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Faith, pacifism, and farming: Alternative life working on the land

by
23 July 2021

Ken Worpole looks into a post-war settlement

Courtesy of the family of the late Joanna Dunn

A young Shirley Williams, “second cowman”, and fellow workers on a potato planter, 1948

A young Shirley Williams, “second cowman”, and fellow workers on a potato planter, 1948

THE extensive coastline of Essex, with five river estuaries and 30 islands, has often provided a home for therapeutic communities or religious retreats, given that much of the county’s edges are remote or inaccessible. Part of my childhood was spent in Hadleigh, Essex, playing on the downs overlooking the Thames, where, in 1896, General Booth’s Salvation Army established a land colony for the destitute men of east London’s slums.

As children, we were fascinated by a place that our parents had forbidden us to venture near. But it had a shop where you could buy lemonade, and we did. The eminent Christian socialist George Lansbury was responsible for a number of similar land colonies in rural Essex, providing work and healthy living — though on occasions with a degree of compulsion — for the unemployed.

Traces of such settlements and other exercises in rural self-sufficiency can still be found across the county, and are re-emerging today for ecological reasons.

One of the best-known Christian retreats can still be found at Othona, close to Bradwell-on-Sea. Here, in 1945, the former RAF padre Norman Motley created a small settlement occupying a group of old Nissen huts where British and German Christians could meet after the war in a spirit of reconciliation.

I have visited Othona several times, and always been impressed: today, the community seems stronger than ever. Apart from offering a place of tranquillity, the settlement is now almost entirely off-grid, generating its own electricity and recycling all waste products; a profound sense of stewardship of the natural environment is today part of the community’s core ethos.

 

DESPITE making a study of such communities for more than two decades, I had never heard of Frating Hall Farm, near Wivenhoe, until two years ago. It had been an ambitious attempt to create a Christian pacifist farming settlement, which lasted from 1943 until 1954. At its most successful, the Frating community consisted of more than 50 men, women, and children, while also providing shelter for a number of refugees, and even former prisoners of war.

Courtesy of the family of the late Joanna DunnHarvest supper in the great barn at Frating, c.1948

The community housed, fed, and cared for each other, while earning income from their farming activities, eventually sustaining a surplus; sadly, it was never enough to repay the original share capital, causing its eventual dissolution.

During its eventful life, the community established a choir and a theatre group, both of which toured churches and village halls, and, at harvest time, attracted help from supporters from many walks of life, equally committed to the pacifist cause.

Bonded by a shared commitment to a world without war, its members nevertheless represented a broad church. The community’s “founding father” — though he would have resisted the label — was the charismatic former Geordie blast-furnaceman Joe Watson, who had left school at the age of 12.

In adult life, he had been befriended by John Middleton Murry and George Orwell, and, like Murry, was a committed Anglican (although Watson’s wife remained steadfastly attached to her Methodist upbringing). A prolific letter-writer, columnist, and occasional BBC radio essayist, Watson once recalled that “I was reared in poverty, but had Jesus, Blake, Lawrence, and Berdyaev, in that order, to sustain me.”

Unsurprisingly, there were several Quakers in the core group, as well as a young Roman Catholic, Shirley Williams, whose mother, Vera Brittain, had been an enthusiastic support of the Frating project. Shirley Williams joined the community to play the part of “second cowman”.

 

ALTHOUGH Watson was entirely self-educated, many others came from middle-class farming or professional families where education was valued: families that embraced 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 even Simone Weil?

Ken & Larraine WorpoleThe great barn at Frating Hall Farm, in 2020

All these names recur in letters and community broadsheets. It was this that fascinated me as much as any other aspect of the Frating story: that, long before the internet, there was an extraordinary geographical and international cultural element to these religious and political interests and concerns — between the steelworks and mines of north-east England, Bohemian London, rural Anglicanism, Russian anarchism, and Jewish phenomenology.

“Our dramatic activities started with play-readings,” one member recalled. “At the Harvest Festival in 1945, a small group of members staged a scene from King Lear. This was followed by a full-length production of Twelfth Night, and then came The Taming of the Shrew, Henry IV, Part I, and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

This last production was vividly recalled by Phoebe Lambert, both of whose parents were members of the Frating Players. She remembered them “going over and over their lines as they went round the fields collecting eggs and shutting up the hens”.

Some 60 years later, Lambert still remembered the effects of the play being performed in the church. “I was very, very young, but I remember a battering ram being literally heaved against the church doors! It was quite frightening. My mother was part of the chorus, and she was singing, ‘Wash the sea, wash the sky!’”

The cultural life of the Frating community seemed to have helped compensate for many of the difficulties of farming, as well as overcoming the personal differences which sometimes arose among those who lived there. The harvest suppers in the great barn were remembered by everybody, as were the choral concerts and plays.

The members’ amateur efforts were sometimes augmented by those of the talented summer visitors — including notable writers and musicians — who flocked to Frating to help with the harvest.

In a letter written later in life by one of the early members of the community, who left eventually to train for ordination, the former farmer Trevor Howard repeats how much he had treasured this aspect of the family’s time at Frating: “It was about all in the singing and those roped in from outside and to a much lesser extent in the plays, that the community really shone, and of course all its forces were gathered together for the great Harvest Festivals in the barn with its wonderful decorations.

“Hugh Davison preaching like a prophet sent from God, and a galaxy of stars in the very threshold of stardom as singers, instrumentalists, and conductors — the suppers, the services, the post-supper activities. I don’t think we will ever see days like those again, and I thank God for the privilege of having been part of them.”

 

DESPITE the social isolation experienced at times by some of the adults because of their beliefs, Frating was clearly a rich and stimulating environment for children. All attended the local primary school in Great Bentley, and several went to one of the Colchester grammar schools, or to Quaker schools at Saffron Walden or Reading.

Courtesy of Martyn ThomasA young Martyn Thomas watches the unloading of sheaves of corn at Frating Hall Farm, c.1948

Others went elsewhere, taking with them experiences of life, and a diversity of adult friends and familiars, that few of their generation could match. In their many and varied ways, the “children of Frating” went on to pursue lives of vocation, in the fields of artistic, educational, or humanitarian causes and endeavours.

All recalled growing up with an extraordinary sense of freedom and happiness, coming and going into each other’s houses to eat or sleep, wandering the fields and woods when not at school, playing in the barn, feeding the animals, going on trips to the seaside on the back of a lorry, and much else.

It was only in adult life that those I spoke to realised how difficult it had been for their parents at times, yet all remembered the community with pride in what had been attempted and, for a while, achieved.

 

Ken Worpole is the author of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the land in wartime Britain, about Frating Hall Farm, published by Little Toller Books at £14 (Church Times Bookshop £12.60); 978-1-908213-86-0.

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