DATA BASE REF: E/M 1044
Name Michael Harry Atkinson
Date of birth June 29th. 1941
Place of birth Coxley, Middlestown, Nr. Wakefield, Yorkshire
Parents’ names Elsie Clara Atkinson, Thomas Atkinson
Siblings’ names Mary, 13 years senior
Betty, 10 years senior
David, 7 years senior
My childhood and early teen years were spent at the address where I was born. Our house was an ex-mill cottage and the ruins of the burnt out woollen blanket mill, complete with mill dam was about 200 yards from our front door.
At the same distance was a large area of woodland with a stream which fed the dam. These we regarded as our own property almost and were our constant playground.
Attached to our cottage was a warehouse in which we stored our coal and firewood, kept our rabbits, garaged our bikes and played cricket or tennis on wet days.
Coxley was a small hamlet of about 30 houses with no through road and especially in the forties and early fifties had very little traffic – I think there were three cars in the hamlet – hence we could play where we liked with no fear of injury, at least from passing traffic.
School – at that time catering for all ages from four to fourteen (school leaving age) – was in the nearby village of Netherton. Netherton was a mining village with a coal mine accessible to each end of the village. There were, of course, many more coal mines in the vicinity – almost too numerous to mention. These have all been closed for many years and one of them has been turned into a mining museum.
The walk to school was about a mile and had to be undertaken no matter what the weather – there was no means of transport. When I was nine or ten the school leaving age was extended to fifteen and from that time the over elevens went to the secondary modern school at Horbury, about two or three miles away. The fortunate ones, and I was one of them, passed the eleven-plus and went to the Grammar School at Ossett, about three miles in the opposite direction.
Although in most respects our childhood was quite idyllic it was tragically blighted by the early death of our father. Our parents were married rather late in life, my mother was 28 and my father was 36. By the time I came along my mother was 43 and my father 52. He died when I was 7 and my brother 14 forcing my mother to go out to work to keep us. She had no skills other than as a weaver having been employed at one of the local woollen mills in her teens and twenties.
However, both my brother and I were able to continue our education at Grammar school although I have to admit to being rather lazy and not excelling at school – I achieved only 3 O-level passes (one of them was French).
It was at that time –1958 - that I became interested in a career in Forestry. I was fortunate in that there was a firm of sawmillers and forestry contractors not far from where we lived and I was able to get a job as a trainee immediately. My starting pay was approximately four pounds a week although this could be boosted by occasional piece work.
The accepted route into forest management at that time was via one of the Forestry Commission training schools. I was duly accepted and it was suggested that I go to work for the Commission prior to entry to the school to gain extra experience. I had been working with another ex Grammar School boy and we were both progressing by the same route and so we both went to work in North Yorkshire in the summer of 1959. We initially lived in a tent as we could not find lodgings and after a while we moved in with some Leeds Art College students who were doing vacation work in the forest and living in a derelict cottage. We were not squatters as we had permission from the local landowner to occupy the cottage.
This went on for two months and with winter coming on and still no lodgings I decided to go back home. I managed to find a job as a "single handed woodman" on a small private estate near Brighouse (of brass band fame). Part of the area in which I worked is now a motorway interchange on the M62.
I had been a very keen cyclist in my teens but I had given that up and graduated to motorcycle. In November of 1959 I suffered a serious accident which left me in hospital for three months and away from work for six months. My wife to be, Gill, and I had started courting that summer and it was sheer chance that she was not with me when I crashed. I had left her at home only minutes previously.
Soon after I returned to work in the late spring of 1960 I fell out with my employer and left my job at Brighouse. I took a temporary job as a builder’s labourer whilst I looked for another job in Forestry.
After leaving the Forestry Commission I decided to try another route into forest management via the Royal Forestry Society who at that time conducted their own examination process consisting of a Woodman’s Certificate ( a craft qualification) and a Forester’s Certificate ( a management qualification). This could then be followed after a suitable period of management employment by the National Diploma in Forestry. This was the equivalent of a degree and the holder is entitled to use the letters NDF. It also qualifies the holder to membership of the Institute of Chartered Foresters ( MICFor.) I gained my Woodman’s Certificate in the summer of 1960.
In the autumn of 1960 I took a job with the Haddon Estate in Derbyshire which had a tied cottage with it. Gill and I had become engaged by this time with no idea of where we were going to live. Being presented with a house solved the problem and so we were married in July 1961.
We decide we would like to move back to Yorkshire and I took a job – still as a woodman or forest worker – on the Farnley Estate near Otley. Our move at Easter 1962 coincided with the birth of our first child, Karen.
Wages in agriculture and forestry at that time were very low, we were living on slightly more than eight pounds a week, and it soon became apparent that we needed more money. Early in 1963 we were expecting our second child and we decided to try our hand at being self-employed.
A popular business at that time was doorstep deliveries of pre-packed potatoes. We therefore bought a van, put down a deposit on a house in nearby Yeadon and in the autumn of 1963 we embarked on our new venture.
Our second daughter, Jeanne, was born in November 1963. Despite much hard work, our business venture was an absolute failure and we decided to move back into forestry. It was during this period, in February 1965 that my mother died at the age of 67.
In the autumn of 1965 I took a job as assistant to the Head Forester on the Belvoir Estate near Grantham.. This job provided us with a considerable increase in pay and a lovely detached cottage in which to live and it was there that my forest management career started.
During my time on the Belvoir Estate I was able to attend the Newton Rigg College at Penrith to study for my Forester’s Certificate and was fortunately successful first time I sat the exam. In 1969 our third daughter, Ruth was born and in 1970 I took a job as Head Forester on the Fonthill Estate on the Wiltshire/Dorset border.
This was, of course, my first position in charge of a forest unit and it was quite a challenge. We very much enjoyed living in the Southwest . After about a year and a half it became apparent that my boss (the chief agent on the estate) and I did not agree on management principles and I reluctantly left after taking a position with the Bowaters Paper Co. in Kent.
The job in Kent did not carry a house with it and we therefore had to buy once more. This was at a time (1972) when house prices were rising rapidly and finding a house for a growing family was not easy. We eventually found a house in Whitstable which had been flooded I the 1953 east coast floods. Little remedial work had been done and we had to embark on large restoration project.
My job at Bowaters was based in Sittingbourne where I was assistant to the chief buyer for fibrous materials with which to run two large paper mills. These consisted of imported timber and prepared woodpulp, homegrown timber, and waste paper. My main occupation was to administer a forward purchasing scheme whereby timber growers would pledge their produce to us in return for a premium on the price. Unfortunately this process was overtaken by rapid price inflation in the international timber products market and the purchasing scheme became unworkable. This left me without a job and in early 1974 my position was declared redundant.
At that time Karen had just started Grammar school, Jeanne was at junior school and Ruth was just about to start school. The house price boom had peaked and the first instances of “negative equity” were becoming apparent.
I was fortunate to find another job within the three months redundancy notice from Bowaters and it was thus that we arrived at Marholm on April 1st. 1974. My predecessor, Jack Conkey had sadly died of a heart attack the previous autumn. Michael Thompson, the then chief agent had taken up his position in January 1974 following the death of his predecessor early in 1973. It could be said that we were a team of new brooms, whether we swept very cleanly is really for others to say!
We very quickly settled into Foresters Lodge considering ourselves very fortunate to have such a potentially lovely house to live in. A lot of work needed to be done on the house to make it into a real family home and this was to be a continuous operation lasting many years. The only real problem at that time was that we had left behind in Kent a house on a downward spiralling market and it took a year for the house to sell at 20% less than the asking price. Fortunately because we had so much improved the house we had not suffered negative equity and we were to some extent recompensed for all the work that we had expended on the house.
In 1974 Earl and Countess Fitzwilliam were firmly in charge at Milton and apart from the changes caused by the redevelopment of Peterborough and Bretton in particular, I got the impression that this was a very traditional country estate. I was in charge of a small team in the Forestry Department and in addition a management company had been engaged five years previously to undertake harvesting and restocking work in the woodlands leaving the “home team” to look after routine maintenance around the estate.
Michael Thompson and I took the view that this was not an entirely satisfactory state of affairs and we therefore dispensed with the services of the management company and proceeded to turn the Forestry Dept. into a fully professional entity capable of undertaking any and every forestry or arboricultural operation on the estate.
In 1979 I decided to embark on the final phase of my professional qualifications and was given permission to return to Newton Rigg College to study for the NDF. I successfully completed this in 1980. During this period, in September 1979, Earl Fitzwilliam sadly died and Lady Hastings took over the reins of the estate. There was no obvious change in the way the estate was managed except that where Earl Fitzwilliam had been rather remote from the estate staff, Lady Hastings was a more outgoing person and I think that without exception the staff enjoyed her more personal approach.
In our own family circle during this initial period our girls were progressing through school, Karen at the County School in Peterborough and the two younger girls initially at Castor School and then to Arthur Mellows at Glinton where they each in turn achieved the position of Head Girl. At the same time Gill had successfully achieved her ambition of qualifying as a teacher at the Teacher Training Annexe at Westwood.
Karen went on to study estate management at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, Jeanne started her career in accountancy with the National Westminster Bank, and Ruth, after spending a year at High School in West Virginia went on to join the Police Force and later to study leisure management. Jeanne was married in 1987 and Karen in 1989.
There were no great changes in the eighties and early nineties on the estate with the exception of the estate’s move into in-hand farming in the early eighties. Milton was rather unusual in not having a “home farm”. In 1979 a parcel of land was purchased at Sutton Heath which had been earmarked for development. The development of Castor and beyond had been abandoned as part of the development of Greater Peterborough and this particular piece of land had lain idle for some time. For two seasons after it’s purchase it fell to my department to manage the land and we took the first crop of wheat off it. After that, following the cessation of various tenancies, the estate’s farming activities grew and by the end of the eighties had grown to around 4 000 acres including the whole of Milton Park. This arrangement existed until 2000 when the estate decided to abandon in-hand farming.
1997 was a year of substantial change on the estate. After a considerable period of illness, Lady Hastings died in the spring. This was a great shock and sadness to the whole estate. Lady Hastings was liked and respected by all who knew her. This event amazingly coincided , almost to the day, with the retirement of Michael Thompson.
Robert Dalgliesh succeeded Michael Thompson and Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland took over the reins of the estate from his mother. Inevitably these events heralded a change in the management ethos of the estate.
In the mid 1990’s I began to seriously consider retiring when I reached the age of 60. In 1996 we purchased what we thought of as a holiday home in France, not intending to retire to France . In the event as a result of a combination of circumstances, in 1999 we made a firm decision to retire in 1991 and to move to France on a permanent basis.
At that time Karen and husband and their family of three children were living in Newmarket, Jeanne was in Kings Cliffe and Ruth and her future husband were living in Australia., having moved first to New Zealand in 1998 and then on to Australia a year later. Indeed the last significant event to take place at Foresters Lodge was the wedding of Ruth and Ian at the end of 2000.
I retired from the Milton Estate on June 29th. 2001 and we left Foresters Lodge one week later after having lived there for 27 years.
My career in Forestry spanned 43 years. Obviously, many changes took place in that time.
In 1958, Britain had only just recovered from the privations of World War Two. The need for self sufficiency in raw materials had been made plain during that that period. To that end the Forestry Commission had been charged with the task of providing a “strategic reserve” of timber and of encouraging the private sector of the industry to participate in achieving this.
In 40 years we have gone through an agonizing process of balancing timber production with the needs of the conservation movement . This, coupled in more recent times with government’s increasing reluctance to subsidize countryside production and employment has led to a decline in the UK’s forest industry. Although timber production is scheduled to increase over the next fifteen years I fear that towards the middle of the 21st. century there will be a decline in production at a time when pressure on fossil fuels and non-renewable resources will inevitably increase.
On a technological note, it is interesting to view the changes in harvesting techniques over the past 40 years. In 1958, almost all timber was felled using axes and crosscut saws, and a lot of timber was still extracted from the forest by horses. In the year 2003 most timber is harvested by hydraulically powered, microchip operated machines.