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Sir George Stapledon and the Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme: A Dream Turned Reality


R. G. Stapledon was one of the most profound of twentieth-century thinkers on rural and landscape issues. Scientist, philosopher and teacher, he was an unconventional figure who, with a dedicated team of loyal colleagues, established the basic biology and breeding systems of the Graminae at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in the 1920s and 1930s. They subsequently bred a range of grass and clover varieties which were to transform grazing lands throughout the British Empire. To Stapledon the grasslands of an island nation were of vital strategic importance and if Britain were to prepare for a future war, her grasslands would require dramatic improvement if they were to provide a reserve of fertility. In proposing and implementing a vast scheme of renovation of the uplands of Wales, against the fervent opposition of the economists, as a means of both improving agricultural output and stemming the haemorrhage of depopulation, he demonstrated the practical feasibility of land improvement. In so doing he provided a template for the massively subsidised post-war programme of land improvement which was so dramatically to change the face of Britain. This article describes the evolution and conduct of the Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme which was not only one of the most ambitious outdoor ‘experiments’ of the last century, but in a sense, a metaphor for nation-building itself.

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1. R. G. Stapledon, ‘Thirty Years a Welshman’, Wales, 2nd June, 1946.

2. He shared this view with another distinguished Aberystwyth academic, A.W. Ashby, Professor of Agricultural Economics, 1929–1946, a man held in the very highest regard both among the Welsh farming community and by the Welsh Establishment. See, Moore-Colyer, R.J., Man's Proper Study (Llandyssul, 1982).

3. ‘Agricultural Science and Literature’, lecture to University College of Wales students in 1930. His opinion was probably not shared by his friend and avid supporter, Sir C. Bryner Jones, the scholar and senior administrator who not only played a major role in virtually all the major developments in Welsh agriculture between the wars, but was the author of numerous Welsh language publications on farming and kindred matters.

4. For Stapledon's full career see Waller, R., Prophet of a New Age: The Life and Thoughts of Sir George Stapledon (London, 1962).

5. Evans, G., Pioneers of Gogerddan (Aberystwyth, 1987), pp. 21–4.

6. T. J. Jenkin, Times obituary, 17th September 1960; Agriculture, October, 1960.

7. Jones, I., From the Grass Roots: A Lifetime in the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (Cowbridge, 1982), p.27.

8. Stapledon, R. G., ‘The Search for Ultimate Truth’ (1921), in The Way of the Land (London, 1942). The Way of the Land comprises a series of essays, many of them the texts of lectures given to students at Aberystwyth and elsewhere.

9. R. G. Stapledon, ‘Applied Science and Sanderson of Oundle’ (1928), in The Way of the Land.

10. R. G. Stapledon, ‘Hill Farming and the Improvement of Mountain and Hill Land’ (1935) in The Way of the Land.

11. As cattle, with their capacity for grazing coarser grass species, declined in relation to sheep, so coarser grasses tended to dominate swards, while poisonous and agriculturally valueless bracken began inexorably to spread.

12. Owner-occupation in England and Wales increased from nine per cent in 1909 to thirty-nine per cent in 1936. See, for details, Moore-Colyer, R. J., ‘Farming in Depression: Wales between the Wars, 1919–1939’, Agricultural History Review, 46 (1998), 177–96.

13. Davies, William, The Grasslands of Wales: A Survey of the Agricultural and Waste Lands (London, 1936).

14. Midmore, P. and Moore-Colyer, R. J., Cherished Heartland: Future of the Uplands in Wales (Cardiff, 2004), p.42. For the general situation see Moore-Colyer, R.J., ‘Lighting the Land: Rural Electrification in Wales’, Welsh History Review, 23 (2007), 7292; Moore-Colyer, R. J., ‘Homes Fit for Heroes and After: Housing in Rural Wales in the Early Twentieth Century’, Welsh History Review, 34 (2009), 82103.

15. See Moore-Colyer, Farming in Wales, 1936–2011 (Aberystwyth, 2011), passim.

16. Stapledon, R. G., The Land, Now and Tomorrow (London, 1935), p.94.

17. For references, see Moore-Colyer, R. J., ‘A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: H. J. Massingham (1888–1952) and Rural England’, Rural History, 13 (2002), 199224.

18. Davies, D. H., The Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925–1945: A Call to Nationhood (Cardiff, 1988), p.97.

19. R. G. Stapledon, ‘Hill Farming and National Parks’ (1942), in The Way of the Land, p.108.

20. For details see, Martin, J., The Development of Modern Agriculture: British Farming since 1931 (London, 2000).

21. Bowers, J., ‘Interwar Land Drainage and Policy in England and Wales’, Agricultural History Review, 46 (1998), 64; Sheail, J., ‘Elements of Sustainable Agriculture: The Welsh Experience’, Agricultural History Review, 43 (1995), 185. However, the policy was ultimately to prove successful as grant-aided tile drainage became widespread through the post-war decades.

22. By the later 1930s the climate changed abruptly with the growing prospect of war. The 1937 Agriculture Act introduced subsidies of fifty and thirty-five per cent on the cost of lime and basic slag and this served as a stimulus to grassland improvement, especially in the dairy sector.

23. Despite his sometimes bizarre social behaviour, which was not to the taste of his nonconformist neighbours, Bligh was a highly perceptive critic and creative thinker who was a constant source of stimulation to friends, colleagues and even detractors. See Dictionary of Welsh Biography; Evans, G., ‘The Squire of Cilmeri’, Brycheiniog, 15 (1971), 5868; Poulter, A. A., ‘Deficiency of the Clover Nodule Organism in some Welsh Soils’, Welsh Journal of Agriculture, IX (1933), 145–9.

24. Welsh Plant Breeding Station, An Account of the Organisation and Work of the Station from its Foundation in April 1919 to July 1933 (Aberystwyth, 1933).

25. Stapledon, R.G., A Tour in Australia and New Zealand: Grassland and other Studies (Oxford, 1926), preface.

26. Like many of his contemporary ruralists, Stapledon was firmly convinced of the ‘virtues’ of the rural life and the moral benefits of contact with the land and those working on it.

27. University College of Wales Archives, Agricultural Committee Minutes, 8th October 1930; 16th March1932. Staff receiving less than five hundred pounds per year accepted a five per cent reduction, while those on five hundred to a thousand pounds and over a thousand pounds faced reductions of seven and a half and ten per cent respectively.

28. The Times, 11th July 1932.

29. The son of a Jewish immigrant from Germany who had founded the Nottingham Furnishing Company, Cahn inherited a great fortune from his father. As President of Nottinghamshire Cricket Club he funded the building of a new stand at Trent Bridge, besides sponsoring overseas tours by English cricket teams. Among many acts of civic philanthropy, he bought Lord Byron's house, Newstead Abbey, in 1931 and presented it to Nottingham Corporation. For details of his life see, Rijks, Miranda, The Eccentric Millionaire, History Press, 2008.

30. University College of Wales, J. Cahn to Principal, 12th July1932.

31. University College of Wales, J. Cahn to Principal, 15th November 1932; Agricultural Committee Minutes, 4th November 1932.

32. TNA MAF 33/95

33. The Empire Marketing Board had been established in 1926 to promote intra-Imperial trade, to support scientific work in agriculture and medicine, and to undertake market analysis to assist producers. It was eventually abolished in 1933 when the Ottawa Agreement gave birth to the notion of Imperial preference.

34. TNA MAF 33/96; Stapledon to H.W. Dale, Ministry of Agriculture, 1st December 1932.

35. Principal to the Times, 11th August 1932.

36. Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme Report, 1935–6. Stapledon refers to the gift of £250000 by the car manufacturer, Sir Herbert Austin (1865–1940), to the University of Cambridge to fund extensions to the Cavendish Laboratories.

37. Johnes eventually sold his estate and retired to Devon. The house, by John Nash and Baldwin of Bath, finally crumbled into dereliction and was dynamited by the Forestry Commission in 1952. See, Moore-Colyer, R. J., A Land of Pure Delight: Selections from the Correspondence of Thomas Johnes of Hafod (Llandyssul, 1992).

38. The Land Now and Tomorrow, p.127.

39. By inclination Waddingham was a scholar, although, like Dr. Casaubon, the precise nature of his obscure and arcane studies has never been made entirely clear. See J.E. Borron, ‘The Waddinghams of Hafod’, Ceredigion (1992), 385–401.

40. University College of Wales, Report of the Sir Julian Cahn Benefaction Committee, 1933.

41. This was the property of Captain C. E. V. Evans of Lovesgrove and Abergavenny. (NLW, WPBS D6/14)

42. De la Warr was one of the first official visitors to Cahn Hill, having flown to Borth from London in August 1932 in a private aircraft piloted by the Master of Sempill and thence by motor to Devil's Bridge in a Rolls Royce hired by the College for the occasion (Stuart Jones to E.B. Hicks, 26th August 1932). De la Warr probably knew nothing of Sempill's dubious political connections which would eventually lead to embarrassment for many connected with him.

43. TNA MAF 33/95.

44. Stapledon admitted to de la Warr that he could have found ‘a more junior man’ than Griffith. On the other hand, he needed ‘the best possible man to make the thing go; and make it go even if my own lack of excellent health makes it necessary for me to be, on occasion, somewhat of a sleeping partner’. TNA MAF 33/97; Stapledon to de la Warr, 7th March 1933.

45. NLW, WPBS D6/5

46. For the background see Dewey, P., Iron Harvests of the Field: The Making of Farm Machinery in Britain since 1800 (Leicester, 2008), chapter 10.

47. NLW, WPBS D6/5; Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme Report, 1934.

48. Published in internal reports, the Welsh Journal of Agriculture, and the Journal of the Ministry of Agriculture and vigorously advertised by Stapledon in talks up and down the country. In effect, applied lime raised soil pH and thus rendered phosphates more readily available to plant roots which, in turn, made more efficient use of nitrate and ammonium ions to promote herbage growth.

49. Report of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, 1946.

50. Griffith, M., ‘The Improvement of Hill Grazings: The Cahn Hill Experiments’, Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, IX (1936), 3445.

51. Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme Report, 1945–6.

52. NLW, WPBS D6/13.

53. TNA 33/95; R.G. Price to de la Warr, 26th March, 1934.

54. NLW, WPBS C29/7.

55. NLW, WPBS C29/7. Fulsome in his praise of Stapledon and the Cahn Hill project, de la Warr told Fergusson, ‘I have never enjoyed a weekend more’. There was, he believed, every reason to consolidate the finances of the scheme to allow Stapledon to be ‘free to think of larger and wider matters’. TNA MAF 33/95; de la Warr to Fergusson, 4th November, 1937.

56. NLW, WPBS C29/7.

57. TNA MAF 33/95.

58. TNA MAF 33/97.

59. TNA MAF33/97; J. Parry-Jones, Secretary, Welsh Plant Breeding Station, to Ministry of Agriculture, 13th September, 1941.

60. NLW, WPBS, D6/14.

61. TNA MAF 33/97; H.E. Wilkins, Ministry of Agriculture, to Stapledon, 21st November, 1939.

62. Report of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, 1940.

63. NLW, WPBS, D6/5.

64. So great was the loss that the Welsh Plant Breeding Station was able to claim £1300 from the Cardiganshire Agricultural Disaster Fund (NLW, WPBS D8/14).

65. TNA MAF 33/97.

66. TNA MAF 33/97; Minutes and Observations on the Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme.

67. For details see, Short, B., Watkins, C. and Martin, J., eds, The Front Line of Freedom: British Farming in The Second World War (British Agricultural History Society, 2006).

68. House of Lords Debates, 15th October, 1946, Vol.143, 215–46.

69. Concern with the importance of improving the agricultural economies of the higher lands of Britain led to both the Forestry Commission and the MAFF launching a variety of academic research programmes. The latter, keen to translate research findings into practice, established a series of ‘Experimental husbandry farms’ during the 1950s. Pwllpeiran itself became one of the Ministry's principal hill EHFs in 1955.

70. HMSO, 1955, Cmnd. 9631.

71. SI 1967/1221.

72. House of Lords Debates, 26th March, 1970, Vol.308, 1507–12.

73. M. Frazer, ‘Managing Change in the Uplands’,

74. M. Hornung, NERC, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, I.T.E. Symposium 13, 1984.

75. M.S. Reed et al., ‘The Future of the Uplands’, Land Use Policy, 265, 2009, p. 206.

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