Frank Penfold

Sussex farmer and naturalist
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The Independent Online

Francis Percy Penfold, agricultural engineer and naturalist: born Arundel, Sussex 20 May 1913; managing director, Penfolds of Arundel 1950-87; Chairman, Sussex Wildlife Trust 1963-88; married 1936 Elsa Zimmer (died 1966; two sons, one daughter); died Chichester, West Sussex 7 November 2005.

Frank Penfold was the long-serving chairman of the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Re-elected to the post every year for a quarter of a century, he presided over the growth of the trust from its formative years to the successful and influential body of today. An agricultural engineer by profession, he was also a man of Sussex whose family had lived for generations within a few miles of Arundel.

With his mind for business, Penfold was meticulous and well organised. One of his characteristic qualities was perseverance: once he had begun something he always tried to see it through to a conclusion. His gruff charm and high standing in the local farming world made him an effective bridge between the farming community and the conservation body. He is said to have known practically every farmer in Sussex. Moreover he talked their language. Many conversations that began in heated argument mellowed into friendly reminiscences of the harvest, steam ploughs and mutual acquaintances.

Frank Penfold was born into an old Sussex family of yeoman farmers. In 1833 his great-grandfather had set up the family business of Penfolds of Arundel, which began as a forge and ironmonger's shop. Long before the 20th century it had established a county-wide reputation and supplied the very latest in farm machinery.

After being educated at Midhurst Grammar School and serving an apprenticeship at Listers of Dursley, Gloucestershire, he joined the company in 1933. Over his working life in the family business, Penfold saw the revolution in agricultural machinery from the steam-driven rollers and threshers of his youth to the high-power tractors and combine harvesters of today (Penfolds introduced combine harvesters to Sussex).

The company thrived in the post-war boom years but in the 1980s, by which time Frank was assisted by his eldest son, John, the agricultural supply industry was failing nationwide. The firm closed in 1987. The history of the firm, Penfolds of Arundel: agricultural engineers 1833-1983, which Penfold wrote to commemorate its 150th anniversary four years earlier, is effectively a short history of agriculture in Sussex.

Penfold was in a reserved occupation when the Second World War began. However he trained in commando techniques as one of a secret force that was to go underground in the event of an invasion and sabotage enemy communications. The life expectancy of such resistance fighters was only a few weeks.

A keen naturalist from boyhood, Penfold joined the Sussex Wildlife Trust at its inaugural meeting in 1961 and two years later was elected Chairman. With his help the trust acquired important nature reserves at the Mens, Ebernoe Common and Pevensey Marshes. It moved into a customised headquarters in an appropriately rural setting at Woods Mill in 1966. And in 1978 the trust played a leading role in preventing a pump drainage scheme at Amberley Wildbrooks, a widely reported success which helped to turn the tide in favour of preserving the natural environment.

Although Penfold stood down as chair in 1988 he remained a regular attendee of the trust's council. In later years he grew deaf. His supposedly whispered, often caustic asides could be heard by the entire table.

Though a pragmatist by nature and not an intellectual, Penfold was formidably well informed on a wide range of topics. He was a recognised authority on the farming history of Sussex. He loved mills and steam engines. He was a keen theatre-goer and a member of the fund-raising that helped bring the Chichester Festival Theatre into existence.

He also liked cars. He owned an Alfa Romeo, which he habitually drove at high speed. Hurtling back to Sussex after a Wildlife Trusts meeting at York, he received a stern ticking off from his passenger, the naturalist Helen Brotherton. She, it turned out, was a magistrate.

Unusually for a naturalist he was equally interested in plants, birds and insects. He chaired the committee that produced the first wild-plant atlas of Sussex. One of his greatest passions was for the rare Black Poplar tree. With Frances Abraham, he tracked down every mature tree in the county. They collected cuttings from each one for growing on at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Wakehurst Place, transplanting to suitable sites across the county.

Penfold also loved islands. One summer in the 1930s he helped Ronald Lockley to run the first bird observatory on the island of Skomer off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Over the years he visited nearly all the off-shore islands of the British Isles. Among his favourites was the Faroe Islands where he botanised and surveyed nesting birds.

His travels, indulged mainly during his retirement, were motivated by a desire to see as many of the world's remaining wild places before the march of progress had ruined them forever. They took him to every continent, including the forests of Central and South America, the deserts of Kazakhstan and Manchuria and to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It was during an arduous month-long tour of Burma and Vietnam in his 92nd year that he became ill. He died shortly after his return.

He married Elsa Zimmer in 1936, by whom he had two sons and a daughter. She died in 1966. In 1979 he met his long-time companion Frances Abraham, who survives him.

Penfold liked gardens but not gardening. To the consternation of his neighbours he refused to close-cut his lawn in the village of Burpham. The result each spring was a stunning carpet of primroses and cowslips, along with a steadily increasing number of pyramid orchids.

Peter Marren

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