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Suffolk NFU celebrates 100 years of keeping up the fight for UK farming

PUBLISHED: 06:05 29 March 2020

The tithe wars memorial opposite the parish church at Elmsett  Picture: GOOGLEMAPS

The tithe wars memorial opposite the parish church at Elmsett Picture: GOOGLEMAPS

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It’s braved crises of every description over the last 100 years – and is currently battling through the latest as the cororavirus lockdown hits every aspect of British life.

US amabassador Charles Price, left, with Suffolk farmer James Stamper  Picture: JAMES STAMPER/EADTUS amabassador Charles Price, left, with Suffolk farmer James Stamper Picture: JAMES STAMPER/EADT

The Suffolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) was formed in 1920 – and celebrates its centenary this year amid yet more turmoil and adversity.

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Members who make up the branch – and whose ancestors created it – still see it as an important lobbying group for their sector.

The branch and its members were at the centre of many struggles, challenges – and some hard-won victories.

Long-forgotten battles include the Tithe War of the 1930s and 40s – a bitter battle between the Church of England and landowners which led to the dismantling of England’s ancient 1,000-year-old tithe system.

Newspaper clipping from the US ambassador's visitNewspaper clipping from the US ambassador's visit

Then there is the moment when Suffolk farmer and NFU county vice chairman James Stamper challenged the US ambassador to Britain over his country’s trading position.

And the war years when the industry pulled out all the stops to keep food on the tables of UK citizens.

All these and other events are being remembered this year as Suffolk farmers pay tribute to their predecessors – and look to the future.

NFU East Anglia regional director Rachel Carrington said it was an opportunity to reflect on everything that farmers have achieved over the past 100 years and to look towards the next 100 years.

An NFU appeal for farm workers in the aftermath of World War IIAn NFU appeal for farm workers in the aftermath of World War II

“We’re facing difficult times but it’s reassuring to know our county’s agriculture is resilient and Suffolk farmers will rise to the challenge – however great that challenge appears to be,” she said.

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Centenary celebrations to mark the milestone have been postponed until November at a date to be confirmed as a result of coronavirus lockdown

Around 400 NFU members, staff and other invited guests were due to join NFU president Minette Batters at Trinity Park in Ipswich for the special event on April 24 to mark the occasion.

Past and present county officeholders at the National Farmers' Union (NFU) Suffolk branch with then NFU President Peter Kendall in 2008 at the Suffolk Show, celebrating the NFU�s national centenary  Picture: WARREN PAGE/PAGEPIXPast and present county officeholders at the National Farmers' Union (NFU) Suffolk branch with then NFU President Peter Kendall in 2008 at the Suffolk Show, celebrating the NFU�s national centenary Picture: WARREN PAGE/PAGEPIX

When it finally convenes, there will be many tales to tell.

Suffolk Record Office research of the NFU archives reveals that a county branch was formed in March 1913 – but at that point it only covered west Suffolk. In the east, there were branches in Saxmundham and Beccles.

It wasn’t until February 1919, at a farmer meeting chaired by David Black at Ipswich Town Hall, that east and west agreed to join forces. They amalgamated on November 30, 1920 following a further meeting in the town.

David Black – whose family continues to farm at Bacton, near Stowmarket – became its first county branch chairman and the NFU offices opened in Ipswich on March 7, 1921, in Princes Street.

Farmer David Black of Bacton, near Stowmarket, the first chairman of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers' Union  Picture: BLACK FAMILYFarmer David Black of Bacton, near Stowmarket, the first chairman of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers' Union Picture: BLACK FAMILY

By that point, Suffolk farmers were engaged in the Tithe War, a dispute which had been bubbling up since the 1880s. Small farm owners and smallholders found themselves at the sharp end of the row, many of them having returned from World War I to rebuild their lives. With farm prices at a low, they struggled to survive through the Great Depression – but the church still depended on the tithes to keep its clergy. It took out court orders to seize property when tithes weren’t paid.

In Wortham, near Diss, Roland Rash and author wife Doreen Wallace had their stock seized – 15 bullocks and 134 fat pigs – after bailiffs descended. Roland was a former county chairman of the Suffolk branch of the NFU, and found himself among an estimated 11,000 farmers and landowners who pledged to fight for the abolition of the tithes. It was a bitter fight, and feelings ran high. A Tithe memorial stone was even put up opposite the gates of Elmsett parish church in 1935 as a permanent reminder of the goods and livestock seized from Elmsett Hall in lieu of tithe payments.

In the war years, with food supplies from overseas largely cut off, the role of UK farmers in producing crops to feed the nation was critical. The Ministry of Food became the sole purchaser and importer of basic foodstuffs.

In Suffolk, it was the role of the NFU branch to keep farmers informed about rules affecting them. A document from July 1941 even outlines overtime rates for male and female farm workers during the corn harvest.

Then there was the moment in the mid-1980s when the US ambassador dropped in on James Stamper’s farm at Barnham in west Suffolk while out on a tour of American airbases. He found himself aboard a farm trailer while his security detail “showed the quick thinking that marks them for such special duties and stayed in the comfort of their Rover”, according to a news report. Mr Price wanted to see US farmers getting unfettered access to markets over here, but James was having none of it, putting the case for UK and European farmers to protect their industry.

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