Nicola Lisle explores the history of The Countryman magazine – Burford’s ‘miscellany of interest’
OXFORDSHIRE'S latest blue plaque is unusual in that it commemorates a magazine rather than a person – although of course its founder is inextricably woven into its fascinating early history.
The Countryman is now based in the Yorkshire Dales, but for nearly eight decades it was produced in Oxfordshire, first in Idbury and then from an office in Sheep Street, Burford.
Now there is a permanent memorial to the town’s long-standing association with one of the UK’s oldest rural magazines.
The founder, John William Robertson Scott, was a forward-thinking, somewhat eccentric individual, with a passion for rural affairs and a determination to change people’s misconceptions of country living.
He was born in Wigton, Cumberland (now Cumbria), in 1866, into a strict Quaker family.
His father, David Young Crozier Scott, was a commercial traveller and strong advocate of temperance, whose premature death in 1887, aged just 43, put the young Robertson Scott in the position of being the main breadwinner for his mother and seven siblings.
He embarked on a career in journalism, writing for high-profile publications such as the Pall Mall Gazette, Birmingham Gazette, Westminster Gazette and the Manchester Guardian.
In 1899, he resigned from the Daily Chronicle in protest at its support for the Boer War and went to live in Essex, focusing his attention on writing about rural issues for Country Gentleman, World’s Work and The Field.
His main concern was to dispel the romanticised images that townspeople had of the countryside and expose readers to the harsh realities of living in rural areas.
In 1925, some of his articles for The Nation were collected into a book, England’s Green and Pleasant Land, an ironic title for a blistering attack on the living and working conditions of agricultural labourers.
By this time he had married fellow writer and Oriental scholar Elspet Keith, whom he met while working for the American magazine World’s Work. The pair spent the First World War in Japan, where Scott founded a monthly magazine, The New East.
Returning to England after the war, Scott became a regular contributor to The Nation (which was later to merge with the New Statesman), before retiring in 1923 and moving to Idbury, just north of Burford.
He described his new home, the 16th-century Idbury Manor, as “a high cold house on the edge of a hamlet”. It was from here, in April 1927, that Scott launched his own quarterly magazine, The Countryman.
His aim was to provide an unsentimental, candid forum for discussing rural affairs and to sweep away the misconceptions of country life as a bucolic idyll.
Taboo subjects included bloodsports, alcohol and betting, reflecting Scott’s own beliefs, and the magazine took a politically neutral stance.
But there was a lighter side to the magazine too; its purpose was to entertain as well as inform, and this winning combination made The Countryman one of the most successful magazines of its day.
In its early days the magazine was run very much as a cottage industry, with a shoestring budget and Scott and Elspet as the only staff.
Later, other writers and production staff were taken on as the magazine’s success grew, and it attracted celebrity contributors such as GK Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, Hugh Walpole and HE Bates.
It was Scott’s extraordinary determination, flair and imagination that ensured the early success of the magazine.
But while he was undoubtedly a great visionary as an editor, as an employer he was greatly disliked.
One former employee, Victor Bonham Carter, described him as “a monster”, who took on eager young journalists, trained them and then “when they became useful, deserving proper pay, he sacked them and recruited fresh fools in their place”.
Unsurprisingly, there was a high turnover of staff at Idbury Manor. He was also disliked locally for his radical views, none of which sat well with the more traditionally-minded villagers.
Despite this, his tall, white-bearded figure became a familiar sight around Idbury as he threw himself enthusiastically into local affairs.
He sold The Countryman in 1943 but continued to edit the magazine until his retirement in 1947, when he was awarded the Order of the Companion of Honour in recognition of his achievements. His wife, Elspet, died in 1956, after 50 years of marriage, and Scott followed six years later, aged 96.
Scott’s successor, fellow Quaker John Cripps, moved The Countryman to Greyhounds in Sheep Street, Burford, thus beginning the town’s 56-year association with the magazine.
John Cripps was the son of the post-war Labour Chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps, who had helped bankroll the magazine’s launch.
Both father and son were passionate about preserving the traditional rural way of life while encouraging greater social integration in rural communities, and this was reflected in the magazine during John’s tenure.
Born in 1912, and educated at Winchester and Oxford, John Cripps spent most of his working life at The Countryman.
The Countryman's founder, JW Robertson Scott
He started there in 1938, working first in advertising before becoming editor, a post he held for 24 years. He currently holds the record as the magazine’s longest-serving editor.
Under his leadership, the magazine continued to flourish, achieving record sales levels. After the death of Sir Stafford Cripps in 1952, John also took over the running of the family’s 500-acre estate at Filkins, and continued the social improvements started by his father.
Many of the amenities in the village today owe their existence to Sir Stafford, but it was John who created the Filkins Workshops from derelict farm buildings, to encourage people to set up their own businesses and help preserve traditional rural skills and crafts.
In 1971, the year he resigned as editor, he married Ann Farwell, one of the staff at The Countryman. His first marriage, to Ursula Davy – with whom he had six children – was dissolved in the same year.
John died of leukaemia at his Filkins home, Fox House, in August 1993, and was buried in the village cemetery. His headstone reads simply, ‘John Cripps, countryman’, a somewhat inadequate epitaph for a man who achieved so much.
He was succeeded first by Crispin Gill and later by Chris Hall, Terry Fletcher and David Horan, all of whom continued to run The Countryman from Burford.
But in 2003, the magazine’s offices were moved to Skipton in Yorkshire, where its editors have included Bill Taylor, Paul Jackson and, most recently, Mark Whitley, who took over earlier this year.
Inevitably, the magazine has been modernised over its 87-year history – it is now produced monthly, in a larger format and in colour.
Its attitude has also had to move with the times, but some of Scott’s original tenets are unchanged, most notably in the opposition to bloodsports and the determination to remain politically neutral.
Perhaps more importantly, there is still what the official website describes as “a miscellany of interest and entertainment, which is stimulating in parts, relaxing in others”, and the magazine still aims to leave readers feeling “as if they have enjoyed a special day out in the country”.