Worthy Pioneers’


This is how those living and working in the fruit farm colony at Methwold were referred to in an article that appeared in ‘the independent vegetarian’ in 1891. In last month’s piece, I looked at the birth and development of this bold experiment into alternative living, now I would like to focus a little more on the people or pioneers, who chose to take up the challenge and to live and work within the colony over the course of its existence and beyond. I hope to paint a picture of these unique individuals who came from a variety of backgrounds and all parts of the country and further afield, in order to make their home and living there.
The Fruit farm colony at Brookeville represented an earnest attempt to find a way of living in which individuals and families could support themselves by the production of food from their own smallholdings. The men who first populated the fruit farm colony, must have possessed a certain pioneering spirit and believed that a more natural and equitable way of life was a possibility. The level of commitment required to undertake this venture cannot be underestimated. Firstly, they would need to find the money to purchase their piece of uncultivated land. They would then need to build a house, plant and nurture an orchard. This endeavour would be expected to take place whilst still working six and a half days week in London until such a time as their plots became viable and they were able to leave the smoky Victorian city behind and start their new lives in a small corner of rural west Norfolk.
The one constant thread that runs through the lifespan of the colony was presence of the man who’s vision it was that brought the project into being. Robert King Goodrich. He was both the initiator of this venture and the driving force throughout its existence. The colony, as an entity, was officially wound up in 1913 and Goodrich died in 1917. This didn’t mean however that the residents of Brookville ceased their activities. As the 1939 Census shows, there were still a few long term residents listed as fruit and poultry farmers, Lillian Goodrich, Robert’s daughter being one of them.
From the1891 Census returns, the earliest that makes reference to ‘The vegetarian colony’, Goodrich and his family were playing host to four horticultural students. There were probably many more over the years as those of a like mind were encouraged to visit and make a study of the methods employed. Of the four students listed at the time, only one went on to become a lifelong market gardener. Other residents and the earliest of the pioneers listed at this time were G Fisher, a fruit farmer, James Whitnell, a carpenter and William Arnold, a Hackney Carter. The number of colonists listed on this census appears small compared to the number of occupied plots listed on a map of the colony at the time. The reason for this discrepancy is that many of the colonists would have still been living and working elsewhere, only returning to their plots at the weekend.
By the time of the 1901 Census, the colony was well established and was now referred to as ‘The fruit farm colony’. Of the occupations listed, twelve of the residents were referring to themselves as fruit growers, smallholders or gardeners. Two were involved with the egg trade but there were also a variety of other trades represented, which would have been necessary to the evolution of the colony such as builders, carpenters, iron mongers and printers.
By 1911, the population had grown further still. Seventeen households were involved with smallholding in some respect and six directly working in the poultry and egg trade. Aside from Robert King Goodrich and his family, very few of the residents listed on the 1901 Census were still residing at the colony in 1911. This is perhaps not surprising given the nature of this experimental community. However, the growth and development of the colony did mean that there were a variety of other occupations being carried out. By 1911 the population had increased from twenty two households to thirty three. As well as the ‘Direct supply’ business, on which the colony was founded, they had a Post Office and shop, a print works and a jam factory and a workshop producing rustic furniture. A number of people were also listed as retired or were living on their own means.
The residents, from the very start were from a variety of backgrounds and places of birth. Virtually every English county is represented in the 1911 Census along with a few from further afield with families from Scotland and Wales. There was also a naturalized British citizen, Herman Friuend, who was born in Prussia. A retired army officer, Clement George Turner Rooke, who was born in Bombay and Russell Elliot, a smallholder, born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. One can only imagine the impact that this cosmopolitan settlement must have had on the native population of this quiet rural corner of Norfolk.
There are certain names that begin to appear at around this time that continue in the area today and demonstrate that some families did indeed put down deep roots. Families, such as that of Joseph Cowlishaw, Born in Stratford upon Avon he began his career as an engine fitter in the railway town of Swindon before settling at the colony sometime prior to 1901. His business as cycle agent, ironmonger and engineer, would have provided essential services to the running of the colony. Hugh Stainthorpe had been an insurance office clerk in his home town of Newcastle before moving to the colony with his Brother George. They went on to become poultry farmers and shop keepers as well as running the sub post office.
It is clear from anecdotal evidence that even when the fruit farm colony ceased to function as such; it was still, until relatively recent times, home to some interesting and rather exotic characters. It was my good fortune to meet, many years ago, a gentleman who had been a paperboy in Brookville in the 1940’s and although sadly, his name is long forgotten, I did have the foresight to commit to paper the stories he shared. He could recall with absolute clarity each household, who lived there and their individual eccentricities. There are too many to relate in this piece but some of the most interesting, I would like to share with you now.
In Scotts Lane there was Mr Hammond, the inventor, who drove around the district in a car on the roof of which he had installed a large propeller. He also managed to burn his house down whilst carrying out an experiment. Also resident in Scotts Lane were Mr and Mrs Cocker who reared Pugs. Mr Cocker would ride his penny farthing and Mrs Cocker, who was well over six feet tall, would walk behind with her brood of dogs. Another couple were Mr and Mrs Scott who were dog trainers. According to the account passed on to me, Mrs Scott made the most delicious Cherry jam which she would boil for twenty four hours.
Brook Glen was at the time, home to Mr and Mrs Slade, who made and sold toffee from the house and who posted the latest news bulletins on a blackboard outside the house, Mr Slade was also the author a pamphlet entitled ‘How to live on a penny’. Another resident of the road that merits a mention is Mr Freeman, who used to rear Silver Foxes but disappeared during the war amid rumours of him being a Fifth Columnist, or so the story goes.
These are just a few of the residents who came to call this former colony home. There are quite probably other families in the area who have stories to tell and who can trace their ancestors arrival in this small corner of Norfolk back to this very unique experiment and who can truly call their forbears pioneers.

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