F.M.L. Thompson

F.M.L. Thompson, a former director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, is the editor of The Cambridge Social Hisory of Britain, 1750-1950 and of Landowners, Capitalists and Entrepreneurs.

‘Woad, used by Queen Boadicea’s warriors as war paint, is making a comeback on the Fens of East Anglia,’ runs a recent press report. Perhaps the reporter had already read Joan Thirsk’s new book, since he refers to the closure of the last woad factory in the region, at Parson Drove near Wisbech, ‘80 years ago’, which is a fair rendering of the 1914 demolition date given by Thirsk (who puts Parson Drove in Lincolnshire, although it and the farm, called Woad Mill Farm, are in Cambridgeshire). The reference to Boadicea and war-paint will not amuse her, however, since perpetuation of woad’s mythical association with naked soldiers prancing about in the chilly fenlands does nothing for its status as a serious agricultural crop, with a long history as the supreme dark-blue natural dye, more subtle if more expensive than indigo and prized for US Army and police uniforms long after the introduction of chemical dyes. It did not have a continuous history as a serious crop, for reasons which Thirsk makes plain: it is labour-intensive, it exhausts the soil, its fermentation smells strongly, and it requires a woadmill close at hand. She dates its introduction as a crop grown widely, though never extensively, in England, to the late 16th century – so much for Boadicea – partly under the stimulus of the rising price of imported Italian woad, but mainly because falling grain prices made alternative crops attractive.’‘

Jam Tomorrow

F.M.L. Thompson, 31 August 1989

Time was when planning was the watchword of all radical, progressive or revolutionary opinion. Whether it was a matter of the wall-to-wall planning of the fully nationalised socialist economy, the liberal and pluralist arrangements of the welfare state with Keynesian economic management, or simply the protection and improvement of the environment, all schemes for making the world a better place to live in – or at least the advanced, industrialised world – assumed that this would happen when a body of professional experts were given the power and authority to devise and enforce appropriate blueprints. Then, in the Seventies, planners got a bad name. In Britain, national economic planning, for years ceaselessly battered by the stop-go waves, finally collapsed in a shambles of vacuous incomes policies and relentlessly rising unemployment, to be replaced by the strident invocation of non-planning and by apparently deliberate further increases in unemployment and massive de-industrialisation. In France, central indicative planning, which had seemed almost miraculously successful with the enormous economic growth of the Fifties and Sixties, was discredited when it proved unable to withstand the buffetings of inflation. A little belatedly, the Soviet Union discovered that its planned economy – once feared in the West (though admired by some) for its awesome efficiency as well as its achievement of equality – was ramshackle, corrupt, backward and thoroughly inefficient. The United States, which had not admitted to having any truck with planning since the days of the New Deal, beyond the level of freeways and land-use zoning, found that urban free ways were gumming up and that zoning had neither improved inner-city ghettoes nor prevented the endless spread of subtopia. Above all, planning, to the British public, meant town planning. This was widely perceived to have done little more than create instant new slums in unloved and unhabitable tower blocks, or stifle initiative with the red tape of regulations and restrictions.

Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire occupies a special place in what has grown, without the author’s originally intending it, into the final volume of a trilogy in which Hobsbawm ‘makes sense’, on the grand scale, of the 19th century – of the world which flourished before, and led to, the catastrophe of 1914. The first two volumes of this trilogy, such is the exciting sweep of their canvas and the dazzling force of their integrative argument, have been claimed, with only slight exaggeration, to ‘have become part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen’. Hobsbawm towers above all others as social historian and polymath, able to pluck an example from Peru as readily as from Perivale, as much at home with music as with marriage, and with the sharpest eye in the business for the tricks of the capitalists.’

As Britain chips away at her manufacturing base and slides towards becoming one vast open-air museum and tourist attraction, her aristocracy has emerged as the most dignified and venerable of museum pieces. Country houses are prized and revered as architectural gems, as art galleries and as period museums, and the frequently bizarre mixture of the excellent and the ordinary in their collections, or their downright second-rate quality, is successfully concealed by the adroit salesmanship which portrays all this in the full glory of its variety and eclecticism as a central part of the national heritage. ‘Heritage’ is, indeed, one of the vogue words of the Eighties, and in casting themselves for the role of its guardians the aristocrats have found a function which looks like being proof against unpopularity or redundancy. That many of them are today, in effect, beef barons, barley barons, property developers, art dealers, company directors and merchant bankers is beside the point: the prevailing image is of cultivated country gentlemen caring for priceless art treasures on behalf of the nation, keeping at bay the forces of vulgar and grasping materialism by the authority of impeccable manners and inherited good taste. Never mind that a display of cultural arrogance has always been the last refuge of groups and nations in decline, from ancient Greece to post-Napoleonic France and on to post-imperial Britain, a figleaf of civilisation trying to hide a loss of power. It remains true that for those able to play it the heritage card is a winner: the aristocracy is fortunate in finding itself on the receiving end of the national nostalgia trip and its idealisation of the country life.


Aristocratic Collectors

19 February 1987

F.M.L. Thompson writes: It is flattering to have drawn the fire of Nicholas Penny and Frank Herrmann, although a shade alarming that their aim has been made so erratic by their eagerness to show off their splendid toys. All the same, I am most grateful to them for generously making freely available some of their store of learning on art history and art collecting, and for supplying a select bibliography...

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