Utopia: Pilgrims, hippies and Disney’s domestic dream

6th Aug 2014

Pitcairn is about Fletcher Christian’s attempt to build a new kind of society on a remote island – a society of equals with his fellow Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian lovers and followers. Here are some other Utopias: other attempts to start afresh, not by changing society from within but by carving out new lives in new spaces.


a painting of the "Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor" by William Halsall (1882), a large sail boat with masts sailing towards a small row boat with a few men on out at sea

“Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” by William Halsall (1882)

The Mayflower ship sailed from Plymouth to Cape Cod in 1620. Among its passengers were the Pilgrim Fathers, fleeing persecution and political turmoil, intending to establish new settlements where they would have religious freedom.  There were two deaths on the Mayflower – but many more died in the first harsh winter after they arrived.


Taylor Camp, Hawaii, by John Wehrheim. A black and white photograph of a young girl stood in front of a complex of tree houses

Taylor Camp, Kauai, Hawaii, by John Wehrheim. His book of photographs and interviews, Taylor Camp, is published by Serindia Contemporary.

Taylor Camp was a hippie community on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, founded in 1969 on land given by Elizabeth Taylor’s brother. The camp, a complex of treehouses,  grew into a community that lasted 8 years and, can be seen as a response to, and refuge from, a time of social upheaval as the fight for Civil rights intensified and America reeled from the Vietnam War and then Watergate.

For most of its existence Taylor Camp depended on a resourceful lawyer’s success in fending off attempts by the state to evict the inhabitants. When the government finally won, the remaining residents were removed and the camp torched.

Watch the trailer of the Taylor Camp documentary.


two people standing on a white sand beach which has patches of grass with growing flowers and clear blue sea to the side

The beach at Paible, Taransay

One of the more thoughtful examples of the burst of reality tv programming at the time, the BBC’s social experiment followed a group of men, women and children as they attempted to establish a self-sufficient community on an isolated Scottish island (and made a star of Ben Fogle).

A flu outbreak that saw some shipped off the island, and an urgent supply of antibiotics delivered in response to a nearby outbreak of meningitis, underlined the groups vulnerability and dependence on the modern world.


a black and white photograph of rows of spacious houses and gardens

JR James Archive/Flickr

After Cadbury moved its chocolate production from central Birmingham to the suburbs, Richard Cadbury bought 120 acres of land close to the new factory and planned a model village (not of the miniature type!) to “alleviate the evils of modern more cramped living conditions”. Richard Cadbury was a temperance Quaker and famously built no pub, though there has been a licensed members bar since the 1940s.

The Cadburys were very progressive about pensions, and welfare in general, and encouraged sports and outdoor pursuits among their workers. They named the factory and village Bournville after the nearby Bourn brook (there are a number of Bourn and Bourne Brooks across the country).


a black and white photograph of small houses built closely together surrounded by chopped down trees and sea

“The Henry Ford”/Flickr

With far less success, Henry Ford established his attempt at a model community  in Brazil in 1928, to secure rubber for his Ford Motor Company. But native workers clashed with – and eventually revolted against – the US-style management of the factory, food and accommodation.

And Ford’s managers didn’t understand the complex tropical ecosystem of the Amazon. Rubber trees that had been widely spaced in the jungle were packed too closely together in plantations, falling victim to tree blight and insects.


a coloured photograph of a modern white house with a healthy green lawn and trees at the front

James Pace/Flickr

Walt Disney long dreamed of creating a town as part of his Florida project but it wasn’t until 1996 that this white picket-fenced piece of Americana opened its gates. Planners commissioned several bespoke, architecturally idiosyncratic buildings but, at heart, Celebration is a homage to time and place that never was. Piped music plays from the trees; in winter, the perfectly falling snow is as fake as its giant Christmas tree.

Barring one murder, Celebration has been praised for its safety. But the homogeneity of such master-planned communities, with their manifestoes and rules, can feel exclusionary and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2010 census revealed that 91% of Celebration’s population was white.

  • Read journalist Tom Wicker‘s fascinating article on utopias in the Pitcairn programme/playtext.
  • Pitcairn by Richard Bean tours August – November 2014

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