This article was written in 2009 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of RCCE.

‘Everything that concerns your Village Life’
Nick Shuttleworth traces the origins and history of RCCE

The formation of Rural Community Council of Essex in 1929 was certainly not an accident but neither was it the result of years of pre-planning. It was essentially due to the inspiration of one man, Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo.

A disciple of John Ruskin, Mackmurdo’s work as an architect, designer and writer had influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement and helped introduce the ‘art nouveau’ style to England. By the late 1920s already well in to his seventies; Mackmurdo was consumed with the apparently more down-to-earth task of providing a village hall for his local village of Great Totham

It was in seeking funds for the new hall, which he was to design himself (and which is still in use today) that Mackmurdo came across the work of the early Rural Community Councils in counties such as Oxfordshire and learned of the role they were playing in improving the provision of village halls and other similar amenities. It seems Mackmurdo decided very quickly that Essex must have an RCC of its own; a body which under his lead would nurture a revival in the life of the county’s rural communities.

He soon secured support from influential quarters when the Lord Lieutenant, Sir Richard Colvin and Mr William Julien Courtauld (a relative of George Courtauld, RCCE’s current Chairman) agreed to sponsor an inaugural meeting at the Shire Hall, Chelmsford on 30th April 1929. This meeting unanimously approved the creation of the Essex Rural Community Council (the name was originally arranged differently). William Julien Courtauld agreed to meet the initial running costs – estimated at £50 (!) and with Mackmurdo appointed as Honorary Secretary, a fledgling organisation was up and running, with the promotion of ‘self help’ as its guiding principle. Voluntary and statutory organisations were quick to join, although Mackmurdo noted that local Church of England incumbents appeared highly suspicious of the new venture!

Essex at the time was still a predominantly agricultural county but the impact of London was increasingly being felt east of the River Lea. The twenties saw ambitious new road improvements such as the Southend arterial road that cut deep into the Essex countryside and brought with them the expanding tentacles of ribbon development. Farming was experiencing a prolonged downturn and rural life, with work and social activity revolving around tight knit village communities was clearly in need of support.

The scale of the task confronting the new RCC was soon recognised and the decision taken to seek funding for a paid General Secretary to work alongside the ageing Mr Mackmurdo. The man appointed, Alan Gifford, had an intimate knowledge of the local farming community and was to remain involved with the organisation in varying ways right through until his death in 1972.

The combination of Mackmurdo’s idealism and Gifford’s more pragmatic, professional approach proved effective but the onset of the ‘Great Depression’ presented the RCC with an immediate test of its capabilities. In association with the Society of Friends it set up a central allotment scheme supplying vegetable seeds, potatoes, fertilisers and tools to agricultural workers and others in need. By 1934 it had 50 district distribution centres in operation distributing 18,000 packets of seeds in one year alone. Other measures introduced included the rather sinister sounding ‘reconditioning camp’ on Osea Island which actually helped unemployed men improve their fitness ready for a return to work.

Special measures to fight unemployment were augmented by a longer-term commitment to encourage traditional rural industries such as the blacksmith and wheelwright adapt to changing times. The RCC employed its own Rural Industries Adviser, Harold Mabbitt, who by 1937 was travelling nearly 8,000 miles a year in support of Essex craftsmen. He also organised exhibitions of their work at shows in the county and further afield.

The provision of village halls was a major priority from day one with the RCC able to channel funding to them from bodies such as the Carnegie Trust. In its early years the RCC supported the development or renewal of 112 halls in Essex, including ‘model’ halls at Great Leighs and Willingale still very much in use today. It saw the village hall as a catalyst for the regeneration of village social life and did much to promote halls as venues for music, drama and even wireless listening groups. In January 1939, it went further by unveiling a new mobile cinema service, available to tour village halls.

By the end of its first decade, the RCC had made its presence felt and in the confident words of its strapline could help with ‘everything that concerns your Village Life’. It was now in receipt of regular funding from the Carnegie Trust, Essex County Council and the Development Commission and could boast over 600 members. In the summer of 1939 it opened new offices and a rural industries showroom opposite Chelmsford Cathedral. It was at this time attracting the support of well known personalities with Augustine Courtauld, who had earned fame for his exploits as a polar explorer taking over the chair in 1937 from R.D. Blumenfeld, an American who had made his name on Fleet Street as editor of the Daily Express. The coming of war put something of a brake on this, although in its first year the mobile cinema proved its worth providing over 200 separate shows before petrol rationing curtailed its activities.

Increasing food production was crucial and here the RCC rallied to the war effort admirably, running the County Garden Produce Committee which supported over 400 local Food Production Clubs, and organising school harvest camps for the Essex War Agricultural Advisory Committee. It also redirected its rural industries work to meet the demands of war production.

The building of village halls had to cease during the war so it was no surprise that when peace finally came in 1945 there should be a vast backlog of schemes, over 90 in total, looking for support from the RCC. Reviewing the situation in the first months of peace, Alan Gifford commented that: “…only if additional staff and financial support be forthcoming can the Council hope to keep a steady course through the flood of work so imminent.”

The rapid expansion of the welfare state in the immediate post war years raised other questions about the future of a charitable body like the RCC but again it demonstrated its durability. It also continued to enjoy influential support; Augustine Courtauld served for 15 years as Chairman and ‘Rab’ Butler enjoyed an extended spell as a trustee, continuing to serve on the Executive Committee whilst Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early 1950s, which must have made life interesting for the Honorary Treasurer!

In the late forties, much effort was devoted to the creation of two key bodies, the Essex Association of Parish (now Local) Councils and the Essex Old People’s Welfare Committee. Both were run for many years by the RCC before eventually becoming fully independent, the latter being well known today as Age Concern Essex. The RCC has in fact played a notable role in fostering the development of other voluntary and community organisations. Disability Essex, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Essex and the Essex Federation of Young Farmers Clubs are three more organisations that began life under the wing of the RCC.

The 1950s saw the RCC launch an initiative that was to be purely its own. In 1955, encouraged by its President, the Lord Lieutenant, Sir Francis Whitmore it staged its first ever Best Kept Village Competition. With the country emerging from the long shadows of war and austerity, the new competition aimed ‘to raise the tone and tidiness in every village in Essex’. Henham, near Saffron Walden, were the first winners of a competition that soon became a county institution and which continues today albeit with a somewhat different focus as the Calor Essex Village of the Year and Best Kept Village Competition.

Mackmurdo had died in 1942 but his connection with the RCC was remembered twenty years later in the will of his niece Miss Elinor Pugh. She bequeathed it her cottage at Wickham Bishops, where Mackmurdo himself had once lived. The cottage was subsequently sold by auction and the money used to create the Mackmurdo Trust which was to play a notable role in providing small grants and loans to numerous local community projects.

The RCC of the 1960s and 70s continued to support village halls and parish councils but in other respects its focus changed. The rural industries work was taken over by a new Government agency, the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas (CoSIRA) and the name ‘Rural’ actually disappeared from the title. By the beginning of the 1980s, the renamed Community Council of Essex was running seven different organisations from the offices in Springfield Road, Chelmsford, where it had been based since 1954. The Rural Development Commission by far the largest funder became alarmed at this juncture and demanded a change of direction.

Chris Manning-Press who became Director at this time duly restored ‘Rural’ to the title and in one sense took the organisation back to its roots by focusing primarily on rural problems. These problems were of course by now quite different and the RCC was soon turning its attention to modern day concerns such as the lack of affordable housing and decline in essential services in rural areas.

This process has accelerated over the past decade when aided initially by lottery funding and by sustained support from Essex County Council, RCCE (as it is now known) has expanded more rapidly than at any other time in its history, providing communities with specialist support in key areas such as housing, transport, community-led planning and of course village halls. It has also developed a strong policy influencing role, with its expertise and experience of rural issues increasingly valued by public sector partners. In 2006, RCCE was charged with the management of the Essex Rural Partnership, an umbrella body which brings together over 40 individual organisations with a stake in the county’s rural areas. The changing face of the organisation was further emphasised that year when it left Chelmsford to set up new, purpose-built offices on a rural business park at Feering.

To mark its 80th anniversary, RCCE used the precise date of its foundation to launch a new Essex Rural Fund which it aims to develop in the years ahead to provide support for community groups and charities working in rural areas. This emphasises that although Essex has changed beyond recognition since 1929, the principles and passion that drive this organisation are still consistent with those that motivated Mackmurdo eighty years before.

Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851 – 1942)

The Inspiration behind the Movement and its Work

These are the words describing Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, Honorary Secretary and founder of the Essex Rural Community Council, by its Chairman, J C Leslie, in the 1934 Essex Social Services Guide.

The man with the inspiration was born in 1851 at Edmonton, the son of Edward Mackmurdo, a manufacturing chemist and his wife Anne. After attending Felsted School he trained as an architect, and developed his artistic talent with Ruskin at Oxford and by associating with and being influenced by the likes of Spencer and William Morris.

He was a progressive (Pevsner described him as a pioneer designer) rather than a prolific architect. His designs include St Bedes Church in Liverpool, the YMCA at St Helens and he exhibited his work on furnishings at several national exhibitions. He is also known for being the interior design consultant to the 1905 renovations at the Savoy Hotel.

Locally, his houses include Great Ruffins and Beacons in Great Totham as well as the cottage where he eventually lived; and Little Ruffins in Wickham Bishops. His “social” buildings include Village Halls at Bradwell on Sea and Southminster as well as in his home village of Great Totham and, an early example of “architect designed” social housing, in a group of houses in Wickham Bishops initially for staff but bought by the local council; and the post office (then) at Snows Corner, Wickham Bishops. (For details see the Buildings of England: Essex, recently revised by James Bettley)

As well as a progressive architect and designer of furniture, textiles and metalwork he was a social reformer. He was involved with several reform movements including the Century Guild, the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and the Arts for Schools Association. His interest in economics and finance led to his first pamphlet The Immorality of Lending for Payment of Interest… which might have credence in today’s financial climate. Later came the Human Hive (1926) where he talks about the importance of social process and the group life of a community in improving the conditions of the next generation and “setting the world in better order”. His ideas are further developed in ‘A Peoples Charter’ in 1933 where he stresses the importance of “The Regional Social Unit” where every social aggregate is a community. In 1929 between writing these books he was the driving force behind the formation of the Essex Rural Community Council.

Mackmurdo married Eliza, his cousin, the daughter of the musician Richard D’Oyley Carte in 1902 and they moved to Beacon Hill, Great Totham where he started work on the “Ruffins Estate”. The late Fred Baker, butler at Little Ruffins described him as “awkward” and the late Robert Balch remembered him, more politely, as eccentric; a description echoed in John Doubleday’s guide to “The Eccentric A H Mackmurdo” exhibition held at the Minories in 1979

In 1903 he attended the Great Totham Annual Parish Meeting and spoke against a boundary review proposal to remove Osea Island from the civil parish of Great Totham, and was asked to join a representation at a public enquiry. He appears at a later meeting to ask for improvements to a footpath from Goat Lodge Road to the Bull (which he most likely used) but the meeting resolved that it “was unnecessary”. He became secretary of (and possibly founded) the Great Totham, Wickham Bishops, Great and Little Braxted Cottage Garden Society but otherwise does not appear again in local records until 24 April 1928 when he attended a public meeting, under the chairmanship of local solicitor John Bawtree, to discuss the building of a parish hall. He joined the committee to “look at ways and means”

As plans for the Hall progressed Mackmurdo offered to carry out the design work and was elected to the Building Committee. The ornate early versions of his design can be seen at the William Morris Gallery at Walthamstow but the final version is much plainer although still containing the Mackmurdo characteristics of symmetry. He was not a frequent attendee at the meetings but the records show that he was consulted several times between meetings and when, by mid 1930, funds were running out his role at the Essex Rural Community Council may well have helped the Chairman in securing a loan from the National Council for Social Service.

By 1931 however he fell out with the Village Hall Committee over its constitution as he felt it not democratic enough. He was asked by the Assistant Secretary of the National Council for Social Service to let the matter drop, which he did, and there is no further mention of him in the local records.

Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo died on 15 March 1942; he had no children. He left little money but a huge legacy in his lifetimes work.

Thanks to Clive Potter, Great Totham for his contribution.