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?

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