Rolf Gardiner was a significant figure in the world of "rural revivalism" between the two world wars. Most reviews of his writings or profiles of the man himself start off with phrases like Rolf Gardiner is both a compelling and troubling figure in the history of twentieth-century Britain.1 or Rolf Gardiner excites deep affection and instinctive dissent in equal measure.2
He is identified as having been on the far right of British politics in the 1920-30s and has been accused of being a Nazi sympathiser. He was even accused of planting trees in the shape of a swastika on his land at Springhead (Fontmell Magna) to guide German bombers. In his book England Herself (Faber & Faber, 1943) he details strong links between the Springhead Ring, a group which he set up, and various German Youth Movements. There are two entries for Adolf Hitler in the index one of which refers to "the paranoia of Hitlerism" and there are many who argue that although he had sympathies with Germany's National Socialist party, once he realised the exact nature of Hitler's regime, he distanced himself from it.
At Springhead and the nearby Gore Farm he organised Land Service Camps where a mixture of students, young unemployed "workmen", miners, teachers and social service workers came from across England and abroad (mainly Germany) to stay in tents and volunteered to work on the land, sing folk songs, dance, enage in vigourous rambles and generally exchange cultures and ideas.
In 1939 he set up a new business, Fontmell Industries (Flax Department), and attempted to revitalise the Flax industry in Wessex. With Britain then at war all production of this kind was placed under the centralised control of the Ministry of Supply which was never going to be a comfortable situation for a man who gave the impression that he believed he knew best and should be left to get on with doing it. His efforts were eventually centred on Slape Mills in Netherbury and Lopen in Somerset. In England Herself he devotes a chapter to this period in his life in which he describes how between 1939-41 they "rebuilt and refurbished Slape Mill with our own direct labour".
Unfortunately his experiment didn't flourish in the way he had hoped and "after three years of unmitigated and wearing effort" he was dismissed by the Ministry. From his own account he appeared to have had an awkward, often fractious, relationship with the Ministry throughout. When it ended he offered to stay on and hand over control to the new management over a period of "some months" in an "honourary capacity", but he reports that "When I confirmed this not ungenerous offer in writing, the Ministry dismissed me at a fortnight's notice".
It may be that his work at Slape Mill was made more complicated by his political leanings. In 2006 the Security Service released the Personal File they had compiled on him during and after this period. It reveals that they had concerns about his right-wing politics and his pre-war connections with Germany. There are letters and reports detailing local suspicion, antipathy and distrust of him and the Summer Schools at Springhead.
In a précis of his file dated 1944 it says he has three properties in Dorset; “Springhead”, Fontmell Magna. “Gore Farm”, Ashmore and “Slape Mill”, Netherbury. It makes no mention of Yew Tree Cottage.
Despite intercepting his mail for several months, instigating a number of investigations and requesting reports from the local police they do not seem to have gathered any hard evidence against him. He is repeatedly labelled a Nazi sympathiser and a "crank" and he's accused of being a Fascist, a sun-worshipper, an admirer of Germany and even a pervert but their main concern seems to be that, in the event of a German invasion, he would become part of an occupying administration in some sort of local leadership role.
In a 1940 Dorset Constabulary investigation he is linked with a man called Renshaw who worked at Slape Mills and was investigated over some anti-Semitic leaflets being exhibited in Netherbury. The authorities don’t seem to have found any evidence linking Gardiner directly with the leaflets.
After the war he was on a “Stop List” which restricted him from travelling abroad and he appears to have been blocked from a suggested role in working with prisoners in the reconstruction of Germany.
A trip to Germany did go ahead in 1949 when he wanted to interview candidates for a post as “town-planner-engineer-architect” on his family’s tea and tobacco estate in Nyasaland (Malawi). He also wanted to discuss the extension of a hydro-electric scheme on the estate with the firm who had initially installed the turbines some twenty years earlier (Voith of Heidenheim).
It would appear that the contacts he made during this trip were investigated and the details were forwarded to the authorities in Nyasaland.
It’s interesting to note that despite the authorities caution about his activities abroad immediately before and after World War II it doesn’t seem to have hampered his standing as a member of the establishment at home. He was a member of Dorset County Council from 1937 to 1946, during which he was Vice Chairman of the Planning Committee. He was a Member of the Executive Committee of the Council for the Church and Countryside in 1943 and President of the Dorset Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs from 1943-5, he was also a Governor of Shaftesbury Grammar and Modern Schools.
As well as his involvement in the flax industry he was a farmer and forester at Springhead & Gore Farm pioneering an organic approach to both. He was also a keen enthusiast and promoter of folk dancing, singing and drama. He was a founder-member of the Soil Association, involved locally in the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Country Landowners Association and many similar organisations. He was High Sheriff of Dorset in 1967 & 1968.
Although he describes Netherbury as a "charming orchard village" and said the view of it from the church was "an idyllic scene" he makes no mention in his book of having purchased a cottage here. In 1940 he bought Yew Tree Cottage and retained ownership of it beyond his involvement with flax at Slape Mill. In fact it was not sold until after his sudden and unexpected death, following a hip operation, in 1972.
After his death the Springhead Trust was set up and it now runs the house and gardens at Springhead as "a rural centre for creative and sustainable living"3.
1 Description of Rolf Gardiner: Folk, Nature and Culture in Interwar Britain by Matthew Jefferies. Published by Ashgate, 2010.
2 Rolf Gardiner: An Honorary Nazi?. In: The Holocaust, Fascism and Memory by Dan Stone. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Other quotes from England Herself by Rolf Gardiner. Published by Faber & Faber, 1943.