JONNY BROGDALE on how 19th century philanthropy turned a landmark local pub into a hostel and helped to feed the poor, all paid for by sales of some of the world’s most famous books
The good folk of Croydon watching the BBC’s “version” of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace might be surprised to learn of the Russian author’s influence on the town’s radical, social history.
Tolstoy’s beliefs inspired and his generosity allowed a committed group of Christian anarchists to provide a small-scale, local version of the “welfare state” in Croydon long before such a national provision existed.
Following a sort of mid-life, moral philosophical crisis, Tolstoy had concentrated on works in which he outlined his belief in Jesus Christ as a human prophet who preached pacifism, communal living and a general distrust of authority. These beliefs coalesced into “Christian-anarchism” inspired groups of followers around the world; a notable one in Britain was the “Croydon Brotherhood Church”, formed in 1894.
The church group was led by the pastor John Coleman Kenworthy, a Tolstoyan intellectual, who had also been influenced by John Ruskin, and who would eventually persuade Tolstoy to give over the income from the sale of his work in Britain – including War and Peace – for deserving causes in the south London suburb.
Kenworthy had been introduced to Christian-anarchism by Tolstoy’s American translator, Ernest Crosby, while he was working and travelling in the United States. On his return to Britain, Kenworthy determined to devote himself to promoting Tolstoy’s views, and gravitated to Croydon, the location of the Seed Time printing press run by sympathetic Christian socialists.
The Kenworthy Tolstoyans formed a church at the former Salvation Army citadel at 46 Tamworth Road (which is still standing today). Their meetings, debates and services eventually led to the opening of a co-operative food and bookshop on Pitlake Bridge. Seeking funds for expansion, in 1896 Kenworthy travelled to Yasnaya Polyana, south of Moscow, to meet Tolstoy himself.
Tolstoy had read Kenworthy’s book The Anatomy of Misery and the pair got on well enough for the Brotherhood Church to be given the UK rights to Tolstoy’s work to raise money for good works.
Based upon Tolstoy’s generosity, the church opened soup kitchens and a co-operative laundry for poor, unemployed and striking workers in Croydon, and provided drill classes to improve the health of their children.
Eventually the group rented the Waddon Hotel, which is still open as a pub, close to Waddon railway station. They renamed it “Brotherhood House”, to be a boarding house for supporters and the homeless of Croydon. Remarkably the members of Brotherhood Church were also able to assist in a contemporary refugee crisis.
Concerned by their persecution by the Tsarist authorities, Tolstoy sought to aid the plight of the Russian pacifist sect known as the Doukhobors. When Tolstoy asked Kenworthy and other Quaker groups in Britain for support, the Croydon Christian anarchists worked to raise money and lobby the Government to enable the emigration of the Doukhobor people.
During this crisis Tolstoy’s close friend, Vladimir Chertkov, was arrested when travelling to meet with the oppressed Doukhobor. Deported from Russia, Chertkov and his family set up home at Broomfield House, on the southern side of Duppas Hill, close to the Waddon Hotel.
Broomfield then became the London base for Tolstoy’s campaign to help the refugees.
Eventually, after much money-raising and persuasion, the Doukhobors were permitted to emigrate to an area of Saskatchewan in Canada that had been recommended by the anarchist and geographer, Prince Peter Kropotkin.
Though relatively short-lived, and eventually beset by splits and schisms, the band of Tolstoyans in the Croydon Brotherhood Church campaigned against capitalism, provided practical social welfare for the poor and offered refuge for individuals and groups endangered by their association with Tolstoy’s beliefs.
We can only guess what Kenworthy and the other followers would make of the fact that, 120 years on, groups are still needed in Croydon to provide soup kitchens and shelter for those in need. Some words from Kenworthy might offer some clue: “Our times impose upon us a necessity which was never before so extreme, we must organise, and that on a grand scale; we must confront capitalist organisation by fraternal organisation. The healing of society must come about from within; through individuals and communities, who by living and extending the new life will at last cast off from society the slough of the old.”
- Jonny Brogdale lives not far from the Waddon Hotel, enjoying his retirement after 28 years as a teacher in local schools
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