Tributes paid to caring Suffolk farm stalwart and key NFU figure

From left, the Duchess of Gloucester and former NFU Suffolk county secretary Tony Hillman

Tony Hillman pictured in May 1997 when he was presented with a special long service certificate by the Duchess of Gloucester - Credit: Suffolk Agricultural Association

A tireless campaigner on farming issues and a key figure in Suffolk’s farming community has died at the age of 84.

Tony Hillman’s tenure as National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Suffolk county secretary spanned nearly three decades from 1974 until a restructure at the end of the 1980s. It was a role he performed with charm and skill, helping to bring sides together and smoothing differences.

Tony, who was born in 1936, began his farming career with wife, Gill, at Almners Farm in Lyne, Surrey. The mixed farm — which included a dairy herd — was sold in 1965 and they moved to a Surrey poultry farm in Upper Birtley. They had two sons — Rob and James.

Then in 1966, Tony was approached by the NFU which was looking for a secretary to be based at Framlingham, Saxmundham or Halesworth in Suffolk. He became NFU Halesworth branch group secretary in November 1966. 

Eight years later in 1974, he was promoted to NFU Suffolk county secretary, moving to Woodbridge to take up his role at the NFU Suffolk headquarters at Agriculture House in Foundation Street, Ipswich.

During that time he worked tirelessly to raise awareness of farming issues and to highlight the importance of agriculture. Son, Rob, recalled how every year his father would attend the Suffolk Show where he greatly enjoyed mixing with people and bringing farmers and the general public together.

In January 1991 after 25 years of dedicated service he retired following an organisational change within the NFU. County secretary posts were abolished as the organisation moved to a regional structure.

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In May 1997 he was presented with a special long service certificate by the Duchess of Gloucester.

Tony and Gill moved to Hill House, Hawstead, near Bury St Edmunds, in 1989 where they were given what Rob described as a “wonderful” welcome by the village.

“Tony immediately became involved with village affairs. He assisted with the Quartet — the then monthly newsletter for the benefice. This was succeeded by the St Edmund Way Benefice newsletter, for which he was compiler with Doris Wright being editor,” he said.

He kept all its publications from 2005 onwards and quickly became attached to the church.

NFU Suffolk county secretary Tony Hillman at his desk

Tony Hillman during his days as NFU Suffolk county secretary, based in its Ipswich headquarters - Credit: Hillman family

1992 was an extremely busy year for him as he was appointed clerk to the parish council in July and churchwarden to Hawstead All Saints Church in September. 

“Tony enjoyed these responsibilities enormously and the roles suited his caring, community-minded nature,” said Rob. 

During his time in Hawstead, he also served a short period as trustee to the community council. His responsibilities included the Metcalfe Almshouses. 

After 15 rewarding years in the role, Tony retired as churchwarden in March 2007. At the parochial church council annual general meeting he was appointed Churchwarden Emeritus. It was a title he considered “a very great honour”, said his son. 

“Tony and Gill were always so pleased to have moved to Hawstead and this was reflected by all the time that they gave to assist with village life,” he said.

His final 15 years were spent in Horsecroft Road, Bury St Edmunds, where the couple moved to be nearer to facilities.

Rob recalled his father’s “real warmth”, charm, traditional values and great skill in making people feel welcome.

“He really understood how to make people comfortable and get them comfortable — making introductions and making them feel at home,” he said. “I always remember him being very kind and caring.”

He was a “real people person” with a generous nature who brought people together in difficult times, he added. “He just seemed generally liked wherever he went.”

Past Suffolk NFU county chairman David Barker said: “I am sure I speak on behalf of all the former Suffolk NFU county chairman when I say that Tony Hillman was a terrific ambassador for the NFU. In his role as county secretary he was a great organiser and communicator and he helped very many farmer members in a wide variety of ways.

“He was a great person to work alongside. I am very pleased his services to farming in Suffolk were recognised by a Special Award at the 1997 Suffolk Show presented to him by HRH Duchess of Gloucester.”

After many years of happy retirement, Tony passed away at home on April 8, 2021, with his family present. He is very fondly remembered as a loving husband to Gill, father to Rob and James and grandfather to his three grandchildren.

The funeral will be held at the West Suffolk Crematorium on Friday, May 7, at 3.30pm. Due to the current circumstances this will be a small funeral for immediate family and selected close friends only.