Part Two: Poverty, Poetry and Protest, 1815-51
As Napoleon’s power grew, the threat of invasion became very real. Home defence was a matter of urgency and the regular forces had to be supplemented by volunteer reserves. A force of yeomanry known as the Suffolk Light Dragoons was raised at Bury and a part-time navy, the Sea Fencibles, patrolled the coast. These bodies of amateur soldiers and sailors were very unreliable and many men joined them to evade conscription to the real army and navy. This was probably the situation with Isaac Gulliver’s privateers on the south coast. As an additional deterrent to French invasion both coasts were also studded with Martello Towers, small fortresses on which cannons were mounted. Eighteen were raised along the Suffolk shoreline, some of which can still be seen today, as in Kent. Whether or not they gave the local people much real protection is difficult to judge, since the only invasion attempt which actually landed soldiers did so on the Pembrokeshire coast near Fishguard, where there were no towers, and where the action ended in farce and surrender by the French after two or three days. The war provided a captive home market for English farmers. Napoleon’s blockade, the continental system, though only partially successful, served to strengthen the British government’s conviction that by agriculture alone we live in plenty without intercourse with other nations. Besides the soldiers and sailors, allied nations needed British corn. So, there was an emphasis on intensive crop farming, giving a further boost to the Agrarian Revolution.
The French wars coincided with a run of bad harvests (only two good harvests and fourteen bad ones in twenty-two years). Since the disruption of trade prevented foreign corn reaching English ports, the price of home-grown grain rocketed. Farmers hurried to profit from this situation, and the heavy clay-lands of central Suffolk came into their own. It was then that the Suffolk landscape took on its now familiar appearance – the heaths and meadows of the east and west harbouring flat flocks and herds, the centre dominated by wide fields, interrupted by occasional copses and water-meadows. Agricultural incomes ballooned during the Napoleonic Wars only to be severely deflated by the downward trend in prices by 1815. When the war ended the special conditions which had favoured this prosperity ended with it. In 1815 corn prices plummeted to half what they had been in 1812. Parliament, where the landed interest was dominant, hastened to pass the Corn Law which prohibited the import of foreign grain until the price had reached eighty shillings a quarter. For thirty-one years this appalling piece of legislation remained on the statute book, protecting farm profits at the expense of every man, woman and child in the country, who had to pay inflated prices for daily bread. Wheat prices continued to fall until 1835. Careful research has again shown that the effect of this deflation varied greatly from one locality to another, depending in particular on the local interface between agriculture and industry.
The situation would not have been so bad if all the sections of the rural community had shared the benefits brought by protection, but because there were more potential workers than jobs, wages remained low. Farmers kept their retained workers to a minimum and drew on the large pool of casual labour at the busy seasons of the year. Most workers lived in thatched, verminous medieval cottages or in redundant farmhouses, converted into smaller units by flimsy partitions, steep stairs and lean-to additons. Some farmers built new dwellings for their workers, may sub-standard, but others responsibly built. Those erected by Lord Tollemache on his estate at Helmingham are an excellent example of the best in modest domestic architecture. However, the farmworker’s basic need was for food. Like everyone else, he had to buy bread at artificially inflated prices and he needed better wages in order to do so. The prevailing poor law worked to his disadvantage in this, and the Speenhamland System, which operated from 1795 to 1834, provided that where a labourer’s wage was inadequate, it could be augmented from the poor rate. This demoralised the farm workers further, by bringing them within the category of the parish poor, depriving them of any incentive to work and subsidising the farmers by relieving them of the obligation to pay realistic wages.
When the French Wars ended, four hundred thousand soldiers and sailors were demobilised, too many of them seeking to return to work on the land, which was no longer available. The results were mass unemployment and low wages for those fortunate enough to find work. William Cobbett wrote of the conditions in which the labourers of Leicestershire were living:
Look at these hovels, made of mud and straw; bits of glass, or of cast-off windows, without frames or hinges frequently, but merely stuck in the mud wall. Enter them, and look at the bits of chairs or stools; the wretched boards tacked together to serve for a table; the floor of pebble, broken brick, and of the bare ground…
However, the life of the rural peasant was not entirely one of unrelieved misery and squalor. As a child Robert Bloomfield of Honington (1766-1823) lived with his mother who gained a meagre living from her dame school. He became a farm worker at Sapiston at the age of eleven until it broke his health. He went to London and found success there in the literary world of Wordsworth and Coleridge who admired the freshness and authenticity of his nature poetry. Nevertheless, he died, poor and half-blind, in Bedfordshire. The inspiration for his best work, of which The Farmer’s Boy is the greatest, came from his years of hard labour at Sapiston:
Fresh from the Hall of Bounty sprung
With glowing heart and ardent eye,
With songs and rhyme upon my tongue,
And fairy visions dancing by,
The mid-day sun in all his power,
The backward valley painted gay;
Mine was the road without a flower,
Where one small streamlet crossed the way.
George Crabbe (1754-1832) also grew up in Suffolk and began work in the field of medicine, but then turned to the church and to literature. As a poet he stands out for the honesty of his pictures of country life and the craftsmanship of his verse. His poem The Vicar (1823) pokes fun at the way in which the country parson had to be all things to all people in his parish:
Now rests our Vicar. They who knew him best,
Proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest;
Free from all evils which disturb the mind,
Whom studies vex and controversies blind.
The Rich approved, – of them in awe he stood;
The poor admired, – they all believed him good;
The old and serious of his habits spoke;
The frank and youthful loved his pleasant joke;
Mothers approved a safe contented guest,
And daughters one who backed each small request:
In him his flock found nothing to condemn;
Him sectaries liked, – he never troubled them;
No trifles fail’d his yielding mind to please,
And all his passions sunk in early ease;
Nor one so old has left this world of sin,
More like the being that he enter’d in…
…Thus he his race began, and to the end
His constant care was, no man to offend;
He was his Master’s soldier,
but not one To lead an army of his martyrs on:
Fear was his ruling passion.
However, few would argue with the assertion that Suffolk’s greatest ever creative genius was John Constable (1776-1837; his self-portrait is on the right), who also loved his home county, though he too, like Robert Bloomfield, spent much of his life away from it, being from a more privileged background than Bloomfield. However, he was always striving to recapture naturalistic Suffolk moods in his work. He wrote to a friend that he had been…
… running after pictures and seeking truth at second-hand. I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes that may employ me… the great vice of the present day is ’bravura’, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. Fashion always had and always will have its day, but truth in all things only will last, and can only have just claims on posterity.
He therefore returned to his beloved Dedham Vale, where he had grown up amid the rumble and roar of his father’s mill wheels. There he painted the pictures which have always been recognised as representing not just Suffolk but the essential England. Nevertheless, it was an England which was soon to change, perhaps the reason why Constable’s paintings of The Hay Wain (1821, left) and Flatford Mill evoke so nostalgic a response in most English people, regardless of how much they understand about the craft of his art.
A century of great artists in the Constable tradition devoted themselves to the Suffolk scene. They found a deep truth in the simple beauty of the land and, like Constable, they knew that truth in all things only will last.
In addition to the evidence of rural poverty uncovered by Cobbett’s Rural Rides, the evidence presented to the commissions of inquiry into agrarian distress was carefully sifted by historians, working from county to county. This produced the conclusion that the western animal-rearing districts of the country, for example Lancashire and Cheshire, lying close to big urban markets for potatoes and dairy produce, barely suffered any depression. Arable farming districts, on the other hand, had no spare investment funds during the spells of very low prices in the deflationary periods, in 1816, and 1821-23. Later, although the price of wheat did not stagger to its nadir until 1835. farm costs had adjusted downwards as well. This tended to thin out the symptoms of true distress in later price troughs. Yet despite drops in both prices and costs, production continued to climb. The yield of wheat per acre, for example, rose by sixteen per cent from 1815/19 to 1832/36. Over the same period, the total population of England and Wales increased from just over eleven million in 1815 to nearly fifteen million in 1836, and these extra four million mouths were somehow fed without the help of imports and without the consumption of foodstuffs per capita falling significantly.
The answer to this conundrum is probably that it was the labourers in the south and south Midlands of England who were hit hardest during the post-war period and into the 1830s. It was here that the Labourer’s Revolt of the 1830s began and was fiercest. Here, the depressed labourers refused to continue to suffer in silence, but protested in sporadic outbursts of rick-burning, as well as in widespread support for the Chartist movement of the 1830s, continuing into the 1840s. In 1830 perhaps the most serious outburst of rioting flared up not among the stocking-knitters of Nottinghamshire or the hand-loom weavers of Lancashire, but among the farm labourers of the eastern counties, where the threshing machine was increasing the number of labourers out of work during the winter months when threshing was done. The installation of the machinery was strenuously resisted by those whose labour, and consequent livelihood, it threatened to make redundant. Hence the farm labourer’s hostility to the horse-powered threshing machine which he saw depriving him of his winter work. But the violence which erupted in 1830 had been building up for some years, since the end of the French Wars, mainly due to widespread unemployment and depressed wages in the rural south and east. However, it was the particular anger against the threshing machines that fanned the riots flared in the southern countryside in 1830 and 1831.
The disturbances began in Kent and quickly spread as far west as Dorset and as far north as Northamptonshire and East Anglia. An imaginary leader, Captain Swing, was invented (rather like the Nottinghamshire leader General Ludd) and, under his orders, farm labourers destroyed nearly four hundred threshing machines. The Swing Rising did not last long, however, as the Government, through local magistrates, dealt severely with the rioters. Six were hanged, over four hundred transported and about the same number imprisoned at home. By the end of 1830 order had been restored, though the rising did delay the spread of the machines. Nevertheless, the problem of low wages remained and increasing numbers of labourers decided to seek work in the growing industrial towns. Those who stayed put and tried to improve their wages through early attempts at forming unions, like the Tolpuddle Martyrs were dealt with like naval mutineers and also transported, leaving a legacy of bitterness. Here, too, the New Poor Law seemed most oppressive and had to be alleviated by the Speenhamland System, since there were few alternative occupations to farm labour, and periods of unemployment were almost inevitable.
In Dorset, annual contracts at the hiring fairs were usual, but wages were paid by the week, with nothing on wet days; much of the pay was in kind and the whole family was expected to work on the farm. The great difference in the rate of wages between the southern and northern counties was still apparent to James Caird in the High Farming period which followed the Repeal of the Corn Laws. He found that this wage differential was far greater than the prices of agricultural prices:
A bushel of wheat, a pound of butter, a stone of meat, is not more valuable in Cumberland, or the North Riding, than in Suffolk or Berkshire; yet the wages of the labourer in the two former (counties) are from sixty to seventy per cent higher than in the two latter counties… The higher rate is unmistakably due to the increased demand for labour. This has been greatest in the manufacturing and mining districts of the north, and near the commercial towns and great seaports… The welfare of the agricultural labourer is, more than any class in the community, dependent on the continued progress of our manufacturing and mercantile industry.
Pictured below: The House of Commons in 1832.
In the wake of the rural riots and rick-burning of the early 1830s, the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act was due, in large measure, to the fears of the ruling classes that if they did not concede reforms, they might, at some imminent point, face revolution, as in France, from a combination of impoverished farm labourers in the southern and eastern counties and disenfranchised industrial workers in the growing northern and midland boroughs which had little or no representation in Parliament.
The archaic system of representation was at last challenged in the Reform Bill. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Suffolk’s parliamentary representation, unaltered for two centuries, was as follows: two county members and two borough members each for Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury, Orford, Dunwich, Eye and Aldeburgh. This distribution of representation was based on medieval settlements. Since then, all the coastal towns had dwindled in importance and Dunwich was one of the most rotten boroughs in the country; it consisted of only a handful of houses, since many of those which had been part of the thriving medieval port had long since fallen into the sea. Its corporation had to exercise their electoral franchise in a boat anchored over where the centre of the now submerged town had been. Virtually all votes were controlled by local magnates: Bury was likewise a pocket borough of the earls of Bristol, Orford was controlled by Lord Hereford and Eye by Lord Cornwallis.
Voters who were not tenants of the local landlord or in some way dependent on him were in a position of power; they could sell their vote to the highest bidder, and normally they did just that. The normal rate in Ipswich was three pounds, but this rose steadily as polling day came nearer and could be ten times that on the day itself. Candidates were expected to give sumptuous banquets for the electors and to give presents to their wives. Bribery, corruption and violence were a customary part of all elections. Sudbury was particularly notorious, with the mayor openly advertising that he and his colleagues were up for sale. Bands of electioneers wandered the town persuading voters to join their camp and wear their candidates favours. Once a voter had been recruited he was cooped up in a local hostelry, there to be plied with beer and kept away from the opposition who otherwise might try to nobble him. Dickens based his Eatanswell election in Pickwick Papers on Sudbury.
As a result of the Reform Act of 1832, Suffolk gained four county members and deprived Dunwich, Orford and Aldeburgh of their representation. It also extended the vote by reducing the property qualification. Now, ten-pound householders in towns and ten-pound copy-holders in the countryside enfranchised. Corrupt practices could not be stopped until the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. However, politics remained a game for the rich which bore little relevance for the majority of the population. Even after the passing of the 1832 Act, five out of six men were without the vote and the industrial areas were still under-represented in the House of Commons.
Writing at the time of the second Reform Act of 1867, George Eliot, alias Mary Ann Evans (1819-80), wrote a novel, Felix Holt, in which she looked back to the Warwickshire countryside she had grown up in thirty-five years earlier, at the time of the first Reform Act of 1832 and at how the temper of life changed by the first railways. The impression she gives is initially of a contrast between pleasant rural and unpleasant urban society, but closer reading reveals that, to Eliot’s eyes, the charm of the villages masked a society which was credulous and occasionally vicious; and although the new industrialism appeared to promote dirt and sensual indulgence, it could also respond to its problems in ways which the old order had never shown the capacity to do. Even the convinced enemy of capitalist industry, Engels, was able to write in the 1840s that,
The English worker today is no longer an Englishman of the old school. He no longer resembles his capitalist neighbour in being a mere machine for making money. His capacity for feeling has developed.
But where Engels saw the transition from rural to industrial life as a matter of decision on the part of society, Eliot saw it as a matter of decision on the part of the individual. Engels argued that people lived in industrial towns because they had no choice in the matter, whereas Eliot assumed that they chose to move and live there. Whatever the truth, between 1835 and 1837, a period of returning and continuing hardship, the steady trickle of people leaving Suffolk became a flood, after the Poor Law Amendment Act provided financial assistance wishing to emigrate. Of the 6,403 people who took advantage of the scheme, 1,083 were from the county, most of them emigrating to Canada. In addition, more than two thousand left home for the industrial Midlands and North of England.
George Eliot’s remedies for the condition of the working people of Warwickshire was essentially a High Victorian Moral one, and she actually published an address to working men in 1867 using the name Felix Holt. Industrial society needed to be more ordered, workers should develop self-reliance and spend their, by then, high wages on books, and their time in the library rather than in the pub. Nevertheless, in her novel she does capture something of the nature of a more raw and rural, rough and ready English society:
Five-and-thirty years ago the glory had not yet departed from the old coach-roads: the great roadside inns were still brilliant with well-polished tankards, the smiling glances of pretty barmaids, and the repartees of jocose ostlers; the mail still announced itself by the merry notes of the horn; the hedge-cutter or the rick-thatcher might still know the exact hour by the unfailing yet otherwise meteoric apparition of the pea-green Tally ho or the Yellow Independent; and elderly gentlemen in pony-chaises, quartering nervously to make way for the rolling swinging swiftness, had not ceased to remark that times were finely changed since they used to see the pack-horses and hear the tickling of their bells on this very highway.
In those days there were pocket boroughs, a Birmingham unrepresented in Parliament and compelled to make strong representations out of it, unrepealed corn laws, three-and-sixpenny letters, a brawny and many-breeding pauperism, and other departed evils; but there were some pleasant things too, which have also departed… the elderly man has his enviable memories, and not the least of them is the memory of a long journey in mid-spring or autumn on the outside of a stage-coach… the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory… the happy outside passenger seated on the box from the dawn to the gloaming gathered enough stories of English life, enough of English labours in town and country… to make episodes for a modern Odyssey… Suppose only that this journey took him through that central plain, watered at one extremity by the Avon, at the other by the Trent. As the morning silvered the meadows with their long lines of bushy willows marking the watercourses, or burnished the golden corn-ricks clustered near the long roofs of some midland homestead, he saw the full-uddered cows driven from their pasture to the early milking. Perhaps it was the shepherd, head-servant of the farm, who drove them, his sheep-dog following… Mail or stage-coach belonged to that distant system of things called ‘Gover’ment’, which… was no business of his… his solar system was the parish; the master’s temper and the casualties of lambing-time were his region of storms. He cut his bread and bacon with his pocket-knife, and felt no bitterness except in the matter of pauper labourers and the bad luck that sent contrarious seasons and the sheep-rot… hedgerows were often as tall as the labourers’ cottages dotted along the lanes, or clustered into a small hamlet, their little dingy windows telling, like thick-filmed eyes, of nothing but darkness within. The passenger on the coach-box, bowled along above such a hamlet, saw chiefly the roofs of it> probably it turned is back on the road, and seemed to lie away from everything but its own patch of earth and sky, away from the parish church by long fields and green lanes… the inhabitants were probably so free from superstition that they were in much less awe of the parson than the overseer. Yet they were saved from the excesses of Protestantism by not knowing how to read, and by the absence of handlooms… to be pioneers of Dissent: they were kept safely in the ‘via media’ of indifference, and could have registered themselves in the census by a big black mark as members of the Church of England.
But there were trim, cheerful villages too, with neat or handsome parsonage and grey church set in the midst; there was the pleasant tinkle of the blacksmith’s anvil, the patient cart-horses waiting at his door… the wheelwright putting the last touch to a blue cart with red wheels… The land around was rich and marly, great corn-stacks stood in the rick-yards – for the rick-burners had not found their way hither; the homesteads were of those rich farmers who paid no rent, or had the rare advantage of a lease, and could afford to keep their corn till prices had risen. The coach would be sure to overtake some of them on their way to their outlying fields or to the market-town, sitting heavily on their well-groomed horses, or weighing down one side of an olive-green gig. They probably thought of the coach with some contempt, as an accommodation for people… who, wanting to travel to London and such distant places, belonged to the trading and less solid part of the nation. The passenger on the box could see that this was the district of protuberant optimists, sure that old England was the best of all possible countries, and that if there were any facts which had not fallen under their own observation, they were facts not worth observing> the district of clean little market-towns without manufactures, of fat livings, an aristocratic clergy, and low poor-rates. But as the day wore on the scene would change: the land would begin to be blackened with coal-pits, the rattle of hand-looms to be heard in hamlets and villages… here the pale eager faces of hand-loom weavers, men and women, haggard from sitting up late at night to finish the week’s work, hardly begun till the Wednesday. Everywhere the cottages and the small children were dirty, for languid mothers gave their strength to the loom… The gables of Dissenting chapels now made a visible sign of religion, and of a meeting-place to counterbalance the alehouse, even in the hamlets… The breath of manufacturing town, which made a cloudy day and a red gloom by night on the horizon, diffused itself over all the surrounding country, filling the air with eager unrest. Here was a population not convinced that old England was as good as possible; here were multitudenous men and women aware that their religion was not exactly the religion of their rulers, who might therefore be better than they were, and who, if better, might alter many things which now made the world perhaps more painful than it need be, and certainly more sinful. Yet there were the grey steeples too, and the churchyards… there were broad fields and homesteads, and fine old woods… In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another… after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades-union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region, where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of a near market for corn, cheese and hay… it was easy for the traveller to conceive that town and country had no pulse in common, except where the handlooms made a far-reaching straggling fringe about the great centres of manufacture… rural Englishmen… for the most part, resisted the rotation of crops and stood by their fallows: and the coachman would tell how in one parish an innovating farmer… had been fairly driven out by popular dislike, as if he had been a confounded Radical… and transferred his lease.
In her later novels, Eliot continued to write about the whole of human society, especially in Middlemarch (1871-72). which many consider to be the greatest novel in English. Again, she sets it in the time of the first Reform Act, creating the fictional town of Middlemarch in the centre of England. Its themes are immense, from the changes in the voting system to medicine; from the coming of the railways to the roles of women. It considers the importance of the dead hand of the past, and ends with the heroine Dorothea finding her own independence and happiness. In another of her great novels, Silas Marner, she again contrasts the growing urban communities like Lantern Yard with the rural villages of the English Midlands in the experience of one man, The Weaver of Raveloe.
A few leaders of the working people of industrial Britain believed, like George Eliot and other middle-class writers and social reformers, in self-improvement through education, temperance and religion. The picture on the left shows the very respectable gathering of trades unionists which was organised to protest against the treatment of the six Tolpuddle martyrs whom the Dorchester magistrates sentenced to transportation for life for their trade union activities. They were Methodists. In the late twenties and early thirties there were several unsuccessful attempts to establish large national unions of workers, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, founded by the Welsh industrialist, Robert Owen. More of these leaders, however, remained suspicious of allying themselves to the progressive middle classes, believing that, for example, the abolition of the Corn Laws and the arrival of cheaper grain, flour and bread would just be a pretext for employers to lower wages further.
The answer was a Magna Carta for the modern age: In May 1838 the Chartists sought to change the situation for working people by publishing and petitioning Parliament to accept the six points of The People’s Charter, the first of which was universal manhood suffrage. Three months later, the Charter was adopted by a crowd of two hundred thousand people at a meeting in Birmingham, marking the launching of the movement. The size of the crowd was an indication of the support which it was already attracting from widespread geographical areas, but most of these were industrial areas, where the rising corn prices and collapse of foreign trade in 1837-38 led to the support for the movement from unemployed workers in the manufacturing districts.
Above: The second Chartist petition is carried to the House of Commons, 1842
The lack of support for Chartism from the southern agricultural districts and from the capital itself was a major part of the ultimate defeat of the movement in 1848. Feargus O’Connor, MP for Nottingham, the charismatic Irishman who had founded The Northern Star as an anti-poor law paper and turned it into the major organ of Chartist politics, held back the physical force wing of Chartism by promising a final attempt at moral persuasion. A Chartist Convention would meet in London at the beginning of April and present the latest monster petition – five million names, it was said, on a document so immense that it would have to be taken to parliament in great bales, loaded on a farm wagon pulled by four big dray horses. Supporters, including Irish nationalist confederates, would descend on the capital from the Midlands and the North and would meet in morning assemblies at various Greens and Squares north of Westminster and move south in converging processions towards the Thames bridges, thence to their mass meeting place at Kennington Common. After speeches had been made, the petition was to be brought to Parliament. The Duke of Wellington sent out orders to allow controlled access over the bridges to Kennington – but, if necessary, to bar the route back. Some eighty-five thousand special constables had been sworn to supplement the four thousand Peelers of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and the eight thousand troops who were standing by under the command of the hero of Waterloo.
Given this overwhelming display of force, O’Connor had the same choice to make as faced all the leaders of European marches and demonstrations in the springtime of 1848: whether to force the issue by attacking the soldiers head-on, hoping for defections, to opt for a tactical stand-off or even beat the retreat. In making his decision, he knew that the geography of rebellion was not on the side of the Chartists. In Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, the footsoldiers of liberty were local artisans and workers who barricaded themselves in their own quarters, hoisted the flags of revolution and defied government troops to come and get them. They could legitimately appear to be defending their own hearths and homes. But Londoners en masse were not so unified in their hatred of the Government, and still less of their romantic young Queen. The rank-and-file Chartists from the regions and provinces had already been stigmatised as an occupying army. At Kennington, speaking through repeaters standing on platforms dispersed through the huge crowd, surrounded by Irishmen, O’Connor announced that his orders were not to provoke any kind of incident with the soldiers and police. Nevertheless, on Blackfriars Bridge on the return march, faced with a solid wall of truncheon-wielding police, there was heaving, stone-throwing, charges and counter-charges. Arrests were made and heads bled. Many of the younger men among the demonstrators were disappointed, but O’Connor really had no choice. He may have had the numbers, but he had no means of arming them to face disciplined and resolute forces of order. The early photograph of the meeting at Kennington shows a disciplined, Sunday-best dressed respectable protest by workers always anxious to give the lie to their demonization as a drunken, criminal rabble.
This was not the end of Chartism as a working-class movement, however. Some of the leaders became trade union leaders in the 1850s and fitful rebellion continued in Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. At the same time, less confrontational means of advancing the cause of reform through working-class self-improvement, were being attempted. The Chartist Land Company had been established by O’Connor in 1845 in fulfilment of the dream inherited from the seventeenth-century Diggers and more recent Irish reformers. Its aim was to take back to the rural world from which they or their forebears had come those workers, often hand-loom weavers or stocking frame knitters made redundant by the new power machinery, who found themselves stranded in the new urban areas described by George Eliot, or who were first generation immigrants to factories who wanted to return to the countryside. Those able to put down a little money were given a plot of a few acres on which food could be grown and a few animals kept: this was the resurrection of the strips and back lots they had lost to enclosure and engrossment. The Land Company has often been characterised as a utopian venture, but if it was, it was also based on solid business sense. It tapped into the already active instincts of working men and women to save enough money to buy property, including land at Great Dodford in Worcestershire, where a single cottage remains today as testimony to that spirit (photo left).
Subscribers were sold shares corresponding to their investment, and the first settlers were chosen by lottery, subsequently by auction or by the putting down of direct deposits. The motto of these settlers was do or die, as they cleared boulders, laid out roads and paths, and planted hedges. The conspicuous presence of women in the village was another indicator that, once the worst of the hard times were over, working families might be prepared to settle for the evolution of a rural domestic life rather than an urban revolution. This was not defeatism, but evidence of a quieter, constructive strategy which would come to dominate the second half century of the working-class movement. Nevertheless, in 1851, more than half a million men and women continued to struggle for a living in the cotton mills of the North, the majority of them women.
Meanwhile, the advent of The Railway Age was about to bring steam trains within sound of Constable’s East Bergholt. An Act of Parliament was needed to set up a Railway Company, since building a railway line involved the compulsory purchase of land. To obtain Parliament’s permission those wishing to form a company had to present a detailed prospectus giving details of route which the engineer proposed to follow and a list of all the landowners affected, who might well protest. Some landowners succeeded in changing the route, diverting the line past their estates, but others accepted the compensation provided. The engineer had to make his line as level as possible, filling in hollows and embankments, cutting through rising ground and driving tunnels through hills. Bridges, some of considerable height and length were needed, crossing marshy ground as well as river estuaries. All this was difficult work and demanded great skill on the part of the supervising engineer. In turn, the engineers required men to dig and build for them, and at one stage, in 1847, there were three hundred thousand navvies working up and down the country building railway lines. Their predecessors, the navigation workers, had built the canals. Now, armed with picks and shovels, dressed in moleskin trousers, hobnail boots and rainbow waistcoats, they gained a reputation for hard work and riotous living. They came mainly from Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, going wherever they were needed and living in shanty towns thrown together near the works.
On one line it was estimated that, in one year, they consumed nearly one and a half million litres of beer and over twenty thousand litres of spirits. During a full day’s work they could shift in the region of twenty tonnes of earth. The work was often dangerous, especially where gunpowder was used, and the navvies often increased the risks through their own recklessness. Three navvies were killed on the London and Birmingham Railway trying to leap over the mouth of a shaft in a game of follow-my-leader. Their skills were required overseas as well as in Britain, so that in the course of the nineteenth century they literally built railways around the world.
n 1836, the Eastern Counties Railway Company was formed to build and operate a line from London to Yarmouth via Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich, in direct competition with the stage-coach services which already followed the same route. The Eastern Counties Company’s project was the most ambitious to date, too ambitious as it turned out. When it reached Colchester in 1843 work stopped because local shareholders were outbid by others who were all for getting the stock rolling and had lost interest in meeting the transport needs of East Anglia. As the Norwich Mercury bitterly remarked, local people might have saved the line by buying up shares for a sum not larger than was expended in bribery at the last Norwich election.
Nonetheless, an Ipswich businessman formed another company, the Eastern Union, to complete the work, and by 1849 Ipswich had been linked to Bury and Norwich, with branch lines to Harwich, Hadleigh and Sudbury. There then followed a bitter battle between the two companies. However, the Eastern Counties Company still controlled the line south of Colchester, so by fixing high through fares they were able to force the majority of Norwich travellers to use the alternative route. In 1854 the Eastern Union was forced to sell out to its rivals. Other branch lines were laid by small local companies, bringing Lowestoft, Beccles, Halesworth, Framlingham and Woodbridge into the steam age. All these branch lines were eventually taken over by the Eastern Counties Company, which was then reconstituted as the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862.
At the time of the 1801 Census, Lowestoft was a decayed town of 2,332 inhabitants. Many efforts were made to improve the port, culminating in the building of the harbour in 1831. Then Sir Henry Morton Peto, a London builder and self-made man, who had amassed an immense fortune, bought the estate of Somerleyton, with its beautiful Tudor House, in 1844. He rebuilt the house, restored the church and virtually reconstructed the whole village. He also bought the branch line of the Eastern Counties Railway into Lowestoft in 1847. Lowestoft at once became the harbour for Norwich and once more accessible to the rest of the country. The fisheries revived, and the port became an important port of call for coasters. In 1854 the local authorities were empowered by the Lowestoft Improvement Act to levy a two-shilling rate to repair buildings, build new homes and install lighting, sewerage and other amenities. In 1861 the population was 9,413 and climbing.
By this time other Suffolk coastal towns had begun to share in the revival. Resorts were becoming popular destnations as the railways brought holidaymakers right into the east coast ports. In Southwold local businessmen embarked on an ambitious programme of speculative building of houses and hotels. White’s Directory for 1844 stated,
Felixstowe is now in high celebrity as a bathing place, and speculators have within the last few years erected here neat houses and cottages, which are let to visitors during the bathing season.