Dr Annebella Pollen reports back from a workshop at University of Strathclyde that brought together academics interested in histories of the new age.

The years immediately preceding and following the First World War witnessed a flourishing of organisations including suffrage societies, workers’ education associations, animal rights campaigns, design and architectural reform bodies, the peace movement, and many other groups that might be loosely described as ‘progressive’, ‘advanced’ or ‘radical’. Tangled up with these political movements were the ideas associated with life reform, a broad ranging social movement that emphasised a range of practices including  vegetarianism and herbal medicine, to nudism, sunbathing, alternative forms of spirituality, rambling, gymnastics and free love.

On 11 October 2019, at an event co-organised by Dr Elsa Richardson of University of Strathclyde and Dr Annebella Pollen of University of Brighton, researchers gathered to share their research on these organisations and their intersection.

We argued, as organisers, that there have been few attempts to map the complexity and interrelated nature of these sometimes fringe political and cultural organisations and the networks their members created. To our minds, conventional accounts have tended to downplay the cultural impact of life reform.

To better understand this history, we contend, it is necessary to map the crossovers and interrelations between individuals, societies and ideas. Many researchers are experts in specific organisations and campaigns but these reserves of knowledge have rarely been brought together to build a larger picture. Rebel Networks, as an experimental project, aims to gather expertise and to explore approaches to tracing trajectories of progressive ideas, individuals and their relationships over time and space.

Richardson and I have both explored early twentieth century experiments in living. Richardson’s current research, supported by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust, examines the work of Eustace Miles, the founder of London’s pioneering vegetarian restaurant in 1906 and the author of a wide range of self-help books and food reform products. My own research into campers and campaigners of the British woodcraft movement, including the 1920s hikers and handicrafters, Kibbo Kift, alongside the Men’s Dress Reform Party and English interwar social nudists, shares many connections, not least the earnest endeavours to discipline and transform the national social body into radiant health and liberated minds.

Over the course of the day, researchers shared their particular focal points to build a broader picture. Presentations included Dr Ben Anderson of Keele University on ‘The Walkers’ International: Socialism, Life Reform and Walking in Turn-of-the-Century Europe’ and Dr Steven Sutcliffe of University of Edinburgh on ‘Dietary Reform and the Vital Body’ on Scottish journalist and simple lifer, Dougald Semple (1884-1964). Both showed the international links of devotees of outdoor living and health reform, as well as exploring the intersecting pacifist political contexts of walkers, campers and vegetarians.

Jane Rosen, Imperial War Museum Library, discussed her work on early socialist experiments in the education of children and the way that such revolutionary ideas intersected with the sometimes more moderate lifestyle reform, from diet to exercise. Professor Alexandra Kolb of University of Roehampton analysed the contribution made by the inhabitants of the Monte Verita experimental community in Switzerland at the turn of the century to the radical reformations of expressionist dance via Rudolf Laban and Mary Wigman.

Lesley Hall, Wellcome Library Research Fellow, presented a detailed case study on the Pioneer Health Centre, which aimed, from 1926, to bring innovative ideas about health, hygiene, birth control and the structure of the family to Peckham. Tiffany Boyle of Glasgow School of Art brought her own experience as a former competitive gymnast to bear on a history of the form. Through text, images and film she examined its sometimes conflicting ideals of freedom and control, competition and expression. Similarly, Barry Sykes’ action research as an artist-in-residence at the earliest of nudist camps in Essex showed how an insider view offered opportunities for insight as well as for embarrassment.

The productive discussions showed the potential of this first event to lead to future collaborations, including with the many other interested researchers in this area internationally. The day closed with a fitting finale as Richardson recreated Eustace Miles’ Edwardian vegetarian restaurant in collaboration with Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Art. Three courses of (mostly) delicious food, produced from original recipes by Miles, were washed down with rather peculiar tipples – including toast water – showing the value of experiencing experimental philosophy first hand. Life reform was predicated on the practice of living and performing belief; it was therefore appropriate that a day of discussion should end with the consumption of its ideals.

With thanks to the Centre for Design History for their generous contribution towards this event.