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.