A farming heritage leads to a life in estate management (1945-1996)

Location : Norwich

Martin qualified as a chartered auctioneer and estate agent, coming from a farming background He joined Savills and moved to Norfolk as a young man and now enjoys retirement. He is happy to have been able to use to the best of his ability the talents he was born with and the agricultural inheritance he was blessed with.

I was born in Malmesbury in 1928, and I had one brother who was three years older than me. My father had a small farm and was an agricultural contractor and in 1928 he started an engineering business. By 1933 with the agricultural depression I’m afraid that he couldn’t go any further, he ran out of money and took up contracting.

When I was growing up there was a workshop, which was then unused, and I used to tinker about, design bits, repair locks, mend gutters and so on. It gave me an interest in engineering work.

My forbears included a lot of farming families in Ashton Keynes in Wiltshire going right back to about 1730 or ‘40. The family farm in Ashton Keynes is still there today although the land has been dug up for gravel the farmhouse, I think, is still standing. On my mother’s side, her father was a farmer from Berkshire so farming was steeped in my veins from time immemorial and I was always interested in the outside life. Living in Malmesbury during the war gave me plenty of opportunity to move around the area; lots of cycle rides, I drove a tractor at the age of about twelve or thirteen and I never in my whole life have taken a driving test. We were exempted from driving tests at the end of the war because so many millions of people hadn’t taken a test, that we were all exempted.

My father had fought in the First World War and he had no great respect for money, he could work very hard indeed for short periods. My brother took to tractor driving and agricultural work with my father. My father also loved the pub life, he loved the raconteur and the chat in the pubs and during the war I have to say that the pub in a small market town was the nucleus of one’s social life rather like The Archers today, on the radio.

School and joining Savills

I went to kindergarten school in Malmesbury and on to Swindon High School when I was eight. I started there in 1936 and all through the war I was a weekly boarder. I took my School Certificate when I was sixteen and left school. I drove a tractor during the winter of 1944, and before I left school our headmaster said to us, ‘You boys will be garrisoned in Germany when the war is over’ and that’s where I found myself two years later.

Alfred Savill and Sons was a large agricultural business in management and valuations, dealing mostly with big estates and rich clients. During the war hey evacuated part of their office to Malmesbury in Wiltshire and my father got to know the gentleman in charge, and that gave me the introduction to Savills.

I was articled to them when I was 17 and went to London to 51a Lincolns Inn Fields on the 1st May 1945, seven days before the official ending of the war in Europe. I worked in the front office, running errands, drawing plans and my salary was 15 shillings a week. I was, in a very preliminary way, studying various aspects of valuations and estate management, and I was steeped in this for 15 months. I was determined to get on as fast as I could, and I was exempt from the first exam of the Chartered Auctioneers and Estate Agents Institute because of my School Certificate. I went straight into the Intermediate and I took a correspondence course for the exam. It was an excellent system and I had to work jolly hard, writing answers, reading books and generally studying the subjects that were set for me, reading the syllabus. My course was provided by the College of Estate Management and a bit similar to what is today called Open University.

I lived in a hostel in Ovington Gardens in South Kensington, which was one of the poshest areas of London, and there were five Georgian houses which had been knocked into one. There were mostly students living in these houses and we had a matron who looked after us all cooking our breakfast and evening meal. There was an ironing board and washing facilities for our clothes which I took advantage of. The houses were close to Hyde Park Corner so I could walk home from the theatre and cinema, it was quite easy to buy a ticket for the gods in the theatre in those days,

I used to get home to Wiltshire about once a month and bring back a provision of food which would last me a few days for making sandwiches for midday, and so our life went on quite happily.

Getting called up for National Service

I was called up in about May, June or July of 1946 and along with a lot of cockneys went to Maidstone in Kent for my preliminary training. They came from the same general area of London as I was living and it was the first time that I had heard the word ‘spiv’ mentioned, it was a new word in our English vocabulary. One guy said to me, ‘I thought that you were a spiv but after a week of knowing you I see that you’re a fairly straight guy after all’.

After six weeks of training I went to the holding camp at Woolwich Barracks and had very little to do. I was there for about a month before I got my posting and spent my time peeling potatoes and riding backwards and forwards on the Woolwich Ferry for tuppence a trip, going to the cinema and one or two other things. I was then posted to Larkhill in Wiltshire as a surveyor where my job was using a theodolite and logarithms and calculating the direction and ranging in guns and getting the angle of flight and distance. I can’t remember how the logarithms featured, but in some way it helped with the calculations.

I did six months of training and I think that the only time I used a theodolite in anger was to line up a hockey pitch in Germany. I was posted to the 3rd Regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery and spent a year with them at Oldenburg in Northern Germany and at Verdun and Munsterlager Heath where the surrender had been signed by Montgomery in 1945. It was a very very hot summer I remember, 1948 I guess, and we had a really good time under canvas. I was a paid clerk in the Regimental Headquarters and I didn’t have enough to do, again.

We were living in a German barracks which had a wonderful indoor riding school and I was taught to ride properly on a lovely, lovely dark grey horse and when I became quite proficient I was allowed out into the countryside on my own with this horse. It was a lovely pastime that I well remember. That aspect of National Service was really good, but I was waiting and waiting, anxious to get back to my career and get myself qualified. I was not desperate but I was determined to do so as that was my route to promotion and to progress.

Demob and returning to London

I was demobbed very early and my demob number was 76, I was in the Regimental Headquarters and grabbed the first one that came. I learned afterwards that the Royal Artillery had far more men than were needed and when I got to Catterick Barracks in Yorkshire I was told that my number had not come up, but I was let through. The good fortune of it was that it wasn’t very long after I had been demobbed that the Berlin airlift started, the Berlin Blockade, followed by the Korean War. I was out of the Army in slightly under two years and those behind me were there for at least three years, if not longer.

My mother tried very hard to persuade me to go back to London and not live more locally in Wiltshire or Gloucestershire and thank goodness she did. I had about nine months before the final exam was due to be sat. I got a crash course in a correspondence course. I worked from nine till half past five in the office and then studied four hours every evening and eight hours on a Saturday. I gave myself Sunday off and to my great relief it all worked and I got my pass notice in the June or July of the following year, that would have been 1950. My wages increased a little and my parents were able to help, they didn’t have much spare cash but I lived for part of the time with my aunt and uncle in London so that sort of helped. So one way and another I managed, although I have to say I was pretty short of cash.

Qualifying and setting up Savills office in Norfolk – Estate management

As soon as I was qualified I was looking for the quickest route out of London, thinking that I would take some rural job, perhaps in Wiltshire or Gloucestershire. But the senior agricultural partner in Savills called me into his room and said, ‘Martin, we’re going to open an office in Norfolk. If you’d like to make a start up there with us, you’re most welcome’ and so I thought well, that’s a good a way as any of getting out of London so I grabbed it.

I’d never been to Norfolk, knew nothing of it but on the 1st October 1950 we opened the office in Norwich. I was 22. I had a secretary and my senior was a 27-year-old junior partner who was in Norwich two or three days a week. Away we went.

Savills provided my first car and I never owned a car until I retired. This first car was a Hillman, an ex-army vehicle manufactured during the war, the back was canvas, rather like a sort of tiny land rover you might say, with a two-wheel drive. New cars were almost impossible to get hold of, there was a two year waiting list, so they bought this car for me and it got me around.

We had staff Christmas get togethers but over the years they waxed and waned I think. In the early years we guys in Norfolk would go up to London to the staff party. Later we had a local party. Holiday was a fortnight and I seem to think that it went up to three weeks. When I was partner it was more or less at our discretion but one did have to set the example, make sure not to come into the office late every morning or take three or four weeks holiday.

We had one estate to manage, Lord Hastings’ at Melton Constable and Swanton Novers. I remember that the income from that was £350 and the outgoings for the year were £500 but it wasn’t too bad a start.

Land management involved looking after the landlord’s interest on a landed estate, collecting rents for the cottages, either weekly or monthly and farm rents every half a year with a rent audit in the local pub, where the landowner would come in and talk to his tenants. We looked after repairs in particular and I was given a repair budget by the landowner. I was authorised to agree to small repairs, and for larger repairs I got the permission of the owner to sign contracts. If it was very large it would involve an architect but that seldom happened.

Most of the estates during that time had been run down. The pre-war agricultural depression had also left a lot of estates in dilapidated condition and as soon as the war was over quite a number were sold off.

Lots of the land had been requisitioned through the war. Little Snoring aerodrome was part of Lord Hastings’ estate and was requisitioned and subsequently sold to the Air Ministry. Thirty, forty years later it was bought back but that’s another story. My most senior partner was well known in the profession, very personable and charming and he knew a lot about agriculture and solicitors’ firms as well as accountants’ firms and all these connections led us, bit by bit into managing more estates. Another big reason for this was that we were the only national firm in Norfolk at that time. Most pre-war estates had been managed by a resident agent but after the war more knowledge was needed of accountancy, national land values, national rental values and other aspects of management and were in a position to provide these sort of services. So that’s another reason why we grew quite rapidly.

When I arrived in Norfolk I lived in Cawston just north of Norwich for a short while, in a pub, then I moved into Norwich where I lived for about two or three years. I joined Norwich Young Farmers and got to know a few young farmers at that time. It was also a very good marriage bureau and in the fullness of time I became friendly with a farmer and his wife and lived with them for about two and half years. I was married in 1956, six years after had I arrived in Norfolk, to my dear wife who is still happily married to me. We opened an office in Fakenham where much of my work was on five estates that I helped manage. So Fakenham became my base and we lived at Tittleshall just south of Fakenham in a house that belonged to the Holkham estate. Part of the estate was sold and we were offered the house for £1,500, it was a lovely country house, which I have no doubt would be worth well over a million now. As I said, Savills provided me with my car, so as we only had one car I abandon my wife every day, drive to work and leave her in an agricultural village, which was not entirely suitable so we moved into Fakenham. My wife had previously worked at the Agriculture Ministry in Norwich and carried on with the Air Ministry in Fakenham and one way or another we saved enough for a deposit. We bought a plot of land for £350, built the house for £1,900 and for a total of about £2,300 including solicitors’ fees and other costs we got a three bedroomed house where both our children were born.

I was pretty junior in those days and my senior partners who I was responsible to monitored most of the work that I did and kept an eye on me, but I was allowed a certain amount of discretion on most estates. We had estate meetings about once a fortnight and minutes were taken and I proceeded with the work that I had to do. This included checking broken gutters, tiles that had slipped on cottage roofs and all the tiny jobs that needed doing to maintain cottages and farm buildings. And I might say that there were always grumbles that they weren’t being maintained well enough and always grumbles from the owner that we were spending too much money.

The size of the estates ranged from about 2,000 acres to 5,000 I suppose the biggest one at the time was Lord Hastings’ at just under 5,000. He had sold a big part of his estate to the Duke of Westminster for death duty purposes. If one owned agricultural land before you popped off then the executors would get 40% death duty remission and very rich people were buying up land for that purpose and as soon as they had died the land was sold. Some agricultural solicitors in London almost had farms that were passed around from one dying person to another to get the 40% remission.

Savills was expanding quite a lot in those days and the number of staff was increasing. In 1963 the junior partner in the Norwich office was called by the Queen to manage her estate at Sandringham, an offer he couldn’t refuse so we lost him to Sandringham which made a little room for everyone to move up. We had a system at one time, which didn’t last very long, of local partnerships and I think that at that time I was a local partner. We had about three or four local partners in Norfolk and offices in Kings Lynn, Beccles, Fakenham and Norwich. The satellite offices were later closed and the local partners then became national partners which meant that there was one partnership rather than having a fragmented partnership. Of course Norwich remained the regional office.

The more senior I became in the firm the more I was dealing with, I think one might say, higher quality valuations. If it was sort of putting up an allotment rent the junior did it, but I was dealing with some large farms.

How do you go about doing a farm valuation?

Well you have to break it down to its component parts and then add the values together and see if it looks right. You walk the land. I had an auger which told me what the topsoil and subsoil feels like (sand or clay, for example). You look at the drainage and you look at the hedges and make an assessment of the productivity of the land, and I had a map of the farm and would mark on it the different qualities of the land.

On a large farm it might vary a lot from that which is sandy and light to that which is heavy and difficult but full of humus. Some farms are full of humus, that’s why the fens, I think, is probably the most valuable agricultural land producing the highest yields, it needs less fertiliser.

You then look at the access to the farm, position to the roadways that serve it and so on. Next you look at the farm buildings, are they adequate for the produce and machinery to be stored, or, if it’s livestock the number of cattle yards there are, concrete areas and so on to handle the cattle. You look at the farmhouse and put a rent on that, which is not too difficult because you’ve got a good idea of what rental values are for ordinary houses. You look at the cottages and you put a rental value on those.

You also look at quotas, sugar-beet quotas used to be quite a big asset on many farms. At one time sugar-beet was far more profitable than any other crop that was grown in this part of Norfolk, I’m going back a long time, a long number of years.

So you put it all together into a package and stand back. Does that look right? Say £17 an acre as it might have been in 1960, or should it be 18 or 16? You also do a separate assessment altogether, a calculation of what you think the farming profitability would be. You have what’s called fixed costs and variable costs, fixed costs are things like interest on capital, dwelling rates, maintenance etc. Variable costs are things like fertilisers, seed and corn that sort of thing. You put that together, produce a fair return for the farmer before introducing the rent as the last thing. You calculate how much rent he can afford at this amount of profit he’s making on the land.

So that’s a thumbnail sketch of how you go about a farm valuation.

When I first started, early 50s up to 60s an ideal farm would be 500 acres with four cottages, a farmhouse and some good decent buildings. Now you’d laugh at that, that’s just an allotment. One man can probably do a thousand acres and probably the owner’s thrown the land in with two or three neighbours or big companies who specialise in farming land. What’s happened here, where we’re sitting is that two or three local farms have thrown their 500 or 800 acres in with adjoining farms. The farmer is already farming two or three thousand and he bolts on another 500. Good for him because he brings down his overheads and good for the tenant because he hasn’t got to buy any expensive machinery but shares in a bigger pot.

Agriculture is changing, less man power more machinery, I was told that the farm where we’re sitting now was just over 400 acres before the war and there were 24 men on it. Now the farm is 800 acres and one man. I’ve lost touch with these things, but that’s indicative of what’s happened in this part of Norfolk. Some farms have gone much more intensive with pigs, poultry and livestock of one sort or another. There aren’t so many bullocks around now so you try to plough as much up as you can but some of it is undrainable for various reasons so it still needs some livestock to graze the grass.

Meeting lots of interesting characters

I met lots of interesting characters with the lovely broad Norfolk accents and I got to learn Norfolk vocabulary quite quickly, having had a Wiltshire vocabulary deep down in me somewhere. I had some lovely owners who were charming in many ways, but there’s not a lot I can say because it would probably be breaking confidences. Some were very Victorian and a little bit difficult. One lady owner, she was absolutely delightful and over time when I retired from Savills she said, ‘Don’t ever leave me’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve made an arrangement with Savills that as long as we’re both here that I’ll carry on managing your estate’.

But estate management, as my senior partner often dinned into me, is really client management. As I became a senior partner my role changed and I missed all the walking of the fields and looking at drainage ditches, that was handed over to juniors. I had to deal with all sorts of valuations, and in one sense it was thrust upon me but reviewing estate rents turned out to be a speciality of mine.

I have to say that I was born a little conservative and I’ll vote Conservative all my life I expect, but the Labour government in 1948 produced two excellent Bills which became Acts of Parliament, The 1948 Agricultural Holdings Act and the 1948 Agriculture Act. They provided a fair return to the landlord for his capital investment in the land and a fair return to the tenant for his working capital and expertise.

After the previous war when there was an agricultural depression, farms were sold up and everything was sort of left for the commercial aspect to settle itself and if it couldn’t be viable then it was sold. A lot of people thought that this would happen again after the Second War but those two Agricultural Acts became law and saved the day. There were a few hiccups along the way but farm prosperity, farm values, rental values all went up and up, the capital values have gone up and never stopped but the rental values have become more challenging.

When it comes to wildlife I am ashamed to say that I love shooting, and I used to do a little poaching when I was ten or twelve – we had the River Avon that ran past the house and there were wild duck on there from time to time. So I’ve shot all my life, before retirement I shot everything. I had a great friend and we had wonderful times in Norfolk shooting anything that moved and Scotland shooting mostly grouse.

In my youth I remember rough shooting which I love but I haven’t been able to say that too loudly in Norfolk because driven birds are the thing here. Rough shooting involves a couple of men with guns, three or four dogs and someone to carry the game. It was traditional in the 19th century, there’s a lovely book called ‘The Banville Diaries’ which is the story of a keeper on an estate somewhere south of Cromer. It described a day of rough shooting, having a couple of friends staying for the weekend, they would go out Saturday, haversacks with their lunch in over their backs and a bag to carry the game, walking and walking and having lunch under a haystack.

Winding down to retirement, gradually, and the Holkham Estate

I retired from the equity of Savills when I was 58 and I spent the next ten years retiring.

About that time the agent at Holkham died and as I was doing a lot of work at Holkham I said that I had a couple of days a weeks to spare now that I was a consultant and if they’d like me to help I could sit in the agent’s chair. We worked well together and I thought that it would be a few months until a new agent was appointed but it turned out to be ten years.

I had a lovely winding down time, retiring from equity at 58 then consultant for Savills until I was 65, three days a week. I spent two days a week at Holkham from about 1986 to 1996 when I finally retired.


How have I spent my retirement? Well it’s gone rather quickly, we have this converted barn which I enjoy inasmuch as I have had to look after it all, paddock, roofs, walls and things. It has taken me back all those years when as a boy I was always mending this and screwing up that and dealing with bits and pieces. It’s like being at my home in Wiltshire. It’s suited me well. We laid out the garden here but now at 93 things are a little bit different, I have more help. I tell the story that we gave a single storey barn to our son and daughter-in-law about 20 years ago, which they turned into a lovely house. We both overlook the paddock. For the first twenty years they were working hard and they had these two old age pensioners next door doing their gardening and now the tables have turned and we have these two young people looking after our garden.

On reflection I’ve been so lucky in having the sort of job that is in my blood, as I was telling you, from the eighteenth century, farming runs through it. We only had a little land at home and my brother was more suited to farming than I was, I would have like to have farmed a thousand acres but if I was only going to farm a couple of hundred acres as it was years ago, I much prefer to have done what I’ve done. It has had the great advantage of being able to exercise oneself both physically as well as mentally and to use to the best of my ability the talents I was born with and the agricultural inheritance I was blessed with.


Martin Freeth ( b.1928) talking to WISEArchive at Langham, Norfolk, on 16th September 2021

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