Sir Horace Plunkett and the origins of the Plunkett Foundation 

Sir Horace Plunkett - ­ A Man Ahead of His Time

Horace Plunkett was truly an extraordinary figure: a combination of the idealist with a man of business; a poor public speaker and yet a great publicist; a man of strong family affections who never married; a man who drove his subordinates hard yet inspired in many a life-long devotion; an aristocrat of great charm and exquisite manners who drew his metaphors from the cowboys on the Wyoming cattle range. But beneath these superficial contradictions were attributes of courage, strength of character and a desire to serve. In the words of his friend Lady Fingall, “Ireland had laid her burden on him” ­ an appropriate comment because his was indeed a dedicated life.


Born in 1854, Plunkett was the third son of Lord Dunsany, an Irish peer. After graduating from Oxford he spent ten years cattle-ranching in the foothills of America’s Rocky Mountains, but returned to Ireland on his father’s death in 1889. He soon focused on the problem of the survival of the Irish farmer, still emerging from mid-century famine and increasingly beset by competition from Europe and the USA. Basing his structure on the model of Scandinavian co-operation and Laval’s invention of the steam-powered cream separator, Plunkett established a co-operative butter-making industry in southwest Ireland.

Farmers were at first suspicious of a landlord ­ and a Protestant, ­ and the early years were a constant struggle against commercial opposition and inherent fatalism. But the idea was sound. Irish farmers soon appreciated the benefits of controlling the production and marketing of their staple commodity, and in 1894 Plunkett founded the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society with 33 affiliated dairy co-operative societies or “creameries”, as they were popularly known.

His organisation expanded rapidly and four years later there were 947 affiliated societies. For most people this would have been a lifetime’s work, but Plunkett’s job was only half done. The commercial structure of Irish agricultural had been reformed; now was the time to tackle its administration. Badgering the government from his seat in Westminster, where he had been elected as MP for Dublin South in 1892, Plunkett inspired the celebrated Recess Committee Report of 1896, which documented failure in every sector of Irish agriculture administration. The government, under pressure from all sides, finally accepted his plan, and by the turn of the century the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland (DATI) had been established, with Plunkett as vice-president at its head.

This march of progress did not go unnoticed abroad, especially in the United States where Plunkett’s ideas influenced President Theodore Roosevelt. But the dark currents that moved below the surface of Anglo-Irish politics were at work to undermine him. In 1900 he was driven from South Dublin by his unionist constituents for being too liberal and, seven years later, from his DATI vice-presidency by the nationalists.

From having been a supporter of the Balfours and a constructive unionist, Plunkett gradually became a moderate nationalist and a fervent supporter of dominion status for Ireland. As an influential holder of the political middle ground, Plunkett evenhandedly offended the extremists on both sides. Sir Edward Carson denounced him as a traitor to the unionist cause in 1919, and in 1923 Kilteragh, his splendid home on the outskirts of Dublin, was wrecked by nationalists during the Irish civil war.

The destruction of Kilteragh was almost a mortal blow and he moved to England where, in his declining years, he established the Plunkett Foundation and watched his idea of “Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living” take root in a wider world. Internationally he takes his place in the ranks of the great rural reformers, alongside Grundtvig and Raiffeisen; spiritually Plunkett is successor to Robert Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers. He died in Weybridge in Surrey in 1932. Inscribed on his headstone in the churchyard of St Mary’s at Byfleet are the words, “Behold the sower went forth to sow”.

Plunkett Foundation

On 21 December 1918, Horace Plunkett, then in his 65th year, wrote in his diary, “Most of the day with Adams. Agreed to make him and A.D. Hall trustees of my new rural reconstruction bequest and donation. I meditate starting this thing during my life, centring it at Oxford and the Plunkett House, Dublin.”

On 13 January 1919, Plunkett wrote again, “Founded the Horace Plunkett Foundation with a first endowment of £5,000 and made it the recipient of a provision in my will.” So the Plunkett Foundation, or rather the Horace Plunkett Foundation, as it was then known, was formed. But for the first five years of its existence the trustees moved cautiously, ­ partly because they had yet to find a role for the Foundation and partly because the initial endowment was not large enough to employ full-time staff or provide a permanent office. Instead interest on the fund was used carefully to promote courses and studies on co-operative and rural sociology subjects in England and Ireland.

Then, in 1924, the Empire Exhibition was held at Wembley, and the opportunity was taken to prepare a survey of agricultural co-operation in the British Empire and organize a conference of co-operators. The 170 participants of this conference, representatives from most parts of the Empire, found the experience of meeting and comparing notes new and stimulating and so before parting called for a permanent “clearinghouse of information on agricultural co-operation in the English-speaking world” to be established. As a consequence Plunkett more than doubled his original endowment, the Co-operative Reference Library (Plunkett’s private collection, first housed with the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society) was brought over from Dublin, a permanent staff was appointed, and the Plunkett Foundation was moved into No.10 Doughty Street in London.

In 1927 the Empire Marketing Board, a statutory body set up to promote trade within the Empire, agreed to make the Plunkett Foundation a five-year annual grant. This was used not only to appoint further staff, but allowed for travel and investigation of agricultural co-operation in Commonwealth countries.

The new headquarters of the library, the contacts made on overseas journeys, and the publications that now began to appear ­ including the Yearbook of Agricultural Co-operatives ­ all brought visitors to the Foundation. Further afield, the range of European contacts was extended and the Foundation was represented at many international meetings and congresses. A world survey of co-operative law gave the Foundation some claim to authority on co-operative legislation, and it was regularly consulted on the drafting of new enactments by Commonwealth countries.


Plunkett Foundation's current office in Woodstock, Oxfordshire
Plunkett Foundation's current office in Woodstock, rural Oxfordshire.


Early in the 1930s detailed surveys of agricultural co-operation in the British Isles were undertaken. Relatively small but successful movements were known to exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, looked after by the Agricultural Organisation Societies that had been formed under the inspirational guidance of Horace Plunkett, but little was known about the English position since its central organisation had collapsed in 1924. The surveys revealed that the movement in England was far from dead, and although the Foundation organised a number of conferences that re-vitalised interest in a national body, it was not until 1936 that the co-operatives themselves made a move towards unity by forming the Agricultural Co-operative Managers Association (ACMA), with the Foundation providing secretarial support.

Financial difficulties arose when the Empire Marketing Board grant ended, and at a time of economic depression alternative sources of funds were difficult to come by. Although Plunkett had made some provision in his will, it formed part of his residuary estate and was not immediately realisable. The cost of running the Foundation was drastically cut, but so too was its power to continue its development, so self-financing activities were adopted and charges were made for work carried out on behalf of other bodies.

Students and officials from Commonwealth countries where co-operation had been little known or practised had begun to arrive for briefings on the organisation of co-operatives, undertaking study tours and making use of the library. But the days of expansion and widening international contacts were rapidly drawing to an end. With the outbreak of the Second World War the Foundation’s work, like its library, went into cold storage as its staff joined the war effort, all except for the Yearbook, which continued to be published, albeit in a much reduced version.

Following the war the Foundation struggled to regain its former level of success. Many contacts had been broken; costs of everything, including wages, had increased; the building in Doughty Street was in disrepair; the library was in a state of neglect; and travel was difficult and costly. But as frontiers began to open in the late 1940s and early 1950s the visitors returned. Later on, grants became sporadically available to support not only the provision of library facilities, but also a variety of research activities and the publication of a series of Occasional Papers and other books and documents.

Gradually the Foundation was able to receive foreign contacts, for in addition to receiving co-operative enquirers from overseas, it was the recipient of an increasing number of invitations to contribute through visits, lectures, participation in conferences or the preparation of reports. At the Foundation’s recommendation a co-operative adviser was appointed to the Colonial Office, through whom much overseas work was subsequently made possible.

For many years the Foundation had been giving thought to the problem of training for the UK agricultural co-operatives, so in 1954 when funds become available through the Ministry of Agriculture it was immediately able to put forward a scheme for a co-operative business correspondence course. It proved to be extremely successful and quickly aroused overseas interest, so much so that it was soon adapted to meet the needs of tropical countries. Short training courses were also organised in Africa under the guidance of the Foundation’s newly appointed overseas education officer and with the support of outside lecturers. As the variety of training courses grew, so did the need for appropriate course texts, and the Foundation’s range of publications began to expand.

So although the Foundation had been formed with very wide terms of reference in a distinctly academic context, it emerged from these formative years with a fairly well defined range of practical co-operative development services, maintaining the international outlook of the original Wembley Conference of 1924.

Margaret Digby

The name of Margaret Digby deserves of be remembered as long as that of the founder, for by any standards hers was an exceptional record of service. In 1927 she became the Plunkett Foundation’s first research assistant, working closely with Horace Plunkett in pursuit of his ideals, but in 1934 she took over leadership of the Foundation as its secretary, a position she held for the following 33 years.


Margaret Digby
Margaret Digby


Carrying out the work of the Foundation with a very small staff, sometimes single-handedly, involved her in constant and extensive travel. Her global knowledge of co-operation was unsurpassed, and so she came to enjoy the trust and respect of co-operators throughout the world. During the course of her 50 years of untiring work she wrote books, articles and papers; carried out research, consultancy and advisory projects for governments and international organisations; drafted co-operative laws; set up training courses and lectured throughout the world. She was undoubtedly a principal witness to, and leading instigator behind, the development of an organisation that is today known and respected internationally.

Margaret Digby’s long association with the Plunkett Foundation was interrupted only once when, during the Second World War, she temporarily became a civil servant. On her return to the Doughty Street premises she was faced by a building that had been damaged by bomb blast and was in need of a great deal of structural attention and a library which had been completely neglected for five years. In a nearby street, however, she noticed a tree which, though shattered to its roots, had sent up a slender green shoot. In the next few years she watched it re-establish itself, and so when the Foundation began to re-publish books the tree was used as a symbol of regeneration.

The tree remained as the Plunkett Foundation’s logo until 2004 although the early form had been superseded by an image that reflects what the Plunkett Foundation is today.

Plunkett Foundation today

The Plunkett Foundation today is best know for its work helping rural communities to set up and run a range of community-owned co-operatives, including community shops, co-operative pubs and community food enterprises. In 2012 the Plunkett Foundation won the Social Enterprise Supporter of the Year Award for England at the Social Enterprise Awards.  Plunkett was also highly commended in the UK awards.

We also work to help promote co-operatives to rural communities for example through the press and media.  We also campaign to make it easier for rural communities to set up community-owned co-operatives, though setting up support and funding programmes and influencing government policy.

Promoting and connecting rural co-operatives internationally

Plunkett is a proud member of the international co-operative movement and we are a member of the International Co-operative Alliance, the International Co-operative Agriculture Organisation, Co-operatives Europe and Co-operatives UK.

To mark the International Year of Co-operatives 2012 the Plunkett Foundation called a meeting of rural co-operatives, co-operative representative organisations and international agencies to debate and discuss the future needs of rural co-operatives.  The outcome of this meeting was the Dunsany Declaration for Rural Co-operative Development, a global plan of action for the future of rural co-operatives. This was praised by both the International Co-operative Alliance and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as important contributions to the International Year.

In 2013 Plunkett co-hosted alongside the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations a side event at the Council for World Food Security in Rome on the importance of co-operatives in food security.

Plunkett is following up this work with a second Rural Co-operatives meeting at the International Co-operative Alliance Global Conference and General Assembly in Cape Town in November 2013.