The Peace Pledge Union camp at Swanwick in 1937

Bread Salted with Tears by Ken Worpole

Bread Salted with Tears is an extract from Ken Worpole’s book No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen

 

In retrospect one person appears to have dominated the proceedings of the Frating Hall community, and that was Joe Watson, who had led the exodus from Langham. His vision and energy proved critical – even if at times disruptive. This has always been acknowledged by other members, even those who disagreed him at times. Some of this may stem from the fact that he was older than most of the others and may have acted as a father figure, if not a prophet leading a small tribe out of the wilderness. Watson was 41 in 1943, Trevor Howard, 24, Enid Whitmore, 20, Hugh Barrett, 26, Roderic Barrett, 23. Also unusual perhaps was that Joe Watson was a man who had an extremely tough upbringing, who was a socialist, and yet who was in no way a class warrior, nor, despite his profound Christian beliefs, a religious zealot. There is nothing in his writings that rages against class enemies, denounces high finance or boardroom impropriety, attacks parliamentary privilege or calls for revolution. Nor does he denounce the Anglican establishment, or engage in religious sectarianism. He is simply for ‘Life’.

 

In addition, Joe was married and had children. He and his wife Doris had met and married in Consett, having their first daughter Joan in 1932, Janice in 1939 and finally son Peter in 1945. It seems that like Joe, Doris had become something of a parental figure at Langham, with Trevor Howard describing her in a letter as ‘a very good soul, kind, sure, capable, alive but very deaf’. An accomplished dressmaker she offered to make Trevor and Enid’s wedding dress. Joe worried that some of the younger, more educated women at Langham ‘think Doris less than she is’, and admitted that he himself sometimes ‘takes her for granted while her deafness is a genuine barrier for one cannot shout the things one must only whisper’, he wrote with a delicate turn of phrase. But in many ways, he was acutely dependent on her for support.

 

Unusual too was his status in the group that went to Frating. It was a reverse image of how authority in the armed services operated. Here was someone who had left school at twelve, now leading a group of highly educated earnest young religious idealists, quite the opposite of how authority worked in military life, where it was invariably highly educated upper-class officers who commanded squads of poorly educated recruits. The fact is that his personality enlarged the lives of everybody he met, and even if some of those closest to him at Frating grew disillusioned with his charismatic character at times, it is doubtful whether the experiment would have lasted quite so long without him. In a letter from Middleton Murry to Joe in 1941, the former just having visited the new pacifist community at Holton-cum-Beckering, Murry attributes the happy atmosphere there to the fact that ‘they have a good father figure, which the Langham lads lack’. For a while Frating had just such a father figure, with all the positive – and occasionally difficult outcomes – such a position would produce.

 

Watson’s robust personality had been tempered in the harshness of a childhood lived in poverty and family tragedy in Consett. He was the second-eldest of ten children, whose parents both died within months of each other in their forties, requiring six of the children to be separated and taken in care. Joe was seventeen when this happened but he had already been at work for five years. ‘He took the Labour Exam at school when he was twelve,’ his younger daughter Jan told me, ‘and if you passed you were allowed to go out to work. We’ve got his certificate still.’ Joe and his older brother stayed in the family home and looked after two other older children, while the six younger ones were split up and assigned to children’s homes many miles from each other. His bitterness at the cruelty of enforced family separation lasted a lifetime. One day during a visit to Derbyshire, Jan suggested a trip to Ashbourne in the Peak District. Joe replied, ‘I don’t want to go there – that’s where your Aunt Ethel was incarcerated in a children’s home!’ As a result, all the siblings became very family-oriented, Jan told me, ‘though I think my father was the only one who was a socialist’.

 

Joe also gained his strength and resilience from a rich ply of Anglican conscience, Lawrentian vitalism and a steadfast conviction that ‘fellowship is life’. This last sentiment was the creed of the socialist Clarion Cycling Club to which Joe Watson had belonged in his Consett days. In the balance of these forces one predominated. When I asked Jan which had been most important to him, Christianity or socialism, she replied instantly: ‘Christianity by far!’ His Christianity was elemental, citing approvingly a remark by Havelock Ellis that ‘The man who cannot sing while carrying his cross had better drop it.’ Jan told me that as a pacifist during the First World War in Consett he had on occasion been given a white feather, the ultimate act of humiliation exacted upon those who refused to fight, and one which was indeed a cross to bear.

 

In a memoir of his childhood upbringing at Frating, Joe’s son Peter wrote that:

My father was in his early forties and a man of great passion and conviction… He was not content to merely talk or write about it, he felt compelled to demonstrate with his life’s work the duty he felt all men owed to humanity to do something positive to change the state of the world. This may sound lofty, and may make my father sound like a fanatic or a dreamer. He was neither. But he did believe in himself, and for most of his life he believed in the power of fellowship.

 

He was also a man who from past experience was able to put his hand to anything. Sid Chaplin, the former Durham miner described earlier, had known Joe Watson from their early days, a friendship that lasted until Watson’s death. In a short introduction to a collection of Watson’s writings, Chaplin describes Joe’s life in its formative, turbulent years:

J.H. Watson was born at Wallsend-on-Tyne in 1902 and left school at twelve. He worked as a shop boy, a driver and stableman, a blacksmith’s striker and went to sea at the age of sixteen. He fired boilers and worked in the steel-rolling mills at Consett until 1921 and after as a blast-furnace man, with long periods of unemployment.

 

In a talk he wrote and gave for the BBC in March 1955 under the title ‘On Being Hungry’, Watson devoted a paragraph to the early days at Frating:

I was one of a group which tried to create a community. We gathered a lot of money together from all kinds of people, and bought a farm. The farm was to be the sort of foundation stone upon which we built. We were idealistic to the nth degree, we were all of us anxious that we should succeed in creating something worthwhile, and to that end we slaved like horses and worked without regard to hours. But an essential part of the scheme was that we should equally share the planning and management of the farm, and so we had a farm meeting each week when everybody aired their views and a policy was hammered out.

 

These meetings soon became fractious, and were at times ‘horribly contentious occasions’, according to Watson. Remembering from his childhood that family rows were often resolved over tea or the coming together over a meal, Watson inaugurated a weekly farm supper, with the business discussion following the communal meal. Things improved.

 

Watson told this story in his BBC talk which, time after time, referred back to the breaking of bread, as the key ritual of a sociable life. ‘Bread to me is life, not a thing to exchange for another commodity. I’ve seen my mother’s tears fall into the baking of it.’ This belief was confirmed by his daughter Jan: ‘If my mother had to throw away stale bread (usually given to the pigs) when it was no longer needed, she had to do it when my father wasn’t there. He couldn’t bear it. His reverence for bread was so great he could not bear the thought of it being thrown away because it was, literally, the bread of life.’ This deeply religious approach to food and its origins was evident even in the language of statements he made in what was otherwise an annual company report, asserting that ‘farming is not only work, but the witnessing of a great mystery, the mystery of birth and growth’.

 

The main cause of early dissatisfaction was not about principles but practical matters. In a short note written by Marian Crosfield in 1951 and clearly intended for circulation amongst other community members, she recorded that:

The things which are owned collectively are land, machinery, livestock, houses and a farm car, and with the exception of houses, these collectively owned things have not been the cause of quarrels and dissatisfaction among members. With regard to houses, inequality of housing is inevitable as some of the cottages owned by the Society are less attractively modern than others and there have been disagreements about who should live in which. The houses are rented to members, usually for a sum of 2/6d or 5/- per week. There is no communal feeding, married members eat in their own home, whilst the Hall accommodates the unmarried men and women.

 

This situation was fairly late in the day, as at the beginning of the endeavour everyone was suffering from poor accommodation. It is debatable whether this situation was made easier or more difficult by a founding principle that members were accommodated as singles or as married couples (with or without children), but never as cohabiting couples. It is clear that there had been problems at Langham with on/off relationships developed by a fast-changing ensemble of volunteers, and at Frating this potential difficulty was quashed from the start.

 

Phoebe Lambert arrived at Frating in 1945 at the age of three, with her parents Joanna and Kenneth Lambert, and baby brother. Her parents had met at a Peace Pledge Union meeting, inspired as Brittain and other members of Frating had been by Dick Sheppard. ‘I’ve got my mother’s Peace Pledge Union badge,’ she told me when I interviewed her in 2019.

That’s where she met my father at the PPU in 1938. My father was only 20 years old and my mother was 30. They were very much in thrall to people like John Middleton Murry. There were other people who certainly influenced my parents’ thinking. Dick Sheppard was a very close friend and a big influence on my parents. They admired him greatly. He probably sowed the seeds of their desire to join a pacifist community.

 

Phoebe Lambert still has some of the letters from Joe Watson discussing whether the Lambert family might be able to join the community, negotiations which carried on for several months. In one letter to Phoebe’s father Kenneth, Watson describes the project in uncompromising terms:

This is the set-up here. We have never had people leave us – we have asked some people to leave because they wished to live out of wedlock. I don’t think many schemes can stand this, we cannot. I am not persuaded that it’s a good thing in itself. I get tired of hearing lust confused with love. On the other hand, we have had to accept some folk who never really understood what the place was aiming at, and one gets weary waiting for the only spirit which can achieve what we hoped for, the spirit which enables men and women to earn their bread gracefully, orderly, efficiently and without exploitation either economic, moral, spiritual.

 

He warns of the hard work involved and the possibility of disillusionment. In another letter, dated 3 July 1945, he writes: ‘I wouldn’t ask my best friend to come into a place like this. It’s the biggest job people can ever tackle. But I believe something good can come of it.’ Eventually agreement on terms was reached, which included all of the Lambert family’s savings – a sum of several thousand pounds acquired through the sale of their Devon smallholding – being invested in shares in the venture. Watson then welcomed the family warmly, while making clear that there was a trial period to see if both parties were happy with the arrangements agreed, as Watson wrote in a concluding letter: ‘About you, I want you to get here, and all the family. The meeting agrees with me, on the usual terms, free to leave if you want to after the first four months and us to be free to say we don’t want you. It never happens.’ This last statement is not quite true of course, as it had happened once before.

 

For the first few months the Lambert family lived in the ‘chitting shed’ (where potatoes are stored) before moving to a nearby cottage. Life was hard. Both parents ‘worked round the clock’, planting potatoes and cabbages, hoeing, muckraking, feeding the chickens, collecting eggs and preparing communal meals. Yet while the adults laboured from dawn to dusk, and occasionally argued about who was or was not pulling their weight, the children found themselves living in arcadia. There were fifteen children at Frating in Lambert’s time, free to range the fields, woods and the unmarked lanes that surrounded the settlement’s isolated hinterland. If for the adults the going was tough, most of the children felt they had found Eden.

 

Soon after, in 1946, Derek Crosfield joined the group at Frating, having made initial contact several years earlier with some of its members at Langham. Born in 1915 and educated at Leighton Park School, a boarding school for Quakers, and then Cambridge, he spent some time in the 1930s working at a Quaker Settlement in the Rhondda Valley, which provided relief and support for unemployed miners. He also spent a year as Acting Warden at an educational settlement in the Rhymney Valley. Coming from a Quaker business family, he had experience of management and finance, but for most of the war he was working at an agricultural community in Hampshire: ‘It was a small community of half-a-dozen COs and our efforts were at times inexpert. On our eight acres we grew a lot of market gardening crops and kept goats, ducks, geese and hens.’ Then came the shocking news that his parents had both been killed and the family home destroyed by a V-1 flying bomb. Now keener than ever on life on the land, he went to Frating, where he met and married Phyllis Marian Thomas, a young widow who had joined Frating in 1945 with her young son Martyn. Crosfield was part of the small group who bought out Frating Hall Farm when the cooperative arrangement came to an end in 1958. As owners of the farm, Derek and Marian stayed at Frating until 1974, after which they moved to Colchester. The title to the farm was then handed on to Martyn Thomas and his family. At Frating Derek had shared Trevor Howard’s affection for poultry, and the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

 

***

 

No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen is out now. Buy it from your local bookshop or the Little Toller website.

Ken Worpole is a writer and social historian, and the author of many books on architecture, aesthetics, landscape and public policy. He was once described by The Independent as ‘one of the shrewdest and sharpest observers of the English social landscape.’ A founder member of think-tanks Demos and OpenDemocracy, in recent years he has focused on post-industrial landscapes, settlements and communities, together with questions of ‘Englishness’ and regional identity.

 

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