Anthroposophy and the influence of Rudolph Steiner

Since the late 1970s the influence of Anthroposophy (the term given to the philosophy and practices of Rudolph Steiner) on the Totnes and Dartington area has increased with the development of the South Devon Steiner School, Camphill Community, biodynamic growers and other activities. However, there are much deeper roots to anthroposophy in the area including at Dartington. For example, Rudolph Steiner’s lectures in Torquay in the 1920s are seen as significant by some local anthroposophists, and reflect the fact that this area is important in terms of its earth energies and landscape.

The argument was made by some people I spoke to (and in Christopher Coopers excellent history of the school) that Dorothy Elmhirst might had steered Dartington Hall School toward a Steiner Waldorf approach had she been aware of it. I am not wholly convinced by this, and as I argue below, that the fact that she was a keen follower of Checkov who himself was strongly influenced by anthroposophy makes it seem likely that she would have been aware of Steiner’s work. Perhaps there are other reasons that the school did not follow this path. It would be interesting to pursue this at some point through research into her own papers from that time and I would be interested in other people’s comments.


Another area of the localised counterculture that developed without a strong relationship to Dartington was the local anthroposophical community. There had been some presence of anthroposophy at Dartington. Michael Checkov, who established the Chekhov Theatre Studio at Dartington, was an anthroposophist and his lessons included Eurthymy a form of movement expression developed by Rudolph Steiner. In his book about the history of South Devon Steiner School Christopher Cooper (2005) suggests that in later life Dorothy Elmhirst had learned of anthroposophy and had regretted that the Dartington Hall School had not followed Steiner principles. As a keen student of Chekov during his time at Dartington it seems unlikely that she did not know about Anthroposophy and it is probably more likely that she did not want to interfere with the educational philosophy of the school to the incumbent head teacher W.B. Curry. That is not to say that perhaps she later felt the school should have adopted Steiner Waldorf principles, as Cooper claims. The presence of Checkov at Dartington appears to have left little lasting impact in terms of the development of anthroposophy in the area. One other separate development originated with Felix Lambe’s decision to visit Dartington to see the gardens because he had heard a lot about them. His future wife, Jennifer Sutcliffe, ran the nursery school which fed into Dartington School. Her mother was an anthroposophist and she leant Felix a book on Steiner which exposed him to the ideas. Felix and Jennifer subsequently developed an biodynamic garden in Broadhempston which until the late 1970s was the main example of biodynamic agricultural methods in the area.

The development of a Steiner Waldorf school in the area has contributed significantly to the ‘alternative’ culture in the area and is something that had little to do directly with Dartington. The process of familial migration drove the genesis of the school, when Margarete Geppert moved to Totnes to be nearer her daughter, Tissi Pilkington, the founder of Salago, arguably one of Totnes’ first ‘alternative’ shops, in the sense that it sold fashion items associated with the early 1970s youth culture. Tissi’s mother was an anthroposophist and wanted to meet other anthroposophists. The owner of a local bookshop put her in touch with another local anthroposophist John Benyon, who was a retired teacher. From this meeting a study group formed, which led to idea of a Steiner school. The South Devon Steiner School first opened in September 1979 in rented premises (Greylands) in Ashburton. It subsequently moved to Sandwell Manor in the summer of 1981 and then in September 1985 purchased its own premises at Hood Manor, just outside Dartington village. It is now also one of the largest Waldorf in England with just under 300 pupils on the roll between the ages of 3 and 16.

Like the Dartington School before it, the Steiner school has become an important migratory and economic driver within the area, as well as institution which circulates ‘alternative’ ideas. The Camphill community which started in 1979 at Hapstead just outside Buckfastleigh was partly attracted to the area because of the presence of the school. A further development was the establishment of a Steiner inspired Christian intentional community in Buckfastleigh. Economically, as the anthroposophical community in the area grew Salago gradually began goods which are of interest to those interested in anthroposophy and Waldorf education. It is also now run broadly on Steiner based principles. Other businesses to benefit from the impact of anthroposophy include the organic Riverford Farm Shop which opened up in the mid- nineteen eighties a few hundred yards from the school. This proximity and the propensity towards organic and vegetarian food within Waldorf education was definitely regarded as a benefit to the development of the business by its founder Ben Watson who described it as ‘amazing’ for their business and believed that it had attracted similar people to the Dart Valley.

A third key element in the development of anthroposophy in the area was the arrival in the area of Richard and Judy Smith. In 1978 they moved to Ashprington is response to an advert for a shepherd on Maurice Ash’s Sharpham estate. The already had an interest in anthroposophy and bio-dynamics and came without any prior knowledge of alternative cultures existing within the area. As part of the deal he was given his own piece of land in lieu of overtime. Later, in 1984, they went into partnership with Maurice Ash to establish a biodynamic farm, know locally, as Higher Sharpham Barton Farm. Richard Smith was not only a pioneering biodynamic farmer within the locality but was also involved in the development of the school. He was also very interested in the local landscape which he wrote about and was widely regarded locally as an inspirational figure. He was also involved in an innovative economic project called ‘Cowshare’ which enabled him to raise investment in his herd when he bought Maurice Ash out in around 1990. In some senses this was a pioneering Community Supported Agriculture scheme which predated the more recent Ford Hall Farm by over 15 years. The Smiths also supported the development of Lower Sharpham Barton Farm as a farm based therapeutic community run along Steiner principles. There has also been a growth in biodynamic activity in the area since the 1980s.

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2 Responses to Anthroposophy and the influence of Rudolph Steiner

  1. Helen says:

    It is interesting that you were not wholly convinced in 2009 that “Dorothy Elmhirst might had steered Dartington Hall School toward a Steiner Waldorf approach had she been aware of it.” , and that you say you would like to research her papers.
    I wonder if you did research this?
    Christopher Cooper’s view would be swayed by the fact that he is a devotee of Steiner and fully buys in to the reincarnation within anthroposophy.
    My own feeling is that Dorothy Elmhurst could well have found much to dislike in anthroposophy, such as the racist underpinnings – Steiner’s idea of education incorporates his ideas of human development through the races from black to Aryan, and it is not difficult to imagine her deciding this was not a good basis for a school.

    • noellonghurst says:

      Hi Helen
      I have never been able to delve into this further than the post above describes. When I originally did the research it was actually quite hard to access most of the Dartington owned materials. Like I say, because of the Checkov influence it seems improbable that DE was unaware of anthroposophy. Without further concrete evidence it is difficult to know whether there were ever any serious discussions about Dartington Hall becoming a Steiner influenced school.

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