Grandson’s biography shines a light on Norfolk’s ‘champion of the farmworkers’
PUBLISHED: 07:00 09 October 2020 | UPDATED: 09:09 12 October 2020
Gooch family archive
The story of a dedicated Norfolk politician, unionist and “champion of the farmworkers” has been told in a new biography, written by his grandson.
Edwin Gooch, born the son of a blacksmith in 1889, rose to become a significant figure in agricultural trade unionism and served as MP for North Norfolk for almost 20 years.
Throughout his career, he led the fight for decent wages and better conditions for people working on the land.
After setting up the South Norfolk Labour Party with his wife Ethel in his native town of Wymondham in 1918, he helped elect renowned farmworkers’ leader George Edwards to Parliament, then came to prominence himself in the 1923 Great Strike, which embroiled thousands of Norfolk farmworkers in a bitter dispute over pay and lack of government support.
Mr Gooch then became president of the National Union of Agricultural Workers in 1930, and served in this honorary but influential role until his death in 1964.
He also worked as a journalist and chief sub-editor on the Norwich Mercury, before he was elected MP for North Norfolk in Labour’s post-war landslide victory in 1945, becoming party chairman ten years later.
His grandson Simon Gooch – who was brought up in Norwich but now works in London as a genealogist and historical researcher – has drawn on his late father’s reminiscences, his own childhood memories and archival research to write the book, described as “a vivid portrait of a man whose strong Norfolk accent once rang around the House of Commons”.
“It was a remarkably dedicated life,” he said. “He enjoyed mixing with farmworkers and had a lot of talent for speaking and community work and all the things that needed to be done to benefit everyone else.
“It strikes me that he was completely involved in his cause, but at the same time he had a very broad view of agriculture as a unity.
“He was prepared to talk to farmers when there was a lot of tension between farmers and farmworkers. He saw there was no point creating ideological differences between the two.
“People felt he was trustworthy and, because his job was not in farming, he was a free agent in many ways so he could pursue his own ideas within the union, but at the same time he was not a farmworker who could be victimised for taking a political stance. He was a safe pair of hands.
READ MORE: OPINION: We need our MPs to stand up for farming now more than ever
“He was one of the prime movers behind Labour’s agriculture act of 1947, which set up a more benign situation between farmers and farmworkers, so he had that great vision. He was a strong-minded man who would not be deflected.
“He helped keep agriculture in a healthy state throughout the war, keeping good industry relationships, and he was also in charge of civil defence in Wymondham.”
Mr Gooch said his grandfather was appointed CBE in 1944 for services to wartime agriculture, and he also held many other public positions including at all levels of town, district and county councils in Norfolk, as well as serving as a magistrate.
“He was absolutely dedicated to public work,” he said. “In his ‘Who’s Who’ entry, under recreation, it said: ‘public social and political work’ – not golf or stamp collecting or anything like that. It might be from his parents, who were very strict Methodists and teetotallers, so he had all that discipline in the background.
“To me he was a kindly old gentleman, offering me pipe tobacco whenever I went to see him. I had that very simple idea of him until I really started researching his life.
“To see him forging a very interesting career from such a modest family background is remarkable.”
• “Edwin Gooch: Champion of the Farmworkers” is available from Norwich bookshops including Jarrolds, and Kett’s Books in Wymondham. It can be ordered online from www.poppyland.co.uk or www.bitternbooks.co.uk.
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