George Walford: Whiteway

Whiteway Colony, the social history of a Tolstoyan community, by Joy Thacker. Published by Joy Thacker, Fairhaven, Whiteway, Stroud, Glos. 13.99 pounds. Reviewed by George Walford.

This community has a particular interest for IC. The early members included Francis Sedlak, escapee from Czechoslovakia via the Foreign Legion, and partner of Nellie Shaw (herself a founder-member). Sedlak was a Hegelian, author of Pure Thought and Holiday with a Hegelian. His work forms one link in the chain joining Harold Walsby, by way of F. S. Johnson, Marx and others, to Hegel.

Founded in 1898 on 41 acres of land bought for the purpose near Gloucester, Whiteway Colony set out as a revolutionary departure, and it can still raise strong emotions; when the local council recently imposed rates for the first time, one author likened this to the German Army’s treatment of the Jews in Warsaw. [1]

The Colony sprang from the Brotherhood Trust, designed to promote communities working on principles laid down by Tolstoy; its beginnings followed a standard socialistic pattern, although one more familiar in theory than in practice. Free unions in place of marriage, no money, and communal living. Its later condition is not so easily defined.

Joy Thacker, author of Whiteway Colony, the social history of a Tolstoyan community, has lived in the Colony since her marriage, devoting eighteen of the past twenty-five years to renovating a one-bedroomed chalet and transforming it into a spacious family home. Does this devotion of effort to individual interests indicate achievement of the original objectives, or a return to the standards of the world outside? Thacker speaks of ‘the present-day occupants of Whiteway houses who must be concerned with their property and its value,’ and of new owners who ‘struggle to raise even more money to improve their purchases’ and need a reasonable return on their investment. Has Whiteway failed or succeeded? Has it, in any important sense, survived?

Houses (though not land) are now privately owned. By 1902 one house had been paid for by the member’s (outside) family; in 1920 another was built using inherited money. One chapter of Thacker’s book is entitled The Move to Individual Living, and already by 1910 enthusiasm for common ownership had weakened to the point where a neighbour’s hens invading crops were shot; in 1914 one member left because another was showing insufficient respect for private property. In 1917, with one member in financial difficulties another, in approved capitalist fashion, ‘gave her a job.’ Free union instead of marriage, an advanced idea when the Colony started, has grown common in the outside world, and economic arrangements within Whiteway do not now differ in any obvious way from those outside. The production carried on within the colony, Protheroe’s bakery for example, came to use much the orthodox pattern of wage labour. Members requiring skilled work on their houses call in builders from outside, apparently on normal terms of payment. In 1921 four people from Kidlington came in, building a house with the intention of returning to communal living; the attempt collapsed after a year. Other indications suggest that, rather than offering a replacement for authoritarian society, Whiteway has, from the beginning, floated on the facilities it provides. A gun, coal, artificial manure, paper, pens, pencils, sugar, rice, clothes and bedding, cars and their fuel, electricity and piped water were just a few of the commodities bought in. From 1920 to 1936 the Colony ran its own school, relying otherwise upon the public educational system. Money accumulated for the commutation of tithe was invested in the Post Office against interest. Some of the old folk, needing care, went into outside homes. Taxes, once treated as a communal problem so that (in Sedlak’s words) ‘the poor tax-collector hardly knows to whom to address his notices’ have long been paid individually. The first member to die was buried in Colony ground, and the local Council (who had given permission) protested that a covering of five inches of soil was hardly sufficient; he would have to be dug up and reburied more deeply. No members wanting to tackle that job, two men from the Council were sent up to do it. Not usually thought of as a system calling in outsiders to do the dirty work, socialism does become easier to practice if this amendment be accepted.

The founders (all of them ‘educated people, many with a profession and a fine future ahead’) bought the land with money provided by Sam Bracher, a member of the Society of Friends; after a year, complaining that they had achieved nothing and, in particular, had failed to set an example that encouraged the neighbours to adopt their way of living, he tried to get it back, an attempt successfully resisted . With the land they made their one sustained attempt to depart far from normal capitalistic practice, only to have (to use a remarkably unsuitable metaphor) the ground cut from under them. They burnt the title-deeds. Intended as a rejection of legal restrictions and all they implied, the outcome showed that law is sometimes less restricting and burdensome than the colonists had assumed. In 1955 an incomer challenged their way of allocating land, and an appeal to the Court produced a decision that they had been using a form of legal tenure recognised since 1200 AD. Their system of land-holding, intended to be revolutionary, enjoys the approval and support of the authoritarian legal system.

Whiteway’s difficulties have not arisen, to any noticeable extent, from opposition by ‘the system’; the authorities have rather provided support, including the presence of police whenever disturbance seemed likely. The resistance encountered has come mainly from ordinary people following the pattern of behaviour accepted by the great majority, people wanting to use Whiteway for their own private benefit rather than to further the well-being of the collectivity. To judge from this book, they have carried the day. An account of events in 1937 includes as an aside ‘firms where colonists worked,’ and Whiteway now seems to differ from other dormitory villages by hardly more than the fact that its householders, as individuals, do not own the land they occupy. With each plot fenced and measured ‘so that all landholders know their limits’ even that distinction carries little weight. The author makes her own opinion clear: ‘Whiteway… will soon only be possible for those more fortunate who can afford it, but caring little about its origins.’

She does not see people relaxing into the freedom of socialism or Tolstoyan anarchism; they rather find it a burden: ‘Although people streamed here, to find this freedom that they all craved… only the persistent in mind and body were prepared to sacrifice their previous comforts and stay. People feel lost without rules. They are expected then to make their own within their consciences and many are unable to do this, so revert to the sanctuary of the normal world, where others will do it for them.’

To judge by this book Whiteway, set up by a minority of eidodynamics, intended as an example to be widely followed, has been absorbed by the preferences of the eidostatic majority. It has succumbed to ideological drag. One more gallant attempt at autonomy by the tail has ended with its being wagged by the dog.

Written in a pleasantly artless style, the book claims to be a social history of the Colony but focuses rather upon the personal experience of people living there; it is perhaps an indicator of one sort of success that the Colony, as a collective unit, offers little to write about. Although self-published, the book has been produced to fully professional standards; one does wonder whether the ‘Aymler’ Maude who makes four appearances has any family connection with the better-known Aylmer. Did they really use ‘yolks’ for carrying their water-buckets?

A quotation from Tolstoy reminds us of conditions at the time of Whiteway’s foundation: ‘Everywhere labourers overwork themselves for idle rich landlords. They suffer from rupture, asthma, consumption, drink in despair and die before their time.’ Compare that with the condition of labourers in the advanced countries today, their standard, quality and length of life even when unemployed. The labourers even outside Whiteway seem to have made quite a bit of progress, and they have done it by using hi-tech capitalism, influenced by Tolstoy and his theories, Whiteway, the Brotherhood Trust, the trade unions and the socialist movement.

1. Ken Smith 1989 Free is Cheaper. May Hill, Gloucester: John Ball Press.

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.