The interwar period was a time when new and radical beliefs were developed and distributed between like-minded people. Physical health and exercise became increasingly popular for both men and women, as evidenced by the exercise manuals published in the aftermath of the First World War. This was partially a response against the perceived physical deterioration of the nation; during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) ‘between forty and sixty percent of recruits for the British Army were turned down as physically unfit for service.’[1] Prime Minister David Lloyd George famously declared in a speech in 1918 ‘that you cannot maintain an A-1 Empire with a C-3 population.’[2] A-1 and C-3 refer to the British Army’s then classification system for physical fitness, with A-1 being the highest category and C-3 being the lowest.

Yet the interest in physical wellbeing was not only generated from an imperial perspective. Cycling and rambling became popular as accessible ways to explore the countryside. Alongside these mainstream forms of enjoying nature, more niche interests developed. From the mid-1920s, naturism increasingly gained a foothold in Britain. This movement, which promoted nude exercise and movement in nature, drew on ideas originally articulated in Germany’s Freikörperkultur. Naturists promoted the health benefits of open air, sunlight and exercise, often in direct response to the perceived negative health effects of inner-city living. Influential German naturist Hans Surén ‘promoted a moral geography of landscape in which the contemporary city was considered to be an unsuitable environment for humans.’[3]

It is not surprising, then, that one of the first naturist resorts opened just north of London, in Hertfordshire. There, a few miles outside St Albans, the couple Charles and Dorothy Macaski settled at ‘Spielplatz’ in 1927.[4] Spielplatz is German for ‘playground’, the name a reference back to the German origins of the naturism movement. For the first few years the Macaskis used the grounds as a private haven. Then, in 1930, a group of naturists who swam and sunbathed naked in private grounds in Hendon, north-west London, were attacked by outraged locals. The proximity of the ‘Welsh Harp’ reservoir to the rest of the community caused tensions to rise, which spilled out in the populist press. After the ‘Welsh Harp’ incident, the Macaskis received inquiries from individuals who wanted to use their, more secluded and remote, grounds to practice their naturism. For the Macaskis, this meant extra income, and before long Spielplatz developed into a naturist community.[5]

Amateur film footage shot in 1938 shows Spielplatz in full swing. Because it is shot with a personal camera, there is no sound; but the community members attempted to reconstruct a fictional narrative in which an unsuspecting tramp stumbles upon the land and is persuaded to join in the free-flowing fun. Additionally, there are plenty of shots of Spielplatz members pulling silly faces to the camera, demonstrating acrobatic skills, and enjoying various types of exercise. They appear to range between their early 20s and mid-50s, with some couples having their young children with them (rather unexpectedly, some of the toddlers are fully clothed, perhaps against the cold).

The overall impression is of a true playground: the community members are permanently outdoors, enjoying physical activity, picnics, and camaraderie. Exposure to fresh air and sunlight continued to be important tenets of the naturist movement, which is also reflected in the name of its official membership organisation, the National Sun & Air Association. By 1937 it boasts over 2000 members.

Although in Germany, some naturist attach themselves to Nazi ideology which promoted Aryan fitness ideals, in Britain the movement continued to thrive as a progressive, left-of-centre fringe movement.[6] In the Spielplatz footage, although the community members evidently enjoy physical movement and they all appear fit and healthy (albeit some are habitual smokers), there is no sense that exercise is undertaken for the purpose of corporeal enhancement. There are no ‘drills’ or rigid exercises; instead, members appear to favour organic movement and expression such as dance and tumbling.

Spielplatz thrived in the run-up to the Second World War and even benefited from the war, as members increasingly took up permanent residence. During the Blitz, it was safer to be in the Hertfordshire countryside then in London.[7] Once again, there was a health benefit to being out of the city centre, albeit for very different reasons than had been cited in the 1920s. Today, the park continues to operate as a family-friendly naturism club.

Although never more than a fringe movement in interwar Britain, naturism is an example of new social experiments which were launched after the First World War. Like some of the political movements which gained traction in the 1920s, naturism had international roots, and it offered people a way to challenge the status quo and imagine a new way of being in the world.  

[1] J.M. Winter, ‘Military Fitness and Civilian Health in Britain during the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 15, no 2 (1980), 211-244 (p. 211)

[2] Ibid., p. 212

[3] Nina J. Morris, ‘Naked in nature: naturism, nature and the senses in early 20th century Britain’, Cultural Geographies, vol. 16, no. 3 (2009), 283-308 (p. 286)

[4] Jacob David Santos, ‘To the Frustration of Many a Birdwatcher: The Rise and Development of Naturism in Great Britain’, Unpublished PhD thesis, Providence College (2018), p. 49

[5] Ibid., pp. 50-51

[6] Morris, ‘Naked in nature’, p. 297

[7] Santos, ‘Rise and Development’, p. 64