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Anarchy or Establishment

Lawrence Alderson, a life of Contrasts and Contradictions


About this book:

  • ISBN: 978-1-910237-40-3 (hardback)

  • Published May 2019

  • Price £25.00 + postage

  • 224 pages

  • Illustrated with 145 colour and black & white photographs.

Cover illustration: Lawrence Alderson at the Cancer zodiac sign of the Jantar Mantar, a sophisticated observatory built by Jai Singh at Jaipur in 1728 and designated a world heritage site by UNESCO

For information on Lawrence's other books:

A Pennine Dynasty

White Park Cattle

The Book:
This biography is the journey of a shy boy from a remote Pennine hill farm to a man who is now a renowned international consultant on conservation genetics with a CBE for services to rare breeds.

Lawrence Alderson has dedicated much of his life to saving traditional native breeds and was founder president of Rare Breeds International and the founder, scientific consultant and chairman of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. He is the only founder who has been in the forefront of the movement since the late 1960s.

Since the foundation of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust no British farm animals have become extinct and many endangered farm breeds around the world have been saved from the brink of extinction.

He is an eternal optimist with a ‘glass half full’ attitude to life, always looking for positive opportunities even when the outlook is bleak. His smiling northern sense of humour has carried him through many farming disasters such as Foot and Mouth Disease.

There is little doubt the benefit of his legacy will be felt in many farms and fields across the world.

The Author:

Henry Thwaites has lived much of his life in Yorkshire. He was born into a farming family in northern England and is a practical agriculturalist whose attention has been focused primarily on breeds of farm livestock, but he also pursued literary ambitions from an early age with livestock at the core of his interest. As a result of meeting Michael Rosenberg in the 1970s he was drawn into the ‘rare breeds’ world. He contributed to The Ark, a monthly magazine on endangered breeds, and prepared draft papers and reports for research projects. His Yorkshire background and involvement with native British breeds of livestock gave him an appreciation of rural values and the opportunity to understand the motivation of leaders of the movement for genetic conservation.


A review by Peter Titley, former President of Rare Breeds Survival Trust:
Polar opposites emerge throughout this intriguing tale: the warm welcoming bonhomie juxtaposed with the stern, confrontational countenance are but two of the many competing manifestations of a complex personality. This powerful, influential, character is candidly exposed yet subtly hidden between the covers of this book. I have known Lawrence for over thirty years and I recognise much of the man lurking between the lines; so much so, that I can understand why the author felt like a ‘ghostwriter’ on occasion.
I remain challenged to reach clear conclusions about the messages in this book. “Setting the record straight” is one idea which came to mind, but this would not do justice to the author or his words. Like the subject, the book is a work of many parts: On the one hand the history of a fascinating, talented family whose chronology sees the emergence of flair, intellect, pugilism and sporting prowess in a boy of their own. Cambridge graduate and Boxing Blue…what a combination!
On the other hand, it plots the enthusiasm, conviction and self-belief which developed in the emerging man and which remains to this day. These adult qualities are inextricably woven into the fabric of an organisation which Lawrence helped to create and which he came to look upon as is own… and so we witness the birth of The Rare Breeds Survival Trust [RBST] in 1973.
Albeit, driven by a degree of autocracy and with an element of self-interest, his sheer enthusiasm for the emerging charity shines through and he harnesses an astute and committed band of farmers, business men, scientists and academics to ensure that this pioneering organisation gained sufficient credibility to influence policy and stop the slide into extinction which had been the fate of so many of our native breeds in the first half of the twentieth century.
The book shows how his various roles in RBST enabled him to carve out a career in a field which he very much made his own both at home and internationally. The changing fortunes of RBST and the roles of some of its “personalities” attract the author’s particular attention, not surprisingly, given the access which was afforded to hitherto unseen private archives. These give an intriguing insight into the thought processes of a man who has never been comfortable on the sidelines, especially when he thought some of the players needed substituting!
This book leaves no room for doubt about Lawrence’s convictions: to the cause of endangered breeds; to a style of autocratic leadership which, he says, gets things done. The book reveals a level of self-belief that has undoubtedly been a driving force in RBST, and which made him formidable in the face of opposition and intolerant of indecision and dithering. The author finds many examples and, for instance, cites evidence of this in an account of Lawrence’s outstanding individual effort to support farmers ensnared in the awful Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001, even though Lawrence had been temporarily deposed as a key RBST figure at that time. Here he paints a picture of a compassionate and uncompromising campaigner who took the fight to the heart of government, parliament and policy makers: This is portrayed as self-belief in action while, as the book implies, RBST was on the proverbial sidelines.
There is evidence too of his sensitivities to the threat of betrayal, real or otherwise, no doubt fed by the fact that in all human endeavours, ‘leaders’ become ‘targets’ and strong personalities attract challenge from unlikely alliances. Lawrence qualified on both counts, so in the cut and thrust of organisational politics it seems that the boxer in Lawrence was never far away! His reported interventions had an added dimension, for what emerges is an unerring sense of ownership which Lawrence has towards RBST and here the despot lingers just beneath the surface. However, his defence of his beliefs, his ideas, his plans and his reputation, is unflinching!
It is testing to summarise and draw conclusions from a story in which one has played some small part. Lingering in my head as I read the book, were memories of my own conflict and disagreement with Lawrence, apparently so minor as to get no mention! If I appear surprised at this, then the sentiment is false for overlaying all my encounters with him were first-hand experiences of the man in action; personal memories of many of the things picked up by the author: the workshops and rich fellowship of RBST members. I was reminded of the many times I have seen Lawrence’s magnetic personality drawing people to the cause.
The author has named many figures from the pioneering past; the visionaries who founded RBST alongside Lawrence. I see this book as a tribute to them for it shows that the young man they put in the driving seat in 1973 was well chosen.
There is so much in this very readable book that this review fails to mention but this is in keeping with the man at the heart of it. There is so much more to him than farming, conservation, genetics and science; so much that relates to his roots, his childhood, his family and the northern grit in his soul. There is so much of him that extends beyond the bounds of Britain and beyond the bounds of lesser mortals who are not blessed with his talents, energy, enquiring nature and wanderlust. There is so much that has attracted (reluctantly?) honour and recognition. The author does well to capture the essence of it.
I am happy and privileged to know the man portrayed in this book but perplexed that I still cannot fathom the depths of his personality, despite the revelations. Does it matter? Not at all, for here is an account of a unique being who has charted his life and opened it to the prying eyes of an author and by definition, submitted it to inspection by the reader. The story starts and ends with the family centre stage; the shy boy transforms into the reflective, thoughtful man recognisable to those who know him well. Enigmatic he may be, but no one who reads the book will gainsay that he made a difference. His living legacy will roam our land for generations to come and anyone with an interest in the roots of genetic conservation will find it a compelling tale.

An Enigmatic Character

Intrigued by the title of the biography of Lawrence Alderson, Anarchy or Establishment, I was interested to read what biographer Henry Thwaites has made of this somewhat enigmatic character. Indeed, the sub-title of the book describes it as ‘a life of contrasts and contradictions’ and, as one reads the life story of a ‘dales lad made good’, one realises the dichotomy of the shy boy who grew up on a hill farm in the Pennines, then read Agricultural Science at Selwyn College, Cambridge, with all the opportunities and open doors that brought, before becoming an internationally recognised geneticist and Founder of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
The book provides a concise history of the Alderson family’s status in the hierarchy of farming tradition in the north Pennines, then charts Lawrence’s education at Bowes Primary School, Barnard Castle School and Cambridge University. It details his career progression through to International Consultant and explores his interest in animal breeding and genetics, leading to the creation of his own breed of British Milksheep, his re-invigoration of the White Park breed of cattle, and his subsequent founding of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. His emergence as an author of scientific and non-fictional books is charted, eventually leading to his first fictional publication in 2009 entitled A Pennine Dynasty.
Whilst this is not totally a ‘warts and all’ biography the author includes numerous examples of how Lawrence’s complex character has impacted on his life and work, hence the unusual title of the book. Henry Thwaites has woven the information he has researched, and with which he has been supplied, into a very readable book which proves how someone from very humble beginnings can make the most of his innate talents through education, study and hard work, and leave a lasting legacy to his family, his country and, indeed, the world. (Review by Ruth Dent, writing in the Teesdale Mercury, June 2019)


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