I see a picture of cloth and its textures, with sewing on it. A sampler. The building is Woodbrooke Quaker Centre on Bristol Road, in Selly Oak, Birmingham. A place to which I went two weeks ago, to research in the library and to see the place that two men Rabindranath Tagore, poet, writer, educator, and MK Gandhi, civil rights leader and educator, visited from India in 1930 and 1931 respectively. They had long journeys. Both men loved the rural, both men loved secluded retreats where people from all civilizations were welcome. So this beautiful Georgian house rented and then bought by the remarkable George Cadbury, with many pathways and a waterbody in the grounds would have appealed to them. Between Gandhi and Quakers there was a natural affinity: both sides knew how deep one’s commitment to peace could be, and how much one might have to suffer and sacrifice to uphold such peace. George Cadbury, a Quaker himself, whose name I hear and think immediately of chocolate (so did Gandhi when he met the warden of Woodbrooke who bore that name) after all had opposed the Boer War, and soon after, in 1903, helped set up Woodbrooke as a unique educational centre, with directors of studies such as Horace Alexander, lifelong friend and constructive critic of India. I read the typewritten Woodbrooke Log from 1930 and 31, and was charmed by how the students managed to combine humour about their celebrity visitors without ridicule. The entry for Tuesday April 29th, 1930: “Tagore is coming. All students buy autograph albums.” He finally arrives on May 13th, 1930. I was also especially struck by the account of Gandhi’s last evening at Woodbrooke. Gandhi had gone to bed. Mahadev Desai his secretary was learning to knit. And in exchange he was teaching spinning on the charkha, embodiment of Gandhi’s very practical social dreaming. Horace Aexander brought his own charkha down and demonstrated. Not too successfully. Hymns were sung. For me, who naturally gravitated to working on women’s writing and history, this scene from a peaceful private, feminized sphere with crafts and sewing is part of the key to the success of Gandhi and of Ruskin who influenced him. So that sewn object, this work of craft offers many pathways back in time and across cultures, just like the different people pictured on it, on their own pathways. When I walk past the Friends’ Meeting House in Lancaster, 310 years old now, down the Meeting House Lane to the railway station on my many journeys, including the one that will take me back to home in Holland, I remember that George Fox was stoned in Lancaster, in 1652, unless I am mistaken, at St. Mary’s, now the Lancaster Priory, and that he took refuge with a friend who was one of the pioneers of the Quaker faith in this town. Gandhi’s favourite song by Tagore. ‘If no one heeds your call, walk alone,’ has become iconic. Gandhi did not have to walk alone on most of the pathways he took, though. Nor did the Quakers. Contemplation and the inner conscience helped forge solidarities. Without that quiet inner time, walking on pathways and engaging in action are difficult. That is why I love the last line on the Woodbrooke sampler: “In the inner world of thought there is a place to dwell.”
This formed the basis for a thought piece presented at a recent Creative Gathering on Pathways, Mobilities, and Migration, co-hosted by Lancaster Arts and the Ruskin Library and Centre, Lancaster University.
2 thoughts on “Gandhi, the Quakers, and Social Dreaming: Woodbrooke, Place of Peace”
I think Jomo Kenyatta was there too, at the same time or a bit later.
Thanks for pointing that out. Yes, Kenyatta was enrolled for some months at Woodbrooke, and obtained a certificate in English writing. He met Gandhi in November 1931, and at this time was attending meetings of organizations such as India League.