A funeral service will be held at Norwich Cathedral a week today for the former High Steward of Norwich Cathedral, the Earl Ferrers.

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For almost 30 years until he retired in 2007, Robin Ferrers was the 24th holder of the title in an unbroken line since 1539. He had led an appeal to raise £10m to safeguard the cathedral’s future.

As the EDP reported after his death on Tuesday, farming was a central part of the political career of south Norfolk landowner, who was 83.

In his maiden speech in the Lords, he had told peers: “Farming is my livelihood.”

And over the decades he held many senior ministerial roles including president of the Royal Smithfield Show in 1985.

The 13th Earl had started farming at Hedenham, near Bungay, with 23 cows on 150 acres and built up the estate to about 2,200 acres. In June 1970, he had brought the world-famous herd of Chartley White Park cattle back to Norfolk.

It had been “an enormous privilege” to be president of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association in 1984 and he had “enjoyed every half minute of the show”.

As a former subaltern in the Coldstream Guards, it was a delight to watch his former regiment’s mass band in the grand ring. He had been involved as an exhibitor and on the association’s council for about 30 years.

Robin Ferrers was president of the East of England Agricultural Society in 1979. In accepting the role, he said that the annual three-day show has “a justifiable reputation of being one of the most impressive of the agricultural events staged in the United Kingdom”.

He was a great advocate of the agricultural industry, in or out of office. A council member of Food From Britain, he became chairman of the British Agricultural Export Council in December 1984.

He had read agricultural science at Cambridge, which gave him a good grounding to add to practical experience gleaned over the years.

His political career, which spanned five decades, began when he was made a government whip by prime minister Harold Macmillan in 1962.

A dozen years later, he was parliamentary secretary at the ministry of agriculture and then was given his first senior post by Margaret Thatcher as minister of state for agriculture in 1979.

One of the most controversial issues during his term of office was the start of attempts to resolve the increasingly-bitter Halvergate Marshes dispute.

A compromise with Tom King at the environment department led to an eventual compromise and launch of a new policy and strategy.

The Home Office minister and deputy leader of the Lords, who was responsible for the police, was roused by a burglar alarm at 3am at his Norfolk home in 1991.

Just a week after a hip replacement, he gave the raider, who had broken into his home a “couple of clouts” with his walking stick and subdued him until the police arrived.

He was named Robert Washington Shirley, after the first Lord Ferrers, created an earl in 1711, had married Elizabeth Washington. One of her famous descendants was George Washington, first president of the United States.

In 1986, he welcomed a 55-strong party of Americans with the surname Shirley to Ditchingham Hall. They were fascinated that the Earl belonged to one of only three families in the country which could trace the family tree back to the Norman Conquest. In fact, he joked that his grandfather used to say that the Shirley family welcomed William the Conqueror in 1066.

Early in his political life, he spoke against abolition of the death penalty but as he told peers, the 4th Earl Ferrers, who was convicted of murder, was hanged at Tyburn in May 1760 by a silken rope in acknowledgment of his rank.

He took great pride in his White Park cattle, which had been in the family’s stewardship since 1248 although they were sold in 1905.

He was involved in business and also held many other posts, including president of the South Norfolk Conservative Association until he retired after 24 years in 1995.

In September 1983, when he was appointed a deputy lieutenant of Norfolk, he was also president of the eastern region of Mencap.

A funeral service will be held at Norwich Cathedral on Friday, November 23 at 11.30am.

Michael Pollitt

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