Utopia in Sheffield: Life in a Victorian commune

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It was one of the country’s first communes, but within two years the idyll was over amid arguments and recriminations. Stephen McClarence looks back on John Ruskin’s St George’s Farm.

Every morning when Sally Goldsmith pulls back her bedroom curtains, she sees the subject of her new book. Beyond the back garden and the writing shed, beyond the park, beyond the allotments and the wood, there at the top of the hill is St George’s Farm.

Looking down over the semi-rural suburb of Totley, in the south-west corner of Sheffield, this 18th century farmhouse is now a handsome private house. But back in the 1870s, it was the focus of a novel experiment in living – a commune and collective farm where nine working men and their families set out to farm the land together. And, to keep themselves even busier, they planned to make boots and shoes.

This group of self-proclaimed Communists was financed by John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic and social reformer who had a mission to enrich the lives of working-class people by raising their awareness of the world’s wonders.

With vision as big as his celebrated beard, he had already set up a “people’s museum” on the other side of Sheffield: an eclectic collection of pictures, manuscripts, books and minerals that has evolved into the Ruskin Gallery in the city centre's Millennium Gallery.

Now, to explore his dream of comradely collective farming, he bought 13-acre St George’s Farm in 1877. The museum was one thing. St George’s, with its unpredictable human factor, was quite another. It was a Utopian scheme, high on ideals, but not perhaps rooted in practical reality.

“Ruskin had romantic ideas about how people could work with their hands and not use machines,” says Sally, an award-winning poet, song-writer and community campaigner (most recently trying to save Sheffield’s trees from the city council’s axe).

“Most of the people at the farm, though, were in their fifties or sixties, which isn’t a good time to start farming work. And none of them had any previous experience of it.”

She tells St George’s quixotic story in Thirteen Acres: John Ruskin and the Totley Communists, published by the Guild of St George, a charitable trust that aims to put Ruskin’s hopes into practice. Engagingly written, the book traces the intrigues and personality clashes that helped hasten the commune’s decline within a few years. It was, she says, “a cranky cast of characters”.

For a start there was Ruskin himself.

“He had authoritarian views about what he wanted,” says Sally who herself lived in a Yorkshire commune 30 years ago. “He said he would leave the people at the farm alone, but he didn’t. He didn’t have any truck with Socialism.”

He appointed Henry Swan – a “cycling vegetarian artist and Quaker” who curated the people’s museum – to help set up the farm. Others in the cranky cast included an ex-Chartist who earned his living playing the harp at pubs and social functions, and, later, a journalist who had met Marx and the American poet Walt Whitman and paraded proudly around Sheffield in hob-nailed boots.

Putting in a debonair guest appearance was Edward Carpenter – poet, vegetarian, gay rights activist, all-purpose radical and sandal-wearer – as modern a man as Ruskin was Victorian. The farming recruits, he dryly noted, were “mostly great talkers”.

It could be fruitful material for a play – and indeed it has been. Two years ago, Sally wrote Boots, Fresh Air and Ginger Beer, a promenade play with a cast including her partner, Radio Sheffield broadcaster (and harpist) Rony Robinson.

The play ambled around the landscape surrounding the farm so, as it’s a sunny morning, Sally and I go for a bit of a ramble ourselves. To get up to the farm, we cross the park and a small estate, and emerge in an enchanted enclave of leafy lanes and woods that looks little touched by the 20th century, never mind the 21st. We reach the allotments, one of which Sally actually works herself.

“Trespassers will be composted,” says a sign on another of them. Hens cluck, carpets slowly compost and broad moorland views brood on the far horizon. “You’ve got some fantastic artichokes,” Sally tells a neighbouring allotment holder. “And look at your redcurrants!”

Down a drive is St George’s Farm, once ivy-covered, now immaculately spruced up with a conservatory and lots of pink roses. It was here, according to the usual version of events, that the various “great talkers” fell out with each other – and with Ruskin – within two years of arriving.

“Peace and fraternity were turned into missiles and malice,” wrote Carpenter. “The wives entered into the fray; and the would-be Garden of Eden became such a scene of confusion that Ruskin had to send down an ancient retainer of his with a pitchfork... to bar them all out.”

As a result, the venture is usually counted as a failure, but Sally prefers to see it as a “story of folk who saw the world differently and wanted to change it”.

All the same, the farm did a lot better commercially when the original crew had moved on and it was rented by George Pearson, a teetotal Socialist whose grandson Howard, with nice continuity, runs a market garden and nursery business a couple of miles away.

We drive to see Howard, down a bumpy track past a lot of strawberry-fanciers picking their own. He puts his lunch to one side and gets out an envelope of family photographs, some of which feature in the book.

Here’s his great-grandfather, with mutton-chop whiskers; his grandfather, out in the fields with a beard Ruskin would have been proud of; his father with a horse; his Aunt Lucy with her bicycle and her bonnet.

“She lived at St George’s Farm until the 1960s,” says Howard. “We used to go up every week and mow her lawn.”

So what, before the Pearsons arrived, did St George’s achieve? Sally sees it as a step towards Sheffield’s current (precarious) status as one of the greenest of Britain’s cities. At which her phone rings and someone tells her about another tree that needs saving.

Thirteen Acres: John Ruskin and the Totley Communists by Sally Goldsmith is published by The Guild of St George (www.guildofstgeorge.org.uk) and costs £12.

Sally will be talking about the commune and its characters at The Workstation, Sheffield, on October 17 at 7.30pm as part of the Off the Shelf festival. Tickets cost £6/£5 – to book call 0114 223 3777.

Communes in the 1970s

Sally Goldsmith has vivid memories of the three years she spent living at the Lifespan Community Collective, 1,000ft up near Dunford Bridge, between Holmfirth and Penistone, which give a first-hand dimension to her work on St George’s Farm.

“I was living in London in the late 1970s and wanted to move out of the city. I suppose I was a sort of alternative feminist lefty and I was interested in different ways of living. Someone suggested I go and see Lifespan, which had started a few years before.

"It was two rows of railwaymen’s cottages that looked out over the old Woodhead railway line and was like Coronation Street in the middle of the moors. Twelve adults were living there, with around three children and Annie, the widow of one of the original railway workers in the middle of us all.

"I moved there in late 1979 and fell in love with Pete, who was also living there, and became my partner. We had our son Euan there. We had idealistic ideas that having a baby in a commune would be a collective thing, but our feeling when he was born didn’t really match that.

"It was bloody cold up there. The wind whipped across and we had outside toilets that used to freeze up in winter.

"Some of the cottages were knocked through in different ways. There was a big dining room the width of two or three houses and a big kitchen with an ancient coal-fired Aga.

"We ran a printing business as a workers’ co-op and that was where the main money came from. We published wholefood cookery books and they sold in thousands. And funnily enough, in view of St George’s Farm, a couple of people tried to make boots and shoes. There was a strong group of women and we met separately around once a week.

"All our decisions were made by consensus. If one person stood out against something, it didn’t go ahead. It became very difficult to do what you wanted to do sometimes and that was possibly partly the reason I moved to Sheffield.

"I was a bit burned by the experience, but I have fond feelings for those times. We planted about 1,000 trees and when you go up there now, they’ve naturally grown and they get woodland as well as moorland birds.

"I’m still a fanatical recycler and have many close friends who lived there. And it’s from that time that I became a keen gardener and allotment holder. I still don’t spend much either.”

Lifespan continues today as a community collective of 15 adults and their children. It promotes sustainable living, using solar and wind power to produce electricity.