Remembering Peter Melchett 1948 - 2018
On Friday 7th December, family, friends and colleagues gathered to remember Peter Melchett.
Peter was an extraordinary man, treasured by so many. One of life’s true campaigners, here we pause to reflect on his inspirational career, and the fond memories of irreplaceable Peter we were privileged to share with him during his time at the Soil Association.
Peter and his extraordinary career
During his 18 years as our Policy Director, Peter made significant contributions to the organic movement. He led work on issues ranging from antibiotic and welfare abuse in farm animals, to campaigns against pesticides, and championing organic textiles and beauty products….even featuring in Vogue magazine, not his natural terrain! He was a key founder and driver of our Food for Life Partnership, which has transformed food in schools, hospitals, workplaces and nursing homes across the UK.
Prior to this he had an extraordinary career, from his legal and criminology training, to his early life as a Labour politician, most notably as Minister for State in Northern Ireland, where he is still warmly remembered for overseeing legislation enabling non-sectarian schools to be established, increasing teacher numbers, improving mental health services and enabling new sports facilities. Then to Greenpeace UK, where as Director he oversaw a period of huge growth in scale and influence, though he is still best remembered by many for leading a group of protesters who destroyed a trial crop of genetically modified maize in Norfolk in 1999. Along with 28 Greenpeace activists, he was charged with theft and criminal damage and then unexpectedly acquitted by a jury at Norwich crown court the following year. The result was a great victory for the anti-GM movement, and the trial was considered an important reflection of UK public opinion on the GM debate.
Peter the farmer
Peter was also a farmer and deeply loved his Norfolk family farm. He converted his farm to organic methods, and saw it transform into a haven for wildlife. Peter also oversaw the creation of miles of public access footpaths, having been a passionate President of the Ramblers Association.
Those of us lucky enough to work with Peter will never forget how privileged we were to work alongside and learn from such a legendary campaigner. He left his mark on so many of us, most especially our younger staff, and so to supplement the more formal obituaries that have been published, we’d also like to share with you stories which give a more personal insight into Peter, our colleague and friend for so many years.
Our Standards Development Manager, Sarah Compson, worked with Peter closely and recalled first joining the Soil Association:
“His reputation certainly preceded him, and I remember feeling rather nervous about working with this Lord who eschewed the establishment, invented chugging, helped make Glastonbury Festival a thing, trashed GM crops, had been in charge of Greenpeace, campaigned for decriminalising weed, and was a vegetarian pig-farmer! I remember being slightly bemused (and relieved) to find that the actual man behind the stories was very personable, with his shirt invariably untucked, his eyes twinkly, the most booming voice and an excellent chuckle.
As a junior member of staff with a good dose of imposter syndrome, I started off just doing as I was told by him. But I remember that my working relationship with Peter became much better when I started to disagree with him! Right now, I can picture the look in his eyes whenever I tried to counter his arguments. He relished a good debate!”
Natasha Collins-Daniel, our Head of PR, remembers:
“Peter and I spoke almost daily since I joined the Soil Association press team in 2012. He would ring, email or text some helpful idea for our press work. Or occasionally, to gossip about Lillian’s affair in the Archers or some other controversial happening in Ambridge! I’ve never worked with any campaigner, let alone a policy director, who understood how to work the media like he did.
He always shared success, never taking the glory for things – even when it was mostly his work. I found this especially entertaining (and endearing) when drafting media lines in my early days at SA. He would ring me up to discuss our media statement on something while I furiously typed what he was saying. When I’d send it round to other colleagues later he would always credit me. “Natasha’s written an excellent statement on X.” he would reply all (he loved a reply all!) and when I bashfully pointed out that he pretty much dictated the whole thing, he’d say “well, you’re the one that got in the paper”. “No, you’re the one who did Peter, they wouldn’t take it if we weren’t saying something interesting” I’d say, to which he just laughed. I will miss his laugh. It was a common response to many tricky situations we had to navigate in the media. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he was adored by everyone who has worked in the press office since I have been here and he will be truly missed.”
We will continue to work tirelessly on the causes close to Peter’s heart, with his intelligence and determination as our inspiration.