The remarkable Alice Buckton was born in Haslemere in the middle period of the nineteenth century. She became a primary visionary figure in the emerging spiritual history of Britain. As fate decreed a neighbour of the Bucktons was poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and as a young child she sat upon his knee while he read his poetry out loud and held a candle for him while he wrote and told her of his belief in the immortality of the soul. She was later to read an address at Tennyson’s funeral in Westminster Abbey and he gifted her his cloak which she was to wear for many years when in residence in Glastonbury.
She was influenced by the ideas of Edward Carpenter (a friend of both Tagore and Walt Whitman) and by Octavia Hill’s Southwark Women’s University, the Froebilian Society and the Pestalozzi School in Germany. She was an early feminist believing in women’s suffrage. Her interest in education led her to Berlin where she met her life-long companion Anette Schepel who came back with Alice to England to set up the Sesame Child Garden and House for home life training in St John’s Wood in 1898. She was good poet and playwright (her verse comes to life when read aloud and performed) her first book of poetry being published in 1901. The reviews for her stage plays in London were astoundingly good; the Guardian writing – ‘All London has been startled into reverent wonder and and admiration by the production of the mystery play, the conception of which is one of true beauty,’ and the Bishop of London – ‘All should go and see this wonderful play (Eager Heart) which has touched and moved us beyond words.’
Alice was also interested in the Bahai Movement and spent time with their leader Abdul Baha when he visited Britain. After she came into contact with the young Wellesley Tudor Pole she began visiting Glastonbury and explored the old pilgrimage route that had been maintained by oral tradition. In 1912 Archdeacon Wilberforce persuaded Alice to leave London and buy the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. Dion Fortune wrote: ‘The holy well had certain definite value as a source of water power but as a source of spiritual power it was the pearl of great price. Miss Buckton sold all that she had and outbid the woollen merchant. And so the wonderful holy well of St.Joseph and Merlin and the Grael came into the hands of Miss Buckton.’ This is where she established her training college for women and pilgrim’s hostel.
In 1919 she co-operated with Frederick Bligh Bond when he designed the vesica piscis lid for the Well which is still in place today. In 1922 she brought the people of Glastonbury together to film ‘Glastonbury Past and Present’ that can now be viewed on the BFI website and in the late 1930s she began to think about setting up a Trust to protect the Well and surrounding land. This never happened but 14 years after Alice died, in 1958, Wellesley Tudor Pole was able to establish the Chalice Well Trust for just this purpose. There is wonderful chapter about Alice in Patrick Benham’s ‘The Avalonians’ where he writes, ‘Alice cared deeply about other people; all her poems, plays and lectures on education were dedicated to the enrichment of their lives.’
Beneath the Silent Tor – Tracy Wise (Appleseed Press 2013 2nd edition)
The Avalonians – Patrick Benham (Gothic Image 1993/2006)
Chalice Well – The Story of a Living Sanctuary (Chalice Well Press 2009)
Alice Buckton, author:
Through Human Eyes (1901)
Eager Heart (1904)
Garden of Many Waters (1907)
Songs of Joy (1908)
The Coming of Bride (1914)
The Meeting at the Gate (1916)
Many of the Buckton titles are available on-line as reprints.