One of the fascinating developments that has contributed greatly to Totnes being the creative and distinctive place it is today, is the Dartington Hall Trust, who in 1923 purchased the run down 1,000-acre estate on the edge of Totnes. Douglas Matthews recalls the impact that the arrival of the Elmhirsts (the initiators and funders of the project) had.
Dartington Hall was just a relic, the roof of the Great Hall was falling in, and I used to know the manager of DH Limited (the initial company set up to oversee the development) very well, and he told me that the Elmhirsts put £13 million, in one fell swoop, into the kitty, so that was very helpful! £13 million meant a hell of a lot in those days, my God!
Dartington grew to create many businesses and was at the forefront of research into new forms of agriculture. It was also host to Dartington School, which was based at Foxhole, which was started originally to provide a school for the Elmhirst’s children. Although nationally the school developed a reputation for being a leading centre of educational experimentation, locally it was viewed with a degree of suspicion. Many of those interviewed talk of the scandal felt about Dartington in the 20s and 30s, because the perception was, as Marion Adams put it, “it was all stripping off and bathing in the river and all that”. It does prove harder to pin down anyone who actually witnessed this, but Andy Langford recalls many of his male schoolmates who lived in Dartington Village making regular trips to the river on the offchance of catching sight of such a thing.
Margot Vickers remembers the attitude towards Dartington that she encountered in Totnes. “A lot of local people thought (sharp intake of breath) Dartington! They didn’t wear any clothes! I think most of the people who were born and bred in Totnes were very shocked about Dartington”. Certainly though, their reputation became such that for many more traditional members of the community, they were considered deeply scandalous.
Douglas Matthews was, in 1930, a church warden at Staverton Church. The vicar at the time was very friendly with Leonard Elmhirst. He continues, “they had a group of actors there who wanted to do a Nativity Play, and they asked if they could use Staverton Church. I was dead against this, because with the Elmhirsts, the whole thing being as it was, using this church was desecration. I did a bit of lobbying, I got all the Parish Council on it, and they agreed with me. Then we had a meeting of the Parochial Church Council and they all dropped out and he had these people in. So I resigned, and there was no church warden for 6 months”. In later life, Douglas Matthews relaxed his opinions about Dartington, even to the extent of allowing his daughters to attend the school.
Other people also found their initial suspicion and scepticism about Dartington tempering over time. Marion Adams recalls that growing up in a working class family in Totnes, they didn’t have much to do with Dartington.
It was very much them and us, but I think because Dad was a journalist with the Totnes Times I got to go up there an awful lot. Dartington was very much the arty-farty set, it became more ‘alternative’ in later years, but at the time don’t forget it was Dartington Hall school. They had some very madcap ideas at the time, but when you look back now and think, it is nothing these days!
Vera Harvey recalls that as a child she only ever went up to Dartington for the Christmas show, which was very exciting, but other than that, never visited. Certainly, as was discussed above, their role in the agricultural modernisation of the area is now widely recognised.
Muriel Langford recalls her and her husband, Eric, who was a teacher at Redworth School (now King Edward VI Community College), getting involved in the arts side of Dartington, singing in the choir and playing in the orchestra. She was aware however that for many people in the town, it seemed remote. “I think people who perhaps weren’t so interested in music or the arts felt a bit wary. It was all a bit ‘airy-fairy’, and then there was this mad school, you know, where they did what they liked”.
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