The early years of the Guild were to be exciting and eventually fractious. The experiment received wide publicity and many young men were interested in its ethos of spiritually inspired counter-culture. A notable departure however, was Desmond Chute who left for the priesthood in 1921. Chute’s departure had the effect of undermining the whole project for Gill; he was to write to Chute in 1925 “will anything have the vigour and freshness of that first spout?”.
Notable among the arrivals were David Jones, a brilliant painter and poet, recently emerged from the trenches and much taken with Gill’s charismatic personality. His lasting contribution to the Guild were the impressive paintings he made on the walls of the room adjoining the carpentry workshop which eventually were moved to the Guild chapel and are now part of the collection of the National Museum of Wales. Other important arrivals in 1922 were Philip Hagreen, founder-member of the Society of Wood Engravers and George Maxwell, a carpenter. A weaver, Valentine KilBride was on the verge of joining as well. Around this period, the two leading Catholic Distributist writers, Hillaire Beloc and GK Chesterton both paid visits.
In addition, many interested Catholics found their way to Ditchling Common for temporary stays. It is often quoted that at this time as many as 41 Catholics were living and working as part of the Guild. Who were they, I have wondered? Well there were the Gill Family (6), the Peplers (8), the Maxwells (7), the Cribbs (5), the Hagreens (4) and the five young men in Woodbarton cottage. That makes 34 – and then there may have been assistants in the workshops as well and teachers for the school so that figure is feasible perhaps.
Among the visitors were a fair number of priests and religious. Philip Hagreen reported that they were impressed by the devotional aspects of the way of life but less understanding of the philosophy of self-sufficiency and separation from the modern world. All too often the clergy felt that modern conveniences were not such a bad thing at all and did not share the Guild’s reluctance to use electricity for instance. This was partially reflected in the attitude of the local bishop who viewed the growing community with suspicion, perhaps because he had no jurisdiction over it. At any event, the chapel was not sanctioned as a mass centre.
Perversely, as the Guild success and fame grew, so did Gill’s disillusion until in 1925 he made the decision to relocate to the more remote location of Capel-y-ffin based in a deserted former Anglican monastery in the Llanthony Valley of the Black Mountains. Several explanations have been advanced for Gill’s desire to move. These include the following:
- Gill himself claimed that he needed to get away from the endless stream of visitors and the attendant publicity. In a sense, Capel-y-ffin was a further stage in his retreat to the wilderness.
- Gill had grown more distant from Pepler, even accusing him of financial impropriety; in reality it seems that this would be more accurately described as mild extravagance with Guild funds. Gill was always reluctant to spend money, even keeping some Guild funds in gold in a drawer in his desk. Peper by contrast, perhaps because he was more affluent, was more prepared to use funds that were available.
- Pepler’s son David had become engaged to Gill’s daughter Betty, and Gill was not enthused by the prospective marriage; he felt the couple were too young. He may have thought that separation of the families would put an and to the betrothal, although this did not happen.
- Others close to the Guild have speculated that Gill’s sexual activities were becoming more widely known, and he wished to disappear to a far-off place to prevent awkward questions being raised.
- My own view is that Gill was a man who liked control. Pepler had recently taken over the Chair of the Guild, Gill having served his term. I think Gill was not enthused by this democratic framework, preferring to be surrounded by acolytes rather than colleagues. In future set-ups, Gill would always to be in undisputed control of any arrangement to which he was a party. It is also possible as well that he wanted to concentrate more on his own career, less on the collective.
He sought to take the entire Guild with him, but was able to persuade only Jones and Hagreen. Both Maxwell and Cribb were inclined to join the move to Wales but were unable to convince their wives that it represented a practical proposition. The Capel project greatly appealed to Gill’s sense of drama but caused a fatal rift in his friendship with Pepler and his departure left behind a feeling of resentment amongst other Guild members which never dissipated. His leaving undoubtedly took some lustre from the community, and the intense pace of development didn’t merely slow but reached an abrupt halt. There was to be no more building, no more new crafts, the link with the Dominicans was to fall away, the school was to close, and agricultural self-sufficiency ceased to be an aspiration. Susan Faulkner records that her father, Hilary Pepler undoubtedly lost some enthusiasm and there was a falling off of inspirational leadership. The various craftsmen settled down to run their own businesses in a quieter, less dramatic way. In a sense it was the end of the Gill’d but the start of the Guild.