Rolf Gardiner (1902-1971) was a friend and neighbour of George Pitt-Rivers, who I have written about previously. Like Pitt-Rivers, he is a problematic figure, due to his early support for Hitler. Unlike Pitt-Rivers, his support appears to have been short-lived. Some have speculated that this was due to his having Jewish ancestry; but Hitler’s militarism, rather than his crackpot racial theories, appears to have been the sticking point for the peace-loving Gardiner.
More positively, Gardner was an early advocate for organic farming, and a founder member of the Soil Association. In 1933, he bought the Springhead estate near Shaftesbury, which operates to this day as “a rural centre for creative and sustainable living“. He was an enthusiast for folk dances, and his Travelling Morrice, founded in 1924, was one of the earliest men’s sides, the Morris revival of the early 20th century having initially been female-led.
Also in 1924, Gardiner joined the Kibbo Kift Kindred, rising to the rank of Gleemaster. The Kindred was an eccentric offshoot of the Boy Scouts, promoting pacifism, internationalism and social justice. His friend DH Lawrence was contemptuous of the organisation, and soon turned Gardiner against it. A year later, Gardiner produced a diatribe called Suburbia Defenda Est, in which he described the Kindred as “the supreme instance of suburban idealism trying to create order out of the chaos of its own excreta.” His dissatisfaction led him to start his own youth movement, which soon brought him into contact with the forebears of the Hitler Youth.
The list of early influences on Gardiner’s political thought is one which will be familiar to many Wessex Regionalists: John Ruskin, William Morris, William Cobbett and the Chesterbelloc. He was involved with the Social Credit movement and Guild Socialism before his relatively brief flirtation with Nazism. However, an air of suspicion continued to surround him for the rest of his life. A full recantation of his earlier views did not come until after the war, when people who admitted to having supported Hitler were few and far between in Germany, let alone Wessex. It led to understandable doubts about his sincerity. The extent of his Nazi sympathies had been exaggerated during the war itself, including a faintly ridiculous allegation that he had planted trees on his estate in the shape of a swastika. Had this been true, it would have really been playing the long game! In reality, it was probably his pacifism as much as his earlier praise for some aspects of Nazi Germany that led him to oppose the war, at a time when such opposition was considered treasonous.
After the war, Gardiner devoted most of his energies to an organisation known as the Council for the Church and Countryside. His own religious beliefs were an unconventional (and very Wessaxon) mix of High Anglicanism, Gnosticism and neopaganism. Nevertheless, he saw the Church of England as a vehicle for rural regeneration, and agriculture as a sacramental act. His legacy, following his death at the relatively young age of 69, lies in the revival in English parish churches of previously extinct customs such as harvest festivals and beating the bounds. In this, he can be said to have returned the Church to its rural roots.