English Gymnosophical Society
Wickford had the first British Naturism Club
During the 1950s, playground conversation between some school boys included talk about the nudist club in Wickford which was said to be in Castledon Road. With hindsight the information was probably handed down from one generation to the next. It was believed to be on the left hand side of Castledon Road, about 300 yards before the railway bridge as you approached from London Road. If this was correct the location was marked by a discrete five-bar farmer’s type gate, with an unmade track beyond. The whole area at the bottom of the unmade track was well shielded by high hedges, giving the impression that it might be the correct location. When I went to work I met older people who told me that Wickford was home to the first British naturism club. So what I had thought was just a school boy’s fantasy was in fact true. Fame for Wickford maybe, but it appears from contemporary reports that the nudist club location in Wickford was closed down in 1926, after being there for just two years – but it was the first!
For the purpose of this contribution to Wickford History I have researched numerous websites, and Wickford is very well documented as the home of British naturism. I have not found any mention of the address or whether Castledon Road was the actual location. Maybe there is someone in Wickford who actually knows. Here I distil what I have learned from various websites.
Michael Farrar, who is quoted on various websites, wrote that the United Kingdom’s first nudist club was started in Wickford in 1924. According to ‘British Naturism‘ the club chose the name ‘Moonella Group’, from the name or nickname of the owner of the ground. The story is that Moonella inherited a heavily mortgaged house with land in Wickford in 1923, which was then made available to certain members of the English Gymnosophy Society. They called the site ‘The Camp’ and it grew its membership from 8 to 25 people, meeting every weekend. Michael Farrar says the original club closed in 1926 because of building on adjacent land. In 1965 Moonella was still alive but their identity still remains a mystery.
In case you are wondering where the word gymnosophists comes from, Wikipedia says:- “Gymnosophists is the name (meaning “naked philosophers”) given by the Greeks to certain ancient Indian philosophers who pursued asceticism to the point of regarding food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought (sadhus or yogis)”.
At the turn of the century Harold Booth published articles in many magazines about naturism. The English Gymnosophical Society was formed in 1922 by Harold Clare Booth, Mark Harold Sorensen and Rex Wellbye, as a direct result of these naturism articles. The society consisted mainly of male members who met in London at the Minerva Cafe at 144 High Holborn. The same building was also the headquarters of the Women’s Freedom League. By 1926 it had moved to Cheapside and was circulating its own journal and arranging public lectures advocating nudism. It was also renamed as the New Gymnosophy Society. With the closure of “The Camp” in Wickford in 1926 the members were then without a site. In May 1927, ‘Fouracres’ at Bricket Wood, near St. Albans, was acquired with the help of a Derbyshire benefactor, and also was at first called “The Camp”. Harold Booth died in 1943, Rex Wellbye in 1963.
Individuals who were allowed to join the Moonella Group were carefully vetted. An ‘upper crust’ of the original club members conducted the vetting and members had ‘club names’ to preserve their anonymity. There was a very different view of nudism in the 1920s, so members used assumed names to protect their identities. Some of the club names used were: –
Chong and Lorelli (Mark Sorensen and his wife Helen Morley Sorensen), Flang or fflang (Harold Booth), Gart, Moonella, Thwang (Roland Berrill), Tob (Mr. L.B.), Zex (Rex Wellbye).
The Committee had virtually all power in its hands. A member was known, for example, as The Noble Flang or the Gracious Moonella. They were even instructed how to write to one another, beginning “To the Noble Chong, greeting” and ending with a wish without verb or subject, for example “Blue Sky”, followed by the signature.
The wearing of sandals and headbands of brilliant colours was encouraged, provided that they were in Greek rather than oriental style. Jewellery was discouraged. Care had to be taken to avoid complimenting visitors and members upon their beauty. The club kept an attendance book, which in 1965 was still in the possession of Mark Sorensen who died in 1974. Is that attendance book somewhere in Wickford?
Who was Moonella? Unlikely, but there maybe family descendents who still live in Wickford? If they exist will they share their knowledge with Wickford History website?
It would be very interesting to know whether Moonella was in Castledon Road. Had the location been passed down through families over 30 years or was it just children’s playground gossip about the location?
I hope others will add their knowledge about this internationally known two year period of Wickford’s history.