The story of the Cotswold Bruderhof (14 October 2018)

On my website there are various items about the Cotswold Bruderhof, which occupied the site that later became known as the Cotswold Community. These were obtained in piecemeal fashion over the years so there were bound to be gaps about the formation, establishment and demise of this Christian community. So it was with considerable interest when I heard that a book had been written about the Cotswold Bruderhof. “A Christian Peace Experiment : The Bruderhof Community in Britain, 1933-1942” by Ian M. Randall (Cascade Books 2018).

Here is an extract that describes how the Cotswold Bruderhof came to be in Ashton Keynes:-

“The search which led to the establishment in 1936 of this community ‘in the middle of a field’ was undertaken by Freda Bridgwater and Arnold Mason, two English members of the Bruderhof, and Hans Zumpe, a German member who was visiting England. The property they selected was Ashton Fields farm, near Ashton Keynes, several miles from Cirencester. Freda Bridgwater later recalled that when the three turned into the drive they saw a beautiful field of wheat on their left. But the buildings looked the worse for wear: doors were off their hinges, furniture had been knocked around, and outhouses were in a similarly poor state. Yet Freda felt the place was so rundown that it was ripe for renewal as a community. Her companions found this hard to believe, but her instinct proved correct.

The Cotswold community soon began at Ashton Keynes, and over the next five years the community experienced considerable growth. Buildings were renovated, and new structures were created. Bruderhof members, now refugees, began to arrive from Germany, where their witness had made them a target of the Nazi regime. As word spread about the Bruderhof, significant numbers of British people joined. The growth resulted in the extension of the community’s activities, with the acquisition of additional farms.”

I was intrigued to find a reference to the infamous Colonel Dyer, who was responsible for the massacre at Amritsar.

“The owner of the farm [Ashton Fields] was known in the neighbourhood, in part because his father, Colonel Reginald Dyer, was responsible in 1919 for the massacre of unarmed protesters at Amritsar, India.  His son needed to sell the farm and could not afford the necessary repairs.”

Here is another description of the dilapidated farm and its buildings:-

“Writing to Edith on 22 March [1936], Hardy describes his fascination with Ashton Fields. ‘The buildings are ancient’, he said, with the main building being ‘like the main portion of a Middle-Ages castle, if one forgets about a tower’. There were ‘many old trees, mostly elms and covered with ivy close to the house, and beautiful flowers’. However, he contrasted this pleasing exterior setting with the dilapidated interior of the house, ‘full of rubble and there is much junk lying about everywhere’.  Also, cooking was ‘like in the Middle Ages, in a pot hanging by a chain over the fire!’ Nonetheless, he believed there was a good foundation for a community and ‘many possibilities for building up and extending’.

I always felt that the Bruderhof must have had some good contacts in the Home Office both to help their arrival from Germany and later their departure to Paraguay. This next extract confirms it:-

“… Richards introduced the Bruderhof to Ernest Cooper, Assistant Secretary in the Aliens Department of the Home office. Cooper, whose small staff was dealing with increasing numbers of refugee applications from Germany, was known for his efficiency and also for the astute way in which he conducted his operations. It appears that he co-operated discreetly with non-Nazi elements in the German embassy in order to help refugees, many of whom were Jewish. Cooper advised Arnold Mason to invite Bruderhof members individually as ‘visitors’ to Ashton Fields. If there were difficulties with entry permissions at the ports, Cooper suggested that Arnold could telephone him at the Aliens Department. In due course the many visitors invited by ‘Mr and Mrs Arnold Mason’ to ‘our farm at Ashton Fields’ were granted permission to enter Britain.”

While I was at the Cotswold Community groups from the Bruderhof movement, some from communities in North America and more often from the  Darvell Bruderhof near Robertsbridge, visited to tend their graveyard and to see again the place that was a safe haven from Nazi Germany. Sometimes they asked to meet in the large barn, which we called the Weaving Hall, where their legend was carved into a large beam (see above). They would pray, eat and sing together and their sense of community was strong. This comes across in another quote from the book.

“Annemarie Arnold described to her mother the first Christmas Eve at the Cotswold Bruderhof: ‘When it grew dark, we all gathered in front of the big house. We walked singing in a long procession to the stable at the back of the hof where the manger scene had been set up with a young ox and little calves. The Christmas story was read out in two languages; we sang many Christmas songs, and everybody was given a small red candle lit from the candle at the manger.’ The experience of shared Christmas joy in this international community was profound.”

We also get from Randall’s book a sense of the day-to-day life and routines in the Cotswold Bruderhof.

“Work was central to the rhythm of the community…… Meals shared together were also important. The community breakfast involved not only eating together but also singing. Emmy Arnold was intrigued by the habit, which had become common by 1939, of singing lively Salvation Army songs together at this point. No doubt this helped the waking up process! Work then continued throughout the day, apart from the midday break when lunch was eaten. The food was simple, and at times not to the liking of guests….. Work was divided out by a work distributor…… There was a focus on dairy farming and crops. In addition, the community undertook poultry farming, pig-breeding, and market-gardening….. There were also wood-turning, printing, publishing, and bookbinding departments, and these were all working at capacity.”

I have long wondered about the details of the ending of the Cotswold Bruderhof and their move to Paraguay. The book sheds light on what happened.

“Having found sanctuary in Britain in 1936, by the summer of 1940 the Bruderhof was facing another move….. Over the summer of 1940 the Bruderhof’s contacts in British government circles indicated that the situation was such that the community’s German members would have to leave the country if they were going to avoid the mass internment of aliens that was taking place. In response, the community requested time to allow the entire group to leave Britain. That was agreed….. In the search for refuge abroad, the Bruderhof first sought to join the Hutterites in Canada, where most Hutterite communities were located, or perhaps in the USA. [This came to nothing]… when Orie Miller heard of the Bruderhof’s failures, he approached the Paraguayan ambassador to the US on behalf of the Bruderhof…… The result of this contact was an invitation to the Bruderhof to settle in the Paraguayan Chaco, or Western Region, a semi-arid part of the country where Mennonites had colonies….. There were certain features about Paraguay that were appealing. It was made clear to the Bruderhof that they would be welcome under the same laws as the Mennonites: freedom of religion, freedom of education, and freedom from military service were guaranteed. In any case, this appeared to be the only option on offer.”

The book then goes on to explain how this site became an Approved School.

“On 20 December 1940 Charles Headland and Heini Arnold visited the Home Office in London to clarify a number of issues. By that stage the Home Office had begun to discuss a definite interest that was being shown in the Cotswold property by the London Police Court Mission (LPCM), which was part of the probation service and was involved in running hostels connected with rehabilitation…. The proposal was for the LPCM to turn the Cotswold property into an approved school, with the advantage of the property being that boys who’d got into serious difficulties with the police could not only get schooling there and also an agricultural training. The LPCM decided to buy the property…… The leaving date for the last group – ultimately numbering sixty-three – to embark for Paraguay was 23 April 1941, on the Avila Star.”

The book concludes with a summary of where things have got to today:-

“Almost a century after its beginning in Sannerz, the Bruderhof consists of over 2,900 men, women and children – families and single people – living in twenty-three intentional communities of differing sizes, most in Europe and North America. Communities have flourished again in Britain.”

For more information about the Bruderhof Communities today, you can visit their website