“How to live and be happy on two acres”: Methwold fruit farm colony, am alternative community in West Norfolk 1898 – 1917

 

Tucked away in a quiet back water of West Norfolk, there is a small satellite village, which does not distract your view from the road ahead as you spend, probably less than a minute passing through. The the cluster of houses, now known as Brookville, which line the road in to the village of Methwold, are only there because of a bold experiment into alternative living that was the vision of one man and which began at the end of the nineteenth century.

If we think of alternative communities at all, we tend to think of them as phenomena that flourished in the 1960’s – 70’s. Yet these experiments into alternative lifestyles were nothing new, in fact, alternative communities probably had their heyday in Victorian England. The development of many of these utopian experiments evolved both as a reaction to the contradictions to be found within industrial capitalism and an imagined past in which England was a bucolic paradise, tended by the honest working man, toiling the land.

Alongside the burgeoning growth of the industrial towns and cities in the nineteenth century, there developed a movement and body of thought that strongly opposed what it perceived to be the damaging effects of industry on “traditional” ways of life, particularly in the case of rural communities. As the new industries drew workers into the large towns and the growth of colonies tempted others away to a new life abroad, there was a genuine feeling in some quarters that the very bedrock of English society was under serious threat.
The diverse range of utopian communities spawned by perceived threat provides evidence that there were concerns among many different groups within society, and although this combined movement represented a relatively small stand against the tidal wave of capitalism, its advocates included some of the most influential figures in nineteenth century England. Luminaries such as John Ruskin, Robert Owen, Jesse Collings (who promised the cause of land reform from the liberal benches in parliament) and William Morris. Some of whom went on to found communities and all of whom supported the principles of utopian colonies.
The alternative communities that emerged as a response to this perceived threat carried considerably and Dennis Hardy, in his book ‘Alternative communities in nineteenth century England’ suggests that they can be separated into four broad categories. Communities of utopian socialism, communities of sectarianism, communities of anarchism and finally, communities of agrarian socialism. It is into this final category that the fruit farm at Methwold ‘loosely’ falls.
Methwold fruit farm colony was an experiment in alternative living that grew from the vision of one man, Robert King Goodrich. Goodrich was a native of the area, but for many years had lived and worked in London and become dissatisfied with the lifestyle. As Goodrich explained in an article in “The Independent Vegetarian”, in 1891. His business had caused him to travel a great deal in his native Eat Anglia, and he ‘regretted to observe the decay of agriculture’. So after a period of study into fruit and vegetable production and animal husbandry, a two acre plot was purchased, onto which he built a house using local labour and the plans from his previous house. He then proceeded to plant fruit trees and vegetables and established an area for poultry keeping. With this underway, he then prepared to expand the colony, by writing to a number of newspapers, putting forward his ideas based on his experience. This encouraged others to take up the challenge and further land was purchased to be divided into individual plots.
Goodrich’s scheme was not designed however, as many other agrarian socialist experiments in the nineteenth century were, as a means of repatriating the working-class Englishman back to his rightful place on the land. Goodrich had calculated that a colonist in his newly created utopia would require a capital outlay of four to five hundred pounds, in order that he could buy his plot of land, build himself a house and plant his crops. Clearly then this was not a utopia designed for the labouring classes.
Goodrich, in fact, already had in mind the kind of pioneer that he proposed should populate his community. As a London business man himself, Goodrich envisages a colony of men drawn from the commercial and literary world in London and other large cities. He considered the ‘class’ of men to be ideally suited to his project and their background would provide links that could be utilised by the colony. There was also a prevailing belief at the time, amongst advocates of alternative lifestyles, that it would take men of intellect to reverse the decline in rural community life.
The 1901 Census shows that the colony was indeed made up of residents that had come from many major towns and cities from around the UK and indeed in some cases, further afield. At its height the colony were, to a large extent, as Goodrich envisaged, drawn from the commercial sphere. An article from ‘The Independent Vegetarian’ from July 1891 makes reference to a colonist, a ‘worthy pioneer’, who still retained his post in London whilst bringing his plot into cultivation.
The fruit farm colony was established in 1898 and represented a unique local experiment in alternative living. Goodrich’s aim was to establish a community that was based on the principles of mutual co-operation and support, where individual acquisitiveness would be banished. This colony was to be firmly rooted in the soil. Goodrich calculated that it would be possible for a family to live and become self sufficient ion two acres of land, planted to orchard and vegetables, with any surplus stock being sold directly to customers.
The colony in Methwold grew and developed. From it’s beginning as nothing more than a tract of agricultural land on the outskirts of a small rural town, to a self sufficient community under the guiding hand of its founder, Robert King Goodrich. At its height, the colony built up a thriving business based on the sale of surplus produce, which was packaged and sent directly by train to customers in London and sold locally, in a scheme called ’direct family supply’ thus cutting out the middle men, which Goodrich described rather colourfully as ‘Those Forty Thieves’.
As the colony developed, so did the range of goods and services they were able to offer. A jam factory was built, to enable them to process the excess fruit and vegetables. They produced dairy and poultry products, local honey and rustic furniture. An interesting product to come out of the project was a food-based product called ‘Norfolk food of strength’. What it contained is a mystery, but I fear it may have fallen foul of advertising standards today. The claim on the tins was that it contained ‘More nourishment than any other meat extract in the world’.
A print shop was established, both for commercial reasons and to produce the colonies own newspaper, the ‘Methwold express and village industries gazette’. This was typical of many alternative communities of the time, as it enabled them to spread the word to the wider community of the ideals and beliefs behind the project.
Clearly the ethos and aims of the community extended beyond that of providing a more satisfactory lifestyle for its residents. A handbill (date unknown) from ‘The Village Industries Association’, provides an insight into the wider concerns of those involved. Besides advertising listing the goods and services on offer it also lists the main objectives of the Association, and were as follows:
• The retention of people in rural districts.
• The development of food resources of the people at home.
• The creation of new and revival of old village industries
• The erection of sanitary cottages for easy purchase upon freehold one-acre plots
This clearly shows a commitment on the part of those involved in the colony to halt what they saw as a decline in rural life and offer some practical solutions as to how this might be achieved.
Another major concern at the colony was that of education. Many alternative communities established their own schools and plans were well advances in Methwold to do the same. At the time an article appeared in the newspaper ’The Cable’ in 1899, a building had been erected and plans to employ a master were underway. Although sadly, the school never materialised Goodrich had very clear ideas on how the school should operate. He envisaged that it would not just serve the colony’s children but would also take in pupils from farmers and others would wish to send their sons to get an insight into the system of intensive culture carried on at Methwold. In keeping with the colony’s ethos, the school was not intended to be run as a commercial undertaking.
Sadly, the Fruit Farm Colony, like so many nineteenth century experiments into alternative living eventually ran its course. By 1913 it had become known as ‘Brookeville Smallholders Ltd’ and many of the inhabitants worked outside of the community in order to support themselves and their families. By the time Robert Goodrich died in 1917, his dream of a self-sufficient colony was all but finished.
There is still a community in Brookeville, although there is little hint today of the colony’s colourful past and it certainly does not exist in the way in which Goodrich had envisaged it. However, the colony was relatively long lived in comparison to other experimental communities established at the turn of the century and to those who visited and wrote about the colony at its zenith, it was a shining example of its kind, much to be admired.
Although it could be argued that Methwold, along with the other nineteenth century community experiments ultimately failed in their objective to bring about change in a wider society, the principles and ideas that lay behind its establishment such as, concerns about farming practices and the quality of food we eat, remained. The need to develop more co-operative ways of living and working together and the search for less damaging way to exist in our planet, are all issues that are relevant and urgent to our society today as they were in Goodrich’s time. The Fruit Farm colony was not jus a unique local experiment. It was part of a much wider movement. And, as George Holyoake, a nineteenth century observer quoted in Hardy wrote ‘It takes a much longer to build a new society than a new technology, schemes of social life require the combination of means and intelligence and have to be attempted many times before they succeed’.

References:
Hardy D (1799) Alternative communities in nineteenth century England. Longman, London
Burns J (1891) A visit to the fruit farm colony. The Independent Vegetarian (Copy of Newspaper article) King’s Lynn library, Norfolk

Christine Sanderson 1st September 2007

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