Communal Family Trees (Part 2)

 “….My parents had been an interesting but struggling couple who lived in a caravan in Evesham. Which was swept away by a river. People then felt sorry for them and they went and lived in an old cricket pavilion. When they went out shopping one day they came back and it had burnt down … and they saw in Ludlow two men on the other side of the street with beards and they got talking to them and they ended up joining the Bruderhof .. and I was born in the winter in a converted hen house in a maternity unit at Wheathill when they joined the Bruderhof…. ”                       Matt Holland

The Bruderhof, or Society of Brothers,were a German Christian pacifist group that had fled to this country in 1936 following persecution by the Nazi’s. They settled on two farms at Ashton Keynes in Wiltshire and attracted much attention in pacifist networks, leading to many English pacifists joining their communal way of life.  The group were heavily influenced by the Hutterite communities in the USA and wore distinctive version of German peasant clothes – black dungarees and blue shirts for the men and long skirts and spotted kopftuch, or headscarf for the women. Following the outbreak of war and under threat of internment of many of the male members of the group, the Bruderhof sold up and relocated to Paraguay in 1940. A few members left behind to sort out the final sale of the farms in Wiltshire became the nucleus of a new community. The sale of the farms dragged on due to various negotiations over powers of attorney and other legal matters. Adding to this some of the sale documents were lost in an air raid that destroyed the solicitor’s offices. During this time they were still attracting pacifists visitors and by Christmas 1941 a group of nineteen, including two families, had gathered together.

The story of the finding of Lower Bromdon Farm near Ludlow in Shropshire has the ring of communal myth making to it – one member, Charles Headland, told the driver of a car who had given him a lift that he was a pacifist, so shocked was the man on hearing this that he stopped and told Headland to get out and left him by the roadside. That night, looking for somewhere to stay, Headland came across a remote farm that turned out to be for sale. Lower Bromdon Farm, set at nearly 1,000 feet high in the Clee Hills, consisted of 182 acres of mostly old pasture land suffering from neglect and officially classified as grade ‘C’ agricultural land. Things moved fairly quickly, and by March 1942 the group were able to move in. Like many of the other wartime pacifist communities they faced a struggle to get going due to starting with poor land, lack of farming skills and difficulties getting machinery due to wartime conditions. ‘… the exterior was depressing: a dilapidated farmhouse, ramshackle farm buildings, fields covered with weeds, mud everywhere and wretched buildings … but there was an atmosphere of faith and hope that was replete with an inner enthusiasm and joy …’  The twenty or so pioneers put up with spartan conditions and with a lack of furniture; sitting on boxes and single men sleeping on hay in the barns with overcoats as bedding. But they received a warm welcome from local farmers.

Illustration from Ten Years of Community Living
Illustration from Ten Years of Community Living

“… our immediate neighbours were a great help in our first years. They gave us good advice and often came over to help. We reciprocated, not with skill, but with labour and an eagerness to learn. Our initial settling down would have been considerably more difficult but for the help of these friends and of the people with whom we did business in the neighbouring towns, and we sought continually to come into a close contact with them. Regularly neighbours came from the local villages to help in our farm, building and domestic work, especially at the time of the potato harvest. There were many occasions when the whole community gathered in the fields – haymaking, weeding the garden or lifting the potatoes. Such a time would often conclude with singing and a weary but cheerful gathering for a late supper outside the kitchen in the light of a hurricane lamp.”                                  Ten Years of Community Living

Illustration from Ten Years of Community Living
Illustration from Ten Years of Community Living

By the end of the year the group, now numbering 33, was confident enough to give itself a name, The Wheathill Bruderhof, and to issue a report entitled ‘The Founding of the Wheathill Bruderhof’ setting out their aims and philosophy. In April 1944 they took over the neighbouring Upper Bromdon farm of 165 acres, which, as well as increasing the viability of the farm, gave them extra accommodation and enabled a deep bore-hole to be drilled and an extensive water supply to both farms to be installed. In 1945 the community extended further still, moving in to Cleeton Court Farm at the foot of Titterstone Clee Hill. This brought the total size of the three ‘Wheathill’ farms to 532 acres.

In 1953 the  Holland family moved from Wheathill to join the Bruderhof community in Paraguay. Exchanges between the various Bruderhof groups were common and the fifties was a time of expansion of the group. By the end of the decade there were 10 communities in South America, Europe and the USA. In Britain they were a focus for the small communities movement that was around at the time. As well as printing and publishing their own books and pamphlets, they printed a number of issues of a newsletter called The Community Broadsheet which kept groups in touch with each other. The Shropshire community was seen as an example of what successful communal living could be like. In 1959 Pathé Newsreel produced a short film item featuring the Wheathill community under the title ‘Communal Village’:


Communal Village (click image to view)

A number of things strike one in retrospect about the film, including the apparent ‘normal’ 1950’s look and dress of the community members with hardly a beard or headscarf to be seen: by this time the early Hutterite influence had waned. The other is the irony of the portrayal of a successful harmonious community just at the time when the Bruderhof as a whole was entering a period of serious conflict – a period now referred to by the Bruderhof as the ‘Great Crisis’ – which would result in the closure and sale of the Wheathill community within two years, the closure of all the communities in South America and the purging of hundreds of members.

“….there was a big schism in the Bruderhof in South America and my parents left in 1960. We came back to England with not a clue, not a clue about anything really. We were like immigrants, we lived in Bromley-by-Bow and Kingsley Hall in the east of London. We had brown skin and strange accents. Then the only job we could get was my eldest brother getting a tied cottage on a farm in Wiltshire. So that’s what we went to and my father didn’t have a job at the time. And they tested our intelligence and I was sent to a grammar school and the children, blond farmers daughters and sons , I remember one occasion where they danced round me having pushed pencils through my curly hair and they were flicking their bottom lips going hoola hoola. The word racism didn’t exist in those days. So they could taunt you for being odd….”                   Matt Holland

The Hollands were living a number of miles from the rapidly expanding town of Swindon. On the western side of the town the council had bought a number of farms by compulsory purchase to build housing. Lower Shaw Farm was the furthest out of the farms bought by the council right on the perimeter of the development area and it would be years, if ever, before the council got round to developing it. One member of the council, the Reverend, Andrew Haig, was a members of something called the Foundation for Alternatives and arranged a one-year renewable lease on the farm to use it as a place to study new approaches to urban development. A grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation enabled them to look for a warden to run the project. Stan Windlass, another member of the foundation, who had been working for a children’s rights centre in London was aware of the work that Dick and Pat Kitto had been doing at The Terrace in Conisbrough (See: Communal Family Trees (Part 1)) . Stan visited the Kittos and persuaded Dick to come down to Wiltshire to set up and run Lower Shaw Farm.

Pat Kitto returned to the Dartington area and was influential in establishing a number of ‘alternative’ projects in Totnes. She had a long term interest in alternative health provision and in 1969 had written in the Dartington Hall News about a visit she had made to Henderson Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, which was developing a therapeutic community-based approach to mental illness. Pat helped to introduce re-evaluation co-counselling in Totnes in 1976, with another group being established as part of the Adult Education programme at Shinners Bridge,Dartington in 1978. At the same time she also set up a ‘Towards Total Health’ group with the purpose of providing “…education about alternative therapies, to use group work, and workshops to discuss and work towards setting up a Natural Health Centre in Totnes.”

“The group of people attending the Towards Total Health group provided the main impetus and energy behind the establishment of the Natural Health Centre in Totnes that opened in September 1978  and was one of the first of its type in the country. In establishing the centre the group worked with the Healing Research Trust (HRT) an organisation set up in 1974 and based in Plymouth, where they were also working to establish a Natural Health Centre. The HRT was established to promote alternative medicine and to bring practitioners into repute. The Chairman of the Trust was Dr Alec Forbes, Senior Consultant Physician at Plymouth General Hospital. Forbes was very influential on the Totnes group and he later went on to help establish the pioneering Bristol Cancer Care Hospital where Pat Kitto also worked as a volunteer.”             Alternative Totnes

Original Education Otherwise logo, based on a UK traffic sign, perceived by many to show goose-stepping children breaking out of a triangle. Logo was later redesigned without militaristic overtones.
Original Education Otherwise logo, based on a UK traffic sign, perceived by many to show goose-stepping children breaking out of a triangle. Logo was later redesigned without militaristic overtones.

Through his work at the childrens rights centre Stan Windlass had become aware of several families who were educating their own children outside the state school system. One of the first projects instigated at Lower Shaw between 1975 and 1976 was an informal network to support families who were educating their children at home. In 1976 Granada Television made a programme about the group, after which they received around 200 enquiries and the membership expanded to over 50. At a meeting in September 1976 it was decided that a more formal structure for the group was needed and ‘Education Otherwise’ was formed, taking their name from the Education Act, which states that parents are responsible for their children’s education: ‘either by regular attendance at school or otherwise’. The following year the group was featured in a BBC2 Open Door programme about the ideas behind the organisation. This resulted in a flood of over 2,000 new enquiries and a further increase in membership to around 250. Education Otherwise has evolved from its small beginnings into a large self-help organisation offering support and information to hundreds of families who choose to educate their children outside the formal education system.

“As far as I’m concerned, E.O. does not have a particular kind of education to which it is committed. It is committed to the right of families to do what they want to do. It is a humans (sic) rights organisation. I don’t feel we must do this, or we must do that. It is up to the members. To me it is not a specific thing where children have to run wild in the country, or have to pay visits to Winchester Cathedral, or anything else. There is this huge variation. Some people join EO in order to give their children a good classical education which they cannot get at school. I have a fundamental belief in the freedom of choice. We must all be allowed to make our own mistakes. We don’t want to be dictated to by a curriculum from central government.”                     Interview with Dick Kitto, EO Newsletter Aug 1988

Dick Kitto organised other courses and seminars at Lower Shaw on a whole range of issues such as organic farming, building, rural resettlement, education and new perspectives on health and healing. Other groups used the farm as a meeting place. It can claim to be the location for the founding of  WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms),   “….somewhere in that period. WWOOF had one of its early meetings with Sue Coppard here. Sue Coppard always says “The first meeting was at Lower Shaw Farm.”

Rural Resettlement HandbookDick Kitto was warden at Lower Shaw for three or four years, staying on after the Gulbenkian funding ran out until a group could be formed to continue the work. After leaving he  wrote a number of books on composting and was involved with the Rural Resettlement Group which published the Rural Resettlement Handbook containing advice on the practicalities of moving to the countryside, purchasing a property, organic growing, self-sufficiency, and even how to visit and join a rural commune.

During this time the Holland family were living six miles up the road from Lower Shaw and Matt was in Oxford working as a freelance writer and teacher.

”…I had a message from my daughter, my sister and my mother who said “ There’s a place Matt that is just up your street. It’s partly farm, partly trying to be communal, partly trying to do educational things. Go and visit it.” And I said “No. I’m busy, busy, busy.” But I did one day. And as they say – the rest is history. I found three women here sitting at the coffee table drinking coffee at 11 o’clock in the morning. Saying “What shall we do? The drains are blocked. The council wants to kick us out. We haven’t got enough money. What shall we do?” and I said “This is just magical. Look at the possibilities here.” It was on my old stamping ground. It was where I’d spent my boyhood. It offered the possibility of you know the marriage of farming, being educational, communal living all sorts of things I was interested in…. and I came and unblocked their drains and got some poultry and gave it a try and I didn’t leave that’s what happened.”                                                Matt Holland

Lower Shaw farm Welcome

Lower Shaw Farm entry in Communes Network Directory 1988
An ex-North Wiltshire dairy farm comprising large farmhouse and outbuildings, now converted to alternative style residential centre and meeting place. Established in 1975 it is now home to six adults and three children and a variety of other animals. It has a large vegetable, fruit and herb garden which is cultivated by organic methods. Income for the residential community is generated by running a wide range of courses and learning holidays as well as hosting and catering for groups that hire the farm’s facilities….  Lower Shaw community has no specifically stated religion or politics. Its chief aim could be said to include a wish to learn to live together well; to increase a sense of social responsibility; to provide an ‘alternative’ centre where ideas;and can be explored through words and actions; to encourage ecological resourcefulness and due respect for the environment; and, where possible, to have fun and love life.

“….  Once the warden was gone it especially lent itself to communal living. Nobody’s ‘the boss’ anymore. How are we gonna do this…. Our aim was to have equal rights, equal responsibilities and we even worked on that sort of principle that everybody has to do everything. Which we gradually abandoned. ‘Cause we realised everybody isn’t a carpenter, everybody isn’t a cook. I think there were four things we all ended up being equal upon; breadmaking, washing up, cooking, I can’t remember what the other thing was. Those three, if you couldn’t do those three things then you weren’t a member of Lower Shaw Farm community. You were allowed to have other skills. When I came here there were three people here, so I made it four .. then not long after we had two more and that made it seven. Then within three to four years children started to appear on the scene and some of the single people left. Andrea and I started to have children, and Linda and Martin came with children, Neil and Heather came and then had children here. Francis came with children. So we went from between four and seven single people to between seven and nine adults with children. I think the largest number we ever were was 15 if you counted two year olds and 28 year olds. Which was a real struggle. It was living in the main house, because the outbuilding were too cold, For instance Andrea and I were a family of five in one room. So we had a huge double bed and a cot. And two children would sleep in the bed with us and one in the cot and we’d be on either extreme of the bed. And then we’d have one communal area. So it was quite a struggle….”                  Matt Holland

Lower Shaw logoLower Shaw Farm continued as a communally run residential centre through into the 1990s when, like a number of other communities started in the 1970s, it went through a period of turmoil which almost resulted in its closure. It was eventually revived/reinvented with Matt Holland & Andrea Hirsch and their family continuing to run it along lines similar to those envisaged by the Foundation for Alternatives back in the early 70′.

    “….this is what happens in communal living and the amazing thing is that the one thing that communal living has in common wherever you do it; Big Brother house, or in Monkton Wyld, or at Lower Shaw Farm, or anywhere is the bonds that are created that are just lifelong. Whether they’re based on hatred or love, they’re bonds of an amazing sort that just going to dinner parties, just having neighbours doesn’t create….”   Matt Holland

CODA: In the 1990’s a group of former Bruderhof members set up an organisation called Keep In Touch (or KIT for Short). Keeping in touch after you had left with other ex-members or family members still living in Bruderhof communities was something that was forbidden by the sect. KIT  held a number of gatherings in the USA and Britain. Visits were made to the Wheathill farms and a number of events held at Lower Shaw Farm.

NOTE: Quotes from Matt Holland from interview carried out by C.Coates in 2011 as part of research for Communes Britannica. This whole couple of blog entries tracing the ‘family history’ of Lower Shaw Farm was put together for a talk as part of the 2013 Swindon Literature Festival.

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