The quiet subversive of Sheffield

How Ethel Haythornthwaite ‘found her truth’ in the Peak District

Good morning readers. This weekend’s read is about Sheffielder and countryside campaigner Ethel Haythornthwaite. It’s a lovely piece by Mollie Simpson, one of the great trainees we have working with The Tribune.

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By Mollie Simpson

It was a restless time towards the end of the First World War, and Ethel was grief-stricken. Her husband, Henry Burrows Gallimore, had enlisted to fight and the papers reported thousands more deaths every day. The trauma wore her down and Ethel’s family worried endlessly. Henry died in battle in France in 1917.

The Wards, Ethel’s family, were wealthy, formidable people. Thomas Ward was a self-made businessman who worked in steel, and Sophia Ward, née Bassett, was part of the Bassett sweets dynasty. Ethel and her sister Gertrude went to an elite private school, West Heath in London, running in circles with privileged young girls and foreign princesses with exotic accents and baroque names. Ethel grew up accustomed to trips to Paris, but her true loves were literature, art, and the countryside. She was 22-years-old when she became a widow, and her family and friends quietly worried she was losing touch. 

Around this time, she began to spend afternoons walking in the Peak District, writing in her diary or reading poetry by Wilfred Owen and William Blake. Anyone who’s walked the Limestone Way or Mam Tor knows the feeling of strong northern winds, of taking large gulpfuls of clean air instead of sharp, quick breaths like you would in the city. These moments were therapeutic and the hills felt precious to Ethel. Slowly, she started to come round.

The Peak District was a personal refuge and a manifestation of something more political. As she walked, she noticed new developments casting unflattering shadows on plateaus, valleys, and moorland. Petrol stations sprung up, and along with them, advertisement hoardings, litter, and the groundwork for ribbon developments of new houses.

In early 1924, 30-year-old Ethel started writing letters to the ‘great and good’ of Sheffield — she knew many of them personally — to form a committee. It was called the Sheffield Association of the Protection of Local Scenery. Later, it became known as the Campaign to Protect Rural England. It was the beginning of her life’s work to halt quarrying, improve social housing, see the Peak District gain green belt status and become a national park.

Her first win was small. She wrote a letter to the Sheffield bus company persuading them to fit buses with a ticket receptacle to prevent bus tickets being littered across the peaks. They agreed. Her next move was bolder. It was 1927, and the Duke of Rutland was selling his estate in Longshaw, a high moorland covering 747 acres of meadows and sheep grazings. The sale proposal suggested large detached homes, a hotel, and a golf course. A former employee of Ethel’s, Jean Smart, tells me the thought of this made Ethel “indignant and furious.”

“It was a massive estate, much loved. Times were very hard. Sheffield people often worked in very poor conditions, you know, steel and cutlery and file shops. It was hard, dirty work, long hours, very unlikely they had a nice home. Things were terribly hard for people at that time,” Jean explains. “And so, of course, getting on the bus and going out to Longshaw on the weekends was a big thing. Crowds and crowds of people would go. And Ethel wasn’t going to let anyone else get it. She was going to buy it.”

No one should have doubted her sincerity. It was 1927, and she began writing letters. She wrote to wealthy friends and the Sheffield Corporation. Jean tells me letter writing was Ethel’s forte — that she wrote so well no one could refuse her. She mobilised people to write letters themselves: boy scouts and girl guides, ramblers and free-spirited hippies from Manchester and Sheffield. She took out a mortgage in her family’s name, raised thousands of pounds and bought the estate in 1931. In 1934 she handed it over to the National Trust, in whose care it remains.

“The thought of Sheffield without Longshaw really is a sad thought,” Jean says. “We went to Longshaw Estate quite often when I was a child and my mum would often take me to the Rivelin Valley. We could take the bus from Mill Bridge to Rivelin Valley road. And we used to love that, sit by the stream and take a picnic.”

Builders, contractors and developers faced few obstacles. Before the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, if you wanted to build and had money, providing the building met housing regulations, there was little to stop you. Ethel’s plans would disrupt this, stripping the cash potential from the moorlands. But her approach was pragmatic. In 1936, she drew up plans for detached, affordable houses and found places where developers could build instead which wouldn’t encroach on the countryside.

It’s striking — particularly from the perspective of our current era’s preference for “call-outs” and so-called “cancel culture” — that Ethel seems to have chosen consensus-building and an approach that involved working with her opponents. “Oh yes, she was very pleasant,” Jean agrees. “She could get quite angry and she was quite a persuasive force. I would think that definitely came from her father. I’ve heard members of the family say he was quite a rough diamond. He could be very blunt. But they always said what a fair businessman. And I know the family always said he treated the staff well but he didn’t stand any nonsense. Ethel was like that too.”

Elsewhere, Norton Rural District Council had been trying to protect Blacka Moor since 1929, but they were under pressure from developers, and couldn’t afford to compensate builders. Blacka Moor is like something out of Wuthering Heights. It was an area she particularly loved, Ethel explained to Alderman John Graves as they walked past the bracken and the wildflowers. He looked around, and said: “I’m buying it.”

He phoned Ethel the next day to tell her he’d purchased the land for Sheffield City Council. In 1932, at the ceremony with the handing over of the deeds, Ethel writes in her diary that he said to her: “Now we have done all this for you, will you promise never to trouble us again?”

I took a deep breath, thought I had better be truthful and said ‘Whenever the countryside around Sheffield is in danger, I shall appeal to you.’ He looked at me sternly but not unkindly, and said, ‘Well, now we know.’

It was this moment that first planted the idea of a green belt for Sheffield in people’s minds, a boundary where the countryside could be protected. Ethel had been paying thousands of pounds to protect the countryside up until this point. Once, she paid a builder £22,000 in compensation to stop development. But she was frustrated and wanted her ideas translated into public policy. She spent months drawing up the boundary, making notes, recommendations and arguing for why each bit of the countryside should be included. The council said yes — and the Peak District was granted green belt status in 1938, England’s first.

It was around this time that Gerald Haythornthwaite applied for a job as Ethel’s secretary. He was 23-years-old and had the manners of an old fashioned gentleman. He got off the train at Old Victoria Station on a dark, wet December day, surveyed the scene — the chimneys belching out smoke and the soot hanging heavy in the air — and almost went straight home. But Ethel and Gerald liked each other instantly.

“I had the good fortune of seeing many letters between them that Ethel’s great nephew very kindly loaned me. It felt a bit intrusive but irresistible,” Jean says. The letters start in 1937 and go right up to the early 1980s. They wrote to each other daily, saying things like, “Dare we broach the subject with mother, dear? Mother will probably faint when we tell her!”

The couple fell deeply in love and married in 1937, she aged 43 and he 25. The letters narrate everyday details, like the suit Gerald had ordered and the type of tweed it was, or the chapter of the book Ethel was reading. Ethel would write letters from the train to London — where she was on the CPRE’s National Executive — at 6.30am, and post them from London. The post was such that Gerald might even get it that afternoon. Gerald would open them, write back, and rush off to the post box before the postman left. Ethel would get his letter the next day.

“Of course, in 1939, Gerald had to enlist in the war. He was sent off to Norway. The letters obviously arrived in bundles, you know if you sent 4-5 letters in the week they’d all come at one time. And they numbered all the envelopes. It took me about six months to get through them all. She was so distraught and he was so loving. And he told her all these details in such a way that the censor wouldn’t cut them out,” Jean tells me. Gerald came home to her in 1945.

In 1963, Jean was 19 when she saw a job advertisement looking for “someone to assist with interesting and varied work to do with architecture and engineering, with a love for the countryside”. She thought she was in a parallel universe when she first walked into Endcliffe Vale House. A vintage Rolls Royce was parked outside and there were two grand pianos in the house and fine china and freshly baked cakes on the tables. There were gardeners tending to wisteria and ivy, handymen and servants buzzing around. It had the ambience of Jay Gatsby’s mansion and the eccentricity of a mad scientist’s workshop.

“I was happily brought up on a Sheffield council estate and I didn’t know about live-in maids,” Jean says. “I can’t say I felt at ease for a while. I was 19 and she would have been 70. She was a Great Lady. She had that Great Lady thing about her because of the way her and her brothers and sister had been brought up.”

Romance and glamour never preoccupied Ethel for too long, though. “She thought about work all the time. It was never away from her mind. She just concentrated on caring for Sheffield, caring for the Peak District, wanting to ensure it was going to continue to be protected,” Jean says.

Ethel died after a long period of illness in 1986, and the letters stopped. Gerald died in 1995, and Jean stopped working for the CPRE shortly after. Their work continues to protect the countryside and Ethel’s work pioneered the National Trust protection of the Peak District and 15 other national parks across England. “She was an amazing woman. I don’t think I realised how amazing she was until she died. You know, I look back and I think, gosh. She did all that.” Jean tells me.

Now 77-years-old, Jean spends her retirement caring for her husband and enjoying the countryside around Sheffield. One day, she was combing through Ethel’s diaries and letters and found an entry which moved her. It was entitled ‘Impressions of a fortnight in Paris, written in a thundering hurry, and in the bad style, by Ethel A B Ward’. The year was 1913, three years before she would fall in love with her first husband, Henry Burrows Gallimore and become, almost completely, lost in her grief.

Jean reads it to me and I feel the same tug of sadness, the memory of what it had been like when I myself was young, and idealistic, and wandering through Hathersage, the sunlit hills, the feeling that life was going to begin over again.

19-year-old Ethel wrote: “Dear old diary, I rejoice that you are finished for you have been a damned worry and a dear delight. When I am 60 I will look at you again, you that I wrote in my learning years, in the flower of my hope… Dear woman, how has your life passed you since you were 19? Did the great love you dreamt of ever come, did you fulfil your life in the way — in the creative way — that you hoped for? What are you, a noble, successful character, or a broken hearted soul? Neither perhaps but are you an ordinary matron, with four children, a whiskered husband and an extraordinary interest in all household affairs? No — never, oh help me God. But by this time you will have found out the truth.”

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