Sir William Gavin – Killer of the Countryside

The title of this post should really end with a question mark, but that would lose me 5-10 hits. Screw you click chimps! (Please do read on.)

A few months ago, a little blog by the name of Ether Wave Propaganda celebrated it’s fifth birthday. In a post dedicated to the subject, Will Thomas also spent some time urging more writers to experiment with their blogs, to use them as much for unfinished thoughts and messy problems as they do for anything else. I liked the sound of this, but haven’t had something suitable on my mind until now. So, ladies and gents, make yourselves comfy while I introduce you to Sir William Gavin!

From the National Portrait Gallery website. No ownership of this image (or much else besides to be honest) is implied.

I should say at the beginning that if you have already heard of him and know all about him, you’re a very queer sort of potato. I have found no dedicated biography (though he seems to deserve one) no biographical articles (doesn’t even show up in the World Biographical Information System never mind the ODNB)  and a google search with the qualifier ‘agriculture’ will only get you 7 pages of links, mostly to different websites cataloguing the couple of books he wrote.*

What be he? Well, if you follow the one or two links that aren’t useless repetitions, the answer you’ll find is “agricultural adviser with some scientific training” and “a bit of a bastard”. There is a very distinct pattern to the way in which he has been used by contemporary writers, so distinct in fact that one wonders (without drawing on the ugly word plagiarism) how much independent research went into each incarnation. What is more, three are popular works and all are remarkably recent. This is a strange state of affairs for one of the most crucial and central figures of the British agricultural war effort.

The earliest I have found was published in 1998, in Graham Harvey’s ‘The Killing of the Countryside‘. Harvey sets the scene by explaining that at least one of the agrochemicals to become popular after the war (MCPA) actually began life during it. “One of the lesser known episodes in the war against Hitler’s armies was the secret testing of a new chemical weapon…The operation had been authorised by the chief scientist of the Ministry of Agriculture”. He then goes on to explain that

“One of the research team was later to recall that every member had been excited by the novelty of the project. They had shared the satisfaction of ‘taking part in a great agricultural adventure’. It was an adventure orchestrated jointly by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the chemical company ICI. Early in the war ICI’s agricultural adviser, Sir William Gavin, had been made chief agricultural adviser to the Ministry…The change from biological to agrochemical farming had become official policy.” p. 13.

He gets the ‘adventure’ quotation from the official history of Jealott’s Hill, ICI’s agricultural chemistry operation. (By the way, finding his reference cost me £6, please send your donations to my University postal address).

So far, so sour grapes for historians of science: here is another good story that needs some proper (critical) attention but which has apparently escaped our notice and been seized upon by people with different motivations. I’ll discuss this more after first rattling through Gavin’s next few appearances.

He next shows up in 2002, in John Humphrys’ ‘The Great Food Gamble‘. Humphrys pays tribute to Harvey’s book, and then goes on to repeat the MCPA story, though in terms befitting Radio 4’s premier shock-jock. “The weapon was not to be used against Hitler’s panzer divisions, but against an army of weeds growing in the fields of Britain.” Notice how the status of MCPA as a weapon moves a little further from Harvey’s original allegory. That aside, Humphrys continues:

“It was taxpayers’ money that paid for it, but the chief agricultural adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture was a certain Sir William Gavin, who also happened to work for the chemical company ICI. Many years later I talked privately to one the the country’s most senior politicians, who had himself spent a couple of years at the Ministry, and he told me how disgraceful he thought it was that such a ‘cosy relationship’ had existed for so long between the agrochemical industry and the ministry that was supposed to exist to protect the nation’s food supply. ‘So why didn’t you blow the whistle?’ I asked him. He didn’t bother to answer. He just gave me one of those looks that says: ‘Don’t be so bloody naïve!” I took the point.” p. 66.

Again, that’s all we’re told about Gavin: he had financial interests in one of the largest agrochemical firms in Britain, interests that he looked after while in a key Ministry position during the war. Next!

Only a year behind Humphrys comes Wendy Cook (first wife of Peter Cook! This is the most star-studded post I have ever written) who in 2003 published ‘Foodwise: Understanding What we Eat and How it Affects Us, the Story of Human Nutrition‘.

Cook also sets the scene by explaining how one of the agrochemicals that emerged in the postwar period – MCPA – actually began life during it, though now its allegorical status as a weapon practically disappears.  “A new chemical weapon had been secretly developed in Britain during the war and instead of against Hitler’s armies was to be used against armies of weeds.” She then describes the ‘grubbing out’ of orchards and the ‘disappearance’ of hedgerows as industrialized agriculture comes to dominate the British countryside.

“Bigger and more efficient machinery meant that fewer hands were needed on the land. Supermarkets proliferated and with them food technology to ‘take the drudgery out of cooking’. Special relationships between politicians and businessmen began to take hold, with sometimes the appointment of people wearing both hats at once (such as the chief agricultural adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, Sir William Gavin, who also happened to work for ICI).” p. 65.

Cook then gives Humphrys a run for his money with “Elements of a chemistry of what amounts to death, which had been used in warfare, was now being applied to farming.”** What of Gavin’s most recent appearance?

In 2011 Phillip Conford published ‘The Development of the Organic Network: Linking People and Themes, 1945-95‘. Now, as there isn’t an e-copy, I am having to sit and wait for this to arrive in the post. How then do I know he discusses Gavin? Thanks to this review, which gives a quote from Conford, one that some of you might think sounds a little familiar.

“the appointment of ICI’s agricultural advisor Sir William Gavin as a chief agricultural advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries early in the war was clearly a crucial moment in that [industrialization] process.”

As I haven’t read the book, it is possible that Conford has gone and done the work here, giving me all the biographical detail about Gavin that I could want (it certainly sounds the most interesting of the four). Having said that, he’s also not looking massively revisionist, so I’ll just have to wait and see what his interpretation is.

So what do I have so far? Well, a story that has attracted no attention in HPS has had an important life in environmentalist/organic farming literature. It is one that cuts directly to a problem that I am dealing with throughout my research; how to organize the relationship between science and the state. Thus far, the treatment of Gavin’s story has been more than a little shallow; that important agricultural experts had links to major firms and were given powerful governmental positions and resources would not make our front page.  That Gavin’s actions were opposed by important sections of scientific and ministerial communities? Perhaps. That Gavin was symptomatic of some wider changes? Most certainly. That Gavin was a scientifically inclined agricultural type with a financial interest in corporate research, who used whatever access to government he could? Dead donkey.

If the historical significance of William Gavin remains to be found, there is something else this story – as it stands – can allow us to discuss. However, it is a problem that I think is going to have to wait for a post all of it’s own, as this one has now got far too long. As a teaser, it is to do with how we write about agriculture, food and nutrition (try to stay calm while you wait). I will end this post with the most detailed account of Gavin’s life that I have found so far, one taken from his Times obituary. This small piece of evidence alone should point in the direction of a more interesting and sophisticated history of these developments than the one we have currently.

‘Sir W. Gavin’ Times 5/6/1968 p. 10

Sir William Gavin, C.B.E., for many years a well-known figure in British agriculture especially through his work as Chief Agricultural Adviser to the Minister of Agriculture from 1939 to 1947, died yesterday at the age of 82.

Born in 1886, Gavin was educated at Uppingham and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in Natural Sciences and a diploma in Agriculture. He represented Cambridge at athletics and cross-country running in 1910. When he left Cambridge, Gavin went to Lord Rayleigh’s Dairy Farms and Strutt and Parker Farms in Essex, and he continued to be associated with these two enterprises, becoming a director of Strutt and Parker Farms in 1926. When the Duke of Marlborough decided to develop his estates on similar lines, the Hon. Edward Strutt recommended Gavin who went to Blenheim and was farming some 5, 000 acres there when the First World War broke out.

He was commissioned in the R.N.V.R. [Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves] and served in small ships till 1917 when, at the request of Mr. Strutt, then Agricultural Adviser to Lord Ernle, Minister of Agriculture, he was seconded for special duties at the Ministry of Agriculture. he was successively secretary and deputy director of the Army cattle committee, director of flax production, and director of land reclamation.

At the end of the war he returned to farming but in 1928, when Imperial Chemical Industries began to concern itself with agriculture, he was invited to join the company to bring the benefit of his understanding of the outlook and attitude of the farmer. constantly in touch with official circles, he was in 1936 appointed chairman of the Jamaica Banana Commission.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he moved his desk to Whitehall becoming Chief Agricultural Adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture and Chief Liaison Officer to the Minister himself. Gavin gathered around him a first-class team of liaison officers responsible personally to the Minister for the conduct of the food production campaign in the counties. He was always accessible to anyone who wanted to see him and his understanding of agricultural susceptibilities smoothed over many awkward passages, particularly when Lord Hudson was applying his forceful drive to the ploughing up campaign in the counties.

When Gavin felt that he should leave the Ministry in 1947 he reassumed his responsibilities on the agricultural side of I.C.I. and became chairman of Scottish Agricultural Industries. He was a member of the Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs (1952-54) and to this work he brought as always practical understanding as well as sound philosophy.

*Elderly historians who take this as an example of the paucity of research methods in the age of the internet, hold fire, this is just the beginning. I will eventually be leaving my desk to continue the search.

**Those of you who spend time researching environmentalism will no doubt find this all a little tame, but to me its still startling to see such a division between scientist’s own views of what they are doing, and the views of other segments of society.


One thought on “Sir William Gavin – Killer of the Countryside

  1. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #58: Without theme | Asylum Science

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