Manea Fen: William Hodson’s vision of the Colony’s bright future

After All: The ‘merry men’ who used windmills to polish shoes

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Instead of his traditional Yuletide techno tale, Vitali recounts a real‑life story of a forgotten Utopian community.

Even Paris ends somewhere, or so they say in France...

Year 2021, which is now on its last Covid-affected legs, felt endless due to the lockdowns.

But here we are, nearing Christmas, and here I am – triple, or, if to count the annual flu injection, quadruple – jabbed, and travelling again!

Yes, I spent the second half of 2021 searching for a ... Utopia. Not any kind of Utopia, but – conveniently for the time when foreign travel was all but banned – a domestic, read: British, one, for that is what my next book is going to be about – the Utopian, i.e. (in my own definition) both idealistic and ideal, settlements of Britain.

In a specially acquired second-hand campervan, I’ve managed to trace down and/or to visit about 50 of the above, with the most revealing discovery made last November.

I want to share this last one with you today.

So, my traditional yuletide techno-tale this time around will be neither a thriller (like last year) nor a fairy tale (like in 2019), nor even a new Icelandic saga, like several years ago, but an entirely true story of a fascinating technology-obsessed Utopian community, which existed for just a couple of years but had managed to leave an interesting legacy, as well as to teach a good lesson to the whole of humankind – a lesson that, sadly, has not been properly learned until now.

I am talking about the Manea Fen Colony, which existed in Cambridgeshire between 1838 and 1841.

As it often happens, I first came across it accidentally while gathering material on Octavia Hill, a Victorian reformer and founder of the National Trust. Her former house (now a museum) in Wisbech contained, among other relics, a scale model of the Manea Fen Community, about which I hadn’t heard a thing until then.

My curiosity was sparked. From the substantive and hard-to-obtain volume ‘Utopia Britannica’ compiled by Chris Coates, I grasped the following:

“Manea Fen (1838-41) – Founder/Leader William Hobson. ‘Unofficial’ Owenite community on 200-acre fenland estate. Built cottages, school, pavilion and their own windmill [they actually built many more than that, as I discovered later – VV]. Was the most radical and notorious of the Owenite communities in the UK [sic]. Issued its own newspaper, The Working Bee, and had a uniform of Linkoln Green suits, which gave the men the appearance of being part of Robin Hood’s merry men. Failed to find markets for its goods and collapsed...”

That was all.

Not hoping to find many traces of the long-gone ‘Owenite’ (i.e., following the Utopian socialist philosophy of the 19th-century Welsh social reformer Robert Owen) community, I duly drove through the unremarkable Manea Village of today, where the only reminder of the Colony was a solitary, as if accidentally dropped off the cart and left behind in haste, toponym ‘Colony Farm’ – a chunk of ordinary farmland with grazing cattle on it.

I was able to find out more at the Cambridgeshire Collection – a section of the Cambridge City Library sitting right on top a busy shopping centre. There I sat for several days, leafing through the faded issues of The Working Bee newspaper, and trying to teleport myself 183 years back in time, to the muffled din of the jolly pre-Christmas 2021 shopping mall reaching me from below.

Robert Owen (1771-1858) sincerely believed that a ‘brave new world’ could be built with the help of two main components: end of poverty due to the advances of technology, plus rational thought. From the early 1820s, he encouraged the creation of new small communities all over Britain, the number of which was soon well over a hundred.

One of Owen’s most devoted followers was Fenland farmer William Hodson, who publicly vowed to build an exemplary Owenite community – “a union of working classes” – on 200 acres of his own land in the Cambridgeshire Fens. In that community, he promised, there would be no social distinctions, no classes, and no private property. Everything will be shared equally among the colonists. There were also rather vague promises of “freer sexual unions” and joint childcare – a new moral order of sorts.

Hodson, just like Owen himself, was a convinced technocrat and a firm believer in the transforming power of new technologies. In his declaration 'I will Endeavour', published in The Working Bee, he wrote:

“The food will be cooked by a scientific apparatus thus saving an immense labour to the females... Machinery, which has hitherto been for the benefit of the rich, will be adopted in the colony for lessening labour. A steam engine will be erected for thrashing and grinding corn, as well as steaming food for cattle and many other purposes.”

Invited by Hodson, the first colonists started trickling in in 1838, and the initial progress was encouraging. Working days at Manea were much shorter than anywhere else, yet the villagers from outside the community complained that the colonists did not observe Sabbath (i.e., carried on working on Sundays) and were therefore often branded ‘infidels’.

The drainage work at Manea, which many colonists were supposed to do, was made particularly difficult by the presence of a buried pit band, or ‘rodham’ in the Fens dialect (nothing to do with Hilary Clinton), formed from the Old Bedford River silt deposits, right underneath the village.

In line with Hodson’s promises, money was abolished in Manea Fen, but only for a short while. A public library, a school and a kindergarten were opened – a unique scenario for the early-Victorian villages.

Women’s dress was also that of Robin Hood foresters; they wore trousers under the skirts.

A letter in The Working Bee describes the colonists’ diet:

“... We have pork, mutton and beef, cabbages, beans and peas... we shall have plenty of excellent potatoes. We bake our own bread and biscuits, as we keep a baker... we have four meals a day...”

Hodson’s new technology ideas had also been implemented – little by little. All colonists’ homes were well-heated and ventilated. An ‘observatory’, which doubled as a dining room with a view for 40 people and a Union Jack on the roof, was erected, and so was an impressive windmill, used by the ‘hodsonians’ not just for making flour but also – rather ingeniously – for cleaning their boots and shoes of the sticky fenland mud with the help of special rotating brushes!

It all went well for over a year, and in the summer of 1840 Hodson announced in The Working Bee his intention to produce agricultural machinery – “those implements which are made by the better order of mechanics, such as thrashing machines, drills, etc”... Typically for any Yuletide Tale – invented or real – here comes the anti-climax.

There was no one to operate Hodson’s sophisticated machinery. The new settlers were not vetted for their work experience and qualifications, and half of them were illiterate (Samuel Rowbotham, the community’s Secretary, one of the top positions in the Colony, was ignorant to the point of believing that the Earth was flat – the ‘fact’ that he tried to prove using as an example the Old Bedford River, which flanked the village). The other half were hedonistic or plain lazy. They were enjoying the good life and were less and less inclined to work, instead spending their days in drunken orgies.

In short, ‘working bees’ mutated into sad sacks, and the Colony became a ‘neighbour from hell’ (in modern-speak) for the nearby towns and villages, whose disapproving dwellers were no longer eager to buy Manea’s agricultural and other products. Wild rumours (both true and false) about the colony were spreading all over England and had reached Owen himself, who was furious to see his principles distorted by ignorance and dissipation. Soon, Hodson’s considerable personal resources petered out, and the local bank, which used to willingly invest into the Colony, refused to support him.

Thus, Manea’s Utopia came to an end, ruined by its own main asset – the people, who, as it turned out, were simply not up to the task – spiritually, educationally, and morally.

If to the convinced reformers and socialists, like Hodson, the Manea experiment was an opportunity to put their idealistic theories into practice, most of the colonists saw it as a chance of an easier life, having undermined the old Biblical principle, “He who does not work, he shall not eat”, which Hodson made the Colony’s main motto.

Manea’s collapse was a precursor of a number of similar failures of much larger socio-political experiments, including that of the USSR, whose totalitarian rulers, while expressing some good ideas and showing considerable achievements in the spheres of industry and science (not limited to the shoe-polishing windmills), failed to create the so-called “new person of high morals” – one of the cornerstones of Marx and Engels’ ‘Communist Manifest’ and the Soviet Union’s ‘Moral Code of the Builder of Communism’.

As Russia’s proletarian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once wrote (for a totally different reason): “The boat of love has crashed against the rock of reality.”

Very little had been written on the Manea Colony during the 150 odd years since its collapse (in 1841) until a couple of years ago when Cambridgeshire Live published an article with the attention-grabbing headline ‘Archaeologists uncover Cambridgeshire’s long-lost wife-swapping colony’.

I was saddened that the supposed wife-swapping (I was unable to find any convincing proof of it in The Working Bee pages) was chosen to denote the Colony’s most distinctive feature, and not its unquestionable technological and social achievements.

With the excavations still in progress, let’s hope that the team of Cambridge archaeologists, led by Dr Marcus Brian, will be able to dig up some more positive and life-affirming relics at Manea.

Why? Because we all need a little bit of Utopia in our lives (which – due to the continuing pandemic – have been fairly dystopian of late). Particularly in the run-up to Christmas and on the eve of the New Year, 2022, which, I hope, will be beautifully Utopian for us all!

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