Revolution in Action: The Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic

I HAVE outlined the devastating effects of capitalist industry on many occasions in the past, examining the more radical attempts to formulate a theoretical and practical response to the serious problems that have affected us over the last few centuries. Another very worthy attempt to initiate a rural revolution – and one which was undoubtedly heir to the Radical tradition – came in the shape of the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, which established itself at Ditchling in Sussex. Indeed, after a visit to Ditchling Common, where I had a chance to meet up with one of the community’s ex-members, I decided to explore their story in more depth.

In 1907 Eric Gill (1882-1940), a twenty-five year-old stone-carver and a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, left Hammersmith in West London and moved to Ditchling, a small village in the heart of the Sussex countryside. This self-imposed exodus was a direct result of Gill’s increasing belief that country life was far preferable to that in the sprawling metropolis. Six years later, Gill decided to go one step further and move from the High Street to Ditchling Common in order to try his hand at self-sufficiency. He bought a house and two acres of land, and eventually both he and his family began producing their own milk, butter, eggs and bread, as well as making their own clothes. The family also kept pigs and hens.

Shortly afterwards, a calligrapher named Edward Johnston (1872-1944) – who had previously shared lodgings with Eric Gill – moved to Ditchling with his family. Meanwhile, Hilary Peplar (1878-1951), a hand printer, also joined the growing number of those who sought to escape the pestilence of urban England. These three men became the founding members of the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, which evolved into a colony based on craft and agriculture and the principles of ‘a religious fraternity for those who make things with their hands’.

The Guild thrived for some seventy years, exercising a dominant and positive influence over Catholic art both in the British Isles and abroad. As well as being firmly based upon religious values, the Guild also became important in a political sense, too. Hilary Peplar’s written work of the time spoke of the days when ‘work shall be once more of the nature of a sacrament, a pledge given by Man and a token received by God’. He also called upon workmen to become masters of their own production, and not the slaves of other men’s profits.

The Guild grew steadily larger during the early-1920s, with many comings and goings amongst the membership. By this time, a whole rural community had come into being, consisting of countless workshops, a library, laundry, orchard, independent bank, allotment garden and chapel. All seemed well until 1924, when Gill decided to leave the Guild altogether. This came about soon after Gill had been to visit another guild in Wales, at Capel y Ffin, and tried to persuade the two communities to merge together. This would have actually required one of the communities to relocate to the area inhabited by the other which, at the time, was a daunting task. The Guild at Ditchling refused to accept Gill’s ambitious proposals and he eventually left Ditchling altogether. Gill’s departure had a terrible effect on some of the original founding members on the Common, who were extremely sorry to see him leave.

More worryingly, despite Gill’s strong religious beliefs it was finally revealed in a 1989 biography that his diaries contained details of his intense obsession with sex. Not only did he have extra-marital affairs, but he also recounts the sexual molestation of his two eldest teenage daughters, the incestuous relationships with his sisters and the sexual acts he committed on the family dog.

These revelations were completely unknown at the time, of course, and following Gill’s departure the original members of the Guild went on to become Tertiaries of the Order of St. Dominic. This is the third level of monasticism, although there were other Tertiaries in the community. By 1928, on the other hand, the Guild’s strict regulations were finally relaxed and it was agreed that not all members had to be Tertiaries. At this time, the Guild was being maintained by Hilary Peplar, Joseph Cribb (1892-1967), George Maxwell (1890-1957) and Valentine Kilbride (1897-1982), who were joined in 1927 by Bernard Brocklehurst (1904-1996).

In the early thirties, many new ideas were incorporated into the general scheme of things: group criticism sessions to discuss and regulate the standards of work and a new marketing exercise promoted by a pamphlet entitled Things For Devotional and Liturgical Use. Publication and photography costs were shared and the pamphlet was sent to potential clients, becoming an early method of direct mailing.

Socially, the Guild was thriving. The climax of the year was August 4th, St. Dominic’s Day, when a whole programme of events took place. Sports activities for children, tea in the orchard, drama or mimes for amusement, and supper at a local pub in the evening. Then, in 1937, a telephone box was considered, but as a result of the fact that electricity and power tools were frowned upon in the workshops, it was eventually decided that a red call-box would be sited in a nearby lane.

During the war years, both Maxwell and Kilbride lost a son. Meanwhile, Joseph Cribb, a talented sculptor, served as a community air-raid warden for the British Home Guard. In 1949, at the close of another decade, it seemed that a younger generation was now at hand to continue the tradition, as Edgar Holloway (1914-2008) and wife Daisy Monica moved to Ditchling. Sadly, it was not to be. Meetings of the Guild began to last minutes instead of several hours and new recruits were put off by the resistance of some of the existing members.

As time went by, several more women moved to the area, but things still continued to deteriorate as a result of the fact that those members of the Guild who desired almost total seclusion became difficult to bargain with. Finally, in 1988, the decision was taken to wind up the affairs of the Guild altogether.

The example set by Gill, Peplar and Johnson is something that is being emulated by National-Anarchists today. These men attempted to create something spiritual and organic in place of man’s rapidly deteriorating ‘existence’ in the modern soul-destroying cities of England. Their downfall, however, came as a direct result of the fact that some community members opposed the actual spread and propagation of the rural ideal beyond the confines of Ditchling Common itself. Denying the simple pleasures of country living to others on the basis of introverted pride, sadly resulted in the whole experiment falling apart at the seams. But whilst some may not have wanted the city to follow them to the countryside, it seems likely that several core members had gravitated away from the original principles of agrarian communalism and towards the more unsociable realms of the hermit.

Despite the eventual disbanding of the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, as well as the stain on Eric Gill’s character, we can all learn from the community’s noble attempts to instigate a dream that is shared by many of us who continue to feel sickened and repulsed by the rampant industrialisation and materialism that one finds in so many of our large towns and cities.

Further reading:

Attwater, Donald; A Cell of Good Living (G. Chapman, 1969).

Collins, Judith; Eric Gill: The Sculpture (Overlook Press, 1998).

Corey, Steven (Ed.) & MacKenzie, Julia (Ed.);Eric Gill: A Bibliography (St. Paul’s Bibliographies, 1991).

Cribb, Ruth & Cribb, Joe; Eric Gill and Ditchling: The Workshop Tradition (Ditchling Museum, 2007).

Gill, Cecil & Warde, Beatrice & Kindersley, David; The Life and Works of Eric Gill (University of California, 1967).

Holliday, Peter; Eric Gill in Ditchling (Oak Knoll Press, 2002).

Kindersley, David; Mr. Eric Gill: Further Thoughts by an Apprentice (Cardozo Kindersley Editions, 1967).

MacCarthy, Fiona; Eric Gill (Faber & Faber, 1989).

Miles, Jonathan; Eric Gill & David Jones at Capel-y-ffin (Seren Books, 1992).

Speaight, Robert; Life of Eric Gill (Methuen, 1966).

Thorp, Joseph; Eric Gill (Jonathan Cape, 1929).

Yorke, Malcolm; Eric Gill: Man of Flesh and Spirit (Constable, 1981).

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