James Pierrepont Greaves, a merchant draper, from Merton, became convinced that he had a spiritual mission in life to share his commitment to the love of God with others. In 1818, he joined Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the Swiss educational reformer, then established at Yverdon, where he taught English. There he met fellow socialist Robert Owen.
He founded a philosophical society in 1836, the “Aesthetic Society”, which met for some time at a house in Burton Street in Camden. His educational experiences gradually led him to his unconventional philosophical views. “As Being is before knowing and doing, I affirm that education can never repair the defects of Birth”. Hence the necessity of “the divine existence being developed and associated with man and woman prior to marriage”. He was a follower of Jacob Boehme and influenced by German transcendentalism. He was also influenced by Thomas Taylor, William Law and the philosophy of neoplatonism. Greaves worked with Charles and Elizabeth Mayo to found the Home and Colonial School Society in Gray’s Inn Road in 1836. This teaching institution was dedicated to Pestalozzi whose educational ideas ignored the idea of rote-learning. The new organization included a model infant school where these ideas could be developed.
Greaves opened a freethinking school on Ham Common, southwest of London, July 1838. Discovering that Bronson Alcott had already had a similar school in Boston, USA. Greaves was sufficiently impressed to open a correspondence with Alcott and to name his school fafter him. Greaves had adopted the ‘vegetable diet’ in 1817; the school used it from the outset.
In 1841 the school was re-invented as ‘A Concordium, or Industry Harmony College’, still in Alcott House. The earliest confirmed use of ‘vegetarian’ was in the April 1842 issue of their new journal, and used in a way which showed that it was already familiar, at least to readers of that journal.
In July 1842, Bronson Alcott arrived from America to stay for four months, and when he left at the end of September he took two members of the Concordium with him to found a short-lived community near Harvard called Fruitlands. He was joined there by his family, including his 10-year-old daughter, Louisa May Alcott (later a famous author) and they continued to follow a wholly plant-food diet.
The Concordium developed into a sort of utopian community, with gardens, a playground, lawns, walkways, arbours and a summerhouse. Possibly influenced by Cabet and other French Utopian socialists, its residents called themselves followers of ‘sacred socialism’, and lived a spartan life of raw veggie food, celibacy, mesmerism and phrenology. Phew! They set up a proto-vegan society-type organisation. It broke up largely because the members objected to a diet of raw vegetables during the winter months, though I’m sure the ban on sex and constant head-examining played its part! Chartist communist John Goodwyn Barmby lived there for a short time. Alex Campbell, an Owenite socialist, left Ham around 1843 to found Concordium 2, at nearby Hampton Wick.
Socialist guru Robert Owen visited Ham three times; it was a convenient distance from London and socialists appreciated it as “salubrious and picturesque”. The river provided a delightful way of travelling, especially if accompanied by a choir. In 1840, with a coach load of followers, Owen delivered a lecture on Ham Common attacking marriage and proposing easy divorce. Even worse, he seemed to be undermining all social order when he also contended that people were not responsible for their actions anymore than a tumbler could be blamed for being filled with dirty water rather than clean. The Home Secretary, alerted to Owen’s notoriety, had sent spies to report on his lecture and in the House of Lords, Bishop Phillpotts of Exeter, who had already attacked Owen in the House, denounced it as a “most horrible and demoralising discourse”.
James Pierrepont Greaves died on 11th March 1842 at Alcott House. The school survived until 1848.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online