Jorian Jenks, ca. 1940s
Farming, Fascism and Ecology A Life of Jorian Jenks
The life of Jorian E.F. Jenks (1899-1963) has great potential to upset settled assumptions and shake readymade ideas. Why did a sensitive and intelligent man from a liberal background become a fascist? How did a blackshirt go green and become one of the founders of today’s environmental movement?
Born in Oxford, Jorian’s mother was from a family of Liverpool merchants made wealthy by free trade, his father was a liberal intellectual and eminent professor of law. However, Jorian turned away from the bright altars of the age, from his childhood onwards wanting nothing else than to be a farmer. Since the closing decades of the nineteenth century British agriculture had lain in a deep depression, made poor by an economic system which made industrialists, merchants and financiers rich: imported food fed the urban working classes cheaply, created export markets for manufactured goods, put cargoes into British ships and paid the interest on the loans made by the City of London.
Jorian did eventually achieve his ambition, in 1931 becoming tenant of a West Sussex farm. Between leaving Haileybury College and that time, he served in the First World War, trained at Harper Adams Agricultural College and took up an appointment as a Berkshire farm manager. The post-war slump quickly ended that job in 1921, and finding no opportunities to farm at home, the next year he set sail in a migrant ship. He spent most of the 1920s in New Zealand, employed initially as a farm worker, then as a government instructor for the Department of Agriculture. Then, in 1928, a legacy made it possible for Jorian to come home, to study for a degree at the Agricultural Economics Research Institute at Oxford, and then become a farmer.
Despite having much experience of how difficult it was to make a living in agriculture, Jorian believed that he could succeed when so many others had failed. Unfortunately, the beginning of his tenancy coincided with the deepest economic slump of the century. He initially put his hope in the Conservative dominated National Government elected in 1931, on account of its pledges to help British agriculture, but soon lost any faith in the established political parties. It seemed that whatever party was in government, it was in thrall to the moneyed interests who were the real power in the land. Jorian set out to change the conditions under which farming existed, turning first to the esoteric world of currency reform before, bridges burning, he joined a new political movement founded by a former Labour minister, Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists.
It seemed to Jorian that the Blackshirts were the only party who not only had comprehensive plans for the restoration of Britain’s agriculture and countryside, but the will to realise them. During the 1930s, besides being a farmer and agricultural journalist and lecturer of some stature, he became a leading member of the British Union of Fascists. One of the consequences of his allegiance, was that Jenks was among nearly one thousand British fascists imprisoned without trial from May 1940. As was generally the case, there was no evidence that Jorian was disloyal and he was released towards the end of 1941. Although the months imprisoned in gaols and camps inflicted great hardship on him and his family, the time was not altogether wasted, as he spent his time reading and thinking.
With the unrelenting pressures of the farming year and the journalist’s deadlines gone, various ideas crystallised. During his time in New Zealand and at Oxford University, Jorian had been of the ‘modern’ school of agriculture, believing in large, mechanised farms and regular doses of chemical fertilisers. During the 1930s he increasingly saw the virtues of traditional mixed agriculture, with its small, intensively farmed units and thrifty recycling of wastes and husbanding of natural fertility. He also concerned himself with the ill effects of the food economy on national heath. While held under official lock and key he added the wider economic and environmental context, recognising how the liberal capitalist economy was systematically exploiting the world’s fertility, bringing about soil erosion and leaving behind a desert and the spectre of famine.
From this point on, Jorian was a zealous evangelist for the organic method of agriculture, the method which sought not the ‘conquest’ of nature, but ecological harmony through the wise husbandry of the soil’s fertility, its plants and animals. The vehicles for his new conviction were Montague Fordham’s Rural Reconstruction Association, and, from 1943, the Church of England’s Council for Church and Countryside. He was to be prominent in both organisations during the post war years, on one occasion, for example, sharing a ‘Church and Countryside’ platform with John Betjeman. He has also the driving force behind the RRA’s report Feeding the Fifty Million (1955), concerned with national self-sufficiency and food security, themes which had figured largely in his fascist writing of the 1930s; indeed the project was conceived by Jorian and other colleagues when they were under wartime detention. Most important was his work for the Soil Association, of which he was a founder member. Formally established in 1946, the Soil Association brought together the hitherto scattered men and women who had shared the belief that the existing food economy was injurious to the land and to its people. For the rest of his life, Jorian served the Association as editor of its journal Mother Earth, which was its primary public voice; he also distilled his thinking into two important books: From the Ground Up (1950) and The Stuff Man’s Made Of (1959).
In 1963, Jorian Jenks died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving the proofs of the next number of Mother Earth to hand and his Hampshire small holding in good order. Among his last wishes were that he 'be buried according to the rites of the Church of England in a country churchyard [...] without coffin and as shallowly as the authorities will permit so that my body may return to the soil whence it came'.
This project, which has been underway since 2009, has the full-co-operation of Jorian Jenks’ family, makes use of archival collections around the world and draws on extensive collections of private and institutional papers. A large proportion of the sources used have either never previously been seen by historians or not been used in this context. Jorian Jenks has been the subject of a couple of articles and been mentioned in many other secondary works. This book will, for the first time, provide the fullest possible portrait of the private and public life of this unusual man, told as clearly as the talents of the author allow; it will not only provide a level of depth and detail unavailable anywhere else but reveal many hitherto un-glimpsed facets of Jenks’ life.
There are very few biographies available of either British blackshirts or green pioneers and this book will tell the compelling story of a man who was both. History does not repeat itself in any simple way, and the answers to the problems of one century are not necessarily those of another. Nonetheless, there is much to reflect on in the story of a man who rejected the global free market capitalist system of his day and sought a way of living that recognised the simple truth that the soil is the basis of everything else.
This book will be published in the series Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right. It is scheduled to be issued in September 2016 and will be available in hardback, softback and e-book formats.
(Text copyright Philip M. Coupland, January 2016, all rights reserved)