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Farmer firebrand who plotted to kidnap Harold Wilson dies at 85

By WMNPBowern  |  Posted: March 29, 2014

Farmer firebrand who plotted to kidnap Harold Wilson dies at 85

Ian Pettyfer, photographed at a farmers rally by Ian Johnson of the NFU

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One of Westcountry farming’s best known and most highly respected campaigners who planned an audacious kidnap of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, has died at his Devon farm at the age of 85.

Heartfelt tributes were paid this week to Ian Pettyfer, a former WMN columnist, whose battles on behalf of farmers earned him the respect and admiration of many of his peers – and often spread fear and alarm among those in authority.

His son, Jim Pettyfer, who has succeeded him on the family farm, South Emlett at Black Dog, near Crediton, said his father fought “almost a guerrilla campaign” to get a better deal for farmers during the difficult days of the 1960s when the Labour Government began cutting prices for farm commodities.

Ian and fellow farming campaigners, Geoffrey Cox and Mole Valley Farmers’ founder John James hired a light aircraft with the intention of flying to Scilly, where Harold Wilson was holidaying. Ian’s neighbour, farmer Jim Stephens said: “Their plan was to land and then kidnap him, take him to the pub for three or four hours and bend his ear, then let him go. They took off okay but when they got over the Scillies there was a heavy fog. They said they would just hang on for a while and circle over the Scillies in case the fog lifted, but it didn’t, so they had to abort their mission!

“Ian told me about a month later he was at a price review meeting and he met Harold Wilson and told him what they had planned. Wilson said: ‘oh yes, I remember that day. I heard the plane flying overhead and wondered what those silly buggers were up to’.”

Ian’s father was an officer in the Baluchi Regiment stationed in India and Ian came to England at the age of six to start his education. He developed his love of farming through holidays spent at his uncle Arthur’s dairy farm in Sussex and after school at Charterhouse he read agriculture at Selwyn College Cambridge.

Jim Pettyfer said: “It was there he met his friend and future business partner John Thurley and having been told by their professors that Devon was the cheapest and best place to buy a farm, the two of them set off, my father finally settling on South Emlett which was to be his home for the rest of his life.”

He married his wife, Jenny, who survives him, in 1954 and their wedding present, from uncle Arthur was a herd of Guernseys. As a farmer and a marketeer Ian was acknowledged as a pioneer. He helped start the co-operative Quality Milk Producers to get a better deal for Channel Island milk and launched the highly successful Gold Top and Breakfast Milk brands, visiting supermarkets to ensure that when the product sold out, new stock was there to replace it.

He had a tempestuous relationship with the National Farmers Union, breaking away in the late 1960s to form the Farmers Action Group with another farming agitator, Wallace Day. They were joined by other disgruntled farmers who felt they had been betrayed when the price guarantees made under the 1947 Agriculture Act were cut.

They released bullocks in Whitehall, blocked roads and staged many protests in support of a better deal for farmers. On one occasion Ian slept on the pavement outside the Hilton Hotel in London in protest at the fact the NFU was holding its annual general meeting first thing in the morning necessitating an overnight stay in the capital, something he said Westcountry farmers could not afford.

Eventually Ian came back into the NFU fold and was elected Devon president in 1997, at the age of 69. He never mellowed, however. Anthony Gibson, former South West Director of the NFU said: “Ian was an old-fashioned firebrand who liked nothing better than letting loose a bunch of bullocks in Whitehall or blockading the docks. But unlike some other militants, it was all done for the farming cause, not for personal glorification. Behind the bombast, he was a highly intelligent, warm-hearted, deeply thoughtful man who cared passionately for his fellow farmers and did much to champion their cause.”

Ian Johnson, NFU South West spokesman, said Ian always believed farmers could take control of their own destiny. “He will be much missed,” he said.

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