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The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951.   Leave a comment

      

Introduction and Part One: 1851-1901: Change, Decay and Resistance in the Countryside

During the period 1851 to 1941, the pace and style of life in the Midlands and East Anglia changed more rapidly and radically than in any preceding period, including the previous hundred years. Mechanisation came to the farms, piped water to the villages and street lighting and trams to the towns. Radio eventually pierced the isolation of rural areas. Trades Unionists and socialists attacked the centuries-old social structure, weakened as it was by economic decline. Patronage and paternalism were replaced by concepts of equality and the assertion of new rights to education and housing, alongside the continuing demands for a fair week’s pay for a fair week’s work. A generation of men were buried on the western front while many of their children were left to fight for their way of life against unemployment, poverty and despair at home and against fascism and dictatorship on the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.

The changes in village life that took place during these years constitute one of the most fundamental developments in the history of the last five centuries, since the end of the Wars of the Roses. The parish of Brandeston near Framlingham was typical of these changes. In 1842, it was a self-contained community with a population of 555 souls. It had a fourteenth century church with Perpendicular additions and a Tudor hall recently bought by Charles Austin, Q.C., and High Steward of Ipswich. There was an ancient inn and a new Congregational chapel. Henry Collins’ mill stood on the edge of the village and is reputed to have had eight sails. It was self-sufficient in services, with its own blacksmith, wheelwright, joiner, butcher, grocer, tailor and builder. Derek Wilson continues:

There were thirteen farmers, and the rest of the community were employed directly or indirectly in agriculture. On the rare occasions when a man needed to leave the village he would walk or go with the carter to Wickham Market where he could pick up the Royal Mail or the Lord Nelson coach to London. A Hundred years later, the population of Brandeston was 312. The third and last generation of Austins had left the Hall, which was on the point of becoming a boys’ school. The Congregational Chapel was closed. There was no trace of the windmill and the mill house was now the post office. There were still eight farms, employing between them only twenty to thirty men. The old stables of the Hall had been converted into flats. Hill House, a substantial Georgian residence, was a saddler’s workshop. The forge was still operating but the nearby wheelwright had long since closed his shop. Some of the houses were empty and many, especially the thatched cottages, were in need of repair. The railway at nearby Hacheston Halt and Parham linked Brandeston with Ipswich and the world, and the Eastern Counties bus came through regularly. Villagers frequently went on shopping expeditions to Framlingham, Wickham Market and the county capital. And who were the villagers? Retired farm workers and servants from the Hall; newcomers in search of rural seclusion; men and women who travelled to the nearby towns for work. Compare the names of Brandestonians in 1842 and 1947 and you will find only a few that are identical.

  

In many ways, the transition began with what became known as The Railway Age, although in the 1850s there were still many parts in the extremities of East Anglia, including Framlingham, into which the steam trains had not yet reached. By 1850 speeds of fifty to sixty kilometres per hour were commonplace on the main railway routes. Moreover, travel by rail was cheaper than by road. Railways cut out the hidden costs of coach travel such as the tips to the coachman and guard and the expensive meals at the coaching inns along the road. By 1850 the long-distance coaches had disappeared and people were travelling far more than they had ever done before. The Times commented:

 

Thirty years ago not one countryman in one hundred had seen the metropolis. There is now scarcely one in the same number who has not spent the day there.

 

The railways brought change in numerous ways. They speeded up the distribution of mail and in the 1850s newspaper expresses were leaving Euston and Paddington. The need to keep to railway timetables caused Greenwich Time to be adopted throughout the country. The engineering works often provided pleasing new features on the landscape, such as bridges and viaducts. Cities were also transformed, not always for the better, by the approach lines, stations and marshalling yards. In addition, the railways encouraged the expansion of industry. Goods traffic moved more quickly and could grow at a rate which would not have been possible had it still been confined to canals and navigable waterways. The railways gave particular impetus to the development of the iron, steel and coal industries. In the 1850s, over a million tonnes of coal a year were being consumed by the steam engines and more miners were needed in the coalfield areas and towns. Here again, the railways helped in making it easier for agricultural workers to move to these areas in search of higher wages.

Quite apart from all these effects, the railways themselves were a major industry. In the 1850s, apart from the navvies, sixty thousand people were employed in running the railways. As well as engine drivers, they included clerks, porters and carriage builders. Some of them lived in new railway towns, like Crewe, housing the carriage and locomotive works required by the railway companies. Others lived in older towns, like York, which were rejuvenated by becoming important junctions. Unlike any other industry, the railways employed people throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. Wherever a railway station was opened, station staff were needed and a station master was required to supervise them. Moreover, as other countries began to industrialise, they needed the machinery, rails and locomotives which only Britain was able to supply in the middle of the century. By 1851 Britain’s output of iron had already risen to two and a half million tonnes, ten times the amount produced in 1801.

004014In the second half of the century, steel production took over and increased forty times to nearly five million tonnes in 1900. Not all of the iron was used to construct machinery or to build railways. Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, was made of iron and glass. Iron was used increasingly in all kinds of buildings, including houses. It was used for gas pipes, fireplaces, doorstops and kitchen ranges, as well as for iron railings outside. However, in 1856 a swifter and cheaper method of producing steel was devised by Henry Bessemer, and by 1890 steel had replaced iron in railways, bridges and shipping. By 1900, however, Germany had overtaken Great Britain in steel production, and was catching up in pig-iron and coal production.

Nonetheless, Britain’s output continued to increase in every industry, including the expansion of the railways, despite having industrialised far earlier than all the other European countries (see statistical tables, right).

By 1870 there were over thirteen thousand miles of railway track in England and Wales, four and a half thousand of which had been laid by 1848. Yet the accurate assessment of the difference made by the railways to society in terms of facilitating provision of goods, means of personal travel and the development of holidays is difficult to conclude and necessitates more detailed, specific, local studies. In Suffolk, the Eastern Counties Railway Company took over its rival, the Eastern Union, and other branch lines were laid by small local companies bringing Lowestoft, Beccles, Halesworth, Framlingham and Woodbridge into the steam age, and these were eventually also gobbled up by the ECRC, which was reconstituted as the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862.

Returning to the condition of agriculture, it soon became evident that the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 did not produce the market chaos predicted by many wealthy landowners. Instead, agriculture continued into a period of prosperity, known as High Farming, successfully feeding industrial society. The industrial advances of the mid-Victorian period also eliminated the risks of repeats of the serious social discontent of the 1830s and 1840s. Although labour may have been hard, and wages low, the seasonal rhythm of the land was maintained. Where modern technology could increase yield or cut overheads without involving prohibitive capital expenditure, farmers hurried to use it.

This was when the agricultural contractor came into his own. He hired to the farmers the large machines and the operators and engineers they could not afford to buy for themselves. Most important of these was the steam threshing outfit. It could do in a few days the work which had previously been one of the jobs which kept farm staff busy throughout the winter. Steam threshing was a busy, noisy, back-breaking time, becoming as much a highlight of the farming year as harvest itself. The thresher’s hoppers filled sacks with chaff and with graded grain. A full sack of oats weighed twelve stone, one of barley sixteen stone and a sack of wheat was eighteen stone, and each one had to be stacked or carted as soon as it was full.

001The novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was brought up in Dorset, and his novels were largely based on his knowledge of a rural society, in many ways simpler than the main stream of Victorian life recorded by George Eliot and Charles Dickens, far more like that of Flora Thompson. Like all of them, however, Hardy powerfully communicates the experience of social change, especially in the following passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), in which he describes the impact of the advent, at some point in the 1860s, of the steam-powered threshing machine at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, and on his heroine, the victim-of-circumstances farm-labourer, Tess Durbeyfield. She arrives at the farm, with her fellow labourer, at dawn on a March morning, for the threshing of the last wheat-rick:

When Izz Huett and Tess arrived at the scene of operations only a rustling denoted that others had preceded them: to which, as the light increased, there were presently added the silhouettes of two men on the summit. They were busily ’unhaling’ the rick, that is, stripping off the thatch before beginning to throw down the sheaves; and while this was in progress Izz and Tess, together with the other women-workers, in their whitey-brown pinners, stood waiting and shivering, Farmer Groby having insisted on their being on the spot thus early to get the job over if possible by the end of the day. Close under the eaves of the stack, and yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining – the threshing-machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.

 

A little way off there was another indistinct figure; this one black, with a sustained hiss that spoke of strength very much in reserve. The long chimney running up beside an ash-tree, and the warmth which radiated from the spot, explained without the necessity of much daylight that here was the engine which was to act as ’primum mobile’ of this little world. By the engine stood a dark motionless being, a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side: it was the engine-man… He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke… He travelled with his engine from farm to farm, from county to county, for as yet the steam threshing-machine was itinerant in this part of Wessex. He spoke in a strange northern accent; his thoughts being turned inwards upon himself, his eye on his iron charge, hardly perceiving the scenes around him, and caring for them not at all: holding only strictly necessary intercourse with the natives… The long strap which ran from the driving-wheel of his engine to the red thresher under the rick was the sole tie-line between agriculture and him.

 001

While they uncovered the sheaves he stood apathetic beside his portable repository of force, round whose hot blackness the morning air quivered. He had nothing to do with preparatory labour. His fire was waiting incandescent, his steam was at high pressure, in a few seconds he could make the long strap move at an invisible velocity. Beyond its extent the environment might be corn, straw, or chaos; it was all the same to him.

 

The rick was unhaled by full daylight; the men then took their places, the women mounted, and the work began. Farmer Groby… had arrived ere this, and by his orders Tess was placed upon the platform of the machine, close to the man who fed it, her business being to untie every sheaf of corn handed on to her by Izz Huett, who stood next, but on the rick; so that the feeder could seize it over the revolving drum, which whisked out every grain in one moment.

 

They were soon in full progress, after a preparatory hitch or two, which rejoiced the hearts of those who hated machinery. The work sped on till breakfast time, when the thresher was stopped for half an hour; and on starting again the whole supplementary strength of the farm was thrown into the labour of constructing the straw-rick, which began to grow beside the stack of corn. A hasty lunch was eaten… without leaving their positions… the perspiring ones at the machine, including Tess, could not lighten their duties by the exchange of many words. It was the ceaselessness of the work which tried her so severely… there was no respite; for as the drum never stopped, the man who fed it could not stop, and she, who had to supply the man with untied sheaves, could not stop either… it was usually a woman who was chosen for this particularly duty, and Groby gave as his motive in selecting Tess that she was one of those who combined strength with quickness in untying, and both with staying power, and this may have been true. The hum of the thresher, which prevented speech, increased to a raving whenever the supply of corn fell short of the regular quantity…

 

Dinner-time came, and the whirling ceased; whereupon Tess left her post, her knees trembling so wretchedly with the shaking of the machine that she could scarcely walk… In the afternoon the farmer made it known that the rick was to be finished at night, since there was a moon by which they could see to work, and the man with the engine was engaged for another farm on the morrow. Hence the twanging and humming and rustling proceeded with even less intermission than usual…

 

027Thus the afternoon dragged on. The wheat-rick sank lower, and the straw-rick grew higher, and the corn-sacks were carted away. At six o’clock the wheat-rick was about shoulder-high from the ground… From the west sky a wrathful shine – all that wild March could afford in the way of sunset – had burst forth after the cloudy day, flooding the tired and sticky faces of the threshers, and dyeing them with a coppery light, as also the flapping garments of the women, which clung to them like dull flames… The man who fed was weary, and Tess could see that the red nape of his neck was encrusted with dirt and husks. She still stood at her post, her flushed and perspiring face coated with the corn-dust, and her white bonnet embrowned by it. She was the only woman whose place was upon the machine so as to be shaken bodily by its spinning… The incessant quivering, in which every fibre of her frame participated, had thrown her into a stupefied reverie, in which her arms worked ion independently of her consciousness… Whenever Tess lifted her head she beheld always the great upgrown straw-stack, with the men in shirt-sleeves upon it, against the gray north sky; in front of it the long red elevator like a Jacob’s ladder, on which a perpetual stream of threshed straw ascended, a yellow river running up-hill, and spouting out on the top of the rick.

 

However, steam machinery was much too heavy for most of the everyday jobs around the farm and the horse continued to provide most of the motive power. Harvest time also remained a very labour-intensive period and, although mechanical reapers began to appear, few farmers or their labourers thought that they would replace the traditional methods anytime soon. In her book, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson describes in considerable detail Oxfordshire village life during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Here she writes of harvest time:

002I026n the fields where the harvest had begun all was bustle and activity. At that time the mechanical reaper with long, revolving arms like windmill sails had already appeared in the locality; but it was looked on by the men as an auxiliary, a farmer’s toy; the scythe still did most of the work and they did not dream it would ever be superseded. So while the red sails revolved in one field and the youth on the driver’s seat of the machine called cheerily to his horses and the women followed behind to bind the corn into sheaves, in the next field a band of men would be whetting their scythes and mowing by hand as their fathers had done before them.

 

With no idea that they were at the end of a long tradition, they still kept up the old country custom of choosing as their leader the tallest and most highly skilled man amongst them, who was then called King of the Mowers… With a wreath of poppies and green bindweed trails around his wide, rush-plaited hat, he led the band down the swathes as they mowed and decreed when and for how long they should halt for a ’breather’, and what drinks should be had from the yellow stone jar they kept under the hedge in a shady corner of the field. They did not rest often or for long; for every morning they set themselves to accomplish an amount of work in the day that they knew would tax all their powers till long after sunset. ’Set yourself more than you can do and you’ll do it’ was one of their maxims, and some of their feats in the harvest field astonished themselves as well as the onlooker.

 

There were also various horse-drawn machines such as drills, hoes, reapers and binders, which cut running costs. In Suffolk, Ransomes and Garretts of Leiston were still leaders among the firms producing agricultural equipment. They kept up with the times by supplying traction engines and steam lorries during this period. However, when Ryder Haggard went to buy a reaper in Bungay, he found he could only get one of American make. Nonetheless, Ransomes did lead the way in adapting the internal-combustion engine to mowing, and in 1902 they patented the first ever ride-on mower.

HenryTidmarsh&FamilyWorking on a threshing machine was not just extremely hard work, but also dangerous, especially because many of the early machines were unguarded. My Great Aunt Jessie Gulliver was born in 1901, just ten years after Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published, but her family stories went back to her grandfather and grandmother on her mother’s side of the family, the Tidmarshes. Her grandfather Tidmarsh and grandmother (neé Webb) were born in about 1840. They lived in the village of Great Rollright, in modern-day Oxfordshire, then part of Banburyshire. Henry Tidmarsh was an agricultural labourer at Great Rollright. When still a young man, some time in the late 1850s or early 1860s, he had his arm pulled out just below the shoulder by a threshing machine. As he bent to wipe a nest of mice off the belts, he slipped and fell into it, presumably trapping his arm on the drum. He had to try to walk to Chipping Norton, where the nearest hospital was, bleeding to death. When the village doctor got news of the emergency, he went after Henry with a horse and cart, saving his life. However, neither he nor the hospital could save Henry’s arm. As Henry could no longer work on the estate farm with one arm, and compensation was unheard of in those days, so all the family had to live on were seven loaves a week for seven people, charity bread given through the parish as outdoor relief. Together with the vegetables and the fruit out of the garden, they just survived, and avoided going into the recently established workhouse. They had not a thing from the squire and his relations, who lived in the Hall at Great Rollright, his employer, but the parson of the village was quite well off and very kind. He gave Henry a little pony and trap, so that he was able to fetch parcels for people, halting on the hill at Ufton, where he would go round the village with pins and needles and cottons, and other haberdashery. He lived into his nineties, and was re-united with his right arm on burial in the churchyard at Great Rollright. He therefore became known in local folklore as the man who was buried twice!

006GeorgeGulliverBertha Tidmarsh met her husband when working as a maid at the Chamberlains’ House at Ufton-on-the-Hill near Leamington. The Chamberlains also owned the Harbury cement works. George Gulliver (right), born in Ufton in 1862, was a groom and coachman with the Chamberlains. He used to drive them around in a coach with two horses. His father, Vinson, born in Hethe in Oxfordshire in 1833, had married Hannah Green, George’s mother, from Wormleigton in Warwickshire, in 1855. They had five children, the third of whom was George, followed by Henry, who was also born in Ufton in 1865. It was therefore this Vinson Gulliver who, according to family folklore, marched Joseph Arch, through the Warwickshire villages of Wellesbourne and Barford in the late 1860s, possibly with his relative Charles Gulliver, who was another Wesleyan preacher. It was his son, Henry, George’s brother, who took over as secretary. This story has been confirmed by the discovery of a letter from Vinson Gulliver (b. 1888), to his brother Alfred in 1979:

He was a Primitive Methodist preacher. He knew Joe (Joseph) Arch and was a secretary of the Agricultural Union, and later his son Henry took it over until he was the only paying member, although by what grandfather said, he acted in that service until he left the district.

 

Joseph Arch was the son of a Warwickshire shepherd. They formed the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union, leading to the founding of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU) in 1872, the first trade union for unskilled workers, which eventually became part of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Despite internal division, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong in 1875, organised in thirty-eight districts.

At that time, agricultural workers’ wages were just a little better than subsistence level, amounting to no more than twelve pounds a year for ordinary labourers, rising to twenty pounds for a good head waggoner. For this, he would often work alone in the fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of life beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and the village pub and church. He and his family could be evicted with little justification or notice. Joseph Arch and the Union tried to put a stop to this by organising mass marches and meetings. These meetings, attended by thousands of farm workers in borrowed fields, often in pouring rain, ran the risk of incurring the wrath of both squire and parson. God bless the squire and all his relations and keep us in our proper stations was how prayers ended in many rural parish churches at that time, where life was ordained by the unholy trinity of tyranny composed of Squire, Parson and Farmer. Joseph Arch described his first glimpse of a communion service; First up walked the squire to the communion rails, then up went the tradesmen, the shopkeepers, the wheelwright, the blacksmith and then, very last of all, the agricultural labourers. Opposition to the Union from farmers and landed gentry was fierce and the labourers, scattered in isolated villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of this hostile squirarchy. The children of Wesleyan supporters could also lose their places in the village schools, which, at that time, were all controlled by the Church of England and watched over by the parish priest or rector. Despite the threat of losing their homes as well as their livelihoods, open-air meetings often ended with rousing renditions of When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, the chorus of which was:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

The view of the Nonconformist British Quarterly Review of July 1872 on The Agricultural Labourers’ Strike was that whilst a trade union was by no means the best way of remedying the social inequalities and injustices of the time, it was the only means available:

… It has been doubted, and perhaps with some justice, whether in England, at least, these associations have had the effect of raising wages. It is contended, and with great appearance of truth, that workmen have been in the various mechanical trades so much in demand, that the principle of competition for the employment of labour has had full play, and that the rise of wages among artisans and factory operatives is to be ascribed to natural, and not to artificial causes. But it cannot be doubted that workmen’s associations have shortened hours of labour, have educated artisans – as they will the agricultural labourer – into the sense of common interest and a common duty, and have made the interests of the working classes so notable a matter of public interest, that political parties are fain to attempt association with them, and to legislate for them.

 

The article went on to argue the low wages of agricultural labourers were largely the result of the Poor Law, because the habit of giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied but destitute poor had grown into a practice which was reproducing some of the features of the old Speenhamland System. In those cases where a rural district was added to a thriving town, the temptation on the part of the farmer-guardians to give this form of outdoor relief in aid of wages was almost irresistable, since by doing so, they were able to reduce labour costs and maximise profits at the expense of the ratepayers. While wages remained so low, there was also little prospect of labourers joining provident societies and saving for their own maintenance in sickness and old age. The authors argued that,

 

 With greater comfort and contentment come more independence, more enterprise, and a higher standard of decency, morality and religion. It is an error to imagine that independence makes men unmanageable or unreasonable. Few men take more intelligent estimate of their position than English artisans do. When they do unite for co-operative purposes they show no symptom of insubordination or disobedience to the necessary orders of their managers or directors… there is no reason to think that the English agricultural labourer can sink to any lower level than that which he occupies now… it is no wonder that the religious sense of the peasantry is obtuse; the marvel is that it should exist at all, and be capable of being stirred by the homely but earnest eloquence of the Methodist preacher, , the apostle of the agricultural labourer. In the last session of Parliament, Sir Roundell Palmer, taking up the defence of the Anglican Establishment,… invited the attention of the House to the benificient functions which are performed by the country clergy. If, indeed, they are to be responsible for the condition in which their flocks are found, no severer censure of their efforts can be uttered… it is not too much to say that nine-tenths of the religion which the agricultural labourer believes is gained in spite of the clergy, and by agencies which they name only to scorn or ridicule.

 

To some labouring men, the young trade union movement seemed to hold out some hope, as workers from all over East Anglia combined into groups, instinctively believing, as their fathers had done half a century before, that solidarity meant strength. Just as instinctively, however, farmers felt that solidarity meant trouble. They dismissed, or threatened to dismiss, any men who carried a union card. The farmers usually won but, in 1874, a sufficient number of labourers stood firm enough to enable an effective strike to be mounted. The demand was for fourteen shillings a week. There were violent scenes in many places, and in Brandon troops were called in to confront a crowd armed with sticks and bearing a banner proclaiming Bread or Blood in Brandon this day. The demonstrators won on this occasion, with the magistrates agreeing to provide cheaper bread and flour, and the triumphant cry of revolt was taken up elsewhere. From Halesworth to Ely the countryside was up, with rioters breaking into shops and barns and threatening farmers and magistrates. It took several days for law and order to be restored. As at the time of Captain Swing, such violence expressed everything but solved nothing. There was no solution: the workers, the farmers and the government were all powerless. As one farmer complained in a letter to The Times,

We have to pay more for labour, manures and feeding stuffs. Yet we are selling the best wheat England ever produced at 25s. Per quarter, wool has reached the lowest price ever recorded and, notwithstanding the poor root crop, beef hardly averages 6d. Per lb. But there is another feature of the farming outlook which is very sad to contemplate, and that is the decreasing influence agriculture has upon Parliament.

 

We also know that there was considerable overseas emigration from the Warwickshire countryside and other areas where NALU had grown strong, in the 1870s and 1880s, sponsored by the union. Questioned by the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1881 about how the union set about achieving higher wages for its members, Arch replied that they had reduced the number of labourers in the market very considerably by helping seven hundred thousand men, women and children during the nine years of the union’s existence. Asked where the funds had come from for the emigration of such numbers, Arch replied that he himself had travelled to Canada and made arrangements with the Canadian Government for them to give the migrants a certain amount, which the union then matched with trade union funds. In fact, the growth of the union had come about at a time when farm labourers’ wages were rising, and the rural revolt led by Arch stemmed more from the raising of expectations which accompanied these rises, however marginal. Even so, the harvester who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could still, in the 1890s, find himself standing in front of the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. Against this continuing absolute social control, it took a special kind of courage to stand with a few labouring brothers and sing:

 

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

 

However, by the last quarter of the century, fundamental changes in the shape and character of agriculture in England had also become fully evident: fewer worked on the land and the golden age of profits had vanished in the face of imported meat and wheat, especially from the American prairies. This hit the South Midland and East Anglian cereal farmers and their labourers far worse than those producing mainly meat and dairy products for the West Midland and Northern industrial towns. Most of these men and women who remaining on the land were trapped there by a combination of the rigid class structure and rural poverty, as this 1898 extract from Henry Ryder Haggard shows:

Notwithstanding the care, knowledge, and intelligence which are put into the working of the land, under present conditions it can scarcely be made to pay. The machinery works, the mill goes round; the labourers, those who are left of them, earn their wage such as it is, and the beast his provender; the good man rises early and rests late, taking thought for the day and the morrow, but when at Michaelmas he balances his books there is no return, and lo! The bailiff is glaring through the gates… in our parts the ancient industry of agriculture is nearly moribund, and if the land, or the poorer and therefore the more considerable portion of it, is farmed fairly, it is in many instances being worked at a loss, or at any rate without profit… The small men only too often keep up the game till beggary overtakes them, when they adjourn to the workhouse… The larger farmers… at last take refuge in a cottage or, if they are fortunate, find a position as a steward on some estate. The landlords… unless they have private means to draw on… sink and sink until they vanish beneath the surface of the great sea of English society.

 

This passage may seem, in parts, rather exaggerated in both the claims it makes and the style it is written in, but Ryder Haggard could claim to know what he was writing about, since he farmed a considerable amount of land on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The decline he described had begun in about 1875. By a combination of industry and improved techniques, farmers had survived the ending of protection and the had prospered during the middle years of the century. Then the full impact of free trade was felt. Grain from the American prairies was carried to New England ports in new steam trains, exported in new steam ships and sold on the English market at prices lower than home produced corn. In 1877 wheat was 56s. 9d. A quarter. By 1894 the price had slumped to 22s. 10d., a figure at which it could not be grown in England at a profit. By the end of the century the amount of land under cereals in Suffolk had been cut by half, with those farmers who could diversify rearing stock as well. However, this market area was not free from competition either, since refrigerated container-ships were bringing cheap lamb and beef from New Zealand and Argentina. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the landed interest had dominated Parliament and had forced the Corn Laws through but the balance of political power had now shifted; the middle classes and property-owning town dwellers benefited from cheap, imported foodstuffs, so that free trade had come to stay.

The depression which fell upon the agrarian communities of East Anglia was the worst that it had ever experienced. Land values and rents tumbled. Thousands of labourers were thrown out of work and left their ancestral homes. Ditches and hedges were unkempt, fields unploughed; houses, cottages and barns unrepaired. Men who had once owned their own farms were now living on the parish dole, a pound of flour and threepunce a day. Alongside them, the army of impoverished farm-workers who had once worked for them, grew daily, a powerless host who had little idea as to how to relieve their misery.

… to be continued…

Forgotten England: Gentlemen Farmers and Labourers in the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions   Leave a comment

Part Two: Poverty, Poetry and Protest, 1815-51

001

As Napoleon’s power grew, the threat of invasion became very real. Home defence was a matter of urgency and the regular forces had to be supplemented by volunteer reserves. A force of yeomanry known as the Suffolk Light Dragoons was raised at Bury and a part-time navy, the Sea Fencibles, patrolled the coast. These bodies of amateur soldiers and sailors were very unreliable and many men joined them to evade conscription to the real army and navy. This was probably the situation with Isaac Gulliver’s privateers on the south coast. As an additional deterrent to French invasion both coasts were also studded with Martello Towers, small fortresses on which cannons were mounted. Eighteen were raised along the Suffolk shoreline, some of which can still be seen today, as in Kent. Whether or not they gave the local people much real protection is difficult to judge, since the only invasion attempt which actually landed soldiers did so on the Pembrokeshire coast near Fishguard, where there were no towers, and where the action ended in farce and surrender by the French after two or three days. The war provided a captive home market for English farmers. Napoleon’s blockade, the continental system, though only partially successful, served to strengthen the British government’s conviction that by agriculture alone we live in plenty without intercourse with other nations. Besides the soldiers and sailors, allied nations needed British corn. So, there was an emphasis on intensive crop farming, giving a further boost to the Agrarian Revolution.

The French wars coincided with a run of bad harvests (only two good harvests and fourteen bad ones in twenty-two years). Since the disruption of trade prevented foreign corn reaching English ports, the price of home-grown grain rocketed. Farmers hurried to profit from this situation, and the heavy clay-lands of central Suffolk came into their own. It was then that the Suffolk landscape took on its now familiar appearance – the heaths and meadows of the east and west harbouring flat flocks and herds, the centre dominated by wide fields, interrupted by occasional copses and water-meadows. Agricultural incomes ballooned during the Napoleonic Wars only to be severely deflated by the downward trend in prices by 1815. When the war ended the special conditions which had favoured this prosperity ended with it. In 1815 corn prices plummeted to half what they had been in 1812. Parliament, where the landed interest was dominant, hastened to pass the Corn Law which prohibited the import of foreign grain until the price had reached eighty shillings a quarter. For thirty-one years this appalling piece of legislation remained on the statute book, protecting farm profits at the expense of every man, woman and child in the country, who had to pay inflated prices for daily bread. Wheat prices continued to fall until 1835. Careful research has again shown that the effect of this deflation varied greatly from one locality to another, depending in particular on the local interface between agriculture and industry.

The situation would not have been so bad if all the sections of the rural community had shared the benefits brought by protection, but because there were more potential workers than jobs, wages remained low. Farmers kept their retained workers to a minimum and drew on the large pool of casual labour at the busy seasons of the year. Most workers lived in thatched, verminous medieval cottages or in redundant farmhouses, converted into smaller units by flimsy partitions, steep stairs and lean-to additons. Some farmers built new dwellings for their workers, may sub-standard, but others responsibly built. Those erected by Lord Tollemache on his estate at Helmingham are an excellent example of the best in modest domestic architecture. However, the farmworker’s basic need was for food. Like everyone else, he had to buy bread at artificially inflated prices and he needed better wages in order to do so. The prevailing poor law worked to his disadvantage in this, and the Speenhamland System, which operated from 1795 to 1834, provided that where a labourer’s wage was inadequate, it could be augmented from the poor rate. This demoralised the farm workers further, by bringing them within the category of the parish poor, depriving them of any incentive to work and subsidising the farmers by relieving them of the obligation to pay realistic wages.

When the French Wars ended, four hundred thousand soldiers and sailors were demobilised, too many of them seeking to return to work on the land, which was no longer available. The results were mass unemployment and low wages for those fortunate enough to find work. William Cobbett wrote of the conditions in which the labourers of Leicestershire were living:

Look at these hovels, made of mud and straw; bits of glass, or of cast-off windows, without frames or hinges frequently, but merely stuck in the mud wall. Enter them, and look at the bits of chairs or stools; the wretched boards tacked together to serve for a table; the floor of pebble, broken brick, and of the bare ground…

However, the life of the rural peasant was not entirely one of unrelieved misery and squalor. As a child Robert Bloomfield of Honington (1766-1823) lived with his mother who gained a meagre living from her dame school. He became a farm worker at Sapiston at the age of eleven until it broke his health. He went to London and found success there in the literary world of Wordsworth and Coleridge who admired the freshness and authenticity of his nature poetry. Nevertheless, he died, poor and half-blind, in Bedfordshire. The inspiration for his best work, of which The Farmer’s Boy is the greatest, came from his years of hard labour at Sapiston:

Fresh from the Hall of Bounty sprung

With glowing heart and ardent eye,

With songs and rhyme upon my tongue,

And fairy visions dancing by,

The mid-day sun in all his power,

The backward valley painted gay;

Mine was the road without a flower,

Where one small streamlet crossed the way.

 

George Crabbe (1754-1832) also grew up in Suffolk and began work in the field of medicine, but then turned to the church and to literature. As a poet he stands out for the honesty of his pictures of country life and the craftsmanship of his verse. His  poem The Vicar (1823) pokes fun at the way in which the country parson had to be all things to all people in his parish:

Now rests our Vicar. They who knew him best,

Proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest;

Free from all evils which disturb the mind,

Whom studies vex and controversies blind.  

The Rich approved, – of them in awe he stood;

The poor admired, – they all believed him good;

The old and serious of his habits spoke;

The frank and youthful loved his pleasant joke;

Mothers approved a safe contented guest,

And daughters one who backed each small request:

In him his flock found nothing to condemn;

Him sectaries liked, – he never troubled them;

No trifles fail’d his yielding mind to please,

And all his passions sunk in early ease;

Nor one so old has left this world of sin,

More like the being that he enter’d in…

…Thus he his race began, and to the end

His constant care was, no man to offend;

He was his Master’s soldier,

but not one To lead an army of his martyrs on:

Fear was his ruling passion.

Self-portrait, John Constable, c. 1799-1804, pencil and black chalk heightened with white and red chalk. © National Portrait Gallery, London.However, few would argue with the assertion that Suffolk’s greatest ever creative genius was John Constable (1776-1837; his self-portrait is on the right), who also loved his home county, though he too, like Robert Bloomfield, spent much of his life away from it, being from a more privileged background than Bloomfield. However, he was always striving to recapture naturalistic Suffolk moods in his work. He wrote to a friend that he had been…

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery, London 2014… running after pictures and seeking truth at second-hand. I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes that may employ me… the great vice of the present day is ’bravura’, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. Fashion always had and always will have its day, but truth in all things only will last, and can only have just claims on posterity.

 

He therefore returned to his beloved Dedham Vale, where he had grown up amid the rumble and roar of his father’s mill wheels. There he painted the pictures which have always been recognised as representing not just Suffolk but the essential England. Nevertheless, it was an England which was soon to change, perhaps the reason why Constable’s paintings of The Hay Wain (1821, left) and Flatford Mill evoke so nostalgic a response in most English people, regardless of how much they understand about the craft of his art.

A century of great artists in the Constable tradition devoted themselves to the Suffolk scene. They found a deep truth in the simple beauty of the land and, like Constable, they knew that truth in all things only will last.  

 In addition to the evidence of rural poverty uncovered by Cobbett’s Rural Rides, the evidence presented to the commissions of inquiry into agrarian distress was carefully sifted by historians, working from county to county. This produced the conclusion that the western animal-rearing districts of the country, for example Lancashire and Cheshire, lying close to big urban markets for potatoes and dairy produce, barely suffered any depression. Arable farming districts, on the other hand, had no spare investment funds during the spells of very low prices in the deflationary periods, in 1816, and 1821-23. Later, although the price of wheat did not stagger to its nadir until 1835. farm costs had adjusted downwards as well. This tended to thin out the symptoms of true distress in later price troughs. Yet despite drops in both prices and costs, production continued to climb. The yield of wheat per acre, for example, rose by sixteen per cent from 1815/19 to 1832/36. Over the same period, the total population of England and Wales increased from just over eleven million in 1815 to nearly fifteen million in 1836, and these extra four million mouths were somehow fed without the help of imports and without the consumption of foodstuffs per capita falling significantly.

 

029The answer to this conundrum is probably that it was the labourers in the south and south Midlands of England who were hit hardest during the post-war period and into the 1830s. It was here that the Labourer’s Revolt of the 1830s began and was fiercest. Here, the depressed labourers refused to continue to suffer in silence, but protested in sporadic outbursts of rick-burning, as well as in widespread support for the Chartist movement of the 1830s, continuing into the 1840s. In 1830 perhaps the most serious outburst of rioting flared up not among the stocking-knitters of Nottinghamshire or the hand-loom weavers of Lancashire, but among the farm labourers of the eastern counties, where the threshing machine was increasing the number of labourers out of work during the winter months when threshing was done. The installation of the machinery was strenuously resisted by those whose labour, and consequent livelihood, it threatened to make redundant. Hence the farm labourer’s hostility to the horse-powered threshing machine which he saw depriving him of his winter work. But the violence which erupted in 1830 had been building up for some years, since the end of the French Wars, mainly due to widespread unemployment and depressed wages in the rural south and east. However, it was the particular anger against the threshing machines that fanned the riots flared in the southern countryside in 1830 and 1831.

021The disturbances began in Kent and quickly spread as far west as Dorset and as far north as Northamptonshire and East Anglia. An imaginary leader, Captain Swing, was invented (rather like the Nottinghamshire leader General Ludd) and, under his orders, farm labourers destroyed nearly four hundred threshing machines. The Swing Rising did not last long, however, as the Government, through local magistrates, dealt severely with the rioters. Six were hanged, over four hundred transported and about the same number imprisoned at home. By the end of 1830 order had been restored, though the rising did delay the spread of the machines. Nevertheless, the problem of low wages remained and increasing numbers of labourers decided to seek work in the growing industrial towns. Those who stayed put and tried to improve their wages through early attempts at forming unions, like the Tolpuddle Martyrs were dealt with like naval mutineers and also transported, leaving a legacy of bitterness. Here, too, the New Poor Law seemed most oppressive and had to be alleviated by the Speenhamland System, since there were few alternative occupations to farm labour, and periods of unemployment were almost inevitable.

In Dorset, annual contracts at the hiring fairs were usual, but wages were paid by the week, with nothing on wet days; much of the pay was in kind and the whole family was expected to work on the farm. The great difference in the rate of wages between the southern and northern counties was still apparent to James Caird in the High Farming period which followed the Repeal of the Corn Laws. He found that this wage differential was far greater than the prices of agricultural prices:

A bushel of wheat, a pound of butter, a stone of meat, is not more valuable in Cumberland, or the North Riding, than in Suffolk or Berkshire; yet the wages of the labourer in the two former (counties) are from sixty to seventy per cent higher than in the two latter counties… The higher rate is unmistakably due to the increased demand for labour. This has been greatest in the manufacturing and mining districts of the north, and near the commercial towns and great seaports… The welfare of the agricultural labourer is, more than any class in the community, dependent on the continued progress of our manufacturing and mercantile industry.

 Pictured below: The House of Commons in 1832.

021 (2)In the wake of the rural riots and rick-burning of the early 1830s, the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act was due, in large measure, to the fears of the ruling classes that if they did not concede reforms, they might, at some imminent point, face revolution, as in France, from a combination of impoverished farm labourers in the southern and eastern counties and disenfranchised industrial workers in the growing northern and midland boroughs which had little or no representation in Parliament.

The archaic system of representation was at last challenged in the Reform Bill. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Suffolk’s parliamentary representation, unaltered for two centuries, was as follows: two county members and two borough members each for Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury, Orford, Dunwich, Eye and Aldeburgh. This distribution of representation was based on medieval settlements. Since then, all the coastal towns had dwindled in importance and Dunwich was one of the most rotten boroughs in the country; it consisted of only a handful of houses, since many of those which had been part of the thriving medieval port had long since fallen into the sea. Its corporation had to exercise their electoral franchise in a boat anchored over where the centre of the now submerged town had been. Virtually all votes were controlled by local magnates: Bury was likewise a pocket borough of the earls of Bristol, Orford was controlled by Lord Hereford and Eye by Lord Cornwallis.

Voters who were not tenants of the local landlord or in some way dependent on him were in a position of power; they could sell their vote to the highest bidder, and normally they did just that. The normal rate in Ipswich was three pounds, but this rose steadily as polling day came nearer and could be ten times that on the day itself. Candidates were expected to give sumptuous banquets for the electors and to give presents to their wives. Bribery, corruption and violence were a customary part of all elections. Sudbury was particularly notorious, with the mayor openly advertising that he and his colleagues were up for sale. Bands of electioneers wandered the town persuading voters to join their camp and wear their candidates favours. Once a voter had been recruited he was cooped up in a local hostelry, there to be plied with beer and kept away from the opposition who otherwise might try to nobble him. Dickens based his Eatanswell election in Pickwick Papers on Sudbury.

As a result of the Reform Act of 1832, Suffolk gained four county members and deprived Dunwich, Orford and Aldeburgh of their representation. It also extended the vote by reducing the property qualification. Now, ten-pound   householders in towns and ten-pound copy-holders in the countryside enfranchised. Corrupt practices could not be stopped until the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. However, politics remained a game for the rich which bore little relevance for the majority of the population. Even after the passing of the 1832 Act, five out of six men were without the vote and the industrial areas were still under-represented in the House of Commons.

 

001Writing at the time of the second Reform Act of 1867, George Eliot, alias Mary Ann Evans (1819-80), wrote a novel, Felix Holt, in which she looked back to the Warwickshire countryside she had grown up in thirty-five years earlier, at the time of the first Reform Act of 1832 and at how the temper of life changed by the first railways. The impression she gives is initially of a contrast between pleasant rural and unpleasant urban society, but closer reading reveals that, to Eliot’s eyes, the charm of the villages masked a society which was credulous and occasionally vicious; and although the new industrialism appeared to promote dirt and sensual indulgence, it could also respond to its problems in ways which the old order had never shown the capacity to do. Even the convinced enemy of capitalist industry, Engels, was able to write in the 1840s that,

The English worker today is no longer an Englishman of the old school. He no longer resembles his capitalist neighbour in being a mere machine for making money. His capacity for feeling has developed.

But where Engels saw the transition from rural to industrial life as a matter of decision on the part of society, Eliot saw it as a matter of decision on the part of the individual. Engels argued that people lived in industrial towns because they had no choice in the matter, whereas Eliot assumed that they chose to move and live there. Whatever the truth,  between 1835 and 1837, a period of returning and continuing hardship, the steady trickle of people leaving Suffolk became a flood, after the Poor Law Amendment Act provided financial assistance wishing to emigrate. Of the 6,403 people who took advantage of the scheme, 1,083 were from the county, most of them emigrating to Canada. In addition, more than two thousand left home for the industrial Midlands and North of England.

 

George Eliot’s remedies for the condition of the working people of Warwickshire was essentially a High Victorian Moral one, and she actually published an address to working men in 1867 using the name Felix Holt. Industrial society needed to be more ordered, workers should develop self-reliance and spend their, by then, high wages on books, and their time in the library rather than in the pub. Nevertheless, in her novel she does capture something of the nature of a more raw and rural, rough and ready English society:

 

Five-and-thirty years ago the glory had not yet departed from the old coach-roads: the great roadside inns were still brilliant with well-polished tankards, the smiling glances of pretty barmaids, and the repartees of jocose ostlers; the mail still announced itself by the merry notes of the horn; the hedge-cutter or the rick-thatcher might still know the exact hour by the unfailing yet otherwise meteoric apparition of the pea-green Tally ho or the Yellow Independent; and elderly gentlemen in pony-chaises, quartering nervously to make way for the rolling swinging swiftness, had not ceased to remark that times were finely changed since they used to see the pack-horses and hear the tickling of their bells on this very highway.

In those days there were pocket boroughs, a Birmingham unrepresented in Parliament and compelled to make strong representations out of it, unrepealed corn laws, three-and-sixpenny letters, a brawny and many-breeding pauperism, and other departed evils; but there were some pleasant things too, which have also departed… the elderly man has his enviable memories, and not the least of them is the memory of a long journey in mid-spring or autumn on the outside of a stage-coach… the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory… the happy outside passenger seated on the box from the dawn to the gloaming gathered enough stories of English life, enough of English labours in town and country… to make episodes for a modern Odyssey… Suppose only that this journey took him through that central plain, watered at one extremity by the Avon, at the other by the Trent. As the morning silvered the meadows with their long lines of bushy willows marking the watercourses, or burnished the golden corn-ricks clustered near the long roofs of some midland homestead, he saw the full-uddered cows driven from their pasture to the early milking. Perhaps it was the shepherd, head-servant of the farm, who drove them, his sheep-dog following… Mail or stage-coach belonged to that distant system of things called ‘Gover’ment’, which… was no business of his… his solar system was the parish; the master’s temper and the casualties of lambing-time were his region of storms. He cut his bread and bacon with his pocket-knife, and felt no bitterness except in the matter of pauper labourers and the bad luck that sent contrarious seasons and the sheep-rot… hedgerows were often as tall as the labourers’ cottages dotted along the lanes, or clustered into a small hamlet, their little dingy windows telling, like thick-filmed eyes, of nothing but darkness within. The passenger on the coach-box, bowled along above such a hamlet, saw chiefly the roofs of it> probably it turned is back on the road, and seemed to lie away from everything but its own patch of earth and sky, away from the parish church by long fields and green lanes… the inhabitants were probably so free from superstition that they were in much less awe of the parson than the overseer. Yet they were saved from the excesses of Protestantism by not knowing how to read, and by the absence of handlooms… to be pioneers of Dissent: they were kept safely in the ‘via media’ of indifference, and could have registered themselves in the census by a big black mark as members of the Church of England.

But there were trim, cheerful villages too, with neat or handsome parsonage and grey church set in the midst; there was the pleasant tinkle of the blacksmith’s anvil, the patient cart-horses waiting at his door… the wheelwright putting the last touch to a blue cart with red wheels… The land around was rich and marly, great corn-stacks stood in the rick-yards – for the rick-burners had not found their way hither; the homesteads were of those rich farmers who paid no rent, or had the rare advantage of a lease, and could afford to keep their corn till prices had risen. The coach would be sure to overtake some of them on their way to their outlying fields or to the market-town, sitting heavily on their well-groomed horses, or weighing down one side of an olive-green gig. They probably thought of the coach with some contempt, as an accommodation for people… who, wanting to travel to London and such distant places, belonged to the trading and less solid part of the nation. The passenger on the box could see that this was the district of protuberant optimists, sure that old England was the best of all possible countries, and that if there were any facts which had not fallen under their own observation, they were facts not worth observing> the district of clean little market-towns without manufactures, of fat livings, an aristocratic clergy, and low poor-rates. But as the day wore on the scene would change: the land would begin to be blackened with coal-pits, the rattle of hand-looms to be heard in hamlets and villages… here the pale eager faces of hand-loom weavers, men and women, haggard from sitting up late at night to finish the week’s work, hardly begun till the Wednesday. Everywhere the cottages and the small children were dirty, for languid mothers gave their strength to the loom… The gables of Dissenting chapels now made a visible sign of religion, and of a meeting-place to counterbalance the alehouse, even in the hamlets… The breath of manufacturing town, which made a cloudy day and a red gloom by night on the horizon, diffused itself over all the surrounding country, filling the air with eager unrest. Here was a population not convinced that old England was as good as possible; here were multitudenous men and women aware that their religion was not exactly the religion of their rulers, who might therefore be better than they were, and who, if better, might alter many things which now made the world perhaps more painful than it need be, and certainly more sinful. Yet there were the grey steeples too, and the churchyards… there were broad fields and homesteads, and fine old woods… In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another… after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades-union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region, where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of a near market for corn, cheese and hay… it was easy for the traveller to conceive that town and country had no pulse in common, except where the handlooms made a far-reaching straggling fringe about the great centres of manufacture… rural Englishmen… for the most part, resisted the rotation of crops and stood by their fallows: and the coachman would tell how in one parish an innovating farmer… had been fairly driven out by popular dislike, as if he had been a confounded Radical… and transferred his lease.  

In her later novels, Eliot continued to write about the whole of human society, especially in Middlemarch (1871-72). which many consider to be the greatest novel in English. Again, she sets it in the time of the first Reform Act, creating the fictional town of Middlemarch in the centre of England. Its themes are immense, from the changes in the voting system to medicine; from the coming of the railways to the roles of women. It considers the importance of the dead hand of the past, and ends with the heroine Dorothea finding her own independence and happiness. In another of her great novels, Silas Marner, she again contrasts the growing urban communities like Lantern Yard with the rural villages of the English Midlands in the experience of one man, The Weaver of Raveloe.

020A few leaders of the working people of industrial Britain believed, like George Eliot and other middle-class writers and social reformers,  in self-improvement through education, temperance and religion. The picture on the left shows the very respectable gathering of trades unionists which was organised to protest against the treatment of the six Tolpuddle martyrs whom the Dorchester magistrates sentenced to transportation for life for their trade union activities. They were Methodists. In the late twenties and early thirties there were several unsuccessful attempts to establish large national unions of workers, including  the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, founded by the Welsh industrialist, Robert Owen. More of these leaders, however, remained suspicious of allying themselves to the progressive middle classes, believing that, for example, the abolition of the Corn Laws and the arrival of cheaper grain, flour and bread would just be a pretext for employers to lower wages further.

022The answer was a Magna Carta for the modern age: In May 1838 the Chartists sought to change the situation for working people by publishing and petitioning Parliament to accept the six points of The People’s Charter, the first of which was universal manhood suffrage. Three months later, the Charter was adopted by a crowd of two hundred thousand people at a meeting in Birmingham, marking the launching of the movement. The size of the crowd was an indication of the support which it was already attracting from widespread geographical areas, but most of these were industrial areas, where the rising corn prices and collapse of foreign trade in 1837-38 led to the support for the movement from unemployed workers in the manufacturing districts.

Above: The second Chartist petition is carried to the House of Commons, 1842

002The lack of support for Chartism from the southern agricultural districts and from the capital itself was a major part of the ultimate defeat of the movement in 1848. Feargus O’Connor, MP for Nottingham, the charismatic Irishman who had founded The Northern Star as an anti-poor law paper and turned it into the major organ of Chartist politics, held back the physical force wing of Chartism by promising a final attempt at moral persuasion. A Chartist Convention would meet in London at the beginning of April and present the latest monster petition – five million names, it was said, on a document so immense that it would have to be taken to parliament in great bales, loaded on a farm wagon pulled by four big dray horses. Supporters, including Irish nationalist confederates, would descend on the capital from the Midlands and the North and would meet in morning assemblies at various Greens and Squares north of Westminster and move south in converging processions towards the Thames bridges, thence to their mass meeting place at Kennington Common. After speeches had been made, the petition was to be brought to Parliament. The Duke of Wellington sent out orders to allow controlled access over the bridges to Kennington – but, if necessary, to bar the route back. Some eighty-five thousand special constables had been sworn to supplement the four thousand Peelers of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and the eight thousand troops who were standing by under the command of the hero of Waterloo.

004Given this overwhelming display of force, O’Connor had the same choice to make as faced all the leaders of European marches and demonstrations in the springtime of 1848: whether to force the issue by attacking the soldiers head-on, hoping for defections, to opt for a tactical stand-off or even beat the retreat. In making his decision, he knew that the geography of rebellion was not on the side of the Chartists. In Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, the footsoldiers of liberty were local artisans and workers who barricaded themselves in their own quarters, hoisted the flags of revolution and defied government troops to come and get them. They could legitimately appear to be defending their own hearths and homes. But Londoners en masse were not so unified in their hatred of the Government, and still less of their romantic young Queen. The rank-and-file Chartists from the regions and provinces had already been stigmatised as an occupying army. At Kennington, speaking through repeaters standing on platforms dispersed through the huge crowd, surrounded by Irishmen, O’Connor announced that his orders were not to provoke any kind of incident with the soldiers and police. Nevertheless, on Blackfriars Bridge on the return march, faced with a solid wall of truncheon-wielding police, there was heaving, stone-throwing, charges and counter-charges. Arrests were made and heads bled. Many of the younger men among the demonstrators were disappointed, but O’Connor really had no choice. He may have had the numbers, but he had no means of arming them to face disciplined and resolute forces of order. The early photograph of the meeting at Kennington shows a disciplined, Sunday-best dressed respectable protest by workers always anxious to give the lie to their demonization as a drunken, criminal rabble.

003

This was not the end of Chartism as a working-class movement, however. Some of the leaders became trade union leaders in the 1850s and fitful rebellion continued in Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. At the same time, less confrontational means of advancing the cause of reform through working-class self-improvement, were being attempted. The Chartist Land Company had been established by O’Connor in 1845 in fulfilment of the dream inherited from the seventeenth-century Diggers and more recent Irish reformers. Its aim was to take back to the rural world from which they or their forebears had come those workers, often hand-loom weavers or stocking frame knitters made redundant by the new power machinery, who found themselves stranded in the new urban areas described by George Eliot, or who were first generation immigrants to factories who wanted to return to the countryside. Those able to put down a little money were given a plot of a few acres on which food could be grown and a few animals kept: this was the resurrection of the strips and back lots they had lost to enclosure and engrossment.  The Land Company has often been characterised as a utopian venture, but if it was, it was also based on solid business sense. It tapped into the already active instincts of working men and women to save enough money to buy property, including land at Great Dodford in Worcestershire, where a single cottage remains today as testimony to that spirit (photo left).

Subscribers were sold shares corresponding to their investment, and the first settlers were chosen by lottery, subsequently by auction or by the putting down of direct deposits. The motto of these settlers was do or die, as they cleared boulders, laid out roads and paths, and planted hedges. The conspicuous presence of women in the village was another indicator that, once the worst of the hard times were over, working families might be prepared to settle for the evolution of a rural domestic life rather than an urban revolution. This was not defeatism, but evidence of a quieter, constructive strategy which would come to dominate the second half century of the working-class movement.  Nevertheless, in 1851, more than half a million men and women continued to struggle for a living in the cotton mills of the North, the majority of them women.

023024Meanwhile, the advent of The Railway Age was about to bring steam trains within sound of Constable’s East Bergholt. An Act of Parliament was needed to set up a Railway Company, since building a railway line involved the compulsory purchase of land. To obtain Parliament’s permission those wishing to form a company had to present a detailed prospectus giving details of route which the engineer proposed to follow and a list of all the landowners affected, who might well protest. Some landowners succeeded in changing the route, diverting the line past their estates, but others accepted the compensation provided. The engineer had to make his line as level as possible, filling in hollows and embankments, cutting through rising ground and driving tunnels through hills. Bridges, some of considerable height and length were needed, crossing marshy ground as well as river estuaries. All this was difficult work and demanded great skill on the part of the supervising engineer. In turn, the engineers required men to dig and build for them, and at one stage, in 1847, there were three hundred thousand navvies working up and down the country building railway lines. Their predecessors, the navigation workers, had built the canals. Now, armed with picks and shovels, dressed in moleskin trousers, hobnail boots and rainbow waistcoats, they gained a reputation for hard work and riotous living. They came mainly from Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, going wherever they were needed and living in shanty towns thrown together near the works.

 

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On one line it was estimated that, in one year, they consumed nearly one and a half million litres of beer and over twenty thousand litres of spirits. During a full day’s work they could shift in the region of twenty tonnes of earth. The work was often dangerous, especially where gunpowder was used, and the navvies often increased the risks through their own recklessness. Three navvies were killed on the London and Birmingham Railway trying to leap over the mouth of a shaft in a game of follow-my-leader. Their skills were required overseas as well as in Britain, so that in the course of the nineteenth century they literally built railways around the world.

 

025 (2)024 (2)n 1836, the Eastern Counties Railway Company was formed to build and operate a line from London to Yarmouth via Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich, in direct competition with the stage-coach services which already followed the same route. The Eastern Counties Company’s project was the most ambitious to date, too ambitious as it turned out. When it reached Colchester in 1843 work stopped because local shareholders were outbid by others who were all for getting the stock rolling and had lost interest in meeting the transport needs of East Anglia. As the Norwich Mercury bitterly remarked, local people might have saved the line by buying up shares for a sum not larger than was expended in bribery at the last Norwich election.

None025theless, an Ipswich businessman formed another company, the Eastern Union, to complete the work, and by 1849 Ipswich had been linked to Bury and Norwich, with branch lines to Harwich, Hadleigh and Sudbury. There then followed a bitter battle between the two companies. However, the Eastern Counties Company still controlled the line south of Colchester, so by fixing high through fares they were able to force the majority of Norwich travellers to use the alternative route. In 1854 the Eastern Union was forced to sell out to its rivals. Other branch lines were laid by small local companies, bringing Lowestoft, Beccles, Halesworth, Framlingham and Woodbridge into the steam age. All these branch lines were eventually taken over by the Eastern Counties Company, which was then reconstituted as the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862.

At the time of the 1801 Census, Lowestoft was a decayed town of 2,332 inhabitants. Many efforts were made to improve the port, culminating in the building of the harbour in 1831. Then Sir Henry Morton Peto, a London builder and self-made man, who had amassed an immense fortune, bought the estate of Somerleyton, with its beautiful Tudor House, in 1844. He rebuilt the house, restored the church and virtually reconstructed the whole village. He also bought the branch line of the Eastern Counties Railway into Lowestoft in 1847. Lowestoft at once became the harbour for Norwich and once more accessible to the rest of the country. The fisheries revived, and the port became an important port of call for coasters. In 1854 the local authorities were empowered by the Lowestoft Improvement Act to levy a two-shilling rate to repair buildings, build new homes and install lighting, sewerage and other amenities. In 1861 the population was 9,413 and climbing.

By this time other Suffolk coastal towns had begun to share in the revival. Resorts were becoming popular destnations as the railways brought holidaymakers right into the east coast ports. In Southwold local businessmen embarked on an ambitious programme of speculative building of houses and hotels. White’s Directory for 1844 stated,

Felixstowe is now in high celebrity as a bathing place, and speculators have within the last few years erected here neat houses and cottages, which are let to visitors during the bathing season.

 

Aldeburgh and Orford became popular with yachtsmen. It was the essential Suffolk which attracted the visitors. The unique quality of the light, the wide vistas, the rich textures of fields, copses and hedgerows, mellowed cottages, stately church towers, mills, rivers, estuaries and shores, together with human and animal participants in the landscape – all these attracted the admiration of poets and painters alike.

Despite the coming of the railways, cutting across the countryside and along the coast, the face of Suffolk remained unchanged, especially compared with the Midlands, Durham, south Wales, and much of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Suffolkers continued in their traditional ways, most of them never venturing more than five miles from their native villages. Even so, the era of steam and the age of progress had arrived to stay and not even Suffolk could remain entirely unmoved by their spirit. New industries were created, and old ones revitalised. The vestiges of the cloth industry were still to be found in the south of the county. A little woollen cloth had continued to be made for local markets, but it was being replaced by mixed textiles such as fustians, hempen cloths and drabbet. The latter, getting its name from its greyish-white colour, was used principally in the making of farmers’ smocks. The weaving was still done in the traditional manner, on hand-looms at home. The weavers were not organised as a corporate body but completely in the hands of the entrepreneurs, and were lucky to earn six or seven shillings for a hard week’s work, less than that earned by a farm labourer when in full employment. The continuity of their work makes the story of the Suffolk weavers one of the most remarkable in the industrial history of both the county and the country. Over nine centuries they maintained their craft, adapting themselves to changing demands, and only in the late twentieth century did the last loom in Lavenham fall silent.

It was these traditional skills and low wages which brought London silk merchants to a number of towns and villages between Ipswich and Haverhill in the eighteenth century. In the course of time, cottage industry was replaced by the factory system. Mills powered by water or steam were built in Hadleigh, Glemsford and Nayland, and at Sudbury many handloom operators and their machines were installed in factories where the employer could exercise more control over them. The fortunes of the industry fluctuated but at its peak it employed as many as one and a half thousand hands in the production of plain and figured silks, satins and velvets.

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One industry which was already ancient when the first weaver set up his loom was flint working, probably having a continuous history in the Brandon area from Neolithic times. For many centuries the industry had taken second place to sheep-rearing, but when the woollen cloth industry declined, whatever specialised sheep farming continued in the county deserted the poor pastures of the west. Sporting estates, rabbit farming and limited barley production were all that the area was good for, except flint. It was used steadily for building walls, including those of castles, manor houses and almshouses, and instead of brick in humbler farmhouses and cottages. Many of the county’s more impressive churches, such as at Lavenham and Woodbridge, and other public buildings were dressed with flint. In the nineteenth century there was a revival in the use of flint as a building material for labourers’ cottages, railway stations and municipal buildings.

At the same time flint was being used in the firing mechanisms of the English guns which wrought havoc among the Napoleonic cavalry and infantry. Flintlock muskets, more dependable in the wet and more rapidly reloaded, replaced the matchlock muskets of previous conflicts. A Brandon flint was reckoned to be good for five hundred shots.

027 (3)
In 1819 Ransome and Sons constructed Ipswich’s first iron bridge and supplied the railway with chairs which secured the rails to the sleepers. The Company’s single most important innovation, in 1803, was that of a casting process which produced a blade whose under side was harder than its top side which prevented the rapid blunting of plough shares. The development was especially important to the grain farmers of the heavy clay belt. This was only one of the numerous patents obtained by Ransomes during its first century and by 1850 the Company was employing over one thousand five hundred men. Ipswich, in general, benefited from the commercial boom of the early Victorian era. The coming of the railway kept fashionable Ipswich society supplied with its sundry wants.

027 (2)In 1843 the Rev. Professor John Henslow, one of the foremost botanists of the day, was staying with relatives in Felixstowe. He was particularly interested in fertilisers, as it had recently been discovered that exhausted soil needed nitrogen and phosphates to revive it. Henslow noticed that the red cragg and London clay of the neighbourhood contained phosphatic nodules. This discovery was taken up by Edward Packard, a Saxmundham chemist, who was already producing artificial fertiliser from bones. From the Ransomes he bought an old flour mill on the Ipswich dockside and began the commercial exploitation of the phosphatic nodules which Henslow had called coprolites. Used first by Suffolk farmers, the new fertiliser was soon taken up enthusiastically by foreign agriculturalists, and another commodity was added to Ipswich’s regular exports. The discovery of coprolite helped the trade of the docks (pictured left).

The Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 demonstrated finally that they had not been necessary in the first place. Foreign competitors were in no position to undercut British wheat. From the late 1840s, agriculture began to enjoy considerable prosperity once more and the wages of farm labourers rose. However, not for the last time, there was now a clear division emerging between two Britains, and within them two Englands. It was not a simple division between new urban areas and rural counties, but between those essentially industrial regions of the country where new markets for goods and labour enabled wages to rise more rapidly, both in town and countryside, contrasted with those rural regions where industry remained essentially domestic in character, so that labour remained in strong supply and wages did not rise as rapidly. In focusing on the growth of urban England during the Industrial Revolution, some historians have tended to forget this symbiotic relationship with rural England. Whilst it may have been forgotten, even by some contemporaries, it was not a lost world, even to the immigrants to London, Birmingham and Coventry who left it, many of whom took their country traditions, customs, folklore and patterns of speech with them.

Sources:

Martin Dickinson (1990), Britain, Europe and Beyond.  Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain 3: 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

Robert McCrum, et. al. (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Christopher Harvie, et. al. (eds., 1975), Industrialisation and Culture, 1830-1914. Basingstoke: MacMillan (for The Open University Press).

Neil Tonge & Michael Quincey (1985), Documents and Debates: British Social and Economic History, 1800-1900. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

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