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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; III.   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Patterns of Poverty & Kinship Networks.

The predominance of ‘King Coal’ in the valleys of South Wales was revealed in the occupational statistics of the 1921 Census, showing that more than seventy-five percent of the total occupied male occupation in the Garw Valley was engaged in mining, with only five percent engaged in commerce, finance or the professions. An equally important statistic was that only twelve percent of the female population, aged twelve and over, was ‘occupied’ outside the home, with thirty-nine percent of this number engaged in personal service and thirty-seven percent in commerce, finance and the professions. In addition, besides the eight clergymen in Pontycymmer in 1926, there were only three other ‘private residents’. Outside the home, the world of waged work was overwhelmingly male and working class, even more so than in the towns at the heads of the valleys.

By 1931, there was no evidence to suggest that unemployment had prompted a shift in employment patterns in the Garw. According to the industry tables, which excluded the unemployed, more than four-fifths in the Ogmore and Garw Urban District were to be found in mining. There was an increase in the proportion of both male and female workers in commerce, finance and the professions, but only thirty percent of women were to be found in this category; there was still more than thirty-six percent in personal service. These ‘dead-end’ valleys were so dependent upon coal-mining that the ‘knock-on’ effect which unemployment in that industry had upon other industries and trade within them, had nothing to counteract it. Merthyr and Brynmawr, by comparison, could at least offer themselves as shopping, distributive and entertainment centres to a large number of people within a wide radius.

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A Section of the 1921 Edition of the Ordnance Survey Map showing the Garw Valley from Blaengarw to Pontycymmer.

In June 1937, it was reported that the coal industry had been in recovery since January, with each of the three collieries in Blaengarw working at full pressure… with bright prospects of regular employment. In these six months, many new hands had been taken on, resulting in a steady decline in the numbers signing on at the local exchange. Later that year, the new oil-from-coal plant at Wentarw and the beginning of full production at the Bridgend shell-filling factory relieved the unemployment situation still further. The first of these provided work for between two and three thousand workers; the second went on to become the largest ammunition filling factory in Britain, employing 34,000 workers at its wartime peak. It also altered the gender balance in employment, as the majority of these new workers were women and girls drawn from a wide radius around Bridgend and from as far afield as Aberdare. A third means of relief was the establishment of a trading estate at Port Talbot, which also recruited many female workers. By August 1939 there were just twelve percent registered unemployed at the Pontycymmer exchange in the Garw and the insured population had risen dramatically, by fifty-five percent between July 1937 and July 1938, almost regaining its 1926 level. Besides the recovery in the coal industry, a significant part of the increase must have been to the numbers of young women who entered employment for the first time to work in Bridgend.

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Therefore, the coal villages of the Garw Valley, for so long so overwhelmingly dominated by male employment, were undergoing a process of major transformation, which was further accelerated by the advent of war. The Garw valley undoubtedly enjoyed a significant share of these new industries from 1937 onwards, with the economic focus of the valleys as a whole shifting from top to bottom. However, both the establishment of the new industries and the recovery of the collieries still left a residual problem of unemployment among older men throughout the valleys, not just in the communities at the valley heads. In many mining families, like the Allports in Pant-y-gog in the Garw, the wives had also been shop-keepers, taking as much as a hundred pounds a day in the prosperous early twenties. By 1927 this prosperity had turned into a struggle for survival. The children recalled how…

… the shop kept going but people got poorer and unemployment crept in… The amount of money coming into the shops got less and less and we were practically giving the stuff away, making no profit. The windows became empty and the bottles of sweets went. Eventually we stopped taking any stock… the trade in the shop had gone; there was insufficient to live on. The shop was only rented and we gave it up. I think mother had something for the goodwill, not very much because the trade had gone.

Thus, the effects of widespread unemployment and impoverishment were often felt most acutely by shopkeepers in terms of a comparative fall in the standard of living and this was precisely the group which were least able either to ask for or to find support within mining communities. Despite their involvement in institutional activities, especially in chapel life, there would inevitably be a certain ‘distance’ between them and mining families, even members of the shopkeepers’ family worked as miners.

These points are exemplified, in pathetic detail, by events of July 1928 concerning one shop-keeping family in the valley. The Glamorgan Gazette reported how one Saturday morning, Blaengarw was plunged into gloom and overwhelmed by poignant sorrow when the bodies of a married shop-keeping couple, who had carried on a grocery business in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw for many years and were faithful adherents of Tabernacle C M Church. The tragedy became the sole topic of conversation and when the bodies were brought home on Saturday afternoon an immense crowd had collected, women shedding tears at the pitiable sight they witnessed. The couple had commenced on the bottom rung of the ladder and had worked their way up to being ‘comfortably off’ before the strike of 1921. However, since that date, they had given all of their surpluses away in goods to local people and were threatened with bankruptcy. They were both in their mid-forties and had a fourteen-year-old son. The woman was the daughter of a former under-manager at the Ocean Colliery and her brother was a teacher in the Garw. Her husband wrote the following messages for their niece, their son, and the chapel:

Goodbye, Gwyneth fach; always serve God well… Oh! How hard it is to leave you behind, Ewryd annwyl… but we can’t bear the strain any longer…

Christian friends… we have been unable to do our part for a long time owing to financial troubles… Haven’t done anyone wilfully down, but all is against us.

The funeral was reported a representative of every trade and profession in the district. The suicide was seen as a marker of the loss of power and status endured by the community as a whole since it stemmed from the couple’s sense of isolation, demoralisation, and loss of respectability. As the depression progressed, their case was followed by others.

Housing conditions in the valley varied a great deal. Houses in Pant-y-gog, lower down the valley, were comfortable and spacious, with a parlour, living room, kitchen and three bedrooms. Those renting terraced cottages from the colliery companies frequently had three adults and eight children living in fur rooms.  One house in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw not only ad an outside toilet but an outside water supply and pantry as well, no modernisation anywhere. Many of the houses were erected in the 1880s before housing bylaws were introduced to the Garw Valley, and the degree of control exercised over housing stock by the coal companies was far greater than in the heads of the valleys’ towns. In 1926 the Ogmore and Garw UDC had discussed the acute housing shortage within the District, and the following year it heard how a terrace in Pontycymmer was plagued with dampness, extensive dilapidation and cracked external walls which were leaning dangerously towards the road. The report went on:

Movement of the houses is occuring almost daily, as evidenced by falls of plaster from bedroom ceilings. The houses are a source of danger to the inhabitants.

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Porth, in the Rhondda, also suffered continually from ‘subsidence’ because deep pits found their own levels, downwards. According to Gwyn Thomas, who grew up there in the 1920s, these land-slips not only brought houses down, quite literally, but they had a further impact on a community already coming to terms with economic instability:

…the valley seemed like a living gloss on the holy texts. We saw clear signs of God’s wrath in the antics of the sub-soil. When the foundations beneath a house slipped ans set the rooms awry we could not be convinced that the tenants had not been up to something… A whole culture of instability flourished. Constant oratorios were warned that our game of insolence with God had been lost and the final bill would be delivered shortly… it was the malaise underfoot that underscored most of the images that we were to carry through life begetting jokes of exasperating stamina, and giving to us all a sense of absurdity that was far and away the fittest thing about us… These elements in our private myth, under pressure of a wider awareness, created their own kind of psychological subsidence.

Despite the worsening conditions of the housing stock, many families were also threatened with eviction. Much of the housing was privately-owned, and evictions for non-payment were a regular occurrence.  In Council-owned property, rent arrears had reached such crisis proportions by May 1931 that the Ogmore and Garw UDC decided to reduce rent by two shillings per week. Many houses were said to be in a dilapidated condition for want of tenants, so it was hoped that, by reducing rents, the UDC would get these occupied again. The collection of rates was also a difficult issue for the local council. As early as 1928, The Glamorgan Gazette commented that large numbers of people in the district who paid their rates willingly in times of prosperity were finding it impossible to do so under the new conditions of poverty. Arrears were mounting alarmingly and it was therefore with the greatest reluctance that the UDC had decided to summon a number of defaulters. In total 144 people were prosecuted and despite the pathos surrounding their undoubtedly bad circumstances, the magistrates were compelled to make orders. This process kept them occupied for several hours, under circumstances which would have taxed the well-known ingenuity and wisdom of Solomon. Most of those who attended were women, most of them having pathetic stories to tell. 

Besides these fixed outgoings for rent and rates, many residents in the valley also made regular contributions to their own health care, and appear to have continued to do so in spite of the impact of the depression on their incomes. There was a widespread feeling in the valleys that the National Health Insurance Scheme provided inadequate cover in times of sickness. Medical Aid Societies and hospital contributory schemes continued to be popular throughout the coalfield. In the Garw there were 3,519 insured contributors to the Garw Valley Medical Society, with a further 2,800 dependents standing to benefit from this. This form of ‘self-help’ was one of the major strengths of the valley, running through an institutional life which some disparaged as the multiplicity of small clubs and benefit societies. Perhaps due to being ‘hemmed in’ geographically, the community felt the need to provide for itself in terms of a complete range of social services, facilities for cultural activities and entertainment as well as forums for discussion, debate and education.

The Pontycymmer Industrial Co-operative Society was perhaps the best example of this. In May 1927 its members totalled 3,444 members with a further 1,400 dependants, and a modest shop in Pontycymmer had developed into extensive central premises with offices, a bakery, a garage and stables. Although its sales within the valley were considerable, they comprised only a third of its total sales of 63,465 pounds throughout the District and beyond. A dividend of a shilling in the pound was paid to members, amounting to 2,694 pounds in total. Having survived the six-month coal stoppage, the Pontycymmer Co-op Society was in good shape to face the depression years and must have enabled many housewives to survive them.

To many working-class women throughout Britain during the thirties, the ‘divi’ was as important as payday and the declaration of the amount to be paid as a dividend on purchases was awaited with desperate anticipation. The dividend on purchases had been a wise element in the pioneers’ scheme of co-operation, for it was popular with the poor, according to their ideas on justice and equity that those who had been most loyal in shopping at the Co-operative should be better regarded and rewarded as consumers. Despite the depression years the Co-ops flourished, having a close knowledge of the requirements of working-class families and the prices they could afford to pay. The cash dividend would be paid twice a year, varying from Society to Society but often paying two shillings in the pound. To a housewife who had traded steadily during the year, the money could bring an additional week’s wages, arriving in time to buy new boots for the children or provide a few luxuries for Christmas.

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Deep loyalty was bred during the inter-war years between working-class families and the Co-operatives, the movement frequently lending support to trade unions at times of distress, as well as to the Labour Party and its MPs. Free boot repairs for hunger marchers, free bread for strikers’ children, extended credit in the form of food vouchers, interest-free loans to unions during prolonged strikes and constant support for the Labour cause through the Co-operative paper, Reynolds News, could not be matched by the Home and Colonial Stores and The Daily Mail, supporting the Conservative Party. The photograph above shows the ‘divi’ at the Co-operative Union in Manchester in the thirties.

Although most ‘respectable’ women in coalfield communities would never go into a pub, and children were not allowed to visit houses where a woman was known to drink, there was a ‘rough’ or ‘common’ sub-culture in public houses and clubs, which does not seem to have suffered unduly from the depression. Judging from the fairly frequent reports of drunkenness in the local press, there were a large number of people in the valley with enough surplus money to be able to buy alcohol on a regular basis. Thomas Baker Williams, the Licensee of the Royal Hotel in Pontycymmer, was summoned for permitting drunkenness on his premises on more than one occasion. At his appearance in Court in June 1928, evidence was given of a night on which the Bridgend Road was, by ten O’clock, crowded with men and women many of whom were drunk and the men were shouting and quarrelling. Two women had started to fight in the jug and bottle department and had used the most filthy language. In all, there were some 250 people on the scene, many of them under the influence of drink. Williams defended himself in somewhat comical style by saying that the cause of the trouble was the fact that he sold the best beer and thereby drew the biggest crowd.

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The Rhondda writer Gwyn Thomas’ 1979 lecture told of how drunkenness in Porth was of a savage intensity, especially on a Saturday night when his family’s street that ran a thousand feet up the hillside filled with a roaring rout of inebriates from the five or six local pubs. There was such frequent and fierce fighting that it was a wonder that murder was not more often done, probably due to the difficulty of placing a good punch on the sloping ground. Thomas recalled a particularly devout and zealous chapel-going neighbour who lay in wait in her little front garden that overlooked the swaying tide of reprobates:

She swung a brass-bound Bible at any heads that came near and if she brained a drunkard or two her week was made. Repairs to her Bible were done free by a pious locksmith. The desperate infantilism of the drunks was easy to understand because the contract with reality was never more bleakly reaffirmed on the Sabbath than between those hills… The anguish of intelligent, overburdened men with hangovers must have been considerable as the marvellous valley acoustic brought home to them the rub of folly in a double-dealing and wholly inadequate world. The plight of women in that time of dark philogenetic romps and squalors is something from which I still turn my mind.

The choice was clear for women: if you went to the pub, to the ‘snug’ at least, you couldn’t go to the chapel. Nevertheless, much of the social life of the valley continued to revolve around the chapels, despite the financial and other difficulties which beset them. Each of the seventeen places of worship in the valley supported choirs, each with a reputation, and the Tabernacle Welsh Congregational Church Choral Society consisted of over a hundred voices and performed before crowded audiences. Choral festivals, Eisteddfodau and Gymanfa Ganu (Community Singing events) continued to attract huge congregations throughout the thirties. Thus, although many chapels felt at first hand the full impact of the impoverishment of a large number of its members, they were certainly not abandoned by them and left to stagnate in a process of terminal decline. Nor, in turn, did the chapels abandon their unemployed members. In fact, The Gazette reported that the chapels were continually vying with each other in efforts for the alleviation of the widespread distress. 

It was the musical tradition established in the chapels which laid the basis for the Garw’s claim to be one of the most musical valleys in South Wales.  Its musical organisations included the Garw Operatic Society, the Garw Male Voice Society, which enjoyed success at the National Eisteddfod, Garw Ladies’ Choir, the Blaengarw Kit Kat Operatic Society and the Pontycymmer Choral Society. Some of these societies had more than two hundred members and the Male Voice Society had a membership of twice that in 1926. Both Blaengarw and Pontycymmer had orchestral societies and silver bands. The valley also produced individual vocalists of considerable ability, including Jennie Ellis who won ‘the National’ six times. In addition, the valley had a strong amateur dramatic tradition which was enhanced by the writer Jack Jones during his brief sojourn in the valley. Perhaps partly due to his departure, these societies declined after 1931, and some of the orchestras also merged, probably due to the extent of migration from the valley.

From 1928, the predominance of the Labour Party in local politics was strengthened through the active participation of women, who formed themselves into a Women’s Labour Section. Although still in its infancy in 1928, it had over a hundred members. It was pre-dated by a Women’s Section of the ILP, one of whose leading members was Mrs Sarah Jones of Pontycymmer, a pioneer of the ILP and the Suffragette movement, the Chairman of the Party in the valley and a member of the English Congregational Church. The level of political organisation of women in the valley was undoubtedly an important resource for the community, particularly during the 1929 dispute, but also throughout the thirties.

Elsewhere in depressed Britain, Salford in Manchester was aided by the women of Chichester, as a fund had been inaugurated by their Bishop in 1933. The ‘Five Silent Ladies of Sussex’ as they were known, lived in Salford for three months, collecting data. Shortly afterwards, two men’s centres and a woman’s centre were opened. Called “The Challenge”, the women’s centre did not succeed as a centre for single unemployed women, but when it invited married women to join, it was swamped with women and children. They had to cope with the problem of distributing second-hand clothing fairly.  Garments were altered by women who had been mill hands since the age of fourteen but had not learnt to sew. An instructor taught them on two afternoons per week, and the women earned their garments by the number of hours they worked at alterations, as well making bedding. The centre opened a ‘shop’ to organise the distribution of the garments, and Christmas parcels.

Tyneside had about seventy thousand unemployed in 1936. It also had some of the worse housing conditions in Britain, far worse than those in most areas of South Wales, including an incidence of overcrowding which was three-time the national average. It also had an even lower standard of living among the unemployed, but the conditions were more accepted by the local people, since mass unemployment had not been so long-term, resulting mainly from the closure of the shipyards, which did not occur until the 1930s. Social surveys proved scientifically the extent of the social murder in the towns. In 1932, the local branch of the National Council of Women launched a Tyneside Housing Crusade Week in order to present the facts about housing, the cost to the community of bad housing, to stimulate building, relieve unemployment and to demonstrate modern possibilities of living efficiently. Ten Local Authorities out of seventeen took part.

The General Election of 1931 was one of misery for the Labour Party as they fought the most divisive contest in the history of the movement, before or since. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, in 1929 the newly-appointed Minister for Unemployment, J H Thomas, had boasted, I have the cure, as he hob-nobbed with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar from 1,163,000 on taking office to 2,500,000 within eighteen months. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the workless, remarked sarcastically that as Minister for the Unemployed, J H Thomas is a howling success. The government ignored the arguments of the TUC that cutting expenditure and wages would only cause further unemployment, and accepted the advice of the May Committee to cut expenditure by ninety-six million, two-thirds of which would come from cuts in unemployment maintenance. Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a delegation to the Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. McDonald formed his National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals and the fight was a straight fight between the Labour Party and the other parties in office led by McDonald. Labour representation in the house was cut from 289 to 46. Ernie Bevin, pictured on the left in the photo below, contested the supposedly safe seat of Gateshead (Labour majority 16,700) and lost to the National Liberal, by 12,938 votes.

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At Gateshead, Rev. Maldwyn Edwards, Methodist Minister ran a centre for the unemployed connected to his church, the Central Hall, which he based on a questionnaire completed by its members. This meant that his knowledge and understanding of their problems was outstanding. He later wrote a book which was never published, but it gives an evocative insight into conditions among local families in the 1930s. In 1932, he recorded, there were three and a half thousand families living in one room and nearly thirty percent of the population lived in officially overcrowded housing. In spite of this, most houses were clean, with curtains at the windows which showed a desire for colour and beauty, but these could not hide the grim if silent battles going on inside:

The families had a constant struggle against sickness and poverty, so hope died and they became apathetic. Rats were a real problem in some areas, and the mortality from epidemics in some parts of the town was twice that of other parts.

The diet was inadequate, but most housewives baked their own bread: fresh milk and butter were rare. Breakfast was tea, bread and margarine with a little fried bacon once a week. Dinner on Saturday night might be a hot joint, stew or pot pie, then Monday cold meat, then the rest of the week peas pudding, leek pudding, occasionally fish and chips, or tripe, or just bread and margarine, always with plenty of tea… 

Clothes and household necessities could not be bought outright, so the only thing to do was to get on an agent’s list, so everything was more expensive to the very poor. In 1933 there were thirty-seven children without shoes and stockings, and 138 children with unsatisfactory footwear, so the children least nourished and therefore least fortified against the weather were worst clad.  Secondhand clothing was not easy to come by, but the Personal Service League had a huge emporium for distribution… Some insurance was organised by slate clubs which met in pubs rent-free, but there were also Brotherhood Thrift Clubs and Friendly Societies which had many members and were on a sounder basis…

But many of the unemployed did not belong to a friendly society, but went to the doctor when illness occurred and paid him weekly afterwards. Then there were dispensary letters given to contributors to hospital funds and distributed. But the amount given was half that collected: these were most wasteful of money, time and energy. The Nursing Association of Gateshead supplied a good and cheap service: the householder paid a penny a week which ensured visits from a nurse in time of need.

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It was his first-hand experience of the failure of the friendly societies to organise health insurance schemes which convinced Aneurin Bevan, as a young MP in Ebbw Vale, that there must be a free national health service funded by taxation.

There was a ‘penny in the slot’ gas meter in most homes in Gateshead: most cooking was done over the fire, however, as there were few cookers and practically no electricity installed. Families with pit connections were extravagant with coal, but people who lived in dark and damp houses needed extra heat and light. Sudden illnesses, deaths and emergencies created further expenses which could not be met; debts might mean court proceedings and belongings seized:

A desperate situation might result in a “moonlight flit”. These things were not always the result of improvidence: those who needed a doctor most could not afford to have one. The poor have a monotonous routine: they cannot have a holiday: they pay more for what they need.

The men at Edwards’ Centre were not ‘typical’ as they all belonged to a club in which drinking and gambling were not allowed, but, as the minister himself pointed out, there was no such thing as a typical unemployed man anyway. In general, there was a large amount of street betting, also an interest in boxing, football and dogs, with an alarming growth in the football ‘Pools’. The men at the centre spent an average of threepence ha’penny per head on amusements plus about a shilling per week on tobacco. They may have had a day in the country or at the seaside once or twice a year. There were daily papers provided at the Centre and there were fellowship rambles, cycle rides, services, Brotherhood meetings, young men’s classes, billiards and a mission reading room. But most men could only make use of the club after they had been out looking for work in order to earn their unemployment benefit or allowance. One of the men had been out of work for fifteen years, ever since his demobilisation. ‘Genuinely Seeking Work’ for up to twelve hours a day took its toll on bicycles as well as boots, which restricted the number of bikes available for pleasurable community rides. Often father and son had to share one bicycle in two daily shifts.

Nevertheless, the Centre helped to improve the quality of life in the family, if not the standard of living. One man said that since going to the centre he did not nag his wife and children so much. Another said that walking in the sunshine built him up to face the winter:

Being unemployed is a nightmare, but somehow I thrust away the worried feeling I used to endure, but I lack concentration as work is always at the back of my mind.

Several men gave regular times to help to help their wives, have family walks, and visit their parents. A few visited the Training Centre to do cobbling on a regular basis. One man had done extra-mural university courses, but he too found it difficult to persevere due to…

… the haunting sense of insecurity and the continual worry of not being able to balance the family budget; in times of stress he could not concentrate on subjects of only academic interest, saying, “The stomach does not give the soul a chance!” Unemployment is not leisure: the latter implies peace of mind, a quiet place to retreat, so education for leisure cannot help the unemployed very much if men have acute financial, family and work problems.

Rev. Maldwyn Edwards wrote that the gap between the real needs of people and their actual purchasing power had to be understood: Production does not reach saturation point until every man, woman and child have sufficient for their needs, so it is purchasing power that is needed. People needed goods but could not buy them. He also pointed out that there was important work to be done amongst the wives and children of the unemployed, who often needed more help and support than the men. There were women’s institutes and ‘sisterhoods’ in most towns and villages in the country, but the problems of juveniles, both male and female, needed more thought, especially those of school-leavers, who did not all take advantage of scouts, guides and similar organisations. Mr Edwards thought that no club was better than a church club wisely conducted, since, at the very least, it could offer housing and heating. Some in his congregation thought that the men would not respect the rooms, but Edwards found this to be false and argued that a church should open its doors to the community and make its premises useful to club members who in return may develop an interest in the church.

Men in particular thought that the church was an ally of the ruling classes and dope for the workers. And yes, it was possible to keep talking about the Christian ideal of service without ever doing anything: man cannot live without bread, but he does not live by bread alone. The church’s role was to restore self-respect by showing that each of us is known to God and each of us has an individual destiny to fulfil. But there was no credal test for the membership of the club and the only activity the members of the club were obliged to attend, but which was not compulsory, was the weekly brotherhood meeting every Tuesday afternoon, lasting for ninety minutes and consisting of popular hymns, solos and a devotional address. Naturally, no drinking or gambling was allowed, and card games, whist drives and dancing were forbidden. These prohibitions meant that some men would not associate with the Methodist club, but it was still the largest Centre on the whole of Tyneside. Edwards argued that many other churches could have run an unemployed centre without great extra cost, since the church premises had to be moderately heated anyway, ready for church use. For Edwards, however, the imperative for the church’s involvement lay in the psychological and spiritual effects of unemployment on men and their families:

No one is quicker than the unemployed man himself to feel the loss of his old status, so those who try to help must be careful not to increase his sense of inferiority… The overstrained unemployed man may break out in his family circle, later he may attend classes in economics to try to understand his position, but he feels puny and unavailing… especially if he is over fifty years… it is very difficult to persuade men to cobble shoes, to undertake carpentry, to use the workshop, to continue to attend keep fit classes, because they have lost their initiative and perseverance. The many clubs and centres only touch the fringe of the problem: most unemployed remain behind the curtains of their own rooms in loneliness and bitterness. The black-coated workers are probably in the worst position as they do not come to the Centre or mix with others. There is the fruitless search for work and looking at advertisement files for the thousandth time. It was a particularly galling situation when a son or daughter’s wages were virtually supporting the family. It was hard for the young people but most humiliating for the parents. Employment gives direction to a man – a life without direction is like driftwood upon the sea.

In the midst of mass unemployment, trade depression and crippling poverty, private landlords continued to exact a terrible tribute from the working classes. The conditions in which the vast majority of industrial and agricultural workers lived were appalling, crammed into dilapidated houses that were breeding grounds of pestilence. The slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and London ranked with the worst in the world and the landlords had first call on the wages of the workers, exacting an average of twenty percent of their income, always enforcible by the power of eviction. In the London Boroughs of St Pancras, Holborn, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Bermondsey and Southwark, four hundred thousand were living more than two to a room. In Shoreditch alone, a hundred thousand people were packed into one square mile. Workers lived in nineteenth-century tenements, like the one shown below, sharing lavatories and taps. Baths in working-class houses were virtually unknown. Others continued to live in basement flats, in a world of perpetual twilight while those fortunate enough to live in a terraced house invariably took in lodgers to meet the rent or shared the house with married sons or daughters.

In 1930, the medical officer of Hammersmith told of a man with a wife and four children living in three rooms, his income forty-five shillings a week, his rent one pound. In St Pancras, where wages were nearer fifty shillings per week, the average rent was eighteen shillings and sixpence. These did not represent the worst instances, neither were they isolated examples, since the stories could be repeated in thousands of homes throughout the land. Poverty, overcrowding and slum conditions existed not only in the ‘depressed areas’ but also, in pockets, throughout the towns and cities, including those in London, the south-East and the Midlands of England. Back-to-back houses with narrow allies between, where a dozen families shared a single communal tap like that depicted in the photograph below of Long Bank, Sunderland, were common in the north of England where overcrowding was endemic. The effects of bad housing and chronic overcrowding of the working classes were accurately reflected in the disparity between the figures for infant mortality and disease for the lower paid against those of the better paid. Tuberculosis, rickets, scarlet fever and diphtheria proliferated among the poor, rotten housing combining with undernourishment to take a wicked toll on the health of working-class children.

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In 1931, the Newport School Medical Officer found that boys at the age of fourteen at the High School were two inches taller and five pounds heavier than their contemporaries at the elementary school while the girls at the municipal secondary school were four inches higher and twenty-one pounds heavier than girls at the elementary schools. In May 1937, the South Wales Report of the Labour Party’s Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas argued that,

Special and immediate attention must be paid to nutrition. All children at school, and all juveniles and young persons receiving education or industrial training under public authorities, should receive a ration of milk and at least one good meal per day, all the year round, free of charge.

Under the maternity and child welfare services, similar provision should be made for children under five, and free milk and food should be available for expectant and nusing mothers wherever needed.                                                                           

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The Commission consisted of Hugh Dalton, MP, George Dallas, JP and Barbara Ayrton Gould, JP., as well as George Hall (MP for Aberdare) and Arthur Jenkins (MP for Pontypool), members in respect of South Wales. Written and/or oral evidence was received from Women’s Sections and Women’s Organisations from all over South Wales. The Commission also issued reports on West Cumberland, Durham and the North-East Coast, Mid-Scotland and Lancashire. A final report dealt with the problem of the Depressed Areas as a whole.

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In earlier surveys of poverty, Booth and Rowntree had developed their own definitions of poverty, but in 1933 the British Medical Association had appointed a committee to determine the minimum weekly expenditure on food which must be incurred by families of a varying size if health and working capacity are to be maintained. In the years before the war (1937-39) this minimum diet cost roughly 7s 6d per week for an adult man, with a lesser cost for women and children. In Bristol, the average cost per man in 1937 was 7s 4d, per woman 14-65, 6s 3d, and for an unemployed man or woman, it was 4s 5d. The cost per child aged 10-13 was 6s 3d, aged 5-9 4s 7d, and aged 0-4, 3s 8d. Thus, for a family made up of a man of forty with a wife who was at home looking after three children aged twelve, eight and four, the cost of the minimum diet necessary to maintain the family in health was 28s 1d. If the family spent less than this on food its health would suffer.

It was from these figures that most investigators in the second half of the thirties built their definitions of poverty. Broadly, they decided that where a family, after paying for rent, the barest minimum for clothes, fuel, lighting and cleaning, had not enough money left to buy this minimum diet, then the family was in poverty. If in the example given already, the man had been earned fifty shillings a week and paid ten shillings for rent, 16s for clothes and 5s 3d for fuel, lighting and cleaning, there would have been available 28s 9d to feed his family of five, they would have been considered to be above the “poverty line”.  Each of the main surveys modified this method of definition slightly; fundamentally, however, they all used it. When applied to a 1928 Survey of London, it was found that nearly ten percent of all working-class families in the city had to live on less than the BMA minimum. The fundamental and persisting causes of this poverty were found to be old age, the absence of a male earner and largeness of family. In addition, thirteen percent of the children and twenty-two percent of all those over sixty-four years of age in London’s working-class families were in poverty.

In any particular week, however, the numbers of those chronically impoverished would be substantially augmented by those falling temporarily below the minimum income line as a result of unemployment or illness. In any selected week of the generally prosperous year of 1928 almost ten percent of London’s working-class was in poverty, and of these thirty-seven percent were children under fourteen, and thirteen percent were over sixty-four; twenty-eight percent were wage-earners, aged fourteen to sixty-five, mostly unemployed. Practically all the balance of twenty-two percent were the women dependents of the unemployed. The relative importance of the causes of poverty found in the investigation week (out of ten) was unemployment, six, illness or absence of a male earner, three, full employment but on earnings insufficient for the size of the family, two, and old age, one.

In York in 1936, thirty-one percent of York’s working men failed to reach the meagre standard set by Seebohm Rowntree, which was below the BMA standard. The wages of adult males in the city were not, however, abnormally low compared to the rest of the country, but they were too low in relation to the numbers of mouths to be fed. What was judged adequate to remove adequate to remove poverty at most periods of the working man’s life was substantially inadequate when between the ages of thirty and forty-five, he added two or three children to his household. The average family in poverty because of inadequate wages had two dependent children. Children’s allowances at a flat rate of five shillings for every child would have lifted practically the whole of this group over the poverty threshold and wiped out nearly three-quarters of the city’s poverty. Without such an allowance in the 1930s, long years of poverty was the price a low-wage family had to pay for containing three or four children. In addition, nearly fifteen percent of all poverty in the city was caused in families where the elder members were “too old to work”. Their available income was only sufficient to provide seventy percent of the minimum diet. Two-thirds of the people in these households were aged sixty-five or over, and the bulk of their income came from state pensions and Public Assistance. Half of all the old age pensioners in York were, at the time of the survey, living in poverty.

Similar surveys were also carried out on Merseyside (1929), in Southampton (1931), Bristol (1937), and Birmingham (1939). Using the BMA’s London minimum standard, found that up to twenty percent of all working-class families in these centres were living in poverty in the week of the investigation. None of these centres was in the depressed or ‘Special Areas’ and some, like Bristol, were centres of new engineering industries. Summarising the findings of these six surveys, including London and York, the Fabian Society drew the following conclusions on the pattern of poverty in Britain between the wars,  as part of a study published in 1945:

1. In the decade before 1939, even during periods of trade boom, at least fifteen to twenty percent of all working-class people were unable, in spite of all the help of our inter-war social insurance schemes, to afford a diet that would save them from ill-health; but this figure is arrived at only if  we assume that the bottom half of the working-class is sufficiently austere to spend absolutely nothing on the comforts and pleasures of life. If we drop this unreal assumption, then it is certain that more than twenty percent were, in fact, not obtaining the minimum diet.

2. Approximately one-third of this poverty was due to the fact that unemployment benefits were inadequate; approximately another third was due to the fact that the ordinary worker’s earnings, even when he was in full and regular work, were often insufficient to feed, clothe and house more than two or three people. About half the remaining poverty was due to the fact that many working-class people, once they had passed the age of sixty-five, had little to live on except an inadequate old age pension.

3. Probably not less than twenty-five percent of working-class children were born into families that could not afford the BMA minimum diet. As they and their brothers and sisters grew up and started work the family’s hardships diminished… Often, however, this was only an interlude of comparative prosperity for the working-class man; with old age… he was left with declining earning capacity to face a degree of poverty even grimmer than that in which his grandchildren were starting life.

4. The evidence collected from half-a-dozen great cities in the ten years before the war shows that the way out of this dreary cycle is not, for the most part, in the hands of the individual worker.

Richard Titmuss’ studies in Poverty and Population, published in 1938, also looked back over the previous decade in an attempt to survey the extent, character and causes of social waste and relate the findings to the problem of an ageing and diminishing population. These studies had to be quarried from hard factual bedrock in order to break through governmental apathy and ineptitude. Titmuss set out to analyse two factors which were of great significance:

(1) that those regions suffering from economic under-privilege and most exposed to malnutrition-inducing conditions contain by far a higher proportion of our children; and…

(2) that it is only higher fertility in these regions that has prevented an earlier and probably calamitous fall in the size of the population.

He produced statistics showing that in 1936 over ten percent of deaths in south Wales occurred in children under four, compared with 8.5% in the south East of England. Infant mortality was sixty-three per thousand deaths in south Wales, compared with just forty-seven in south-east England. He calculated that five thousand excess deaths occurred among infants under one in the North of England and Wales during 1936, amounting to approximately excess deaths in the five years since the slump of 1931. Deaths from measles were twice as high in Wales as in England and Wales as a whole, implying a widespread prevalence of rickets… malnutrition and poverty. In the period 1931-35, whilst south-east England showed a considerable improvement in the number of infant deaths, South Wales showed a continuing deterioration.

Similarly, maternal mortality rates in south Wales were well over twice those in south-east England and Titmuss felt able to state that if the maternal mortality rates in the North of England and in south Wales had been the same as those for Greater London, the lives of nearly six hundred mothers would have been saved in those regions. Female deaths from tuberculosis in the 15-35 age range in south Wales were seventy percent above the average for England and Wales as a whole. From this series of statistics, Titmuss went on to calculate that the number of avoidable, premature deaths among women in the North of England and Wales in 1936, a year of relative prosperity, was 54,000 and that the number over the previous ten years was probably of the order of half a million.

These high levels of infant, child and maternal mortality can only be fully understood when it is realised that forty percent of the total child population in England and Wales was concentrated in northern England and Wales at this time, compared with thirty-eight percent in south-east England. H W Singer’s 1937 unpublished study for the Pilgrim Trust, Unemployment and Health is helpful in separating out the economic and social causes of mortality. It isolates the effect of the general trade depression of 1929-34 from the long-term factors related to climate, housing and the quality of social services in the different regions. Correlating the unemployment statistics for these five years with a range of health indices for seventy-seven boroughs throughout England and Wales, Singer identified a rise of twenty percent in infant and maternal mortality resulting from rising unemployment and poverty during this period.

None of the data examined by Singer failed to exhibit some sort of correlation with unemployment, and it was certainly the view of those who visited south Wales that, anecdotally, there was a direct qualitative correlation between the economic distress of the population and their health. They reported that levels of health and welfare provision in south Wales were greatly inferior to those in other regions though varying considerably within the Region itself. In his 1937 Portrait of a Mining Town, Philip Massey pointed out that the majority of the unemployed in Blaina and Nantyglo, a coalfield community with one of the highest recorded unemployment levels throughout the thirties, could be described as having a diet which was inadequate for perfect health in all the constituents considered by Sir John Orr’s standard, set out in his 1936 report, Food, Health, and Income. Those families whose weekly expenditure on food was five to seven shillings per head would have a diet which was adequate only in total proteins and total fat. Those families with members in work were able to afford total expenditure of up to nine shillings per head on food, providing a diet adequate in energy value, protein and fat, but below standard in minerals and vitamins. 

Massey also confirmed the view of Titmuss, Singer and others that it was the women in these coalfield communities who suffered most in terms of health in a variety of ways. Whilst the men seemed to look their age, except for those obviously suffering from industrial diseases, the women generally looked older than they were due to the hour by hour strain of making do and the lack of holidays or any opportunity to leave the home apart from the weekly shopping or the occasional visit to the cinema. Women were often reluctant to enter a hospital, in cases of childbirth and illness, as they thought that the household would get into a muddle in their absence. Massey also noted that there was no birth control clinic in the district and that many women, fearful of having to rear more children on the dole, would undermine their health by the use of aperients. Even in those households with men in work in the mines, the reliance of the mine owners on the shift system to keep the pits open took its toll on the women in those homes, as a Durham miner, Monty Lowther, later recalled for the BBC:

We lived in a colliery house, and me mother, she was such a conscientious woman she would never go to bed except on a Saturday, because you had me father in one shift, our Jimmy in another shift, me in another shift and Tommy in another.

And it sometimes meant the clock round, one coming in and one going out, and she was so conscientious that if there was an hour or two hours to spare between one and the other, she would just sit in the rocking chair in front of the fire, and I’ve known for months on end the only time me mother got to bed was a Saturday night when there was no work at the pit.

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This account is very similar to the personal recollection of Alice Pattison, the daughter of a miner from Horden in Durham who, in turn, found the photos above and below a mirror of her own memories of life in a miner’s cottage during the late twenties and thirties. Her grandmother had five boys, ‘all in the pit’, and because they worked on different shifts, she was tied to a treadmill of endless toil to feed and care for her sons.

Working between the fore-shift (5 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the back-shift (1 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and the night shift (9 p.m. to 5 a.m.), her grandmother also slept at intervals in a rocking-chair by the fire. As each shift ended she had to boil water in the copper pan on the range, or in a bucket on the hob, in readiness to fill the tin bath in front of the fire. She would carry the hot water in an enamel bowl to the bath where the men would kneel beside it, washing away the coal dust from their top half first, all but their backs. They believed that the coal dust strengthened their backs, protecting them from the rock above the narrow seams.

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While her father bathed, Alice would ‘dash’ his pit clothes, banging them against the yard wall to remove the loose dust and then hang them to dry. In some cottages, there was a brass rail fitted above the fire as shown in the second picture. Sometimes there were families of eight or nine working in the colliery, albeit in separate shifts. Usually, the Dad bathed first, then the eldest son down the line to the youngest. Sometimes the children in the household had to go out into the street while their fathers and brothers bathed.

On Thursday nights, Alice’s mother would let the fire die out to clear all the dead ash and clean the range. The range would be blackleaded, the firebricks whitened and the back of chimney polished with blacklead as high as the arm would reach. The brass fender would be shone, the poker polished and ashpan burnished and for a few hours, the altar of family life would be as she loved it to be, spotless. All the cooking would be done on the fire and in the ovens on the range, with working-class ingenuity stretching the meagre pay to provide appetising and nourishing food. ‘Panackelty’ was a favourite dish made of layers of potato, onion and corned beef covered with ‘Oxo’ gravy. Other dishes would be leeks fried with bacon, a thick broth made from soaked peas, bacon and stock and thick stew with barley and dumplings.

The life of a miner was hard, but the life of a miner’s wife was no less so, if devoid of danger. The daily round of unremitting housework, childbearing and caring for the men, husband and sons, on wages that at the best of times were never enough to provide for more than a life of subsistence, took a heavy physical toll. Alice Pattinson recalled that her grandmother, having reached the ‘grand old-age’ of fifty-four, told her one day that she was tired out and would go and lie down for a little while. Within the hour, she was dead. No illness was recorded on the death certificate. The doctor said she was simply worn out.

It was especially hard for the mother where men were working in wet places. These were not only found in the older steam coal areas. My own grandmother, who also worked as a ribbon weaver, recalled my grandfather returning from work at Newdigate Colliery near Coventry covered with boils all over his body. His moleskin trousers were so caked with sweat, dust and mud that they stood by themselves in front of the fire without need of a chair to support them. As the working clothes dried, the muck from the colliery would dry and drop off all around the house on the old stone floors, which made it very difficult for the housewife to sweep it outside, especially on wet days. Of course, detergents were unknown in those days, so that most of the dirt had to be removed by vigorous use of a dolly tub and a rubbing board (see photo below). One Rhondda miner’s wife, born in 1895, commented:

Strong soap, you know, and soda. Any amount of soda to boil them, init? There was no other washing powders like they’ve got today… Handful of soda until your hands – there’s no wonder we haven’t got nice hands, init?

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One woman from Dowlais, near Merthyr, born in 1896, estimated the value of washing the miners’ clothes at two pounds per week. A miner from the same village, born 1893,  recalled:

Women used to cry when you brought working trousers home to them, because with the sweat and everything, they’d get as hard as iron. They had to patch them, didn’t they? You’d see great lumps of soap by the side of them – they’d push the needle into the soap first. And they had to have a strong needle to do the job as well.   

The girls in a family went to work as maids, unless there were a number of them in a family, in which case the eldest daughter had to stay at home, to help the mother. Some might also go out washing or sewing. If there was a seamstress in the village, the daughter would sleep over at the customer’s house, sewing only for that family for three days, but providing their own machines, carrying them from house to house. Some women ran parlour shops, using their front rooms to sell produce like meats which she had cooked herself:

My father’s health broke down, d’you see, and she just had to do something, you know. And that’s the way she kept going. Talk about smells, they were gorgeous, because she cooked everything. She sold all kinds of sweets – like a kind of tuck shop, you know. She also sold butter and biscuits and cooked meats. But the most of the cooking was done by herself. I think it maybe broke my mother’s heart to give up her sitting room, but I mean, she coped. Because we didn’t get unemployment or sick pay in those years, you see.

The combination of poverty, poor housing and overcrowding experienced by a large proportion of South Wales’ population took its disproportionate toll upon the health of its women. In Merthyr in the late 1930s the number of women suffering from tuberculosis was nearly two-and-a-half-times the standardised average for England and Wales; among men, it was one and a half. One infant in every five died before the age of five, and malnutrition, rickets, diphtheria and pneumonia were widespread among schoolchildren. While the provision of basic welfare services may have mitigated the effects of poverty on the health of children, they were almost non-existent as far as the adult population was concerned, because they were often under such great financial pressure themselves. In 1928 a small deputation led by George Hall, MP pressed the case of Blaina Hospital to the Ministry of Health. The hospital’s income was dependent upon weekly contributions from the miners so that the disastrous effect of the closure of all the mines in the district had suddenly deprived it of all its funds. Its account was already overdrawn by two thousand pounds and whilst income for the forthcoming year was estimated at 2,500 pounds, costs were expected to rise to four thousand.

The fact that South Wales maintained a low crude death rate throughout the inter-war period enabled it to end the period with an age-structure roughly comparable to that of England and Wales as a whole should not blind us to the overall loss of population from south Wales by avoidable deaths and migration which may have involved as many as a million people over the period 1920-40 as a whole. The problems created by this loss were further compounded by the fact that the bulk of those who moved away was in the age group which would produce the next generation, and that those who left also left behind an increasing proportion in the population of those who were economically inactive.

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The only choice that the individual worker had was whether to remain in their home area or to move away to more prosperous towns in the Midlands and South-East of England. For the most part, the migrants were young and adaptable individuals in pursuit of economic opportunity. Those who passed their years in these parts of Britain had seen not only a constant growth in total numbers, due largely to migration but also an appreciable increase in the number of young people getting their first jobs and starting married life. In Wales, where with the dereliction of that accompanied unbroken depression not only did total numbers decline but, between 1921 and 1938, those under twenty-five years of age fell by twenty-five percent, only the ranks of the aged expanded. Gwyn Thomas described the impact on his Rhondda in graphic terms:

A half the valley’s population drifted away. It was a Black Death on wheels conducted with far less anguish… The great mass moved south to Cardiff and east to the Midlands and London, and the permanent guard on all the trains operating the great dispersal bore the name of Thomas Malthus, who warned the migrants about humanity’s way of concentrating huge battalions in tasks seemingly secure for eternity, then suddenly changing the scenery and telling the extras that they are in the wong picture.

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The next chapter will be examining the two important factors in the migration which took place from South Wales. In the first place, the majority of people who chose to go did so without assistance from the Government, despite the offer of payment of rail fares, removal expenses, initial accommodation and, in the case of juveniles, wage subsidy. Secondly, the migration which took place on a voluntary basis was not so much a ‘dispersal’ as Gwyn Thomas suggested, as an ‘exodus’. In some cases, it was organised through kinship and communal networks which extended far beyond normal family ties.

For instance, a 1937 Survey of Oxford found that 150 or one in six of the 1,200 ‘foreign’ employment exchange books in Oxford which came from Wales were from the Pontycymmer employment exchange, whereas considerably larger communities such as Bargoed and Ferndale sent only sixty-nine and sixty-six migrants respectively. The flow from the Garw Valley to Oxford appears to have started during the coal stoppage of 1926 when a few young men made the journey on foot and set up an informal kinship, institutional and communal ‘network’ so that in the period to 1930 to 1936, 270 out of 1,841 people whose employment whose unemployment books were transferred to other exchanges (15%) went to Oxford (Cowley) and it was estimated by local observers that in the previous four-year period, 1926-30, the proportion was as high as 25%.

This tendency towards ‘collective’ migration was noticeable only in the case of South Wales among the depressed areas. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Welsh women were at least as instrumental in the organisation of migration streams from the valleys as their militant menfolk. In this way, it can be seen that migration cannot be characterised as a desperate rush for the lifeboats. In its organisation on a network and largely voluntary basis, as an alternative to the official Transference Scheme, it became a form of coalfield resistance and a uniquely autonomous ‘institution on wheels’.

( to be continued…)

 

 

‘God’s Englishmen’: The Midland and East Anglian Gentry in the English Revolution, 1619-89: part two.   3 comments

ImageBefore the Civil War, the Gullivers had become successful traders and respectable aldermen of Banbury, owning shops and public houses in the town and a brewery as far away as Aylesbury. As Protestant Nonconformists, or Dissenters, possibly Quakers, many of them were also excluded from higher occupations, especially public office, though some found an alternative outlet in becoming soldiers (and later officers) in Cromwell’s Army. Others had been thriving as yoeman farmers in the outlying Banburyshire parishes, but had now fallen on hard times, like Edward Gulliver, who was born in Banbury in 1590, and married Mary Hawes in Cropredy in 1620. They settled in the nearby village of Noke, where they raised a large family before Edward died in 1647.

Jonathan Swift made later reference to the family and their tombs in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Banbury, of which there were many, but only three remain:

ImageIn his Preface to the First Edition of his famous Gulliver’s Travels, 1726, Swift remarks ‘I have observed in the Church Yard at Banbury several tombs and monuments of the Gullivers. The original tombstones no longer exist, but a later one bearing this old Banbury name lies near to this plaque.

Swift was related to the Dryden family of Canon’s Ashby in Northamptonshire. His grandmother was Elizabeth Dryden, aunt of the poet laureate, John Dryden, born near Oundle. She married Thomas Swift and they had two children, Jonathan and Thomas, the elder being the father of the author of Gulliver’s Travels. John Dryden was also a cousin of Sir Gilbert Pickering, MP, and Col. John Pickering, also of Canon’s Ashby, as detailed already.

Viscount Saye and Sele (left), William Fiennes, was also related to these Northamptonshire gentry. He had been was one of the county’s leading activists against Charles I, raising troops for the first battle at Edgehill. Cavalier troops besieged and occupied his fourteenth-century moated manor house, Broughton Castle, for a time, but were fought to a standstill on Cropredy Bridge in June 1644. They later wreaked their revenge on the puritan population of the countryside by burning down the manor house at Wormleighton. Due to this act of vengeance and attrition,the village never recovered its former status. By contrast, Noke was loyal to the King, since it had an association with Oxford going back to the plagues, when the Colleges were allowed to quarter their dons there. Oxford became Charles I’s headquarters in the Civil War, and troops were stationed in some of the villages nearby, including Noke. The village saw action in the form of raids by Parliamentarians. In one of these, horses were taken and two soldiers were killed, being buried in the churchyard. The divisions among south Midland families and villages can be detected by the records that remain of these events, in both Cavalier and Rounhead versions!

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At the end of 1643, a Midland Association of the counties of Leicester, Rutland, Nottingham, Derby, Northampton, ‘Banbury’ and Buckingham and  had ben formed. The Eastern Association consisted of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, Huntingdon (Cromwell’s home county), Hertfords and Lincoln  . Together, the two associations controlled most of the Midlands from Banbury into East Anglia as far as the coastal ports. Individual regiments were raised in specific parts of East Anglia, because Manchester believed that he could maintain esprit de corps by drafting men from each county to keep up the regiment for that county. These principles were generally maintained even after the regiments were incorporated into the New Model Army in 1645. However, Cromwell realised that centralised control and regional administration were not enough. A standing army would need discipline, regular pay and commitment to Parliament’s cause. In an oft-quoted letter dated 29 August 1643, Cromwell outlined his criteria for selecting officers:

I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows…

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In John Pickering he found such a man to command a regiment, and in Pickering’s regiment there were many other russet-coated captains who also fitted this description. Most of the payments to the regiment came from the County committees of Norfolk and Suffolk. In April 1645, just before its transfer into the New Model, former soldiers of Pickering’s regiment caused some disturbances in Suffolk:

By some old soldiers returned home, we have sent down to you Major Jubbes and Captain Axtell, two officers of Col. Pickering’s regiment, to receive such soldiers as formerly belonged to that regiment… If any other soldiers will come along with them and serve in that regiment these officers will take charge of them.

031From this it can be concluded that Pickering’s regiment was probably recruited mainly in Suffolk, with some men joining from Norfolk, possibly from villages along the boundary between the two counties. These men were largely pressed into service, compared with those from towns and larger villages, undoubtedly a factor in the high rates of desertion in 1644. On the other hand, after August 1643, as part of the reorganisation of the Association, under Cromwell’s influence, commanders and officers for the regiments, like Jubbes and Axtell, were chosen primarily for their military abilities, their godliness, discipline and devotion to the parliamentarian cause. They were no longer drawn from the ranks of the local gentry of the county in which the regiment was recruited. Instead, the officers either came up through promotion in the Association regiments, or from other parliamentarian Associations. Much of the responsibility for the military command in the field fell upon the Lieutenant Colonel, in this case, John Hewson. He had more than a year’s experience as a company commander before he took up his command as second-in-command in Pickering’s regiment. Before the war, he had been a shoemaker, selling to the Massachusetts Company, but getting little by trade, he in the beginning of the grand rebellion, went out as a captain upon the account of the blessed cause. Having served in the Earl of Essex’s regiment from late 1642, he joined Pickering’s in late March of 1644.

John Jubbes’ family lived in Norwich. He had joined the Eastern Association army as a Captain of foot in Col. Sir Miles Hubbard’s regiment at its formation, in April 1643. Jubbes had, in his own words, joined the army because he had been long deeply sensible of the many grievous Incroachments and Usurpations exercised over the People of this Nation. After seeing action in the engagements of the Association in 1643, Jubbes took up a commission as Major with Pickering’s regiment in March 1644, taking responsibility for the regiment’s finances. He had already raised money in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex on Manchester’s orders. However, in a letter dated December 1643, Thomas Windham wrote:

My personal estate I have given up at two thousand pounds, which is more than I know I am worth, my estate in lands to the uppermost, during my father’s life. The oppression practised by Jubs and his associates is very odious, their fury in churches detestable.

The historian, Ketton-Cremer, has argued that,

Lt. Col. John Jubbes, who expressed violently anti-monarchical sentiments at the critical Army Council of 1st November 1647… was just the kind of man to display detestable fury in churches.

038He has described this as random iconoclasm, carried out by local puritan extremists or detachments of unruly troops. However, this is far from the truth. The Solemn League and Covenant signed between Parliament and the Scots required the reformation of religion in England and Ireland in doctrine, discipline and government. In other words, a Presbyterian form of church government was to be adopted. In August 1643 an ordinance was passed by Parliament for the utter demolishing, removing and taking away of all monuments of superstition and idolatry, and the following December a systematic implementation was ordered. This raised the opposition of many puritan parliamentarians, such as Windham. However, he had also been accused of undervaluing his estate when a levy was made in 1643 to raise money for the war, and it is this context that we need to understand his accusations against Jubbes, who was certainly not an unruly trooper. Neither was Daniel Axtell, Pickering’s first captain, who was a Baptist by background, one of a number in the regiment, and in the New Model Army, who rose from humble origins to positions of influence purely through ability and commitment to the parliamentarian cause.

023In the civil war, one of the great Puritan writers came to serve as Rector of Lavenham. William Gurnell, though lacking priest’s orders, was appointed by the Puritan lord of the manor and County Sheriff, Sir Symonds D’Ewes, an action sanctioned by parliament in 1644. During his thirty-three year incumbency he wrote one of the most famous Puritan devotional works, The Christian in Complete Armour, dedicated to my dearly beloved friends and neighbours, the inhabitants of Lavenham. However, the growth of fanatical millenarianism during the wars alarmed many moderate puritans within the Church. It was one thing to want to purify religion of superstitions and popish relics; it was quite another to show a total disrespect for churches, as did soldiers who used them for stables and fired muskets at ancient windows and monuments.

Two Suffolk men, William Dowsing of Laxfield and Matthew Hopkins of Great Wenham, became renowned for their fanaticism. Dowsing rose from obscurity when in August 1643 Parliament decreed that altars, candlesticks, pictures and images were to be removed from churches. Dowsing immediately came forward as one prepared, for the zeal of the Lord, to undertake this task and was appointed to the post of Parliamentary Visitor by the General of the Eastern Association. After creating havoc in Cambridgeshire he turned to his own county. Between January and October 1644 he toured Suffolk with a troop of soldiers. He smashed stained glass windows, defaced bench ends and carved fonts, broke down crucifixes, tore up brasses and obliterated inscriptions. In his disastrous rampage he visited a hundred and fifty churches, virtually at random, and carefully noted down in a journal the work of destruction. At Clare,

We broke down a thousand pictures superstitious. I broke down two hundred; three of God the Father and three of Christ and the Holy Lamb, and three of the Holy Ghost like a dove with wings; and the twelve Apostles were carved in wood, on the top of the roof, which we gave order to take down; and twenty cherubims to be taken down; and the sun and moon in the east window, by the King’s arms to be taken down.

Some parishes welcomed Dowsing and co-operated with him, but others, such as Ufford, put up a show of resistance, locked the church and tried to keep the desecrators at bay. Many churchwardens, even if sympathetic to Dowsing, resented having to pay the standard charge of 6s. 8d. for his visitation.

Matthew Hopkins was a far more sinister figure. As the Witch-Finder General, he could only thrive in a troubled time where in every community people were divided against each other, where loyalties clashed and where calamities were put down to supernatural agencies, where dislocations of the patterns of everyday life had driven many to the brink of mental breakdown, and where the exponents of an introspective religion held sway. Hopkins became famous after he supposedly uncovered a witches’ coven near Manningtree. He was asked to examine men and women, usually the latter, suspected of having familiar spirits. For three years he toured Suffolk and neighbouring counties applying his tests and supervising the resulting 106 executions in Suffolk alone.

The supposed witches were stripped, stuck with pins, denied food and rest, and made to walk until their feet were cut and blistered. If they still didn’t confess, they were swum, having their thumbs and toes tied together and then being dragged through the local pond in a sheet. If they sank, they were innocent, but probably drowned anyway. If they floated, they were in league with the devil. As a contemporary complained,

Every old woman, with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.

Eventually, poetic justice caught up with the Witchfinder-General, who was, himself, tried for witchcraft in 1647 and hung.

The placing of the county on a military footing was another cause of discontent. Soldiers were billeted on townspeople without payment. They took provisions from these homes, from local shops and ransacked the houses of the gentry for arms and plate. A visit of one Parliamentary troop at Somerleyton House in 1642 cost Sir John Wentworth forty-four pounds in various appropriations plus a hundred and sixty pounds of gold. The local militias were expected to train every week and provide their own equipment and the county as a whole had to pay 1,250 pounds for the maintenance of the army. All this the people were expected to suffer gladly for the sake of their own defence.

035After their victory at Marston Moor in the summer of 1644, in which the Association army was hard hit, being reduced from fourteen thousand men to about six thousand, the remaining troops were quatered in several towns in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire during the winter of 1644-5. These garrisons, just beyond the Association’s borders, were facing the royalist capital at Oxford. At this time the conflict between those who believed that the war could be won and those, like Manchester, who did not want to defeat the King, ultimately led to the success of the parliamentarian cause. The success of Independents in the Association armies enabled the creation of a new standing army committed to outright victory. In January 1645 the Committee of Both Kingdoms recommended the formation of a new army of twenty-two thousand men, to be supported by a levy of six thousand pounds a month on those districts controlled by Parliament. This New Model Army, established in April, was placed under the overall command of Sir Thomas Fairfax with Philip Skippon as Sergeant Major General. Cromwell was nominated as Lieutenant General of the Horse on the eve of the Battle of Naseby, and did not become Commander-in-Chief until June 1650.

The New Model was formed from the existing units of the armies of Essex, Manchester and Waller, but these had been so seriously depleted by the campaigns of 1644 that they could supply only seven thousand of the required fourteen thousand infantry alone. Therefore, new regiments had to be created, under committed officers like Pickering and Montague. Nevertheless, when the list of officers for the New Model was debated in parliament, Pickering, that fanatical Independent, had his name struck out by the Lords, along with that of Montague and others. They went further than this by striking out the whole of the most radical regiment from the forces of parliament, since Manchester was determined to purge his personal enemies from the New Model. However, under pressure from the Commons, Fairfax’s original list was eventually passed by just one vote and Pickering’s became the twelfth regiment of the New Model Army.

Each regiment of foot had a nominal strength of twelve hundred men, and there were eleven cavalry regiments, each of six hundred. In addition, there were ten companies of dragoons, each of a hundred men. Of these, nine of the regiments of horse and four of the infantry came from the Eastern Association, a total of 3,578 men. However, many of the foot regiments, including Pickering’s, were seriously under strength, and had to impress men from the areas through which the army marched. Several thousand men were conscripted into the New Model at this time, nearly all of them impressed, untrained, raw recruits. When the New Model set forth on its first campaign it was still four thousand men short, but did begin to look like an instrument that, by its professionalism, courage and discipline, would bring Parliament victory.

Pickering took up his new command at Abingdon, where his regiment still waited in winter quarters. The administrative system of the Association had been unable to raise adequate resources to cover the cost of maintaining the regiment over the previous ten months, a sum of more than four and a half thousand pounds. As a result, the pay to the regiment had fallen into arrears. These problems did not improve, even after transfer to the New Model. For forty-two days in April and May 1645 the regiment was without any pay, undoubtedly a factor in the mutiny of April that occurred when Colonel Pickering preached a sermon to his troops, following the confirmation of his command of the regiment. However, according to a royalist broadsheet, it was Pickering’s condemnation of Presbyterianism which some of the men most objected to, having joined from other regiment less Independent in religious character. Parliament instructed Fairfax that preaching in the army in future was only to be in the ministry of authorised chaplains, and Henry Pinnell was appointed to the regiment. He was an Independent, but also politically moderate, in favour of the Army reaching an agreement with the King. Nevertheless, Pickering continued to be admired for his views by most in the regiment, as well as the townspeople of Newport Pagnall.
On 1st May 1645, Fairfax’s army marched into the west, leaving Cromwell and the four former Eastern Association regiments to join him later around Oxford when the new recruits were fully trained. Cromwell himself was already involved in an attempt to clear several smaller garrisons around Oxford, including Bletchington House and Faringdon Castle, which was then in Berkshire. Pickering’s regiment was sent from Abingdon to Faringdon, where Captain Jenkins was killed, along with fourteen others. It numbered around five to six hundred by this time. The attack was abortive, for even with infantry Cromwell did not have the means for a decisive assault, and the garrison remained in royalist hands until June 1646.
021On 14th May, Fairfax began to lay siege to Oxford and Pickering was with the army at Southam in Warwickshire in late May. Hewson was in carrying arms and surgeons’ equipment to the siege of Oxford.   Following the fall of Leicester to the royalist army on 31st May, Cromwell was dispatched to secure Ely. Pickering’s, however, remained with Fairfax, marching from Oxford on 5th June, and then following the King’s Army, which was retreating from Daventry on 13th June,   reaching Market Harborough, where that night Charles decided to turn and engage the New Model.

006The royalists marched south on the morning of the 14th June and the two armies met at Naseby in Northamptonshire. Pickering’s were positioned at the centre of the parliamentarian front line. Here, the Royalist infantry began the battle well, and forced the Parliamentary regiments back, concentrating their attack against their left and centre, in support of Prince Rupert’s successful cavalry charge, which caused Ireton’s cavalry to veer to the right. Rupert charged into Ireton’s left, and then began to cut and thrust with sword. He forced his way through, and was then in a position to re-group: instead, he decided to press on, but achieved little, and though anxious not to repeat his mistake at Edgehill, was still absent from the battlefield for some time. This was, again, disastrous for his side. Cromwell launched a tremendous cavalry charge on the right, smashing into Langdale’s cavalry, slowed by difficult ground on the royalist left. As Astley’s foot stormed their way up Red Hill Ridge, they came under attack from Ireton’s recovering cavalry, supported by a mounted charge from Okey’s dragoons. As Astley’s troops reached Skippon’s foot, they not only met spirited resistance from the Parliamentary infantry, but also received a terrible blow on the other flank from Cromwell’s cavalry.

027 By the time Rupert returned to the field, his horses blown, he could only watch as Astley’s infantry were wiped out completely, four thousand of them, either killed or captured. Total Royalist losses were a thousand, with four-and-a-half thousand captured. With the King and Rupert having already left the field, the remaining Royalist infantry also tried to leave the field, with only Langdale’s cavalry fighting on.

This was the most decisive battle of the first civil war and Charles should never have fought it. He lost his infantry, his baggage train, his artillery, his private papers and, effectively, his throne. Outnumbered two to one, fourteen thousand to seven, short of cavalry and artillery, the Royalist had severely underestimated their opponents, raw recruits as many of them were, and paid dearly for it. Although initially forced to retreat by the assault on their centre and left, Pickering’s and Montague’s had done so lyke men, in good order. While Skippon’s more hardened troops had held the centre, they fell into the Reserves with their Colours, choosing there to fight and die, than to quit the ground they stood on. Together with the Reserves, Pickering’s and Montague’s remaining men had then rallied and moved forward to join Skippon’s, who were being steadily pushed back by the Royalist advance. The Roundhead charge did little to ease the pressure, especially when Ireton himself was wounded and taken prisoner. It was only after the rally of Pickering’s and Montague’s regiments, together with the calling up of the reserve, that the Parliamentarian infantry centre’s greatly superior numbers began to tell.

012So it was that Pickering’s took part in the final destruction of the Royalist infantry, deciding the outcome of the Battle of Naseby and the first Civil War. Captain Tomkins was killed, and estimates at the time put the Parliamentarian losses at between fifty and a hundred. A further fifty of Pickering’s men were seriously wounded, four dying later from their wounds. Two hundred more from the other infantry regiments were also seriously wounded.

The New Model then marched on to Leicester, which refused to yield, and Newark, where the Royalists surrendered on the 18th. After taking Leicester on their return, the New Model then secured Warwickshire and Gloucestershire before moving against the Royalist strongholds in the West Country. Following a further victory at Langport on 10th July, Bristol fell on 10th September, and Devizes a fortnight later. Laycock followed a few days later, followed by Winchester on 5th October. There was then a long siege of Basing House in Hampshire, which finally fell in mid-October, then Longford near Salisbury, leaving only Corfe Castle as the only remaining substantial Royalist garrison left between London and Exeter. Troops were needed to reinforce both the garrison at Abingdon and those besieging Exeter, so it wasn’t until March 1646 that the castle finally fell.

The Parliamentarian forces then comprehensively slighted it, so that the Cavaliers could not use it again. Pickering’s regiment played a role in most, if not all, of these sieges, though it had moved on to Ottery St Mary in the winter of 1645-6, a small market town ten miles from Exeter. Pickering himself arrived ahead of his regiment, on 12th November, as his legal expertise was needed in securing the surrender of the city.

033During the Civil War there were probably more soldiers who died of disease than on the battlefield. Plague had been rife in and around Bristol when it had been captured in September, but the Parliamentary troops had escaped its ravages. However, they then fell prey to influenza, probably brought with them from the city, though it had taken a month for it to take hold among their ranks. The foot, quartered in Ottery St Mary, were the worst hit, with as many as nine soldiers and townspeople dying on a daily basis. Many soldiers were already weak from lack of good supplies and arrears of pay. Pickering himself fell ill on 24th November 1645, just before his thirtieth birthday:

Col. Pickering, that pious, active Gentleman, that lived so much to God, and his Country and divers other Officers, dyed of the New disease in that place; Six of the generals own family were sick of it at one time, and throughout the foot regiments half the souldiers…

The whereabouts of the Colonel’s burial is unknown, but it is likely that he would have been buried in Lyme Regis, in accordance with the wishes of his elder brother and MP, Sir Gilbert Pickering, as well as those of Cromwell and Fairfax. These are recorded in a letter from Cromwell to Colonel Creely, the commander of the nearest parliamentary garrison written from Tiverton on 10th December. Major Jubbes, of Norwich, took responsibility for the arrangements. The high esteem in which many parliamentarians held Pickering can be seen in the various obituaries in the newsheets of the time. One of them is accompanied by a eulogy, far less eloquent than his cousin, John Dryden, later poet laureate, might have produced, but he was only fourteen at that time:

… Black Autumn fruits to cinders turne;

Birds cease to sing, our joy is fled,

‘Cause glorious Pickering is dead,

Let time contract the Earth and Skie,

To recommend thy memorie

To future ages…

Sprigge devotes a whole poem to a poem on his death, which he entitled Iohannes Pickering: In God I Reckon Happiness. By comparison, Dryden’s first published work, in 1659, was also to be a eulogy, A Poem upon the death of his late Highness, Oliver, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. As a close associate of Cromwell within the Eastern Association, John Pickering was in an ideal position to establish a regiment that mirrored his own religious and political views. It was, after all, not just the Colonel, but also the whole regiment that drew criticism from the Presbyterians in Parliament. It was his deep religious conviction, some said fanaticism, which gave him strength, courage and commitment both in combat and negotiation. In these virtues, he was typical of the men who brought about the revolution in liberties of conscience, which was a distinctive element in the civil wars of the middle to late seventeenth century. Like Cromwell, he saw himself as one of God’s Englishmen.

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After Pickering’s death, his Lieutenant Colonel, John Hewson took command of the regiment, and his advancement heralded the increasing authoritarianism of the revolution as the country moved towards a form of military dictatorship. In May 1647 the Presbyterian Parliament attempted to break up the military power-base of Independency, requiring the New Model Army regiments either to disband or to volunteer for the campaign in Ireland. Hewson’s regiment refused, as did others. Lieutenant Colonel Jubbes, the Norwich Baptist, together with Major Axtell and two other agitators prepared a statement of the regiment’s grievances. In June, as political debate developed and intensified in the army, some of the regiment were already committed to the Leveller cause. Two of the six authors of A Letter from the Army to the honest Seamen of England, of 21st June 1647, were from Hewson’s. They were Captains Brayfield and Carter. A third, Azuriah Husbands, had been a Captain in the regiment, and some of its ordinary soldiers also signed it.

John Jubbes, in his statement at the Putney debates on 1st November 1647, called for political reforms extending well beyond mere army grievances. Jubbes took a conciliatory position between the Independents and the Levellers, seeking even to bring the more libertarian Presbyterians into an agreement. The same position was taken by the regiment’s chaplain, Henry Pinnell, who had published his own proposals, which while radical in general nature, included a reconciliation with the King. For Jubbes, as for many who later became Quakers, the war had encouraged pacifist views in him. He came to see the real conflict as being between the slavery of the sword and the Peace of Christ. In April 1648, having lost the argument in the regiment, as it had been lost at Putney in the army as a whole; Jubbes laid down his sword and picked up his pen. He was disillusioned with the course the revolution was taking, believing that the cause of liberty of conscience was being sacrificed to that of the authority of the Grandees of the New Model. He became associated with a sect of religious radicals with millenarian ideas, confidently looking forward to the imminent personal reign of Christ on earth, following His second coming.

In attitude and ideas, Hewson differed markedly from both Pickering and Jubbes. Although, like Cromwell, an Independent, he had expressed a typically authoritarian view about the Levellers in the army, suggesting that military tribunals rather than civil courts should deal them with. We can hang twenty before they will hang one, he pointed out. For him, as for Cromwell and Ireton, whatever the political merits of the Levellers’ case, which they had listened to patiently and responded to sympathetically within the Army Council at Putney Church, they could not be allowed to undermine military discipline through constant arguing and petitioning. It is in this context that we need to understand both Hewson’s remark and Cromwell’s later statement to one of his Colonels, you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you… Daniel Axtell, another fierce Independent, replaced Jubbes as Lieutenant Colonel, while John Carter became Major, despite his Leveller sympathies.   The regiment was involved in Pride’s Purge of the Presbyterian MPs in Parliament in December 1648, during the Second Civil War.

The harsh new laws of the Presbyterian Long Parliament had also transformed the sympathies of many ordinary people in the country. In Suffolk in 1648 there was a serious riot in Bury St Edmund’s when the authorities tried to prevent the hoisting of a maypole. The local arsenal was seized and people rushed through the streets shouting, For God and King Charles! The outburst was contained, but there were also similar risings in Aldeburgh and Lowestoft. Suffolk was growing tired of war, of religious conflict and of political maneuverings between the Army and Parliament. None of these made any difference to the problems of the cloth industry, which was still declining, or to the harbours of the East Anglian ports, which were still silting up. There were still thousands of people living at bare subsistence level in thatched, rat-infested hovels.

In the second war, which ended with the surrender of the royalist troops at Colchester, Hewson’s had faced the Kentish royalists and bore the brunt of the fighting at the storming of Maidstone. Fairfax wrote, I cannot but take notice of the valour and resolution of Col. Hewson, whose Regiment had the hardest task. Major Carter was injured and Captain Price, a deserving and faithfull Officer, was killed. The regiment had gone on to suppress the rising in Kent, recapturing the castles at Deal, Walmer and Sandown. Hewson was a judge at the King’s trial in January 1649, also signing the death warrant, while Axtell commanded the guard at the king’s execution. In April 1649 Hewson’s were chosen, by lot, to go to Ireland with three existing and six new regiments. While in Ireland, they took part in many of the major actions and the most notorious, particularly at Drogheda, where they were at the centre of the atrocities against the royalist troops who refused to surrender.

Hewson later became Governor of Dublin, member of the Council of State and an MP. He was knighted by Cromwell and described after the Restoration as an arch-radical and religious zealot. However, he did not approve of what he called the usurpation of the General and opposed Cromwell from within the Protectorate, at some personal risk. By the end of the interregnum, the regiment was commanded by John Streeter, undoubtedly the same soldier who drew the battlefield of Naseby (above). It took part in the last land action of the Commonwealth, finding itself fighting against its original first captain and later Lieutenant Colonel, Daniel Axtell. He had joined Major-General Lambert in an attempt to reimpose military government. On 22nd April 1660 Lambert’s forces were confronted and routed at Daventry in Northamptonshire, close to the battlefields of Edgehill and Naseby. Axtell escaped, but was later captured and eventually executed by Charles II’s government, as a regicide. At the Restoration, Hewson fled to the continent where he died in Amsterdam in 1662. The regiment which was raised in 1643, and first served in East Anglia as a major force in the Eastern Association in April 1644, was not disbanded until October 1660, and even then four of its companies being sent to form the garrison at Hull. By then, it had served longer than any other Parliamentarian regiment.

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John Pickering’s elder brother, lord of the manor and baronet, Sir Gilbert Pickering, had been elected as an MP for Northamptonshire to the Short Parliament of 1640. He raised, though he did not command, a dragoon regiment in eastern Northamptonshire. He was appointed commissioner and judge in the trial of Charles Stuart, though wisely attended only two sittings, and did not sign the death warrant. During the Commonwealth he rose to a position of considerable national influence, as a member of the Council of State and as a Commissioner in various posts. Finally in 1655 he was appointed Lord Chamberlain to the Lord Protector. It was only due to the intervention of his brother-in-law, Edward Montague, Earl of Sandwich, that Gilbert obtained a pardon from Charles II.

Gilbert Pickering was described after the Restoration as first a Presbyterian, then an Independent, then a Brownist, and afterwards an Anabaptist. Although coming from his enemies, this statement does perhaps describe the process of radicalisation that many of his class went through in the thirty years of conflict in the reign of Charles I and in the interregnum. The Pickering family had long been known for their strong Puritan beliefs, reflecting the strength of these views in eastern Northamptonshire, which had developed rapidly and become strongly entrenched in the Peterborough diocese during the second half of the sixteenth century, as elsewhere in the southeast Midlands and East Anglia. Robert Browne, whose Brownism developed into the Independent form of puritanism that in turn led to Congregationalism, was Rector of Thorpe Achurch, only three miles north of Titchmarsh, from 1591 to 1630. The Pickerings were therefore very close to one of the main centres of Puritan Dissent, forced out of the Church of England during the 1630s by Archbishop Laud and his supporters, and into the manor houses of sympathetic families like the Pickerings and then across the countryside and market towns until it found its way into the regiments of the Eastern Association and the New Model Army. Therefore, the history of the Pickering family and their relatives also describes and explains the history of much of the Midlands and East Anglia during the seventeenth century.

023However, the rather disparaging view of him as a Committee man responsible for sequestration was quite unfair, as was the attempt to paint him as a most furious, fiery, implacable man… the principal agent in casting out most of the learned clergy. This assessment comes from the papers of Jeremiah Stevens, Rector of Quinton and Wootton in Northants, who was sequestered in 1644. In 1656, a very different temperament from the conciliatory role undertaken by the MP and Lord Chamberlain in the parliamentary proceedings undertaken against James Nayler, the Quaker, who stood accused of blasphemy. Nayler, a farmer from Yorkshire, had fought for Parliament at the Battle of Dunbar in the second civil war, in September 1650, where his preaching was remembered long after by those who heard it, both ordinary soldiers and officers alike, as well as by the country folk:

 013After the Battle of Dunbar, as I was riding in Scotland at the head of my troop, I observed at some distance from the road a crowd of people, and one higher than the rest. Upon which I sent one of my men to see and bring me word what was the meaning of this gathering. Seeing him ride up and stay there without returning according to my order, I sent a second, who stayed in like manner, and then I determined to go myself. When I came thither, I found it was James Nayler preaching to the people, but with such power and reaching energy as I had not till then been witness of. I could not help staying there a little, though I was afraid to stay, for I was made a Quaker, being forced to tremble at the sight of myself. I was struck with more terror before the preaching of James Nayler than I was before the Battle of Dunbar, when we had nothing else to expect but to fall prey to the swords of our enemies…

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However, James Nayler’s six years of missionary journeys, of eloquent and victorious evangelism, of loyal co-operation with colleagues, were all forgotten when he appeared before Parliament in 1656 accused of horrid blasphemy and of being a grand imposter and seducer of the people. He is still remembered for the six months of his disgrace, and as the fallen apostle of Quakerism, while his contemporary George Fox is seen as its chief Founder. Nayler was born in 1618, in a village two miles from Wakefield in Yorkshire, where he married and lived from 1639. After having three children there, he joined the parliamentary army in 1643, serving in Fairfax’s regiment, before becoming Quartermaster in Lambert’s Regiment of Horse, a position which he held until the decisive Battle of Worcester in 1651, after which Charles II (only of Scotland at that time) fled to France. After that conclusive battle, there was no longer any need for an army in the field. According to Cromwell, Lambert’s Horse bore the brunt of the battle, the best of the Enemy’s Horse being broken through and through in less than an hour’s dispute.

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As Quartermaster, it would have been Nayler’s task to feed the ten thousand who were taken prisoner, especially the Scots. The half who were English were sent home due to the impossibility of providing for them. At his trial, Major-General Lambert gave testimony that he was a very useful person – we parted from him with great regret. He was a man of unblameable life and conversation. Lambert’s statement bears out Nayler’s own testimony to his judges that I was never taxed for any mutiny or any other thing while I served the Parliament.

 

In 1651 Nayler returned to his family in broken health, both physical and mental. A victim of consumption, he settled on a small farm near Wakefield. Lambert recalled that he became a member of a very sweet society of an Independent Church.

Although Presbyterianism had been established in England by ordinance in 1648, at the end of the second civil war, it was by no means popular and had not filled the place of the Church of England. Many parish ministers were relatively free to belong to different denominations, and/or to follow the promptings of their congregations. After a meeting with George Fox, Nayler decided to leave home to follow his calling as an evangelist, though he found it very difficult to leave his wife and children again, having just returned after nine years. His ministry took Nayler to the West Country where, while not in prison, he gathered a large number of followers around him. However, he came into conflict with Fox and, when his attempts to effect a reconciliation were rebuffed, he became deeply depressed to the point of appearing morose.

024It was in a deeply contemplative state that he set off for Bristol, in the middle of October 1656, from Glastonbury, in the pouring rain, with a small procession of Friends. He was riding a horse and on either side a woman led his horse by the bridle, walking knee-deep in the mud, when they could have walked along the sides of the ancient bridleway. Passers-by found the sight utterly bizarre, even before the company reached Bristol. As they reached the Radcliffe Gate of the City, the procession began shouting and singing a psalm, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel, removing their wet cloaks and throwing them in front of the horse, with Nayler still being led on it, as if in a transe. Between two and three in the afternoon they passed the High Cross, where it seemed as if the whole city had turned out to see the strange spectacle. After arriving at their inn, the Magistrates sent an escort for them and they were brought, still singing, to the Guildhall for examination.

After a brief, preliminary examination, they were imprisoned, despite Nayler possession of a pass from Cromwell himself. At the second examination, it became clear that, whatever interpretation his followers placed on their actions, he regarded himself simply as a symbol of Christ and the triumphal entry simply a sign of his second coming.

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However, two of the women in his congregation claimed that Nayler was indeed Jesus, one claiming that Nayler had raised her to life after she had been dead for two days. Under these circumstances, the Bench had no alternative but to send the group back to jail. The Bristol Magistrates then wrote to their MP. The second Parliament of the Protectorate had been sitting for only a month when this MP presented his report from the magistrates of his constituency. The case which came before them for judgement was so serious, so pregnant with consequences for both Church and State, that they felt incompetent to deal with it. The basis of it was that on the 14th October, a parody of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem had been enacted in Bristol, not from any spirit of mockery, but in the steadfast belief of those present that a second Messiah had appeared in England. Letters found upon the chief prisoner gave further evidence of this blasphemous delusion, and, since a pass from the Lord Protector himself was among these letters, the magistrates had decided to keep him and his companions in custody until they could ascertain the pleasure of Parliament. The House had now decided to undertake the third examination themselves and then to sentence the prisoners.

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Meanwhile, the entry into Bristol had become a nine days’ wonder, and the talk not only of London, but of every corner of the country into which Quakerism had penetrated. Nayler appeared before a Parliamentary Committee, and answered their questions clearly and to their satisfaction. With nothing further to examine, on 5th December the Committee made its report to the House. In spite of its careful purging, this second and last Parliament of Cromwell’s Protectorate was composed of many warring and irreconcilable elements, upon which the prisoner acted as a touch stone. His most vocal prosecutor was Sir George Downing, who gave his name to Downing Street. Four years later he was to make his peace with the new king by betraying his Parliamentary associates, including Sir Gilbert Pickering. Downing and the Extremists were opposed by the Merciful Party, including Pickering, Desborough and Lambert, Nayler’s old commanding officer, who gave his character reference, adding that the trial was very much sorrow of my heart. Major-General Desborough, in command of the Western counties, had come into contact with the best side of Quakerism, had witnessed Fox’s heroic temper in Launceston prison. Desborough used all his influence to moderate the harsh temper of the House. He argued that it should be handed over to the lawyers, to whose province it rightly belonged. However, the temper of the House was already one of heated debate, since Nayler was already present to hear the Committee’s report, and the Major-General’s advice was largely ignored. Westminster Hall had been the setting for the dramatic trial of Charles I, almost exactly eight years previously, and many of those sitting in judgement on Nayler had been present when the King had faced his avenging subjects. Perhaps some felt that they could now balance the scales of extreme justice, and even avenge the royal martyr, even if they dared not speak openly of this, even in Parliament.

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Nayler did not present himself, in Carlyle’s later description, as a mad Quaker, and again emphasised that his act had been purely symbolic of Christ’s second coming, which had not yet been fulfilled. However, either through ignorance or obdurance, Downing and others maintained their aggressivity towards Nayler and his beliefs. Other more gentle voices were raised on the prisoner’s behalf, especially by those who, through personal acquaintance with the Quakers, had studied and discussed with them their doctrine of the Inner Light. Among them was that of Sir Gilbert Pickering, who defended himself and the merciful party as having the same zeal for God, yet haply they may not have the same appetite to give sentence in these things, without special tenderness respecting the sad consequences. This view came close to that of the Lord Protector, whose impatience with this Parliament over this case was based on his view that it should uphold a spirit of toleration in the country by providing for liberty of conscience for the tender-hearted, even when they were in error. However, at dinner that night with the diarist Burton, Richard Cromwell was clear that Nayler ought to die. However, Nayler’s punishment was a matter for the House to decide, not the Lord Protector or his son, soon to inherit the title.

When Parliament met to impose punishment, Sir Gilbert Pickering interposed again with a plea for hard labour and imprisonment, as he had learnt from a very sober man of that sect that Nayler was bewitched, really bewitched, and his words were not to be heeded. Imprisonment would be a charity in keeping him from that party that bewitched him. It was resolved by a narrow majority of 96 to 82 votes that the prisoner’s life should be spared. On December 17th, after further debate, they came to the following resolution:

That James Nayler be set upon the pillory… in the Palace-Yard, Westminster, during the space of two hours, on Thursday next, and be whipped by the hangman through the streets, from Westminster to the Old Exchange, London: and there likewise be set upon the pillory… for the space of two hours… on Saturday next, in each place wearing a paper bearing the inscription of his crimes; and that at the Old Exchange his tongue be bored through with a hot iron and that there also be stigmatised in the forehead the letter B; and that he be afterwards sent to Bristol and be conveyed into and through the said city on horseback, with his face backward; and there also publicly whipped the next market day… and that from thence he be committed to prison in Bridewell, London, and there restrained from the society of all people, and there to labour hard, till he be released by Parliament; and during that time be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and shall have no relief but what he earns by daily labour.

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On May 26th 1657, Sir Gilbert Pickering brought Nayler’s case again before the House. The Protector had been informed of Nayler’s poor state of health, and it was at his recommendation that Parliament was now asked to provide a keeper or nurse to wait upon him. Fearful of showing too much sympathy for the prisoner, Sir Gilbert recalled him as that reckless person Nayler. However, he was quite unable to preserve this air of detachment when Cromwell’s proposal met opposition. If you care not for him, he continued angrily, so as to let him have a keeper, he will die in your hands. Whether it was Cromwell’s wish or Pickering’s indignation which inclined the House to this unaccustomed show of humanity, there was no opposition to the proposal when put to the vote, and it was carried, with the suggestion that the Keeper should be a Quaker, that he might not infect others with the plague. It was then stated that his Highness further desired a minister to be sent to Nayler, for the truth is, he is very weak.

This was also agreed to. William Tomlinson, his devoted Friend throughout his punishment in London, became his Keeper, and the Governer also appointed a female nurse, Joane Pollard, to minister to his medical needs, alongside the Matron of Bridewell Hospital. Cromwell and Pickering had combined to soften the hearts of both Parliament and the prison governers. The brave, humanitarian action of Pickering in particular, seems at odds with the description of him after the Restoration. Perhaps it was his determination to oppose the hard-line attitude of Downing’s party, together with his earlier action against Laudian ministers in his county, which resulted in him being branded as a fanatical hothead by his enemies after the Restoration, but it is difficult to imagine that the sympathies he showed towards Nayler would not have also led him to be tolerant of protestant believers and ministers of a less Independent persuasion than his own. He may have been a Committee Man, and passionate about his Independency in faith and politics, but he also showed that that meant he was determined to support Cromwell’s view that liberty of conscience should extend to Presbyterians and tender-hearted sectaries alike.

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The youngest son, Edward Pickering, was born in 1618. He was also educated as a lawyer, at Lincoln’s Inn, but played no significant role in the war. ‘Ned’, as his friends affectionately knew him, was a companion of Samuel Pepys and is frequently described in Pepys’ Diary. Apparently, Ned did not maintain the same Nonconformist religious beliefs and practices as his brothers after the Restoration, and was less of an Independent in political views too. Probably influenced by Edward Montague, he travelled to the continent in 1660 to swear allegiance to Charles II before his return to England. Even after the Restoration, as late as the 1670s, Lady Pickering was still holding Congregationalist meetings in the manor house at Titchmarsh. However, though the Pickerings may have continued to hold to their puritan beliefs, they did not support the social levelling supported by John Lilburne and others.

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Neither were they averse to indulging in the finer aspects of courtly life in London, as Samuel Pepys (above) records for the 29th October 1660, The Lord Mayor’s Day. This was an occasion for quite a gathering of friends and family, including the wife of Edward Montague, Lady Sandwich, her children, and Lady Pickering, wife of Sir Gilbert and Montague’s sister. They went shopping for draperies in St Paul’s and Cheapside, where they found an ideal vantage point on the quayside to watch the parades and pageants with a company of fine ladies. The gentlemen continued to enjoy their sports. Eight years later, on 11th December, Pepys and his clerk and life-long friend Hewer met up with Ned Pickering in Smithfield to watch horse-riding, observing all the afternoon… the knaveries and tricks of jockys. However, Pepys had to be careful in meeting the jockys, especially one whose wife he desired but dare not see, for my vow to my wife. He came away with his friends having done nothing except concluded upon giving fifty pounds for a fine pair of black horses.

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The Pickerings were very much in the same mould as their Fenland neighbours, the Cromwells, prepared to challenge the religious and political order, but staunchly conservative with regard to the social order, and with an eye to property when determining who should have the right to decide on the government of the day. Although given the title God’s Englishman by Christopher Hill in his biography, Oliver Cromwell was, in fact, the grandson of a third-generation Welshman named Richard Williams, whose grandfather was said to have accompanied Henry Tudor to London in 1485. He settled in Putney and married his son, Morgan, to the daughter of the local blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. Walter’s brother was Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s great Chancellor, the hammer of the monks. In tribute, Morgan Williams’ son Richard decided to use his mother’s family name and became a firm supporter of the Reformation. Oliver’s mother was Elizabeth Steward, whose great-uncle was the last Prior of the Abbey of Ely and also became the first Protestant Dean of the Cathedral. He was Elizabeth Steward’s great-uncle, and was persuaded to throw in his lot with the Reformation by Sir Richard Cromwell. Oliver’s maternal grandfather and uncle continued to farm the manors of Ely Cathedral.*

As a result of their dissolution, Sir Richard Cromwell acquired the lands of three abbeys, two priories and the nunnery of Hinchingbrooke. He married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, as did his son, Sir Henry, who also represented his county in the House of Commons and was four times sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. His son, Sir Oliver, who also became an MP and a high sheriff, was the uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Old Sir Oliver spent much of the family fortune in entertaining King James V of Scotland on his royal progress to being crowned James I in 1603. Like Sir John Harington of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, he got little in return for providing such lavish hospitality to the Stuart family. He had to sell the great house to the Montague family. Like John Pickering, Oliver Cromwell’s father Robert was a second son, and therefore received little of Sir Oliver’s patrimony anyway. So, Oliver was born into a comparatively modest house in Huntingdon, which had been part of the St. John’s Hospital. Later, Oliver was to inherit some of the church manors of the Dean and Chapter of Ely. Like John Pickering, he would have grown up conscious of being a poor relation. However, he was related to most of the powerful gentry families of East Anglia and the Midlands, including the Knightleys and the Fiennes, into which the Golafre family had married in early Tudor times. These cousinly connections, together with the puritan education many of the sons of the gentry received in Cambridge, were what enabled a growing network of the Country opposition to Charles’ rule to emerge in the 1630s and, in parliament, in the 1640s. When Oliver took up his seat in the House of Commons in 1628, he was one of ten cousins there.

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Looking back, historians have tended to see the breach with the Levellers at Burford in 1649 as the turning point of the Revolution. But for Oliver, 1653 was undoubtedly the high point. After the failure of the Barebones Parliament, his high hopes of uniting God’s Englishmen in government had gone. He now saw himself as a constable whose task was to prevent Englishmen from flying at each other’s throats. He was forced back on the support of an Army purged of radicals, an Army which in the last resort had to be paid by taxes collected from the propertied classes, the natural rulers of the countryside. So, by 1653 the Revolution was effectively over and the Lord Protector, General Cromwell was the saviour of propertied society. The radicals had been driven from Westminster, the City and the Army in 1653, and the trading monopolies were still in control of the mercantile economy. The conservative generals, including Lambert, Montague and Desborough, formed Cromwell’s Council, together with the baronets, including Sir Gilbert Pickering. Other advisers included Nathanial Fiennes, son of Lord Saye and Sele. Cromwell’s plans for unity were no longer restricted to the Independent party, whose leader he had been: He saw his task now as being to unite the nation. To the radicals Oliver was now, finally its lost leader. Lilburne, Wildman, Sexby and other remaining Levellers turned to negotiations with the royalists, rather than acceptance of the new régime. Baptists, Quakers and Congregationalists never forgave him for reneging on promises to abolish tithes.

The Welsh Fifth Monarchist, Vavasour Powell greeted the Protectorate by asking his congregation whether the Lord would have Oliver Cromwell or Jesus Christ to reign over us?

However, the actual composition of Cromwell’s council, no less than the powers given to it and to the parliament by The Instrument, drafted by General Lambert, make it difficult to characterise the Protectorate as a military dictatorship, as it so often has been. Ten of the eighteen members were, in fact, civilians, and only Lambert, Fleetwood, Skippon and Desborough were members of the field army. Montague had last commanded a regiment in 1645, and the three others, although having some military duties, were administrators rather than soldiers. A simple head count, however, can be misleading, since civilians like Sir Gilbert Pickering often supported the military members, while Colonel Montague, later General at Sea, tended to oppose it. The council contained men of diverse and independent views, including Sir Gilbert Pickering, and was unlikely to act collectively as a rubber stamp to dictatorship, and nor did it.

Cromwell certainly wielded immense personal authority, and he would never have become Lord Protector had he not been Lord General. But he had a genuine aversion to dictatorial power, and the constitution was genuinely designed to prevent this. The army party reached its peaks of influence when Cromwell accepted the Instrument of Government and during the rule of the major-generals, but he signalled his disillusionment with it in a speech that he made to the hundred officers in February 1657. Thereafter, the exclusion of Lambert shifted the balance decisively against the military faction, and the trouble that the grandees made for Richard Cromwell in the spring of 1659 does not testify to their continuing ascendancy, but rather to the desperation of defeated men.

After the dissolution of the Long Parliament in March 1660, the Royalist historian Clarendon records that the council of state did many prudent actions, the most important of which was the reform of the navy, which was full of sectaries and under the government of those who of all men were declared the most republican. The fleet was under the command of Vice-Admiral Lawson, an excellent seaman, but then a notorious Anabaptist; who had filled the fleet with officers and mariners of the same principles. Nevertheless, the Rump Parliament owed its restoration to his successful siege of the City, so he stood high in reputation with all that party and they were therefore unable to remove him from power. Instead, they decided to eclipse him, that he should not have it so absolutely in his power to control them. So, they called up Sir Edward Montague, who had retired to his own house in Cambridgeshire, under a cloud, and made him joint-admiral. Montague accepted the commission on the conditions that he alone would have charge of recruiting new officers and men for the ships to be added to the fleet, and that he would have oversight of the rest, reforming them as he saw necessary. He sent a secret message to the king in exile, asking for his approval, before finally accepting the office and returning to London, where he immediately set to work in putting the fleet in so good order that he might comfortably serve in it. Clarendon goes on to praise Montague by asserting that there was no good man who betook himself to his majesty’s service with more generosity than this gentleman.

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Montague was from a noble family, which was a rival of the Cromwell family, having bought the House at Hinchingbrooke from Oliver’s grandfather, who had impoverished his family by the lavish hospitality he had shown to James I. However, Oliver and Edward became firm allies from the early years of the First Civil War, perhaps because the former was always destined to be a poor relation, as the son of a second son, but inherited his uncle’s lands in the Chapter of Ely anyway when he died childless. Clarendon records that the Montague family was too much addicted to innovations in religion, though Edward went against his father in opposing Charles I, since Sir Sidney had been a long-serving courtier and never could be prevailed upon to swerve from his allegiance to the crown, taking great care to restrain his only son within those limits. However, being young, and more out of his father’s control by being married into a family which, at that time, also trod away, he was so far wrought upon by the caresses of Cromwell, that, out of pure affection to him, he was persuaded to take command in the army when it was new modelled under Fairfax, and when he was little more than twenty years of age.

Montague served in the army, as Colonel of his regiment, until the end of the war, with the reputation of a very stout and sober young man, who … passionately adhered to Cromwell. The Lord-General took him into his closest confidence and sent him on several expeditions by sea, in sole command, which were very successful for both the Commonwealth and Edward’s career in it.

011Although perceived as devoted to Cromwell’s interests, he showed no acrimony towards any who had served Charles I, and was so much in love with monarchy that he was one of those who most desired and advised Cromwell to accept and assume that title, when it was offered to him by his parliament. Soon after the Convention Parliament decided to send the fleet to fetch Charles II from the Dutch United Provinces, the King had only been in the Hague for a few days when he heard that the English fleet was in sight of the port of Scheveningen. Shortly after that, an officer was sent by Admiral Montague to ask the King for orders. The Duke of York went on board the fleet to take possession of his command as High Admiral, where he was received by all the officers and seamen, with all possible duty and submission. He spent the whole day on board, receiving details of the state of the fleet, returning to the King that night, with the information. Montague therefore played a major part in ensuring the smooth transition of power to the Stuart restoration. Still in his thirties, he was to receive rich rewards for this throughout the reign of Charles II. Neither did he abandon his old friends and allies, ensuring that they too received royal pardon and patronage, provided that they had played no part in the regicide.

Of course, Oliver Cromwell himself could not be pardoned for the act which he himself had regarded as a cruel necessity. Although he was beyond temporal punishment, his bones were not allowed to rest in peace. In 1661 the Protector’s body was dug up, hung at Tyburn, decapitated and buried at the foot of the gallows. The head was stuck on a pole outside Westminster Hall and left to rot. It eventually came into the possession of a Suffolk family, a descendant of which, Canon Wilkinson of Woodbridge, arranged with the fellows of Cromwell’s old college at Cambridge, Sydney Sussex, that it should be given a decent burial within the precincts, in 1960.

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