The Tolstoyan Colony in Wickford

A late 19th century Good Life

Those of you who watched a recent edition of Downton Abbey on television may have heard the niece Rose mention the nudist colony at Wickford. It certainly caused at lot of interest on our site as the number of ‘hits’ jumped to almost 1500 on that day and the following few days.

But what was the Wickford Colony? Was it just a nudist colony as some people think or was there more to it? We hope over the next few months to get to as much historical fact rather than just conjecture and myth.

Here are a few initial comments:

In the nineteenth century several communities were established around the world following the ideas of the author Leo Tolstoy. According to Wikipedia they basically followed the teachings of Jesus and the ideas of the Sermon on the Mount. They lived a simple life, were vegetarian, teetotal and chaste. They did not believe in the state or government and were sometimes known as Christian anarchists.

John Wallace, a congregational minister, produced a magazine called The Brotherhood and later set up a Brotherhood Church in Hackney. A journal called the Croydon Brotherhood Intelligence, later called The New Order, was published. A follower of Tolstoy and friend of Wallace, John Coleman Kenworthy, went on to establish similar communities in Croydon in Surrey, and Purleigh in Essex.

Another related group known as the Wickford Colony was established in 1898, near Downham. The 29 acre site was to be divided into one to three acre plots which would be worked communally. The thirty-odd colonists of the “Colony for City Men”, so called because of its good rail links to London and the fact that many of them worked in the city, were fired by idealism but the community failed to develop. I’m not sure when it actually closed down.

Among the people involved with this group was a writer called John Goring, who moved to Wickford in 1899 and may have bought a house, possibly called The Chestnuts, about a mile from the Station. I have come across a reference to an article by him, Wickford Notes, (John Goring, New Order 4(7), August 1898, p76) which I haven’t actually read. Jack apparently took on some of the Tolstoyan ideas without adopting all of them.  (See the Writing Lives website). This is an extract about a wartime incident from his notes for an autobiography, held at the University of Brunel:

‘We saw from our front windows nearly overhead the Zepp in the centre of our searchlights being attacked by anti-aircraft guns and planes and saw the red spot appear in its side and the dreadful thing split and crash in flames well within sight of our own windows. Raids seemed of almost nightly occurrence and the fighting over our heads an ever renewed nightmare, and at last with a terrific roar like an express train a Gotha flew in flames and buried itself and three Germans in the adjoining field where it lay spitting machine gun ammunition for some hours’ (307-308).  

Apparently at this time there were also other offshoot Tolstoyan groups that advocated vegetarianism, free love and nudism as a way of getting closer to nature. It is possible that the Wickford Colony was associated with these groups. The Wickford naturist group, set up in 1924, was the one referred to in Downton Abbey recently (October 2014).

See the British Naturism site and the entry about the Wickford group on this site.

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  • The Wickford Colony gets a mention in a book by W H G Armytage entitled Heavens Below: Utopian experiments in England 1560-1960 (1961) p349, where he states that Arnold Eiloart funded the purchase of land in Wickford where Henry Power, like Eiloart a member of the Croydon Brotherhood Church, would lead a group. Victor Gray gives more detail in A new world in Essex: The rise and fall of the Purleigh Brotherhood Colony 1896-1903 (2019) p124-125. The community, near Downham consisted of 29 acres, a few fields and three cottages. Thirty three people expressed an interest in participating. This ‘Colony for City Men’ would be made up of individuals who would purchase a plot and work it for themselves, probably while still working in London. The colony does not seem to have operated for long, if at all.

    By Maurice Wakeham (23/11/2023)
  • Is this nudist camp the same one as in Castledon Road, that was around in the 1950s?  

    By bobcroot (16/12/2015)

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