Today, the Country Land and Business Association is a vibrant community of 28,000 landowners, farmers, rural business owners and professionals. In 1907, when the CLA was first founded, it was noted that landowners needed a forward thinking organisation, determined to support its members but also act as a forward thinking and progressive voice for rural Britain. Over a century later the CLA still lives by these values.
The below is an article produced by Sunday Times columnist Charles Clover, who uncovered the rich history of the CLA to help mark its centenary 2007.
For the countryside the years before the First World War were a time of political and financial uncertainty. A number of rural interests felt the need to band together to make sure their views were represented
To open the huge, leather-bound volumes, smelling faintly of mildew, that contain the glossy monochrome pages of Country Life magazine from 1907, the year the body that was to become the CLA was founded, is to glimpse a vanished world.
I am in my forties, yet my father was an Edwardian, born in 1903. I shot with him once before he died, so the gents in tweeds demonstrating how to shoot birds on the left without moving the feet (or taking the pipe out of the mouth) do not seem so very far distant.
Country Life offers an editorial about “The cost of owning an estate”, a fascinating insight into the rural economy of the time. The owner of the estate used as an example gave employment to 74 men, excluding tenants. The total was made up as follows: house and stables, 26; garden, 20; keepers, 3; labourers, 22.
Such an estate might have been worth £250,000 to £500,000 at 1907 prices, its outgoings added up to £14,370 compared with a total income of £14,900. Then, as now, the ownership of land was not likely to attract capitalists who were not born into it as a way of life – unless for social reasons, or for sport.
The three decades leading up to the foundation of what became known as the Central Land Association (to distinguish it from county associations) were a hard, often profitless time for agriculture, caused by the global marketplace of the British Empire. Home-produced wheat hit its lowest price for 150 years in 1894.
For the countryside the years before the First World War were a time of political and financial uncertainty. A number of rural interests felt the need to band together to make sure their views were represented, or saw the opportunity to exert more influence.
In 1907 came a pamphlet, The Land and the Social Problem, by Algernon Tumor, a high-ranking civil servant and former private secretary to Benjamin Disraeli. In it, he criticised British agriculture for failing to adapt to changing conditions and blamed politicians for their lack of foresight in their treatment of the industry. He advocated the co-operation of owners, tenants and workers in the common interest. His manifesto represented the conception of the CLA.
Copies of the pamphlet were circulated to general approval and a meeting was held on April 19th, 1907, in the junior Carlton Club. Those present were well-connected and had between them a wealth of political experience. It was chaired by Walter Long, a patrician Tory and former President of the Board of Agriculture under Lord Salisbury.
The minutes, in his handwriting, still exist in an exercise book in Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life.
Present beside Tumor were the fourth Earl of Onslow, the Earl of Harrowby and several MPs and landowners including Christopher Tumor, nephew of Algernon, a large Lincolnshire landowner and author of several books on agriculture. The meeting decided to appoint officers of what was initially proposed to be called the Landholders’ Central Association. From the beginning the association tended to be an organisation of owners and land agents – other interests having their own organisations. The National Farmers’ Union – developed from the Lincolnshire Farmers Union – was founded within a year of the CLA in 1908.
On the face of it, the survival of such an organisation after a century would appear to be surprising, given that the world that gave birth to is has vanished utterly. I suspect the clue to the CLA’s survival goes back to that original meeting and the thinking of its founders, who decided that they would engage with the interests of the day in a liberal, forward-thinking way, and not as a club of reactionaries. Lord Onslow, its first chairman, said of the Landowners’ Central Association: “It will endeavour to get rid of a rather stick-in-the-mud attitude on the part of some landowners…if we agree upon a constructive and progressive policy we shall have nothing to fear in the future.” Those still sound like wise words as the CLA enters its second century.