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The Guild's symbol, The Hound of St Dominic by David Jones - 1922




1. FOUNDATION 1907- 1921

The genesis of the Guild was the bond formed by Eric Gill, Hilary Pepler and Edward Johnson during their time at Hammersmith in the early part of the Twentieth Century. When Gill moved to rural Sussex in 1907 in search of country living, the three men remained in contact, and when Johnson was advised by his Doctor to move to the country, he naturally sought out a location near Gill. Pepler soon after followed 'the prophet Johnson into the wilds' and the plan for a self-sufficient community on Ditchling Common evolved. Pepler, by training a civil servant, taught himself the craft of printing, and his printshop, together with Gill's stonemason's workshop and Johnson's calligraphy studio, formed the embryonic community. The first communal effort, a journal called 'The Game' began in October 1916 and became their voice to the wider world. 

An entirely new dimension was added to the enterprise in 1917 with the arrival in the area of Fr Vincent McNabb, an influential Dominican Monk. Described, perhaps unfairly, as a 'thirteenth century Monk alive in the twentieth century', his ardent Catholicism and interest in social justice fired the imagination of both Gill, who was a recent Catholic convert and the Quaker,  Pepler who became a Catholic soon after. Johnson's interest was also aroused, but he was unable to take the ultimate step of conversion and this was to lead to his falling away from the others. On 29 July 1918, Pepler and Gill together with Gill's wife, Commander Herbert Shove (a local resident) and  Desmond Chute (a student of Gill's),  became Dominican Tertiaries, in a sense lay members of the Order. They were soon joined by Joseph Cribb, Gill's former apprentice.

They next set about building a small chapel and to start thinking of a small guild, based on the worship of God rather mammon. Gill also conceived the idea of a crucifix on the nearby hillock, formed from spoil from the railway cutting at the edge of the common and an appeal to this end was launched in 1920, stressing the link with the end of the War:

Also in 1920, moves were taken to give the Guild a formal basis, and a constitution was agreed at a meeting held on 18 July, subject only to approval by Fr McNabb. The announcement of the formation of The Guild however, was not made until the September 1921 edition of The Game which set out the central principals:

  • Members must be Dominican Tertiaries

  • Craftsmen must own their own workshops and tools, in accordance with the principles of the Papal Encyclical 'Rerum Novarum'

  • Work is a form of divine worship, and high standards must therefore be observed.

  • Handcraft was a condition of work in the Guild, part of the principle of the rejection of modern life - a type of holy poverty.

  • St Joseph, traditionally a craftsman was their patron saint.


The early years of the Guild were to be exciting and eventually fractious. The experiment received wide publicity and many young men were interested in its ethos of spiritually inspired counter-culture.  A notable departure however, was Desmond Chute who left for the priesthood in 1921. Chute's departure had the effect of undermining the whole project for Gill; he was to write to Chute in 1925 "will anything have the vigour and freshness of that first spout?".

Notable among the arrivals were David Jones, a brilliant painter and poet, recently emerged from the trenches and much taken with Gill's charismatic personality. His major contribution to the Guild were the impressive murals which decorated the Guild chapel. Other important arrivals in 1922 were Philip Hagreen, founder of the Society of Wood Engravers and George Maxwell, a carpenter. In addition, many interested Catholics found their way to Ditchling Common for temporary stays. Soon as many as 41 Catholics were living and working as part of the Guild. Around this period, the two leading Catholic lay figures, Hillaire Beloc and GK Chesterton both paid visits.

Perversely, as the Guild success and fame grew. so did Gill's disillusion until in 1925 he made the decision to relocate to the more remote location of Capel y ffin based in a deserted former Anglican monastery in the Llanthony valley in the Black Mountains. He sought to take the entire Guild with him, but was able to persuade only his closest acolytes, including Jones and Hagreen. Both Maxwell and Cribb were inclined to join the move to Wales but were unable to convince their wives that it represented a practical proposition. The Capel project greatly appealed to Gill's sense of drama but caused a fatal rift in his friendship with Pepler and his departure left behind a feeling of resentment amongst other Guild members which never dissipated. His leaving undoubtedly took some of the lustre from the community; it was never glad confident morning again.


Notwithstanding Gill's departure, the Guild held together and continued to attract able and intelligent craftsmen. In 1925 Valentine KilBride started a weavers' workshop and in 1926 became a full member of the Guild. The falling away of its early rigor is evidenced by the dropping, in 1928, of the requirement that Guild members had to become Dominican Tertiaries and, taking advantage of this, its activities were expanded in 1932 when Dunstan Pruden, a gifted silversmith joined the community.

The Guild also developed a congenial social life, the high point being the St Dominic's celebrations on 4th August each year, generally consisting of a sports day, tea in the orchard, a performance of a drama in the evening and a pub supper. In details like, the quality of life that the Guild enjoyed shines through. Inevitably though, as with all human affairs, problems were brewing. Hilary Pepler was becoming something of a national, even international figure and there was a sense of estrangement between him and the other craftsmen who retained their belief in the simple life. The underlying tension came to a head in 1933, the issue being Pepler's employment of a non-Catholic to assist in his print shop. Pepler was expelled but the terms of settlement remained the subject of legal dispute for many years. Eventually, Pepler vacated his premises on the common and reopened in Ditchling in 1937 under the name 'The Ditchling Press'.

The last of the founders had now left and the spirit of innovation and experiment seems to have been overtaken by a more settled and resigned philosophy. A high point though was the arrival of a promising sculptor, Gill's nephew John Skelton who became apprenticed to Cribb. The war years though, were not kind to the Guild. The KilBride family had to abandon its workshop due to lack of silk for weaving; casualties of the fighting included George Maxwell's son Stephen, Cribb's former assistant Albert Leany and the eldest KilBride son.

4. POST-WAR  1946 - 1988

After the war, the Guild might have seemed like a relic of a bygone era. Nevertheless, it soon found its numbers rising. The KilBrides returned from Scotland in 1946, Edward Holloway joined in 1946 as artist and engraver and Kenneth Edgar replaced Skelton as apprentice to Cribb.

The older generation were now fading from the scene. Gill had died in 1940, Pepler died in 1951, George Maxwell in 1951 and Joseph Cribb in 1967. Reflecting the strength of family life on the common, the younger generation were taking over in some areas. All surviving KilBride children became weavers, Thomas becoming a Guild member in 1960 and daughter Jenny becoming the first female member in 1970. In addition the carpenter's workshop had been taken over by George Maxwell's son John and Dunstan Pruden's wife Winefride (since 1974, his widow)  had also being granted full membership in 1975. What was to be the final admission to membership took place in 1983; fittingly in view of Edward Johnson's part in the origin of the Guild, it was to be a calligrapher, KilBride's grandson Ewan Clayton.

This litany of comings and goings all revolve around members of existing Guild families and that tells its own story regarding the declining ability of the community to appeal to the post-war world. An important amendment to the constitution had been made in 1972 which stated that the Guild members would benefit from a sale instead of the Dominicans as was previously planned. This change had the effect of discouraging the admittance of new members as the older members increasingly came to see the Guild assets as their pension fund. The looming crisis came to a head in 1988 when an offer was received from a development company for the site. Despite a counter-proposal from Ewan Clayton and Jenny KilBride, a vote was passed in favour of sale. The closure of the Guild was filled with acrimony which meant that it was not possible to save any buildings.

The six Guild members at the end were Ewan Clayton, Kenneth Eager, Edgar Holloway, Jenny KilBride, Winifred Pruden and Thomas KilBride.