- Born 1878, Died 1951
- Guild member 1920 – 1934
- Social worker, printer, writer, later puppeteer
Hilary Pepler, also known as Douglas Pepler, was born at Eastbourne to a Quaker family and educated at Bootham School. After school, he tried several occupations including land surveying, the tea trade and engineering. In the early 1900s, Pepler moved to Hammersmith, London with his wife Clare Whiteman, and obtained employment with London City Council in the department of child-care. He developed an interest in social theory and how to improve the lives of working people in the face of industrialisation, writing several tracts on the subject. On a practical level, he was instrumental in the introduction of free school meals; by any standards, a very considerable achievement. His experience of Social Work however, left him skeptical as to the ultimate value of such initiatives and most inclined to support self-help as a better means of eradicating poverty.
Hammersmith at the time was something of an Arts and Crafts enclave and Pepler became deeply involved in the movement and the socialist politics of Fabianism. He soon became friends with Edward Johnston, later meeting Eric Gill. These three formed a close bond, spending many hours debating social and artistic issues.
Notwithstanding Gill’s move to Ditchling in 1907, Pepler continued to develop his ideas and maintained contact. One major initiative that he was involved in was founding the Hampshire House Club in 1907, a working men’s club in Hammersmith with a strong political and didactic agenda. When war broke out, the organisation was used as a basis to organise workshop facilities for refugee Belgian craftsmen in a structure not unlike what the Guild was to become. Indeed, lessons learnt from this experience were to inform the way the Guild was set up.
Another major project for Pepler was writing The Devil’s Devices (reproduced below) which was published in 1915 by Hampshire House itself. It is a satire, not just opposing capitalism and industrialisation, but also Trade Unionism, Government and even general education which he sees as an unnecessary distraction in the lives of the working classes. He gives support to the Distributist ideas of small workshops, owned by the workers, as the preferable mode of economic entity but goes beyond most thinkers by declaring everything else being the work of the devil. What he seems to be proposing borders on a benign form of anarchy with no central provision, and his views have obviously moved a long way beyond what could be appropriate for an official with LCC. It is of little surprise that he was by now looking for different employment.
Edward Johnson had already moved to Ditchling to join Gill in 1913. Pepler, anxious to find restore the old friendship and find a new direction, wrote to Johnson asking ‘Can you think of any work I can do at Ditchling? We want an excuse to follow the prophet (you) into the wilds’. Pepler duly moved to Ditchling in 1915, acquired Gill’s old house in the Village (Sopers) and took up the craft of printing, inspired by the several private Arts & Crafts presses that had been operating in Hammersmith. He bought a Stanhope Press, called his business St. Dominic’s Press, recruited a printing veteran of the trade known as ‘Old Dawes’ to act as mentor and set up with the intention of printing books “about crafts which machinery threatened with extinction.” The triumvirate of himself, Gill and Johnson was reactivated and his early years in Ditchling seems to have been full of energetic activity, moving beyond discussion into collaboration. He saw printing as a vocation, saying that “the work of the printer is to multiply the written word, hence the printer serves the maker of words, and the maker of words serves… the Word which became flesh”.
His spiritual life too was taking a new direction. Under the influence of Gill and more particularly Fr Vincent McNabb, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1916, this meshing with his interest in Distributism, joining the Gills as a Dominican Tertiary in 1918 and changing his name to Hilary. He moved from the village to Hallett’s Farm nearer the Common and them again to Fragbarrow Farm which bordered on Hopkins Crank. He was committed to living out his ideals not only as a craftsman but also in terms of food self-sufficiency, a concern it must be said that was not shared by Gill.
Pepler was key to the founding of the Guild. The land upon which the workshops stood was parceled off from Fragbarrow Farm and Pepler moved his printing business from the village to this site, building a long brick workshop for the purpose. He and Gill were the leading lights of the early years, but they were very different people. Gill was, in his work, meticulous and a perfectionist. Pepler by contrast was more adventurous and more tolerant of error. These traits were also present in their respective attitudes to money, Gill being obsessively careful while Pepler being more cavalier. Gill wrote about what he saw as Pepler’s brutal methods, dictatorial manner, minding other people’s business and indiscriminate borrowing. This dispute was one of the main reasons for Gill leaving the Guild in 1924, a split which hurt Pepler badly and form which, some say, he never fully recovered. Certainly, his financial dispute with Gill rumbled on, leading to legal action in 1926 with both men claiming the other owed them money as well as disputing the rights of ownership of printing blocks. It was eventually settled by agreement in 1927. Pepler’s affection for Gill though never died, indeed, their two families became joined at the hip in 1927 when Gill’s daughter Betty married Pepler’s son David. Gill though refused to have any but the most formal relations with Pepler, even when David died in 1934. Pepler though did attend Gill’s funeral in 1940, along with their four shared grandchildren, and it was he who was given the honour of carrying the cross at the head of the funeral procession.
Meanwhile, Pepler continued to manage the print workshop and to work as a printer. The enterprise was certainly successful and achieved a wide reputation, which continues to this day, its work being much sought after by collectors. For all that, Pepler is not recorded as being devoted to accuracy. One poet who engaged Pepler complained that he had substituted ampersands for the word ‘and’ just to make a line fit into the page. There are also many known instances of handwritten corrections being applied to errors to avoid reprints. As the years passed, Pepler’s interest started to fade and when his son Mark became of age, Pepler employed him in the workshop with the intention of his eventually taking over. Mark became a Guild member in 1932 and looked to develop the business to provide himself with some kind of independence. He wanted to install a small electrically operated printer to help do cheap printing for local businesses to supplement the fine arts work. In addition, the Peplers wanted to employ a non-Catholic as a print shop assistant. Both moves were contrary to the Guild’s constitution and were strongly opposed by the other Guild members; no agreement could be reached so Hilary and Mark resigned from the Guild in 1933. As with Gill’s leaving, Pepler’s resignation led to more disputes about the ownership of the workshop that he had built, which now became the weaving shop.
After leaving the Guild, the press moved to Ditchling High Street, and continued to work along much the same lines, albeit renamed as The Ditchling Press with Mark fully taking over, a role he continued until his death in 1958. Notwithstanding the acrimonious end to his membership of the Guild, Hilary soon resumed good relations with the craftsmen and their families and was a regular visitor at the workshops. His interests however expanded and after GK Chesterton’s death in 1936, Pepler assisted Reginald Jebb, son-in-law of Hilaire Belloc, in running The Weekly Review, the successor distributist publication to G. K.’s Weekly. He also took up puppeteering, writing and performing plays and developing something of a reputation in this neglected art-form.
Pepler took another appointment, Reeve of Ditchling Common. This was an ancient office and involved collecting money from farmers who had grazing rights on the common and organise the general upkeep of the land.
He died in 1951, having suffered a severe heart attack while working in the garden of Hopkin’s Crank. His funeral was one of the most extraordinary and moving events in the history of the Guild. His coffin was made by John Maxwell, assisted by apprentice Antony Heath, lined with silk from the KilBride workshop, and he was laid out on the habit of a Dominican Tertiary. His Requiem was sung by his son, Fr. Conrad Pepler and two other Dominicans in the Guild Chapel and, in deference to his aversion to motorised transport, his coffin was placed on a bier and pushed in procession along the B2112 into Ditchling (mostly by Heath) where he was interred in St Margaret’s Churchyard. A dramatic ending to an extraordinary, but perhaps only partly-fulfilled, life.
When Pepler first met Gill, he was a member of the Fabian Society and working for the LCC trying to implement what look like broadly Socialist ideas, and standing as a Labour candidate for Hammersmith Borough Council. However, his thoughts turned to Distributism, it is clear that Pepler developed a loathing not just for Capitalism but for Trade Unionism and Socialism as well, he saw all as being an attempts to enslave ordinary people and deny them the freedom to govern and enjoy their own lives. I interpret this as a belief in a benign form of anarchism. The Devil’s Devices, already referred to, is an example of this. Some articles he wrote in The Game show a tolerance of vicious behaviour – in one he praises what seems to be a lynch mob in Italy who got their hands on a shopkeeper who they thought was overcharging. Susan Falkner records that his views moved increasingly rightwards as WW2 approached and Stephen Dorril’s Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (2006) mentions Pepler in passing, as a member of the British People’s Party (a British far-right political party founded in 1939). More consideration of links of the Guild with right-wing ideas is given here.
Writing was central to Pepler’s life. His daughter, Susan Falkner, records that he was rarely to be found without pen and paper close by. Stanley B. James said of his writings: “It is true he is more poet than playwright; I think there is sometimes a lack of dramatic movement in his compositions. But the austere beauty of his writing cannot be denied. It is entirely free from superfluous ornament and sentimentalism. The intellectual quality is high; the lines are packed almost too closely with thought.” Most of the short articles that appeared in The Game appear to be his work and he also wrote the following volumes, most of which were self-published:
- The Care Committee. The Child & the Parent (1914)
- The Devil’s Devices or, Control versus Service, (Hampshire House, 1915)
- Three Poems (St. Dominic’s Press, 1918)
- Nisi Dominus (1919)
- Concerning Dragons (St. Dominic’s Press, 1921)
- The Law the Lawyers Know About (Saint Dominic’s Press, 1923)
- The Service for the Burial of the Dead according to the use of the Orthodox Greek Church in London. The Greek Text with a rendering in English (1922)
- In Petra. Being a Sequel to “Nisi Dominus” (Saint Dominic’s Press, 1923)
- Libellus lapidum (1924)
- Judas or the betrayal: a play in one act (St. Dominic’s Press 1926)
- Pilate – A Passion Play (St Dominic’s Press, 1928)
- Plays For Puppets (St. Dominic’s Press, 1929)
- A Nativity Play: The Three Wise Men (1929)
- Le Boeuf et L’Ane et deux autres pieces pour marionettes (St. Dominic’s Press 1930)
- St. George and the Dragon: A One Act Play (1932)
- Mimes Sacred & Profane (St. Dominic’s Press, 1932)
- The Hand Press: An Essay Written and Printed by Hand for the Society of Typographic Arts, Chicago (1934)
- The Field Is Won (1935) play
- The Four Minstrels of Bremen and “The Two Robbers”, being more Plays for Puppets (St. Dominic’s Press)
- A Letter About Eric Gill (1950)
Pepler’s account of Hampshire House Workshops
The Devil’s Devices
Below is an electronic copy of The Devil’s Devices, a text written and published by Pepler in 1915 with woodcut illustrations by Gill. It is illustrative of many of the anti-state ideas that dominated his thinking, at least after he started publishing.
While living at Hopkin’s Crank, Pepler started a puppet theatre, his plays were often based on the Medieval Mystery plays. He used the large barn as a theatre and his puppet heads were carved by Joseph Cribb and all of his family were involved in the performances. He was then asked to take his shows to the International Puppet Conference at Liege, where he was accompanied by his daughter Susan, who recalls that he sometimes went into events underprepared and underfunded and, as a result, his performances were not always an unqualified success. Nonetheless, his Mimes were eventually broadcast on BBC television, so must be judged as reflecting well on his creative energy and ability. Below is an extract from the Radio Times advertising one of his performances:
Obituary by Fr Brocard Sewell
- Susan Falkner – A Ditchling Childhood
- Michael Taylor and Brocard Sewell – St Dominic’s Press, a bibliography 1916-1937