Ernest W. Martin

Radical champion of the rural poor
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Ernest W. Martin was one of the most ardent champions of disadvantaged members of rural society. Born in the village of Shebbear in north-west Devon in 1912, he grew up as part of a "peasant" community where squire, parson and doctor were the élite, often exhibiting a patronising and "profitable conspiracy of genteel indifference" to the poor. As a teenager Martin was troubled by the sight of his mother curtseying to the doctor's wife.

Ernest Walter Martin, writer and social historian: born Shebbear, Devon 31 May 1912; Leverhulme Fellow, Sussex University 1965-67; married 1943 Elisabeth Mallandaine; died Halwill, Devon 14 April 2005.

Ernest W. Martin was one of the most ardent champions of disadvantaged members of rural society. Born in the village of Shebbear in north-west Devon in 1912, he grew up as part of a "peasant" community where squire, parson and doctor were the élite, often exhibiting a patronising and "profitable conspiracy of genteel indifference" to the poor. As a teenager Martin was troubled by the sight of his mother curtseying to the doctor's wife.

He was educated at Shebbear College (founded by radically free-thinking Bible Christians) from 1923 until 1930. English literature was taught by Jackson Page who, with the headmaster John Rounsefell, imbued Martin with "an awareness of the need to think". He then spent one unfulfilling year at Seale Hayne College in south Devon, studying Agricultural History, before embarking on a career as a full-time writer.

His first book, Heritage of the West, was published in 1938, with a foreword by the writer Llewelyn Powys. In that decade Martin more than once came to blows with members of Sir Oswald Mosley's blackshirts, both in London and Devon.

Martin's father had been parish clerk, postman and an insurance agent, but suffered grievously in the First World War, being shell-shocked and buried for five days before rescue. Such experiences strongly influenced Martin in his opposition to war, not as a pacifist but as a conscientious objector fighting mindless authoritarianism. At the age of 17, he had joined War Resisters International, and in the Second World War appeared before a tribunal at Bristol where he was exempted from military service.

His mother was killed in an accident during the wartime blackout, and this led to Martin taking on the editing of a book entitled In Search of Faith: a symposium, published in 1944. The impressive list of contributors included George Bernard Shaw, C.E.M. Joad, Sir Stafford Cripps, Olaf Stapledon, Mulk Raj Anand, Sir Richard Acland and the Rev Dr W.R. Matthews. The book sold well and was translated into Dutch.

But it is as a voice of the rural labourer that Ernest Martin best deserves to be remembered. The Secret People (1954), a study of English village life, was complemented by Where London Ends (1958), an assessment of the role of the country town. In 1961 came The Tyranny of the Majority, an avowal of the need for democracy.

The Shearers and the Shorn is an analysis, commissioned by the Trustees of Dartington Hall, of the town of Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, "in an attempt to find the roots of rural malaise, depopulation and discontent". It was published in 1965, in which year Martin began a two-year Leverhulme Fellowship at Sussex University, studying the Poor Law.

In 1972 he was awarded a civil list pension for his services "to literature and social history", and it was about this time that he embarked on a programme of taped interviews with elderly men and women of rural Devon, supported by the Beaford Centre (an offshoot of Dartington). Oral history was virtually unknown within the county but this was an ideal project for Martin, with his background and as a native speaker of Devon dialect.

For more than 20 years, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, he was an Honorary Research Fellow in Rural Social Studies at Exeter University, but he never really seemed to fit that distinctly less than radical establishment, although it provided him with useful facilities.

He had a lifelong advocacy against cruelty to animals, which was the core component of The Case Against Hunting (1959) - a book he wrote in just 14 days.

Martin was immensely widely read and corresponded with many leading social and literary figures of his day. His prime mentor was the economist Richard Tawney, whom he described as "an apostle of equality". For many years Martin was a lecturer for the Workers' Educational Association, and he was a deep social thinker, especially interested in tradition as a vital force, and wisely wary of technology. Mysticism and religion both attracted him.

Long ago Ernest Martin condemned "the false neatness and uniformity which are slowly replacing the former beauty and disorder" in rural areas, the trivialisation of culture through tourism, and the spread of metropolitan ideas. His writing constantly reminds us of the need for rigour when analysing country issues. His finest achievement, still of great relevance today, is to have been a documenter of the feelings and sensitivities of "the craftsmen of the soil".

Tom Greeves

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