Marjorie Hessell Tiltman on Dartington Hall

In her Preface to English Earth (London: Harrap, 1935), Marjorie Hessell Tiltman describes the crisis in British farming which peaked in 1929, causing bankruptcies and rural unemployment, and how this was followed by the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1931, which was opposed bitterly by farmers, but the Government persisted and the farming industry rallied. Tiltman goes on to describe farming and farmers in most branches of the industry, their history, how they have been under threat, and how they have responded or been helped, by entrepreneurs, the Government, by science and by visionaries. This is a valuable and fascinating book about a crucial turning point in the history of faming in England, and helps to explain how new ideas which seemed right at the time, were exploited and distorted in subsequent decades.

In ‘Chapter XIX. How Science Helps the Farmer’ (pp.284-302) (pp.297-302)), Tiltman describes a major social experiment in Dartington, Devon, inspired by Rabindranath Tagore.

To inspect the third example of agricultural research which I have selected you must travel to the ancient town of Totnes, in the south of Devonshire. There, if you go in summer, you will see holidaymakers sailing up and down the beautiful green waters of the river Dart or strolling round and picnicking on its leafy banks. Among the many attractions in the neighbourhood of that lovely river perhaps none is more significant than Dartington Hall, which people come from all parts of the world especially to visit. So numerous, indeed, are these visitors that in June 1934 they numbered 1000.

The pattern, or, rather, the inspiration, of Dartington Hall lies in that bare, level region of Bengal about a hundred miles north-west of Calcutta. At this spot is situated the famous settlement of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. It is Tagore’s ancestral property. In the middle stands the glass asram where every week a religious gathering is held. Near by rises a group of educational buildings. There is, too, in that almost barren district, a smiling oasis, where vegetables and fruits of all sorts are grown and flowers blossom, where a sugar mill is operated, and where the people all seem happy and moved and inspired by one emotion—love and respect for their venerated master.

One of those who took this patch of desert in hand and brought it into cultivation was a young Englishman named Elmhirst; and it was he who, with his American wife, came to England and looked for an estate where they could build up a rural community.

They found it, and in 1927 began operations in it. Their ambitions were so profound, and fixed so deeply in the past, present, and future, and in the people of ‘the land’ (in the sense that politicians use the term), that it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe them in a thousand words or two and do justice to all their implications.

Yes, the Elmhirsts found their estate. They found it in Dartington Hall and the 800 acres of rolling hills and fields and farms and cottages which went with it. For over a thousand years those hills and fields had been part of one essential whole. When Mr and Mrs Elmhirst arrived the estate, undermined by the heaviest taxation that England had ever known, was showing signs of disintegration. The continuous burden had already divided many of the finest estates. Great landlords who had been prepared to accept low interest on their money because of the social position which landownership gave them found the small credit sum replaced by a debt, and their position economically untenable.

What, then, was to happen ?

Nationalization of the land, such as is in vogue in Russia, is an alternative which many experts in England consider would be a tremendously disruptive solution, unless applied gradually and carefully.

Owner-occupancy by single farmers is another solution, but hampered by the difficulty of working the land without big capital.

At Dartington Hall Mr and Mrs Elmhirst are trying to evolve some scheme of’ revolving flow,’ and to replace systems of both State ownership and private ownership by a trust. Gerald Heard, the well-known scientific writer, says, “Dartington aims at the new manorial nucleation.”

Under such a scheme land, buildings, equipment, stock—everything would belong to the trust, and be controlled by it through an efficient staff, from managers down to the newest cowboy. The committee of the trust would be men capable of dealing on equal terms with the committee members of other great industries. They could buy and sell on the tremendous scale which has been rendered necessary in modern organization.

The implications of such a scheme are political, economic, and social, and to prove its fundamental soundness and workability many, many years would—or will—be needed. During the short time which I was able to spend at Dartington it was made clear to me that Dartington regards itself strictly as a research institution, and it is one of the essential rules of such institutions that success must not be presupposed. Dartington has had successes—striking ones—in its separate departments, but such triumphs contribute to, rather than prove, the success of the plan as a whole. The time for final conclusions to be drawn has not yet been reached.

Dr Slater, who is the managing director of Dartington Hall Limited, and who is demonstrating very effectively that scientists can also be business men, outlined to me four of the more obvious advantages of such a trust.

First, if profits can be shown money can be borrowed for the ‘business’ on the Stock Exchange, and therefore death duties can be paid by the sale of shares. Second comes centralization of buying and selling. Third comes rationalization of management. Fourth—and this is one of the really ‘modern’ aspects of a trust—it should give the opportunity for men of character and intelligence and efficiency to rise to the top in a profession whose upper reaches are almost entirely closed to the man without capital or inheritance. Under a trust the lowest labourer could work up to the position of farm-manager, helped by the continuation schools which would be a feature of the community of which the trust would be the centre; for the trust is, after all, only the head, and no head is complete without a body. The body, in the view of the Elmhirsts, should be formed by a self- contained village (township, community—call it what you will), in which the pulse of life beats as strongly as it does in the town, and which can offer as many attractions, entertainments, as well as intellectual pursuits, to first-class minds.

And so at Dartington there grew from the 800 acres purchased in 1925, and the estate taken over with eight employees—there grew, in only nine years, a holding of 3047 acres, on which, in December 1933, nearly a thousand people were employed.

The two farms on this holding are run on the most up-to-date lines, and constantly carry off prizes for their stock and farm produce. There are laboratories for applied research, which can observe the agricultural developments on the estate. There are departments for research in economics whose business is to analyse the results of the experiment and to interpret their significance. There is a magnificent sawmill which stands, an industrial colossus, among the great leafy Devon woods. There is a Gardens Department, which has two years running carried off the first prize for stone-work at the Chelsea Flower Show. There is a ‘firm,’ calling itself Staverton Builders Limited, which carries out important contracting work.

There are schools for children from six to sixty, for the Elmhirsts consider that every man and woman, whether leaving an elementary school at fourteen, or a university at twenty-two, has too many possibilities in his or her mental make-up to justify leaning back and considering that education is over once schooldays are over. Besides the primary, junior, and senior schools (co-educational affairs discussed all over the world for their bold modern methods), and a Teacher-training Department with pupils from America, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, there is an extremely live branch of the Workers’ Educational Association, which has attracted no less than 160 adult students to twenty-seven different classes—classes on such subjects as modern history and modern science, and with such amusing off- shoots as classes for tap dancing and ballroom dancing.

Of course, there is a cinema, where intelligent films attract an intelligent audience. The superb open-air theatre, seating 4000 people, is worth going from the other end of England merely to see—empty or full. I have not yet been fortunate enough to be part of the audience during a show.

There is, too, a cider factory, the work of which is described in another chapter. By the side of a clear stream, against a background of woods, rises a weaving-mill of local stone. Built within the last few years, it will surely go down to posterity as a perfect architectural gem. There is a craftsman’s studio as well. The work which it turns out is in eager demand. I was in the shop while people were buying hand-made tiles, pottery, rugs, pieces of carving in wood and stone and ivory , and pieces of iron- and steel-work that were exquisite in their practicability and workmanship. Some of the buildings—from cottages to the magnificent Dartington Hall itself—are masterpieces of antique architecture; others are whitewashed, geometrically shaped houses, with a plenitude of glass-window space, which have been designed by such modern architects as the Swiss Lescaze.

For nothing, if it be good of its kind and suitable for its purpose, is excluded by mere conservatism from Dartington Hall estate. The very keynote of the place is not tradition, but progress, built upon that which was best in the past, and always mindful that, in its turn, it must go to form the foundations of the future.

Dartington may perhaps be regarded as an omen—an attempt to strike at the very root of agricultural decay by a return to the self-contained rural community, where handicrafts flourish and the younger members do not find life so dull that they are anxious to escape to the towns.

Viewed from another angle, the estate is but part of a great whole—the entire field of agricultural research, which has its technical, its economic, and its social aspects. Some of the organizations engaged in that great task are directly supported by the Government. Others, like Dartington, are inspired by idealists. Others again have sprung from the beliefs of a single earnest seeker after the truth. Behind many of them stands that body, mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, which may be described as the godfather of research in Great Britain—the Agricultural Research Council.

Whether receiving official aid or not, all of these organizations are, in the words of The Times, “directed to helping man in his age-long struggle to gather the fruits of the earth with as little sweat of his brow as may be.” And all of them are of sufficient importance to the city-dweller, and to the housewife who sallies forth with her shopping-basket, to deserve the interest and gratitude of the country.