I often seek solace at the Brotherhood Church.
This may sound like an odd statement for an anarchist, but — despite its name — I am not referring to some religious cult or new-age retreat. I am talking about a Tolstoy-inspired, anarchist commune which has stood in defiance of authoritarianism, ecological decline and warfare for the best part of 100 years. It is an incredibly diverse ecological paradise, which meets the needs of people and wildlife alike. As an urban farmer, it never fails to inspire and enlighten me.
The Brotherhood Church lies in the pastoral village of Stapleton, North Yorkshire, but its story begins 300 miles away in the Northern Irish market town of Limavady. Inspired by the political views expressed in Henry George’s 1879 treatise Progress and Poverty, the well-formed utopian vision of Edward Bellamy, and the spiritual teachings of Leo Tolstoy, a young Congretionalist minister named J. Bruce Wallace began to produce a weekly publication called The Brotherhood. First published in 1887, a year after Peter Kropotkin and Charlotte Wilson stated Freedom, Wallace’s publication celebrated a range of anarchist, socialist, communist and Christian socio-economic philosophies. The Brotherhood would be the first British publication to serialise Edward Bellamy’s utopian science fiction novel Looking Backwards: 2000-1887; the book which is directly credited with inspiring Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement.
Wallace moved to London in 1891, where he took over a derelict church in Hackney. This, the first ‘Brotherhood Church’, acted as a magnet for every idealist, revolutionary, seeker, reformer and dreamer in London (in 1907 the church was even host to the 5th Congress of The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the Marxist group which included Lenin and Stalin and which would eventually become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). The church became, as A.G. Higgins puts it, “a rallying place for youth and enthusiasm, where men could freely discuss what the minister preached, and join with him and others in experiments in practical Christianity … The plan proposed was that, without any direct attack on the conventional rights of property, without waiting for the conversion of a majority of the nation, without the need for Acts of Parliament, a voluntary co-operative social system should forthwith be founded in England. Any citizen who wished to do so should be given the opportunity of joining a scientifically organised system of mutual service and support. The provision of an alternative means of life in this way would leave no helpless victims to be exploited even by the most selfish capitalist. Moreover the standard of subsistence and comfort available within such an alternative ‘commonwealth’ would automatically fix a decent minimum for those still employed by private enterprise.” In short, the Brotherhood Church was a direct experiment in mutual aid.
The experiment was an incredible success. The London group registered ‘The Brotherhood Cooperative Trust’, which opened The Brotherhood Trust Store in North London and created a cooperatively owned coal mine in Swadlincote, Derbyshire. Branches appeared across the UK and in 1896, inspired by Tolstoy’s vision of cooperative production and communal living, John Coleman Kenworthy of the Croydon Brotherhood Church founded The Purleigh Colony at Purleigh in Essex (Tolstoy himself had convinced Kenworthy to drop the name Brotherhood Church because authoritarianism had long-ago made people wary of the term ‘church’, ironically the name is still a problem for the Stapleton commune because of its tendency to attract religious zealots).
The Purleigh Colony was originally built on communistic principles; with rent, usury, interest and private profit being excluded on ethical grounds. The commune developed rapidly during 1897 with the settlers collectively working the land, building houses and erecting a 100ft greenhouse. Sadly the daily pressure of agricultural work quickly led to a division between those who wished to run the colony on strictly economic lines, only accepting members who would prove serviceable to the community, and those who believed in an ‘Open Door’ policy and who wished to get out of the commercial system altogether. This more anti-authoritarian element would go on to establish the 40 acre Whiteway Colony in the Cotswold Hills near Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire (the site still exists today, but with eventual abandonment of Tolstoyan principles and houses being bought and sold at national rates it is hardly the free anarchist enclave it once was – although I’m told that black flags do still fly there on occasion!).
In September 1897 Kenworthy travelled to Yorkshire to help found a new branch of Brotherhood in Leeds. The project was short-lived, but it brought together two radical activists named Lilian Hunt and Tom H. Ferris. In May 1899, following the failure of the Leeds cooperative, Lilian and Tom paid a visit to Whiteway, here they had their first introduction to moneyless living. Moving on to a new branch of The Brotherhood Church, recently established in Blackburn, Lancashire, the couple put their new no-money rule into practice. Tom was interviewed about his moneyless working practices in the Blackburn Times:
“Well, I don’t believe in the use of money, and do not use it. Money represents a system of exchange which is responsible for many of the evils of life. It is an expression of fear that our needs not be supplied out of love. In fact, our definition of stealing is taking that which is not given in perfect goodwill. … We don’t work to earn a living, but to help people. We say that where exchange comes in, love is not. … If anyone came to me and requested me to do some electrical work, I would do it cheerfully, only they would have to provide the materials … But I could not accept payment for work. I should be just as pleased if the one for whom I had done the work, if he wanted to show his gratitude, gave something he possessed to another person needing that help.”
So not just mutual aid, but pay it forward too. As we shall see, the Brotherhood Church were well ahead of the curve in so many ways.
After a brief stay at the now failing Purleigh Colony in 1903, Tom Ferris and an associate named Bertie Rowe set off on bicycle to visit Tolstoy to discuss the divinity of Christ (Tolstoy saw no need to believe in divinity to recognise the radical importance of the Sermon on the Mount). A pair of no-money men wearing shorts were not well equipped for a Russian winter and although they met with Tolstoy (who said he was too old to change his mind) they were stranded in Russia for 6 months, during which time Bertie tried to kill Tom.
A year later Tom and Lilian returned to Leeds to help found the Beeston Brotherhood Church, which runs a successful knitted goods company. Here Lilian delivers a baby for a fellow church member. True to their anarchist principles, they refuse to register the birth and the baby’s father is committed to Armley Gaol for a week before the charges are dropped. This refusal to engage with the state, and regular visits to Armley Gaol, would come to define the Stapleton commune.
Tom and Lilian received their first prison sentences in 1914 for publishing and distributing anti-war leaflets. During the war the Beeston Brotherhood Church founded a No Conscription Fellowship to house, feed and employ Conscientious Objectors. This is where they first meet brothers Frank and Alfred Higgins, both of whom were Objectors and both were protected by the Brotherhood Church. The Stapleton commune would also help Objectors during the Second World War and would run a Daylight Film Van for the Peace Pledge Union during the Cold War years.
In 1920 Lilian is bequeathed a small legacy which allows the Beeston Brotherhood to purchase a seven and a half acres of land a few miles South East of Pontefract. The land had been part of the estate surrounding Stapleton Hall. With the founding of a new Brotherhood Church colony it would be transformed from aristocratic playground to anarchist utopia.
The early years of the commune at Stapleton were hard. When they first took possession of the land on the 2nd of February, 1921 it was little more than a large, rolling field with no buildings or amenities. It is decided that Sidney Overbury and his family would be the first to move onto the land and for an initial period they seek shelter in the former washhouse of what remains of the nearby Stapleton Hall. Reclaimed materials from Stapleton Hall are used to build the first true house, but it is back-breaking work which proved too much for one member’s heart. Jack Harrison was the first person to be buried at the commune, in a beautiful spot near the boundary line which has been used for burials ever since.
Jack’s death was not registered and nor did they apply for planning permission for the house, so it was subsequently torn down by the local council. When a replacement house is also demolished the commune learns that the council are cheekily selling the houses as ‘pre-packed bungalow’s. To counter this the commune simplify their house builds, creating structures with outside walls made of wire and concrete and internal walls made from reclaimed film posters from the Wellington Film Studios in Leeds where Frank Higgins worked. Their ingenuity did not stop there. Each house was created with its own water catchment tanks underneath and greenhouses were built with rhubarb forcing rooms and root cellars below.
The council did not value these houses and left them standing. They are still standing almost one hundred years later. Another beautiful feature from that time is a 30ft well which was dynamited by striking miners and finished with a brick-liner. Although it is not used at present because it needs a new cover, the water was tested recently and it is still perfectly drinkable despite the commune being surrounded by industrial farming operations.
In fact, the commune stands in perfect contrast to the farm fields which surround it. It is now covered in fruit trees, with a perfect balance of wild areas and areas dedicated to growing food. The biodiversity is such that a study of plant galls conducted by Sheffield University a few years ago, found it to be one of the most diverse sites in the region; even more biodiverse than the nearby nature reserve. The commune had been run on organic, permaculture, agroecological principles long before these terms were invented and it remains a perfect illustration of sustainable living. Their practices are more in line with Kropotkin’s idea of ‘intensive farming’ (which we would recognise as the greenhouse-based market gardening practices which I experiment with at Bentley Urban Farm), rather than the industrial farming of the less-than-aptly named ‘green revolution’. The Brotherhood Church at Stapleton shows the ecological regeneration which would be possible in just over a single human lifetime if we began to live better, braver, more beautiful lives.
It is, of course, not all good news. Jo and Bracken, two key residents of the modern site, have seen a noticeable decline of bats and other wildlife which rely on flying insects in recent years (the UK’s flying insect mass has declined by 75% in the last twenty years). Several species of bird have not nested for the last two years, which may have something to do with the weird weather patterns we are witnessing due to climate change, but also something to do with farming techniques in Portugal, France and Italy which kill millions of farmland birds every year. A combination of these and other factors have seen farmland bird populations in Europe plumet by 55% in the last three decades.
The Brotherhood Church is not a relic from the past, but a lesson from it. It stands as clear evidence that if more humans had adopted a less authoritarian, more ecological, anti-capitalist lifestyle at the turn of the last century, then we would be living in a very different world right now.
It may, ultimately, prove too late to avert ecological disaster. But it is never too late to adopt some of the ideas which the Brotherhood Church pioneered for the benefit of your local community. Don’t wait for authority to provide solutions, as the coronavirus fiasco has proved, it won’t. From guerilla gardens to community market gardens; squats to self-build housing schemes; resilience workshops to free schools; mutual aid practices are becoming ever more important as the economic and ecological crisis deepens. As the quote of debatable origin goes:
If not us, who? If not now, when?
This is an abridged and altered version of an essay which originally appeared in issue 45 of the Idler magazine. This essay gives a more detailed history and is available from the author upon request. Please contact Freedom for details.
All photos by Warren Draper