purchased a chateau in southern France desiring to convert it right into a rural college, however that additionally fell via. As a substitute Pragnell and her household travelled overseas for a time earlier than returning to Heath Widespread, shopping for again the land and changing it right into a extra typical property. She died in 1968.

It’s simple to dismiss the utopian experiment of Vera Pragnell as hopelessly naive. She was, like her mentor Edward Carpenter, one of many middle-class progressives ruthlessly satirised by George Orwell in his novel Coming Up for Air for his or her faddishness and lack of sensible widespread sense: ‘Vegetarianism, easy life, poetry, nature-worship, roll within the dew earlier than breakfast.’ Her considerations in regards to the inequities of capitalism, the alienation of city life and the redemptive energy of nature nonetheless have a robust up to date resonance.


Clive Webb is Professor of Fashionable American Historical past on the College of Sussex.

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