With the Covid pandemic shattering the parameters of working life, increasing numbers of city dwellers are dreaming of decamping to the countryside.
Their desire for a fresh start, however, poses particular dilemmas. How easy will it be for those entrenched in office culture to earn a living out in the sticks? How much affordable housing is available in rural areas? And with so many seeking an escape to the country, how will society adapt?
Topical questions, then — but by no means unique to 2020. Indeed, they were being asked long before coronavirus wreaked havoc on our world — by the Daily Mail, more than a century ago. Back in 1907, this newspaper launched a ‘social experiment’ to discover how feasible it was for those living in cities and towns to start a new, happier, life in the countryside.
The brainchild of Daily Mail proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, the paper advertised an opportunity for one reader to live and work on a farm. Applicants had to be based in urban areas — the less experience of country life the better. If the winner made a success of their tenancy, this paper argued, anyone could — and the project could pave the way for others to ‘help migration to the deserted places’ and ‘check the mad rush to the towns’.
The response was overwhelming. Of the 10,000 entrants, the Mail chose George Pougher, 31, a railway clerk from Grimsby, Lincs, as its winner. The married father-of-seven had longed for years to leave the monotony of his office job and the ‘featureless streets’ of Grimsby.
But, as with so many of his generation, brought up in the aftermath of ‘enclosure’ — the division of communal rural areas into individually owned farms, driving increasing numbers from the countryside to towns — the dream was out of his reach.
Lord Northcliffe’s project entitled George to live on a 14-acre farm for three years, with the opportunity to continue afterwards if he showed flair.
‘I think I shall succeed,’ George said. ‘I take it what the Daily Mail wants to show is that if a man with as little experience as me can make a farm pay, then a countryman born and bred ought without doubt to make it pay.’
George named the land he worked and the house built for his family the Daily Mail Farm — and, we can reveal, the house still exists today. A smart redbrick home now known as the Daily Mail Cottage, it nestles down a quiet country lane two miles from Grantham in Lincolnshire.
Extended from a two-bedroom cottage to a four-bedroom house with indoor swimming pool, two stables and two acres of paddocks, it possesses every modern comfort — but is tellingly devoid of the rest of its original farmland.
Its present occupiers are Daniel and Celia Jones, a couple in their 60s with a son and daughter in their 30s, whose life trajectory shows that, while the instinct to search out a better life away from the hustle and bustle of the city lives on, society has changed beyond all recognition.
Like George, the Joneses were anxious to bring up their two children in the countryside, with Daniel citing ‘security’ as his main reason for leaving Croydon, South London. In 2004, aged 50, he and Celia bought Daily Mail Cottage when their daughter was still at school and their son had just left.
‘London was getting rather turbulent. There were a lot of muggings. I had a young family and didn’t want them subjected to any problems,’ he says. ‘The welfare of my children was my priority. That’s why we moved.’
In fact, there were many advantages other than safety. For a start, instead of police sirens and cars beeping, they were surrounded by birdsong and the sound of breezes blowing through the trees.
Both Daniel and Celia felt drawn to the ‘open sky and space’ the house offered, with Daniel adding: ‘It felt comfortable because I was away from the maddening crowd.’
Unlike George, however, Daniel — born in British Guyana and brought to the UK aged seven — wasn’t tempted by a transition to farming, an industry under increasing jeopardy from soaring energy costs and lower food prices.
Instead, he continued to work for a telephone installation company in London, commuting from Grantham until he retired. Celia also commuted to London, where she worked for an accounts department.
Fortunately, they were also fans of the Daily Mail. ‘We asked the estate agent why it was called the Daily Mail Cottage, but I don’t think they were aware,’ explains Daniel, who says visitors, on coming to the house for the first time, enquire about the pretty ‘Daily Mail Cottage’ sign on their front gate.
So who else has lived in the Daily Mail Cottage since it was built? And what do its residents reveal about the changing nature of rural living?
In 1907, Lord Northcliffe let the land for £1 an acre from Lincolnshire landowner Christopher Turnor. A man of impeccable social standing, Turnor’s niece Rosemary would later marry Alastair McCorquodale and their son Neil married Lady Sarah Spencer, sister of Princess Diana.
Turnor’s 14-acre plot was chosen on account of the unoccupied expanse of open land this area of the Midlands then offered, contrasting with its claustrophobic towns.
Then, as now, the chasm between urban and rural lifestyles risked polarising society. ‘Must this contrast between town and country grow greater, or can it not be made to grow less?’ the Mail asked, when launching its search.
The exodus from the countryside was compounded by the advent of manufacturing in urban areas that destroyed the viability of textiles, pottery and furniture-making as rural jobs.
Some enjoyed their new city lives. Countless didn’t. Ageism appeared rife among those who applied to live in the cottage, with an ‘astounding percentage’ of responses from men who felt ‘too old at 40’ to find work in towns.
Almost all applicants said suitable countryside homes were scarce and they couldn’t afford to move.
For years, George dared not follow his dreams. His wife Annie, ten years his senior, had been widowed with four sons when they met.
George, who married at around 20, brought the boys up as his own, and he and Annie went on to have three daughters — their large family apparently anathema to rural living. Countryside houses available to rent were often so small that landlords stated ‘no encumbrances’ — i.e. children — were allowed.
But the fact that George had less experience than most of the applicants was part of his appeal, the Mail explained: ‘We did not want an expert farmer who was by accident in temporary work in town. Doubtless, the expert would have found success easier, but it would not have been fair; it would not have justified the experiment.’
After the Mail built an extra room onto the cottage to accommodate George’s family of nine, the Poughers moved in in July 1908.
‘To me, George encapsulates what, 80 years later, Grantham’s most famous figure, Margaret Thatcher, would champion — the entrepreneurial spirit, self-improvement,’ his grandson John Pinchbeck, a local journalist from Grantham, told the Mail.
Two cows were installed for George’s arrival with the idea that the land would be cultivated with green crops to support cattle.
Neil McCorquodale, whose great uncle was Christopher Turnor, and who took over the estate from his late mother Rosemary in 1987, says the land would have been used for barley and oats to feed the animals. Yet he adds: ‘Fourteen acres is really not much upon which to make a living.’
But make a living George did. By March 1909, he had bought three more cows, hatched 60 chickens and made £79 from the sale of eight pigs, seven ducks and weekly sales of milk. Reporting on George’s progress, the Mail praised his ‘considerable’ earnings — and the experiment was deemed a success.
But in 1912, George died of a brain tumour. A stricken Annie tried to run the farm with her older sons, but gave up in 1913, opening a boarding house next to a theatre in Grantham instead.
The house and the land appear to have been returned to the Turnors, who employed 31-year-old Danish farmer Christian Brix, a friend, though it is not known if he lived in the house. A colourful character who enjoyed cigars, whisky and wearing plus fours, he seemingly lacked George’s work ethic.
Instead, he was, according to his grandson John Haley, ‘quite a Jack the Lad’. Indeed, on one occasion he was fined £15 for having failed to ‘keep crops harvested from agricultural lands in his occupation in good condition.’
Despite having three daughters with his wife, Maria, he went on to have two more with the girls’ governess, known as ‘Aunty Bobby’ who was 30 years his junior.
From the 1930s, the house was occupied by William and Hilda Haydon. The couple apparently had little to do with the land — which had been transferred from Christopher Turnor to his brother Herbert on his death, and then to Herbert’s daughter Rosemary McCorquodale in 1950.
But their arrival was reflective of an increasing movement between town and country in an ever more mobile population. Both had previous careers in London before they moved to Lincolnshire — William as a chauffeur and Hilda as a servant.
The Mail couldn’t find any surviving relatives available to comment, although it appears two of the Haydons’ four children lived there until the 1970s, when a plumber called Willie Broughton rented the property.
The house was bought around 1980 by Malcolm Corradine, who now runs a fishing and camping site near Grantham but at the time was nearing the end of an illustrious career as a racing driver.
‘When I bought it, it was just a two-bed cottage set in a third of an acre,’ says Malcolm, who lived there with his former partner and son. ‘I added the extension, the stables and the swimming pool.’
In 1992, it is thought Malcolm bought the paddock that now accompanies the Cottage back from the McCorquodale estate, before selling the property in 1999 to South African pilot John Power and his wife Kathryn.
Then, in 2004, the Jones family bought the house, attracted to the area not only because of the countryside but because Celia had relatives living nearby.
That the couple are mixed race, is, of course, a measure of encouraging social progress since their cottage’s inception. Daniel, who spent his childhood in rural Guyana, says his desire to return to the countryside crept up as his children grew older. ‘The kids loved the bright lights and noises of the city but I didn’t miss it,’ he says. ‘It felt comfortable straight away.’
They were attracted by the ‘seclusion’ of the Daily Mail Cottage, which Celia’s sister had seen advertised. Not that it didn’t need work. ‘Because we’re high up and Lincolnshire is windy, the wind blew through the house. Every single window had to be ripped out,’ says Daniel.
Meanwhile, the paddock — no longer kept short by a neighbour’s horse — takes him four hours on a ride-on lawn mower to cut.
Across the road from the Daily Mail Cottage, Daniel says there are plans to build a housing complex and new school within the next five years — as much an inevitability if more are to move to the countryside. As the Mail wrote towards the end of its 1907 experiment: ‘A great multiplication of houses is one of the most vital of national needs; and someone must face the fact.’
Tragically, George Pougher never realised his ambition long term. Before his death, however, when surmising the ‘moral of the Daily Mail Farm’ this paper remarked that ‘the man and his family are healthier and happier working hard on the land than they were when engaged in perhaps equally hard work in the town’.
Food for thought, perhaps, for those now considering their own rural exodus.