Dial House, Essex
Dial House is a farm cottage situated in south-west Essex, England. The house is located in the countryside of Epping Forest in Ongar Great Park, an area covering 5-by-3 kilometres. Dial House is an intentional community and the home of the anarcho-punk band Crass.
Since 1967, Dial House has been an anarchist-pacifist open house and the base of operations for a number of cultural, artistic, and political projects ranging from avant-garde jazz events to helping found the Free Festival Movement.
Perhaps the best-known manifestation of the public face of Dial House was the anarcho-punk band Crass. Following the DIY punk ethic, Crass combined the use of song, film, sound collage, and graphics to launch a critical polemic against a mainstream that is built on foundations of war, religion, and consumerism.
Dial House, a large rambling farm cottage, was built in the 16th century. Oliver Rackham describes Ongar Great Park as possibly having been the "prototype deer park", mentioned in an "Anglo-Saxon will of 1045". During the Victorian era, Dial House was the home of the writer Primrose McConnell, a tenant farmer and the author of The Agricultural Notebook (1883), which is recognised as a standard reference work for the European farming industry. By 1967 Dial House stood derelict, its acre of garden a bramble-smothered wilderness.
Beginning of the project
It was here that artist, writer and philosopher Penny Rimbaud set up home and a studio with two fellow art school lecturers with whom he engaged in the long-term process of making the property habitable and the garden workable. The property was sublet from the adjacent farm at a minimal rent in recognition of the high maintenance expenses for which the tenant was responsible. The land upon which the house and the farm stood was, in turn, owned by the GPO and tenanted to the current farmer.
By 1970, Dial House had become a lively meeting place for creative thinkers attracted to its essentially bohemian atmosphere. It was at this time that Rimbaud decided to quit his art school job in favour of expanding on what he saw as the potential for developing a creative, self-sufficient lifestyle for himself and others. In his own words, Dial House would operate an ‘open door, open heart’ policy which to this day remains central to its purpose: the locks were removed from all the doors, and from then on everyone and anyone was welcome.
The ground floor of the property was dedicated to a shared studio space with the upstairs given over to accommodation. It was also at this time that Gee Vaucher, an artist and skilled gardener, joined the household to become its most long-term resident besides Rimbaud himself.
By now the house was inhabited by an ever changing population of artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who, when not working on their own projects, assisted in the running of the house and garden. From the very start, under Vaucher’s guidance, the garden was tended using organic principles that, in turn, represented the "common sense" attitudes applied within the house towards self-sufficiency and sustainability. These have become key terms nowadays but were rarely considered at that time. It was also in this period that Vaucher, using her intuitive knowledge of plants, set up a small cottage industry producing herbal remedies. Again, this was long before the huge market that exists for such products today.
Given the creative diversity of its populace, it was not long before collaborations occurred between the house’s residents and visitors. Since the late 1960s, Vaucher and Rimbaud had been members of the Stanford Rivers Quartet, an avant-garde outfit experimenting with translations of visual form into sound, and it was inevitable that this should expand to include others with new, different disciplines.
By 1971, the group, now called Exit, consisted of a band of anything up to 12 players with twice that number of artists and filmmakers available to create "happenings" of circus-like proportions. Exit operated pretty much as a "guerrilla outfit", sometimes turning up to play at venues unannounced, but sometimes following more formal lines. Of the latter, ICES 72, a massive festival of the avant-garde based in London’s Roundhouse was probably the most notable. Quite apart from appearing at the festival with Exit and hosting several events at Dial House, Vaucher, Rimbaud and the other residents of the house had been heavily involved in the organisation of the festival, producing and printing flyers and posters in Dial House’s print room, and assisting in programming alongside founder Harvey Matusow. It was through ICES that they met up with members of the Fluxus movement with whom they later collaborated: in particular, their work with filmmaker Anthony McCall, for whom they were given sole UK performance rights of his "Landscape for Fire", has been well documented.
In 1973, the house was visited by Phillip Russell, aka Wally Hope, who recognised the property as an ideal centre of operations for his plans to create a free festival at the Stonehenge monument in Wiltshire. Recruiting Rimbaud as his co-founder, Russell’s vision led to the first Stonehenge Free Festival of 1974, a small gathering, but a very significant event in the history of alternative culture. As with ICES, Dial House had operated as a central office with the print room producing the necessary printed ephemera. The following year, 1975, the Festival attracted a gathering of thousands as much by word of mouth as by the efforts of the Dial House team. Meanwhile, Russell had been sectioned and incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital on exaggerated charges of possession of LSD. From the outset it was clear to Vaucher and Rimbaud that Russell’s arrest was politically motivated, and together they made every effort to force his release. When finally he was freed, he was seriously incapacitated by the enforced drug treatment that he had received in the hospital. Three weeks later, he was dead. Over the next year, disputing the official verdict of suicide, Rimbaud investigated and wrote about Russell’s death, concluding that he had been assassinated by the state. Nonetheless, over the following decades the festival grew to massive proportions until in the mid eighties it was finally crushed by Thatcher’s government.
Politics, punk, and Crass
It was Russell’s death which was key in the politicisation of the Dial House residents. The functioning community now came to feel that the lifestyle that they had created outside the system was in some ways an avoidance of personal and social responsibility, that maybe dropping out was copping out. So, in 1977, Rimbaud and a fellow resident, Steve Thompson, aka Steve Ignorant, formed a band on the back of the then growing punk scene which they hoped might create a platform for the ideals promoted and lived at Dial House: a loose form of anarchism notably incorporating pacifism, feminism and vegetarianism. The band, Crass, very quickly came to be seen as leaders of what later became known as the Anarcho Punk Movement which, in turn, became almost synonymous with the by then hugely influential Peace Movement.
Selling thousands of records and touring extensively, it was inevitable that Crass would attract a new wave of visitors to Dial House and, indeed, to this day the house is a mecca to a diverse range of people professing interest in alternative values. To accommodate this influx, the interior of the house required modification and extensive outbuildings were constructed to enable the ‘open house’ policy to remain operable.
Threats of development
In 1984, Crass disbanded and the residents of Dial House were immediately confronted with threats of eviction. The General Post Office had recently been taken over by British Telecom who now put forward ideas of developing the seven hundred acres of land tenanted to the farm of which Dial House was a part. Over the next sixteen years, working closely with the local community, the residents fought off a variety of proposals put forward firstly by BT and then by the holdings company to whom Telecom sold on. Employing the skills that they had learnt on more creative projects, Dial House became the hub of activity as centre of operations opposing the developers. A monthly newspaper giving information on the developers' every move was produced for free distribution in the locality, posters and flyers were printed, and a shop in the local village was converted to act as an information centre. Meanwhile, the residents continued their personal creative lives and accommodated the constant stream of visitors largely initiated by Crass.
In 2002, realising that their ambitions for the land were in vain, the developers put up for auction much of the land and the few properties within it. Rimbaud and Vaucher, with the help of other residents and ex-residents, were then able to make a successful bid for the property and the future was at last secure. Since that time, they have progressively attempted to formalise the operating structure of Dial House while still acting as hosts to all and sundry. Organised events from philosophical gatherings to permaculture workshops have become regular dates, while more long term arrangements such artist residencies make broader use of the space and facilities offered at Dial House.
Currently, investigations are being made into the practicalities of placing the house into trust as a ‘Centre for the Radical Arts’, this being possibly the only way of ensuring some form of perpetuity to what has over the last fifty years earned an almost institutional status.
- Rackham, Oliver; Woodlands, Collins, 2006, ISBN 0-00-720244-X