The Demand for Land The Impact of the Defence of the Realm Act on Agricultural Land in Norfolk

 

From records held at the Norfolk Record Office

The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was passed on 8th August 1914, four days after war was declared.   It gave the government wide ranging powers.  There were various social control mechanisms such as censorship and certain seemingly trivial activities were banned eg. flying kites.  It also gave the government the power to requisition land and buildings for the war effort.

This demand for land was felt acutely in Norfolk. Norfolk land was in demand both for food production and for military use given its strategic military position on the east coast.

Aerial warfare was in its infancy but its growing importance led to farmland being requisitioned for aerodromes and landing grounds. The minutes of the Norfolk War Agricultural Committee (NWAC)  (NRO, C/C 10/16, C/C 10/17 and C/C 10/18) record various issues relating to these sites.

No better example of the tensions between the military and local landowners exists than the ongoing difficulties and disputes which occurred at the Earl of Orford’s estate at Weybourne. A detailed file,  (NRO, WLP 8/114) kept meticulously by the Estate Manager Douglas Smith, records the almost daily difficulties encountered by Smith as he worked on the Earl’s behalf to help the military while appearing to receive little but trouble in return.

In June 1915 Smith received a letter concerning the establishment of a military camp at Weybourne for the 67th Provisional Battalion.  Smith replied that Lord Orford was agreeable to this ‘provided that you agree to compensate the tenant for any damage to the Agricultural Value of the Land’. Thus began the saga of Field 163.  A temporary rent of £2 15s a month was agreed to include the loss of future crops.  The full amount would be calculated later.  A formal agreement was drawn up stating that possession of the land would be from 20th June 1916. It stated that compensation would be paid for all damage as long as any claim did not exceed ‘the actual present freehold value of the said premises as agricultural land’. The document has Smith’s annotations written alongside – perhaps the most pertinent of which was “Not Agreed To”!

 

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Defence of the Realm Order. NRO, WLP 8/114

 

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Site of land to be taken. NRO, WLP 8/114

 

 

It was not just the loss of crops to be considered. Mr Lane, the tenant at Weybourne Hall, held an annual shoot on the land.  In April 1916 Lane wrote to Smith. ‘I find that the Military Authorities have taken possession of the best part of my partridge shooting at Weybourne’. Lane gave up the shoot and, a month later, terminated his tenancy at Weybourne Hall.

Other land appeared to be taken without permission. Mr Dixon, a tenant farmer, complained that one of his fields was being used as a recreation ground when it should have been planted with wheat.  Smith wrote:  ‘as agent for the Owner, I think that I am entitled to be notified in accord with the Defence of the Realm Act for any lands taken under the Act. Believe me that I write in no antagonistic manner’.

Trees were another source of dispute. Trees were felled without permission and there were a series of fires caused by the troops damaging both woodland and heath.  The estate woodman Mr Humphrey reported the fires to Smith.  Lieutenant Paynter wrote to Smith: ‘the loss sustained by the matters referred to appear to be very trivial and there are no grounds which enable me to recommend payment’. Smith replied:  ‘I cannot regard the loss as “trivial” as suggested by you. I am entitled to repayment of the actual loss sustained.  Half an acre of peat has been destroyed and also 734 Birch trees, 18 Scots Pine, 16 Oak, 33 young Douglas Pine & Sitka Spruce.  To refuse any compensation for this loss, to my mind speaks for itself’.  As Smith penned this reply he received a telegram from Humphrey: ‘Great fire occurred caught Bulmans much damage Humphrey’. The matter was not resolved and a Court of Enquiry was finally arranged for July 1918.  The outcome is unknown.

Other disputes included the removal of the top of a sea defence wall. The Military’s response was that ‘it has considerably strengthened the defence of this locality from a military point of view’. It no doubt did, but it did not strengthen the defence of the locality from the sea itself.

In 1919 a detailed compensation claim was submitted which included:

  • Loss of rental of Weybourne Hall
  • The encampment in Field 163.
  • Agricultural depreciation.
  • Portions of Weyboune Heath and Woods used as a gun station and for manoeuvres. Sheringham Rifle Range had also mistakenly been handed over to the Territorials after the war.
  • Cutting of bracken in the area.
  • Roads constructed between Kelling Camp and Sheringham. The Macadamized roads are so laid out as to be of no use to the Estate.
  • Taking other fields for training.
  • Defense measures along the cliff, beach and Estate.
  • Destruction of game.
  • Conversion of Weybourne from a peaceful health resort into an encampment of great magnitude.
  • Woods, trees and peat damaged by fire
  • Turf cut from the cliff or damaged. Some of it was used to create a lawn in front of the Officers’ Mess.

 

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Sheringham Riffle Range. NRO, WLP 8/114

 

The claim, totaling £593 14s 4d, was disputed. In March 1920 Captain Biggs proposed that once the road, paths and foundations were taken up the fields would be good in two years.  Smith disagreed: ‘at least 4 years cultivation would be essential with the application of artificial manure. The bulk of the land has been used as a parade and drill ground’.

An offer of £375 was rejected. Biggs pointed out that the War Department had the right to compulsorily purchase the land and, if it did, would only pay £375 for it.  He wrote: ‘it is not the wish of the department to be compelled to purchase land, and I do not think it is Lord Orford’s interest that this particular field should be sold away from the Estate. . . . . I have never yet had to ask Headquarters for authority for the land to be compulsorily purchased, and I shall be very disappointed if this has to be the first case in my Area’.

Smith was not one to be threatened. He replied:I fear there is little chance of his (Lord Orford) accepting your offer of £375, which, to my mind is little less than robbery. . . . . I am quite sure that His Lordship will require Field No 163 to be reinstated to its original condition, which was the conditions on which it was acquired by the Military Authorities . .. failing your acceptance . . I fear we shall have to fight the matter out’.

There is a great deal of admiration for the diligence of estate manager Douglas Smith. He did his best to help the Military Authorities throughout the war and to seek justice for his employer at the end of it.  While DORA’s aims were understandable, those carrying out the legislation sometimes demonstrated a lack of understanding of or respect for agricultural life.

Daryl Long NRO Blogger

 

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