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Utopia Britannica

British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

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Review by Donna Fancourt for Diggers & Dreamers

Review by Dennis Hardy for Town & Country Planning Magazine.

Bookdealer, short review 'Utopia Britannica' written by David Lazell

Review for Co-operative News by David Lazell

Review from Leicester Mercury 28.9.01

Review by Donna Fancourt for Diggers & Dreamers


Review by Donna Fancourt for Diggers & Dreamers

Utopia Britannica is a book about experiments in utopian thought, and it is also a utopian experiment in itself, covering, as it does, seven centuries of utopianism with a breadth of detail that is at times overwhelming. Another writer might have become bogged down by the wealth of information to be presented, but fortunately Coates has full control over his material, providing a clear narrative which never gets lost in detail, and always retains a wider perspective. The book is neither academic nor stodgy, rather it provides brief snapshots of utopian dreamers and communities across the centuries, which build together to create a mosaic of historical utopian visions that cannot fail to give the reader a profound sense of hope. The commitment of our ancestors to radical social change is a pervasive reminder that utopian dreaming is as much a part of our history as war and poverty, and as such, is a part of our ancestry that should not be forgotten.

Coates eschews a straight-forward, traditional march through the centuries, and while he begins in 1325 with the island of HyBrasil, and ends in 1945, with the institution of the Welfare State, there the linearity ends. Instead, Coates ambles through the past, picking up interesting people along the way, pursuing a number of utopian threads that weave in and out of history, as he follows dissenters, socialists, visionaries, mystics, farmers and politicians. These threads are not distinct, rather they tangle together, as the beliefs and values of the utopians criss-cross, overlap and feed into one another. At the end of each thread, Coates provides some commentary and reflection, as he muses on the findings of each chapter, casually drawing together the disparate threads, whilst at the same time carefully avoiding any definite conclusions. Bibliographies are also helpfully provided at the end of each chapter, with suggestions for further reading, and recommended texts highlighted. Into this heady mix, Coates also adds guest articles by utopian scholars, which discuss in more detail specific utopian ventures, and these are also accessible and written clearly, without academic jargon. The book feels like a scrapbook of information, with potted histories of communities and individuals interspersed with narratives, quotes and reflections. Diverse typefaces, photographs, diagrams and illustrations all add to the pleasures of reading the text. It is a book that encourages you to dip in and out at leisure, and wherever you dip in, you will always find an absorbing cast of characters.

Coates defines history as "storytelling" (p.4) and telling stories is what he does in this book, adding the kind of detail that brings the people and their ideas to life. Coates' definition of a utopian experiment is very inclusive: "To me a community or group was utopian if it was trying to make the world a better place for more than just individuals. Which might be for its members or society as a whole" (p.8). This is a very loose definition, as Coates admits, and it therefore allows for a wide variety of projects and characters to be included in the book (350 groups in total) from the Scrooby Separatists to the holy nudists, and from Robert Owen to Madame Blavatsky. In this scrapbook of characters, famous utopians, such as Gerrard Winstanley and Robert Owen jostle alongside the Reverend Henry Prince with his Abode of Love and Augustus John, the first Bohemian. You will find utopians known more for their novels, poetry and art than for their interest and involvement in utopian schemes, such as DH Lawrence, Shelley and John Ruskin. You will find socialist schemes derived from economic and political thought, and spiritual schemes derived from mystical visions. You will find that the chocolate that you eat (Cadburys) and the shoes that you wear (Clarkes) are made by utopians (Quakers). You will discover that so much of our day to day lives has been touched by utopians, from the clothes that we wear, to our beliefs in education, from the institution of social welfare to our leaders and sportsmen. You will find the origins of the scout movement, the Vegetarian Society, the New Age movement, public libraries and modern paganism. You will find the original Robinson Crusoe and the real American Pilgrims. You will find communities who variously value art, meditation, hard work, sex, asceticism, vegetarianism, communal living, lectures, spiritualism, feminism, health, nakedness, and much much more. It might seem almost impossible to identify commonalities amongst these divergent projects because they appear so incompatible. But what unites these disparate individuals and groups is their vision, and their desire to make that vision a reality. What unites them is their hope and belief that a better society could exist, and thus what unites them is their utopianism.

Not all of these utopias succeeded, and in fact many were short-lived. Southey's and Coleridge's Pantisocracy never came to fruition and the Diggers experiment in communal living lasted just a year. However, other groups lasted for centuries, including the Quakers and the lesser known Panacea Society (which is currently based in my home town of Bedford). But there is no such thing as a failed utopia, for the act of imagining social change is utopian in itself. Indeed, all of these utopians had an impact which rippled out into wider society, often creating waves and on occasions, storms. As Coates notes at the end of his book: "If we take a long wide-angled view of history, not artificially divided into centuries or separated by national boundaries, the sheer scale of wave after wave of utopian experiments looks less like a catalogue of broken dreams and more like a guidebook for the journey to that other place, a better place - the place that is no place -utopia" (p.305).

One of the messages of the book is that utopian experiments are a significant element within our heritage, whilst so often overlooked or forgotten. But in the last chapter Coates forestalls this neglect, providing a gazetteer of utopia, so that the reader, inspired by the utopian history that the book evokes can visit many utopian sites themselves. Divided into counties, the interested reader can travel the country visiting settlement schemes, Diggers colonies, model villages, museums and farms. And, once utopian fervour has been inspired in the reader, they can then turn to other Diggers and Dreamers publications for further ideas of how to live an alternative lifestyle, with books such as The Guide to Communal Living, which lists contemporary utopian communities across Britain.

Utopia Britannica offers a bridge that we can cross to remember and revisit the utopian experiments of the past, that might perhaps provide that extra impetus to make our own plans for utopian experiments in the present, for our utopia of the future. So, dip in and out, go and explore the utopian history of Britain, and forge some links with your utopian ancestors!

Donna Fancourt

Review by Dennis Hardy for Town & Country Planning Magazine.

Utopia Britannica: British Utopian Experiments, 1325-1945, Chris Coates, London: Diggers & Dreamers Publications, 2001. ISBN 0-9514945-8-9. pp.312, £16.50

Sustainability, planned communities, co-ownership, local decision making and organic farming are all contemporary themes of interest to readers of Town and Country Planning. Contemporary, maybe, but hardly new. Yet what is perhaps surprising is to learn just how extensive and well-tried some of these ideas are, dating back, as Chris Coates shows, to at least the fourteenth century and cropping up in often unexpected places. Here, in a single volume, is a veritable treasure trove of antecedents.

Some forty years ago the doyen of this field, W.H.G. Armytage, wrote a seminal book, Heavens Below, which, like the volume by Coates, took a grand view of experiments over time. The only problem with this otherwise outstanding publication was that the prose was encyclopaedic, and never likely to attract the general reader. At last, though, thanks to Chris Coates, we have a sequel, updating and popularising this fascinating story of utopian exploration.

Looking back over seven centuries is a daunting task, not least of all because it's always hard to know where to draw lines between different episodes. Coates recognises this potential pitfall by dividing his material into what he calls threads rather than chapters. Each thread has something distinctive about it but is also interwoven with others. The first one traces a persistent religious theme in utopian history, and draws attention to numerous communities of dissent; sometimes these were communistic in their beliefs. In the second, the theme is socialism, with no less numerous examples of communities, in this case formed to demonstrate that there have always been alternatives to capitalist convention. Then there were the various arts and crafts colonies, strongly associated with a pervasive 'back to the land' movement, and still evident today in various forms throughout the countryside. The fourth thread is termed 'the old new age' and encompasses everything from mysticism to early models of organic farming. And, finally, there is a democratic view of utopia, which includes the now, sadly historic, Beveridge view of a genuine welfare state.

What it all shows is that just beneath the surface of an apparently well-ordered society lies a hidden landscape of rebellion - a product of dissenters of various persuasions who refused to believe that society was as good as it could be. Scrooby Separatists and Shaking Quakers, Agapemonites and Owenites, Diggers and Chartists, Pestalozzians and Theosophists, were just a few of those who wanted to make a better world. Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City Movement also get a place in this history, with the first garden city, at Letchworth, widely acknowledged as an important landmark. Radicals made their way to the new settlement, where they found kindred spirits and endowed the place with an exaggerated reputation for 'sandals and scandals'. Emphasis at the time on the exceptional missed the more enduring point that here was a worthy experiment, engaging imaginatively in the likes of modern town planning and co-partnership housing. Nearly a century has passed since the formation of Letchworth, and it is hard to think of a single new settlement on this scale (with the possible exception of Welwyn) where there is anything like the extent of innovation found there.

This is a very accessible book, well illustrated and clearly formatted, and reasonably priced for the 300 or so pages. The author's close understanding of the contemporary alternative movement enables insightful links to be made between the present and the past. And as a bonus for the modern reader, there is a county by county gazetteer of literally hundreds of places where experiments were conducted, as well as many international communities that were either set up by British emigrants or inspired by movements emanating in Britain. In some cases, communities started before 1945 continue to flourish, while sometimes there is remaining evidence in the landscape or in dedicated museums. Such extensive evidence amounts to a huge challenge to taking things for granted; armed with this guide, trips around these complex isles will never be the same again.

Dennis Hardy is the Author of Alternative Communities in 19th Century England and Utopian England.

Bookdealer, short review 'Utopia Britannica' written by David Lazell
Utopia Returns
(Assuming it Ever Went Away)

Relating to thriving literary interests in science fiction and the fairy lore literature, interest in alternative societies utopias - is rarely far from the good story teller. Indeed, the early twentieth century saw a boom in the genre, Edward Bellamy's 'Looking Backward' being widely read in Britain, though it was a book.
Chris Coates new survey of utopian and other communities in Britain, 'Utopia Britannica' (Diggers and Dreamers Publications) shows the intimate link between writing and community-building. Indeed, he describes the 300 plus pages as 'a distillation of the work of other writers', a weighty roster including 'unknowns' as well as prominent communicators like John Ruskin, William Morris, Harriet Martineau, Tolstoy, Robert Owen,. Ebenezer Howard and (as they would say in that commercial utopia of Hollywood, a veritable cast of thousands).
Some of the earlier references - Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, for example - lead readers into that sometimes neglected field of English political philosophy, though Winstanley is not without his enthusiasts even today. Little wonder that Chris Coates manages to include so many writers; the sub title of his book is 'British Utopian Experiments 1325-1945'.
In a chat with Chris last week, I discovered that he plans to continue his research. The forty page guide to communities, past and present, museums, former writers' homes etc. at the rear of the book suggest early oiling of the bicycle. It is hard to point to any single feature of what must be a unique book, as much a directory as a 'good read'. In its five main sections, or threads, it has some specialist contributors in the field of utopian/historical studies I was glad to see reference to youth movements of the inter-war period, notably the work of Leslie Paul, whom I knew. Leslie Paul's books are certainly sought today; he was one of the twentieth century's foremost writers on philosophy, as well as a fine autobiographer.:; I think he found his utopia as writer in residence at a Cheltenham college. Wel1 deserved, of course.
I'm sure that Chris Coates' book will be a good point of reference, if not a guide map to that Happy Land Far Away most of us seek at some time in our lives.
ISBN 0 - 9514945 - 8 - 9

Review for Co-operative News by David Lazell
Co-operative community lifestyles are making a come-back but the possibilities were explored at the Cooperative College more than forty years ago
Utopia in Britannia
Chris Coates' Voyage of Exploration into Cooperative lifestyle

As Sir Noel Coward suggested, we are all looking for a 'room with a view', a sentiment shared by Eliza Higgins in 'My Fair Lady'. Aspiration for contentment, and a community lifestyle that encouraged it, sprang from the heartbeat of the cooperative pioneers, and, whilst we rejoice in the successes of consumer services, we sometimes need reminding that 'consumerism' occupies but one small corner of a New Moral World - assuming we ever secure one. The breadth of the Rochdale Pioneers outlook might astonish us today.
Chris Coates of Lancaster, born in the same year as the Gaitskell-Crosland Commissionr Report on the Coop (1957) is a specialist in community building projects, and would seem~ a natural choice for research into the way that communities are launched and develop. Thus, his new, well-detailed book, 'Utopia Britannica', looks at communities from a practical perspective (he would have been a great help to Robert Owen at New Harmony). It delves back into almost ancient times, the subtitle being 'British Utopian Experiments 1325-1945', and has a vast amount of ammunition for anyone wanting to start a local discussion/house group on the subject. Here, after all, is the very stuff of the democratic tradition, remembering that many of the ideas of reformers, initially considered eccentric, were ultimately adopted by mainstream society. And it may be significant that the ink was hardly dry on these interesting pages than the prime minister spoke at length on community, during his keynote speech to the Labour Party Conference (on October 2nd). Former Cooperative College students may recall one of the more venturesome courses initiated by tutors Harold Bing and Bert Youngjohns in the mid 1950s, 'The Sociology of Cooperation', which whilst looking at patterns of community life, also had a management i dimension. It was during this course that I first encountered sociometric tests, demonstrated by Dr Henrik infield, who conducted a summer course at Stanford Hall in 1955. His exposition of how groups are formed, and whether or not they survive, was so forceful that it was used as the basis of a sketch in the students' Christmas show at the College theatre - a sincere compliment, if ever there was one.
It was hardly surprising that Harold Bing was interested in communities, for his parents had been involved in the Croydon Tolstoyan Fellowship, as well as the local cooperative society. Tolstoy, as you would expect, gets a generous discussion in Chris Coates' new book, and the author also mentions the 'Whiteway' community, near Stroud, and which Harold and his wife knew at first hand. Coop society members were once familiar with the work of many of the writers included in Chris Coates' book - Edward Carpenter, Robert Owen, Ebenezer Howard, Tolstoy, Dr William King, were the mainstay of local coop libraries and adult education work. Of course, the issues that they raised haunt us today, and in one sense the big questions will never be fully answered this side of Judgement Day.
Quakers and religious communities also enjoy a good airing, and I was pleased to see generous discussion of the youth movements that emerged after the First World War, notably Kibbo Kift, which originated with John Hargrave, and the Woodcraft Folk, created by Leslie Paul and his brother. I knew Leslie Paul - he had visited Stanford Hall to take the annual College 5unday service in 1957'-,and he regretted that 'Angry Young Man', his 1951 autobiographical book, had never.been reissued, for he was often asked for copies. Harold Bing also mentioned activists like Gerrard Winstanley (one of the many historic figures mentioned in the book), and more recently Canon Barnett - a friend of the CWS ~ historian, W. Henry Brown - William Morris and John Ruskin. There are some interesting 'off the beaten track' references too, like that to Bradford Peck, owner of a USI department store, and whose book ('The World a Department Store') was one of a family of titles foreseeing a cooperative city as a practical proposition. Even controversial figure~ like Gurdjieff and Ouspensky get a mention, too. I would be quite surprised if Mr. Coates left anyone out; there is, as you would expect, a great deal about the cooperative movement's aspirations, at least as they were related to the wider community.
At the rear of the book, there is a useful forty page 'Gazetteer of Utopia', which lists (by county) sites of communities, former authors' homes and museums, like that at Toad Lane,
which can be visited by people today. In a. conversation with Chris Coates, I learned that he is hoping to develop his research further into the twentieth century; I got the impression that he would be useful on any list of conference speakers.
In our somewhat hurried times, we tend to forget that we are all involved, one way or another, in the creation of communities - our homes, the life of our neighbourhood, the character of the nation, the fellowship in the world at large. Utopians were sometimes thought dreamers who did not much understand the pressures of 'the bottom line'.
Yet one is left thinking, after gazing at these stimulating pages, that 'better lands', utopias, and the rest mirror something in the human spirit. Maybe this book helps us reflect on some features of cooperative adult education in the coming century, assuming that it, and ourselves, continue to exist. Will our management training be as much about community as computers? I rather think so. Protesters are often shown in the mass media, as a pain in the neck, adding expense to allegedly sensible development, but Chris Coates thinks that Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Garden City Movement, might have some sympathy with them : Howard would probably clamber up the tree and join them, he argues, 'in contrast to the reaction of present day planners and developers who appear to have lost grasp of the historic thread amid the pressures of bureaucracy and big business.' - historic thread.....now how much of that do we have in the computor cupboard draw?
Utopia Britannica' by Chris Coates
312 pages,
ISBN 0 - 9514945 - 8 - 9
Diggers and Dreamers Publications

A recent article on Harold Bing was published in 'The Friend' 30th~June 2000
and a photocopy ('A Peace Campaigner at the Cooperative College')
can be obtained from the writer, David Lazell at 23 Carlton Crescent,
East Leake, Loughborough LEl2 6JF, please include four first class stamps.

Story in Leicester Mercury 28.9.2001
County has had its share of utopian dreams

Many people have dreamed of creating the perfect place to live, a separate community living the utopian dream. And over the years Leicestershire residentd have been no exception.
Now the county's attempts to create utopian communities have been documented in a new book. Chris Coates, a former Syston student, has spent years researching attempts stretching back hundreds of years for his new book Utopia Britannica.
It contains more than 500 attempts by people all over the UK. Leicestershire scores six entries with projects ranging from a diggers colony in Bosworth started in 1650 to a smallholding scheme in 1982.
Amoung the schemes was a plan in 1899 by the Leicester Tolstoyans, a land society formed by five Tolstoy-loving vegetarians who owned half an acre in Braunstone and hoped to live a communal life on the Land. Other schemes included the Humberstone Garden Village, which still runs today, with a community of 96 houses, shops and a community centre.
Mr Coates,44,who lived in a commune during the 70s, works as a consultant on community based building projects in Lancaster. He said; "Who would have thought utopia would be found beneath our feet in Leicestershire?" The book has just been published and is available from most good bookshops priced £16.50

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