More news from Frating Hall Farm

by thenewenglishlandscape

Following the publication of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain in May 2021, I was contacted by a number of people who had read the book and were keen to tell me more, as well as share letters and other documents in the possession of their families. What follows is an extract from a short essay now published in Rural History Today, the journal of the British Agricultural History Society, a link to which is given at the end for those who want to read the whole piece. Many thanks to Rebecca Ford for commissioning this essay.

In the Autumn of 1950, a young Cambridge graduate, Helen Johnson, went to work as a volunteer at Frating Hall Farm in Essex, a long-established farm close to Wivenhoe on the River Colne, acquired by a group of Christian pacifists in 1943 in order to establish a communal settlement. While there she wrote a series of long letters to her fiancée, Arthur Fox, describing daily life on the farm, including the people she met there, the potato picking and roof-thatching, the political and religious discussions, the harvest festivals, choir concerts and barn dances.

These letters came to light in the summer of 2021, when her son, Andrew Fox, recognised his mother on the cover of No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen and got in touch. The book was an oral and documentary history of the farm and its idealistic members during its eleven-year occupation, as well as a discussion of the passionate religious and political ideals of the back-to-the-land movement in wartime and post-war rural England. I was not aware of Helen Johnson’s letters until after publication. Fortunately, the story they told endorsed my own understanding of the community’s fascinating history: a life of hard work, hard winters, redeemed by deep and lasting friendships, wonderful communal meals and harvest suppers, closeness to the natural world, and a feeling of internationalism even on such a small stage.

Frating Hall Farm 1950. Helen Johnson is the young woman on the right on the potato-planter; the woman on the left is the young Shirley Williams.

Although I had written about some of the volunteers from abroad who came to support the farm, especially during harvest time, I was unaware of how important a part they played or where they had come from. Helen’s letter to Arthur on Wednesday, 23 August, 1950, reveals all:

‘The visitors this time are all perfectly normal. There’s Jeanne’s mother and sister, and the mother I think is as sweet as Jeanne herself, and Anna, a Dutch schoolmistress who comes here quite often, so Dutch is practically the official language.  Then there’s Margaret, a German girl, a student at Heidelberg, called Gisela, and myself.  Looking around the table the other day I noticed that there were only 6 English to 7 non-English people present, 4 Dutch, 1 German, 1 Austrian and 1 Czech.’

For most of the time, Helen worked out in the fields, often in the company of women from the village paid to help with the vegetable picking.  But there were more delightful tasks too. Here she writes of the Hall’s generous kitchen garden:

‘In the afternoon most people went into Colchester, but I sat out in the garden in the sun, helping Irene to bottle plums. She had 56lbs to do, and we got through ¾ of them, which wasn’t bad going.  She also took me round the kitchen garden by way of a break.  They have a lovely old walled vegetable garden, of which David attends to the vegetable half and Irene to the fruit half. David’s half is beautifully tidy, because Mrs Heckmann did quite a lot of weeding in it but Irene’s, though, not nearly so tidy, has all sorts of exciting things in. There are already peaches, pears, plums and nectarines growing against the wall, and she’s put in a whole lot of new ones, and some figs, vines and apricots as well. She’s also got an apple cordon planted and a new strawberry bed set out, so there should be all sorts of good things in the years to come.’

The cultural life of the Frating community seemed to have compensated for all the hard work, as well as overcoming some of the personal differences among those who lived there. The Harvest suppers in the great barn were remembered fondly by everybody, as were the choral concerts and plays. The members’ amateur efforts were sometimes augmented by those of the talented summer visitors who flocked to Frating to help with the harvest, including a number of notable writers and musicians.

Johnson writes wryly about some of the visitors who came to Frating, believing that paradise had already been achieved. They were soon brought down to earth after a few days of cabbage-lifting in the rain. In another of her letters to Arthur, Helen pens one of the most lucid and insightful passages I’ve read about that most difficult of arts: the art of living together in harmony.

‘It’s a sad thing in a way that the people with great ideas about communities are usually much worse fitters-in than the ordinary people without any theories who just like living at Frating Hall, or even spending their holidays there. I wonder if it’s just because the people who’re good at living in communities all do live in lots of them, in families and streets and colleges and factories and churches and clubs, and all the other places where people have common interests and a sense of loyalty to one another, and consequently rarely bother to evolve theories on the subject. Certainly, I have a feeling that the more Frating does feel like a community, and the more its individual members fit in, the less they’re interested or bothered with theories of what the place is for or about’.

I am grateful to Helen’s sons, Andrew Fox and Robin Fox, for sharing these letters with me and the surviving members of the Frating community. Still a young woman of twenty-five when she began writing them, her letters are full of life and curiosity – keen to learn about other people, keen to understand how the world works, and to play her full part in it. They are also wholly attentive to the pleasures of the natural world and to the seasonal pageant of rural life – and an unexpected gift to rural history.

For the full version of the essay in Rural Life Today go to: https://www.bahs.org.uk/RHT/RHT%20issue%2042.pdf

KW

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: back to the land in wartime Britain, is published by Little Toller Books. £14.