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Community Living in Suffolk

At the end of Kate Worsley’s recent novel Foxash, which has been reviewed in this issue of BookTalk, the author briefly summarises the history of The Land Settlement Association (LSA). The LSA was set up in 1934 to train unemployed industrial workers in horticulture and livestock rearing, an inspiration for the novel. She describes the LSA as ‘the biggest and most expensive of the inter-war back to the land movement’.

At about the same time, the writer John Middleton Murry, best known for his marriage to Katherine Mansfield, bought a farm at Langham, less than four miles from Foxash. Here he established a commune, linked to the ‘Adelphi Centre’ which he ‘described as a training centre for making socialists’, and which organised various summer schools for that purpose. The commune was short-lived, collapsing in 1937. 

Not discouraged, Murry set up a new commune at Lodge Farm, Thelnetham, Suffolk, in 1942 and recruited fellow conscientious objectors to run the undertaking. This new commune lasted until 1948, having gradually morphed into a more commercial enterprise. In 1953 Murry published Community Farm (Peter Neville Ltd.), a fascinating description of the project, which was illustrated by his brother, the artist Richard Murry. 

The commune attracted a whole range of different personalities, with varying views of what ‘community’ meant. Many of these were described in chapter seven of the book, which he entitled ‘A Chapter of Cranks’. He writes that, ‘At the cost of making it appear that the farm was a crazy house, I have grouped the more notable of its eccentrics together for a purpose …in order to discover whether there was any least common factor in their aberrations …. On reflection it seems plain to me that common to them all was a failure to achieve a normal sex life’. He goes on to talk about the ‘bondage of ego’ and how the ‘right, natural, and “human” sex-relation is a relation of love’ depending on ‘on an act of mutual surrender, and profound mutual trust’. 

Murry was an early supporter of D. H. Lawrence. Later in the chapter he is less controversial, describing the enormous gulf between, ‘the negative egocentrics who seek a refuge from the demands of social existence which they are incapable of meeting and, the positive balanced personalities who seek in it an enlargement of responsible freedom’.  No wonder this project only lasted 6 years. 

One final comment, which might encourage a reading of Community Farm, comes from W. H. G. Armytage in his book Heavens Below, Utopian Experiments in England 1560-1960 (Routledge and Kegan Paul: 1961). In page 401 he writes, ‘It is tempting to speculate whether George Orwell, who joined the original Adelphi summer school and who knew him [Murry] well, found in the very shape of Murry’s agrarian community [at Thelnetham] a hint for casting his own anti-Utopian 1984 as a farmyard story. For, a farmyard story – minus Napoleon – was what Thelnetham seems to have been. 

Today the role of community continues to be an issue in the village and the surrounding area, with the setting up of iFarm, a community based-business, registered as a Community Benefit Society.

The new business is presently trying to buy the White Horse Public House at Thelnetham, ‘so that it can host social events related to its work’.  I think Murry, who is buried with his wife at St. Nicholas’ church, Thelnetham, would have approved. 

Jeff Taylor


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