Author, farmer, soldier, fascist: Unseen 1930s photos reveal more about Tarka the Otter writer Henry Williamson’s Norfolk farm
PUBLISHED: 15:37 19 May 2017 | UPDATED: 16:12 19 May 2017
Henry Williamson Literary Estate
An evocative portrait of a Norfolk farm in the 1930s – and the toils of its controversial owner – has been given new life through a previously-unpublished collection of photographs.
Henry Williamson’s celebrated classic The Story of a Norfolk Farm, published in 1941, tells the tale of the author’s struggles to renovate and cultivate Old Hall Farm at Stiffkey, which he bought in a derelict state in 1936.
After creating a dedicated web page about the book, the Henry Williamson Society has also revealed more than 75 new photographs recording the family’s first few years at the farm, between 1936 and 1939.
John Gregory, of the Henry Williamson Society, said: “Provided through the courtesy of the Henry Williamson Literary Estate, many of these photographs have never been seen before. They portray a life and a way of farming long since vanished, and as such surely form a valuable document of social history.”
Henry Williamson was a former army officer, famed for his writing about the Great War, who wrote more than 50 books including the renowned nature novel Tarka the Otter and the 15-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.
His move to the farm coincided with a transition in his literary career, as he became embroiled in right-wing politics and controversy as the outbreak of the Second World War drew nearer.
He worked hard to bring the 240-acre Old Hall Farm back to productivity, building new roads and using the revolutionary Ferguson light tractor to work the fields alongside two heavy horses.
According to the Henry Williamson Society, Henry Williamson was inexperienced as a farmer, but had very firm ideas about how he wanted his farm to be run.
His ideas were “too progressive for the slow old-fashioned country ways prevalent at that time and place”, and he was “very impatient with those who would not immediately do things exactly as he insisted”.
But his book remains an impassioned description of the work of the farm, including this account of his first harvest in the summer of 1938:
“Nursed along by the tractor, with throttle barely open, the old binder was not allowed to ‘het-up’, fumble its iron fingers tying the knot around each sheaf, or tangle and break the string. Its new red wooden sails turned gently, as though caressing the blonde corn-heads as they held the sappy stalks upright for the saw-toothed knife below. New canvas rollers hurried the cut corn up to a platform, where metal arms held the stalks until they were gathered sheaf-size; when, tied by those iron fingers, the sheaf was flung off in line with others dropped on the new stubble.”
ABOUT HENRY WILLIAMSON
Henry Williamson, born in London in 1895, was a complex and contradictory character – a writer best-known for the nature story Tarka the Otter, but also a man vilified for his admiration of Hitler’s Germany.
As a soldier, he served in the trenches during the First World War and was present at the Christmas Truce of 1914, a shared experience of camaraderie which left a lasting impression on him.
The Henry Williamson Society says: “This determined his life’s work – to prevent war ever occurring again by showing the world, through his writing, that truth and peace lay in beauty and the open air.”
With this in mind, he bought Old Hall Farm at Stiffkey in 1936 but, having visited Germany the previous year, his opinions about Hitler’s new Reich proved unpopular with his new neighbours.
The society says: “The locals mistrusted him and, as war broke out, his well-known belief that Hitler was essentially a good man who wanted only to build a new and better Germany, and his allegiance to Oswald Mosley and the BUF (British Union of Fascists), whose agricultural policy was naturally his guiding star, had him branded by the locals (totally falsely) as a spy.”
In June 1940 he was arrested and spent a weekend in a cell at Wells police station but, with no evidence against him, he was released.
The farm was sold in 1946, with Williamson an exhausted man. He returned to North Devon, where he resumed his calling as a writer. He died in 1977.