Monday, 30 December 2013

Ethel Lees Shorthouse – commemorating a family centennial

As 2013 was drawing to a close I began thinking and writing again about my Great Aunt Ethel Lees Shorthouse (1886 – 1966). A hundred years ago in May 1913 she had set out adventurously to change her mundane existence in Manchester, England, an adventure that would lead to, amongst other things, a bigamous marriage and deportation by the Nazis! Her “new” life began in Adelaide, South Australia and ended in Jersey, the Channel Islands.

For a long time Ethel had been this teenager’s vague recollection of a timid old lady on a visit to her sister, my grandmother Minnie, just a few years before her death in the Bellozanne Valley, Jersey. I never thought of her again until Minnie herself died in 1982, and a cache of old postcards was discovered by her daughter, my mother Dorothy. Most of the cards bore messages sent to Minnie by Ethel during the years 1907 to 1915. They provided tantalising glimpses into Edwardian life in Staffordshire and Manchester, unresolved because the responses from her younger sister were clearly elsewhere, or had even been thrown away. I did eventually get to read some of these in 2011, cards that had been saved by one of Ethel’s granddaughters living in Southampton. Then, about 10 years after reading the “Ethel to Minnie” messages, I was lucky enough to be sent a photocopied version of Ethel’s Australian Journal from another Southampton granddaughter. Ethel had called this document “Items of my first voyages”, so, in 1913, she had plainly intended to take up travelling seriously.

These precious resources would enable me to make a first attempt, in 1998, at a kind of family history. I look back at it now and see the gaping holes, but I was untutored and working with little material and mainly faulty, fading memories. Later that year I plundered Ethel’s scant history to produce a final project for my Access to Humanities course. Ethel popped up once more to help me out with a First Degree module. And probably the best piece of academic analysis I created for my 2006 Master’s degree examined Ethel’s psychological state through three lengthy postcard messages she’d sent home from faraway Australia to Staffordshire as World War One broke out. I so wish now that this grateful and humble great niece could have appreciated her great aunt when she had the chance as a teenager in the 1960s.

My latest effort to do justice to Ethel’s memory has been interrupted by Christmas, but the research is done, and a document should materialise in the New Year. In recent years my sister Terri has discovered online archives of Australian newspapers. Contemporary articles exist which describe the rationale behind the emigration of thousands of domestic helpers to the Colonies around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This was the movement that took Ethel to Australia. We’ve even discovered articles directly linked to events recorded in Ethel’s Journal. So a more three dimensional person is emerging from the family mythology, and the bonds of familial empathy are strengthening in ways we never dreamed.

Next year is another centenary, that of the outbreak of World War One. Whilst I have evidence that Ethel and Minnie’s brothers fought in and survived that conflict, a great uncle of mine, Harry Mattison, brother of my grandfather Bert, Minnie’s husband, died aged twenty, less than a year after the war broke out. I will mark this upcoming anniversary with little pride, rather a sense of frustration – firstly at the loss of so many other young men that, when Ethel returned after the war, she married a man much older than she, a man who, unknown to her, had abandoned his first wife and family and dishonoured himself in his own military service; secondly because the women of that time are often depicted as deliverers of white feathers, or as armaments manufacturers, then perhaps as widows. No-one remarks on those shiploads of young women who’d ventured out into the Dominions at that very time to help build successful societies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia – they provided the support necessary to “liberate” bright, articulate women from domestic chores so that they could found charitable organisations, run newspapers, or campaign for political change. These “new” women of what would become the Commonwealth owed their freedom to women like my great aunt Ethel, who then found themselves marooned abroad, often feeling guilty, and unable to support their own families in the years from 1914 to 1918.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The "hunt" for Alice Debenham (1867-1940) - a self-effacing pioneer

Six months ago I was winding up my involvement in the project to erect a blue plaque at Walnut Tree Manor, Haughley Green in Suffolk to honour the memory of the founders of organic farming in the UK (see my previous two blogposts). But Alice Debenham has kept slipping through my researcher's fingers. I'd hoped that there would have been some feedback from the two files I left in the Maxwell Charnley Room in Haughley, but no-one has so far contacted me or the others involved. So I now post the following thoughts, and hope for the same success I had when searching for the almost forgotten author, Dorothea Rutherford (see some posts from 2012).

Time and again in the course of my research the figure of Lady Eve Balfour looms over the more shadowy figure of Alice Debenham. Yet Lady Eve referred to her as the “Raleigh” to her own “Columbus” – the person who followed on from the inspired explorer and made reality of his dreams. What were the reasons for Alice’s apparent reticence? To begin with she was the much older of the two women, by 31 years in fact.  The portrait of Alice, painted by her niece Alison, which now hangs in Briantspuddle village hall, Dorset – I’ll explain the significance of that location later – shows a woman well into middle age, unremarkable of appearance in many ways. She seems in sharp contrast to the young Lady Eve who was strikingly attractive in her youth, and forceful and distinctive in later portraits and photographs.

A distant relation of Alice, Michael Debenham, has provided sketchy details from the Census:
She was born 9 July 1867 in Finchley Road, Hampstead, and was baptised 11 September 1867 at All Souls Church, South West Hampstead. She is recorded in the 1911 census as living at 1 Fitzjohn Avenue, Hampstead, employed as an employer in agriculture. This was the address of her parents, Frank Debenham and Emma Folkard Debenham (nee Ridley).  Frank’s parents were William Debenham and Caroline Freebody, founders of the Debenhams stores group, sometime known as Debenham and Freebody. One of Alice’s brothers was Ernest Ridley Debenham, (1865-1952), successor to Frank as the big cheese of the stores, and created first baronet in 1931.

So was she farming in Hampstead? That seems unlikely. It’s probable that she was simply visiting her parents on Census day. So where was she farming? Her brother Ernest was a clue, particularly when linked to the portrait in Briantspuddle. John Vallins, writing in The Guardian in 2010, explains:

Until the First World War, it was a village of 12 cottages, mostly ancient and thatched, several of which survive. Then Sir Ernest – an idealistic reformer with a vision of increasing agricultural production, attracting people back to work the land, developing scientific methods and making rural Dorset self-sufficient in food production – bought land in the valley and set out to create an ideal agricultural community.

And it seems that, from 1914 to 1919, Alice was the farm manager of this Debenham Estate land.

A cursory search of census indexes online seems to indicate she had at least this brother Ernest, whose character and career tend to eclipse Alice’s. Then there may have been Mary, and Edith (born about 1869), and, of course Agnes, whose publishing contacts ensured that Lady Eve’s The Living Soil came to the notice of the public in 1943:
Miss Agnes Debenham, sister of the now-deceased Alice Debenham, sent a copy of a private memorandum to an acquaintance who was a director at New York-based publishing firm Harcourt, Brace & Co. Agnes Debenham simply wished to assist in securing publication of a new, revised edition of the memorandum, since copies of the original were dwindling, and she was willing to provide some financial backing. Agnes Debenham's New York contact forwarded her request, in early 1942, to Faber & Faber in London. Before long, one of the founding editors of Faber & Faber, Richard de la Mare [son of poet Walter], was in communication with Eve.

(p. 88 of Erin Gill’s doctoral thesis )

Erin Gill also notes that Alice Debenham, who died in autumn 1940, purportedly left £1,000 to Haughley Research Trust, although this may not have become available for some time. But her influence remained:

Another important event of the mid-1930s was Eve's purchase of the next door farm, Walnut Tree, and the arrival of Alice Debenham. According to Brander, the 80-acre Walnut Tree Farm was a victim of the depression and "Eve was able to purchase the farm at the foreclosed price of five shillings an acre". Eve did not have the capital to buy the farm but borrowed it.191 At about the same time, Alice Debenham, an arthritic 68-year-old who had studied medicine in her youth and who had experience of farm management, visited and agreed to rent the house at Walnut Tree Farm and to spend several thousand pounds modernising it. It would seem that Alice Debenham came to hear of Eve and Walnut Tree Farm through Eve's long-term companion Kathleen Carnley. Debenham quickly became Eve's "benefactress" and would prove a great ally at the end of the decade when Eve encountered organic theories about compost-based farming. Benefactress is the term used by Eve's mother Betty to describe Alice. Betty also described Alice as "the Fairy Godmother". She was clearly a wealthy woman as she paid for electricity to be installed at not only Walnut Tree farmhouse but also at New Bells farmhouse.

(p. 58 of Gill’s thesis)

As an experienced farm manager she had been well placed to be a mentor to Lady Eve, and together they set about transforming New Bells and Walnut Tree farms in Haughley Green into the site of a research project aimed at comparing organic and non-organic farming systems. Alice Debenham transferred ownership of Walnut Tree farm and the house that went with it to the “custodian trustees”, who secured support at some point during the war from the legal custodian. Further research is needed, Gill writes, to trace the ownership history of both farms. For instance, Walnut Tree farm appears to have been purchased by Eve, with borrowed funds, at some point during the 1930s. However, by the end of the 1930s the leasehold, if not the freehold, appears to have been held by Alice Debenham.

Can you help expand our knowledge of this influential woman?

Monday, 23 September 2013

...and for those who don't know of these pioneering women!

Lady Evelyn Barbara “Eve” Balfour (1898-1990) decided at the early age of 12 to become a farmer. She had perhaps been expected to fulfil quite a different destiny as the daughter of the 2nd earl of Balfour - a Conservative MP, and as the niece of Arthur Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1905. At the age of 17, in 1915, she began a Diploma in Agriculture at Reading University. Upon completion she set off to try hill farming in Monmouthshire. After struggling in the west of the country she turned her sights on the east and, with her sister Mary, bought New Bells Farm, Haughley Green in 1919. Despite a reputation in those days as “a bright young thing” – she was a saxophonist, sailor, pilot and author of crime fiction – she showed her serious side with her campaigning during the Tithe Wars of the depressed 1930s. It was around this time that she bought Wassicks, Haugh and Walnut Tree farms for a song. Walnut Tree farm was subsequently leased to her friend, Alice Debenham, who later bought it and renamed it Walnut Tree Manor. Lady Eve and Alice began to read up and develop ideas about the relationship between food, health and the soil. In 1939 they began The Haughley Experiment and set up the Haughley Research Trust. In 1946 Lady Eve became the co-founder and first president of the Soil Association.

Lady Eve, by Mary Eastman


Alice Debenham, by Alison Edith Le Plat

Alice Debenham was born in Hampstead in 1867. By 1911, in her forties, she may have been farming in that area. If she had any claim to fame in those days it was as the grand-daughter of the founders of Debenhams Store, Debenham & Freebody as it was known then. After beginning their collaboration on the Haughley Experiment, Lady Eve was to refer to her as the movement’s Sir Walter Raleigh. In her 1943 book, The Living Soil, Lady Eve explained that first come those who make initial discoveries, and after them people of vision, prepared in the face of all difficulties, to prove that the discoveries are worth official recognition:

“As an example, one might cite Columbus, who discovered America, and Raleigh, who founded the first English colony.”

If Lady Eve had been organic farming’s Columbus, then 
“it has had at least one Raleigh too, in the person of the late Alice Debenham.  The tragedy is that she died at the very outset of her great purpose, leaving to others the task of bringing to fruition the seed she sowed.”

Lady Eve goes on:  
“A practical farmer, trained in science and medicine, and during the latter years of her life an invalid, Alice Debenham saw very clearly the potential importance of the evidence concerning soil fertility and health.  She saw equally clearly that this scattered evidence must be collected and reproduced under controlled conditions if it were to convince the scientific world, and that unless science is convinced, Government will not act. Outstandingly public spirited, she founded a Research Trust to carry out this work.” 
Alice Debenham died in 1940.                                      

Walnut Tree Manor remained HQ of the Soil Association until October 1985.

Pioneers of the Organic Movement are honoured

At Walnut Tree Manor, Haughley Green on April 6th 2013 at 11 am, a blue plaque was unveiled by Alan Shaw, chair of Haughley Parish Council. It commemorates the formidable pioneers of the movement – Lady Evelyn Balfour and Miss Alice Debenham. Peter Anderson of the Norfolk Organic Group was the driving force behind this long-overdue public recognition of Haughley Green as the birthplace of organic farming. Hugh Wilson hosted the event, introducing speakers amongst whom were the CEO of the Soil Association, Helen Browning; Henry Chevallier Guild of Aspall Cyder; and Peter Anderson himself. Other guests included our Green Party councillors, Rachel Eburne and Andrew Stringer, Bob Flowerdew from BBC Radio 4’s “Gardeners’ Question Time”, Dr Erin Gill and many local residents.

A framed document detailing the morning’s events, as well as some biographical snippets about the two women, has been hung on the wall in the entrance of Walnut Tree Manor, now a base for the Kids’ Group Adventure Company. The East Anglian Daily Times and the Bury Free Press sent photographers, and the unveiling has been mentioned on the internet by the Soil Association and the Aspall Cyder Company. The guests were asked to sign and leave their comments.

This appropriately green file contains these comments, as well as a selection of photos of the event, here in the Maxwell Charnley Room at Haughley. In time a larger archive of printed materials and sources for further reading and study will also be placed here, and at Ipswich Record Office.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

A central archive for Haughley's history?

Haughley History Forum's last meeting was on 2nd March 2010, when our paper resources were distributed to members' homes for safe keeping. Since then the group has been dormant - but, I hasten to add, not the individual members!

Following publication of the Book of Haughley (Halsgrove: 2005), a bank account was opened to receive proceeds from sales of the book – it holds a few hundred pounds. Since 2010 one or two ideas for using these funds have been proposed and rejected. When the Village Hall Management Committee asked if we had any interesting photos to hang in what has now become the Old Reading Room (formerly Small Hall) I began to think about creating a central archive for our scattered & neglected resources. A fear we probably all share is that information we gathered for our D-Day Exhibition (2004) and the Book of Haughley, amongst other projects, may be lost or destroyed whilst in individual hands - moving house, or a death leave scope for such stuff to end up in skips! The village as a whole, or local history researchers and so on, deserve access to the fruits of our labour. There is possibly stuff "out there" that could be added as well.

Of about half a dozen possible locations for a central storage space the most feasible seemed to be: The Old Reading Room at the Village Hall; The Ron Crascall Pavilion on the Playing Field; the parish church. How we actually store items if and when a location could be found would depend on the requirements attaching to it – it seems the church has to have approved furniture styles. Our current funds could certainly pay for a filing cabinet & a display cupboard. But would that be enough storage?

Digitisation is a way to shrink some data (images on discs and/or memory sticks, cassette tapes likewise). Documents could be scanned to protect originals, but what about anything larger than A4? A wish list of equipment or services is already growing! We could maybe approach Heritage Lottery Funding for a community-shared, non-profit making project, and our treasurer is looking into this.

Even if we could raise more money a lot would depend on having pro-active members of the History Forum. Currently there are still eight people in the village out of the twelve originally credited in the preamble to the Book of Haughley, four of them having moved away. Of the eight, two are perhaps limited in how active they could be due to illness The remaining six of us are getting older, or might not want too much involvement, having moved on to other things since March 2010.

As a partial step forward our treasurer, an IT “whiz”, suggested we turn the Book of Haughley into an e-book - brilliant idea! We are now working towards an "open" History Forum session at the Maxwell Charnley Community Room in the New Year. We could invite those who originally contributed, those who MIGHT have contributed at the time but were overlooked or felt hesitant to join in, as well as those who don't even know the book exists (you can still buy a copy in the Bury Street Bookshop, Stowmarket by the way) and would like to read it in a more up-to-date format (on Kindle or Nook). An event like this could even unearth some younger historians who might carry the History Forum into the future.