The following is an extract from a book by Joe and Rachel Cribb - Eric Gill and Ditchling: the workshop tradition



Since the first number of The Game in 1916 we have been concerned in arriving at a way of life and work which would not be the denial of individualism but the affirmation of Truth. Last year we had arrived at a sufficiently clear agreement to make possible the beginning of a Society or Guild. This Guild has taken SS Joseph & Dominic for its patrons.


This statement in the magazine The Game in 1921 announced the formal founda­tion of the Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic on Ditchling Common. The Guild was based around the ideas that Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler had been forming since their conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, in 1913 and 1917 respec­tively. Although highly influential in the formation of their ideas, Edward Johnston did not take part in the founding of the Guild. He did not want to fol­low the Roman Catholic faith which was now the central driving force for his two associates. Gill and Pepler, however, were by this time increasingly influenced by the ideas of a Dominican prior, Fr Vincent McNabb.


McNabb was an advocate of Distributism, a political movement within the Catholic Church. It used the Papal encyclical Rerum Norarum of Pope Leo XIII (written in 1891) to develop an alternative to socialism and communism, which retained their opposition to capitalism and the exploitation of industrialisation. The Catholic writers, Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, were also vocal advo­cates of this new movement, which came to be known as 'Back to the Land'. The main message was that personal ownership of land, houses and the means of production would enable workers to resist capitalism:


'Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which is their own; nay, they learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labour of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for them­selves and those that are dear to them.'


Gill had first met McNabb in June 1914. However it was not until 1916 that the impact of his ideas began to affect Gill's own philosophies. The first edition of The Game in October 1916 began with a clear statement of Gill's beliefs: 'A man having seen the glory of God must thereafter work for the glory of God, the things which he makes he will make for the glory of God'. During the next three years McNabb helped Gill shape these beliefs into a Distributist philoso­phy. It is worth noting that it was a conversation with McNabb that persuaded Pepler to become a Catholic in October 1917.


McNabb's philosophy fitted in well with Gill and Pepler's existing ideals of anti-capitalism and anti-industrialisation. On Gill's move to London in 1900 he had discovered, and discussed with fellow craftworkers, the theories of many different movements of the time. He quickly became disillusioned with the Arts & Crafts Movement, and turned to the Labour Party and Socialism. He joined the newly-formed Fabian Arts Group, attracted by its ideas of Guild Socialism. By the time he had moved to Ditchling, in 1907, Gill had rejected the ideas of most of these movements and was increasingly interested in religion. Having settled in Ditchling, Gill wanted to engage with George Bernard Shaw's 'New Religion', and, with the sculptor Jacob Epstein, he discussed erecting a Stonehenge-like sanctuary on the Sussex Downs.


When Gill became a Catholic, he joined an organisation which gave him the religious structure and faith that he needed. At this time there were very few prominent Catholics in Britain, and Gill was therefore placing himself out­side the mainstream. Despite this, it was not an exclusive and pioneering group, in the way that the other groups that Gill had belonged to had been. McNabb showed Gill how individuality, could be retained within a group whose raison d'etre was a sense of higher purpose. Although the ideas on which Distributism were based had Papal authority, they were not widely accepted within the Catholic Church. Gill was therefore able to promote the theories as a way of asserting his individuality as well as fulfilling his desire to make a difference to society. Gill's own writings began to articulate these new ideals with articles in The Game such as 'Slavery and Freedom' and The Factory System and Christianity'.


Gill moved to Ditchling Common in 1913, and, by late 1917, so had Pepler and Johnston. Joseph Cribb worked with Gill on the Common, but didn't live there until after he returned from France in 1919. The growing community embraced the philosophy of living off the land in the Distributist manner, which included keeping livestock. On 5 October 1917, Gill and Pepler went to Hawkesyard Priory to visit McNabb and discussed the possibility of starting a religious order for artists. Later in the month Gill also discussed with Hilaire Belloc the possibility of expanding the 'farm' by buying more land.


The following year saw the arrival on the Common of the artist Desmond Chute who was to become a founding member of the Guild. Chute had grown up as a Catholic and had studied for a time at the Slade School of Art in London. He had introduced himself to Gill in Westminster Cathedral on 5 April 1918 when Gill was working on the last of the Stations of the Cross. Within a few days of their meeting, Chute moved to Ditchling. Gill and Pepler turned one of the outhouses in Pepler's house into a chapel and it was consecrated by McNabb on 27 July 1918. Two days later Gill, his wife, Pepler and Chute became lay members of the Third Order of St Dominic (known as Tertiaries), making Gill's earlier discussion with McNabb a reality: Tn 1917, in conversation with priests, the suggestion was made that one or other of the Third Orders would form the religious basis and supply the rule of life required'.


The consecration of the chapel gave the craftsmen and their families a firm Catholic basis on which to found the new community. Gill later designed and oversaw the building of a dedicated Guild chapel which then became the new focus for the community. The influence of McNabb and Chute enabled Gill and Pepler to organise a structure around which to realise their ideas. By early 1919, Gill and Pepler, with others, owned enough land on the edge of Ditchling Common to start planning the buildings. These included the new chapel as well as a school room. In March 1919 Gill bought some surplus army huts to be turned into houses and workshops and in July the farm behind Gill's house was purchased. Their plans had progressed sufficiently for Gill, Pepler and Chute to meet, on 26 July 1919, to decide upon the official formation of the Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic. It took another year of discussion and preparation for the Guild to become a reality and on 18 July 1920 it was formally established. Gill, Pepler, Chute and Cribb, were its founding members, and Gill wrote its consti­tution and rules.


There was no place in the Guild for women, although they could become Tertiaries. The purpose of the Guild was, very clearly, to provide a structure within which Gill and his associates could carry out their work. No reference was made in any of the literature relating to the formation of the Guild to the domestic labour necessary to support the community. This reflects Gill's very traditional view of women's roles, despite the emphasis placed by him on the religious, as opposed to craft, purpose of the Guild. The public announcement of the foundation of the Guild, in The Game, in 1921, firmly stated Gill's beliefs:


‘The Guild of S. Joseph & Dominic is a craft Guild, but is not primarily a craft Guild. It is primarily a religious fraternity for those who make things with their hands. As a guild it aims only at the sanctification of the brethren, and holds that the love of God is the only source of good.'


Following the announcement, the physical surroundings for the Guild were quickly established. By March 1921 Gill's workshop and the Guild chapel were built and ready for use. The Guild saw its first recruits when William lull joined Pepler in St Dominic's Press and became a postulant (novice) member in September 1921, and George Maxwell, a carpenter and already a Tertiary, joined as a member in February 1922. Tull left before becoming a member and Philip Baker took his place, working in his brother-in-law Maxwell's workshop. Philip Hagreen became a postulant in March 1924 to work with Gill. During the early years of the Guild, others arrived to work but did not become members, proba­bly because they did not intend to live permanently within the community. The artist David Jones first came in January 1921 but did not become a postulant until 1924, and Cribb's brother Lawrie came in July 1921 but never joined the Guild. In Gill's workshop his other assistant, Albert Leaney, worked alongside short-term assistants including Ralph Beedham, Hilary Stratton and Denis Tegetmeier. The Tertiaries also grew in number, with local Catholics joining, and craftsmen moving to the area to become members. Despite the obvious interest in the Guild, and the many craftsmen who moved to Ditchling, the Guild took time to stabilise. For example, within weeks of its formal etablishment, Chute, one of the founder members, announced his intention to start training for the priest­hood, and he left for Switzerland shortly afterwards.


Life in the Guild in the early days was very busy. The day-to-day work of the members continued, but they also began to decorate the chapel and to equip the workshops. Cribb carved the capitals for the pilasters in the chapel as well as various memorial panels, including one for his mother-in-law, Annie Weller.


Maxwell helped with the building of the workshops, and houses for the growing community. David Jones, while continuing to paint, and to learn carv­ing and wood-engraving from Gill, worked as Maxwell's assistant making domestic objects such as door handles for the new buildings. Pepler's press printed pamphlets and The Game magazine, as propaganda for the new commu­nity, as well as stationery for the Guild. Alongside this, Gill tried various money-making ventures, such as making sculptures to sell through the Goupil Gallery. The members of the Guild met for three periods of prayer a day in the chapel, fitting their working day around these. Time was also found for enter­tainments, with the Guild members building a crib to be carried to each of the houses in the community for the round of carol singing at Christmas. Pepler also organised amateur dramatics in which members of the Guild took part or to which they contributed costumes, sets and props. Each member's feast day, and every achievement of the Guild, was celebrated with a community supper in a member's house.


Gill's role in his 'ideal' community did not last, and he left the Guild, and Ditchling, in August 1924. The reasons for his departure have been the subject of much speculation. It has been suggested that Gill feared revelations about his morally suspect private life, but it has also been said that he became disillu­sioned with the considerable size of the Guild and with the visits to the community of so many journalists.12 It is also perhaps no coincidence that Gill had lost his position as formal leader of the Guild to Pepler in August 1923. Gill himself stated that his reasons were related to money. This included accusing Pepler of financial impropriety, which led to the two friends never speaking to each other again. The financial arrangements of the Guild had always been problematic despite the formation of a parallel company, the Spoil Bank Association, at the start of the Guild, to hold the land and manage the money. Gill so distrusted others with money, especially banks, that for a period in 1922 he held the Guild's money in gold in a secret compartment in his desk.


In spite of these many reasons, it seems Gill had contemplated moving the Guild away from Ditchling as early as 1920. During 1919 he had toured Ireland and at Guild meetings in March and June 1920 he suggested relocating the Guild to an island off the coast of Connemara in Galway. Although this idea was rejected, in January 1924 Gill's visit to the Benedictines on Caldey Island off the south coast of Wales led him to consider it as another possibility. While on Caldey Island, Gill was told by the monks about the empty Benedictine monastery they owned at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains, situated between Abergavenny and Hay-on-Wye. On his way back to Ditchling, Gill visited the area and on his return he suggested that the Guild should move there. While on Caldey he wrote to Chute, 'But why leave Ditchling Common? But why not? Is it not possible that we are living beyond our means there?'13 Within a few months Gill had decided to move to Capel-y-ffin without the Guild. On 14 June he reported to a Guild meeting that he had purchased a building at Capel-y-ffin and so resigned his membership.


With Gill's departure in August, the Guild did not end. Pepler, Cribb and Maxwell stayed in Ditchling. Only Jones and Hagreen followed Gill to Wales. After 1924 the Guild took on new members. Valentine KilBride, a weaver, became a member in 1926 and was joined in his workshop by Bernard Brocklehurst in 1930. In 1930 Hagreen returned from Wales and rejoined the Guild in the same year. In 1932, Dunstan Pruden, a silversmith, also joined. Together they worked with Pepler and Cribb to continue the work of the Guild as a living embodiment of the ideals developed by Gill.


With the establishment of the Guild, Gill had achieved a consolidated framework for his work and his ideas. He had expressed his excitement to his friend William Rothenstein, in November 1919, in dramatic terms:


‘A Revolution is coming - I try to meet it - I by living or learning to live as much as possible on my own resources as a small landed proprietor and 2, by doing what I can to propagate the Faith so that the Revolution may be guided in a direction consonant with the fundamental facts of human nature and man's essential perfection.’


However when recalling this time in his Autobiography, Gill did not acknowledge the continuing success of the craftsmen who were still working and living in the Guild long after his departure:


‘... the chief influence at this time was our daily life as brethren of our guild. In the course of time we built a small chapel and a quadrangle of workshops, and we endeavoured to unite the life of work with the life of prayer. Looking back on those years I find it impossible to think that we were not successful.’


The Guild survived until 1989, sixty years after its original conception. Over time, however, the strict rules by which it governed itself were relaxed. In October 1928 it was decided, on the advice of the Dominican order, that it should no longer be necessary for applicants to be Tertiaries. However the rule regarding the Catholic focus for the Guild was maintained and, in March 1934, Pepler was expelled from the Guild for employing a non-Catholic in his workshop. Nevertheless in January 1938, it was agreed to suspend this rule also, as it had become unworkable. In 1958, Maxwell's son John was allowed to install an electrically-powered machine in his workshop, marking a break with the Guild's original strict adherence to hand-making.16 Finally, in 1974, KilBride's daughter, the weaver Jenny KilBride, became the first female member of the Guild.


There was continued interest in the Guild until the end. This included approaches from, among others, a potter, a stained-glass maker and a sculptor, to work within the Guild. Attempts were also made to develop a revived complex of workshops. However, much like Gill's self-proclaimed financial reasons for leaving in 1924, the need for the older members of the Guild to retire with some money eventually led to the liquidation of the Guild's assets. In 1989 the Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic was disbanded and within a year all trace of it had disappeared from Ditchling Common.


Joe Cribb


This essay is an extract from the book by Ruth Cribb and Joe Cribb: Eric Gill and Ditchling: the workshop tradition and is reprinted with the permission of the author.


By the same authors:


Eric Gill: Lust for Line and Letter ISBN 978-0-7141-1891-2 BUY