Dinah Williams: An interview

Philip Conford

28 October 2009

The life of Dinah Williams, who was born in 1911, spanned the period from the organic movement’s early years in the 1930s to its prominence in the 21st century. During this time, she was a highly respected dairy farmer, a member of the Soil Association Council and a mentor to the younger generation of organic farmers and growers who moved into West Wales during the 1970s. Among Dinah’s children was Rachel Rowlands, who established the well known Rachel’s brand of organic dairy products in the 1980s. In June 2005, Philip Conford interviewed Dinah over two mornings at her home, near Borth. The following edited extracts from one of these conversations focus on her early life and memories of some of the organic pioneers. Philip Conford is grateful to Mrs Rachel Rowlands for her help in supplying biographical details. 

Dinah Williams sadly passed away on 3 September 2009.


PHILIP CONFORD (PC): Could you first tell me something about your background?
DINAH WILLIAMS (DW): Well, both my parents were academics1; they’d come from tenanted farms – one [Mrs. Williams’s mother] in Scotland and one in South Cardiganshire. My father became a lecturer at Aberystwyth and subsequently a professor, but unfortunately he died in 1924 and my mother was left with a family to rear, and rather than go back to Scotland to teach, she went farming on her own. I eventually became a farmer as well, through her teaching. In one of his books, Livestock Farming, my father writes about the suitability of cattle to particular areas and their soil; animals then would be geared to that area, but in modern farming that’s all gone by the board, and the disease in modern farming we never saw in the old days. The cattle were well looked after then.

PC: What was your father’s name?
DW: Professor Abel Edwin Jones. Professor Stapledon described him as “that dear man” in his article “Thirty Years a Welshman”. He got on with Stapledon very well indeed. They used to go out to see farms together. I was very impressed by Stapledon; he was a man after my own heart. Whenever he gave a public lecture, I always went to hear what he said. He was a very able speaker, and a good mixer, too. Stapledon was very good at getting money out of people, and got the money for the Cahn Hill Experiment to go on.2

PC: Did you know Moses Griffith as well?3
DW: [laughs] He was a likeable rogue. He wouldn’t diddle a Welshman.

PC: But he would diddle an Englishman?
DW: Oh yes… He was a Welsh Nationalist.

PC: So you married Stanley Williams4
DW: He’d taken a degree in agricultural chemistry, then when the war began he wasn’t fit to join up because he’s had rheumatic fever and been left with a heart murmur. So they put him into munitions in Scotland. One frosty night, he’d had to deal with a fire, and the fever started up again. They said it would take nine weeks in a military hospital for him to be cured, and I said, no, I’d nurse him myself. I prescribed my way of dealing with health. I got him out of the rheumatic fever within ten days, much to the doctor’s surprise. I’ve always dealt with disease by natural methods.

PC: In the article that your husband wrote for Mother Earth5, he said that you’d suffered from illness when you were younger and that that was cured by natural methods.
DW: Yes, it was Thomson6 up in Edinburgh. We knew Friend Sykes, and he’d had a lot of correspondence with Thomson. It was Thomson who put me on theright road to health, through getting me on to a sensible dietary regime.

PC: Your husband says in his article that your organic approach to farming developed from thoughts about the natural treatment of human illness – that you could treat animals in the same way and treat the soil like that, too.
DW: You had Newman Turner7 and Friend Sykes8 saying that, fundamentally, health comes from the soil. Now, with modern farming, they are beginning to realise that there aren’t the nutrients in our conventionally-grown food that there would have been 50 or 60 years ago. It was only when the academics got on to [what we now term – Ed.] conventional thinking that all the damage was done on the farms, because Welsh people have always had a reverence for teaching. [Laughs.] They believed what he scientists told them though mother, being a Scot, was much more critical. Thomas9 was the head of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, and they got a lot of their money from ICI. They played it down, but when he retired, he sent me a pamphlet by one of their researchers showing how heavy applications of fertilisers affected animals’ nutrition.

PC: I believe that you knew Sir John Russell10; could you tell me your memories of him?
DW: He wasn’t a real agricultural chemist… They put him there [at Rothamsted Experimental Station] because he was good at handling people. I went to Russia with him in 1938; that was an education! We looked at the collective farms which Stalin had forced on them. In the Ukraine, they knew how to farm and to handle the land, but a lot of them had their own little holdings where they grew specialized crops and took them to the cities to sell them. There was still capitalism going on, even then. Further south, there was far more poverty.

PC: Russell became one of the chief opponents of the organic movement…
DW: I never disguised from him that I didn’t believe in his approach, but he would always have his say. “Our fields are no longer covered in poppies!” – that was his defence. [Laughs.] I suppose they sent him to Russia so that he could sell the chemicals out there.

PC: Do you think his arguments against organic methods were primarily science-based?
DW: No. To me, he didn’t seem to have a powerful scientific brain – not like Stapledon. My husband was released from munitions to go into farming, and my mother was able to find a derelict farm for us, where we started. She had already got Bryn Llys, and in 1948 decided to retire and get a smaller farm, passing the tenancy to my husband and myself. That’s how we got started. Then, when the estate was sold up, we were able to put a mortgage down and get the farm. And through my mother, and the Soil Association, it’s always been kept free of nitrogen fertilisers.

PC: What year did you first start farming?
DW: 1943.

PC: And did you farm organically from the word go?
DW: Yes.

PC: Did that cause problems with the local War Agricultural Executive Committee?
DW: No, because my mother was still in control, and wherever she took a farm she improved it. So they had a respect for my mother, and we were never questioned on that score. I [recently] met our Ministry man in Aberystwyth, and he was shaking his head about how things had gone. “I didn’t get promotion,” he said, “because I didn’t believe in how they tackled farming.” He said, “Look at the trouble we’re in now”. He’d tell you all about it – the daft ideas that came down from London that we were supposed to take heed of. No local knowledge at all.

PC: Were there any figures in the very early days who particularly influenced you?
DW: We went to Friend Sykes’s farm; we went to Newman Turner. My husband had a very good relationship with Newman Turner. [Turner] took over a farm where the ICI had lavished the place with fertilizer and then when he took it over his cows went down with TB and all the diseases going. He had to think it all out for himself, as he’d come from a Yorkshire farm and he’d never seen that sort of trouble amongst the stock. We didn’t become members of the Soil Association until 1952. Lady Eve came down and visited us [that year], and that made us aware of the Soil Association.

PC: And how did she strike you?
DW: We got on fine – spoke the same language. She walked the farm and identified the worst field; she could tell from the herbage. She was a really practical farmer – had it all at her fingertips.

PC: In Mother Earth for April 1956, your husband wrote a long article about your work here. You say that he died young?
DW: Yes, 48. He went and joined the Ministry. While he’d been at the farm I’d been able to keep him on a sensible diet. But he was a heavy smoker and began to have heart trouble again. He died playing golf. He didn’t have the good nutrition behind him – didn’t have a very easy upbringing. Not the upbringing I had, on a smallholding, with the milk of one cow, hens, a pig and a walled-in garden; we had the right nutriment from the start. He always said, he could never have farmed, without my practical ability; his agricultural degree would never tell him when the hay was fit to cut.

I had four children, but only one wanted to farm: that was Rachel, and she’s enjoyed it. If you don’t enjoy it, it can be a drudgery – you have to work hard to survive. It’s a terrible thing, that you produce wholesome food but you’ve still got to be economically sound to survive, even though you’re organic.

PC: Obviously you did that successfully, during the ‘50s and ‘60s…
DW: Yes, with no trouble at all.

PC: How did you manage it?
DW: You had a bit of everything, and if something didn’t pay, then the other thing would come up. That’s all been done away with. I educated four children with the [proceeds from the] milk of 30 to 35 cows. You couldn’t do it today.

PC: Was any pressure put on you to go over to the high-input systems? Or were you able just to pursue your own path?
DW: [Laughs.] I suppose with my parents’ background … they’d survived: why change? It didn’t worry me that they called me a crank. It didn’t worry Lady Eve, either. I used to go to meetings of the Grassland Society and they used to be amused at the way I always spoke out against them, but they tolerated me. Now they’re beginning to say that Mrs. Williams was right after all. When I started, you had horses, and they produced a foal, and so it carried on. Now, you have cars and tractors, and the expenses are far higher. It’s much more difficult.

PC: You mentioned Silent Spring earlier – did that influence you?
DW: It was only backing up what we’d always said.

PC: You started to be actively involved in the Soil Association during the 1970s. You were on the Council. That’s seen as a period when the Soil Association was virtually moribund: would you say that was true?
DW: Yes, perfectly true.

PC: Did the older generation of Soil Association members influence the younger generation?
DW: You wonder, in a way, what the younger generation were after. A lot of them came from an academic background. But to be an organic farmer it was far easier if you were a conventional farmer who was able to switch, because you would know what farming was all about. But the people who came in, I don’t think they realised that the farming life is hard, and to make a livelihood from it is even harder. The pioneers who have come through, have learnt the hard way. Peter [Segger]’s place now is a joy to go and see, and Patrick [Holden] [has done well], because he’s stuck to the traditional way. I was an inspector at one time, and a lot of people had bought land in Wales because it was cheaper here. They were idealistic and they didn’t realise land is hard work to get a livelihood out of it; idealistic people, but they hadn’t got a clue how to make a livelihood. They didn’t have the groundwork . . . The government says that you’ve got to make money out of the land, but what are they doing to the land? They’re losing all the people that know how to handle it.

PC: The assumption seems to be that there will always be other countries to provide us with our food.
DW: Yes – but there won’t be.

Philip Conford is a leading authority on the history of the British organic movement. He is author of The Development of the Organic Network, 1945-1995 and The Origins of the Organic Movement, and a member of the Mother Earth editorial board.

End notes

1 Mrs. Williams’s father, Abel Edwin Jones, was appointed a lecturer in Agriculture at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1902; he was Professor from 1918 until his death in 1924. See Richard J. Colyer, Man’s Proper Study: A History of Agricultural Science Education in Aberystwyth 1878–1978, Gomer Press, 1982, p.48. There is a portrait of Professor Jones facing that page. Her mother was Elizabeth Lyon Jones (nee Brown), MBE (1879–1963). She was appointed to the Dairy Department at Aberystwyth in 1900, married Abel Jones in 1908, and organised the Women’s Land Army in Wales during the First World War.
2 Reginald George Stapledon (1882–1960) was director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station at Aberystwyth between the wars, and an internationally renowned authority on grassland. Although not fully committed to the organic school of agriculture, he was in sympathy with much of its thought. Robert Waller’s biography of Stapledon, Prophet of the New Age, was published by Faber in 1962. The Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme, an ecological experiment in land reclamation, was founded in 1933, near Devil’s Bridge. It was eventually abandoned in 1947.
3 Moses Griffith was lands director of the Cahn Hill Experiment.
4 Stanley Owen Williams (1917–1966).
5 “The Story of an Organic Farmer”, Mother Earth, April 1956, pp. 533–44.
6 James C. Thomson was the founder of the Kingston Clinic in Edinburgh: “The home of modern nature cure”, as it was described in the journal Health and Life (November 1953, p.232).
7 Frank Newman Turner (1913–64) was a key figure in the early organic movement. A disciple of Sir Albert Howard, he farmed in Somerset and Dorset, ran a stimulating journal The Farmer from 1946 to 1956, and experimented with the use of homoeopathic treatments for animal disease.
8 Friend Sykes (1888–1965) was another of Howard’s disciples: a farmer and racehorse breeder, and, with Eve Balfour and Dr. George Scott Williamson, one of the three founders of the Soil Association.
9 Professor Percy Tudor Thomas, director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station from 1958–1974.
10 Sir E. John Russell (1872–1965) was director of Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire from 1912–1943, and a vigorous opponent of the emerging organic school of husbandry.


Mother Earth journal cover