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Massingham, (Harold) John (1888–1952), rural writer, was born in London on 25 March 1888, the eldest of the six children of the radical Liberal journalist and his first wife, Emma Jane Snowdon (d. 1905). John Massingham won an exhibition from Westminster School to Queen's College, Oxford, which he attended from 1906 to 1910, but appendicitis prevented him from graduating. After convalescing he worked in London as a journalist, notably for his father on The Nation and for the guild socialist New Age. Through the latter he met the poet Ralph Hodgson, whose minor verse included a poetic invective against the fashion for women to wear exotic bird feathers. It inspired Massingham to form in 1919 the Plumage Bill Group, which successfully secured a parliamentary ban on the trade in 1921. It marshalled some notable supporters, including John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, and the ornithologist and nature writer William Henry Hudson. Hudson became a crucial influence on Massingham, who self-consciously adopted his mantle as a nature writer in a lineage he saw extending back to Gilbert White of Selborne.

Massingham's first nature books, appearing shortly before Hudson's death in 1921, were largely descriptive and undistinguished. The emergence of his own voice as a writer, and the foundations of a highly individual personal philosophy, came later in the 1920s through a brief but intense period of interest in archaeology. He joined the staff of the department of anthropology at University College, London, working closely with its professor, Grafton Elliot Smith. He became an enthusiastic proponent of Smith's argument that archaic civilizations shared a common Egyptian origin. Massingham's Downland Man (1926) remains a substantial and highly readable testimony to now-discredited diffusionist theory. Yet it was clear he was not temperamentally suited to an academic career. In his introduction (p. 24) Elliot Smith archly referred to Massingham's ‘honest attempt to interpret human nature’ and his preference for ‘common sense and common honesty’ over ‘the vagaries of pseudo-technical phraseology’. These qualities were much in evidence in Massingham's writing and he quickly rejected any trappings of conventional academic thinking. By the early 1930s he had arrived at a forcible and opinionated style. This alone would invite comparison with William Cobbett, without taking into account Massingham's increasingly mordant view of progress and concern for the condition of rural England.

This style and outlook distinguished all Massingham's work from the publication of Wold without End (1932) until his death. This output included twenty-six books, six edited or co-authored volumes, and a weekly column in The Field from 1938 until 1951. It was framed by a personal contentment that sharply contrasted with his earlier life in London: an unhappy first marriage in 1914, to (Gertrude) Speedwell Black (1887–1963), the daughter of Arthur Black of Brighton, was dissolved and in 1933 Massingham married (Anne) Penelope Webbe (1908–2004), the daughter of A. J. Webbe. They made their home in the Chilterns at Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, and thenceforth Massingham was an infrequent and reluctant visitor to London. He wrote swiftly and was able to spend much of his time studying the English countryside and, especially, its craftsmen. He accumulated an important collection of hand tools (now held by the Rural History Centre at the University of Reading), which formed the basis of his pioneering study Country Relics (1939). A close study of this material had been forced on him when he was confined to his home following a freak accident in 1937, when he tripped over a rusting trough obscured by long grass. The injury eventually led to the amputation of his leg and, in 1940, to near-fatal complications.

Massingham's output as a writer continued unabated, but the crisis shaped his philosophy. First, after a lifetime of agnosticism, he converted to Christianity, choosing to be baptized by a Roman Catholic priest in order to underline his respect for the eternal verities—as he saw them—of the medieval church. He did not, however, become a practising Roman Catholic, choosing instead a loose affiliation to the Church of England out of respect for the eternal verity—as he saw it—represented by the parish church's central role in the life of each rural community. The cumulative effect was to make his writing at times wearisome. His friend the historian Arthur Bryant, in an otherwise handsome obituary, compared Massingham's treatment of ‘the indispensable link between God, man and Nature’ to that of ‘Charles I's head for Mr Dick; it crept into everything he wrote—on topography, horticulture, archaeology, history, literature, agriculture, music, painting, craftsmanship’ (contribution to ‘In memoriam Harold John Massingham’, 80).

A second change in Massingham's outlook after 1937 stemmed from enforced rest and the opportunity to read more widely. Two books influenced him profoundly. The first was Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening (1938) by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, a Swiss scientist and follower of Rudolf Steiner. Pfeiffer's attack on mechanized agriculture, chemical fertilizers, and over-production found a receptive reader in one who had long sought the restoration of traditional husbandry and craftsmanship. Yet more important, though, was Gerald Vernon Wallop, Viscount Lymington's, Famine in England (1938), a bleak prognosis of a debased industrial agriculture bringing the ruin of civilization in its wake. Massingham wrote to Lymington: ‘in the sacred cause of restoring the English land … it is a pivotal book’; and he called for ‘a fatherly general organization’ to which various elements opposed to the modernization of agriculture might affiliate (letter, 24 Nov 1939, Hants. RO). From this casual suggestion there emerged in 1941 the Kinship in Husbandry, a select group of writers and landowners gathered to influence rural reconstruction. Its members included Lymington, Bryant, the poet Edmund Blunden, and the novelist Adrian Bell. Massingham was its main literary force, editing England and the Farmer (1941), a collection of essays by the group. ‘I am prouder of it than of any of the something under forty books I have written or edited’, he wrote in his autobiography (Massingham, Remembrance, 102–3). A further collection, The Natural Order: Essays in the Return to Husbandry, followed in 1945.

The Kinship's capacity to influence post-war rural reconstruction was severely limited, not least by its members' profound distaste for contemporary political developments. For Massingham the general election of 1945 marked ‘a bound forward to despotism unknown since the dictatorships of Henry VIII and Cromwell’ (The Small Farmer, 1947, 63). Its call for ecologically sensitive farming was also out of step with political and economic imperatives to maximize agricultural production, though it did contribute directly to the formation in 1946 of the Soil Association, on whose council Massingham served. Although he made no secret of his anti-democratic sentiments, he did not let these stand in the way of collaborating with the socialist Edward Hyams in his most forceful prediction of ecological crisis, Prophecy of Famine, published posthumously in 1953 with a preface by Penelope Massingham. Her husband had died at their home, Reddings, Long Crendon, on 22 August 1952; he was buried in Long Crendon.

Malcolm Chase

Sources  

H. J. Massingham, Remembrance: an autobiography (1941) · ‘In memoriam Harold John Massingham’, Wessex letters from Springhead, 4 (winter 1952) · DNB · Hants. RO, Wallop papers, 15 M84/F148 · M. Chase, ‘This is no claptrap, this is our heritage’, The imagined past, ed. C. Shaw and M. Chase (1988) · W. J. Keith, The rural tradition (1975) · D. Matless, Landscape and Englishness (1998) · R. J. Moore-Colyer, ‘Feathered women and persecuted birds’, Rural History, 11/1 (2000) · A mirror of England: an anthology of the writings of H. J. Massingham, ed. E. Ableson (1988) · P. Conford, The origins of the organic movement (2001)

Archives  

U. Reading, Rural History Centre, corresp. · U. Reading L., literary papers, diary, corresp. |  BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MSS 63298–63301 · Hants. RO, Wallop papers, corresp. · JRL, letters to Manchester Guardian · U. Reading L., corresp. with Jonathan Cape Ltd · U. Reading L., letters to Macmillans · U. Sussex, letters to Maurice Reckitt · University of Auckland, New Zealand, Fairburn papers, corresp. · University of Delaware, Newark, Cobden Sanderson papers, corresp.


Likenesses  

P. Evans, crayon drawing, c.1941, NPG; repro. in Massingham, Remembrance · photograph, repro. in Massingham, Remembrance

Wealth at death  

£10,607 12s. 0d.: probate, 31 Oct 1952, CGPLA Eng. & Wales