Dr Amy Palmer, University of Roehampton
I was researching the history of English nursery education when I came across Joseph King MP. His interventions during the writing of the 1918 Education Act had a profound effect, with policy-makers at the Board of Education grudgingly giving way to his demands for local education authorities to be permitted to establish nursery classes in elementary schools in addition to or instead of the self-governing nursery schools that the Board itself preferred. They did this despite disagreeing with his proposals and seeming to find the man himself both uninformed and irritating.
I decided to find out more about him – and was delighted to discover that he was a key member of the Peasant Arts Movement (PAM). As someone with a keen interest already in traditional crafts and the folk revival of the late 19th and the early 20th century, this was something I very much wanted to explore further.
Joseph and his wife Maude moved to Haslemere in Surrey in 1894 and set up a weaving workshop. Maude’s sister Ethel Blount and her husband Godfrey also came to live in the town and moved their craft workshop there in 1898. Other artisans were inspired to follow them. A distinctive feature of the group was a rejection of all mechanisation in craft work and of large-scale industry (ideas which seem to sit somewhat uneasily with Joseph King’s enthusiasm for the motor car). They wanted to revive the soul of England – a soul they saw residing in traditional forms of self-sufficient peasant life. This led to attempts to re-educate the local population about lost or almost-lost traditions and to campaign to encourage others to do the same. This has clear parallels with 21st century concerns around the world about globalisation and the consequent threat to many indigenous and minority cultures. How interesting it was to see a group of English people struggling against what they perceived to be the imminent death of their own cultural heritage in a period when the country was inflicting such damage on that of others.
I became intrigued by the ideological perspective of the group, which was a complicated concoction of radical and conservative ideas. I was able to draw evidence for this from the PAM’s chief campaigning tools. One of these was a magazine entitled first The Vineyard and then The Country Heart (published from 1910 to 1922, except during World War I). Another was a museum of peasant art, largely built around the collection of Rev. Gerald Stanley Davies which was purchased in 1910. Other Arts and Crafts groups used similar educational tools. Eric Gill’s Ditchling Group produced The Game, a magazine featuring horrifying rabid attacks on women’s campaigns for increased rights. C.R. Ashbee kept a museum of objects for craftspeople to use for reference. The points of connection between the PAM and other perhaps better known and comparatively mainstream arts and crafts groups are numerous.
My article in Cultural and Social History analyses the views of the PAM, looking at class, gender and race/nationality. With respect to class, the movement was righteously angry about the exploitation of both the urban and rural poor but put forward solutions to the problem that were paternalistic if not feudalistic. Its views about gender were similarly mixed: Maude and Ethel ran businesses providing employment for local women and had no hesitation about raising their own voices in the public sphere and yet they argued that the place of women was in the home. In terms of race and the nation, the PAM was distinctive in the extent to which it recognised an international brotherhood (the gendered term is appropriate) among the peasants of Europe and, to a lesser extent, those in the rest of the world. The museum largely consisted of articles from other European cultures whose peasantries were seen as being in comparatively robust health and the magazine was similarly filled with poems, stories and factual articles about peasants in other lands. The country heart of England was to be resuscitated with the help of friends and sympathizers from abroad.
The PAM did not ultimately achieve its ambitions in turning back industrialisation and reviving peasant life. Nonetheless, it played its part in preserving and propagating the craft traditions which are a part of English culture today. It remains a source of interest in its local area, as evidenced by its continued prominence in the Haslemere Educational Museum. Its failures and successes provide material for reflection on our own world and our own attempts at preserving culture. It should encourage us to explore our own ideological perspectives and ask questions about who does and does not have voice and agency in the process. Are the people campaigning for the preservation of a culture the same people whose lives will be directly affected? Are the demands made in the spirit of providing choice or dictating to others how they should live?
PAM can also alert us to the importance of the local and the particular. Pockets of local enthusiasm for heritage build up to rich national patchwork. Nonetheless, the movement should also inspire us to reach out to others, nationally and internationally with a sense of shared concern. A museum showcasing world crafts with both respect for the makers and a desire to inspire creativity in others still seems an excellent idea, as does a magazine which makes accessible literature from around the world. The Peasant Arts Movement ultimately serves as a reminder that the destruction of world culture is everyone’s concern and not a battle that those minority cultures under most immediate threat should fight alone. A culturally depleted world is one that is poorer for us all.
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About the Author: Dr Amy Palmer is Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is a former school teacher whose research interests lie in children’s literature and policy development in the history of early years education, including her doctoral research on ‘Nursery schools or nursery classes? An analysis of national and local policy in England 1918-1972’. She has published in History of Education, Paedagogica Historica and most recently ‘Radical Conservatism and International Nationalism: The Peasant Arts Movement and Its Search for the Country Heart of England’ in Cultural and Social History, vol. 15, no. 5 (2018), pp. 663-680.