Friday, 31 August 2007

Counter-cultural Surrey

[This article has been reposted on my History blog]

Often regarded as a staunchly conservative English county, Surrey does have something of a history as a focus point for counter-cultural activity. During Cromwell's Republic, Gerrard Winstanley set up a commune on common land at St. Georges Hill, near Weybridge - now one of the most exclusive areas of the country. Those gathered around Winstanley were known as the Diggers (although they called themselves the True Levellers). They promoted a form of Christian anarcho-communism, stating in The True Leveller's Standard Advanced (1649) that:
[the] Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting in the comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.

Winstanley explained his forward-thinking egalitarian beliefs in The New Law of Righteousness (1649):
Every one that gets an authority into his hands tyrannizes over others; as many husbands, parents, masters, magistrates, that live after the flesh do carry themselves like oppressing lords over such as are under them, not knowing that their wives, children, servants, subjects are their fellow creatures, and hath an equal privilege to share them in the blessing of liberty.

Needless to say the Diggers were harassed by local land owners and eventually the group dispersed. Nevertheless, their legacy lived on. In the 1960s a group in San Francisco called themselves the Diggers in memory of Winstanley et al.

In the Nineteenth Century, Surrey again played host to another experiment in communal living. A group centered on the christian socialist and education reformer James Pierrepont-Greaves set up a commune at Alcott House in Ham Common called the Concordium. The group, including Charles Lane, William Oldham, and Henry Gardner-Wright, believed that spiritual and social renewal would be achieved by a change of lifestyle. As such they promoted vegetarianism, hydrotherapy, mesmerism and other 'new age' ideologies.


Steve Hayes said...

During the summer of love, in 1967, I was in Surrey. I was staying at Merstham with some friends, and one afternoon in that Summer of Love I went for a countercultural walk in Surrey. Extract from my diary for 8 Aug 1967:

"After lunch I went out and dug up some potatoes for dinner. It is good to see them appearing out of the dark soil. English soil is different from ours. The stones they have are all smooth and rounded, pebbles, they call them, and they all have this even shape, like blood corpuscles, almost, unless they are broken. When
they are broken they look purple inside.

John's friend Wendy came again, bringing with her a French girl who
was quite pretty. At about 4:00 I went for a walk to take photos of
trains. At the bottom of Church Hill, on the other side of Brighton
Road, there is a cemetery, and I went in there to see if I could
get a good view of the railway line. The view wasn't so good, so I
went out again, and walked down the road once more towards the
village, and saw that there was a horse field there too, with two
horses in it, and stopped as I was walking down to stroke one of
them, them, the bigger of the two, whose face was covered with
flies. In England too, it seems, summer brings out the flies, and
in winter there are very few of them. I walked on further and there
were two policemen standing on the corner of the road opposite Gatton Bottom. I turned up it, to see if I culd get a better view of the trains from there, and the cops followed me, and stopped me as I was crossing over the bridge over the first railway line, which had a 5-ton weight limit. They wanted to know where I was making for. I said I was just going for a walk. Then they wanted to know where I was staying. Church Hill, I told them. Where. Church Hill House. Which side of the road is that, they asked. The right-hand side going up. How far up? About 100 yards. they obviously wanted to see if I was lying. You don't live here,
where's your home? South Africa, I told them. Then one of them asked if I took photographs. Obviously their colleague who was in the Merchant Navy has been talking about me, so I told them what sort of camera I had."

I had come from Vorster's South Africa, and we thought that was a police state, but it had nothing on Surrey!

Stepterix said...

Thank you for sharing your memories. Your tale rather echoes the experiences of the Diggers. Just goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun.

Miss! said...

Sorry to be so general on a specific post, but I just stumbled upon your blog. What a cool idea. I'm definitely going to be spying!