Leonard Knight Elmhirst

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Leonard Knight Elmhirst
Leonard Elmhrist (R) with his wife, Dorothy, at Dartington Hall, Devon, UK.jpg
Leonard Elmhrist (R) with his wife, Dorothy, at Dartington Hall, Devon, UK
Born(1893-06-06)6 June 1893
Died16 April 1974(1974-04-16) (aged 80)
NationalityBritish subject
Alma mater
OccupationPhilanthropist and agronomist
Known for

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, Captain William Elmhirst, was killed on 13 November 1916, aged 24, while serving with the 8th Bn. East Yorkshire Regiment during the Battle of the Somme,[1] and the third son, Second Lieutenant Ernest Christopher Elmhirst, was killed on 7 August 1915, aged 20, while serving with the 8th Bn. Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment) during the Gallipoli Campaign;[2] 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.[3] 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.[3]

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".[4]

Personal life[edit]

Leonard married Dorothy Payne Whitney in September 1925. They had two children. He was the stepfather of actress Beatrice Straight (1914–2001). After Dorothy died, Leonard married Susanna Isaacs-Elmhirst[5] in 1973 in Worsborough, Yorkshire.


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:


  1. ^ https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/593481/elmhirst,-/
  2. ^ https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/695747/elmhirst,-ernest-christopher/
  3. ^ a b Leonard Knight Elmhirst, The Straight and Its Origin, 1975, OCLC 2046429 originally serialized in Cornell Alumni News, 1974–75
  4. ^ The Elmhirsts of Dartington, The Creation of a Utopian Community, 344. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
  5. ^ "Obituary: Susanna Isaacs-Elmhirst". British Medical Journal. 340: 2809. 2010. doi:10.1136/bmj.c2809.

Further reading[edit]

  • Michael Young, The Elmhirsts Of Dartington, The Creation Of A Utopian Community, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982