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Christian Socialist Beginnings

Tom Brown's Schooldays


Along with Atkinson Morley’s Hospital, The Firs nurses’ flats are included in the package to be vacated and sold.

Christian Socialist beginningsPhoto of The Firs -- original house built by Thomas Hughes

The original Firs house was “built as an experiment in communal living for the families of two young barristers, Thomas Hughes and John Ludlow.  They were leading figures in the Christian Socialist Movement, which aimed at finding a Christian answer to the problems of poverty, ignorance and crime… by forming working men’s associations for education (like the Working Men’s College of which Hughes became the Principal in 1854) and co-operative production (such as the North London Working Builders’ Association)… [They decided] to put their ideals into practice by building two houses side by side and linking them with a common living-room.

So they bought a plot of land in the new Cottenham Park estate, got their North London Working Builders’ Association to put the houses up and in 1854 moved in, Hughes with his wife and four children, Ludlow with his mother. At the Firs they kept almost open house.  A constant stream of friends and visitors arrived…They were entertained by one of the founders of the Movement, Charles Kingsley, with talks on botany or by Hughes himself, an Oxford blue, with cricket matches or games of leapfrog. Other guests included Mrs Gaskell, the novelist, and Alexander Macmillan, a rising young publisher who printed Kingsley’s books.

Tom Brown’s School Days

The main claim for the Firs to a place in history is … as the place where Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays.  The book originated in concern over his eldest son, Maurice, going off to boarding school for the first time. … Ludlow was gripped by the story and said it must be published.  So Hughes sent it to their Christian Socialist Colleague, Macmillan, and he agreed to publish it.  It came out in 1856 and was an instant success.  Within a year it had gone through six editions and Hughes had made a lot of money.

Only two years later, however, the young Maurice died, aged eleven, and his parents were shattered.  Shortly afterwards they left the Firs which now had too many sad associations for them. .. Ludlow stayed on in the house with his recently married wife. A small, self-effacing man, he was deeply religious and invited some of his young relatives who had been orphaned to share the house…. [which was eventually] demolished in 1967 to make way for the nurses’ flats which have kept the name The Firs”*

 *The above has been reproduced with the kind permission of local historian Richard Milward, from his book “Historic Wimbledon: Caesar’s Camp to Centre Court” (Publ: The Windrush Press and Fielders of Wimbledon 1989).