Searching for the first hippie commune

Crow Hall
Crow Hall in the 1960s – the commune that wasn’t a commune…

At one point in my research I set myself the task of tracking down the ‘first hippie Commune’. This led very quickly to trying to find out when hippies came into being – which turned out to be somewhat harder than I had imagined. The question should more likely have been when does a beat become a hippie? Or who were the heads or the freaks?

“The word ‘hippie’ is a media invention. It’s a diminutive of the word hip. It was meant as a term of derision. It was always a term of derision. It’s still a term of derision to this day. According to Richard Neville (of Oz fame) the word was invented by the San Francisco Chronicle as a warning to its readers. Unfortunately its readers refused to heed the warning.” CJ Stone, The Last of the Hippies

Some, like C J Stone, see ‘hippie’ as entirely a media invention and doubt whether anyone actually called themselves a hippie. Others trace the word to Jazz slang or African American origins. Malcolm X is quoted as saying that ‘hippie’ was Harlem slang for white folk who ‘acted more Negro than Negroes’.There is also a quite plausible suggestion that the first wave of beatniks that moved to the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco in the early 60’s used Hippie to refer to the young university student dropouts who came along next and emulated them. One of the first written uses in England appears to have been on the sleeve notes to the 1965 Rolling Stones Now! album which refers to the Stones music as being ‘Berry-chuck and all the Chicago hippies.’ and goes on to mention ‘… Richmond, with its grass green and hippy scene …’

So it would appear that the term hippie was in use by the mid-sixties. Reading the underground literature from the end of decade, the terms beats, heads, freaks and flower people are all more commonly in use. Beats are generally older – coming from beatniks; heads are beats who smoked dope and ‘got into their heads’; freaks are those who took LSD; and flower people appears to be a later, post-1967 summer-of-love term. The only conclusion about the etymology I came to was that it was all fairly interchangeable and what started off as a search for the first hippie commune became more of tour through a continuum of people inhabiting communes – where beats become heads, freaks become flower children, and the media eventually just refers to everyone as a hippies. Whilst many commentators refer to the sixties and seventies as the heyday of the hippie commune, my guess is that for every hippie, freak or head living in a commune there were at least half a dozen communards who would have taken serious offence at being thought of as being a ‘hippie’. Perhaps the last word on the search for hippies should go to Ronald Reagan who, when he was Governor of California, defined a hippie as ‘a person who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheeta.’

None of this musing got me anywhere near finding the first hippie commune. So I decided to look at a sort of generic form of commune for the era and then to find the earliest example. The picture that most people have of a sixties or seventies commune is of a seen-better-days country house with a bunch of long-haired residents on the front lawn surrounded by a posse of unruly kids. If you take this definition, my best guess for a candidate for the first of these classic big house communities is the one established in November 1965 at Crow Hall in Denver just outside Downham Market in Norfolk. The only problem is that the members of Crow Hall denied that they were a ‘commune’.

We are not a commune – – We are Crow Hall
Our lifestyle is literate, urbane and sophisticated:
We are not, nor do we pretend to be country folk.
We live in the particular, not the abstract,

We have conflicting doctrines, some meetings, a few rules, always broken.
We have grown into what we are now and shall continue to grow.
We are not a commune – – We are Crow Hall

The Hall itself was a big, old country house, Grade II listed, and described as ‘Cromwellian’ with five acres of land made up of a large garden and a field. The Hall seems to have had something of a varied existence; as a country house and coaching inn, it was used during the war by the Womens’ Land Army and for evacuees. After the war it was for some years used as a school. The Crow Hall community initially began as an informal group of friends.

“…We didn’t really get started. What happened was we were living in Norfolk doing things together, specifically Allan does up homes. On one occasion Allan was rebuilding a medieval hall. We bought a cheap house in the same area. I came into some money. We bought a house with it and were doing it up in a less ambitious way in the same part of Norfolk and we met Allan. After that we helped Allan and we got closer and closer and particularly with the children being involved, we began to live closely together and out of this developed that it would be more sensible to live entirely together … if I hadn’t been a communist I wouldn’t have thought in this sort of direction and if Allan hadn’t been what Allan is, he wouldn’t have either. When it became a practical possibility we thought we needed more people, so we began to advertise.”  John, interviewed in Communes Europe

Crow HallThe house and land was purchased in the names of four members, this was the maximum number of individuals who, at the time, could jointly own property. The group, which included a journalist, writer/potter, painter and a builder, converted the house to suit their needs and by 1970 had set up a fully equipped pottery, studios for painting and a gallery, and dark room.

Crow Hall 2They were running a preschool playgroup for their own children and children from the local village. Despite the denial of the title, Crow Hall had many attributes of a commune; a sauna and Buckminster Fuller inspired geodesic dome. On the wall in the dining room for a number of years was a 6ft x 4ft copy of Pieter Bruegel’s The numbering at Bethlehem – ‘… it contains so many country activities that we could all identify with, it provided many hours of fun and games …’ They also espoused a definitely libertarian outlook when it came to organisation and decision making. They claimed to have ‘No meetings’, decisions being made on the spot among individuals involved; or simply by individuals. They encouraged visitors;

“If you want to know, come and see for yourselves – we have no locks on our doors and visitors are welcome. There’s no obligation to do anything: all we wish is that you be yourself. Come, come and use your eyes and ears. Those who stay as ‘regular’ visitors – of whom we have many – or as ‘one-timers’ benefit from being here and we benefit from having them. Those who speed through give little and receive little. This is the only place in England that I know of where you don’t have to please anyone but yourself – and if you have the courage to please yourself – and not simply live up to other people’s expectations then you are very welcome. If your only wish is to live up to other people’s expectations then you’re also welcome….”

The Crow Hall sauna
The Crow Hall sauna

A picture comes across of a rather relaxed but very practical down-to-earth group whose motto was ‘All we can offer you is Yourself’ and whose intent was ‘… to live communally because we like to live that way.’ Throughout the 1980’s and into the 90’s they continued – their time taken up with looking after various animals ‘… Sunshine our Jersey cow, whose milk we drink. We also have a dog, cats, chickens, ducks, a rabbit and a donkey’. Firing up the Finnish Sauna in the walled garden ‘lit every week’; building a floating temple in the pond; on top of their various individual pursuits ‘… we have a retired member – a photographer – a knitter, two carpenters, a cabinet maker, a sculptor and a nurse, also a porter at Boots …’

“We’re not always on top of each other. I mean you can be on your own if you want to be. Which I think is necessary for the adults who are not used to this type of living. I daresay our children will be able to live much more together. For us, we’re asking too much to say that nothings private, it’s all everybody’s.” Louise, interviewed in Communes Europe

The community was wound up in 1997 and the Hall has been converted into flats….

We are a little corner of sanity in a darkening world.
We live for ourselves, but with each other.
As separate people we live together and as selfish people we share our lives.
We have time for people. At times we tolerate each other
and at times we genuinely feel mutual love.
We are not a commune,
We are Crow Hall.

 There is a commune website with more photos at crowhallcommune.com

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