The Gnome Liberation Front

Once upon a time, all was as it should have been in the Steven’s garden. The grass was green, a tableau of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in pride of place on the lawn, spring had sprung and among the daffodils was a workforce of busy gnomes.

But this picture of suburban tranquillity was spoiled early one Saturday morning, when Alice and Jack looked out of the window of their house to find Snow White and her entourage had disappeared. To add insult to injury, the thieves returned the following night, and what had once been a collection of more than twenty gnomes, was reduced to four. These little helpers were not ‘gnomenapped’ as they were secured in place with metal stakes.

The police response did not offer much hope for the safe return of the gnomes. ‘The owners were obviously upset’ said the local constable. He had logged the theft as ‘garden furniture, Snow White plus Seven’, and said, perhaps they will turn up in a car-boot sale.

However this is not the only case where owners have their beloved gnomes taken from them. Garden gnomes have lived a peaceful and pleasant life for almost 150 years. They have harmed no one, given pleasure to so many and added fun to gardens all over the world. But stories of gnomes travelling to remote, even exotic locations, and sending postcards home of their travels, are now embedded in contemporary folklore. Sometimes the owners receive snapshots of the gnome or it is sometimes returned with a boot –polish sun tan. Incidents of travelling gnomes became so common, that a travel company in the USA launched an advertising campaign based on the ideas and their ‘Roaming Gnome’ became something of a traveller’s mascot, and some would say the most famous gnome in America. Numerous ‘travelling gnome’ websites sprang up detailing the various adventures of gnomes, many showing great imagination and photographic skills.

The Gnome Liberation Front

The Gnome Liberation Front

Modern folklore, like Chinese whispers, is often based on a seed of truth. For example, in north eastern France, eleven garden gnomes were found hanging from a bridge in what appeared to be a mass suicide. Police found a note in which the gnomes said they wanted to quit this world and join a sect of the Temple of Submissive Dwarfs. ‘by the time you read these few words’, the note continued, ‘we will no longer be part of your selfish world which it has been our unhappy task to decorate’. Two years earlier, 119 gnomes were discovered in a forest, miles from the town of Aix-en-Provence from which they had mysteriously vanished. Single gatherings of this size are comparatively rare. More often than not, the unfortunate gnomes are rounded up in small groups sometimes accompanied by a Snow White, and they are repainted blue and green – the colours of the Front de Liberation des Naines de Jardin (FLNJ) or ‘The Gnome Liberation front’.

Like most in the 1990’s there was a climate of stiff competition among German gnome manufacturers who prided themselves on the high quality product. It is estimated that there are thirty million gnomes in German Gardens and that inevitably this has encouraged a proliferation of cheaper copies from neighbouring countries. The German government even banned the import of foreign gnomes and customs officers began seizing thousands of gnomes being smuggled over the polish and Czech borders. Foreign – made gnomes then became the target of garden desecration in Germany.

The first reported FLNJ ‘ release’ was in the Normandy town of Alencon when 200 gnomes disappeared. The police later found the haul in a nearby forest. The gnomes were not only repainted, but they were also wearing painted spectacles (‘to see in the dark’ claimed the FLNJ) and adorned with pasta ‘so they don’t go hungry’).

Other ‘groups’ called themselves cells of The Gnome Liberation Front or operated as independent movements, such as the Red Gnome Army, Free the Gnomes and Movimento Autonomo per las Liberaxione dell Anime da Giardino (Independent Movement for the Liberation of Garden Gnomes). These are just a few examples of the groups that began spreading across Europe, many of them setting up websites so they could link and communicate. Some of these sites in a political parody, proclaim a ‘manifesto’ including declarations that ‘forcing gnomes to stand in gardens without just compensation, is immoral’ and go on to ‘urge gnomes to rise up and break the bonds of slavery!’ In response to this, in Belgium, a self styled Gnome Protection Squad claimed to have over 300 members to counter these groups. Eventually, public outrage paid off when in 1997, four men were arrested in Bethune, France, after being caught in possession of gnomes and the FLNJ literature. Subsequently, 184 gnomes were recovered from the homes of the arrested men.

In early 2000, several dozen gnomes went missing from an exhibition at the Bagatelle Gardens in Paris. The FLNJ again claimed responsibility, demanding ‘this odious exhibition must be closed immediately’. The police saw it as a national problem, and suspected some form of coordination in the reported incidents. Later, forty-three gnomes were found in the grounds of the public library in Lingolsheim, Strasbourg. In Rouen, sixty-eight gnomes were recovered from a house after a police surveillance operation.

A website for The Garden Gnome Emancipation Movement appeared to serve as a pool of information on the worldwide ‘gnomenapping’ activity, which has spread as far as Australia, Japan and the UK. These groups are, of course, not really groups as such, they are spoof organizations, often initiated by individuals or students or practical jokers who have seized what has become a worldwide phenomenon – ‘gnomenapping’. These groups have discovered that gnomes are fun. Although their type of fun can be very disturbing to many gnome owners.

Alex a milkman, says his occupation is the perfect disguise for a gnome liberator. He began his undercover role when he ‘took two antique gnomes from a garden to decorate his own. Dishonesty turned to irresistible impulse and the excitement of his early morning shift soared. Suddenly, every garden on his milk round blossomed with artistic potential. Often he would simply swap a gnome from one garden to the other, enjoying the mischievous feeling of wondering if the owners had noticed that the gnome that was fishing yesterday was now digging. Alternatively he would provide gnomes to the ‘gnomeless’, much to the latter’s surprise when they collected milk from the doorstep in the morning.

None of this is of much interest to Alice Stevens of course. Her husband has now taken to scouring car-boot sales hoping to spot their gnomes and perhaps catch the thieves. No luck so far. ‘It’s a shame’, says Alice ruefully, ‘the gnomes gave entertainment and some fantasy for the local kids’ For others, somewhere, possibly in your neighbourhood, they may still do.

This is an extract from our book entitled “gnomeland and introduction to the little people” which is available from our shop here.

What's left of the Modbury Gnome