Communal Family Trees (Part 1)

Hawkwind rock family tree Now and then with one of  my other Diggers & Dreamers editorial colleagues – Jonathan How  (who runs the wonderful Places-To-Be website – we have together  wondered what Commune Family Trees would look like. Along the lines of the Rock Family Trees drawn up by Peter Frame that graphically present the links between the various members of Rock bands.

What would one look like that catalogued the connections between different communes, members who moved from one place to another, influential parents of commune members, what people went on to do when they moved on from communal living? We never actually got round to trying to draw one. But it has always intrigued me what one might turn out like and just occasionally the connections  can be quite stunning………. Perhaps we could start one communal tree with Captain Valentine Henry Baker MC AFC decorated first world war veteran who served with all three of wings of the British Armed forces. Starting off in the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Section seeing active service at Gallipoli where he was wounded. Re-enlisting with Royal Fusiliers and then on to the Royal Flying Corps 41 Squadron, with whom, despite only seeing 9 months combat service, he was awarded the Military Cross for “ conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.”  and showing great  “daring and determination” in a large number of aerial combats. His skill as a pilot was quickly recognised and he was brought back to England to train pilots.

Amy Johnson & Valentine Baker
Amy Johnson & Valentine Baker

After the war Valentine became a renowned civilian aviator eventually becoming an instructor at the Lancashire Flying Club and later at the London Aeroplane Club where he taught a young Amy Johnson to fly. Johnson later went on to achieved worldwide recognition in 1930 when she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. In 1934 Valentine Baker founded the Martin-Baker Aircraft Company with his friend James Martin. Baker was the company’s test pilot and was tragically killed in 1942 while test flying a prototype  of the company’s  M.B.3 fighter plane.  The loss of his friend had such a profound effect on  James Martin that he diverted the later efforts of the company into pilot safety  leading to the invention and development of the ejector seat. Baker left behind his wife Dilys, a childhood sweetheart he had married in  1916 , and his then 25 year old son Denys.

Far from following in his illustrious father’s footsteps Denys was a life long pacifist and vegetarian who was trying to make a living as a writer. He had worked his way up as a journalist through provincial newspapers, freelance work on trade journals and his own small publishing venture, Methodical Publications Ltd, which put out two volumes, one called ‘Successful Betting’, and the other, ‘How to Make Money on the Stock Exchange’. By the outbreak of the second world war he had moved to London and during the war joined various pacifist groups doing voluntary work. He became secretary of a small pacifist community in Camden Town that rescued and cared for injured civilians where he met and married fellow pacifist Patricia Johnson. Denys Baker continued his writing career during the war years editing the quarterly literary magazine OPUS and working on various other publications such as; Writing Today, Voices and Modern Short Stories, which featured work by the likes of new writers  Dylan Thomas, Alex Comfort, Anais Nin, Krishnamurti and Henry Miller. Following his fathers death he took the name ‘Val’ as part of his writing name becoming Denys Val Baker.

Denys Val Baker
Denys Val Baker

The end of the war saw the publication of a collection of his short stories and the first of what would become a prodigious output of novels. Including  in 1948 a humorous account of community life entitled The More We are Together.  At the end of the war Denys replied to an ad in The New Statesman looking for people to help starting a new theatre company at Cambourne in Cornwall. He drove down to the west country to join the theatre’s founder, Victor Thompson, and take up the role of PR man for the new Studio Theatre. The move to Cornwall brought Denys into contact with an artistic diaspora that had roots stretching back to the 1800’s.

Both Turner & Constable had taken their easels to Cornwall in the early 19th century, but it was only when railways opened the region up did the westward rush of artists really begin.  The railways reached Penzance in 1852 helping it to develop into a prosperous ‘modern’ market town and tourist destination. This hardly presented the ideal subject for would be romantic rural painters. However 2 miles to the south was the small fishing village of Newlyn, almost untouched since the 1600s. Here on a hillside overlooking Mounts Bay were picturesque houses and fishermen at work.  Artists took lodgings with local people and rented fishlofts as studios – sometimes having to share the space when the fishermen needed to mend their nets. Walter Langley was the first artist to settle in Newlyn in 1882 when he was given a commission for a year’s work there. By the following year he had been joined by others and a nucleus of ten or so had formed a little colony.  Married artists rented houses in the village and it was in the front rooms of their homes that the social life of the colony went on. Newlyn had no inns or pubs; in fact almost the whole village was teetotal Methodist when the artists arrived, and in the early years of the colony the liberal bohemian artists would come into conflict with the villagers A particular point of conflict was Sunday painting; models refused to sit, landladies threatened eviction and there was at least one instance of a painter having his canvas slashed for painting on the Sabbath. Stanhope Forbes considered himself to be living ‘in a hotbed of narrow-minded bigotry‘ and in a letter to his father described the locals as ‘a most disagreeable set of people, full of hypocrisy and cant.‘ Whilst this antagonism would fade in later years it made the relationships between the painters themselves all the more important; dinner Parties were held to celebrate the sale of a painting, several  artists played musical instruments and evenings would end with impromptu dancebands playing quadrilles, waltzes, polkas.

Across on the north Cornish coast St Ives was starting to attract a different grouping of artists. A series of prints by French painter & lithographer Emile Vernier had popularised St Ives as a tourist destination. The tourists were attracted by the dramatic landscapes of the northern coast, as too were the artists who became known for their landscape painting. The artists drawn to St Ives were a much more cosmopolitan crowd than those at Newlyn – with a predominance of Americans among a few British artists. They set up their studios in a run down end of the town known as Downalong utilising fishlofts as in Newlyn. Unlike Newlyn however, St Ives had hotels and inns in which artists stayed. Some individuals moved easily between the two colonies and a series of annual cricket matches cemented a friendly rivalry between the two groups. As the artists matured so did the social life of the colonies. The St Ives Art Club was started in 1889. Firstly in the studio of Australian painter Louis Grier, transferring the following year to its own premises. The Newlyn Colony boasted a lively Amateur Dramatic Society that put on plays in Penzance and Falmouth. Both colonies established their own schools of art and a number of artists set up the Newlyn Industrial Class teaching locals various art, craft & design skills.

Britain's Art Colony By The Sea

The coming of the war in 1914  could have marked the end of the Cornish colonies. A number of artists enlisted, one joined the Friends Ambulance Unit and another faced hostility as a conscientious objector.  However in the late 1920’s and 30’s a new generation of artists discovered St Ives. In 1939, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo settled in St Ives beginning a second era of the artistic colony in the town. Denys Val Baker wrote an account of this Cornish artistic community published In 1959 as  Britain’s Art Colony By The Sea.

The Studio Theatre in Cambourne proved not to be successful and Denys took up a similar post  with the Avon Players in Falmouth. It was during this time that his marriage to Pat Johnson broke up and Pat moved in with Richard ‘Dick’ Kitto in a cottage in Church Street Mevagissey owned by the poet  Sydney Graham who was on a reading tour of the USA at the time. When Graham returned Pat and Dick rented a cottage in Heligan Woods for ten shillings a week. Dick Kitto had been brought up in the vicarage of St Martin in the Fields, where his grandfather was vicar and after serving in the Navy during the war moved down to Devon and Cornwall spending his time writing, painting and gardening. Moving in the artistic and radical networks where he must have met with Pat. Martin Val Baker, Pat & Denys son, remembers the time.

Pat and Dick Kitto (and Lucy)
Pat and Dick Kitto (and Lucy)

“Heligan Woods in the nineteen fifties was a wonderful place to grow up in. This was long before the recent redevelopment of ‘The Lost Gardens of Heligan’.  Heligan House had been a fine manor house, a mile outside Mevagissey owned by one of the Cornish ‘County’ families , the Tremaynes. It seems that during and after the First World War its exotic gardens and woods had gone to seed as most of the large staff who worked there had gone off to fight in the trenches. There were five former workers cottages in the woods and an old millhouse all built out some sort of a cob mixture They had no water (that came by bucket from a well) no electricity (we used oil lamps and wood fires) or telephones. For entertainment we listened to old crystal radios and wind up gramophones or gathered around my mother who read us stories from such writers as Mark Twain and Arthur Ransome whist gently swaying in an old rocking chair. During the fifties, besides my mother and Dick who rented Sylvan Cottage for ten shillings a week, a succession of other bohemian families passed through this little community.” Martin Val Baker

At some point Pat and Dick married and stayed in Heligan throughout the early fifties. It is not quite clear from anything I have read, how or when the Kitto’s became interested in and involved with the progressive education movement of the time.  Pat and Denys had spent some time in 1945 living in a cottage at  Porthcurno owned by Dora Russell who had run her own Progressive school, Beacon Hill in Sussex, with her husband the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Whether this was the connection ,or perhaps Pat’s peace movement involvement that brought them in touch with those in the ‘free school’ movement. In 1955 Dick Kitto was offered the post of secretary to the headmaster of Dartington Hall School at Totnes and Pat became a housemother for boarders at the school.

Dartington Hall set up by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst  in 1925 was in many ways the rural counterpart to the model village developments by industrial philanthropists of the likes of Lever & Cadbury at Port Sunlight and Bournville. Leonard Elmhirst was a minor member of England’s landed gentry, whilst his wife Dorothy, was a wealthy New York heiress. What started off as little more than a radical management plan for a country estate became over time a highly successful experiment in rural regeneration proving that with enough investment a thriving rural culture and economy can be built up through decentralised facilities. Not that any of this was apparent when the Elmhirsts bought the dilapidated Dartington estate then it was all a leap of faith & vision. Dartington’s renown was been largely due to the reputation of the educational establishments that were established there. Firstly the experimental school under the headship of W.B. Curry (a close friend of A.S Neil from Summerhill) and later the Art College whose reputation in the early days was enhanced by the presence of the likes of Michael Chechov, Bernard Leach and Rudolph Von Laban. But the schools were only part of a wider rural regeneration project that touched all areas of rural life. As the arts were Dorothy’s passion, Leonard’s passion was the land. He busied himself with experiments on the estate in agriculture and forestry, trying out different ‘scientific’ methods to improve animal husbandry and crop yields. An attempt at intensive chicken farming gave a ‘negative result’ – Leonard believing that in an experiment there was no such thing as failure only positive or negative results. A more positive result was achieved when after a visit to the Soviet Union, where the only thing to impress him was the state of Russian agriculture, Leonard established a cattle-breeding centre from which developed the nation-wide artificial insemination programme for cattle. Leonard became head of the International Association of Agricultural Economists that was formed after a conference at Dartington. An enormous amount of restoration work on the estate’s historic buildings was financed by Dorothy’s fortune and the Elmhirst’s grand plans required much new building work.

High Cross House, Dartington
High Cross House, Dartington

The surprise at Dartington is that this was not carried out in mock mediaeval style, or even the Arts & Crafts style favoured in the Garden Cities, but contains some gems of modernist international-style architecture carried out by some of the movements best-known architects: Walter Gropius, Louis de Soissons, and William Lescaze. Out of the building programme grew Staverton Builders that went on to be a successful building firm in its own right. Other business ventures were initiated from Dartington: a cider press, a retail outlets for rural crafts and perhaps best known, Dartington Glass. With capital investment, undreamed of by previous utopians, the Elmhirst’s have been criticised for not achieving more at Dartington. Despite, or because of, the inherent paradoxical nature of the project – a radical project to regenerate an essentially conservative rural culture,- landed gentry & Yankee tobacco dollars working alongside proponents of co-operation, democracy and libertarian education, Dartington survived to be something of a beacon for rural regeneration. In 1931 a trust was set up to run the estate moving the control away from that of the founders and setting in motion a secure structure that could oversee the development of the estates into the future.

During his time at Dartington in the 1960s Dick Kitto set up an organic compost business called Powlings in the nearby village of Ipplepen and wrote regularly in the Dartington Hall News on organic farming.

“People don’t come to Dartington to join a community but to work on a farm,or in industry, or in school or on college. On the other hand, there is a strong feeling of community living here. One finds tolerance and acceptance here,warmth and generosity, concern for the ill, lonely and elderly. It is an aspect of the place that strikes visitors very strongly and is totally unlike any other similar conglomeration of living units. It is not easy to say what creates this feeling. Perhaps it is that, in fact, people come here not only for a job but because of Dartington itself, which means that like-minded people are working together.”    Pat Kitto

The Kitto’s kept the cottage at Heligan on into the sixties while they worked at Dartington and it became a summer playground for another generation of would-be artists and radicals. In 1962 Martin Val Baker and a group of friends ventured out into the woods near the cottage and established a temporary camp.

Heligan Woods camp
Heligan Woods camp

“We discovered a clearing deep in the middle of Heligan woods and built the sort of wood cabin you used to see in western movies, we chopped down a few small trees for the walls and roof, and used packed ferns for thatching and bedding. Gradually a community of a dozen or so grew up around our encampment, old army tents were pitched and other beats would turn up from all over the country after we met up with them at festivals and demos. These newcomers had long flowing hair and exotic names – several of them really were ’on the road’ and we held them in great awe. We ourselves, still in our late teens, were considered a rather inferior breed, ‘ravers’ which in those days meant week-end beatniks who could always run home to mum and dad if things really did get tough. I remember that we seemed to live almost exclusively on mackerel and porridge which we cooked over the camp fire whilst we listened to Jonathan and others with guitars play the songs of the Kingston Trio, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. We must have looked a strange bunch as we trapesed into Mevagissey to get provisions, with long jerseys, high khaki boots and camouflage hats …”  Martin Val Baker

These camps would continue each summer through the early sixties where the local Cornish young beats would intermingle with a others drawn to travel westward.

“The early sixties were indeed the heady days of the beatnik- and St Ives was a magnet for them. Long haired, bearded, clad in high desert boots and khaki clothes from the Army & Navy stores they poured into the town from all over the place. They lived in encampments on the hills outside St Ives and spent the daytime lounging around the town strumming guitars and smoking dope. Rod Stewart, Donovan, Julie Driscoll and even John Lennon were rumoured to have been amongst them. There were minor criminal acts, some were said to have been escorted to the borders of Cornwall for stealing bottles of milk from doorsteps. St Ives was horrified, angry signs went up, ‘No beatniks served here’. National newspapers and television did stories on the problem. To us teenagers however, they were romantic figures – we had all read our Kerouac. They came from London and the northern industrial cities, a much more classless society than the hippies of the later sixties who were much more likely to be the children of the middle classes……”  Martin Val Baker

The Cornish Rivera continued to attract beatniks and hippies throughout the sixties. In the spring of 1967 a group of 20 or so Beats had gone down to St Ives to help with the clean-up of the Torrey Canyon oil disaster. Because of the oil they could not sleep on the beaches and were allowed to sleep in a disused army lookout post. This carried on for the next couple of years – Just after Easter 1969 a member of the Street Commune in London went to St Ives in Cornwall and formed a ‘branch’ – the St Ives Street Commune.

 “For the first month this was about the most beautiful scene possible. There were only about 14 beats in Ives but these lived as a perfect community, everyone shared everything they had, everyone lived for everyone else without thoughts for themselves”. International Times 63 (Aug 1969)

Members of the older St Ives artists colony seem to have offered some support to the members of the Street Commune. Things came to a head with the local council who, egged on by reactionary pressure groups decided to try and clamp down on the ‘undesirable visitors’ who were now taking up residence in assorted shacks, railway huts, army lookouts, air raid shelters and derelict buildings. When the combination of civic vandalism and special security beach patrols with guard dogs failed to deter this latest bohemian invasion a group of self-styled vigilantes calling themselves the Final Solution got up a petition to the Home Secretary calling for the police to remove the beatniks under the vagrancy act. One particular incident took place at what was known as the Great Pilchards Squat.

“We chose a building known by us as the Pilchards, and officially as the Huers Hut. It was out of the centre of town, big enough to hold at least 30 on its two floors, and if we occupied it very little annoyance could be caused to anyone It was an old lookout used by fishermen when Ives was a big fishing port … The next evening one fuzz turned up and told us to move out. We had made every effort to see that all taking part understood the situation – particularly that we could not be moved without a court order … The battle lasted more than four hours, the council using sulpherous bombs and generators, pickaxes, crowbars, boots and fists. We fought the whole way, once with a bucketful of piss and though the council have now bricked up all windows, doors and holes, smashed the whole first floor and stairs, and poured pitch over the floor, the Great Pilchards Squat was the turning point of the St Ives scene.”International Times 63 (Aug 1969)

The Terrace
The Terrace

In 1972 Pat and Dick Kitto became the Wardens of The Terrace a large  Victorian detached house in Castle Avenue adjacent to Conisbrough Castle in South Yorkshire the former Pit Manager’s House for the nearby Denaby colliery. The Terrace was a joint venture, between Dartington Hall School and Conisbrough Northcliffe Secondary Modern School with aim of exchanging experience, ideas, staff and pupils on a short-term basis in order to try to establish an alternative option for students struggling in mainstream education. Pat Kitto gives a comprehensive account of the project in a book recently published by Libertarian Education under the title Dartington in Conisbrough 1972 – 1975. In the book Pat explains that there were three different strands to the project an early ‘open door’ phase when The Terrace was opened to kids of the town as somewhat chaotic youth club cum cultural centre.

The Kittos believed that the values and ethos of Dartington were as applicable in state school in a Yorkshire mining village as they were in a private progressive school in rural Devon.

 “In the early days such values were an invitation to the youngsters to run riot round “The Terrace”, the building which housed the experiment. They could not make sense of the fact that there were not long lists of rules or locked doors. The food was different – brown flour, lots of vegetables and salads. The stories the children tell in the book not only reflect the richness of the oral tradition of the coalfield but also describe an awakening to drama and art, visits to the theatre, learning, living and working with the Dartington children and above all a developing confidence in themselves.” Stephen Jones

A second strand of the project was the provision of courses attended by both Conisbrough and Dartington students. These courses often involved members of the local community coming in and talking about their lives or areas of expertise to groups from both schools. The third strand involved working with a small group of 15  disaffected and, in some cases, delinquent pupils who had been ‘trapped’ at school by the raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1973. The Kitto’s, along with two other members of staff,  Ken Hosie and Neal Fitzgerald, put together a program of practical work in which the boys attended courses both locally and at Dartington in such subjects as painting and decorating, renovating furniture and raising vegetables.  They put on plays, went rock climbing and went to art exhibitions. There were regular discussion sessions where the group talked about everything from the work they were doing, their relationships with staff and with other members of the group through to what they were going to have for dinner. The Kitto’s were to all extent and purposes attempting to run a free school within, or at least semi-attached to a state school. The project ran through until 1975 and was seen at the time and in retrospect as remarkably successful.

“ I remember the ending of The Terrace ‘experiment’ at Northcliffe now with sadness, although I didn’t understand at the time that its consequences would be the hundreds of pointless incidents of disruptive, seemingly mindless oppositional behaviour that I and other staff at Northcliffe would have to deal with as a consequence, let alone the sacrifice of a cartload of human potential for a doctrinal whim. Common sense should have told us that what had gone on at The Terrace was a practical alternative for many kids failed by school.”

Martin Mulkeen

(Teacher at Northcliffe for 32 years )

Dartington in Conisbrough 1972 – 1975 by Pat Kitto 2010 Lib Ed ASIN: B004EA08W2 

To be continued. 

Coda:In the late 1960’s Denys Val Baker won £4500 damages and £12000 costs in a libel case against the People newspaper following a two week long court case at the Old Bailey. It related to a plan that Val Baker and a group of friends had to start a community on an island off the coast of Australia. The People newspaper had heard about the idea and offered to fly someone out to see the island in return for an interview with the group. The paper did a hatchet job on the original interview which was re-edited and printed under the headline ‘Quitter, ex C.N.D. man and cronies run to funk hole in Pacific’.

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