We should celebrate Enid Stacy – socialist, suffrage campaigner, and land settler


Stacy (after her marriage) on a postcard

Enid Stacy was a leading late nineteenth century socialist. She came from Bristol, attended university in Cardiff, became a teacher, was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, and made a living as an itinerant public speaker. Margaret Cole remembered her as ‘one of the most effective women speakers and lecturers in the nineties’. Stacy took a firm view on equality between the genders, and supported universal adult suffrage, embracing all adults – women and men – on an equal basis. The last months of her life were spent campaigning against the Boer Wars.

Stacy is hardly unknown – she has her own blue plaque, and a London council named a housing scheme after her – but she is not a familiar figure, even among historians of the labour and women’s movements. I have vague memories of Ruth Frow telling me of an unpublished biography by her niece.


From: openplaques.org

Ruth, who with her husband Eddie founded and curated the marvellous Manchester Working Class Movement Library, was a generous host, and I was an enthusiastic doctoral student, so I must have taken in what she’d said, but this wasn’t my field. I didn’t pay much as much attention to the Stacy story as I did to the tea and sandwiches that she offered me.

Much later on, I encountered Stacy as a member of the Starnthwaite Colony, one of several late nineteenth century utopian settlements that crop up in my study of British work camps. Stacy was as prickly and challenging as a land settler as she was in every other area of her life, but it was hard to find out much about her. So I was delighted to learn from the Lipstick Socialist blog that Stacy’s biography is finally to see the light of day.

For me, Stacy entered the work camps story in 1893. Aged 25, she had been dismissed from her teaching post for her role in supporting local strikers. Together with Katherine St John Conway (later Glasier Conway) she made her way to Starnthwaite, near Kendal, where a Unitarian minister and socialist called Herbert V. Mills had founded a utopian socialist colony, attracting a small number of local unemployed men and committed socialists, among them Dan Irving, the one-legged trade unionist, acquaintance of James Connolly, and subsequently Labour MP.

Like several similar utopian colonies, the Starnthwaite settlers found life hard. The practical challenges of self-sufficiency were hard enough, but there were also ideological and personality differences, with Stacy and Irving among a group of socialists who accused Mills of authoritarianism. Mills, for his part, accused the socialists of being keener on preaching than working, and had the police charge six of them for breaking down a door.

Stacy was expelled within months of joining the colony, along with thirteen others, and proceeded to make her criticisms of Starnthwaite a theme for her public lectures in Lancashire. Starnthwaite struggled on for a time before Mills handed it over to the Christian Union for Social Service, and then withdrew from an active role in the land settlement movement. His reputation was briefly revived by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1908 justified Mills’ stern government of the colony as unavoidable if it were to survive its early challenges in a disciplined way.

Stacy moved on, speaking at dozens of open-air meetings, often from the back of a Clarion van. She married, writing a short play exploring her socialist approach to marriage, and she continued to advocate the ‘co-operative home’ or settlement as a way of tackling the unequal distribution of domestic labour. And if you want to find out more, then like me you will have to buy the biography.

Stacy’s biography is available, for a mere fiver – yes, less than two pints – here.


Alfred Russel Wallace, socialist and land grabber

Alfred Russel Wallace is being celebrated as Britain’s forgotten evolutionary scientist, the man who co-discovered the process of evolution through natural selection. The Natural History Museum is currently marking the centenary of his death with a series of events, exhibitions and conferences, while a project supported by David Attenborough has digitised much of his voluminous archive.

Historians of science admire Wallace as a naturalist, anthropologist, geographer and explorer. They have rather less to say about his political ideas. Wallace described himself as a socialist, and was a high profile campaigner for public ownership of the land. He was also, for at least two decades, a vocal supporter of the land colony as a solution to unemployment.

Wallace had a long standing interest in Robert Owen, the leading co-operative thinker and founder of the pioneering industrial settlement at New Lanark. By 1889, he was enthusing over the writings of Herbert Vincent Mills, Unitarian Minister and social reformer, who had written Poverty and the State, which Wallace praised as ‘one of the most remarkable and valuable little books of the day’.

In his presidential address for 1889, Wallace told the Land National Society that Mills’ proposals for settling industrial workers on communal village colonies would ‘prove that poverty and want of work are wholly landlord-created, and that, whether as individual independent workers or in co-operative association, our labouring classes, if permitted, can support themselves upon the land’.

In 1892, Mills led a small group of like minded friends onto a farm at Starnthwaite, near Kendal.  Here they settled down to a life of farming, weaving, tailoring, shoe-making, fruit-bottling, jam-making, and smithing. By autumn 1893, eleven men, five women and six children were living in the colony. Perhaps inevitably, Mills had clashed with secular socialists (or, as he saw it, the more idle settlers). The colony survived until 1900, when Mills handed it over to the English Land Colonisation Society.

Wallace continued to champion Mills’ ideas throughout and beyond the Starnthwaite experience. In 1893, he outlined detailed plans for a series of co-operative land colonies across Britain, each with a population of around 800 families, so that ‘there would thus gradually be trained up a body of men and women fit to carry out successfully a truly co-operative life’.  In 1897 he restated his proposals in a contribution to a collection edited by Edward Carpenter, republishing the chapter as part of Studies, Social and Scientific in 1900.

In 1908, by which time there were several Tolstoyan land colonies, Wallace wrote two articles for Socialist Review, which he later republished as a Clarion pamphlet, praising Mills’ idea of the land colony as a solution to unemployment. So neither Wallace’s political beliefs, nor his interest in labour colonies, were a passing whim. This can be rather embarrassing for historians of science, who prefer to focus on his contribution to natural science.

Wallace’s ideas, though, can be equally distasteful for some labour and socialist historians, who have scant sympathy for talk of industrial workers settling land, and recoil from Wallace’s interest in spiritualism, as well as his ideas on the workshy (he and Mills thought tramps and loafers should be required to attend a labour colony until they acquired the taste for work that was needed for life in a communal colony).

As we mark Wallace100 then, we can reflect that resistance to modern capitalism has taken many forms. Social democracy and state welfare are one of these, though some might argue that they have also developed their own inefficiencies and injustices. The more communitarian tradition of critique and action has often been marginalised, but it produced some fascinating experiments in communal ways of living, and has influenced modern environmental thinking. We should not dismiss it lightly.

For further information on Wallace100, see: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/wallace/