Learning liberation: young men and the pedagogy of primitivism

The BBC has appealed for young unemployed volunteers to help it recreate one of Britain’s most imaginative work camps. Grith Fyrd, a radical communitarian alternative to urban industrial society, was launched in 1932 by the  Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, which can be best summed up as a group of radicals and pacifists who saw themselves as true inheritors of the scouting tradition. It opened its first camp in 1932, at the marvellously named Sandy Balls, near Fordingbridge in Hampshire. The BBC is hoping to recreate the second camp, which opened at Shining Cliff, near Ambergate in Derbyshire, in 1934.

Grith Fyrd – the name came from the Anglo-Saxon for Peace Army – recruited a mixed group for its camps. While all were men, some, like Glynn Faithfull, were young middle class radicals, interested in psychoanalysis, and keen to build an alternative society. For this group, the camps were simply the first stage in a much wider and longer term process of detaching oneself from the modern urban and industrial order, and building a sustainable communitarian order of settlements that traded by barter and lived by their skills, courage and wits.

The second main group of recruits were young unemployed men. They were all volunteers, recruited through their local labour exchanges, and allowed to retain their benefits while living in the camp (in practice, they handed over most of the money to help fund the camp). The Ministry of Labour approved of this, because it kept the men physically fit and ready for a job, and thus complemented its own schemes for ‘reconditioning’ men that it believed had ‘gone soft’.

Grith Fyrd took great pride in the primitive conditions of its camps. It claimed to be cultivating a ‘spirit of adventure’ which ‘sustains pioneers in the pressing ordeals of primitive conditions’ and ‘cultivates the endurance needed for any kind of successful economic settlement’. As well as building a new, sustainable order, it also saw primitivism as a way of drawing on male aggression and turning it to positive purposes.

This ‘pioneer’ pedagogy dominated camp life from the outset. When the first men arrived, they started by building the huts in which they were to live. After completing the bunkhouses, they then built their own kitchen, dining space and other recreation cabin. The novelist, pacifist and critic of mass society Aldous Huxley visited Sandy Balls, comparing it to ‘an American backwoods settlement of a century ago’.

Grith Fyrd was short lived. It placed great demands on its members, so that only the most hardy and committed stayed the course. It depended on the unemployed to swell its ranks and help pay its costs, so falling unemployment levels hit it hard. And the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry was a fractious group, arguing and splitting over everything from nudity to the essential quality of human relationships. Shining Cliff closed in 1937, and the movement was thrown out of Sandy Balls.

Why, then, should anyone bother to recreate such a short-lived experiment? The obvious answer is that there appears to be an insatiable public appetite for reality TV, so the BBC is more or less guaranteed an audience. But there is a little more to Grith Fyrd than that. I’ve been looking at Grith Fyrd as part of a chapter on work camps as a social movement in a book on British work camps before 1939, and I think it fully deserves its place.

After 1937, Grith Fyrd members went on to found the Q Camp movement (Q stood for ‘quest’), which ran outdoor camp communities for troubled young men, and in turn influenced later outdoor education approaches to young offenders. It also had an influence on adult education, mainly through the Braziers community, where Glynn Faithfull and others ran what was effectively an adult residential college (and brought up his daughter, Marianne). It had an influence on psychoanalytic approaches to the management of therapeutic communities. Finally, it was part of a wider network of people and institutions who have tried to develop sustainable communities and peaceful living between the wars, and therefore has a place in the history of British environmentalism.

 And you don’t have to look far to see continuing beliefs in primitivism as a way of engaging and educating men. It will be fascinating to see what today’s young adults make of the experience, however short term and sanitized it has to be in our own times.


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