Farmer's evictions in WW2 and the Peldon Protest

THE WORLD WAR 2 WAR AGRICULTURE COMMITTEE EVICTIONS

The War Agriculture Committees were set up in every region to maximise the production of food crops during WW2. Their tactics came under close scrutiny and criticism and here in Peldon the threatened eviction of the dairy farmer, Mr Ellis, at Pete Tye Farm, led to a campaign spear-headed by the Rector, Churchwarden and village postmaster in his defence against the Essex War Ag Committee.

NOTICE TO QUIT OWN PROPERTY Peldon Protest

There was a large attendance of residents at the Rectory, Peldon, on Thursday May 6th [1943], the object of the meeting being, as explained by the rector, Rev J R Wilson B A, who presided, to protest against a notice received by Mr Ellis of Pete Tye Farm to leave his house on July 31.

Although when filling in the form sent by the Agricultural Committee Mr Ellis had expressed his willingness to surrender the land for wartime cultivation, retaining only sufficient to enable him to keep cows and continue in business as a milk retailer, he had received notice to quit the house which is his own property.

It was resolved to draw up petitions against the order and to send one to the Prime Minister, and one each to Mr Oswald Lewis MP and Mr Tom Driberg MP.

The petitions have since been signed by a very large percentage of electors and other residents.

'WINGS' EFFORT HITCH A meeting in connection with Wings for Victory week, arranged by the Parish Council was held in the Village Hall, Peldon, on Tuesday. The rector, (Rev J R Wilson) announced that the date fixed was June 19 - 26.

Captain N.O.R Serjeant suggested that it might be wise to postpone for a short time the formulation of any plans for the week's activities, there being at the present juncture a feeling of strong resentment at the action of the local War Agricultural Committee in serving Mr Ellis of Pete Tye Farm with a notice to leave his home.

Proposed by Mr Prior and seconded by Capt Serjeant, a resolution was drawn up as follows 'Resolved that this meeting be adjourned owing to lack of enthusiasm on the part of the residents of Peldon in relation to the actions of the Local War Agricultural Committee until we hear the outcome of our appeal to the Prime Minister'. Essex County Standard 15.5.1943

As well as the petitions to Churchill and local MPs the Rector writes to the Times and sends a letter to James Wentworth Day, renowned countryman, author and journalist appealing for his help. Wentworth Day had already expressed criticism of the War Agricultural Committee in a national newspaper calling them Little Hitlers'.

We are in great distress in this parish because the Essex War Agricultural Committee have taken a most high-handed attitude to several farmers here, and are threatening evictions, which apparently they have the power to carry out. I have just finished your book, 'Farming Adventure', and in it you have exposed this form of pressure and the powers of these people in a most courageous manner. We need a leader here, one who will write and speak against these injustices, as many in this parish are frightened that they may lose their homes and livelihood. Will you come and see us and give us your advice?
Yours Truly J.R. Wilson
Rector,
Peldon, Essex

Towards the end of May we learn from E.J. Rudsdale (whose Journals of Wartime Colchester were published in 2010) that there was much talk about this scandal which was being 'stirred up' by the Rector of Peldon and James Wentworth Day of whom we shall hear much in the following pages. Eric Rudsdale had been seconded from the Museum Service to the War Agricultural District Committee as its secretary in 1941 and the first floor of Hollytrees Museum was requisitioned as offices for the Essex War Agricultural Committee Lexden & Winstree District which covered Peldon.

On the morning of 17th July, he relates, a press conference is called by Ralph Sadler the Deputy Executive Officer of the Essex War Agricultural Executive Committee at Hollytrees. Five reporters are there from two papers hitherto quite hostile to the EWAEC, The Essex Chronicle and The Essex Weekly News. Rudsdale intimates that Sadler is not very good defending the actions of the EWAEC, refuses to discuss individual cases and doesn't convince the gentlemen of the press.

The campaign continues apace and on 23rd July 1943 the Essex Chronicle publishes an article which is so colourful I will reproduce it in its entirety.

AGRICULTURE

EFCA v EWAEC [Essex Farmers' and Countrymen's Association versus Essex War Agricultural Executive Committee]

In May last, Mr S.W. Ellis, only milk producer retailer in the marshland parish of Peldon between Colchester and Mersea was ordered to quit his 100 acre Pete Tye Farm by the Essex War Agricultural Committee on the ground that Pete Tye Farm was not producing the maximum amount of food. Whereupon the Rector, The Rev J.R. Wilson took pen and wrote to the 'Times'. How is it that the people of England have consented to put themselves under the absolute authority of the War Agricultural Committee?

To the front
News of these village Hampdens [footnote] soon reached the alert ear of romantic James Wentworth Day, who recently published a very good book of adventure: he rode around the farms of England on a horse. Mr Wentworth Day is so celebrated in these old smuggler haunts of Essex as mighty with a gun, and still mightier with a pen. Peldon and all around figure in his book. Very soon the hooves of Mr Day's charger were heard upon his adopted soil; conclaves took place; and now upon the public notice obtrudes a new organisation with the challenging name of The Essex Farmers' and Countrymen's Association. Last week the E F C A made its debut at Colchester with a pugnacious speech by President Day of which he announced the repercussions would be felt throughout England. Of all the 60 odd County War Agricultural Committees declared President Day, there had been more complaints about the Essex Committee than any other. Dictator Leslie (OBE in last June's Birthday Honours List) [Executive Officer of the EWAEC] sat at Writtle in a 'palace of injustice' his hands stained with 'high-handed injustices, dictatorial methods and wasteful farming'. Having disposed of Leslie with one barrel, President Day took a pot at Super-Dictator Hudson [Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries] with the other...

[footnote a reference to Gray's Elegy
Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,]

Maldon Loud-Speaker
Dictator Leslie sat tight in his palace ignoring these buzzings. At Maldon on Saturday President Day hoisted his banner again. To a meeting at the Swan Hotel publicised by advertisement and loud-speaker van in the High Street came some 30 persons including a number of the dispossessed, half a dozen women and Essex Chronicle reporter Charles Douglas Brown. In the chair was Captain N O R Sergeant [Serjeant] of Peldon, [churchwarden at St Mary's Peldon] no farmer but an Essex man who cared for 'constitutional rights'. His argument: Magna Carta says you cannot deprive a man of his freehold except by judgement at law. But Hudson can do it. He can do it by Defence Regulation. Therefore, Hudson is mightier than Magna Carta. Is that right? Then came President Day with a pom-pom firing in all directions at the EWAC. His charges ranged from oppression to Gestapo-like tyranny. Excited the meeting unanimously approved a long resolution demanding immediate inquiry by the Minister into the 'high-handed injustices and dictatorial methods and wasteful farming of the EWAEC which is undermining morale and hindering food production in this country'. Full terms of the resolution were played up in Wednesday's Daily Express under fat top-of-column headlines announcing: FARMERS DEMAND INQUIRY:WASTEFUL METHODS ALLEGED.

Counter Attack
Wisely the Essex War Agricultural Executive Committee uses no high explosive in dealing with its critics. To Hollytrees, its Colchester headquarters, Deputy Executive Officer R M Sadler, called reporters to hear the Committee's case.

He said : Every farmer is given a fair chance to comply with the Committee's directions. Any recommendation terminating a tenancy had to go to the Ministry of Agriculture. And the Ministry can order the taking of possession following an inspection by a Land Commissioner. Then the local committee must 'take action to ensure that there is a proper cultivation'. Every occupier has the right to appeal to the Executive Committee and some have already done so.

Throughout the county, the EWAEC have advised the Minister of Agriculture to take possession of 40,000 acres of land, some of it is badly farmed, but much of it not previously cultivated at all. Of those 40,000 acres the Committee have let about 15,000 acres to competent farmers, and is itself now farming 25,000 acres.

With Mr Sadler and Capt F T Folkard the Colchester District officer of the EWAC, Essex Chronicle reporter J C Chaplin visited farms at Layer, Abberton, Pete Tye Common, Peldon, Great Wigborough and Layer Marney, saw some of the few remaining crops as sown by owners before the Committee took possession. Verdict: for the Committee

Footnote
In our village pub (adds Charles Douglas Brown) I told some farmers and their men about the meeting at Maldon. A well-known and fair-minded farmer, who has the interests of his profession at heart, assured me that he had seen a lot of good work done by our Agricultural Committee 'If I had the petrol' he said 'I would take you to see acres of corn flourishing where bushes grew several feet high.

He admitted Mr Day's suggestion that the War Agricultural Committee had more money and better machinery at its disposal than many farmers. He assured me that dispossessed farmers are paid adequate rent. Essex Chronicle 23rd July 1943

The period between the wars had been a very depressed time for farming and of course labour was short with so many men having been lost in the war. The War Ag committees would argue they transformed thousands of derelict acres to produce arable crops to feed the nation in war-time but according to Wentworth Day, they used Gestapo methods, bullying and evicting farmers, and awarding the land to their cronies.

Dora Banfield wrote in a memoir about her time as a Women's Land Army worker at Kemps Farm, her parents' farm in Peldon.

There was a department in the government which employed certain local people to watch for local farmers who were not doing enough for the war effort. My parents suspected this when a neighbouring farm was taken over, the house and all for no obvious reason. This made life more difficult for all of us.
Everything we did on the farm came under scrutiny .

Wentworth Day also accused the War Ag of incompetence and little experience of farming. Another organisation, The Farmers' Rights Association, also fought for the dispossessed farmers, campaigning for adequate rights of appeal. Some of the cases concerned men who had fought in WW1.

Some cases involved whole families being evicted with nowhere to go and corruption was alleged such as the dispossessed farm being re-let to a family member of a EWAEC member (especially where a young relation might avoid being called up by gaining exemption through being a farmer). Suicides were reported, a farmer in Kelvedon being one of the casualties.

In his book, Harvest Adventure, Wentworth Day describes the thousands of acres of grass marshes between Peldon and the salt-creeks. He blames the importing of cheap subsidised food from overseas for these areas being uncultivated for more than fifty years.

He writes, upon reading this 'courageous parson's letter' he rode across country to Peldon Rectory to find a 'clean-shaven, humorous-eyed man with a firm jaw, an aristocratic face, the incisive manner of a good lawyer, the air of a man of the world'. At the rectory had been assembled 25 - 30 people. A local farmer, Mrs Greer of Blind Knights [Layer], 'tweed clad, her dog-cart in the drive'. Local farmers, Ted Hutley of Brick House [Wigborough], Mr Butt of Barn Hall and his brother of Peldon Marshes who farmed 500 acres of marsh, Day's old friend, yeoman farmer, Tom Mann of Virley Hall 'bluff and keen eyed looking, as though he had a gun in his pocket for any official who troubled him'; Captain Serjeant, a local retired officer [and Peldon church warden]; Mr Mortimer of Abbots Hall, who farmed 700 acres of grass-marsh; Mr Prior, the Peldon village postmaster [a huge man known as 'Tiny' Prior in the village]; ten or a dozen small farmers and smallholders - the sort of whom, a year before the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Hudson has said to Day 'They should be abolished - they're uneconomic' - a dairyman, a publican, a retired police sergeant, half a dozen farmers' wives, and Miss Griffiths, a friend of Mrs Greer; and an old Fleet Street friend of Day's of 20 years before, John Thornton of Go[d]bolts, whose company had invested in buying Essex farmlands.

'They told their story. How farmer after farmer had been given notice to quit without any good reason at all and without any possibility of appeal to an independent tribunal. How orders to break up old grassland had been served and how, when the necessary machinery was appealed for, it was not forthcoming. How overbearing Committee men and officials... had told these bewildered farmers and their wives that the Committee possessed all but the power of life and death over them ... At that meeting I suggested that those present form themselves into an association, agree to rules, elect a chairman and committee, and generally put themselves on a responsible basis. They did so. Seventy-five pounds was subscribed at once. Rules were drafted. A committee was elected. The rector and Mr Prior, the postmaster, who became honorary secretary, and others worked like [Trojans]. To Mr Prior especially the newly-born Essex Farmers' and Countrymen's Association owed an immense debt, for he went all over the country to investigate abuses and advise persecuted farmers. A week later we took the ballroom at that magnificent Tudor inn, The Red Lion, in Colchester, and sent a loudspeaker van to tour the market-place, and I had the privilege of addressing between two and three hundred farmers who unanimously passed a resolution calling for a Government inquiry into the 'high-handed and dictatorial methods, injustices, and waste of public money by the EWAC'.

Of course, we did not get an inquiry. No one expected one. But we did get a good Press. London and provincial newspapers 'splashed' this first organised revolt against a tyranny and waste of public money of which most country people were aware but against which few had dared to protest.

That meeting was the first of several...we held one at Maldon...at Braintree, where because we promised to produce on the platform a blind man who had been threatened with eviction, no eviction took place; at Mersea Island...and at other places where local opinion and injustices demanded it.

The answer was a swift, unheralded, and certainly unsung visit by Mr Hudson to Peldon. Soon afterwards matters improved considerably.

So much for a local revolt which gained powerful and instantaneous support and prevented any further evictions.

Hudson according to his press office came to a lunch at The Peldon Rose to congratulate the local Committee and the District Officer for the magnificent job they had done. Day would have it that Hudson was shocked by the reports and rushed down to Peldon to put a stop to what appeared to be an impending farmer revolt against the excesses of the committee. Therein lies a 'conflicting remembrance of the unheralded and certainly unsung visit'

Wentworth Day quotes a letter sent to Mr Prior as secretary of the EFCA.

I must write and thank you on behalf of us small farmers. My husband has been farming for fifty years through good and bad times, and we have always made a living of our few acres and have two good boys in the Army, one in the East.

Yet our Committee threatened to put us out of our home into the road simply because we had not the tackle or the labour to plough up our big grass-marsh. They said they couldn't lend us any, though they have all the tackle they want for their own farming.

It has preyed on my husband's mind so much that he does not sleep at nights-just tosses and mutters beside me and is all jumpy. He is like a haunted man.

I dread him going to milk at five in the morning unless I go with him in case I should find him hanging in the barn like that poor farmer we read of in the paper. He has had suicide in his face for days. A wife knows.

Now all the stir the papers are making seems to have made them drop their idea of turning us out so I feel I had to write and thank you and Mr Prior and all of you.

The tactics had been cruel, evictions with no concern as to where families might live, demands that farmers reclaim land without the necessary specialist equipment and all the time the fear of eviction hanging over them if they were found wanting. But the results speak for themselves.

Hervey Benham writes in Essex At War
'Nowhere near Colchester perhaps was the miraculous change in the country scene more apparent that in the district of Wigborough and Peldon. Here one might stand at the harvest of 1943 and see a vast ocean of golden corn stretching almost unbroken from the creeks of Mersea and Tollesbury miles inland up the long rise to Layer Marney and reflect that only a few years before the rank grass and bushes grew so thick that a dead sheep might only be revealed by tripping over it, and timber-ridden hedges limited the scene to a few yards.

As Peter Wormell of Langenhoe Hall, wrote in his book Essex Farming 1900 - 2000, the outcome of the War Ag's intervention was thousands of derelict acres were brought back into cultivation and huge areas of marshland were drained for agriculture. After the depression in farming, (the Peldon area described as 'one of the most depressed clay areas in the pre-war period') the achievements of the War Ag committee 'were considerable'. Considering whether the War Ag was 'vital or vicious' Peter Wormell concluded 'it was not that the policy was wrong - it was the methods employed to implement it'.


Thank you to Eric and Jan Coan for the picture below which shows Pete Tye Farm house in the 1960s.
We do not know the end of this story - whether Mr Ellis was actually evicted from his farm, or whether he was able to continue farming there.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project February 2018

Thanks to
Catherine Pearson E J Rudsdale's Journals of Wartime Colchester
Dora Banfield
The Essex County Standard
The Essex Chronicle
Further Resources
Peter Wormell Essex Farming 1900 - 2000
J Wentworth Day Harvest Adventure
Every effort has been made to trace and correspond with copyright holders.

Author: Elaine Barker

Related Images

 Pete Tye Farm House. The house was demolished in the late 1960s.  PH01_033PH01_033
Pete Tye Farm House. The house was demolished in the late 1960s.
c1960
ID: PH01_WAG


This item is part of the Mersea Island Museum Collection. The information is accurate as far as is known, but the Museum does not accept responsibility for errors.