by Michael Barker
(Swans - January 14, 2013) Founded in 1946, the Soil Association is at the forefront of a global movement to promote organic farming. According to their Web site, the Association was formed "by a group of far-sighted individuals who were concerned about the health implications of increasingly intensive agricultural systems." However, as one might expect, nowhere does the Soil Association's Web site mention their longstanding connections to the occult community. Indeed, one would hardly guess from their promotional spiel that the description of their founders as being "far-sighted" might equally be interpreted as referring to their ability to communicate with the spiritual realm. This mystical element of the Soil Association's history has consequently been largely overlooked, which is why Erin Gill's recently published doctoral thesis, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, is so valuable, especially given the study's focus on the life of Lady Eve Balfour OBE (1898-1990) -- an individual who acted as "a principal force in the creation of the Soil Association in 1946, which she [then] led for more than two decades." By undertaking the first serious evaluation of the spiritual interests of Eve and her colleagues, Gill comes to the intriguing "conclusion that the early Soil Association should be viewed as a religiously-infused or quasi-religious body and that Eve Balfour's and other Soil Association members' New Age beliefs influenced and, indeed, dominated the organisation's management for many years." (1)
Focusing on the Soil Association's connections to the spiritual and New Age community is especially necessary considering the inordinate amount of attention that previous historians have placed upon "the far-right beliefs of some of the [organic] movement's early thinkers and supporters." Here Gill suggests that this focus may have "inadvertently encouraged a distorted and somewhat sensationalist view of the organic movement." This is because "a significant minority within the wider mainstream British agricultural community also flirted with the far right" during the years proceeding the formation of the Soil Association. (2) Former historians, in choosing to stress the fascist inclinations of some of the Association's founding members, have thus largely ignored or downplayed the equally significant New Age sensibilities of their early members. This oversight may help explain why to this day irrational beliefs remain largely unchallenged from Soil Association supporters, and continue to influence the environmental movement. (3)
Significantly, Rudolf Steiner's (1861-1925) religious movement, Anthroposophy, provided one of the main influences for channeling the budding organic movement's New Age thinking. This is especially noteworthy owing to the close ties that existed between the white supremacist ideas that undergirded Anthroposophy and the political ideologies that attracted others from the far right towards the organic movement -- connections that remain unexplored in Gill's study. Gill does at least acknowledge that Steiner's agricultural theories, which were outlined in a series of lectures in 1924, had a "considerable" impact in Britain, with his ideas influencing "many at the heart of the emerging organic movement in Britain, with the list of those drawn to them including Walter James, Gerard Wallop, Maye Bruce and Laurence Easterbrook." Later still Gill only hints at the connections between Anthroposophy and fascism when she points out that the Steiner-inspired "far-right aristocrat" Gerard Wallop (1898-1984) was "[o]ne of the most influential of the rural revivalist-organicist voices during the interwar period," being the author of the Famine in England (Right Book Club, 1938). (4)
"In it, Wallop powerfully combined an angry and at times unpleasant and anti-Semitic critique of British economic policies and their impact on farming and rural life with promotion of a protectionist, nostalgia-driven vision of the future that incorporated adoption of organic techniques to protect and enhance soil fertility. Famine in England was a highly successful book, attracting widespread critical praise and discussion. Its success was instrumental in the wider dissemination of organic ideas about farming practice and nutrition that had originated with Sir Albert Howard and Sir Robert McCarrison. (p.28)" Among the most significant recruit to be "'converted' to the organic cause after reading" Wallop's Famine in England was Lady Eve Balfour. (5)
Lady Eve Balfour came from a family that had a long history of involvement with the occult realm. Her mother, Betty Balfour, was the granddaughter of the well-known novelist and occultist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, while her father, Gerald Balfour, had acted as chief secretary for Ireland, and had served as president of the Society of Psychical Research, "devot[ing] much of his life to trying to prove that communication with spirits beyond the grave was possible through automatic writing undertaken by a trance medium and/or by telepathy." Notably, Gerald's brother, Arthur James Balfour, had likewise served as the president of the Society of Psychical Research (in 1893) "continuing as a member after that" and had then served as the Conservative prime minister between 1902 and 1905. (6) Finally, it is noteworthy that Eve's older sister, Eleanor 'Nell' Cole, who was involved in the Moral Rearmament movement, adopted a far "more apocalyptic" spiritual vision of the future compared to Eve's generally optimistic outlook. (7)
Maintaining her family's commitment to mumbo jumbo, Lady Eve Balfour spent most of her life in awe of, and even in direct contact with, the spiritual realm. After completing conventional agricultural studies at Reading University College in 1918, the following year Eve and her sister Mary bought New Bells Farm in Haughley Green (Suffolk). Their medium-sized farm (of 157 acres) was "home to a gaggle of young women and men who participated in farm work and who, collectively, created a lively, slightly bohemian and modern atmosphere." (8) Hard work was not all that was completed at the farm, and in addition to playing in a band, organizing plays, and going on regular sailing expeditions...
Entertainment for New Bells Farm's residents also came in the form of occult games: "...the Four Bells [Eve, Mary, Beryl Hearnden, and Derry Hawker]... dabbled in table turning and automatic writing with a ouija board... Mary proved a particularly interesting medium with wide-ranging powers," writes [Michael] Brander. He adds that "during the years 1920 to 1924, Derry became adept at putting her [Mary] into a 'trance' and the three of them then interpreted her sayings and writings at great length." For Eve and Mary, at least, communication with spirits of the deceased using techniques of trance mediumship and automatic writing was not unusual. (p.45)
The Balfour sisters worked hard at farming, but when faced with financial hardship (as were all farmers), they, unlike most other suffering farmers, received regular cash injections from their wealthy family. With her aristocratic blood boiling at the injustice reaped upon her fellow farmers, Eve soon assumed a political role in the tithe protest movement, becoming a powerful defender of farmers. Gill observes that "Eve's last high-profile act as a tithe protester appears to have been as a speaker at the tithe rally in Hyde Park on Midsummer Day 1936." These secular interests did not, however, undermine her spiritualist beliefs, and throughout the 1930s "Eve's belief in the possibility of communication with spirits of the deceased appears to have been as strong as ever." (9)
Within a few short years, Eve's political and religious ambitions were soon combined in her activism with the Soil Association, and while her "interest in party politics appears to have waned, ... her religious beliefs grew." However, "unlike some members of her class and a good many early organicists, Eve Balfour was not drawn to fascism." (10) During the 1930s, she actually took an active stance against anti-Semitism, and in 1941, "Eve lent New Bells farmhouse to a Jewish organisation, which used it to accommodate Jewish refugee children." At the end of the day though, despite her interest in farming, Eve was an aristocrat and...
In certain respects, Eve Balfour's political views during the inter war period match those of the Conservative right wing. She was critical of free trade and felt strongly that British farmers should not have to compete against limitless quantities of cheap food imports. This was a view held by many Conservative party supporters, especially those among the landed gentry and aristocracy whose economic fortunes, based on the value of land, had been curtailed in recent decades thanks to Britain's commitment to free trade. (pp.63-4)
Inspired by Gerald Wallop's Famine in England, Eve set about researching and writing her own organic book, which was eventually published as The Living Soil (Faber & Faber, 1943). This book "would prove to be a classic text of the British organic movement," and is widely considered to have played a critical role in catalyzing the formation of the Soil Association. As the title of her books suggests, Eve was of the opinion that the soil itself was as alive as the plants that grew in it, and much like Rudolf Steiner's biodynamic disciple, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, for pragmatic reasons she chose to make no explicit mention of her unorthodox spiritual beliefs: although that said, "in the final pages of The Living Soil, Eve envisages a spiritual awakening that transforms society." This secular approach served her well (as it did Pfeiffer) and a founders' meeting for the Soil Association, held in June 1945, was "attended by more than sixty people who had been handpicked by Eve to represent a wide range of professions and backgrounds." The Soil Association was then officially formed in 1946 with Eve as their president, but she "soon ceded the position to Lord Teviot (Charles Kerr) in order to have a more involved role as organising secretary." (11)
As Gill points out, it is important to observe that "the early Soil Association was... not an agricultural organisation," but instead "was a club for middle class, middle-aged people" who wanted to focus "on the question of why and how to farm and garden in ways that prioritise nutrition..." Furthermore, it is notable that "the organic movement's preeminent figure," Albert Howard, actually refused to join the Soil Association, which may have had to do with the fact that many of their early members shared some of [Eve's] unconventional beliefs and/or subscribed to heterodox religious movements, such as Spiritualism, Christian Science, and Rudolf Steiner's religion, Anthroposophy." So although Gill does not make the case that Howard may have chosen not to join the Soil Association because of the Steiner influence, it is significant that the derogatory "term 'muck and mystery,' or sometimes 'muck and magic,' is thought to have been coined by" Howard. (12)
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.
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1. Erin Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, PhD thesis, Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University, November 2010, p.6, p.213.
2. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.6, pp.14-15, p.15. Gill adds: "The extent to which the early organic movement was more politically extreme than the 'conventional' British farming community has not yet been given adequate consideration." (p.15) "There is anecdotal evidence that in some parts of England the agricultural community embraced fascist arguments (particularly those of the British Union of Fascists) to a greater extent than historians may have, thus far, acknowledged. As Robin Carmody points out in an idiosyncratic synthesis of the connections between music and politics in 1960s-1970s Britain, it was not only the early Soil Association that employed an avowed fascist (in the form of Jorian Jenks) after the Second World War. Carmody points out that the National Farmers' Union employed Bob Saunders as a spokesman during the post-war period, a man whom Carmody describes as having earned the nickname, 'Blackshirt Farmer'." (p.15)
3. Two books that are supportive of New Age influences on the environmental movement include Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (University of California Press, 2009) and Carl von Essen, Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual Guide (Inner Traditions International, 2010). For an early polemic against the anti-materialist dimensions of environmentalism, as exemplified in deep ecology, see Murray Bookchin, Re-Enchanting Humanity: A Defense of the Human Spirit Against Antihumanism, Misanthropy, Mysticism and Primitivism (Cassell, 1996).
4. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.23, p.24, p.27. Gill makes no criticisms of Rudolf Steiner's extremist religious convictions, and simply writes: "For a brief summary of the origins of the Anthroposophical movement see Kevin Tingay 'The Anthroposophical Movement', in New Religions, A guide: New religious movements, sects and alternative spiritualities, ed. Christopher Partridge (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp.325-327." Later, in another footnote, Gill adds: "James Webb in The Occult Establishment discusses Theosophy's 'complex doctrine' of spiritual evolution through successive 'races'. Theosophy was a significant influence on New Age religion. James Webb, The Occult Establishment (Richard Drew Publishing, 1981), p.18. In addition, Eve's aunt, Emily Lutyens (née Lytton), wife of Edwin Lutyens, was a committed Theosophist and it is likely that Eve was aware of some of its primary ideas." (p.177)
5. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.29. "Given the impact that Famine in England had on Eve Balfour, a brief overview is useful. In the book, Gerard Wallop -- writing under his aristocratic title Viscount Lymington -- presented a rural revivalist vision that combined arguments about the potential for organic farming to save British agriculture, the health of Britons, and, indeed, British society as a whole, with racist, eugenic and anti-democratic ideas that are highly unpalatable to modern readers but that were popular with the far-right in the late 1930s and largely tolerated by more progressive elements within British society of the day. A sustained polemic, the tone of Famine in England is often unpleasant, as is Wallop's willingness to engage in thinly-veiled anti-Semitism and his deep desire for Britain to return to a mythical age when the poor submitted happily to the rich and when women obeyed meekly the commands of men. A central element of Wallop's vision for a revitalised Britain was the development of an agricultural sector that eschewed "artificial manures" in favour of organic methods and whose goal was to enhance the health of the soil. It is Wallop's discussion of organic concepts, which he drew from the writings of Albert Howard, Robert McCarrison, G T Wrench, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer and others, that Eve Balfour found so attractive." (pp.77-8)
6. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.32, p.46. The Society of Psychical Research was founded in 1882 and its founding president was Gerald Balfour's brother-in-law, Henry Sidgwick. (p.45) Gill does not present any further information about the magical beliefs of the Society, but for further information, see Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968) -- according to this book William Gladstone called psychical research "the most important work, which is being done in the world. By far the most important."
7. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.182.
8. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.33, p.36, p.42.
9. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.47, p.52, p.61. Gill writes: "Not much has been written about the tithe protest movement despite the size, organisation and sustained nature of the protests. References to it can be found in work focusing on interwar British fascism, since Mosley's blackshirts inserted themselves into the movement from time to time, but little has been written about the tithe protest movement as a whole. The exception is Carol Twinch's book Tithe War: 1918-1939 The Countryside in Revolt." (p.47)
10. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.62. Gill writes that Eve's "views on political matters of the day appear to have been most closely aligned with Conservative views and policies, particularly her dislike for trade unionism." (p.62) "Eve appears not to have been a member of any organisation dedicated to maintaining good relations with Germany in the run-up to the Second World War and there is no evidence to suggest Eve held either pacifist beliefs or believed that avoiding war through appeasement of Germany was a viable option." (p.69)
11. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.73, p.182, p.112. At the time The Living Soil (pdf) was written, it was widely understood that a poor diet contributed towards poor health, a subject that had been explored in John Boyd Orr's book, Food, Health and Income (1936). However, while Orr believed that poor health was largely equated with low income, Eve was of the opinion that poor diet affected the health of the members of all social classes equally. "Eve refers to Food, Health and Income in The Living Soil, criticising Boyd-Orr for attaching too much importance to housing conditions in seeking to identify the causes of good and poor health." "'There must be something lacking in the quality of our foods themselves; something which was not lacking in the foods of our more robust forefathers,' she writes. This something missing was a fertile soil, she concludes. Eve argues that unless crops are grown in fertile soil the plants growing out of that soil will lack 'vitality' and the animals and people who eat these plants will be less 'vital' themselves -- that is, they will be weaker and more prone to disease." Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.92, p.91. As Gill writes: "It is not clear whether she ever understood fully the distinction between the view of orthodox science, that soil is home to life, and the vitalistic view held by organic campaigners that soil is itself living." (p.196)
12. Gill, Lady Eve Balfour and the British Organic Food and Farming Movement, p.113, p.112. Later Gill writes, "it is evident that amongst early, active members unconventional religious belief was common and, possibly, the norm." (p.204)