Having had occasion to excavate some of my East Anglian roots in response to watching The Dig recently, I was well-primed to receive some insights into the history of my family in Norfolk, courtesy of my cousin Simon Gooch. His slim biography of Edwin Gooch is a fascinating account of a pioneer of Labour politics and the union movement in Norfolk, who happens to be his grandfather and my… great great uncle? Edwin’s wife Ethel was my great-grandfather Pip Banham’s sister, while Edwin was my great-grandmother Pat Reyner’s uncle. There was a kind of broad clan of Norfolk families that kept marrying each other in different generations, so the actual relationships between individuals have always been bafflingly opaque to me. As Simon Gooch is a professional genealogist, he does a far better job of explaining this convoluted picture than anyone else I’ve discussed it with, but it’ll never be straight in my head, I suspect.
Edwin Gooch: Champion of the Farmworkers tells, in a simple linear fashion, the story of the son of a blacksmith, who begins work as a farrier, moves on to work as a printer on the hot metal press of the Norwich Mercury, then becomes a journalist, a union and Labour Party activist, and eventually an MP. As such it’s more than the story of an individual: it recounts a family’s social mobility, and Edwin Gooch’s progress mirrors the move from rural to urban work of an entire class, which by virtue of that shift had ceased to exist in any meaningful sense by the time his grandson wrote this book. As a union man, Gooch was not a representative of skilled rural trades like blacksmiths, whose labour was probably sufficiently scarce that little activism was called for. He went to bat instead for the agricultural labourer, the workers who tilled the soil and harvested the crops that kept us alive through two World Wars, a Depression, and of course the millennia of history that preceded them.
When I first moved to the Suffolk village in which I now live (having grown up in the eclectic urban environs of Cambridge) there were a few of these old boys left, mostly retired, but some still on hand to help get in the hay on recreational farms like that belonging to my friend Vicky in North Essex. The last one in my village died around five years ago, but he was an outlier. Spouse bought our house, in what is now an eye-wateringly expensive region, in a semi-derelict condition around 1980, when property in a village like ours was barely worth anything. The people that used to work the land had almost all been replaced by machines, and there was as yet no demand for the homes they had once lived in. It’s hard to overstate the scale of the transformation that was wrought on rural society—indeed, it’s barely even possible to speak of rural society any more. The economics that keep rural Suffolk villages alive are urban economics, distributed through networks that are only made possible by the ubiquity of car ownership. We ‘country people’ just live in a house and go to a job the same as everyone else, and that is not what it once meant to live in a village, or even a small town like Wymondham, where Edwin Gooch was born, and lived his entire life.
Gooch was born into a community, and whatever he thought of the inequalities that structured it—the monopoly on land ownership of a small minority, mostly quite separate from the social group that worked on the land—that community comprised a coherent and long-sustained set of relationships. Familial, generational, and social relations between individuals, classes, trades, employers, employees, places, institutions, and ultimately, the ecology that sustained them all. Growing up in such a community probably explains Gooch’s consistently moderate politics—reform was always his goal, not revolution, and he went as far as refusing to join the Tolpuddle March one year when there was a Communist contingent in attendance. I’m sure he’d have found my own frothing extremism quite reprehensible, but in fact Gooch’s desire for reform, for basic, decent treatment of the rural working class, required more radical activism than my revolutionary daydreams have ever led me to. He was at pains to avoid striking, and to maintain positive relations with the farming community—following his political and union mentor George Edwards’ advocacy of ‘sweet reasonableness’. For the most part he achieved this, but he was a leading organiser during the National Union of Agricultural Workers’ ‘Great Strike’ of 1923.
By the end of his life, when Gooch had been an MP and a member of the Labour Party NEC for years, and had travelled the world attending the meetings of various international labour organisations, he could look around him in rural Norfolk and see the evidence of a life well-spent: a working class that was reasonably paid, securely housed, well-educated and under the umbrella of universal healthcare. If he’d lived a few more years he’d have seen that class dispersed and effectively destroyed, as the neutrality of tech was disproved for the nth time. The mechanisation of every industry has deployed technology intended to maximise profits rather than to support its workforce, but in few cases can that workforce have become as comprehensively obsolete as in agriculture. With it the lineaments of Gooch’s Norfolk were all but swept away, and towns like Wymondham are now full of strangers, people who don’t know one another, and who’ll move away someday with no lasting connection to the place. For these and other reasons I feel immensely privileged to have a connection to Edwin Gooch, to the East Anglia in which (more or less by chance) I still live, and immensely grateful to Simon Gooch for telling me his story in this thoroughly researched and lucidly written book.