SEVEN SOULS IN SEARCH OF SANCTUARY 1937
Researched by Kay Palmer
In November 1937 Effingham was the setting for a ground-breaking social experiment, one which can be seen as a precursor to both the BBC radio series Desert Island Discs (by four years), and to Channel 4’s much later television program Big Brother. The experiment was to bring together a group of strangers in an isolated house and cut them off from the world. Big Brother extended the concept by using cameras to capture the strangers’ interaction, but other features such as its Diary Room had already been innovated in the Effingham experiment.
The experiment was the brainchild of Hugh Cudlipp who in 1935 had joined the staff of The Daily Mirror. By 1937 he had become Editor of The Sunday Pictorial (later The Sunday Mirror). He called his experiment “Seven Souls in Search of Sanctuary”: seven people from different walks of life would be cut off from all contact with the outside world. The remote house chosen to host the experiment was Flower Cottage, the property adjoining Norwood Farm on the edge of Effingham Common. This was not a random choice as it was the home of one Mrs. Winifred M. E. Allen, the mother of Eileen Ascroft. Eileen was at that time a member of the features department at The Daily Mirror and would later, in 1945, become Cudlipp’s second wife. Winifred’s and Eileen’s stories are recounted elsewhere on this website.
How Flower Cottage was taken over by the Mirror is described in Cudlipp’s book Publish and Be Damned : The Astonishing Story of the “Daily Mirror” (publ. Andrew Dakers Ltd, 1953). He wrote:
“So that the facilities could be rapidly acquired the mother of a member of the features department was removed from this abode and parked in a hotel.”
The experiment was a response to persistent complaints from Mirror readers that the newspaper reported only doom and gloom. Cudlipp wrote, again in his book (ibid):
“Why, they asked, do you persistently mention unemployment and slums?
Why must you stick your nose into politics and depressing social problems?
It is almost impossible, they complained, to pick up the Mirror without finding
yet another warning to the nation to be prepared for war.”
Flower Cottage from Historic England: © Muriel Ascroft
“Can we shut out the horrors of 1937 – and lead our calm lives away from it all?”
He defined the parameters of the experiment. There were to be no newspapers, no radio or telephones in the Cottage. The Seven Souls would be cut off from civilization as if stranded on an island. In truth this was rather pulling the wool over his readers’ eyes. Given that Effingham Junction station was no more than a brisk 10 minutes’ walk from Flower Cottage in one direction, and the village with all of its amenities 20 minutes in the other, the seven would hardly be cut off from civilization. And yet, at least in the mind of Eileen Ascroft, for whom Flower Cottage was her idealized childhood home, Effingham really was her definition of sanctuary, a theme she returned to repeatedly in her newspaper columns in 1938.
The Seven Souls
On Monday November 8th the Seven Souls were presented to The Daily Mirror’s readers:
Mrs. Olive Clarkson, a young wife aged 25, from Hampstead whose hobbies were shopping and the pictures, twice a week.
Mr. James Bygrave, a ledger clerk who was married with a son aged 5 and lived in Hendon. He was content with a quiet life.
Miss Eleanor Leach, a spinster aged 48, from Northwood, Middlesex. She had spent her whole life caring for other people but was out to prove that the vinegary spinster stereotype was a myth.
Mr. Arthur Groom, a married man aged 40 who was a writer of children’s books by trade. He was from Oxford and believed in a return to the simple, old ways, saying :
“Children today know too much, most of them will grow up nervous wrecks. Parents sacrifice too much for them and as a result, the children’s character is ruined.”.
Miss Rita Dell, a “glamour girl” who lived in Dulwich and performed in five shows a day at the Windmill Theatre.
Mr. Albert Burden, an unemployed man aged 42. He lived in Westmoreland Street. He had been wounded in WW1 and was the youngest survivor of the retreat from Mons. His principal interest was walking the streets and getting into conversation with foreigners to broaden his mind.
Mr. Denis Sullivan, the last of the seven, being a young bachelor who lived in London W6 and had a degree in philosophy. He doubted the success of the experiment, believing that putting all of them on a desert island for a year would produce a more interesting result.
The Mirror left the seven Souls alone for a week and in the following week printed each of their stories, starting with Arthur Groom. He didn’t have a bad word to say about the other six, and seems to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. His desire for a return to simpler ways was matched exactly by his week in Flower Cottage. He described his experience as:
“A paradise of peace and quiet, where a fellow could work, read, smoke his pipe, walk through the woods, whistle in the bath and splash in the washing up water.”
He ended his piece by saying:
“Cheerio friends, and once again thank you for giving me a chance to prove that the brotherhood of man is not only existent but as strong as it has been since the world began.”
The following day Olive Clarkson reported similar sentiments:
“I found myself at first aching for news, and later, wishing there was a street of lighted shops or a cinema just behind the woods. I had a feeling this would happen before I started out for the sanctuary. And so all I have learned is to be more tolerant of my fellow men.”
Her findings were not shared by the other internee to report on Tuesday, James Bygrave:
“The prospect of this week, without wireless, dancing, radio or newspapers, and living with six strangers, rather appalled me.”
although he later wrote:
“I found that seven people chosen at random can and did live peacefully together, working for one another, being kind to one another and amusing one another – sometimes even without conscious effort.”
His rather diffident assessment of his companions concludes:
“These were the six people whose company I have enjoyed, with whom I am loathe to part company. Now I look forward with a lot of pleasure to being reunited with my wife and little boy, and, a very important point, a comfortable bed.”
Wednesday’s edition featured the unemployed, and as described by the other souls, rather sad figure of Bert Burden. His opening few paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
“During the war I did my bit. There are sixteen wounds on my body to prove it. They told me I should come back to a country fit for heroes to live in. But I came back to poverty. And I had to sit back, humiliated, and see my own dear wife go out charring so that we could live.
I don’t think I’ve had a square deal since I came back from the war. I was getting very bitter about it, too. Sometimes ‘couldn’t see any good in anything.’ All my attempts to find a job seemed doomed to failure. Tramping round searching in the rain. It drives a man mad. Many a time I go out on the streets selling matches.”
Bert found that he could not sit still and always had to be doing things for the other occupants, despite their attempts encouraging him to relax. However, he also wrote most movingly of the modern conveniences in the cottage:
“I had two baths a day. And I pressed my trousers every morning. The place seemed like a little heaven. I could live without newspapers, without radio, without the cinema. I could live for ever in a place like that. Only all the time I was wishing my dear wife was with me to share comforts and happiness I had not known for a long time.”
As Mrs. Clarkson observed, Bert struck up a particularly close friendship with the glamour girl, Rita Dell, with whom he shared long walks in the woods, learning the names of trees. Of all the occupants, it appears that the week had the greatest effect upon Bert. He finishes his article with:
“One thing this week taught me. The better-off people are not all against me. They are sorry for me and would do anything in the world to help me. … I’ve found my feet again. And I know I am in a better condition and state of mind now to get a job than I have been since the war.”
The comments by Rita Dell, who had reminded Bert of his little sister, followed on Thursday. Her reaction was positive, although she had not been able to observe all the strictures:
“It was nice to forget glamour and to live naturally, simply and sincerely. I have a confession to make. Several times I escaped from the sanctuary to meet a man friend. We went for a drive together in the country. I missed him rather a lot — and, well, I had to break just that one rule!”
Rita was another of the internees who would have stayed longer and she echoed the compliments paid to her by the others that she was completely unlike what they had imagined a glamour girl to be. Instead, she had proved to be a good cook, intelligent and – as Bert Burden had found – knowledgeable in the names of trees.
The sixth of the Souls to report was the spinster Eleanor Leach who started by saying that the troubles of the world faded away as soon as they were all in, but then used her remaining space to detail the fervent political discussions and cooking disasters which befell them. She closes her account with a detail reflecting the fact that Flower Cottage faces West:
“But my favourite picture is the tea-time one, with the firelight playing on the old beams, and making deep shadows in the corners; the windows, framed in red curtains, wide open to the sun setting in golden glory – a sight seldom seen by City Workers in the winter. A perfect setting for sanctuary and for friendship.”
The last of the Souls reported on Friday November 19th – Denis Sullivan, the 28-year old bachelor. The Mirror saved the most cynical reaction to last, and also the testimony of the only Soul to desert the delights of Flower Cottage early. Two days from the end he walked up to the station and returned to London. He told the readers why:
“Here’s the true story. I was fed up. With the people, the place and the false, cowardly, running-away philosophy behind the whole idea…Above all I was sick of that smugness which pretended everything was lovely in our Garden of Eden. In another week I’m sure there would have been a dozen quarrels.”
He went on to spell out what he wanted:
“I wanted the newspapers and the wireless. I wanted to know what Hitler was up to and whether I had had any luck in the football pools. I wanted to see aeroplanes instead of sparrows, cars instead of cows.”
Denis finishes with a call to arms that is more than a nod to Churchill in its anticipation of the conflict to come:
“How silly and dangerous is all this dreaming of escape! Silly, because only one in a thousand of the dreamers will ever have the chance to try it. Dangerous, because it saps the energy we might be devoting to improving whatever is wrong with our present circumstances. We need stout hearts before we find peace of mind. With them, come what may, we don’t fret and fuss. We have an inward strength that no bludgeon can weaken, a serenity of spirit that cannot be ruffled. That is sanctuary. Once you’ve decided to chuck out those escapist yearnings you’ll find it far easier to set about solving your problems. The more you dream the less you fight, the more firm will become the grip of fear upon you. And you’ll never cast it off by a change of address.”
It is interesting that Hugh Cudlipp finished the series of articles with Denis Sullivan’s passionate response to the enforced peace of Effingham, as it chimes so well with the Mirror’s radical, pre-War editorial stance. Under Guy Bartholomew, it had adopted an anti-establishment tone, called for increased defence spending and attacked Stanley Baldwin for complacency while praising Churchill’s calls for rearmament. It is possible that Sullivan’s response was ghost-written and furthermore he may have been deliberately planted into the Seven Souls experiement with a brief to leave early and issue his call to action. The Mirror had published articles by a “Denis Sullivan” earlier in 1937, and from January 1938 it published pieces by a sports reporter with the very similar name of Denis O’Sullivan whose picture (seen right) appeared in the issue of March 3rd 1938. This image resembles so closely that shown earlier for the ‘Denis Sullivan’ participant in the experiment that one is bound to conclude that the two men were one and the same.
Sullivan’s early departure from the cottage caused controversy amongst readers who followed the series and he received several abusive letters from the public for not finishing the experiment. Ultimately, then, the Seven Souls experiment was more about providing a platform for the Mirror’s political stance, rather than examining how strangers could get along when deprived of communication with the outside world.
For all that, however, the story of Bert Burden retains its power 80 years later. It is worth sparing a thought for how Bert reacted to the outbreak of the Second World War and whether he ever found employment again. His moving testimony of feeling abandoned after serving his country in the Great War and struggling through the Great Depression, must have rung true with many of the Mirror’s readers, so their reaction might have been more complicated than the paper’s editorial team had anticipated. If war was to come, they would not wish to be forgotten as Bert had been.