Dartington Hall and social reform in interwar Britain
In the wake of the First World War, reformers across the Western world questioned laissez-faire liberalism, the self-oriented and market-driven ruling doctrine of the nineteenth century. This philosophy was blamed, variously, for the war, for industrialisation and for urbanisation; for a way of life shorn of any meaning beyond getting and keeping; for the too great faith in materialism and in science; and for the loss of a higher, transcendent meaning that gave a unifying altruistic or spiritual purpose to individual existence and to society as a whole.
For many, the cure to these ills lay in reforming the liberal social framework in ways that made it more fulfilling to the whole person and that strengthened ties between individuals. Dartington Hall was an outstanding practical example of this impulse to promote holistic, integrated living. It was a well-financed, internationally-minded social and cultural experiment set up on an estate in South Devon in 1925 by American heiress Dorothy Elmhirst (née Whitney) and her second husband, Leonard, son of a Yorkshire squire-parson.
The Elmhirsts’ project for redressing the effects of laissez-faire liberalism had two components. Instead of being treated as atomised individuals in the capitalist market, participants at Dartington were to achieve full self-realisation through a ‘life in its completeness’ that incorporated the arts, education and spirituality. In addition, through their active participation in running the community, they were to demonstrate how integrated democracy could bring about the perfection of individuals and the progress of society as a whole. The Elmhirsts hoped that Dartington would provide a globally applicable model for a better way of life.
This thesis is a close study of Dartington’s interlinked constellation of experiments in education, the arts, agriculture and social organisation – experiments that can only be understood by tracing them back to their shared roots in the idea of ‘life in its completeness’. At the same time, it explores how Dartington’s philosophy and trajectory illuminate the wider reform landscape. The Elmhirsts’ community echoed and cross-pollinated with other schemes for social improvement in Britain, Europe, America and India, as well as feeding into the broad social democratic project in Britain. Dartington’s evolution from an independent, elite-led reform project to one split between state-led and communitarian reform matched the trajectory of other such enterprises begun in interwar Britain, making it a bellwether of changes in reformist thinking across the century.