In 1943 a breakaway group from John Middleton Murry’s failing socialist education project, The Adelphi Centre–which was based in a rural Edwardian mansion near Colchester–took over nearby Frating Hall Farm on the Essex Tendring peninsula. There they ran it as a radical pacifist settlement until 1954. At its peak more than fifty people lived and worked at Frating, but the settlement also provided shelter and accommodation for visiting supporters helping out at harvest time, as well as offering sanctuary to refugees and former German prisoners-of-war. It was one of many, and perhaps the most successful, of the pacifist rural initiatives providing legitimate alternatives to conscription during the Second World War.
In this photograph, the young woman standing on the left of the potato planter is Shirley Williams, later to become a Labour cabinet minister. She went to work there as second cowman at the age of eighteen, in charge of ‘a herd of Ayrshire dairy cows, handsome red-and-white animals of a certain temper.’ Things did not go well at first. The head cowman was, she remembered, ‘a pious Methodist who refused to work with a Catholic.’ The disagreement was soon sorted out by one of the older members of the settlement, Joe Watson, who had organised the breakaway. The young Williams was impressed. ‘I supposed I was a bit in love with Joe. I had never met anyone like him,’ she recalled in her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves.
Williams’ mother, the writer Vera Brittain, whose 1933 memoir, Testament of Youth, had galvanised the inter-war pacifist movement, contributed towards buying the farm. It was at Frating that her daughter learnt much of her politics from the earnest radicals living there, particularly the charismatic Joe Watson. A former Tyneside blast-furnaceman and passionate socialist, it was Watson who later encouraged Williams to stand for parliament on the Labour ticket where he acted as her election agent. He had left school at the age of twelve, had run a weekly book group at the steelworks in Consett where the workers read and discussed Keats and Shakespeare, Lawrence and Marx. ‘Our books, like our religion, had to stand up to the fire of the furnaces and the darkness of the pits,’ he later recalled.
Though Watson was entirely self-educated, other Frating members came mostly from farming or professional families where education was valued in addition to the espousal of strong religious beliefs. How else could one account for a common devotion to the works of Tolstoy, Lawrence, and religious philosophers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Martin Buber and Simone Weil? (all names mentioned in letters and farm broadsheets) It was this that fascinated me more than any other aspect of the Frating story when I came to write its history: that long before the internet there was an extraordinary geographical and international cultural co-mingling of religious and political interests–between the steelworks and mines of north-east England, bohemian London, rural Anglicanism, Russian anarchism and Jewish phenomenology. And it all came together on a 300 acre, mixed arable and livestock farm in Essex.
I chose this Edenic photograph of two women and two men sharing the work of potato planting as the cover design of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen, suggesting as it does hard work along with a sense of pride of achievement. The second young woman on the right of the planter, unidentified at the time of publication, I have since learned was called Helen Johnson. Shortly after the book appeared in print, I received an email from a reader who had instantly recognised the woman as his mother. Since then, he has sent me copies of Johnson’s letters to her fiancée during her time at Frating, many of which refer to the hard work of potato and cabbage cropping involving long hours: ‘Yesterday I picked potatoes from 9am to 8.15 pm (with meal breaks of course). I felt pretty fed up with it,’ Johnson wrote one Saturday in 1950. But she also wrote at length about enjoying the company of other women from the village who helped that day, and many other small pleasures of rural life and comradeship.
The copies of Johnson’s lively letters have now been added to my own personal Frating archive. Since publication I have been overwhelmed by new material–old photos, copies of letters or diary entries, even scans of watercolours and paintings–sent by people who once had strong Frating affiliations, but of whose existence I was simply unaware. It is now clear that the Frating experiment had profoundly affected the lives of dozens if not hundreds of people over time.
It was only after finishing the book that I realised that this treasure trove could well have been dispersed or thrown away. Elsewhere in Essex, many other family farms of this size have been acquired by large industrial farming businesses, and their documents and records discarded. Hedgerows, ponds, kitchen gardens and timber out-buildings that once gave the farms their individual character and ecological diversity have been eradicated. Fortunately, when the co-operative structure was dissolved in 1954, a former Quaker member bought the farm at Frating Hall, and eventually bequeathed it to his stepson, Martyn Thomas, who still farms there 74 years after he arrived, aged four. It was he and wife Barbara who kept safe many of the original community’s documents and photographs. Both remain proud of the farm’s radical history.
Ken Worpole is a writer and social historian and the author of books on architecture, landscape and public policy. He was active in the early days of the History Workshop movement in the 1970s, as a founding member of the ‘People’s Autobiography of Hackney’ project. More information about Ken’s book, No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain is available at Little Toller Books. A film of Ken Worpole in conversation with writer and historian Patrick Wright can be viewed on youtube.