Tithes and treason: some background to fascism in East Anglia before and during the Second World War

For those with an interest in the history of British fascism, the news story that appeared the other day about the treacherous wartime activities of Ronald and Rita Creasy of Eye in Suffolk, did not come as a huge surprise. Papers that have been released by the National Archives reveal the extent of their willingness to give assistance to Germany during the war, help that would have been regarded as treason. Creasy, a farmer and land owner – he owned more than 80 farms in East Anglia, had been elected as a councillor for Eye as a representative of the British Union of Fascists and was, to all appearances, unrepentant until his death in 2004. While it’s simplistic to judge all those who were attracted to fascism during the Depression – after all, Aneurin Bevan was briefly a member of Oswald Mosley’s New Party – it’s hard to have any time for the right wingers who remained committed to the cause when the truth about Nazism and the Holocaust was revealed at the end of the Second World War. Like the people who remained in the Communist Party after 1956, a defence of naïveté was no longer credible.

There’s no real evidence that fascism, or Mosley’s version of it, was ever very popular among the working people of East Anglia. In fact, at this time, the area from which a great deal of left wing radicalism had originated – the agricultural workers’ union began in Marsham in Norfolk – was not a very fertile ground for Mosley supporters. Despite some vestiges of support – fascist “lightning flash” symbols as graffiti at Aylsham and Stiffkey in Norfolk, and, anecdotally, at Wortham in Suffolk – it seems that support for the British Union of Fascists was confined to some farmers and landowners, and some of Mosley’s supporters appear to have come into the area hoping to use the grievances of the rural population as a means of recruitment.

Henry Williamson's home at Stiffkey, Norfolk

Henry Williamson’s home at Stiffkey, Norfolk

The graffiti at Stiffkey was on the back of cottages owned by the writer (author of Tarka the Otter, among other books) Henry Williamson, who farmed there. Williamson, was a member of the BUF, but his politics had been strongly influenced by his harrowing experiences in the trenches during the First World War and, like Bevan, he had been appalled at the treatment of ex-servicemen after the war was over, combined with his inability to succeed as a farmer during the Depression. It is arguable that Williamson’s fragile mental state was exploited by Mosley and his friends. He was recruited by Viscountess Downe of Hillington Hall, near Kings Lynn, a long-standing fascist, later described in government files as “a most enthusiastic admirer of Hitler.” The existence of the graffiti at Aylsham may be connected with Williamson’s circle, although it is interesting that Oswald Mosley’s mother, Maud, an enthusiastic supporter of her son, was living in the town during the 1930s.

Williamson was one of several landowners who was drawn to fascism. In part, this was the result of a dispute at that time between farmers and the Church of England (and hence, presumably, “the Establishment”). It is a curious aspect of East Anglian history from this period, which has become known as the “Tithe War” after the novelist, Doreen Wallace’s book about it. Wallace had married a farmer, Rowland Rash, and their farm at Wortham in Suffolk was at the centre of the dispute. The Church of England was entitled under an obscure law, which was only repealed in the 1970s, known as Queen Anne’s Bounty, to impose a tax on any farmer’s income regardless of the religious faith of the farmer. The act had originally been meant to provide for impoverished clergy but by the time of the Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, many farmers resented it to the point that there was an organised campaign to refuse to pay it. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners ruthlessly pursued those who refused, and in some cases, including at the Rash farm in Wortham, bailiffs were sent in to distrain agricultural produce and household goods. tithe war

This was where the BUF came in. It is still a common tactic of the political right to home in on local issues – as they have done more recently in the North West of England and Rotherham – appearing to take the side of powerless against the government or other authorities. Black-shirted Mosley supporters suddenly appeared in East Anglia to back up the aggrieved farmers and the farm labourers who had been laid off work because of the dispute. Never averse to a punch-up the fascists took the dispute to a new level of violence and acrimony.

The dispute paled into insignificance with the onset of another world war, but it remains something of an anomaly in the history of the British right. It may be that the very limited electoral success of the BUF in East Anglia, that enabled Ronald Creasy to become a councillor, for example, was part of a protest vote, similar to the recent rise of UKIP, by people who feel let down by the mainstream political parties. The overwhelming rejection of right wing politics in the 1945 General Election is probably a better reflection of the views of the East Anglian electorate. North Norfolk, for example, elected Labour MPs, Edwin Gooch and Bert Hazell, from 1945 until 1970. The main support for fascism in England appears to have come -with the possible exception of some urban areas, like the East End of London – from the upper classes. Anti-Semitism and pro-German sentiment was common among the aristocracy, particularly those with military connections. It is among these upper class landowners that the majority of support for Mosley’s fascists came in East Anglia.

Ronald and Rita Creasy were interned during the Second World War, along with Mosley and many other fascists under Defence Regulation 18B. Seeing the new evidence of the lengths that they were prepared to go to in their support for the Nazi regime in Germany, they were probably lucky  to have escaped the death penalty suffered by fellow fascists William Joyce and John Amery, who were both convicted of treason at the end of the Second World War.

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