Why bother with social enterprise?

Earlier this month I was invited to take part in a debate organised by the team behind Ethos; a new magazine focused on “Ethical entrepreneurs, innovation and responsible business”. Tasked with defending the motion ‘Why bother with social enterprise?” I was up against Ronnie Hughes (whose blog A Sense Of Place is a must-read) in what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable and good natured debate. Carry on reading to find out how I went about defending the motion…

Why bother with social enterprise? A good question! And one that deserves answering given the fervour with which social enterprise and ethical business in general is promoted these days. Indeed, one can’t even go to the toilet in certain department stores without being confronted with a poster informing you about the store’s ecological commitment to the survival of the Borneo Pygmy Elephant. You can’t sit in many cafes without being told that their organic coffee has been sourced from the mouth of a FairTrade yak in deepest Colombia.

Given then, that businesses of all hues are attempting to be more ethical and socially aware, why bother with social enterprise?

But before I can delve into this question further it is necessary to make a few clarifications. Unfortunately our lords and masters in the current government have seized upon the term ‘social enterprise’ with quite some relish and have bastardized it to the extent that it is applied by the media to virtually any business (even Tesco is a social enterprise according to one backbench Conservative MP!)

But for our purposes a social enterprise has traditionally been defined along the following lines…

It is a business that trades in order to tackle a particular social or environmental problem, to improve a community or people’s life chances. Social enterprises make their money from selling goods or services in the open marketplace and then reinvest their profits back into achieving their social or environmental purpose. They feature open and democratic governance that is at least in part drawn from the social or environmental community that they are trying to assist and all assets are ‘locked-in’ to the community.

Sounds great doesn’t it?!?! So let me elaborate on why we should indeed bother with social enterprise… (and vice versa why we should avoid pinning our hopes on ‘ethical’ private businesses to do the right thing).

Setting up a social enterprise is a statement of intent and sets a standard for others to judge you by; particularly if you have strong and transparent governance and a constitution that ensures that your social or environmental purpose is enshrined into the unalterable DNA of your enterprise.

Fallor Ergo Sum- I err therefore I am. Saint Augustine hit the nail on the head here. We’re human. Making mistakes and being tempted to do the wrong thing are a part of human nature. When you put this insight into the context of business and entrepreneurship then you begin to see another strength of social enterprise emerge. Let’s look at how this insight plays out in real life. A4E is an ‘ethical’ private business that is a workfare provider pushing the long-term unemployed back into work. A4E has been guilty of bullying and penalizing some of the most vulnerable members of society to pursue increasing profit margins. Equally, it was revealed that senior directors had taken millions of pounds in dividends out of the organisation. Despite labelling themselves as an ethical enterprise A4E have been guilty of engaging in ruthless businesses practices; despite the perhaps initial good intentions of its founder. Social enterprises on the other hand do not tend to fall into such a trap as their legal structure and governance ensures that they cannot issue huge dividends or engage in business practices that are against their enshrined social/environmental mission. Yes, this means that social enterprises do not make good investment propositions compared to their private ‘ethical’ counterparts; but surely that’s the fault of the investor, not the social enterprise?

An organisation may start off with the best of intentions, but if it is not established as a social enterprise then it is much easier for ‘corporate capture’ to take place and for the less pleasing aspects of human nature to come to the fore and allow greed, usury and unethical practices to flourish.

In other words sometimes the velvet glove of good intentions and social platitudes needs to be backed up by the iron fist of regulation, legislation and a social enterprise structure to stop things going awry…

Now let us take a quick look at some of the technocratic reasons why we should bother with social enterprise.

Setting yourself up as a social enterprise allows you to put your social/environmental purpose at the very forefront of your business endeavours. With many private businesses that purport to be ethical they must first and foremost concentrate on profit margins. That is, their directors have a fiduciary duty to maximise financial returns to shareholders over and above any perceived social or environmental mission. If they fail to maximise financial returns then they risk prosecution. Clearly this can develop into a major handicap. Social enterprises on the other hand are the perfect vehicle for those who want to ensure that social/environmental concerns will be the key and foremost aim of the organisation.

And then there’s the issue of the distribution of capital. As Karl Marx didn’t quite say “follow the money!” Social enterprises enshrine controls on the flow of capital within the organisation. And should, in theory, prevent excesses like those we heard about earlier with A4E. Profits, instead, have to be invested back into achieving your social/environmental mission. Not reinvested into your wallet. To illustrate this concept with a real-life example, there are those (usually rock stars, actors or high-profile left-wing journalists) who argue that we should pay more taxes. But when informed that they can already donate extra revenue voluntarily to the Treasury, cavil and prevaricate and find an excuse not to. This is very much like those private businesses that talk of donating profits to good causes. How often is it that this results in any meaningful amount being donated? And what is to guarantee that this donation will continue? Nothing. Whereas with social enterprises? It’s in the rulebook! There’s no quibbling. You HAVE to reinvest your profits…

So to conclude; I certainly think that it’s worth bothering with social enterprise! Particularly when you want to create an entity that has social justice at its core, can avoid corporate capture and holds to its ideals ad-finitum.

Yes, social enterprise is certainly not for everyone. When done properly it’s a truly altruistic endeavour- and it’s certainly not the panacea for all of societies ills. (I have become increasingly of the opinion that social enterprises should not be running key public services, but that’s perhaps for another debate sometime!). But there is certainly a place for social enterprises within a radical political tradition that isn’t going to go away any time soon.

‘Embracing humanity’ in public health

Proponents of modern day public health measures (especially those measures that seek to tackle ‘non-communicable diseases’ through ‘lifestyle interventions’ or ‘behaviour change’) will invariably describe their proposed policies as fair, equitable, justified and any number of other feel-good words; but almost without fail the word progressive will feature somewhere within the missive.

In fairness, the deployment of this word comes about in an atmosphere in which every area of public life, and any form of public policy- not matter how trivial or banal- must be seen to comply with the overarching progressive narrative.

But nonetheless, if public health policies are to be described as progressive then it is fair to examine their claim to be so, in further detail.

What then is meant by ‘progress’ in public health? Should we take it that to be progressive means that people are able to live longer as a result of the proposed policy? Or given rampant trend toward egalitarianism within academic public health (Thanks in large to Marmot, Wilkinson and Pickett) does progress mean that policy will reduce health inequalities (perhaps through the use the marvelously paradoxical proportionate universalism as proposed by the Marmot Review?) Or should we consider fiscally regressive measures such as sugary drinks taxes to be progressive as they arguably reduce consumption of a product that has seemingly been ruled verboten?

That the concept of ‘progress’ must sit at the very core of public health policy stems from what I would argue is the skewed Weltanschauung of the public health community.

In this worldview, a policy is progressive if it extends lifespan, increases quality adjusted life years, diability-free life expectancy, reduces consumption of products/ingredients that are currently deemed unhealthy by the prevailing scientific consensus (Sugar? Fat?).

But what of those less tangible aspects of the human condition that don’t fit into the progressive worldview? Must public health policy only be considered progressive if it deifies diminishing time-preference (or declining concern for the present in comparison to the future)? After all countless philosophers, theologians, writers and sages throughout the ages have pointed out the folly and unhappiness that accompanies the wait for an imagined perfect future, rather than enjoying the present moment.

Perhaps the problem is best summed up by the phrase ‘immanentize the eschaton’. That is, public health policy often strives to make ‘heaven real on earth’ and fails to account for the inherent fragility of man (and all that actually being human entails). This clashes with those that would defend vices and ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and whose worldview is perhaps more inclined toward the human and romantic, rather than the scientific and rational (I would strongly emphasise that this is not necessarily a weakness!).

The inimitable observer of human life and foibles, G K Chesterton summed up this clash of worldviews perfectly; inveighing with his typical good humour against the obsessive progressivism of his ‘friendly enemy’ G B Shaw:

“After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new kind of food, but throw the baby out of the window and ask for a new baby.”

Chesterton’s words sum up this argument far better than I can. Whilst it remains important to try and improve public health, and to “look at the evidence”, I would argue that there is very strong case for public health to ‘remain with humanity’ and not let purely technocratic and progressive concerns override all others.

There are also cultural factors at play in this divergence of worldviews. When you are handsomely remunerated, intellectually stimulated by your work, cultured, intelligent and possess a social circle of equally well remunerated, educated and well-travelled peers- ‘lifestyle choices’ such as smoking, vaping, an unhealthy diet etc may seem derisory, unnecessary, inexplicable, disgusting even; but for those at the opposite end of the social scale they do not have the consolation of decent pay, stimulating and interesting work, and bourgeoisie leisure pursuits. Instead they turn to these ‘lifestyle choices’ despite (and sometimes because of) the detrimental impact on their long-term health outcomes. That these things are enjoyable and comforting is so often overlooked by those that do not indulge in them.

I’ll let a recently deceased Hobbesian philosopher bring this reflection to a suitably stark and blunt conclusion:

“Prior to the establishment of the state, life is nasty, brutish and short. Nothing changes once a state’s created. Only the longevity of the participant alters. And even that’s arbitrary.”

Some thoughts on the history and future of European public health policy

In plotting the ‘arc of history’ of public health policy and practice at a European level in recent decades one can see an accrual of power, resource and legislative influence for the cause of public health as policy makers accepted that “comparatively few of the major determinants of health can be controlled at the nation state level in the world”.(1)

Tracing the development of European public health we can see nascent efforts to plan and implement policy taking place on a voluntary basis owing to the paucity of the Treaty of Rome in providing a legal grounding for pan-European public health activity.

Such efforts on a voluntary basis did eventually bear fruit however. Article 129 within the Maastricht Treaty amended the Treaty of Rome to make allowances for European-level public health planning, policy and activity. Article 152 followed as part of the Amsterdam Treaty- providing further powers in two key areas: firstly a requirement to analyse the public health implications of all EU policies and programmes, secondly the harmonisation of public health protection in certain limited areas (e.g. collection of human tissue products and veterinary and phytosanitory health). (2)

Legislative progress may have shown relatively steady progress over the past three decades, however when we examine the policy and practice at a European-level, a more disparate, fractured picture emerges. Initially at least, ad-hoc programmes emerged at the expense of a comprehensive ‘European Public Health Strategy’. To compound this situation, no serious health impact assessments were carried out in respect of these early programmes and policies (the prospect of consolidation arose in a  1998 discussion paper). (3)

Institutional frailties aside, the growth and establishment of public health at a European-level has had a profound impact upon public health practice. More incisively, “these changes have to be viewed in the context of, and with consideration to, public health practice at a local level.” (4)

Why these changes are (and where) necessary becomes clear when one examines the macro-environment in which public health practitioners now operate. The rise of globalisation, free trade and the easing of cross-border capital controls (amongst a multiplicity of other factors) now means that “national, European and international actions govern local food systems etc” (5), taking control away from the nation state. As trans-national organisations and agreements have emerged- so too have opportunities to lobby and cajole decision makers. Hence the need for public health professionals to “develop the skill of integrating public health… influence at all levels of the economy”. (6)

A recognition of these supra-national factors (and the urgent need to mitigate their impact upon the health of the public) has arguably forced policy makers to consider ‘upstream’ factors; “The causes of the causes” (7) (e.g. non-communicable diseases, poor lifestyle factors such as excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption, poor diet and physical inactivity). The social gradient of health, progressive universalism, gender inequalities in health and inter and intra generational inequalities in health have now risen to the top of the European public health agenda. (8)

A tough task then; made tougher by the financial crisis of 2008 with its attendant social problems. (The economists Reinhart & Rogoff have found that financial crises typically produce rises in unemployment that persist for 4 to 6 years (9)). As governments across Europe have sought to rein-in their debts, reduce their deficits (and in the case of the UK, introduce significant liberalising supply-side reforms to welfare systems) debate has erupted within the public health community as the correct response to what has been dubbed ‘austerity’.

The Stuckler & Basu analysis (10) offers a cogent and compelling case that ring fencing not just healthcare, but also social welfare systems through government stimulus will protect health, “Adults in secure and safe employment, receiving wages above the level needed merely to survive, are less likely to adopt hazardous lifestyles… and can expect to live longer”. (11)

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how European public health responds to the immediate challenge of reduced public spending and rising health issues, but also the perennial challenge posed to all policy makers by what F A Hayek called the ‘Catallaxy’: the ever-expanding exchange and specialisation of the economy that can produce innovations and ideas that would not ordinarily be arrived at by a small group of policy makers.

Equally, the rapidly approaching (or recently arrived, depending on your perspective) era of big data (12) and quantified-self (13) may provide huge challenges and/or opportunities to European public health policy makers and practitioners. Sorting the signal from the noise may prove to be a primary challenge as European policy makers move from possessing a dearth of data to a glut. (14)

The rapidly changing ecology of public health policy making was summed up well (albeit in a niche context) by Viscount Ridley in a House of Lords debate on electronic cigarettes “The tobacco companies are worried… they are facing their Kodak moment, the moment when their whole technology is replaced by a rival technology…” (15) The tobacco industry has resorted to the blunt of hammer of litigation in response to European public health legislation (e.g. the European Tobacco Products Directive), or has focused on product innovation (e.g. moving into electronic cigarettes).

Although it is possible that the tobacco industry will avoid ‘creative destruction’ by such means- as well as using the brute force of its significant capital assets to diversify, purchase electronic cigarette manufacturers etc it seems less likely that public health policy at a European-level will face its own ‘Kodak moment’, given the secure nature of its funding and isolation from disruptive forces.

The key question for the future of public health policy at a European-level is whether or not it can keep up with ‘free market solutions for health’, resisting the temptation to suffocate very promising developments such as electronic cigarettes, whilst also dealing with changing attitudes to European collaboration and co-operation. As Clive Bates has pointed out- “culturally, the public health establishment is inclined to paternalism, and state-based or not-for-profit interventions. It instinctively distrusts the private sector and capitalism, and is ill at ease  with the idea of consumers as empowered agents.”

Tackling this mindset may be key to nurturing European public health policies that are fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century.


Notes

1) Birt CA, “The Onward March of European Public Health”, editorial in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 52, 12, 770-771, December 1998

2)Birt CA, “A Widening Horizon for European Public Health Practice”, editorial in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59, 0-1, 2001

3) Birt CA, “The Onward March of European Public Health”, editorial in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 52, 12, 770-771, December 1998

4) Birt CA, “A Widening Horizon for European Public Health Practice”, editorial in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59, 0-1, 2001

5) Birt CA, “A Widening Horizon for European Public Health Practice”, editorial in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59, 0-1, 2001

6) Birt CA, “A Widening Horizon for European Public Health Practice”, editorial in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59, 0-1, 2001

7) Marmot M, Allen J, Bell R, Bloomer E, Goldblatt P, “WHO European review of social determinants of health and the health divide”

8)Marmot M, Allen J, Bell R, Bloomer E, Goldblatt P, “WHO European review of social determinants of health and the health divide”

9) Reinhart C, Rogoff K, “The Aftermath of the Financial Crisis” Working Paper 14656, NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2009

10) Basu S, Stuckler D, “The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills” Allen Lane 2013

11) BMJ 2010; 340 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c3311

12) “Big data is the term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using… traditional data processing applications”. Wikipedia

13) “The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air) states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical)”. Wikipedia

14) The issue of sifting through large volumes of data and making predictions affecting public health is covered in Chapter 7 of Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction”, Penguin 2012

15) HL Deb 17 Dec 2013, Grand Committee, Col GC264

 

The Marfords: The evolution of a house

Marfords Front

We both shape, and are shaped by, our localities.

Driven by what the philosopher Roger Scruton terms oikophilia (meaning literally ‘love of home’), we settle, forge roots, make plans and integrate ourselves into the local community. The clearest expression of this impulse is found in our homes and our involvement in civil society.

In light of the broader economic, political, social and historical forces at play throughout the world it would be easy to ignore the local; and to overlook the influence that individuals, their relatives, and the buildings they leave behind have on communities. And so it is considering this idea that I turn to The Marfords; a grand home that was located in Bromborough at the southern end of the Wirral peninsula.

This is the story of how both a home and a place evolves, and how its various inhabitants can indelibly shape a locality and leave a lasting legacy- even once the house and its occupants have largely passed from memory…


The story begins in Bromborough, which to the casual observer resembles the sort of dormitory town beloved of white collar commuters, skilled tradesmen; in short the aspirational upper working and lower middle classes. Situated at the southern end of the Wirral peninsula it is a quiet spread of semi-detached and detached homes, largely post-war in flavour. As Larkin would put it: the sort of place ‘where only salesmen and relations visit’.

The early-Victorian incarnation was very different. A largely agrarian community centred around several large farms the transition towards its modern day function as a commuter haven only began in earnest once transport links to the nearby Chester and Liverpool began to improve. The arrival of the age of steam meant that from the 1840s Bromborough increasingly became a desirable location to set-up home for the rising, and newly-monied, merchant classes.

The opening of the Chester and Birkenhead Railway line on 23rd September 1840 fired the starting gun on Bromborough’s development. With Liverpool reaching the height of it’s economic prowess as a centre of trade and industry, Bromborough was eyed by many a wealthy young merchant as the ideal location to set-up home; and it quickly became “a mid-Victorian eden of large houses” the most notable of which being “The Marfords in Dibbinsdale Road north west of Bromborough station, with a gothic centre and additions”. (1)

The origin of The Marfords is unclear- no original deeds or registration for the house remain extant- however the earliest traceable owner of the land on which the house was situated was a Joseph Green; a member of the powerful Lancelyn-Green family that resided (and continues to) at nearby Poulton Hall. Green purchased the land (a total of 20 acres) on which The Marfords came to be situated in 1808. The name of this land- and the subsequent house- was derived from “the tracts of meadow ground bordering upon the large tidal pool or mere which used to exist below Poulton Hall in the valley of the Dibbin”. (2)

Visit this area today (accessed via Dibbinsdale Road) and you will still find much of the rich pasture and dense woodland intact, thanks in part to the protection afforded to the area by the establishment of the Dibbinsdale Nature Reserve. It is clear why one would seek to settle there and build a fine house and estate.

In attempting to determine the origins of the house, one invariably has to indulge in speculation owing to the lack of hard-evidence available. Examining tithe maps and census records for the period one can draw two possible conclusions as to the provenance of the house:

  • Joseph Green constructed The Marfords as his home. On his death in 1829 the property and estate passed to his sisters, Lady Elizabeth Murray and Kitty Backhouse who subsequently sold the property and estate to Messrs Balman and Holland.
  • Joseph Green purchased the land in 1808 but then failed to develop it further. On his death the land passed to his sisters who then sold the land to Messrs Balmand and Holland whom one suspects were the nineteenth century equivalent of professional property developers who leapt at the opportunity to build a desirable property in a village that was experiencing tremendous growth as a commuter hub.

The ambiguity of local records means that the origin of The Marfords is likely to remain in the realm of conjecture. However it is clear that by the 1850s The Marfords was very much in existence, and in use.

The Marfords

(The Marfords. Photograph circa 1930s)

Bagshaws Director of Cheshire (1850 edition) records a Mr George Edwin Taunton as a prominent resident of Bromborough (or ‘Bromborrow’ as the village was referred to at that time). Subsequently the census of March 1851 makes reference to a Mr G E Taunton as resident of The Marfords.

As a wealthy young man of only 28 George Taunton was typical of the affluent merchant class that was setting up home on the Wirral away from the hustle and bustle of Liverpool. Kept busy with the running of his stockbroking firm “Taunton & Molyneux” located at York Buildings, 14 Dale Street in the heart of Liverpool’s commercial district, Taunton’s new home, The Marfords, offered him a semi-rural sanctuary in which to settle and start a family.

Born in 1822 in Oxford, and recently married to Susannah Maria Oliver (the marriage took place sometime between January 1845 and March 1845) The Marfords truly became a home for George and his wife as four Taunton children were brought into the world during the period of their residency: Helen-Jane, Mary-Adele, Emily-Marion and Frances-Stewart Taunton.

For around the next twenty years the Taunton’s lived contentedly at The Marfords, cultivating the property so that by the time they left at some point in the late 1860s/early 1870s The Marfords had extensive gardens, a home farm and a lodge. (The last official record of the Taunton’s occupancy of The Marfords was in the April 1871 census).

Clearly something of an entrepreneurial nomad, following business opportunities where they may have led, George Taunton and his family left The Marfords and appear to have embarked on several ventures across southern England. The census of April 1881 lists the family as residents of Coldham Hall, Stanningfield, Suffolk. Embarking yet again on another change of residency the family are listed in the census of 1891 as residents of Brook House, Port Lane, Sunbury, Middlesex.

George’s well-travelled and varied live as a stockbroker came to an end sometime between July 1894 and September 1894 when he died at the age of 72 in Truro, Cornwall.


Once the Taunton’s had departed for their travels across southern England The Marfords went through a period of shifting temporary tenancy as a succession of somewhat itinerant merchants and other members of the business class rented the property. The Liverpool Daily Post of the period included an advertorial for the property “To be let, furnished or unfurnished, with immediate possession, that capital mansion known as The Marfords, standing in its own grounds…” (3)

1912 tithe map Marfords

 (Map indicating the extent of The Marfords estate circa 1912)

Little record is available of those who chose to rent The Marfords during this period. Mention is made in the Post Office Directory of Cheshire, 1878, to a Mr Nathaniel Caine living at the property. Beyond this we must resort again to speculation as to who the other likely inhabitants of the house were.

The Marfords role as a short-term residence for the area’s wealthy precariat continued until the middle 1880s at least with the census of 1881 listing the house as being unoccupied with the exception of a Mr and Mrs Clary who were caretakers-in-residence.

However, as Queen Victoria’s reign entered its twilight years at the end of the nineteenth century a new era for The Marford’s was dawning as a new wealthy and influential individual decided to make the property his new seat of power…


“By the strength of God”

On the cusp of the new century Richard Hobson esquire purchased The Marfords from the trustees of the Taunton estate (although census data suggests that the Hobson family had been renting the property from the mid-to-late 1880s prior to purchase).

A man of considerable wealth, talent and influence Richard Hobson’s purchase of The Marfords on the 29th June 1899 coincided with his elevation into the great and the good of Cheshire’s civil society. Simultaneously made Deputy Lieutenant (DL) of the County of Chester and a Justice of the Peace (JP) and High Sherriff of Chester in 1898-99 Richard Hobson was certainly a well-connected and powerful individual (it may be supposed that Hobson purchased The Marfords in order to meet the property requirements associated with being made a Deputy Lieutenant).

Typical of the industrious middle classes that were in the ascendancy in the late-nineteenth century in the political, economic and social spheres Richard Hobson was a cotton broker whose success in business coincided with the rise of Empire and global free trade.

Like many of his bourgeois contemporaries Hobson sought to accompany his newly acquired wealth with an air of cultural sophistication. Nurturing an artistic sensibility Hobson was a supporter of the arts, and developed a taste for fine furniture in particular. He was listed as a supporter of numerous arts projects and was listed as a subscriber and supporter in Frederick Litchfield’s “Illustrated History of Furniture: From the earliest to the present time”.

Furthermore Hobson echoed the actions of his contemporaries in lionising the family name and making use of the Hobson family crest, which is described in Fairbairn’s Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland as…

hobson family crest

(The Hobson family crest)

“A panther’s head affrontee and erased, with flames issuant from the mouth and ears, transfixed by an arrow feasewise, the pheon to the sinister arg, gorged with a collar counter company” along with the motto Fortitudine Deo, which translates as ‘By the strength of God’.

Like George Taunton before him Richard Hobson set out to make The Marfords a grand home where he could raise a family and that would act as a base for the doyens of the local social scene to visit and admire.

And this he did.

Hobson’s marriage to Mary Eleanor Hobson (nee Chadwick) produced a large family: Geoffrey-Dudley, Richard-Leigh-Clare, Alwyn-Chadwick, Eleanor and Christine Hobson.

As befitting a man of Richard Hobson’s wealth and stature, The Marfords also became home to a large compliment of servants. Such as the scale of the house and its operations that the census of 1891 indicates the presence of a large workforce that included a butler, a coachman, a gardener, cook, nurse, two housemaids, a kitchenmaid and a footman. Add these to the employees of The Marfords Home Farm (visible across the road from the main house on the tithe maps of the period) and the lodge and the total number of staff employed by the Hobson’s numbered 30. (4)

With such a lively and bustling household to maintain Richard Hobson decided to provide additional housing for his burgeoning workforce. The result was the construction of several splendid red brick cottages known as ‘Marfords Cottages’ which still stand today adjacent to Bromborough Railway Station at 176-182 Allport Road.

Marfords Cottages

(Marfords cottages as of February 2015)

And thus we are presented with the image of a prosperous household, enjoying the fruits of their wealth in a marvellous suburban manor house at the rising of the twentieth century. There is nothing to suggest that life at The Marfords was anything other that tranquil and happy- until the spectre of war cast a shadow over the household that would have tragic consequences.

Like many wealthy households of the era the Hobson’s placed much faith in the holy trinity of Empire- God, Queen and Country. And like any patriotic, socially conscious family of the epoch when the time came for their son, Richard Leigh Clare Hobson, to defend the Empire arose, off he was sent.

The Second Boer War (1899-1902) was an imperial affair that became the “longest, the most expensive (£200million), and the bloodiest conflict between 1815 and 1914” (5) and unfortunately for the Hobson family their son Lieutenant Richard Leigh Clare paid with his blood, dying in battle at the age of 24 at Schippen’s Farm on 5th June 1900.

The loss of his son affected Richard Hobson badly. Following this bereavement Hobson increasingly invested his efforts and money in faith and philanthropy.

Solidly Anglican, Hobson gave much to the people of Bromborough- and his influence still remains in the village today. In particular the local parish church, St Barnabas, benefited greatly from his generosity. Visit the church today and you will spot a series of ornate and rather grand oaken screens, which were donated by Richard Hobson in memory of his lost son.

As would be expected, the loss of their son had a profoundly negative impact upon both Richard and Mary Hobson. Within seven years of their son’s death Mary had passed away (on 24th March 1907) leaving a grieving Richard behind.

Mary’s passing prompted another act of philanthropy, with Richard funding the construction of the Church Institute building at St Barnabas, which still stands today.

The Church Institute, which was a considerable addition to the church’s facilities, was opened in 1908. However Richard Hobson’s rapidly declining health had confined him to The Marfords. His place at the opening ceremony of the new Church Institute was instead taken by one of his remaining sons.

By 1909 Richard Hobson has succumbed to what one may guess was a combination of grief, ill health and old age. His passing marked the end of an era at The Marfords and an uncertain future for the property.

As a post-script to the Hobson story, the second son, Alwyn-Chadwick Hobson was killed in action during the Great War at the battle of Ypres on the 13th May 1915 (a commemoration to both Alwyn-Chadwick and Richard Leigh Clare Hobson can still be found at Bromborough Parish Church, St Barnabas).

Richard Hobson’s other son, Geoffrey-Dudley Hobson went on to be a noted historian of book bindings who died in 1949 at the age of 67.

Looking back over this period of the house’s history we can see how a family was shaped, and helped to shape, the community around them.

Made wealthy by his trade as a cotton broker, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Empire, the Hobson’s also gave back to their local community; both as an employer and through extensive philanthropy, perhaps driven by a sense of noblesse oblige- mirroring the actions and sensibilities of the older landed-classes.

In a tragic turn of fate, the Empire that had given them so much also took much away. The crippling, immense loss of their son in the Second Boer War scarred the family and cast a pall of sadness over The Marfords that never really went away…


“A prominent man”

It would seem unlikely today that a Mayor of Liverpool would live on the Wirral (imagine the outrage!) but this was exactly the case for the next resident of The Marfords.

On Richard Hobson’s death in 1909 the estate was purchased by a Mr Samuel Mason Hutchinson JP, another individual of particular wealth, influence and prestige.

Samuel Mason Hutchinson

Mr Hutchinson, born in 1858 and educated at Liverpool College, was a partner in the firm of E Hutchinson, Corn Millers and Merchants (his father’s business). Besides his business interests Hutchinson was, like many of the city’s merchants, actively involved in the civic life of Liverpool.

Made a Justice of the Peace (JP) for the City of Liverpool, he was also a senior Conservative Councillor for Kensington ward and Lord Mayor of Liverpool for the coronation year, 1910-11 (shortly after he and his family had moved to The Marfords).

Clearly a man of tireless energy, deep social conscience and a particular brio for civic life, Mr Hutchinson’s activities extended even beyond business and politics active as he was in philanthropic and social work, serving as Treasurer for sixteen years of Liverpool Wesleyan Mission, as well as being the key figure behind the building of the Central Hall- a centre of religious and social work in Liverpool.

And should that not have been enough to fill his time, Mr Hutchinson was a also a noted golfer who, on moving to The Marfords, was one of the founder members of Bromborough Golf Club.

Like his predecessors (George Taunton & Richard Hobson) Samuel Hutchinson sought to turn The Marfords into a home that would serve as a the foundations for a contented family life, and a base from which he could further his economic, political and philanthropic endeavours.

Hutchinson had, in 1883, married the daughter of W D Chellow of Liverpool- Josephine E Chellow and it transpires that theirs was a fecund union resulting in one son and six daughters.

On moving to The Marfords and with the hectic year of his 1910-11 Mayoralty at an end, life for Hutchinson and his family settled into the steady, peaceful and contented pace that was typical of the upper-middle classes of the time. Writing in 1919 the economist J M Keynes looked back at this pre-war period as one that:

“For… the middle and upper classes… life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.”

The Hutchinsons were living in the midst of “that extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man”. Life was sweet.

The Hutchinson’s position as pillars of the local community and of society was cemented when their daughter: Miss Muriel Mason Hutchinson married Mr George Reginald Wilson on Thursday 23rd April 1914.

George Wilson was himself from a local, wealthy family that lived at ‘The Hermitage’ on Bridle Road in Bromborough. His father was a steamship agent and eventual shipowner who eventually went on to establish his own firm- Wilson, Son & Co Steamship and Insurance Agents (located on Chapel Street in Liverpool). George worked for his father’s firm for a time whilst also being a member of the 4th Cheshire Regiment.

Thus the decision of Muriel and George, two members of prominent and successful local families, to marry, became big news within society circles.

And the wedding did not disappoint. Reported extensively in the Birkenhead News (and other local papers) the ceremony took place at St Barnabas, the Bromborough Parish Church and was conducted by the Rev. Canon Smithwick MA (Canon of Liverpool) and Rev. A Spafford MA, vicar of the church.

Reporters at the wedding noted how “the long walk down from the lych gate to the entrance was thronged with people from the countryside, anxious to catch a glimpse of the happy bride.” (6)

Following the ceremony The Marfords played host to “a very largely attended reception” which was “held by the parents of the bride… where a string quarter discoursed music from a marquee on the lawn” with the now Mr & Mrs Wilson departing “later in the afternoon by car for a motoring honeymoon in the South.” (7)

In contrast to the happy scene that the reporters painted, it would not be long before tragedy was to strike the happy couple as the spectre of war once again loomed over The Marfords.

As a Captain in the Cheshire Regiment the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914 meant that within only months of his marriage he was separated from his now pregnant wife and posted overseas.

The escalating scale of the war, and the need for the Allied forces to combat Ottoman aggression against Russia, meant that Captain Wilson was posted to Suvla Bay in Gallipoli in what was to be the scene of a crushing defeat for the Allied forces.

On the 10th August 1915 Captain Wilson and his men, poorly equipped and badly prepared, were ordered into battle. Subsequently the 4th Cheshires suffered nine officers killed, seven wounded and 289 missing. Captain Wilson was one of those who perished.

Clearly well regarded by the men he had led, Captain Wilson’s orderly, a Private J E Wood, described him as “a very brave officer. He was cool as a cucumber when we marched off to the field of battle” adding that he was “sadly missed by all”. (8)

His death was a hammer blow to his wife and child. Yet the story of Captain Wilson’s demise did not end in Gallipoli in 1915. In a strange twist, a ‘strange message’ emerged in 1916 purportedly from Captain Wilson himself.

In March 1916 local media reported that a young soldier had claimed to have found a note on the battlefield at Suvla Bay which stated that Captain Wilson had been taken prisoner.

Carrying this note with him, the soldier eventually traced Mrs Wilson, who had moved to live back with her parents- The Hutchinsons- at The Marfords.

And so Private Harney of the Worcester Regiment called at The Marfords and handed Mrs Wilson the note- supposedly written by her late husband- which had the following words written on it, but not in the Captain’s hand writing, “Captain Wilson, Bromborough, Cheshire Regiment, taken prisoner. Whoever finds this note please deliver it or send it.” (9)

It is not known if this note was genuine or if it was a particularly cruel prank perpetrated upon Mrs Wilson. In any event is it unlikely if it will ever be known what truly became of Captain Wilson as his body was never found in Gallipoli.

Following the trauma inflicted upon the Hutchinsons (and The Wilsons) by the events of the Great War, family life at The Marfords once again settled down into the pace that they had maintained on their first arrival in Bromborough.

And so life went on.

By the mid-1930s, now in advanced years and declining health Samuel Mason Hutchinson, like many senior citizens of the period, relocated to the coast, moving to ‘The Hydro’ in West Kirby, presumably in the hope that the sea air would have some form of restorative effect upon his health.

Despite moving to the opposite end of the Wirral peninsula, Hutchinson retained The Marfords leaving the house to stand empty throughout the mid-1930s “though a caretaker-cum-gardener lived at the lodge”. (10)

Hutchinson’s seaside retirement was short lived. On the opening the newspaper on 24th April 1937 you would have been presented with the news of the passing of Mr S Mason Hutchinson at the age of 78 who had “played a prominent part in the civic and business life of Merseyside” and who was notably “a keen golfer”. (11)

The estate was split between his son, Edward Mason Hutchinson, and his daughters however The Marfords was not to pass into their hands, but was instead about to embark on another very different phase in its history.


 

“A home for boys”

From being a home for some of the wealthiest in the area, The Marfords was soon to become the polar opposite- a home for some of the most disadvantaged.

On the 2nd June 1936 the trustees of Samuel Mason Hutchinson’s estate (prior to his actual death) transferred ownership of The Marfords to Barnardos: a British charity founded by Thomas John Barnardo in 1866, to care for vulnerable children and young people.

Preparations then began in earnest to transform the grand imposing house into somewhere that would serve a more utilitarian purpose and which would be able to provide a safe and secure environment for young men.

And so, by 1937, the next stage in The Marfords evolution would be complete as the adaptations and conversion work came to a conclusion and the home became fully operational, providing accommodation and care for 25 boys aged between 7 to 14 years of age.

It is clear that the house required continual adaptations and additions in order for it to meet the demands of its new role. Wirral Borough Council planning records indicate a number of changes and additions to the property including the erection of a wooden hut to the rear of the house in September 1949 and the establishment of a recreation hut in July 1951.

Anecdotal verbal accounts collected by local historians during this period note that the boys living at the property attended the local schools, trying as best they could to integrate themselves into the local community. Much to their chagrin no doubt, the boys were also marched every Sunday to mass at St Barnabas Bromborough Parish Church!

By 1962 Barnardos had decided that the home was surplus to requirements and closed the facility (for that is very much what it had become at this stage, compared to the plush home it had once been), moving the last cohort of boys in residence to their Arnhall home at Llandudno.


“In Remand”

Stripped of its residential, homely feel and turned very much into an ‘institution’ by the Barnardos years The Marfords once again sat empty for a short period following the withdrawal of the charity from the property in 1962.

Cheshire County Council, under pressure to meet the demand for remand facilities, eyed The Marfords as a suitable facility and sought permission to take control of the building for use as a county remand home. By October 1962 they had succeeded in gaining this permission and by early 1963 The Marfords had evolved once again- providing residential support for young men in its new ‘remand home’ guise.

Like a number of other residential and remand homes of the period, The Marfords faced accusations that the home was being run in an ‘improper manner’.

On 23rd August 1967 the Clerk to the Cheshire County Council issued a press release stating that the home would close temporarily and that the Superintendent of the home would resign following a report into the conduct of the remand home by the County Council which expressed concerns as to the discipline and efficiency of the home.

Such an incendiary announcement did not go down well and the constituency MP Edwin Brooks was quick to raise questions about the issue in Parliament.

Naturally the media were quick to cast their gaze upon the developing story and The Sun reported “that boys were running around the home in the nude” whilst The Daily Sketch ran the prominent headline “Head resigns as pin-ups and blue songs close a home” going on to refer in its story to “twenty-nine alleged disciplinary irregularities at the house in a confidential report to Cheshire County Council.”

Nevertheless records appear to indicate that the home did eventually re-open once this incident had passed.

Aside from its day-to-day function as a remand home The Marfords also became the set for an avant-garde children’s TV series during the late 1960s thanks largely to its (if somewhat decayed) grandeur.

In 1969 ‘The Owl Service’ was filmed in Bromborough; primarily at nearby Poulton Hall, however extensive use was made of the interior of The Marfords for filming with the home’s kitchen being used in a number of episodes. The interior of The Marfords can be viewed in several episodes, which are available to watch on YouTube here.

Based on the Carnegie Medal winning book of the same name by Alan Garner, the Owl Service was a critical success, despite (or perhaps because) it pushing the boundaries of acceptability for children’s TV at the time.

Alan Garner and cast of The Owl Service whilst filming at Poulton Hall

(Alan Garner with the cast of The Owl Service outside Poulton Hall circa 1969)

Television use aside The Marfords continued in its role as a remand home until 1971 when, thanks to shifting policy attitudes regarding youth offending and the declining health of the building, the County Council took the decision to close the home.

Following closure ‘the rot set in’, and the building sat derelict, facing an ignoble end of neglect. As often happens when public bodies are responsible for the maintenance or disposal of buildings of historic importance, they find themselves convulsed by fits of savage philistinism, resulting in severe damage and/or loss to local heritage.

So, it is not clear when the inevitable happened, however verbal records from local residents indicate that The Marfords was most likely demolished in 1973 leaving the estate barren until February 1984 when planning permission was granted by Wirral Borough Council for the construction of 25 detached homes. Construction started in early 1985 with the first residents of ‘Dibbins Green’ moving in during October 1985.

The Marfords early 1970s

 

(Aerial photograph of The Marfords, early 1970s)

Dibbins Green 2015

 

(Aerial photograph of Dibbins Green (former site of The Marfords) as of 2015)

This development still stands today, with little or no trace of The Marfords or those who lived there remaining. It is my hope that this essay goes some way to recording this lost home and the contributions that its inhabitants made to Bromborough, the Wirral, Merseyside and Cheshire.

Should you ever find yourself in Bromborough on the Wirral (or any other suburban town in Britain for that matter) take a moment and stop to consider your surroundings. Look past the buildings in front of you and imagine what came before; the people who lived there and the world they inhabited. We owe it to those before us, and those to come, that we respect and recognise the history of our localities.


Thanks

My thanks to the members of The Bromborough Society, without whose assistance, and access to their archives, this essay would not have been possible.


Notes

  1. “The Buildings of England: Cheshire” Pevsner, Nikolaus & Hubbard, Edward.
  2. The Cheshire Sheaf, May 1910, 3rd series, Volume 8 (Published 1911).
  3. Newspaper clipping from the Liverpool Daily Post, early 1870s.
  4. Much of the census research that revealed the extent of the staff at The Marfords was carried out by members of The Bromborough Society.
  5. Pakenham, Thomas (1979). The Boer War. New York: Random House.
  6. Birkenhead News report, April 1914
  7. Birkenhead New report, April 1914
  8. Much of the information in this essay regarding Captain Wilson is sourced from research carried out by Judith Beastall of The Bromborough Society.
  9. As reported in The Auckland Star, volume XLVII, issue 104, 13th May 1916, page 15.
  10. Information derived from ‘Some notes on The Marfords’ (March, 2000) by Susan Nicholson, Honorary Archivist, The Bromborough Society.
  11. Birkenhead Advertiser, 9th April 1937.

 

Is ‘Big Caffeine’ on the horizon?

Electronic cigarettes are dividing the public health community. Could a new caffeine product be about to do the same?

Caffeine makes the world go round, or at least that’s the impression one gets when watching commuters clutching their grande lattes and the proliferation of coffee shops throughout town centres and travel terminals.

Of course caffeine is not merely restricted to coffee but is increasingly found in an expanding number of energy drinks (as well as chocolate, tea, tablets etc).

Clearly our appetite for caffeination and stimulation is not being sufficiently satiated by these existing products; Reuters reports the launch this week of Reon, dubbed ‘on-the-go caffeine strips’ by its manufacturer. According to news reports Reon is still in market-testing stage, for now only being sold in select stores in Manchester and online.

reon1

Naturally, as one of those aforementioned commuters found most mornings clutching to a coffee for dear life I decided to procure a sample of Reon and see if it lives up to its billing as the “smart and innovative way to transform your day”.

Having plumped for the Blackcurrant and Fresh flavour I pulled the strip from its packaging and popped the strip on my tongue. It promptly dissolved leaving a strong menthol like taste in my mouth followed by a slightly acrid after-taste after 5-10 minutes (perhaps as a results of the delivery method- or more likely perhaps because of my own devastated pallet).

And yes, very quickly I was able to identify a distinct feeling of alertness- similar to a small instant coffee or a “can of coke” as described on the packet.

reon3

So “caffeinated mouth strips perform as advertised”. That’s not much of a review is it? Well no, but the real interest of Reon for me lies not necessary in the performance of the product- but rather it’s provenance.

Reon it transpires is a new product from Fontem Ventures, “a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco that is dedicated to developing and growing a portfolio of innovative non-tobacco product opportunities in lifestyle and consumer good categories.”

As Martine Geller at Reuters points out “Big Tobacco firms are increasingly diversifying away from cigarettes, a market worth over $700 billion a year at retail but shrinking in many countries for health reasons.”

Indeed, increasing consumer-awareness of the negative health consequences of tobacco smoking, coupled with increasingly stringent public health measures, trading restrictions and fiscal penalties appear to be focusing the minds of tobacco executives on business opportunities in alternative (and less formidable) markets and goods categories.

Despite caffeine’s relatively benign nature Big Tobacco’s venture into this marketplace is bound to set alarm bells ringing amongst public health policy makers. Despite Reon being targeted at “young professionals” aged 25-45, there are no restrictions on sales to minors. And concerns are already being raised by the likes of the World Health Organisation concerning “potentially harmful adverse and developmental effects” amongst young people that consume ‘caffeine laden energy drinks’ (admittedly the warnings apply to energy drinks- but they are high in caffeine).

Conversely the European Food Safety Authority released its draft assessment on caffeine earlier this month, which made a number of provisional conclusions:

  • Single doses of caffeine up to 200mg and daily intakes of up to 400mg do not raise safety concerns for adults in Europe.
  • It is unlikely that caffeine interacts adversely with other constituents of ‘energy drinks’- such as taurine and D-glucurono-y-lactone or alcohol.
  • For pregnant women, caffeine intakes of up to 200mg a day do not raise safety concerns for the foetus.
  • For children (3-10 years) and adolescents (10-18) years, daily intakes of 3mg per kg of body weight are considered safe.

With these (provisional) conclusions in mind (and taking into account negative findings) how should public health policy makers react to Big Tobacco’s move into the caffeine market?

Certainly caffeine (or more particularly) coffee has long had an interesting and complicated relationship with lawmakers and other public officials. Ever since it was recognized that coffee contained a compound that acted as a stimulant it has variously faced bans and restrictions on its use with the likes of Charles II of England, Frederick II of Prussia and the Ottoman Empire turning their legislative ire on the substance.

History aside, from a purely economic perspective the tobacco industry’s diversification into this product category makes rational sense. Any business currently operating in a market that is being squeezed by regulation and restrictions (and with regulators and government officials regularly referring to an ‘endgame’ for said market) would seek to move into ‘freer’, more profitable markets that impose fewer barriers to trade and operation.

And caffeine most certainly looks like an appealing product category for a well-capitalised business- to quote Geoffrey Burchfield (1997) “Global consumption of caffeine has been estimated at 120,000 tonnes per year, making it the world’s most popular psychoactive substance. This amounts to one serving of a caffeinated beverage for every person every day.”

Should these diversification efforts prove successful and the tobacco industry gains a foothold in the caffeinated goods market it will be instructive to see the view the response of the public health milieu.

As the emergence of electronic cigarettes have caused significant divisions within the public health community, will Big Tobacco’s involvement in the provision of caffeine have a similar effect? Is there going to be the emergence of a ‘Big Caffeine’ (as a proxy for ‘Big Tobacco’) v public health dichotomy? Will we see harm-reduction advocates applauding the transition of the tobacco industry into non-tobacco product categories? Will we in turn see the abstention (prohibition?)-inclined wing of public health decrying any involvement of the tobacco industry in caffeine (pointing to the addictive nature of caffeine and reported negative health impacts of consumption amongst young people for example)?

Whatever your stance on the desired and undesired health impacts of caffeine intake- and the involvement of the tobacco industry in this product category, it is clear that this diversification- if successful- could well pose some major headaches for the public health movement in the years ahead.

Social Investment: The Saviour of Social Enterprise in 2013?

This was a short piece that I was commissioned to write in 2013 to provide a critical analysis of the social investment marketplace; casting a light on the contradictions between the bold claims being made by social investors and the reality for frontline social enterprises. As social entrepreneur Robbie Davison has recently outlined, it seems little has changed in the intervening time since 2013…

Clearly 2012 has failed to be the ‘breakthrough year’ that the self-appointed coterie of social investment analysts in the south-east of England predicted. But, with traditional grant funding, soft loans and patient capital  in short-supply, will 2013 herald the maturation of what has been dubbed the social investment marketplace and ergo, the flourishing of the social enterprise sector on Merseyside and beyond?

A recent report commissioned by Big Society Capital has outlined some frankly astonishing ambitions- from a meagre £165m worth of social investment deals completed in 2011, Big Society Capital aims to be completing £1bn worth of deals by 2016! Frankly, given the lacklustre demand from genuine social and community enterprises for this type finance the brakes should be applied to this wanton enthusiasm and unrealistic forecasting.

Looking closer, many of the claims made in the report are couched in caveats, and rightly so. We continue to see a major disparity between the reality of investment demand on the ground and the rhetoric emanating from this nascent social investment marketplace.

As has been widely observed in other discussions about the growth of a bullish social investment marketplace, there is a mismatch between the social finance products on offer and types and terms of finance requested by the social enterprises. Research commissioned by Big Society Capital reveals that social enterprises typically want unsecured risk capital on sub-commercial terms of between £10,000 and £100,000. This same research however indicates that what is on offer from social investors is larger, secured, asset-backed capital on near commercial terms.

This may sound unreasonable from a purely commercial perspective; as though social enterprises are ungratefully carping about investment opportunities that it can’t or is unable to handle. To view the situation from this perspective however is fundamentally wrong and demonstrates a misunderstanding of the role, governance, and business models of social enterprises (which are themselves dictated by the conditions in which they operate- tackling social need).

My work with social enterprises on Merseyside reveals a picture of a social enterprise sector that works in areas of acute market failure, using atypical business models, assisting some of the most hard-to-reach groups with what are often costly, but effective, interventions.

If the social investment marketplace is to reach the predicted £1bn mark and provide the injection of capital that social enterprises desperately need, social investors need to both take the financial products they currently offer back to the drawing board and garner a clearer understanding of social need.