What would Sir Herbert think?

Yesterday I got an email from a former CPRE employee musing on what Sir Herbert Grrifin, CPRE’s long-time general secretary, would have made of our short campaign film, promoting the Charter to Save our Countryside.  It prompted me to post a version of the column I wrote earlier in the year for the Countryman.  You have to get past a paragraph of the endlessly quotable Clough Williams-Ellis before you get to Sir Herbert.    


Perhaps the most colourful figure in CPRE’s early history, certainly our most colourful writer, was the architect Clough Williams-Ellis.  Bungalows, he said, ‘constitute England’s most disfiguring disease’.  And in 1933 he claimed that he ‘would certainly sooner go back for another year in wartime Ypres than spend a twelvemonth in post-war Slough’.  Better, he said, an 80% chance of death than ‘the certainty of cutting his own throat in surroundings of humiliating squalor’.  Poor Slough. 


Clough Williams-Ellis had a way with words, but without CPRE’s first general secretary, Herbert Griffin, we might not still exist.  Sir Herbert (he was knighted in 1957) ran CPRE from 1926 to 1965 and was both a tireless organiser and a passionate campaigner for ‘our one unique national possession, the ordinary English countryside’. 


In 1951, when CPRE’s opposition to overhead wires in the Malvern Hills was rejected by the Government, Griffin and CPRE’s Chairman, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, wrote to the Times saying: ‘It is a matter for serious thought that at periods of financial stress it is always beauty that is sacrificed upon the alter of expediency.’  Plus ça change.


Sir Herbert’s achievements come from an era when people talked about preservation and amenity, rather than environmentalism.  He was not a ‘green’ and he cared about beauty, not (God help us) ‘cultural services’ as a subset of ‘ecosystem services’.  He achieved much through club-land contact with ministers and senior officials – nothing as vulgar as a deputation – and he wrote magisterial letters to the Times when things were not going CPRE’s way.  By the 1970s, campaigning styles had changed radically, and Griffin was largely forgotten. 


He deserves a place in the history, however, and I am delighted that he will have a biography in the Dictionary of National Biography update released at the end of May.  This is written by Jane Brown, who briefly worked as his Secretary in the early 1960s.  Among other gems it reveals is Griffin’s close friendship with Harold Abrahams, known to him as Secretary of the National Parks Commission, but to most of us as the subject of the film Chariots of Fire.  Anyone for Herbert Griffin: the Movie?        




2 Responses to “What would Sir Herbert think?”

  1. 1 Ruth Wood November 24, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Dear Shaun

    I’m am sitting here with my Grandmother Jess Wood the eldest daughter of Sir Herbert Griffin. We were both so excited to read your article, Gran remembers everyone you have mentioned. Gran is 97 years old now and her memory of her father is crystal clear. If you ever want to contact her,, she would be delighted to have a chat with you about the CPRE, Herbert and her wonderful memories.


    Ruth Wood & Jess

    • 2 sspiers November 24, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      Lovely to hear from you! We’re very aware of Sir Herbert’s contribution to CPRE and the conservation movement in England. We moved into our current offices about two years ago and the Griffin Room was officially ‘opened’ by Jane Brown. Jane spoke about Sir Herbert at a seminar on CPRE’s history earlier this year. We also intend to propose his London home for a blue plaque (I’m not sure what address we have in mind, but Jess Wood will presumably remember it). So we will certainly be in touch!
      Best wishes,
      Shaun Spiers

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