John Seymour (author)

John Seymour (12 June 191414 September 2004) was an influential figure in the self-sufficiency movement. Precise categorisation is difficult: he was a writer, broadcaster, environmentalist, smallholder and activist; a rebel against: consumerisation, industrialisation, genetically modified organisms, cities, motor cars; and an advocate for: self-reliance, personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, conviviality (food, drink, dancing and singing), gardening, caring for the Earth and for the soil.

Early life

John Seymour was born in London, England; his father died when he was very young, his mother remarried and the family moved to Frinton-on-Sea in north-east Essex. A fashionable seaside town with a golf club, a tennis club and a population of 2,000 might seem an unlikely place to develop Seymour's later philosophy of life. It was however surrounded by agricultural land, where the horse was king; the sea was on his doorstep, there were quiet backwaters where he could learn to sail within a couple of miles of his home. The life led by those on the land and in small boats would have laid a foundation for his later vision of a simple cottage economy with farming and fishing providing the essentials of life.

After schooling in England and Switzerland Seymour studied agriculture at Wye College, which was then a school of the University of London.

In 1934, at the age of 20, he went to Southern Africa where his wish to experience life took him in through a succession of jobs. In the Karoo as a farmhand and then manager of a sheep farm; from Walvis Bay in South-West Africa (now Namibia) as a deckhand, later as a skipper, on fishing boats; in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in copper mines as a trainee mining engineer; later working for the Northern Rhodesia Veterinary Service as a livestock officer; making a game survey of the Luangwa River valley for the Game Department. Whilst in Africa he spent some time with bushmen where he gained friendship and an insight into the life of hunter gatherers.

1939 to 1951

At the start of World War II in 1939, John Seymour travelled to Kenya where he enlisted in the Kenya Regiment and was posted to the King's African Rifles, a colonial regiment of the British army with white officers. He fought with them against Italy in the Abyssinian Campaign in Ethiopia. After defeating the Italians, the regiment was posted to Sri Lanka (then a British colony called Ceylon) and afterwards to Burma, where allied forces were fighting against Japan. For Seymour the war ended on a low note; he expressed his disgust when the Allies used fission bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On arrival in Britain after the war Seymour worked for a while on a Thames sailing barge. These traditional craft were still operating around the south and east coasts of England. Here he picked up the folk songs of a disappearing occupation. After working as a civil servant (labour officer for the Agricultural Committee) finding agricultural work for German prisoners of war (some had still not returned home in 1950) he found an opening into broadcasting when he created a series of short programmes on the BBC Home Service (now Radio 4), speaking on subjects that interested him. He then travelled overland to India for the BBC gaining experience of the subsistence farming still common in eastern Europe and Asia. His experiences on this journey led to his first book, The Hard Way to India, published in 1951.

The Smallholdings

Seymour was living aboard a Dutch sailing smack when he married Sally Medworth, an Australian potter and artist, in 1954. In this they traveled around the waterways and rivers of England and Holland, journeys later described in Sailing through England. As their first daughter grew older they felt that a land-base would be more suitable. They leased two isolated cottages on 5 acres (2 hectares) of land near Orford in Suffolk. The manner in which they fell into self-sufficiency on this smallholding is recounted in The Fat of the Land (1961). At the end of the 1960s John Seymour with other radical voices like Herbert Read, Edward Goldsmith and Fritz Schumacher provided a stream of articles for the journal Resurgence edited from 1966–1970 by John Papworth.

In 1963 the family moved to a farm near Newport in Pembrokeshire. The 1970's saw Seymour's publication rate reach a maximum, In 1976 The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency was published, a guide for real and dreaming downshifters. Published shortly after E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful - a study of economics as if people mattered (1973) and, more mundanely, The Good Life's first showing on British television (1975), the sales of the new book exceeded all expectations. It was also set to establish the reputation of two young publishers, Christopher Dorling and Peter Kindersley who had commissioned and edited the work. His writing was not restricted to self-sufficiency: he wrote four guide books in the Companion Guide series and was now being asked to speak of his vision at conferences.

In the 1970s and 1980s he was also making television programmes: an early series followed the footsteps of George Borrow's Wild Wales (1862), later he spent three years making the BBC series Far From Paradise (with Herbert Girardet) which examined the history of human impact on the environment.

His farm in Wales welcomed visitors seeking guidance on the smallholders life, a project which expanded to the School for Self-Sufficiency when he moved to County Wexford in Ireland during the 1980s. Here in 1999 he was taken to court for damaging a crop of GM sugar beet.

John lived back on his old Pembrokeshire farm with his daughter's family for the last years of his life. He died on September 14th 2004.

The Memory

John Seymour spoke and wrote with a memorable turn of phrase, with humour and, not shrinking from technical detail, a chemical formula where it made an explanation clearer. Television provided a means of leaving more memories: like that of him quoting George Borrow as he tramped across a wet Welsh upland under a battered umbrella.
John was as much at home in the humblest house on a hillside, as in the manor house of landed gentry. He was like a force of nature, always willing to listen, always interested in learning about new - or very old - ways of working the land. He was a one-man rebellion against modernism ... Herbert Girardet, 2005.


  • The Hard Way to India (1951). London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • Boys in the Bundu (1955) London: Harrap. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • Round About India (1955). London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • One Man's Africa (1956). London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • Sailing Through England (1956). London: Eyre & Spottiswoode. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • The Fat of the Land (1961). London: Faber & Faber. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • On My Own Terms (1963). London: Faber & Faber.
  • Willynilly to the Baltic (1965). Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons.
  • Voyage into England (1966). Newton Abbott: David & Charles.
  • The Companion Guide to East Anglia (1970). London: Collins.
  • About Pembrokeshire (1971). TJ Whalley.
  • The Book of Boswell - autobiography of a gypsy (1970). London: Gollancz. (Author: Silvester Gordon Boswell, Ed. John Seymour.)
  • Self-Sufficiency (1970). London: Faber & Faber. (With Sally Seymour.)
  • The Companion Guide to the Coast of South-West England (1974). London: Collins.
  • The Companion Guide to the Coast of North-East England (1974). London: Collins.
  • The Companion Guide to the Coast of South-East England (1975). London: Collins.
  • The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (1976). London: Faber & Faber.
  • Bring Me My Bow (1977). London: Turnstone Books.
  • Keep It Simple (1977). Pant Mawr: Black Pig Press.
  • The Countryside Explained (1977). London: Faber & Faber. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • I’m A Stranger Here Myself - the story of a Welsh farm (1978). London: Faber & Faber. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • The Self-Sufficient Gardener (1978). Londoon: Dorling Kindersley
  • John Seymour's Gardening Book (1978). London: G.Whizzard Publications Ltd: Distributed by Deutsch,
  • Gardener's Delight (1978). London: Michael Joseph.
  • Getting It Together - a guide for new settlers (1980). London: Michael Joseph.
  • The Lore of the Land (1982). Weybridge: Whittet. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • The Woodlander (1983). London: Sidgwick & Jackson. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • The Smallholder (1983). London: Sidgwick & Jackson. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • The Shepherd (1983). London: Sidgwick & Jackson. (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)
  • The Forgotten Arts (1984). London: Dorling Kindersley.
  • Far from Paradise - the story of man's impact on the environment (1986). London: BBC Publications. (with Herbert Girardet.)
  • Blueprint for a Green Planet' (1987). London: Dorling Kindersley. (with Herbert Girardet.)
  • The Forgotten Household Crafts (1987). London: Dorling Kindersley.
  • England Revisited - a countryman's nostalgic journey (1988). London: Dorling Kindersley.
  • The Ultimate Heresy (1989). Bideford: Green Books.
  • Changing Lifestyles - living as though the world mattered (1991). London: Gollancz.
  • Rural Life - pictures from the past (1991). London: Collins & Brown
  • Blessed Isle - one man's Ireland (1992). London: Collins.
  • Seymour's Seamarks (1995). Rye: Academic Inn Books. (with illustrations by Connie Lindquist)
  • Retrieved from the Future (1996). London: New European,
  • Rye from the Water's Edge (1996). Rye: Academic Inn Books. (with illustrations by Connie Lindquist)
  • Playing It For Laughs - a book of doggerel (1999). San Francisco: Metanoia Press. (with illustrations by Kate Seymour)
  • The Forgotten Arts And Crafts (2001). London: Dorling Kindersley.
  • The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (2002). London: Dorling Kindersley. (with Will Sutherland.)
  • The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (2003). London: Dorling Kindersley. (with Will Sutherland.)
  • The Fat of the Land (2008). Carningli Books (With illustrations by Sally Seymour.)



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