No matter how many skies have fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain

by thenewenglishlandscape


‘Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or rather scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.’ from Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H.Lawrence

In 2019 I gave a talk called ‘Brightening from the East’ at the Firstsite Gallery in Colchester as part of the Essex Book Festival. It was based on an essay written the previous year on alternative communities for the book Radical Essex. The festival prospectus listed some of the settlements under discussion, one of which was Frating Hall Farm. In the audience were two women, Barbara Thomas and her daughter-in-law Tessa Thomas both from the farm itself, Barbara having lived there for more than fifty years with her husband, Martyn. After the talk my wife Larraine and I were invited to visit the farm the next time we were in the area.

A few weeks later we found our way to Frating, and were shown the family’s personal collection of documents and photographs recording the history of the farm when it had been managed as a Christian pacifist and socialist settlement between 1943 and 1954. The couple put me in touch with others who had grown up in this community, and with whom they were still in touch, and one by one I contacted them and recorded their stories.

At the heart of the Frating story was a small group of pioneers, radicalised by their religious beliefs and their pacifism, who on ‘Lady Day’, March 1943, took possession of a vacant farm in a hamlet on the Essex Tendring Peninsula. Several had been part of an earlier attempt in the late 1930s to create a socialist residential community at Langham near Colchester, where a series of famous international summer schools were held. Though successful as a meeting place, the Langham Centre failed as a farm. As a result, a breakaway group led by former Durham steel-worker, Joe Watson (a good friend of Jack Common, George Orwell and Sid Chaplin), left Langham and went to Frating to start afresh. Both ‘back to the land’ communities had been inspired by The Adelphi journal, an influential periodical of the 1920s and 1930s in whose pages D.H.Lawrence, John Middleton Murry, Vera Brittain, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell and others shared ideas for the future with European religious radicals such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Martin Buber and Simone Weil.

In time there were more than fifty people living at Frating, including refugees and several former prisoners-of-war. Though the settlement was based on the idea of pastoral self-sufficiency, members continued to subscribe to the larger ideal of ‘the New Life’, a term then used to describe a mix of ‘back to the land’ sentiments, simpler lifestyles, and human fellowship promulgated across Europe after the catastrophe of the First World War.

The title of my new book is taken from the opening paragraph of Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first published in 1928, a work full of references to the new life. In No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen I have tried to recreate the unique world of the Frating community, repaying an intellectual debt long owed to the inspiration of the late social historian, Raphael Samuel, and the legacy of the Ruskin History Workshop movement.

The story of Frating Hall Farm, hitherto ‘hidden from history’, is thus based on the reminiscences of those who grew up on the farm, supplemented by their own personal artefacts and memorabilia. In short, the book offers a kaleidoscopic history of the community during its eleven-year occupation, as well as recording the passionate religious and political ideals of the back-to-the-land movement in wartime and post-war Britain.

All those I interviewed had been children when they lived on the farm. 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. The young Shirley Williams, who sadly died earlier this year, had, on leaving school, taken up the job of second cowman at Frating: her mother, Vera Brittain, was a keen supporter. 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.

The story of Frating Hall Farm is an important chapter in the history of rural communitarianism, and my thanks are due to Little Toller Books who responded so enthusiastically to the initial proposal to document its history, by commissioning and publishing such a beautifully designed book.

KW

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, by Ken Worpole, is now published and available from Little Toller Books, May, 2021. £14

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