The descendants of a small farming community of conscientious objectors who settled in a quiet corner of Lincolnshire will gather next weekend in a converted Methodist chapel to see the extraordinary history of their forefathers played out on stage.
The little-known story of the community, which grew up during the second world war in the villages of Legsby and Holton cum Beckering in the West Lindsey area, has been documented in a new play called Remembrance. It tells the story of a group of idealistic young men and women who refused to fight and registered as conscientious objectors, before setting up a farming cooperative in deepest Lincolnshire, where many of their children and grandchildren continue to live to this day.
The community of “conchies” was made up of accountants, clerks, bookbinders, teachers, journalists and artists who arrived from all over the country. Many were from wealthy backgrounds, with no experience of working the land. The community had a lasting impact on the area, and many of them and their descendants went on to achieve remarkable success.
The venue for the performance, the Broadbent theatre in Wickenby, is named after one of the co-founders of the community, Roy Broadbent. He was the father of Oscar-winning actor Jim Broadbent, whose acting debut as one of the children in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House took place in an old prisoner-of-war Nissen hut where the community put on plays.
Another key member was Francis Cammaerts, who worked as a shepherd before leaving the community to become one of the most celebrated figures in the French resistance movement. His nephew is the author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo.
A slightly later arrival at Holton was the architect Edmund Albarn (grandfather of Blur frontman Damon Albarn), who spent much of the the war as a pacifist in Nottingham, but joined the community in 1948, keen to be among like-minded people. “I don’t think anyone of this generation, in this country, can appreciate what a big thing it was saying you were not going to join the war effort,” Damon Albarn told the BBC in 2004. “It took an enormous amount of courage. You were basically opting out of society and had no guarantee you were ever going to be allowed back in.”
The play, which takes the form of a documentary drama, was written by local playwright Ian Sharp, who devoted years to seeking out survivors of the community and interviewing them – in the case of Jim Harper, the interview was conducted in his room in a Banbury hospice days before he died.
Harper, alongside Broadbent, was key figure in the Holton Players, the community’s theatrical group, which put on challenging productions to entertain the community during the long, winter nights. Some shows were taken on tour around neighbouring villages and beyond in an old farm lorry.
Remembrance is performed by members of the local community, including descendants of the pacifists, whose stories are told mainly in their own words, taken from Sharp’s interviews. At one performance there will be at least 50 people in the audience who have family connections to the conchies, as well as a number of former German prisoners of war who were interned in a nearby camp and settled in the area after the war. Also among the audience will be the community’s sole survivor, 98-year-old Donald Sutherland, who at 22 abandoned his job in insurance to join the community after being granted an unconditional exemption, because of his Christian beliefs.
“I nearly did join up,” he said. “I was very much in two minds.” He was influenced by Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means, from which he concluded: “Whatever the aim you have, aim to use the right means to achieve it. You don’t achieve peace by making war.” The work was hard. He remembers lifting sugar beet by hand (“I was a puny man, not used to that sort of thing”) and meeting people from all walks of life, including the woman who became his wife.
“It’s a difficult thing, taking a stand, when you know other people have suffered,” he said. “But it was really a community feeling. We all got the same amount of money, and we had family allowances before the government brought in family allowances. The experience completely altered my life.”
Sharp, who directs and acts in the production, said he stumbled on the little-known story five years ago, shortly after moving into the area. “It felt like finding hidden treasure. I had got access to an amazing story that nobody else had done anything with.”
He discovered that the Lincolnshire pacifist community grew out of a chance meeting at the Peace Pledge Union between Roy Broadbent, an architecture student whose father owned a large engineering firm in Huddersfield, and Dick Cornwallis, an Oxford graduate and accountant whose father was British ambassador to Iraq. Both conscientious objectors, they had been disowned by their fathers and wanted to do something practical, so they set up a scheme to train COs in agriculture and in so doing build a community based on cooperation and communal interest.
Local farmer John Brocklesby agreed to lease them one of his rundown farms, Collow Abbey Farm, and to train them up. New trainees, most in their late teens and early 20s, started arriving on bikes. Initially it was a shambles. Many of the young trainees were “townies” who were used to being looked after by their mothers. But others were well-educated and determined to make a success of the work.
It was one of a number of pacifist communities that grew up around the country during the second world war, but it endured longer than most, beyond the war.“They stayed on and started their own families. They’ve had a real influence in this area,” said Sharp. “Relationships between them and local people were remarkably good, even during the war, after a few early problems. Now the whole thing is really well integrated, which makes it a very special, unusual place to live.”
The play’s backdrop, the rise of fascism and the far right, inevitably echoes global events today. “What has always fascinated me about this story has been the question, ‘What would I have done?’ My answer is, ‘I don’t know’,” said Sharp. “I belong to a charmed generation. We have never had to look deep into ourselves to answer an unignorable ultimatum delivered by forces over which we have no control. We have been able to remain observers, commentators, pontificators, able to look out at the world from behind the safety of a screen.”
Nevertheless, there is something enviable in the experience of the pacifist farmers. “For many of the COs, their transplantation to Legsby or Holton gave them the opportunity to find themselves and leave behind their often fairly stultifying pre-war lives. They were given the chance to grow.”
- Remembrance is at the Broadbent theatre, Wickenby, Lincolnshire, on 6 and 10 December. Box office: 01673 885500.