Unsurprisingly perhaps, John Ruskin’s approach to land has been a subject that has fascinated me well before we moved here almost two years ago. The fascination was rekindled last week by a visit from Dominika Wielgopolan, who is just beginning a doctorate at Manchester Metropolitan University which will explore Ruskin’s approach to nature, the land and environmental sustainability
The Guild of St George was established by Ruskin primarily in order to acquire and use land as a means of furthering its objectives. As Ruskin wrote: ‘We will try to take some small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful. We will have no steam-engines upon it, and no railroads: we will have no untended or unthought of creatures on it; none wretched by the sick; none idle but the dead…..we will have plenty of flowers and vegetables in our gardens, plenty of corn and grass in our fields….and few bricks.’ It was his practical response to the environmental and social damage caused by nineteenth century industrialisation.
It was a scheme for rural regeneration and, as Stu Eagles notes, Ruskin was not concerned per se ‘with man’s ownership of land, but with the relationship between man and nature.’ The purpose was to provide opportunities for workers to reconnect with the natural world and to promote ‘the rational organisation of country life’. There are parallels with the Chartist land movement of a few decades earlier and the ‘three acres and cow’ land reform campaign which arose in the 1880s in response to rural poverty. While Ruskin professed ‘to know very little about land myself’, his approach was much broader than these other initiatives. This is clear from the primary objective of the Guild, set out in its original Memorandum of Association, ‘to determine, and institute in practice, the wholesome laws of laborious (and especially agricultural) life and economy, and to instruct first the agricultural and, as opportunity may serve, other labourers and craftsmen, in such science, art, and literature as are conducive to good husbandry and craftsmanship.’
Ruskin Land, here in the Wyre Forest, was one of the Guild’s first acquisitions. Initially, 7 acres of land was donated by George Baker in 1871 and the gift was later increased to 20 acres in 1877. St George’s Fund, as the Guild was first called, Ruskin said was to be used for: ‘the buying and securing of land in England, which shall not be built upon, but cultivated by Englishmen, with their own hands, and such help of force as they can find in wind and wave’. Other early landholdings were at Totley, near Sheffield (below – also called St George’s Farm), and Cloughton Moor, near Scarborough, where followers of Ruskin sought to put into practice his ideals.
While the intention was to create smallholdings for farming and horticulture, it took a few years for this to be achieved at Ruskin Land mainly, it seems, due to the lack of housing nearby. In 1882 Ruskin wrote, in a report to the Guild, that its land in the Wyre Forest was ‘so precious, in its fresh air and wild woodland, to the neighbouring populations of large manufacturing towns, that I am content at present in our possession of it, and do not choose to break the quiet of its neighbourhood by any labourer’s cottage building, without which, however, I do not at present see my way to any effective use of the ground.’ It wasn’t until 1908 that St George’s farmhouse was built.
Previous research, including by Mark Frost and Jan Marsh, has explored aspects of the early years of the Guild’s land-based activities. Professor David Ingram has investigated how Ruskin experimented with managing his estate at Brantwood, near Coniston, where he lived out his later years. Despite these valuable sources, and my own modest contribution to Arboreal – a collection of new woodland writing which describes the changing fortunes of Ruskin Land, it would be good to explore further what we can learn from Ruskin’s approach to land. Given the many challenges faced in establishing viable smallholdings and staying true to Ruskinian ideals, I look forward to seeing what Dominika’s research reveals and what lessons it may have for the future.