Leonard Knight Elmhirst
Leonard Knight Elmhirst (6 June 1893 – 16 April 1974) was a philanthropist and agronomist who worked extensively in India. He was co-founder with his wife Dorothy of the Dartington Hall project in progressive education and rural reconstruction.
Leonard Elmhirst was born into a landed gentry family in Worsbrough (now part of Barnsley, Yorkshire), where the family seat is Houndhill. He was the second of nine siblings (eight boys and one girl). His elder brother, William, was killed on the Somme and the third son, Christopher, was killed at Gallipoli, both during World War I. The fourth son, Thomas became Air Marshal Sir Thomas Elmhirst (KBE, CB, AFC, DL, RAF).
In 1912 Leonard Elmhirst went up to Trinity College, Cambridge to study history and theology, intending to follow his father into the Church. In 1914, he was deemed unfit for military service and volunteered for overseas service in the YMCA. His experience of the problems of rural India was to fundamentally change the direction of his career. After one year's service in the army he was demobilised in 1919 and entered Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to study agriculture. Arriving almost penniless, he successfully completed a four-year degree course in two years. In 1920 he was elected president of Cornell's Cosmopolitan Club, which was mostly for foreign students, and found that it had large debts and depended on the philanthropy of its alumni and others. Money-raising activities brought him in contact with Dorothy Straight, who was to become his wife.
In America he also met the 1913 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, and in November 1921 returned to India as Tagore's secretary. In 1922, in the village of Surul (now Sriniketan) adjacent to Santiniketan, West Bengal, he set up for Tagore an Institute of Rural Reconstruction. Between 1923 and 1925, Leonard travelled twice around the globe, lecturing and supporting Rabindranath Tagore's missions to Europe, Asia and South America.
The influence of Tagore, and the interests and money of his wife to be, led Elmhirst to undertake an experiment in rural reconstruction at Dartington Hall in Devon. It is said that Tagore had become familiar with Dartington during his travels in England and influenced Elmhirst in his selection of the estate, which was purchased in a series of transactions in 1925. Elmhirst also assisted in the re-acquisition of his ancient family seat, Houndhill, a couple of miles from his birthplace.
In 1946 he refused the offer of a Barony from Prime Minister Clement Attlee. In a letter to Attlee he replied that "My own work, however, as you know, has lain in the main among country people...in India, the USA and in Devonshire...acceptance would neither be easy for me to explain nor easy for my friends to comprehend".
Leonard married Dorothy Payne Whitney in September 1925. They had two children. He was the stepfather of actress Beatrice Straight (1914–2001).
In 1931, when the Dartington Hall experiment was established they set up a trust to manage its affairs so they could undertake other work worldwide. Leonard's work included:
- Work for Exeter University, Devon County Council and local organisations,
- 1929: launched the International Conference of Agricultural Economists,
- 1932: brought artificial insemination of cattle from Russia to Devon,
- President of the Royal Forestry Society,
- War-time public service during World War II including agricultural missions to the Middle East and India,
- Irrigation and hydroelectricity in the Damodar Valley, India,
- 1954: Member, Indian Rural Education Committee.
- Leonard Knight Elmhirst, The Straight and Its Origin, 1975, OCLC 2046429 originally serialized in Cornell Alumni News, 1974–75
- The Elmhirsts of Dartington, The Creation of a Utopian Community, 344. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
- Michael Young, The Elmhirsts Of Dartington, The Creation Of A Utopian Community, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982