Earth to Earth

When I was a child my parents, in lieu of a television, used to listen to Radio 4, especially at meal times. My mother hailed from Sidmouth and so took interest in a radio series that concerned a remote farming family in mid-Devon who one day blew their own heads off with a shotgun. Chez Newman was a barrel of laughs, I can tell you. I remembered the series, which was called Earth to Earth, and the book of the same name that someone gave my mother shortly afterwards. For no particular reason I tracked it down on Amazon and bought a secondhand copy (it’s now out of print).

The Luxton family had been farming in Devon for around 600 years, and by the 19th century the various branches pretty much owned everything within a day’s ride of Winkleigh, the village around which the events took place. The author of the book, John Cornwell, noted that marrying between cousins was common among the Luxtons simply because the family was so large it was pretty much impossible to cast one’s net beyond their geographical spread in the days when people’s worlds were very much smaller than they are today. Things looked good for Robert George Luxton, born in 1818: he inherited six farms and plenty of assets in the form of stock, dwellings, furniture, and paintings and was the undisputed head of the local aristocracy. Being a rich chap, he indulged in foxhunting, gambling, womanising, and drinking along with his pal the Fifth Earl of Portsmouth, who was even richer and built himself an extravagant mansion in 1854 to which he would invite hundreds of his friends to engage in hunting and pissing it up.

At the same time, Robert George embarked on a large program of upgrades to his farms, investing heavily in new machinery, rebuilding barns, acquiring better breeds of livestock, and adopting more intensive farming techniques requiring large outlays on seeds and fertilisers. A lot of this was financed through loans, which the banks were only too pleased to extend at seven percent interest. His sons and daughters were given expensive educations and preferred to play sport or idle rather than work the land, and soon he began to lose control of his workforce. But what happened next was worse:

The catastrophe, when it came, was more widespread and appalling and permanent than any could have guessed. The background to the agricultural depression of the latter half of the nineteenth century was the influx of cheap food from the United States, Russia, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Steam navigation and the relentlessly spreading tentacles of the railways in every part of the world brought speedier, cheaper transport. The Americans had pioneered the mechanization of crop farming on an unparalleled scale to open up and exploit the vast and fertile prairies. Inevitably the food markets of the world were transformed. It was an era of aggressive free trade and British farming was brought to the edge of collapse. Throughout the 1870s North American grain pushed prices down to levels unknown since before the year 1700. The populations of the manufacturing towns were being fed on Argentine beef, Australian mutton and bread made with American wheat. In the 1880s the cost of a loaf fell to half its previous price. Denmark counteracted the changing market forces by rapidly switching to dairy produce. The Danish farmer fed cheap imported grain to dairy cattle and pigs, and exported high-quality standardized bacon to England.

Many British crop farmers converted their farms to grass­land, hoping to redeem their fortunes by investing in milk production. As a result there were huge milk surpluses and plummeting prices meant they failed to cover their invest­ments. Their attempts to break into the cheese markets were frustrated as they watched American cheese drop to twopence a pound. No British farmer could produce good cheese for less than fourpence a pound.

Compounding the misery of British farmers was the appalling weather I described in this post. The upshot was that many farms went bankrupt, sending thousands of farmers and agricultural workers to all four corners of the globe to seek better fortunes – including many who bore the Luxton name. Robert George was forced to sell land and other assets to pay his debts, before breaking his neck in a hunting accident in 1902 aged 84 and penniless. His pal, the Earl of Portsmouth, killed himself in 1906.

Observing all this, and taking careful notes, was a cousin of Robert George’s by the name of Lawrence Luxton of West Chapple farm. Although the two had grown up together, he was highly critical of Robert George’s extravagant ways, himself eschewing modernisation and spending almost nothing. When the crash happened, Lawrence Luxton was determined to survive with his farm intact. Believing the real danger to a farm lay in outside forces such as markets and money-lenders, and understanding that a farm can be almost entirely self-sufficient, Lawrence Luxton simply shut the farm gate and rode out the storm. Their main contact with the outside world was to barter produce in exchange for items they couldn’t make themselves, such as clothes and boots. What is astonishing is that the family carried on like this for two more generations.

A hundred years later, in the 1970s, West Chapple farm was owned and occupied by the last remaining members of the once-enormous Luxton clan: brothers Robbie and Alan, and their sister Frances, Lawrence Luxton’s grandchildren. Their father, Robert John, had been raised by Lawrence to run the farm and view the outside world much as he did, and Robert John in turn passed this outlook onto his own offspring. As such, the Luxton’s farming practices remained unchanged from those of a hundred years before: everything was done by hand, there was almost no machinery, they used draft horses in place of tractors, and there was no mains water or electricity (at least, according to Cornwell’s book: this is disputed). By all accounts they were excellent farmers, producing good animals and taking tremendous care of their land, and they didn’t spend a penny more than was absolutely necessary. When WWII arrived, and brought with it thousands of American and Canadian soldiers, the world opened up a little for Alan, the youngest of the three siblings. He joined the Young Farmers club and, after long days in the fields, would scrub down, head into Winkleigh, and go drinking in the pub.

When the war ended Alan tried to persuade his elder brother to modernise the farm but Robbie, wedded completely to his father and grandfather’s methods, refused. He allowed the lane leading to the farm to grow over, claiming he wanted it for grazing, and erected gates at either end. Anyone driving by on the public road would just see a meadow on the other side and never guess there was a farm in the valley beyond, hidden completely from view. The family fortunes changed dramatically when Alan met a local woman and became engaged. He approached Robbie and said he wanted to sell his share of West Chapple so he could buy a small property of his own and raise a family, but again Robbie refused: he couldn’t afford to buy Alan out of his share, and to split the farm up was unthinkable. Furious rows ensued and even physical violence, with Frances – who was older than them both – caught in the middle but sympathising with Alan. Eventually, unable to win his brother over, Alan called off his engagement and returned to the farm. He then suffered a complete mental breakdown, locking himself in his room and hurling abuse at everything and nothing, roaming the farmyard dressed only in sacks and incapable of doing any real farm work. He was to remain that way until his death years later.

Frances had a few romantic liaisons but none developed into anything serious, probably because her brothers were so dependent on her staying at the farm. Once it was clear Alan’s condition wouldn’t improve, her fate on the farm was sealed. Robbie, for his part, was uninterested in women believing his sister was all he’d ever want or need. As the siblings grew older the farmwork grew more difficult. They began to think about succession but had nobody to pass the farm onto. Deeply aware they were the last remnants of a great Devon farming family, Frances took to researching their ancestry in the hope of finding a suitable heir. But as time passed and none was forthcoming, the weight of family history bore more heavily upon them. By the time Robert and Frances were in their sixties, and the erratic Alan in his mid-fifties, the farm had become too much for them and they agreed to sell it. Then they changed their minds, then they found a purchaser and agreed to a sale, but immediately regretted it. Witnesses say Frances spent her final days in a sort of delirium over the sale of the farm, repeating over and over that they should stay and die in West Chapple.

One morning, in the autumn of 1975, a grocer’s delivery man approached West Chapple and found Robbie, Frances, and Alan lying dead in the yard with massive shotgun wounds to their heads. The police quickly ruled out the involvement of a fourth person and concluded that Alan had probably committed suicide first, with Robbie following suit an hour or so later having first dispatched Frances who didn’t appear to offer any resistance.

Suicide rates among farmers still remain high everywhere, including in the UK, France, and USA. While most observers focus on economics and isolation, there is often also a great weight of family history pressing down on the shoulders of farmers whose forebears have worked the same land for sometimes hundreds of years before. As the case of the Luxton’s shows, this can exert an enormous psychological pressure on farmers faced with no choice but to sell up. If they have nobody in the family to hand over to, this pressure can become unbearable. Having grown up in a rural area and known several farmers who died early from heart attacks (although thankfully, none through suicide), I can relate to the pressures they are under even if none is exerted on me. Back when I was a kid listening to Earth to Earth on Radio 4, I thought the story immeasurably sad. Now I’ve read the book as an adult I still do, particularly the Luxton’s despair in a world which had passed them by, leaving them stranded on an island able only to look backwards. There is nothing as relentless as the passage of time, and nothing so unforgiving as the march of progress.

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28 thoughts on “Earth to Earth

  1. Well that was cheering

    Let me guess, the words “stranded on an island able only to look backwards” reminded you too much of LFC? 😉

  2. “Their attempts to break into the cheese markets were frustrated as they watched American cheese drop to twopence a pound.”

    American cheese? Anyone losing out to American cheese was probably in the wrong business to begin with. It’s not worth twopence a pound even today.

  3. American cheese?

    I suspect this was before Americans quit making cheese from milk and switched to making it from old car tyres.

  4. Interesting. I expect you know this but a good source of books on line is ABE Books which co-ordinates many second hand bookshops.

  5. A quibble and a comment.

    “undisputed head of the local aristocracy” – nah ‘e weren’t. Not unless he was a Baron or better. He was just gentry.

    My father’s mother’s family got out of farming during the late troubles with the Corsican. The exception was a generation of five sons, one clever and four mediocre. The mediocre ones departed to farm in Iowa, rather successfully; the wonders of cheap land. My father’s father’s family left farming later in the 19th century.

    I have always found it hard to fathom people who believe that they have some magic right to pursue a particular line of work, or live in a particular place. I’m a rural Scot: almost everyone in my class at school knew that we must expect to make a living elsewhere, probably doing something that bore no relation to what our families did. The chap I felt sorry for was the son (usually) who was clearly expected to take over Dad’s farm or business irrespective of his own inclinations. Once my father realised that my brother and I were interested in science he responded by subscribing to New Scientist. That’s the way to do it.

  6. nah ‘e weren’t. Not unless he was a Baron or better. He was just gentry.

    Fair enough: that’s my mistake, not John Cornwell’s.

    The chap I felt sorry for was the son (usually) who was clearly expected to take over Dad’s farm or business irrespective of his own inclinations.

    Where I grew up, most farmers were doing everything they could to persuade their sons *not* to go into farming.

    Once my father realised that my brother and I were interested in science he responded by subscribing to New Scientist.

    Nowadays, with the state of NS, that would be classed as a cruel and unusual punishment.

  7. The Kings Arms in Winkleigh was my old local. I know two farmers who are wondering about the future, given their sons and daughters have other fish to fry… “Take over the farm. You’re having a laugh? Too much like hard work.”

  8. The Kings Arms in Winkleigh was my old local.

    Oh! Do they still talk about the Luxtons, I wonder? Or have they been largely forgotten?

  9. I am in Canada, my partner’s father is farmer about 100 miles west of Toronto. He’s in his seventies now, has 400 acres and farms 50 acres himself and rents the rest to other farmers. My partner has three sisters, no brothers, and none of daughters are interested in taking over farm. Father in law can still work farm because of machinery, not much physical labour involved now. Old fella going to die with his boots on, he’ll have heart attack one day while out in fields on his tractor.

  10. Genuinely massive issue up here where I live is the “Nachwuchs”, the next generation to take over the farms. They end up renting their land to neighbours and all sorts, but in a generation or so there won’t be people left to do it – since it’s small farms, there’s no real big agribusiness who would want to take over, so essentially no newcomers ever come in. So if the sons don’t want to do it, they’re stuffed. Nobody’ll buy it.

  11. Not that Wikipedia can be trusted as the font of all knowledge, but in their article on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_of_Portsmouth I was unable to find a 1906 suicide.

    The dates given for the wonderfully named Isaac Newton Wallop, 5th Earl of Portsmouth are 1825–1891.

    Says something about me that this is the kind of detail I might try to look up!

  12. Was more curious about “built himself an extravagant mansion in 1854”. I quite like visiting country houses, or their ruins if there’s anything left showing. But I can’t track that one down either. Hurstbourne was the home of the Earls of Portsmouth but the dates don’t seem to match for it: one house was constructed 1780-5 to the design of James Wyatt, which burned down in 1891 and was replaced by a new house (now also demolished) in 1891-4. But I presume a country pad in Devon is intended.

    The life story of the 3rd Earl is a good read. Wikipedia says:

    John Charles Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth (18 December 1767 – 14 July 1853), styled Viscount Lymington until 1797, was a British nobleman and lunatic.

    The Earl was known from an early age to have an unsound mind, and his estate was placed under the control of four trustees. While Portsmouth had periods in which he appeared sane, he often engaged in a variety of bizarre and sadistic behavior. He whipped his servants, beat and bled his horses, and slaughtered cattle, shouting, with an axe. The Earl showed a remarkable mania for funerals, which he referred to as “black jobs”. He attended them frequently, insisted on tolling the bells at Hurstbourne for funerals there, and sometimes flogged the ringers with the bellrope afterwards.

    On 19 November 1799, Portsmouth married Hon. Grace Norton, the sister of one of his trustees, William Norton, 2nd Baron Grantley. The marriage was encouraged by Portsmouth’s younger brother, Hon. Newton Fellowes, as Grace was 47 years old at the marriage (Portsmouth was 31) and unlikely to produce an heir to displace Newton. However, Grace also played in important role in moderating Portsmouth’s behavior and keeping his eccentricities out of the public eye. When, in 1808, she found herself no longer able to control the Earl, her relative, Dr. John Combe, was added to the household, to help suppress Portsmouth’s manias.

    One of the trustees, Portsmouth’s solicitor John Hanson, saw an opportunity at Grace’s death in 1813. Without informing the other trustees or Portsmouth’s brother Newton, he quickly arranged a marriage between Portsmouth and his daughter, Mary Anne. They were married on 7 March 1814; Lord Byron, another one of Hanson’s clients, gave the bride away. When Newton attempted to have Portsmouth declared insane that autumn, Byron’s affidavit as to the circumstances of the marriage was instrumental in getting the charge dismissed. However, the new Countess was by no means equal to the task of controlling Portsmouth; his behavior grew more erratic, while Mary Anne carried on an adulterous affair with William Alder, who fathered three children on her. Eventually, the pair of lovers grew so bold as to have intercourse in the same bed with the Earl (who was almost certainly impotent).

    A new commission de lunatico inquirendo took place in 1823, at the instigation of Portsmouth’s nephew Henry Wallop Fellowes, and it was revealed that the Earl had been badly mistreated by his new wife and her lover, who had spat on him and beaten him. He was adjudged to have been insane since 1809. In 1828, his second marriage was annulled, and Mary Anne’s children were declared bastards. A judgment for the £40,000 cost of the trial was issued against her, and she fled abroad.

  13. To be stranded on the Sands by progress is one thing.

    To be so stranded by Progressivism –that is to say the good of old dispelled and destroyed by the bad of an infected younger generation(s).–that is something else.

    The former is sad. The latter is a call for Ragnarok. Better that the Sands sink into the Sea and all perish than live to witness the triumph of Evil.

  14. Robert Luxton also lived through what is known as a price equilibrium phase whereby there was no price inflation and the value of capital and labour were different from what they are during inflationary periods. In his book The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History David Fischer charts the price of consumables in England since 1201 which appears to be the longest documented measure of historical prices available. The chart shows that there are long interchanging periods of inflation where prices rise followed by equilibrium where they don’t. The last period of no prices rises was the Victorian equilibrium phase a long period of time where prices did not rise, this phase ended on the death of Queen Victoria which was the start of our current and record breaking steepest inflationary period in documented history (not including WWI & II). None of us or our grandparents have any concept of living in an age where prices don’t rise for generations. We are all inflationist when it comes to our understanding of the economy.

    A previous colleague of mine nearly ended up the way of the last of the Luxtons. He was a talented construction manager and had built many challenging structures in resource mines in the remote PNG Highlands. In the nineties he decided to go for the life change and invested the lot in a new olive farm, he bought a gazillion acres just outside of Brisbane, mortgaged everything to the hilt, stopped work and him and his large young family set about ploughing the land, planting saplings, building farmhouses, buying tractors and the like. It was a fine scheme, up until rates statrted rising and he realised that the crop wouldn’t bear fruit for a couple of years and the price of olives was dropping as many others had also bought into this idea. He became quite stressed about it all and suffered a stroke and was on the brink of a complete breakdown and financial collapse. I lost touch with him about then and met him again a number of years later where he appeared to be in much better nick. I asked him how he had fared and he said that it wasn’t about the olives in the end as he had unintentionally made a squillion on the land value alone, and the olives were just a mere by product. This chap had he not lived during an inflationary period would probably have died a young unhappy man leaving his young family to pick up the pieces.

    I bought a 2500m2 block of land in the centre of Kingaroy a decent reginal town that is the main node for the local high fertile farmland in 06. The initial investment rational was fairly aggressive and speculative and based on the nearby coal power station having to mine a new coal seam to feed the plant, the nearby largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere about to start, the first ever underground coal gasification project about to go live and its existing diverse beef grazing, peanut and farming economy. All those new mega projects, all those workers all this fast money flushing around then I would be right developing my large block into say seven two storey detached houses. Trouble is the GFC hit, the power station discovered a new seam next to the near depleted one, so no need for a new mine, the underground coal gasification project ended up getting involved in a environmental law suit against the state government and buggered off to Indonesia, and Cooper Gap Wind Farm has been stalled.

    So, the new strategy is wait and see and maybe put in 10 single residence units, catered for pensioners and lower socio-economic farm workers and ride the food boom all the way up!

  15. That is a hell of a tale.

    What I find fascinating is how events a hundred years previously can funnel three people into a situation where they feel they have no choice but to commit suicide.

  16. Farmers are fun!

    I passed by that house several times back when I lived in Manchester, always thought it was odd.

  17. I expect you know this but a good source of books on line is ABE Books which co-ordinates many second hand bookshops.

    I didn’t, but thanks!

  18. The dates given for the wonderfully named Isaac Newton Wallop, 5th Earl of Portsmouth are 1825–1891.

    It would never have occurred to me to look it up; perhaps Cornwell got it wrong?

    Was more curious about “built himself an extravagant mansion in 1854”. I quite like visiting country houses, or their ruins if there’s anything left showing.

    The book says:

    The traveller on the road from Exeter to Barnstable can see the sad ruin of the Earl’s house high on a hill above Eggesford.

    But this was written in the late 70s or early 80s, so perhaps it’s gone completely now.

  19. I’m not sure what exactly you do with farm or ranch land that no one is working anymore. There is no way I could sell any of it, I believe I have a genetic pre-disposition not to. We have a family trust holding the original farm land, and I am getting ready to turn my ranch land over to the trust as well. We can’t give the land away to a family member who would be willing to work it. It really is an odd state of affairs.

    Oh well, I suppose my descendants might enjoy making me spin in my grave by doing something with it that I wouldn’t have liked.

  20. Farmers these days, from what I can gather, have to play the market as best possible. A very large field near me is, on a proper rotation basis, put to growing potatoes as the farmer by all accounts is something of a ‘king of the-potato-for-crisps.’

    Having perfected his growing of said spuds, his yield is snapped up by one of the big snack food conglomerates. But that’s life; a probably very tasty product is in demand for something of little nutritional value.

  21. But that’s life; a probably very tasty product is in demand for something of little nutritional value.

    If he’s growing golden wonders, they’re very well suited for making crisps (hence the brand name).

  22. Cheers Tim. The house was a ruin since the 20s but an architect bought it and got planning permission to do a rebuild in the 90s.

    Wikipedia has some pictures of the original appearance in their article for Eggesford though it’s actually across in the neighbouring parish of Wembworthy – was quite the pad. Replaced the original manor house down in the village by the church.

    Only shame for the story is that it was built in the 1820s not 1850s! (Though there was apparently a complex of buildings there so maybe it is talking about a smaller house in the grounds. The 1854 was oddly specific if it is in error.)

  23. Wikipedia has some pictures of the original appearance in their article for Eggesford though it’s actually across in the neighbouring parish of Wembworthy – was quite the pad.

    I’ve just seen the pics: wasn’t it just!

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