Laugh In The Face Of Crude Conventionalism

It wasn’t the easiest of moves, as it was surrounded by opposition, misunderstanding and financial challenges. This piece of land purchased on the 18th June 1878 held so much potential, but early work was hampered by bad weather and unforeseen struggles. By the time the first brick was laid in January 1879, the clay ground had become a sea of mud, with horses and carts struggling to transport materials to the building plots.

Some mocked because of these setbacks, gloating that this grand plan would not be finished on time. But sheer commitment, long hours and obsessive belief in the cause, led to the moment in 1880 when two brothers stood in front of their first finished cottages. It was a monumental step for the confectioners Richard and George Cadbury. These were more than just a few buildings; this was a sign that the family dream could one day be realised. 

A couple of paragraphs from a chapter in Revival’s Symphony that explores a daring dream to translate the Quaker ‘advices’ into practical help concerning living conditions and quality of life for factory workers in Birmingham.

This dream eventually became Bournville - a living model village that valued individual creativity, community investment, appreciation of nature, and the importance of rest. A visit by the New York Cosmopolitan reporter Annie Diggs, informed her readers that:

the very streets … laugh in the face of crude conventionalism. The monotony of capitalistic housing with rows of all-alike houses is prohibited. Why, it is the very joy of life among the villagers.

The men not being overworked in the factory go straight to their gardens with keen delight … spade and barrow to work their allotments after factory hours. Charming woodlands haunts, fine pavilion for entertainments, cricket fields, football grounds, fishing pools and swimming places … reading rooms with the best books, literary societies, debating clubs and institutions for serious study 

This report influenced another chocolatier by the name of Milton Hershey to invest his profits back into social investment.

Bournville became an experiment that provoked governmental response, particularly with the positive results of living standards, health care and the effective use of land. This ongoing discussion led to a number of Garden Cities / New Towns to take shape.

Whilst that journey led to mixed results, I am intrigued at one of the early ideas that shaped those explorations - that the ‘city’ should belong to its citizens in perpetuity (i.e. a fixed bond of ownership with no fixed end date). That once the cost of its development was paid back from the income raised within the location, any further profit from the value of land would flow back into the community. Decisions of investment were to be made from a local perspective, with active engagement and personal ownership. It was an idea that was eventually quashed in 1946, diverting local income back to the administration of central government. 

Regardless of our varied political stances concerning distribution of finance, the story of Garden Cities is a fascintating tale of creativity and imagination that I think we need to take heed of within these days. Where people of faith dared to face the tough challenges of injustice and sought to find practical means to not just address this issues but to eradicate them.

Sadly, the ‘present day’ informs us that these issues still remain, yet as I wrote about the influence of what some would term ‘Quaker Capitalism’ I found myself both inspired and challenge. It was a history that morphed itself into a relevant and constant reminder - that this journey within the narrative of revival is one that demands imagination within the valleys of pain.