The Fellowship of the New Life was formally founded in 1882. It would go on to produce a much more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.
Founded by Thomas Davidson ( in 1882-3, as a “society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform”, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland.
Davidson, a talented and brilliant scot from poor background, was a terminal wanderer, who founded other similar societies, (eg in New York); but couldn’t settle anywhere. He had difficult relations with people, was inspiring but hard to communicate with him, and seems to have had little time for anyone who disagreed with him…
An interesting character, among other ideas he thought virtue should be evaluated and celebrated; that anyone who hadn’t educated themselves to be a profound thinker “is still a slave to authority and convention, a mere play actor in life, bound to play a traditional, unreal part, without any of the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
He basically believed in the essential divinity of all things, including human life. These ideas seem to echo 17th century ideas more than anything, especially the ranters: Davidson even fixes on the same phrase ‘glorious liberty’ (originally from the Bible, Romans 8:21) as the ranter Jacob Bauthumley: “God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the Sons of God’
The Fellowship was founded in his Chelsea rooms around September/October 1882,
In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” On top of this, aims were further clarified:
“Object: The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.
Principle: The subordination of material things to spiritual things.
Fellowship: The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere and strenuous devotion to the object and principle.”
Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.
From its birth, though, the group was divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: would it be practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.
Edward Carpenter, author, anti-vivisectionist, vegetarian, teetotaller, and campaigner for homosexual equality, came to be associated with the Fellowship.
From 1888 to 1889 Carpenter lived with Cecil Reddie, a Ruskin-inspired educationalist; they and the Fellowship planned the pioneering and progressive Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire, which opened in 1889.
According to Edward Carpenter: “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.” The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’, ‘Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.
Anarchism over breakfast
The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house at no. 29 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury: ‘Fellowship House’ set up around 1890.
A leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union and the radical feminist Freewoman discussion circle.
“One of the most active and vigorous of [the Fellowship]”, she helped to organize and to carry on for some time a joint dwelling or co-operative boarding-house near Mecklenburgh Square, where eight or ten members of the Fellowship dwelt in a kind of communistic Utopia. Naturally the arrangement gave rise to some rather amusing and some almost tragic episodes, which she has recorded for us in a little story entitled Attainment.”
Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening. Sounds like fun ????!!! Discussions over Vita Nuova had though caused much internal dispute among the New Lifers in 1882-3, to the point that it was not formally adopted as the manifesto.
Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and an “elderly and quixotic” Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).
According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks… She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.” However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Despite Edith’s ideal, did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Author Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”
In her story Attainment, Lees portrayed life at Doughty Street in fictional form, as ‘Brotherhood House’. Despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.”
Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living. In reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’, she afterwards asserted that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’
“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”
But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment’ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: “I dare now,” she says, “to live out what is real within me.”) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women. (Ellis himself was largely impotent until the age of 60, when he discovered that only the sight of a woman pissing turned him on. Better late than never. )
Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (according to Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.
The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…
The Fabian Society
The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (Its not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)
Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”
Shaw’s sarcasm aside, its easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…
In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘new life’ could be created.
It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?
Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians, although Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks, and that the Fabians have created a mythology around themselves and their history which inflates their impact…
The original Fellowship, changing its name to just the New Fellowship, enjoyed a new lease of life around 1889/ 1890. In 1889 they issued a journal, ‘The Sower’, later ‘Seed Time’, printed by a ‘saintly’ Tolstoyan ‘anarchist’ William Frey (Originally Vladimir Geins), a Russian former aristo and general! who later emigrated to New York, becoming a leader of the ‘New Odessa colony’. Frey was a veggie humanist who influenced communal living ideals in New York and possibly founded a Russian commune in Kansas.
According to Seed Time the group was holding lectures weekly, (at Doughty St?) alternately theoretical and practical (still never nailed that dual nature eh?).. examples of the subjects being ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’. The Fellowship was still in existence until at least 1896.
Both Seed Time and the groups activities could not have survived if not supported (presumably financially) by William Morris, Ramsay MacDonald, and other luminaries. Morris was a huge influence on the Fellowship, as he was on the early Fabians.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.