The countryside around Britain’s towns and cities remains largely unblemished thanks to the Green Belt – a principle guaranteed to be defended to the hilt by activists whenever development threatens to impinge on the nation’s rural land.
But the formidable Sheffield woman who laid the foundations for the system often goes uncredited.
Ethel Haythornthwaite – the daughter of a Sheffield steel magnate – set up a forerunner of the Campaign to Protect Rural England after becoming increasingly worried by the level of ‘incongruous and promiscuous’ building work in the Peak District.
She began purchasing threatened sites and with the help of her second husband, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Haythornthwaite, persuaded the city council to adopt proposals for a Green Belt in 1938 – nearly 20 years before the idea became part of national planning policy.
Her legacy will be highlighted with two free talks as part of this year’s Heritage Open Days in Sheffield, shedding light on her role and explaining why she felt it her duty to save the region’s beauty spots from urban sprawl. The events also link with the overarching theme of 2018’s open days, ‘extraordinary women’, inspired by the 100th anniversary of female suffrage.
“She was short, sharp, spare in speech and appearance – every word, every look counting, attractive by sheer power of personality, indomitable,” says Professor Clyde Binfield, who taught history at Sheffield University and is delivering one of the talks.
“From the 1920s to the 1970s, perhaps longer, she was a force to be reckoned with.”
The context of Ethel’s life is important, says Clyde, as it ‘provided her with a vital financial cushion’. She was born Ethel Mary Bassett Ward in 1894 – names that resonated in Sheffield industry and Methodism.
“Her mother was a Bassett,” he says. “Her grandfather Bassett prospered as a manufacturer of workman’s overalls; her great-uncle George was the Liquorice Allsort Bassett – a manufacturing confectioner. Perhaps the actual Allsorts were the invention of a cousin.”
Her father, meanwhile, founded T.W. Ward and Co, starting a steel scrap empire that eventually employed 11,000 people nationwide, over 3,000 of them in Sheffield.
“The Wards were Methodists, related to everybody who counted in Sheffield Methodism, and they knew everybody who counted in Sheffield industry.”
Her first husband, Captain Henry Burrows Gallimore, came from the same background; the Gallimores were electro-plate manufacturers, as well as Methodists. But Henry was killed in France in May 1917, less than 18 months after their wedding in February 1916.
“She was a widow for 20 years,” says Clyde. “She left the Methodism but not, I think, the sense of usefulness which is in the Methodist DNA. And she focused on the environment, making full use of all her connections.”
In 1924 Ethel joined 12 other concerned individuals to form the Sheffield Association for the Protection of Local Scenery. She was the group’s honorary secretary, and members would meet at Endcliffe Vale House, her family home which stood where the Endcliffe Student Village is today.
“In 1927 this became the Sheffield and Peak District branch of the newly-formed national Council for the Preservation of Rural England,” says Clyde.
At the time, the Peak was not a designated National Park and there was no guidance or control over the design of buildings, or the construction materials used, in the countryside.
Also in 1927, Ethel initiated a campaign to save Longshaw Lodge, a shooting estate that was part of 11,000 acres put up for sale by the Duke of Rutland. “She always found useful allies,” says Clyde.
She was helped by another new local body – Sheffield Council of Social Service, now Voluntary Action Sheffield. In 1931 the required sum of £15,000 was raised and Longshaw was handed to the National Trust, its first acquisition in the Peak. The same year Ethel’s CPRE branch published a book – The Threat to The Peak – which Clyde says was of ‘pioneering importance’ and ‘a model of advocacy’.
“Thereafter she was behind a long line of acquisitions, battles and victories. She became a force in the conservation world, joined from 1937 by her second husband. Together they formed a formidable partnership.”
Ethel served on the Hobhouse Committee which led to the setting up of National Parks, and Gerald carried on her work following her death in 1986 aged 92. He died in 1995.
But why did Ethel take so firmly to the countryside?
“Perhaps it was simply in the air for her generation in the age of Scouts and Guides and the Youth Hostels Association,” says Clyde. “And employers were now conscious of the value of holidays in the country for their employees. But such popularity, and charabanc outings, could ruin the countryside that was now becoming so accessible. You have only to see the illustrations in The Threat to the Peak to realise how urgent the issue was becoming.”
Clyde’s talk – titled A Sheffield Woman of Considerable Consequence – is at 7pm tonight at Regather Works on Club Garden Road, Sharrow. See www.regather.net for details. The second event, Ethel Haythornthwaite: Her Legacy for Sheffield and the Peak District, is on Sunday at 2pm in the Dorothy Fox Education Centre in the Botanical Gardens. Led by Jean Smart, it has been organised by the Friends of the Botanical Gardens; plants, tea and cakes will be sold from 11am to 3pm.
Heritage Open Days run from September 6 to 9, and 13 to 16. Visit www.heritageopendays.org.uk for information.
See The Star tomorrow for a feature on Beauchief Abbey.