“There has to be an alternative to whatever ways and life there are on offer these days” – Joan Baez
During the latter part of the 19th century there was in some quarters a resentment to the strict moral Victorian society rules and also the filthy cities, so much that many people longed for something completely different. This was the start of the Tolstoyan movement.The Tolstoyan movement was a social movement based on the philosophical and religious views of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Tolstoy’s views were formed by rigorous study of the ministry of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy expressed “great joy” that groups of people “have been springing up, not only in Russia but in various parts of Europe, who are in complete agreement with our views.”
In England John Kenworthy of the Brotherhood Church established a colony at Purleigh, Essex in 1896.The Purleigh Colony, established in 1896 at Cock Clarks, was a Tolstoyan Anarchist colony that grew out of the Croydon Brotherhood Church. Initially based on a 10-acre plot, as the group grew the colony rented local cottages with land attached. The group built a house at Cock Clarks which they called Grey House or Colony House as it quickly became known. Residents included a number of Russian Princes in exile. The colony ran a printing press, publishing translations of Tolstoy and for a while The New Order magazine. The group lived a life a spartan simplicity with each man spending a maximum of 5 shillings a week on his keep. In 1899 the Cock Clarks Colony was disbanded and most of the occupants resettled in Canada.
The Wickford colony had sprung up in 1898 and was 29 acres in size divided into plots of 1 to 3 acres by a group of ‘socialists’ also inspired by the writings of Tolstoy. The group had links too with the Croydon brotherhood and the colony at Purleigh. Known as the ‘Colony for City Men’ because of good rail access to London where colonists continued to work. It was during this time that this alternative thinking society began to branch out. During this late 19th century period Anarchist naturism appeared this being the union of anarchist and naturist philosophies. Anarcho-naturism advocated vegetarianism, free love, nudism and an ecological world view within anarchist groups and outside them. Anarcho-naturism promoted an ecological worldview, small eco villages, and most prominently nudism as a way to avoid the artificiality of the industrial mass society of modernity.
Naturist individualist anarchists saw the individual in his biological, physical and psychological aspects and tried to eliminate social determinations. Important promoters of this were Henri Zisly and Emile Gravelle who collaborated in La Nouvelle Humanité followed by Le Naturien, Le Sauvage, L’Ordre Naturel, & La Vie Naturelle.It is highly possibly that siblings of these early pioneers took this even further and created the first nudist colony in the United Kingdom, either in or not far from Kenworthy’s Wickford Colony. The founder of the Hadleigh Farm Colony just a few miles away in 1891 was one William Booth.
The English Gymnosophical Society was a society of like minded persons established some time during the early 1920s to discuss naturism. A few years later it renamed itself the “New Gymnosophy Society” and began holding organised meetings at The Camp in Wickford, Essex in 1924 thus forming the first actual naturist club in the United Kingdom. It was believed to be on the left hand side of Castledon Road, about 300 yards before the railway bridge as you approached from London Road. If this was correct the location was marked by a discrete five-bar farmer’s type gate, with an unmade track beyond. The whole area at the bottom of the unmade track was well shielded by high hedges, giving the impression that it might be the correct location. According to ‘British Naturism’ the club chose the name ‘Moonella Group’, from the name or nickname of the owner of the ground. The story is that Moonella inherited a heavily mortgaged house with land in Wickford in 1923, which was then made available to certain members of the English Gymnosophy Society. In case you are wondering where the word gymnosophists comes from, Wikipedia says:- “Gymnosophists is the name (meaning “naked philosophers”) given by the Greeks to certain ancient Indian philosophers who pursued asceticism to the point of regarding food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought .
Was this the area that the Moonella camp was in (left) and was this the entrance (right)
At the turn of the century Harold Booth had published articles in many magazines about naturism.English Gymnosophical Society was then formed in 1922 by Harold Booth, Mark Sorensen and Rex Wellbye, as a direct result of these naturism articles. The society consisted mainly of male members who met in London at the Minerva Cafe at 144 High Holborn. The same building was also the headquarters of the Women’s Freedom League. By 1926 it had moved to Cheapside and was circulating its own journal and arranging public lectures advocating nudism. It was also renamed as the New Gymnosophy Society. Individuals who were allowed to join the Moonella Group were carefully vetted. An ‘upper crust’ of the original club members conducted the vetting and members had ‘club names’ to preserve their anonymity. There was a very different view of nudism in the 1920s, so members used assumed names to protect their identities.
Some of the club names used were: – Chong and Lorelli (Mark Sorensen and his wife Helen Morley Sorensen), Flang or fflang (Harold Booth), Gart, Moonella, Thwang (Roland Berrill), Tob (Mr. L.B.), Zex (Rex Wellbye).
The Committee had virtually all power in its hands. A member was known, for example, as The Noble Flang or the Gracious Moonella. They were even instructed how to write to one another, beginning “To the Noble Chong, greeting” and ending with a wish without verb or subject, for example “Blue Sky”, followed by the signature.The wearing of sandals and headbands of brilliant colours was encouraged, provided that they were in Greek rather than oriental style. Jewellery was discouraged. Care had to be taken to avoid complimenting visitors and members upon their beauty. The club kept an attendance book, which in 1965 was still in the possession of Mark Sorensen who died in 1974.With the closure of “The Camp” in Wickford in 1926 the members were then without a site. In May 1927, ‘Fouracres’ at Bricket Wood, near St. Albans, was acquired with the help of a Derbyshire benefactor, and also was at first called “The Camp”. Harold Booth died in 1943, Rex Wellbye in 1963.
(This post uses information gathered by John Fuller, Michael Farrar and information from Wikipedia and Utopia Britannica)