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The ‘Other England’ of the Sixties and Seventies: The Changing Fortunes of East Anglia.   Leave a comment

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Looking across the River Deben towards Woodbridge from Sutton Hoo.

East of England; the Country from the Stour to the Wash:

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After the far West of England, East Anglia was one of the most neglected regions of England until the sixties. In the fashionable division of the nation into North and South, it has tended to get lumped in with the South. The South-east Study of 1964 was less vague, however, drawing an arbitrary line from the Wash to the Dorset Coast at Bournemouth and defining the area to the east of this boundary as ‘South-east England’. In the same year, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured below), a well-known contemporary Guardian correspondent, wrote that, in time, if policies to encourage a counter-drift of the population from the South were not adopted, the whole of the vast area delineated might well become one in character, in relative wealth and in disfigurement. As far as he was concerned, the ‘carving out’ of this area encroached upon the traditional regions of the West Country, beginning at Alfred’s ancient capital of Winchester in Hampshire, and East Anglia, incorporating Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, or at least that part of it lying to the north of Colchester. To the south, most of Essex was already part of the ‘Golden Circle’ commuter area for the metropolis, stretching from Shoeburyness at the end of the Thames estuary, around the edge of ‘Greater London’ and up the Hertfordshire border to the north of Harlow. Suffolk and Norfolk, however, still remained well ‘beyond the pale’ between the Stour Valley and the Wash, occupying most of the elliptical ‘knob’ sticking out into the North Sea. It was an ‘East Country’ which still seemed as remote from the metropolitan south-east of England as that other extremity in the far south-west peninsular.

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In the fifties, as the wartime airfields were abandoned and the Defence Ministry personnel went back to London, East Anglia went back to its old ways of underemployment, rural depopulation, low land and property values. By the mid-fifties, the people of East Anglia were not yet having it as good as many parts of the Home Counties that Macmillan probably had in mind when he made his famous remark. Urban growth continued, however, into the early sixties. For the most part, development was unimaginative, as council estates were built to replace war-time damage and cater for the growing town populations.  Where, in 1959, the Norfolk County Council was getting four thousand applicants a year for planning permission, by 1964 the figure had risen to ten thousand. Issues of planned town growth became urgent. Old properties, particularly thatched cottages and timber-framed farmhouses were eagerly sought. For all the talk of imminent development, with all the benefits and drawbacks that this implied, East Anglia did not look as if it had changed much by the early sixties. The most noticeable signs of the times were the great number of abandoned railway stations. Railway traffic had declined throughout England as British road transport had eclipsed railways as the dominant carrier of freight. Several branch lines, such as the Long Melford to Bury St Edmunds and sections of the Waveney Valley had already closed before the celebrated ‘Beeching Axe’ was wielded in 1963. Neither Suffolk nor Norfolk enjoyed a share in the slow growth of national prosperity of the fifties, but then the boom came suddenly and Suffolk became the fastest growing county by the end of the decade. It began in the early sixties when many new industries came to the East Anglian towns and cities.

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The abandoned railway station at Needham Market, Suffolk.

The ‘neglected’ Suffolk of the fifties was ready to be rediscovered in the sixties. Companies escaping from the high overheads in London and the Home Counties realised that they could find what they were looking for in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury and Haverhill. Executives discovered that they could live in an area of great peace and beauty and yet be within commuting distance of their City desks. Moreover, the shift in the balance of international trade focused attention on once more on the eastern approaches. When the bulk of Britain’s trade was with the empire and North America it was logical that London, Southampton and Liverpool should have been the main ports. The railway network had been constructed in the nineteenth century in such a way as to convey manufactured goods to these ports. But the Empire had been all but disbanded and Britain was being drawn, inexorably if sometimes reluctantly, into the European Common Market. More and more industrial traffic took to the road; heavy lorries at first, then containers. Now producers were looking for the shortest routes to the continent, and many of them lay through Suffolk, shown below in Wilson’s 1977 map of the county.

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One of the benefits of East Anglia’s poor communications was that, at the height of summer, it was the only region south of the Bristol-Wash line which was not crammed with holidaymakers and their traffic. The seaboard caught it a little, as of course did the Norfolk Broads. Norfolk reckons, for instance, that caravans are worth two million pounds a year to it one way or another and, like Cornwall, saw this as a mixed blessing; as Moorhouse was writing his book (in 1964), the County Council was in the process of spending fifty thousand pounds on buying up caravan sites which had been placed with an eye more to income than to landscape. But inland and away from the waterways crowds of people and cars were hard to find; out of the holiday season, East Anglia was scarcely visited by any ‘outsiders’ apart from occasional commercial travellers. Local difficulties, small by comparison with those of the North, were lost from sight. As the sixties progressed, more and more British people and continental visitors realised that discovered the attractions the two counties had to offer. As Derek Wilson wrote at the end of the following decade,

They realised that a century or more of economic stagnation had preserved from thoughtless development one of the loveliest corners of England. They came in increasing numbers by their, now ubiquitous, motor-cars to spend quiet family holidays at the coast, to tour the unspoilt villages, to admire the half-timbering, the thatch, the pargetting and the great wool churches. Some decided to stake a claim by buying up old cottages for ‘week-ending’ or retirement.

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So great was the demand for even derelict old properties that prices trebled in the period 1969-73. Village communities were no longer so tight-knit so the arrival of these ‘strangers’ cannot be said to have disrupted a traditional culture. Only in those areas where the newcomers congregated in large numbers, buying up properties at inflated prices which ‘locals’ could no longer afford was any real and lasting cultural damage inflicted. At first, the seaside towns found it difficult to come to terms with the expansion in tourism, having been ignored for so long. Even the established Suffolk holiday resorts – Aldeburgh, Southwold, Dunwich, even Felixstowe – were ‘genteel’ places; compared with Clacton on the Essex coast which was far closer in time and space to for day-trippers from London, they did not bristle with amusement arcades, Wimpy bars, holiday camps and the assorted paraphernalia that urban man seems to expect at the seaside. Derek Wilson commented that Suffolk was more like a coy maiden prepared to be discovered than an accomplished seductress thrusting her charms at every single passer-by. 

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Three centuries of properties in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

A Metropolitan ‘Refugee’ in Dunwich:

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Greyfriars, The Simpson coastal ‘pile’ in Dunwich.

One of the earliest of these ‘refugees’ from the metropolis was John Simpson (who was to become the BBC’s World Affairs Editor). When he was fifteen, in 1959,  moved from Putney to Dunwich. His holidays had already been taken up with following his father’s genealogical enthusiasms, and they went from village church to county archive to cathedral vault searching for records of births, marriages and deaths, and transcribing inscriptions on gravestones. Having discovered the full extent of the full extent of the Simpson’s Suffolk roots, Roy Simpson insisted that they should look for a country house there. John recalled,

We spent a wintry week driving from one depressing place to another and talking to lonely farmers’ wives whose ideal in life was to leave their fourteenth-century thatched manor-houses and move to a semi near the shops. We had almost given up one evening and were setting out on the road to London when I spotted a brief mention at the end of an estate agent’s list of a rambling place on a clifftop overlooking the sea at Dunwich. …

From the moment I saw it I knew I would never be happy until I lived there. No one could call ‘Greyfriars’ handsome. It was the left hand end of an enormous 1884 mock-Elizabethan pile which had been split up into three separate sections at the end of the war. Our part had around eight bedrooms and five bathrooms. … It was always absurdly unsuitable … four hours’ drive from London, and nowhere near the shops or anything else. Its eleven acres of land were slowly being swallowed up by the ravenous North Sea, and it cost a small fortune to keep warm and habitable. … 

The village of Dunwich immediately formed another element of that sense of the past, faded glory which had haunted so much of my life. In the early Middle Ages it had been the greatest port in England, sending ships and men and hundreds of barrels of herrings to the Kings of England, and possessing a bishopric and forty churches and monasteries. But it was built on cliffs of sand, and the storms of each winter undermined it and silted up the port. In the twelfth century, and again in the thirteenth, large parts of the town collapsed into the sea. … Our land ran down to the cliff edge, and we watched it shrink as the years went by. 

The stories about hearing bells under the sea were always just fantasy, but Dunwich was certainly a place of ghosts. A headless horseman was said to drive a phantom coach and four along one of the roads nearby. … In the grounds of our house two Bronze Age long-barrows stood among the later trees, and when the moon shone hard and silver down onto the house, and the thin clouds spread across the sky, and a single owl shrieked from the bare branches of the dead holm-oak outside my bedroom window, it was more than I could do to get out of bed and look at them. I would think of those cold bones and the savage gold ornaments around them, and shiver myself to sleep.

The winter of 1962 was the worst since 1947, and that was the worst since the 1660s, people said. The snow fell in early December and dug in like an invading army, its huge drifts slowly turning the colour and general consistency of rusty scrap iron. In our vast, uneconomic house at Dunwich the wind came off the North Sea with the ferocity of a guillotine blade and the exposed pipes duly froze hard. The Aga stood in the corner of the kitchen like an icy coffin. … We wandered round the house in overcoats, with scarves tied round our heads like the old women at Saxmundham market. None of the lavatories worked.

In October 1963, Roy Simpson drove his son ‘up’ to Cambridge from the Suffolk coast in his old Triumph. John Simpson set down his cases, as had many Suffolk boys before him, outside the porter’s lodge in the gateway of Magdalene College. For the next three years, his life revolved around the University city in the Fens until he joined the BBC in 1966.

Coast, Cathedral City & Inland Industrial Development:

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The curvature of the eastern coastline had been responsible for the lack of metropolitan infiltration hitherto. Norfolk and Suffolk were in a cul-de-sac; even today, apart from the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich, on opposite sides of the mouth of the River Stour, they do not lie on transport routes to anywhere else, and their lines of communication with other parts of the country, except with London, were still poor in the early sixties, and are still relatively retarded half a century later, despite the widening of the A12 and the extension of the A14. The disadvantages of remoteness could be severe, but at the same time, this saved the two countries from the exploitation that had occurred in places with comparable potential. Had there been better communications, Norwich might have been as badly ravaged by the Industrial Revolution as Bradford, but the great East Anglian woollen trade and cloth-making industry were drawn to Yorkshire as much by the promise of easier transport as by the establishment of the power-loom on faster-flowing water sources. Instead, Norwich still retained the air of a medieval city in its centre with its cathedral, its castle, and its drunken-looking lollipop-coloured shops around Elm Hill, Magdalen Street, and St. Benedict’s. Its industries, like the Colman’s mustard factory, were already discreetly tucked away on its flanks, and there they did not intrude.

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Norwich itself was poised to move forward by the sixties, and though its hopes had received a setback as a result of Britain’s early failures to get into the Common Market, it still saw itself as playing an important part in the development of trade between this country and the Continent. European connections were already strong in East Anglia. From the obvious Dutch gables widespread throughout the region (see the example below from a farmhouse near Woodbridge, Suffolk) and concentrated in places like Kings Lynn, to the names beginning with the prefix ‘Van’ in the telephone directories, Flemish influences could, and still can be found everywhere. Dutch farmers had been settling in the two counties since the late seventeenth century. There were two Swiss-owned boatyards on the Norfolk Broads and one of Norwich’s biggest manufacturers, Bata Shoes, was Swiss in origin. In the early sixties, two Danish firms had set themselves up near the city.

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For Suffolk, the sixties and seventies saw a most astonishing growth in the population, which had been decreasing for over a century. The population of Suffolk showed a comparatively modest, but significant growth from 475,000 in 1951 to 560,000 in 1961. Most of this increase was in West Suffolk, where the growth of Haverhill, Bury and Sudbury accounted for most of the extra population. These were designated in the mid-fifties as London overspill areas. In Haverhill, the notion of town expansion had been pioneered in 1955; by the time Geoffrey Moorhouse published his survey in 1964, there was already a plan for a further massive transfusion of people to the town from London.  Thetford, Bury St Edmunds, and Kings Lynn were to be transformed within the next two decades. Between the two censuses of 1961 to 1971, the population of Suffolk jumped by over eighteen per cent (the national average was 5.8 per cent). There were many reasons for this unprecedented growth, which brought Suffolk a prosperity it had not known since the great days of the cloth trade.

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A variety of restored properties in Needham Market today.

But the hinterland towns of central East Anglia presented a bigger problem for the local planners and county authorities. They had grown up as market-places for the sale of agricultural produce like those in other parts of rural England. By the mid-sixties, they had held on to this function much longer than most. But the markets, and particularly the cattle markets, had recently become more and more concentrated in the biggest towns – Norwich, King’s Lynn, Bury and Cambridge – and the justification for places like Stowmarket, Diss, Eye, Downham Market and Needham Market (pictured above), in their traditional form had been rapidly disappearing. Their populations were in need of new industries to take the place of old commerce and, in part, they got them. As early as the sixties, a new town at Diss, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, was already talked of.  Carefully planned industrial and housing estates were built and a variety of service industries and light engineering concerns moved their machines and desks to spacious premises from whose windows the workers could actually see trees and green fields. Writing in the late seventies, Derek Wilson concluded that, while such examples of economic planning and  ‘social engineering’ could only be described as revolutionary, they were still too recent to invite accurate assessment.

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Above: The Centre of Ipswich is now undergoing an extensive renovation, including that of its historic Corn Exchange area, complete with a statue to one of its more famous sons, Giles, the Daily Express cartoonist, popular in the sixties and seventies, when rapid development engulfed many earlier buildings in concrete.

Paradoxically, Suffolk’s depressed isolation gave a boost to the new development. Some of Suffolk’s most beautiful countryside was no further from the metropolis than the ‘stockbroker belt’ of Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Yet land and property prices in Suffolk were less than half of what they were in the desirable areas of those counties. Most of the county was within eighty miles of London and served by still reasonable rail connections, and improving road connections from the capital. The population was now more mobile, and light industry less tied to traditional centres.  But development in the sixties and seventies was not restricted to the eastern side of the two counties. Ipswich, the other town in the two counties which was relatively industrialised, had been, like Norwich, comparatively unscathed by that industrialisation. Its growth occurred largely as a result of migration within Suffolk. Even so, its population increased from a hundred thousand to a hundred and twenty-two thousand between 1961 and 1971. It became the only urban centre in the county to suffer the same fate of many large towns and cities across England in that period – haphazard and largely unplanned development over many years. In the late seventies, farmers could still remember when the county town was still was just that, a large market town, where they could hail one another across the street. By then, however, dual carriageways and one-way systems had been built in an attempt to relieve its congested centre, while old and new buildings jostled each other in what Derek Wilson called irredeemable incongruity.

East Anglia as Archetypal Agricultural England:

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Life on the land had already begun to change more generally in the sixties. East Anglia is an important area to focus on in this respect, because it was, and still is, agricultural England. In the sixties and seventies, agriculture was revitalised: farmers bought new equipment and cultivated their land far more intensely than ever before. The industries here remained identical to the main purpose of life, which was to grow food and raise stock. Many of the industries in the two counties were secondary, and complimentary, to this purpose. Of the thirty-nine major industrial firms in East Suffolk, for example, twelve were concerned with food processing, milling, or making fertilisers, and of the five engineering shops most were turning out farm equipment among other things. These industries varied from the firm in Brandon which employed three people to make and export gun-flints to China and Africa, to the extensive Forestry Commission holding at Thetford, where it was calculated that the trees grew at the rate of seventeen tons an hour, or four hundred tons a day. But a quarter of the total workforce in Norfolk and Suffolk was employed in the primary industry of farming; there were more regular farm-workers in Norfolk than in any other English county. The county produced two of the founders of modern British agriculture, Coke of Holkham and Townshend of Raynham, and it had kept its place at the head of the field, quite literally.

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East Anglia was easily the biggest grain-producing region of the country and the biggest producer of sugar-beet. During the First World War, farmers had been encouraged to grow sugar beet in order to reduce the country’s dependence on imported cane sugar. This had been so successful that in 1924 the government offered a subsidy to beet producers. The crop was ideally suited to the heavy soil of central Suffolk and without delay, a number of farmers formed a co-operative and persuaded a Hungarian company to build a sugar factory near Bury St Edmunds. Five thousand acres were planted immediately and the acreage grew steadily over the next half-century. In 1973, the factory was considerably enlarged by the building of two huge new silos, which came to dominate the skyline along the A14 trunk road. The factory became the largest plant of its kind in Europe and by the late seventies was playing an important part in bringing Britain closer to its goal of self-sufficiency in sugar.

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Local ingenuity and skill had devised and built many agricultural machines during the nineteenth century, like this threshing/ grain crushing machine from the Leiston Richard Garrett works, which made various farming machines, including tractors.

Of all the English counties, Norfolk had the biggest acreage of vegetables and the heaviest yield per acre of main crop potatoes. It was also the second biggest small fruit producer and the second highest breeder of poultry. Suffolk came close behind Norfolk in barley crops, while it had the biggest acreage of asparagus and more pigs than any other county. The region’s importance to agriculture was symbolised by the headquarters of the Royal Agricultural Society having its base in Norfolk, and the region also played host to the British-Canadian Holstein-Friesian Association, the Poll Friesian Cattle Society, the British Goat Society, and the British Waterfowl Association. No other county had as many farms over three hundred acres as Norfolk, and most of the really enormous farms of a thousand acres or more were to be found in the two Easternmost counties. The biggest farm in England, excluding those owned by the Crown, was to be found on the boundary of Bury St Edmunds, the ten-thousand-acre Iveagh estate, covering thirteen farmsteads, and including a piggery, three gamekeepers’ lodgings and homes for its cowmen, foresters and its works department foreman.

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The most significant change taking place on the land throughout England was in the size of farms. The big ones were getting bigger and the small ones were slowly dwindling and going out of business. Mechanisation was reducing the number of jobs available to agricultural workers, and from this followed the steady decline of rural communities. By the end of the sixties, however, the employment position in Norfolk was beginning to stabilise as the old farm hands who were reared as teams-men and field-workers and were kept on by benevolent employers retired and were not replaced. Although it employed fewer people than ever before, farming was still Suffolk’s largest single industry in the mid-seventies. After Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, accessibility to European markets had led to a certain amount of diversity. There were numerous farmers specialising in poultry, pigs and dairying. Yet persistently high world grain prices led to the intensive production of what the heavy soils of central Suffolk are best suited to – cereal crops. The tendency for large estates to be split up and fields to remain unploughed had been dramatically reversed. The larger the unit, the more productive and efficient the farm, with every producer determined to get the maximum yield from their acres.

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The field patterns between Leiston and Sizewell (from the model detailed below).

As the big farms grew bigger and farming became more highly mechanised, farmers were tending to re-organise the shapes and sizes of their fields, making them as large as possible so that the tractor and the combine harvester could work them with greater ease and maximum efficiency. They uprooted trees and whole copses, which were awkward to plough and drill around, cut out hedges which for centuries had bounded small parcels of land, and filled in ditches. To the farmer, this meant the promise of greater productivity, but to the ecologist, it meant the balance of nature was being upset in a way that the farmer and the general countryside population, including animals as well as people, would have to pay for, later if not sooner. The practical answer to this problem has been the increasing use of chemicals to control pests which, as soon became obvious, was a double-edged blade. In addition, the poor land was treated with chemical fertilizers. East Anglia provided a classic example of what could happen as a result of the indiscriminate chemical warfare being conducted in the English countryside. As reported in the New Statesman (20 March 1964), …

… a Norfolk fruit-grower was persuaded by a pesticide salesman that the best way of keeping birds off his six acres of blackcurrants was to use an insecticide spray. Two days after he did so the area was littered with the silent corpses of dozens of species of insects, birds and mammals.

This was very far removed, of course, from the idealised conception of the rural life that most people carried around in their imaginations, and perhaps many of us still do today, especially when we look back on childhood visits to the countryside and relatives living in rural villages.  Moorhouse characterised this contrast as follows:

Smocked labourers, creaking hay carts, farmyard smells, and dew-lapped beasts by the duck-pond – these are still much more to the forefront of our consciousness than DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, and fluoroacetemide. In most of us, however completely we may be urbanised, there lurks some little lust for the land and a chance to work it.  

Rustic Life; Yeomen Farmers and Yokels:

Farmers had to become hard-nosed professional businessmen. The profits from their labour had to be extracted while they were there, for it was never certain what might be around the next bend. This emphasis on business sense, both in himself and in others, his passion for getting the maximum work out of his men and machines, was what made Moorhouse’s Norfolk farmer sound indistinguishable from any high-powered industrialist in the Midlands. In a sense, he wasn’t. He was prepared to try any method which would increase his productivity. In the early sixties, something very odd had been happening in his part of the world. Traditionally, ‘big’ Norfolk farmers like him had tended to be isolated neighbours, seeing each other at the market but otherwise scarcely at all. But he and three other men had taken to sharing their equipment for harvesting quick-freeze peas; this work had to be done particularly fast on a day appointed by the food factory and ‘Farmer Giles’ and his neighbours had decided that it could be done most efficiently and cheaply by pooling their men and machines and having this unit move from property to property in the course of one day. In 1964, they also clubbed together for a contracting helicopter to spray their crops. He and his friends, being staunch Tories, might not have accepted that they were putting co-operative principles into farming practice, but that was precisely what they were doing, just as the Suffolk sugar-beet growers had done forty years earlier.

For all his business acumen, however, ‘Farmer Giles’ measured up to the popular stereotypical image of a yeoman farmer. He was a warden at his local church, had a couple of horses in his stables and during ‘the season’ he went shooting for four days a week. He cared about the appearance of his patch of countryside, spent an impressive amount of time in doing up the tied cottages of his men, rather than selling it to them, as some of them would like. This is not simply because, in the long run, it results in a contented workforce, but because he can control what it looks like on the outside, as pretty as an antique picture, thatched and whitewashed. Fundamentally, he belonged as completely to the land as he possessed it. Though he no longer had any real need to, he did some manual work himself, as well as prowling around the farm to make sure everything was going to his overall plan. He was organic, like his 1,200 acres, which nonetheless produced a profit of sixteen thousand pounds a year. As he himself commented, overlooking his fields, there is something good about all this! A cynic might have responded to this by suggesting that any life that could produce such a profit was indeed, a good life.

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Above & Below: Cattle grazing on the Deben meadows near Woodbridge, Suffolk.

But how had the tied agricultural workers, the eternal rustics, fared in this changing pattern of agriculture? The farm labourer interviewed by Moorhouse worked on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. He left school at fourteen, the son of a mid-Norfolk cowman of thirty-five years standing. He first worked on a poultry farm for a couple of years, had four years as assistant cowman to his father, five years as a stock feeder, then two years ‘on the land’ working with tractors and horses. He then came to the farm Moorhouse found him working on fifteen years previously, just after getting married, as a relief man. At the age of forty-two, with a teenage daughter, he was head cowman for a ‘gaffer’ with 450 arable acres and a hundred acres of pasture which carried fifty Friesian milking cows, forty-six calves, and a bull. His farmer was nearing seventy and didn’t hold with too many of the new ways. It was only in that year, 1964, that the modern method of milking – straight from the cow through a pipeline to a common container – had been adopted by his gaffer. Farmer Giles had been doing it this way ever since it was proved to be the quickest and easiest way. ‘Hodge’ got up at 5.30 a.m. to milk the cows and feed the calves. After breakfast until mid-day, he was busy about the yards, mixing meal, washing up and sterilizing equipment. From 1.30 p.m. he was out again, feeding the calves and doing various seasonal jobs until milking, which generally finished by 5 o’clock. Very often he went out again before bed-time, to check on the cows and the calves. He worked a six-and-a-half-day week, for which he was paid twenty-two per cent more than the basic farm worker’s wage for a forty-six-hour week.

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When he first came to the farm, ‘Hodge’ was given, rent-free, a cottage, which was in rather worse shape than the shelters which housed the cows in winter. It had one of the tin-can lavatories described below and was lit with paraffin lamps. He had to tramp eighty yards to a well for water. There was one room downstairs plus a tiny kitchen, and two bedrooms, one of which was so small you couldn’t fit a full-size bed in it. After a while, the farmer modernised it at a cost of a thousand pounds, knocking it together with the next-door cottage. The renewed place, though still cramped, had all the basic necessities and Hodge paid twelve shillings a week for it. He accepted his situation, though the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW) did not, since it had been trying to abolish tied cottages for forty years on the principle of eviction. Although a socialist and chairman of his local union branch, Hodge argued that tied cottages were necessary because the farm worker had to be near his job so that, as in his case, he could hop across the road before bedtime to check on the cows. Other changes had taken place in his lifetime on Norfolk land. The drift to the towns had fragmented the old society, and traditions had been quietly petering out. The parish church was generally full for the harvest festival, but otherwise ill-attended; the rector had three parishes to cope with.

Rural Poverty & Village Life:

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A former labourer’s cottage in Saxmundham marketplace.

The poverty of the inland, rural villages was the result of far more basic concerns than the pressures on property prices created by newcomers, or the changes in agriculture, which did little to improve the lives of villagers. Their cottages may have looked attractive enough in their appearance on the outside, but too often offered their home-grown dwellers little encouragement to remain in them, and if they got the chance to move out they did, while there was no help at all for those who might be interested in trying their hand at rural life. Moorhouse found one village within ten miles of Ipswich which, apart from its electricity and piped water supplies, had not changed at all since the Middle Ages. Some of its cottages were without drains and in these, the housewife had to put a bucket under the plughole every time she wanted to empty the sink; she then carried it out and emptied onto the garden. Sewerage was unknown in the community of 586 people, none of whom had a flush toilet. They used tins, lacing them with disinfectant to keep down the smell and risk of infection. In some cases, these were housed in cubicles within the kitchens, from where they had to be carried out, usually full to the brim, through the front door. Every Wednesday night, as darkness fell, the Rural District Council bumble cart, as the villagers call it, arrived in the village street to remove the tins from the doorsteps. Moorhouse commented that this was…

… for nearly six hundred people … a regular feature of life in 1964 and the joke must long since have worn thin. There are villages in the remoter parts of the North-west Highlands of Scotland which are better equipped than this.

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This was not by any means an isolated example. While in both counties the coverage of electricity and water supplies were almost complete, drainage and sewerage were far from being so. In the Clare rural district of Suffolk villages were expected to put up with the humiliating visitations of the ‘night cart’ for another five years; in the whole of West Suffolk there were twenty-four villages which could not expect sewerage until sometime between 1968 and 1981, and both county councils accepted that they were some villages which would never get these basic amenities. In East Suffolk, only those places within the narrow commuting belts around the biggest towns could be sure that they would one day soon become fully civilised. In Norfolk, it was estimated that as many as a hundred would never be so. Again, this was the price that East Anglia was paying for being off the beaten track. It was not the indolence of the county councils which ensured the continuance of this residue of highly photogenic rural slums, as Moorhouse put it, so much as cold economics. Both counties had, acre for acre, among the smallest population densities in England; in neither is there very much industry. Therefore, under the rating system of that time, based on property values and businesses, they were unable to raise sufficient funds to provide even these basic services, as we would see them now. Norfolk claimed to have the lowest rateable value among the English counties, and Suffolk was not much better off. They simply did not have the ‘wherewithal’ to make these small communities fit for human habitation. But this simple fact was little ‘comfort’ to those who had to live in them.

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County Hall, Norwich.

For a survey which it undertook for its 1951 development plan, East Suffolk County Council had decided that basic communal necessities consisted of at least a food shop, a non-food shop, a post office, a school, a doctor’s surgery and/or clinic, a village hall, and a church. When it took a long, hard look at its villages, it found that only forty-seven had all of these things, that ninety-three had all three basic requirements and that (food shop, school, village hall), that 133 had only one or two of them and that thirty-one had none. A similar survey by the West Suffolk County Council showed that only sixteen per cent of its 168 parishes had all the facilities and that about the same proportion had none. When the county authorities made a follow-up survey in 1962, using the same criteria, they found that the position of these rural communities had hardly changed in a decade. There were many more surgeries, due to the growing provisions of the NHS, but the number of village schools had dropped from 103 to 92 and of non-food shops from fifty to twenty-seven.

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 Suffolk County flag.

In 1964, a regional, South-east Plan was being considered, which included both Suffolk and Norfolk. Moorhouse considered that it might transform the whole of East Anglia into something more approximating Hertfordshire or Essex in terms of economic development. But he also felt that unless there was a change of national direction, the East Country could not stay as it was, virtually inviolate, its people so conscious of their inaccessibility that they frequently refer to the rest of England as ‘The Shires’, and with so many of them eking out a living in small rural communities as their forefathers had done for generations.  It was scarcely surprising, wrote Moorhouse, that the young were leaving, looking for something better. The appeal of bigger towns and cities, with their exciting anonymity, was great enough for many whose childhood and adolescence had been spent wholly in the confining atmosphere of the village. Combined with the lack of basic amenities and work opportunities, this left young people with few reasons to stay.

Power, Ports & Progress:

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A lonely stretch of coast near Leiston, still enjoyed by caravanners and campers, was the sight of another important development. There, at Sizewell, Britain’s second nuclear power station was built in the early 1960s (the first was built at Windscale in Cumbria in the late fifties). In 1966, power began surging out from the grey, cuboid plant (a model of which – pictured above – can be seen at the Richard Garrett museum in Leiston) into the national grid. By the late seventies, Sizewell’s 580,000 kilowatts were going a long way towards meeting eastern England’s electricity needs.

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Sizewell Nuclear Power Station (2014)

The docks also began to be modernised, with ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe hastening the decline of London, which could not handle containerised freight. In addition, most of the Suffolk ports were no further from London than those of Kent and they were a great deal closer to the industrial Midlands and North. In 1955 the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company had on its hands a dilapidated dock that needed dredging, and warehouses, quays and sea walls all showing signs of storm damage. The total labour force was nine men. By the mid-seventies, the dock area covered hundreds of acres, many reclaimed, made up of spacious wharves, warehouses and storage areas equipped with the latest cargo handling machinery. The transformation began in 1956 as the direct result of foresight and careful planning. The Company launched a three million pound project to create a new deepwater berth geared to the latest bulk transportation technique – containerisation. It calculated that changing trading patterns and Felixstowe’s proximity to Rotterdam and Antwerp provided exciting prospects for an efficient, well-equipped port. Having accomplished that, it set aside another eight million for an oil jetty and bulk liquid storage facilities. In addition, a passenger terminal was opened in 1975. The dock soon acquired a reputation for fast, efficient handling of all types of cargo, and consignments could easily reach the major industrial centres by faster road and rail networks.

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Looking across the estuary from Harwich to the Felixstowe container port today.

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Increasing trade crammed the Suffolk’s main roads with lorries and forced an expansion and improvement of port facilities. The development of new industries and the growth of the east coast ports necessitated a considerable programme of trunk road improvement. From the opening of the first stretches of motorway in the winter of 1958/59, including the M1, there was a major improvement in the road network. By 1967 motorways totalled 525 miles in length, at a cost of considerable damage to the environment.  This continued into the mid-seventies at a time when economic stringency was forcing the curtailment of other road building schemes. East Anglia’s new roads were being given priority treatment for the first time. Most of the A12, the London-Ipswich road, was made into a dual carriageway. The A45, the artery linking Ipswich and Felixstowe with the Midlands and the major motorways, had been considerably improved. Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket had been bypassed. By the end of the decade, the A11/M11 London-Norwich road was completed, bringing to an end the isolation of central Norfolk and Suffolk.

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Above Left: An old milestone in the centre of Woodbridge, Suffolk; Right: The M1 at Luton Spur, opened 1959.

Culture, Landscape & Heritage; Continuity & Conflict:

 

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Suffolk remained a haven for artists, writers and musicians. Indeed, if the county had any need to justify its existence it would be sufficient to read the roll call of those who have found their spiritual home within its borders. Among them, and above them, towers Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh and drew inspiration from the land and people of Suffolk for his opera Peter Grimes. The composer moved to the seaside town in 1947 on his return from the USA and almost at once conceived the idea of holding a festival of arts there. It began quietly the following year but grew rapidly thereafter as the activities multiplied – concerts, recitals, operas and exhibitions – and every suitable local building was made use of. Many great artists came to perform and the public came, from all over the world, to listen. Britten had long felt the need for a large concert hall with good acoustics but he did not want to move the festival away from Aldeburgh and the cost of building a new hall was prohibitive.

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In October 1965, the lease of part of a disused ‘maltings’ at nearby Snape became available. It was in a beauty spot at a bridge over the River Alde (pictured above), and architects and builders were soon drafted in to transform the site into a concert hall and other facilities for making music. Queen Elizabeth II opened the buildings in June 1967, but almost exactly two years later disaster struck when the Maltings was burnt out. Only the smoke-blackened walls were left standing, but there was an almost immediate determination that the concert hall would be rebuilt. Donations poured in from all over the world and in less than forty-two weeks the hall had been reconstructed to the original design, and the complex was extended by adding rehearsal rooms, a music library, an art gallery, an exhibition hall and other facilities.

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The Suffolk shore or, to be more accurate, ‘off-shore’ also made a crucial contribution to the breakthrough of popular or ‘pop’ music in Britain. At Easter 1964 the first illegal ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from a ship just off the Suffolk coast (see map, right). Within months, millions of young people were listening to Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South, Radio London and other pirate stations that sprung up. Not only did they broadcast popular music records, but they also reminded their listeners that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct ‘attack on youth’.

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With the advent of these radio stations, the BBC monopoly on airtime was broken, and bands were able to get heard beyond their concerts. Eventually, the Government acted to bring an end to its ‘cold war’ with the British record industry. The BBC set up Radio One to broadcast popular records and in August 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

Back on dry land, there were areas of conflict, then as now, in which the interests of farmers, businessmen, holidaymakers and country residents clashed. When the farmer rooted out hedges, sprayed insecticides indiscriminately and ploughed up footpaths he soon had conservationists and countryside agencies on his back. When schedule-conscious truck drivers thundered their way through villages, there were angry protests.

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Saxtead Green’s post mill (see OS map above for location near Framlingham) as it looked in the 1970s when it was maintained by the Department of the Environment; it is now managed (2018) by English Heritage.

w290 (1)There were also, still, many for whom the images of Constable’s rolling landscapes were set in their mind’s eye. For them, this was, above all, his inviolable country. It was also dotted with windmills, another echo of earlier continental associations, many of them still working. Every new building project was examined in great detail by environmentalists.

Many local organisations were formed to raise awareness about and resist specific threats to rural heritage, such as the Suffolk Preservation Society and Suffolk Historic Churches Trust.

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Most of the churches, like the very early example at Rendlesham (right), were built of flint, both in Suffolk and in Norfolk, where a great number of them have round towers, a feature unique to that county. The farming people of Barsham in the Waveney Valley added their church to the Norman round tower in the fourteenth century (pictured above). After that, they could not afford elaborate additions. When the nave needed re-roofing, modest thatch seemed to offer the best solution. Suffolk, in particular, had an incredibly rich and well-preserved heritage which gave it its distinct county identity.

DSC09863Almost every church had a superb timber roof, described by Moorhouse as a complex of rafters, kingposts, and hammerbeams which look, as you crane your neck at them, like the inverted hold of a ship (the one pictured left is again, from Rendlesham). Very often these medieval churches were miles from any kind of community, emphasising the peculiarly lonely feeling of most of the area. Most are the remains of the Black Death villages, where the plague killed off the entire population and no one ever came back.

 

Around its magnificent ‘wool church’ (pictured below), the half-timbered ‘perfection’ of Lavenham might not have survived quite so completely had it been located in the South of England. This was one of the hidden benefits of the county’s relative isolation which had, nevertheless, come to an end by the late seventies.

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On the other hand, Wilson has reminded us that the wool-rich men of the town rebuilt their church almost entirely between 1485 and 1530 in the magnificent, new Perpendicular style, yet it remains today and is widely viewed as the crowning glory of ecclesiastical architecture in Suffolk. 

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Many other of the county’s churches are not as Medieval as they look (see the fifteenth-century additions to the transepts of St Michael’s, Framlingham, above) which may challenge our contemporary view of the balance between preservation and progress. In 1974 the Department of the Environment produced a report called Strategic Choice for East Anglia. It forecast a population of over eight hundred thousand in Suffolk alone by the end of the century. It saw the major towns growing much larger and suggested that the counties would inevitably lose some of their individuality:

We know … that the change and the growth … will make East Anglia more like other places. For some, this will mean the growth should be resisted, and the opportunities which it brings should be foregone. Whether or not we sympathise with this point of view, we do not think it is practicable. Much of the change and growth that is coming cannot be prevented by any of the means that is likely to be available. The only realistic approach is to recognize this, and take firm, positive steps to maintain and even enhance the environment of the region, using the extra resources that growth will bring …

By the time the report was published, the people of East Anglia had already begun, as they had always done in earlier times, to face up to many of the problems which change and development brought their way.

 

Sources:

Joanna Bourke, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

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

Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964),… Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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Posted November 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Assimilation, BBC, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, cleanliness, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Conservative Party, Demography, Domesticity, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Family, Great War, History, Home Counties, Hungary, Immigration, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Medieval, Midlands, Migration, Music, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Norfolk, Population, Poverty, Refugees, Respectability, Scotland, Second World War, Suffolk, Tudor times, Uncategorized, Welfare State, World War One, World War Two

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British Society and Popular Culture, 1963-68: Part Two – Beatlemania & the Cultural Revolution.   Leave a comment

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Sexual Freedom & Women’s Liberation:

The ‘cultural revolution’ had a profound effect on sexual behaviour in general, and on women in particular. Sex before marriage became less taboo (one-third of young women were pregnant when they married), and there was a general feeling of increasing sexual freedom at various levels in society, which was made a reality through the advent and growing availability of the contraceptive pill from 1962. Women’s liberation also took off, leading to the victory of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. Until that, equal rights and feminism only really touched the surface. There was still a long road to travel on this, however. Too many workplaces were utterly unwelcoming of women wanting work. Too many memoirs recount the gross sexism of the new rock stars, not to mention the abuse of young women and children by a small number of prominent pop celebrities, more recently uncovered in police investigations. ‘The Pill’ might have arrived, and the Abortion Act became law in 1967, but this was still a time of ‘unwanted’ pregnancies, ‘unmarried’ mothers and gross domestic violence being administered by drunken men. Yet the philosophical principles of egalitarianism were gradually weaving their way into social change. Traditions of submission and obedience, together with hierarchies of class and gender based on medieval property rights, industrial capital and imperial administration, began to wobble and dissolve into a society which was more dilute and porous. This was not so much because ‘revolutionaries’ ushered in an age of personal freedom, but more generally because it suited a new economic system based on consumer choices.

In domestic life, two-thirds of families acquired labour-saving devices such as refrigerators and washing-machines. There was a growing ‘snappiness’ and lightness of design, in everything from the cut of clothing to the shape of cars, an aesthetic escape from the gravitas of the post-war period of austerity. But among the population as a whole this was a gradual transformation, experienced in a continuum, not as a revolution. The process was somewhat accelerated among the younger generation.  The real earnings of young manual workers had grown rapidly in the early sixties, creating a generation who had money to spend on leisure and ‘luxury’ goods. The average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, King’s Road and Carnaby Street became the haunts of this generation. Their attitude is summed up by the designer Mary Quant, whose shop Bazaar in King’s Road, provided clothes…

… that allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom. 

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Quant had been cutting up lengths of cloth bought over the counter and selling them at Bazaar since the mid-fifties. Her iconoclastic style involved drawing, slicing and sewing up a uniform that parodied the pleated, padded, extravagant clothes of the Old New Look designers. In doing so, she was taking on the fashion industry of Paris and the West End from her bedsit and tiny shop. Quant’s shockingly short mini-skirts, named after the car she loved, were offensive enough for the occasional brick to be lobbed at her window. She always claimed that she was trying to free women to be able to run for a bus. But it was the sexual allure that shocked. Michael Caine later recalled taking his mother down the King’s Road to see what all the fuss was about:

I said, “here’s one now”, and this girl walks by with a mini up to here. She goes by and my mother looked at her. So, we walk on a bit. She never said a word. So I said, what do you think, mum? She said: “If it’s not for sale, you shouldn’t put it in the window.”

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Clothes became the outward symbols of the ‘Chelsea Set’ of which Caine was a fully paid-up member, as was Quant. But Quant’s fashions were as exclusively priced as the ‘Set’ itself. ‘Biba’, an iconic symbol, promised liberation for women and girls, but liberation through spending. Its founder, Barbara Hulanicki was a girl from an exiled family, born before the war, brought up in British-controlled Palestine and then raised by a ‘bohemian’ aunt in Brighton, before going to art school. She then launched a mail order company with her husband. Biba, named after her younger sister, aimed to offer glamorous clothing at cheap prices. She had been mesmerised by Audrey Hepburn (above and below), her shape; long neck, small head, practically jointless, and her first top-selling design was a pink gingham dress like the one worn by Brigitte Bardot at her wedding.

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Her succession of boutiques were dark, chaotic spaces in which customers could lose themselves, pick up and try on, discard and collect, and sometimes steal, a great gush of new designs which seemed to change every week. The clothes were run up at high-speed in the East End and ferried to the boutique (below) several times a week. Turnover was spectacular and soon celebrities were beating a path its door, mixing with shorthand typists and schoolgirls to buy Biba designs – Mia Farrow, Yoko Ono, Princess Anne, Raquel Welch and even Bardot herself. As one Biba admirer said, it was helping to create the concept of shopping as an experience, a leisure activity for the young. George Melley, jazz singer, writer and professional flamboyant called it a democratic version of Mary Quant. Hulancki herself said that she always wanted to get prices down, down, down, to the bare minimum. The cheapness and disposability of the clothes was shocking to an older Britain in which millions of families had been used to make do and mend, followed by making their own clothes, buying patterns from Woolworth’s and sewing them by hand, or using a new electric sewing machine, or knitting woollen dresses and jerseys. Biba was the beginning of the throw-away consumer culture applied to clothing, and though it would present moral dilemma later, in the sixties it simply provided freedom for millions of young single women, career girls about town, who, as yet, had not been shaped by motherhood.

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Pop Music and Popular Culture:

Another symbol was popular music. Before ‘pop’ the dominant popular music styles produced low profits. Most public music was live; piano and banjo players on music-hall stages, the star singers and then eventually the big bands of the dance halls and the smoky subculture of ‘jazz’. Sheet-music made big money for talented composers like Ivor Novello and stage stars like Harry Lauder. Gramophone record sales had kicked off with recordings of early twentieth-century opera stars but the invention of the modern microphone in the twenties had then changed popular singing, allowing intimacy and variety of a new kind. The recording industry brought Louis Armstrong, the Ink Spots, Vera Lynn and the crooners of many West End musicals to millions of homes before pop. By the end of the fifties there were four major British recording companies: EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips. Most of their profits came from classical music or comic recordings, like those of Flanders and Swann. It was with the spread of seven-inch forty-fives that records had become something that teenagers could afford to buy. Though first produced in the US as early as 1948, for working-class British youngsters they were still formidably expensive by the late fifties.

The other essential technological changes arrived at around the same time. First, loud electric guitars, invented by radio repairman Leo Fender in 1948. Then transistor radios, originally invented in the mid-fifties to help Americans keep in touch after the coming nuclear war with Russia, and becoming popular for other purposes at the end of the decade. Without the mike, the electric guitar and the seventh-inch record, rock and pop would not have happened. Without the radio, the vital cross-cultural currents would have been unheard. The post-austerity economic boom was putting money in the pockets of teenagers and young workers, and the post-war baby-boom had increased their numbers. Better nutrition meant that they reached puberty earlier, and the mechanisms for the mass-marketing were already in place. By the early sixties, all the essential ingredients of the new market for this were also in place.

Most histories of golden-age sixties rock groups begin with a similar narrative, with the kids discovering Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley under their bedclothes, covertly listening on frequency 208 on their transistor radio to Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast to the UK from 7.00 p.m. onwards every night. They then go on to describe the formation of a ‘skiffle’ band, like that of Lonnie Donegan, using simple chords and home-made instruments like washboards or slatted wardrobe doors, mouth organs and ‘kazoos’. Then the coffee bar or burger bar would make an appearance, a place where teenagers could go to socialize and listen to jukeboxes. The local art college would also, often, be part of this formative, group experience. Many of these were associated with local technical colleges, which before the university expansion of the seventies was where bright, imaginative and often rebellious teenagers would end up after leaving ‘academia’ behind at fifteen. The art schools were the true factories of popular culture, for musicians, painters and sculptors.

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By the later fifties, art students were not only listening to skiffle, but the US rock ‘n’ roll stars, and also to British ‘Elvis copies’ like first Tommy Steel, then Harry Webb, ‘reincarnated’ as Cliff Richard, then Tom Jones. John Lennon went to Liverpool Art College, while Ray Davies, who formed The Kinks attended Hornsey, Keith Richard of The Rolling Stones went to Sidcup, and Pete Townsend of The Who went to Ealing Art College. The RAF-style roundels and bold black arrows which appeared on the band’s clothes and became part of the Mods’ insignia, had been swiped from graphic designers and pop painters. Of course, no band was more important in the sixties, and arguably since, than The Beatles. They expressed both youthful rebellion and commercialism, providing British teenagers with an identity that cut across the barriers of class, accent and region. The Beatles had been formed, originally as The Quarrymen, in July 1957 and in 1962 Love Me Do reached #17 in the charts. But it wasn’t until April 1963, that From Me to You became their first number one hit single.

‘Beatlemania’ & the Radio Revolution:

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The key to their initial breakthrough, and their continued success, was not studio recordings, but radio performances. Between 1957 and 1970 they performed live in eighty-four different venues in England, fifteen in Scotland, six in Wales and two in Ireland. Many people in the establishment regarded ‘pop’ music with disdain. The BBC held a monopoly over the radio waves and, in a deal with the Musicians’ Union and record manufacturers, ensured that popular music was not given airtime. The Beatles, however, were too popular for the BBC to resist, and between March 1962 and June 1965, no fewer than 275 unique musical performances were recorded in their studios and broadcast throughout the UK. The group played eighty-eight different songs on national radio, some recorded many times. As well as their own songs, these recordings also included rock ‘n’ roll numbers by Chuck Berry and Little Richard. They worked like dogs, once recording eighteen songs in one day on 16 July 1963. Derek Taylor has written about how …

… they became our cheeky chappies, our Elvis, took up residence on the front page, and in the zeitgeist of the age, helped to establish the booming creative potential of provincial England.

The Beatles gave us a continuing soundtrack of unparalleled charm and reassurance. As long as they kept on delivering fresh songs along with the morning milk, everything was right in our optimistic world. Quite quickly, the Beatles became an institution all of their own, with all sorts of attendants – fanatics and detractors, revisionists and archivists, accountants and lawyers, scribes and Pharisees.

That the Beatles were woven into the fabric of British life was due in large part to the regularity of their attention to good habits – the Christmas message to the fans, the package tours, the visits home to Liverpool families, an honest paying of all the expected dues and in no small measure to the BBC, who provided that unparalleled broadcasting expertise to keep the nation in touch with ‘the boys’ through fifty-three broadcasts. Radio allowed them to ‘be themselves’ and that was always enough for the Beatles and their followers.

The Beatles’ frequent access to the BBC’s studios and airwaves was the consequence of an age of wireless innocence. Although millions were hungry for rock ‘n’ roll, on the radio it was severely rationed. When you tuned in during the day, there was only the choice of the BBC’s three national networks and, of those, only the Light Programme might occasionally allow Elvis or Buddy Holly into your house. There was no local radio or commercial radio. The only alternative was a crackling, phasing Radio Luxembourg beamed across Europe at night. When ‘the Light’ did feature ‘pop’, due to the Musicians’ Union restriction, records were frequently side-lined by emasculated renditions of hits from dance orchestras. But without competition, BBC radio programmes were guaranteed huge audiences. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, had understood this opportunity and sent an application for a radio audition to the BBC’s Manchester outpost early in 1962. Producer Peter Pilbeam had auditioned them and, despite his note on his report about the singers – John Lennon, yes; Paul McCartney, no – both had featured on their BBC debut in front of an audience at Manchester Playhouse in March 1962. This regional radio breakthrough had come seven months before the release of their first single on ‘Parlophone’, Love Me Do, and no recording exists of the concert or any of their other three broadcasts of 1962. It remains ‘pre-history’ in terms of the Beatlemania years, especially when compared to their ‘meteoric’ rise to fame in 1963.

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At the beginning of 1963, Britain was experiencing its worst winter weather since 1947. The country shivered through freezing temperatures at a time when few houses had the luxury of central heating. Most of the land was covered in deep snow making transport difficult. Undaunted, The Beatles spent many hours during those cold early months of 1963 in a van driven by a friend, journeying up and down the country to appear onstage at theatres and ballrooms and to perform in radio and TV studios. Before this breakthrough year, the group had worked hard at their craft, including hundreds of hours spent entertaining the rowdy clientele of a Hamburg nightclub and the friendly regulars at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, enabling the development of an extensive and varied repertoire. Their musical expertise combined with discipline and stamina proved to be an unbeatable formula.

Though the stories of British rock and pop bands follow a predictable trajectory, the stories of the earlier bands are more interesting simply because the story had not occurred before. Though pop was a business it was also narrative about class and morality; almost every band’s story described the tension between the marketing of the music and the attempt by the band to stay in some way ‘authentic’, true to themselves. Many never tried to be authentic in the first place, but the groundbreaking ones did but didn’t find it easy. The Kinks were four north London boys who affected a camp look and played rough, hard pop were put into the most extraordinary pink hunting jackets, ruffs and thigh-high suede boots. The Beatles were bullied and cajoled by Epstein into ditching the rough jeans and leather Luftwaffe jackets they had learned in Hamburg. To get their first recording contract with EMI, the Beatles were told to stop smoking on stage, stop swearing, turning up late, and making spontaneous decisions about which songs they would play at their gigs. They also had to learn to bow smartly to the audience, all together, after every song. They agreed. It was only later in their successful sixties that they felt they could tell their managers where to get off.

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The BBC’s Saturday Club presenter, Brian Matthew (above), commented, following their appearance on his show on 26th January 1963:

At the moment, the majority of ‘The Beatles’ fans are in their home town of Liverpool and I have a very strong suspicion it won’t be long before they’re all over the country.

Brian Matthew’s belief was quickly confirmed. From ten o’clock to twelve noon every Saturday, the show reached an enormous audience of around ten to twelve million. The Beatles were featured ten times on the programme and quickly established a rapport with Matthew and producer Bernie Andrews, who supervised the music sessions.  Six numbers were recorded in sessions lasting no more than three and a half hours; sometimes as short as ninety minutes. Throughout 1963 number one records followed in quick succession: Please Please Me, From me to You, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand. The debut album, Please Please Me, the Twist and Shout EP, and the With the Beatles LP were also released within that year. While those releases kept them high in the charts, the pressure of The Beatles schedule never eased for a moment, but they were match-fit. They performed music in thirty-nine radio shows in 1963 and, most importantly, fifteen of those programmes were editions of their own radio series Pop Go the Beatles which the BBC invited them to host during the summer of 1963. Tuesday evening became an essential date with the radio for millions of fans. They were encouraged by the presenter to let their humour shine between the songs, and producer Terry Henebery remembers this ‘zaniness’ not being confined to the recorded speech links:

They’d come to the studio and horse about. You had to crack the whip and get on the loudspeaker talk-back key quite a lot and say “Come on, chaps!” They’d be lying all over the floor, giggling. And I can remember afternoons down at the Paris Cinema studio, where you were just looking at the clock, throwing your hands up in horror and thinking, ‘will they ever settle down?’ I mean, people would go and get locked in the toilets and fool about. But you were, at the end of the day, getting some nice material out of them.

No one would have predicted it in 1963, but the songs The Beatles chose to perform for their radio series constitute the most fascinating aspect of their music sessions for the BBC. The New Musical Express reported that R-and-B material will be strongly featured. The shows certainly lived up to that promise. Required to record six songs for every show, to avoid undue repetition, the group would often romp through an old favourite or work on a new number. As Ringo observed:

It was fine when doing the repertoire we knew, but some weeks it’d be real hard. We’d rehearse two or three songs in the lunch break and then go and record them in the afternoon.

For some groups, a series that demanded six new recordings every weeknight might have been daunting; but it allowed The Beatles to air their influences and try out some new favourites. They performed fifty-six new songs in all, twenty-five of which had not and would not be released on any of their records. The choice of material in these and other programmes clearly reveals the artists who had inspired the group. They recorded nine cover versions of Chuck Berry songs which, except for Roll Over Beethoven were all belted out by John. In addition, they covered six Carl Perkins and four Elvis Presley songs, while the four Little Richard rockers were the exclusive vocal property of Paul and his throat-ripping ‘whoops’ and ‘hollers’. In gentler moments, Paul sang A Taste of Honey and Till There Was You, but his most unusual ballad was The Honeymoon Song. John produced a real gem in Ann-Margret’s I Just Don’t Understand. The four were adept at digging out unusual material, often beating rival Liverpool groups to sought-after American records and learning the B-side. As Paul commented in 2013,

You will find stuff in our repertoire that came off little odd-ball records. We had started off going onstage and playing songs that we liked, but then we would find that on the same bill as us in the Liverpool clubs, there might be another band that would play exactly the same songs. If they were on before us, it made us look a bit silly. We started to look further afield, study the American charts and see what was there. We’d listen to radio a lot and find out if there was anything up and coming. We would also flip records and listen to the B-sides; see if we could find anything that way. In fact, that’s what started John and I writing, because this was the only foolproof way that other bands couldn’t have our songs. There was no great artistic muse that came out of the heavens and said, ‘Ye shall be a songwriting partnership!’ It was really just we had better do this or everyone is going to have our act. …

In addition to the night-time broadcasts of Radio Luxembourg, the other sources for rock ‘n’ roll music on discs were coffee-bar jukeboxes, fairgrounds and record shops. Fortunately, this era was a golden era for record stores. Hundreds of family-run concerns, like Brian Epstein’s NEMS in Liverpool, would take pride in stocking at least one copy of everything released. Many Liverpool musicians spent hours in listening booths at NEMS while records were played to them. Occasionally, they might even buy one! At the time of their BBC sessions, The Beatles were seeking out the latest Rhythm and Blues records from the States. Although many of these by groups such as The Miracles did not, at first, make the British charts, they were a key influence on The Beatles. Again, Paul McCartney explains:

With our manager Brian Epstein having a record shop – NEMS – we did have the opportunity to look around a bit more than the casual buyer. …

Ringo would get stuff from the sailors. … he happened to have a few mates who’d been to New Orleans or New York and had picked up some nice blues or country and western. … But it was really a question of looking harder than the next guy. We made it our full-time job to research all these things; to go for the road less travelled.

These records, and those by The Shirelles, who did have some UK hits, had sophisticated vocal, string and horn parts. Rearranging them for a four-piece line-up helped to create the Beatle sound just as much as the earlier singles by the rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. Current R&B records were not easy to get hold of or hear in Britain. But in 1963, records released on the Tamla and Motown labels were distributed in the UK by Oriole. Radio Luxembourg also featured the latest records by Mary Wells, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas and Little Stevie Wonder. Although none of them was a hit at the time, The Beatles’ love of the records from Detroit was demonstrated when they included three Motown songs on With the Beatles. Their devotion to black soul music proved crucial to its wider acceptance.

The significance of The Beatles’ BBC radio sessions also stems from the way the sound of the group was captured for their broadcasts. At that time, artists were not given large amounts of studio time. At EMI studios, on 11th February 1963, The Beatles had to record ten songs for their debut album, Please Please Me. The fact that this was achieved in under ten hours subsequently became regarded as a remarkable achievement. This was seen as especially true when the quality of the tracks was considered. It was common practice in 1963 to complete a minimum of two songs in a standard three-hour session. As Paul has pointed out,

It was just the rate people worked at. … Looking at it now, it seems so fast, but then it seemed very sensible.

At the BBC, the work-rate was even higher. Apart from when they were performing in front of an audience for a broadcast, The Beatles had to record five or six songs in a short session so they were not fazed by this requirement. The recordings were made onto a four-track tape machine at EMI in October 1963, but multi-tracking did not begin at the BBC until a decade later. This meant that the mono recordings could not be edited, except by editing different takes of a song onto the same tape. Otherwise, there was the option to ‘overdub’ by copying the first recording to another tape, while at the same time adding more instruments or vocals. Both of these processes could be very time-consuming, so what we hear on the BBC tapes is the sound of the group performing ‘live’, direct to tape, as if to an immediate audience, but without the noisy hysteria which accompanied their public concerts. The pop songs of the early Beatles were not neatly produced commodities as all pop songs later became. You can hear the fun involved in their creation.

When Pop Go The Beatles finished its run, they were once more at the top of the charts with She Loves You. From that point on, things went crazy and pretty much stayed that way. Their unassailable popularity was reflected by the press who applied the epithet Beatlemania to the hysteria that surrounded their every move. In February 1964, the States surrendered to the magic and Brian Epstein’s bold boast that his group would be ‘bigger than Elvis’ proved to be true. Having ‘hit the business jackpot’, as Brian Matthew expressed it in Saturday Club, the number of times The Beatles came to the BBC was greatly reduced; compared to the thirty-four programmes recorded in 1963, from October 1963 to June 1965 there were just fifteen specially recorded sessions. Having once been prepared to rush from one end of the country to the other for a radio show, global success now made the group less available. Their last BBC radio performance was the solitary one of 1965, on Whit Monday, entitled The Beatles Invite You to Take a Ticket to Ride. It was understandable that they now had real need of this particular kind of radio exposure. But most of the sessions at the BBC had been exciting and fun. DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman worked with the Beatles in 1964. He remembered that:

Their music and persona freed me from middle age … because the things that were coming from The Beatles made me feel like a ten-year-old! They made us all feel tremendously happy.

Just before The Beatles made their last BBC recording, at Easter 1964 the first illegal ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from a ship just off the Sussex coast. Within months, millions of young people were listening to Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South, Radio London and other pirate stations that sprung up. Not only did they broadcast popular music records, but they also reminded their listeners that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct ‘attack on youth’. With the advent of these radio stations, the BBC monopoly on airtime was broken, and bands were able to get heard beyond their concerts. Eventually, the Government acted to bring an end to its cold war with the British record industry. The BBC set up Radio One to broadcast popular records and in August 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

The Rock Generation:

In the early days of pop and rock, it was not always quite as obvious that money would always trump vitality. There were still battles to be fought between the two. The Who (pictured below) were a west London band which had, like so many others, emerged from skiffle, and had been kick-started by the early successes of The Beatles. They were encouraged by their manager, Peter Meadon, to dress stylishly and address themselves to the new audience of ‘Mods’. Their first single, I Can’t Explain was self-consciously derivative of The Kinks, and was released in January 1965. It made it to #8 in the charts, but it was their second single, My Generation which really caught the mood of the times and the imaginations of pop fans, later became the first British rock ‘anthem’. It was recorded at the Pye Studios in London in October 1965 and released as a single on 5th November. Just before its release, Roger Daltry was fired from the band for fighting with the other members, but he was quickly reinstated when it reached #2. The fighting and onstage antics continued throughout their early career, though, including the smashing up of guitars by the band’s leader, Pete Townsend. While delighting their live audiences, their guitar-smashing kept them away from mainstream venues.

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A string of top ten hits followed in 1965-67, from Substitute to Pictures of Lily and I Can See for Miles. Pete was disappointed that the last of these only reached #10 in the UK charts compared with #9 in the US, commenting shortly afterwards that to him, that was the ultimate Who record yet it didn’t sell and I spat on the British record buyer. Throughout a stellar career during which some think, with their concept albums, eclipsed The Beatles after the break-up of the ‘fab four’, The Who, though, far from revolutionary in politics, were never properly ‘tamed’.  Nor were The Kinks, whose song-writing genius Ray Davies became involved in a punch-up with an American television union official who had called them a bunch of commie wimps. That altercation got them banned from the States for four crucial years.

The big battle lines, however, were drawn over the content of the songs, which quickly moved beyond the easy American boy-meets-girl themes of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. By 1968, rock was beginning to escape from the urban and suburban Britain of its young consumers. For most of them, their teenage years would end in a more conventional working life and marriage, which was (perhaps somewhat conversely) more popular than ever in the late sixties, with marriage rates peaking in 1972. But drugs, mysticism, gangs and sexual experimentation were some of the alternatives celebrated by pop culture, much to the discomfort of record companies, the BBC, politicians and the newspapers. Songs such as Lola by The Kinks and I’m a Boy by The Who challenged existing sexual stereotypes, and there was a ‘libertine’ element in The Rolling Stones songs which shocked those parents who could follow the lyrics.

Above all, the rate of experimentation and change in sixties pop itself was astonishing, as a new sound, instrument, length of song and sexually explicit album cover image seemed to come along every few weeks in 1966-68. It was a classic, market-driven competition between the top bands and artists, measured by sales of records. Lennon and McCartney remained at the forefront of this experimentation, feeding back discoveries about tape loops, modern composers and Bach into the music of The Beatles, retreating more and more into their Abbey Road studio to produce more complex sounds. The Stones’ blues-rock challenged the ‘Mersey Beat’ and the ‘Mods’ began to produce early versions of the ‘heavy metal’ genre, followed by Led Zeppelin at the end of 1968, who made it their own. But, at this stage, The Beatles were still seen as the pioneers, the first big stars to fall for Indian mysticism, sitars, or the next drug craze, and the first to break up under the strain. Their trajectory, like their output, seemed impossible to beat. As Andrew Marr concludes,

A band’s success was based on its members’ skills but also on their authentic claim to be the kids from the streets whose anger, enthusiasm, boredom and wit reflected the actual Britain all around them, the lives of the people who would save up and buy their songs. Pop was music from below or it was nothing. Yet the successful musicians would be cut off from the world they came from by the money and the security needed to keep fans at bay until they were fated to sound introspective and irrelevant.  

By 1968, other forms of music were receding before the ear-splitting tidal advance of rock and pop, driven by radio. In painting, pop art and the pleasure principle were on the attack. Simpler and more digestible art forms, suitable for mass market consumption, were replacing élite art which assumed an educated and concentrated viewer, listener or reader. Throughout these years there were self-conscious moves to create new élites, to keep the masses out. They came from the portentous theories of modern art or the avowedly difficult atonal Classical music arriving from France and America, but these were eddies against the main cultural current.  Similarly, when Mary Quant set up her shop she was a rotten businesswoman. The fun was in the clothes. No business with so little grasp of cash could afford to be cynical. Of course, the King’s Road was a foreign country to most Britons in the mid-sixties. The majority of those who lived through that period have personal memories of rather conventional and suburban lives. Most working-class people were still living in Edwardian and Victorian red-brick terraces in the English and Welsh industrial cities, and in tenements in Glasgow, Dundee and other Scottish towns.

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For this vast majority, the early sixties were experienced as a continuation of the fifties, not as a break with that decade. Britain remained an industrial society, though more prosperous, whose future was believed still to depend on factories producing cars, engines, washing machines and electrical goods, both for the ‘domestic’ market and for export. The older generation of authority figures – teachers, judges and above all parents – still derived their clothes and morality from their wartime experience, and were the butt of widespread mockery, especially by the cartoonist Giles of The Daily Express (commemorated by the statue shown above, located in Ipswich town centre) and on TV by David Frost. Television also gave further mass exposure to the pop industry, with regular editions of  ‘Jukebox Jury’, ‘Ready, Steady, Go’, and ‘Top of the Pops’ attracting huge young audiences. The radio, TV and magazine publicity machine was up and going. The equipment was in every second home, radios and record players turned out by Britain’s booming electronics industry. But the men with moustaches and ‘short back and sides’ haircuts were visibly still in power. As Andrew Marr has written,

The Britain which proudly displayed volumes of Churchill’s war memoirs on bookshelves, and stood up in cinemas for the national anthem, did not disappear when Ringo Starr grew his first luxuriant moustache.   

Swinging London and its New Celebrities:

The new culture was far from elitist; it was meritocratic, but it could be just as exclusive as the older forms. It was shaped by upper-working-class and lower-middle-class people who had never enjoyed this level of cultural influence before. The northern cities of England, especially Liverpool, but also Newcastle and Manchester, that were sending their sons and daughters south to conquer, even if it was only on radio and television shows. The older Britain with its regimental traditions, its racism and clear divisions in terms of class, geography and dialect. The ‘scouse’ voices of The Beatles and the ‘Geordie’ accents of the Animals had been rarely heard on the radio before 1963, and for many metropolitan and Home Counties listeners, they came as something of a shock. By the summer of 1965, however, what was called Swinging London, or the Scene, was a small number of restaurants, shops and clubs where a small number of people were repeatedly photographed and written about. In Chelsea, Biba, ‘Granny Takes a Trip’, ‘Bazaar’ and ‘Hung on You’ were honeypots for the fashionable. They spent their evenings and nights at clubs like ‘Annabel’s’, ‘Showboat’ and ‘Talk of the Town’.

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There were perhaps no more than twenty ‘celebrities’ at the heart of Swinging London. They included The Beatles and Mick Jagger, among eight pop singers, the model Jean Shrimpton, the designer Mary Quant, painter David Hockney, actors Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, and photographers Lord Snowdon, David Bailey and Terence Donovan. The ‘list’ compiled and published by Private Eye journalist Christopher Booker in 1969, also included an interior decorator, a creative advertiser, a film producer, a discotheque manager, a ballet dancer and the Kray brothers from the East End who could only be described as connected with the underworld. These New Aristocrats, as Christopher Booker called them, were all concerned with the creation of images. Following the Profumo affair of a few years earlier, old money, big business, the traditional arts and politics were being marginalised and replaced by working-class ‘upstarts’. Among the photographers, Bailey was a tailor’s son and Donovan a lorry driver’s son, both from the East End. Michael Caine was a Billingsgate fish porter’s son and Stamp the son of a tug-boat captain. The female aristocrats included Lesley Hornby of Neasden, better known as ‘Twiggy’, a carpenter’s daughter, and Priscilla White, better known as ‘Cilla Black’, another (originally) ‘scruffy Scouser’. A few were there entirely because of their looks, like ‘supermodel’ Jean Shrimpton, a description first used in 1968. Very few of these men and women would have made it in the London of previous decades. The intertwining of this aristocracy of pop was as sinuous as the old Tory cliques of the fifties. But their significance was that they represented the increased mobility of talented people from working-class backgrounds.

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006These ‘celebrities’ were joined by footballers, who in 1966-68 were raised from tradesmen and servants to the level of golden gods, sometimes behaving badly too. England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup, with its dramatic finale at Wembley and the team’s 4-2 defeat of West Germany was the stuff that dreams are made of, leading to ritual disappointed expectations every four years ever since. Despite reaching the semi-finals on two occasions since, in 1990 and 2018, the nation has not yet been able to repeat the dressing up and dancing in the streets that went on then, with every English man, woman and child joining in. Alf Ramsey, the English team manager, had been part of the team who had lost 3-6 to Hungary at Wembley in 1953. Now he and his lions had brought football home at last. The three ‘Eastenders’, West Ham’s Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst outshone the Charlton brothers on this occasion, but Bobby Charlton was himself part of Manchester United’s ‘home’ international trio together with George Best and Denis Law who won the European Cup, beating Eusebio and Benfica 4-1 in 1968. This was a remarkable achievement, coming just a decade after Busby’s ‘babes’ were all but wiped out in the Munich air disaster of 1958. Glasgow Celtic had been the first British team to win the European Cup in the previous year, under the management of Jock Stein in 1967. Some of these soccer celebrities, like George Best, were later to struggle with the limelight, but for now they could do no wrong as far as the British public were concerned. The articles and photos below are from a facsimile of the Sunday Mirror from 31 July 1966:

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The new celebrities were not just fascinated by images, but quickly colonised the entire new media of pop music, radio, television, fashion, advertising, colour magazines, and hairdressing. These were not the property of the City or of old money. Linguistic diversity was as important as imagery in this democratisation of society and culture. It was the breakthrough lead given by Lennon and McCartney in singing their own material that persuaded scores of other British bands to follow suit. Others chose to mimic the accents and vocabulary of the American rockers who had inspired them, even when producing their own compositions. There are few songs in the ‘transatlantic’ repertoire of The Rolling Stones which sound particularly English, unlike those of other iconic London bands such as The Kinks and The Who. Banned from the US while others were breaking into the American market, Ray Davies turned back to local subjects. He had always written pop songs about everything from the death of the dance-halls to the joys of an autumn sunset over Waterloo Bridge, but The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society of 1968 was on an entirely different scale. As Ray Davies commented himself:

While everybody else thought the hip thing to do was to drop acid, take as many drugs as possible and listen to music in a coma, the Kinks were singing songs about lost friends, draught beer, motorbike riders, wicked witches and flying cats.

The title song of their album calls for the ‘preservation’ of Desperate Dan, strawberry jam, the George Cross, the ‘Sherlock Holmes English-speaking vernacular’, little shops, china cups, virginity, Tudor houses and antique tables while attacking the new skyscrapers and office blocks. The album, which sold in tiny numbers compared with Sergeant Pepper, with its equally nostalgic Liverpudlian and Lancastrian-themed lyrics, confused contemporary critics who could not decide whether the group were being serious or satirical. The simple answer, with the benefit of a critical hindsight which regards the disc as one of the greatest achievements of British pop in the sixties, “both”. The band showed that it was possible to write inspiring rock music about what was around you, rather than posturing as a boy from Alabama or pretending to be an Afro-American. On the other hand, in listening to Dusty Springfield, who had one of the ‘purest’, most spell-binding voices of the decade, you could be forgiven for thinking she was from Detroit or Paris. Few of the songs she sang, if any, had British themes and British English vocabulary. But then, ‘son of a preacher man’ scans better! The English folk-song revival of the early sixties also played into this democratic, eclectic mix, with the founding of Fairport Convention in 1967, named after the house in which they practised in North London. Their folk-rock genre took themes and dialects from all parts of the British Isles. By 1968, regional accents had become commonplace in radio and television programmes, especially the perennial ‘soap operas’, though it took much longer for the provincial presenters of news, views and features to be accepted onto the national broadcasts of the BBC, not to mention those from ethnic minorities. This reflected the slow progress in British society in general towards genuine devolution, diversity and gender equality.

Despite the dramatic increase in wealth, coupled with the emergence of distinctive subcultures, technological advances (including television) and unprecedented shifts in popular culture, by the end of the sixties, there was a general sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with society and politics in Britain. In the early seventies, when John Lennon was asked to assess the impact of The Beatles by Rolling Stone magazine, he commented that…

Nothing happened, except we all dressed up. The same bastards are in control, the same people are running everything, it’s exactly the same.

Conclusion: A Real Counter-cultural Revolution?

The counter-cultural ‘revolution’ in Britain had no organisation and no practical agenda. It was largely middle class in its amorphous leadership, without any real or effective links to the working-class socialists who wanted higher wages and perhaps even workers’ cooperatives, but were less keen on long-haired students taking drugs, or indeed on angry black people. The counter-cultural currents influenced pop and rock music, but it did not immediately create an indigenous, autonomous British movement. It was dependent on passing American fads and voices, like that of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Like both Dylan and John Lennon in the early seventies, The Who questioned revolutionary values and violent methods in their second great ‘anthem’, Won’t Get Fooled Again, written by Pete Townsend in 1970 and recorded and released the next year. It ends with the line, Meet the new boss; he’s the same as the old boss! Townsend wrote,

It’s really a bit of a weird song. The first verse sounds like a revolution song and the second like somebody getting tired of it. It’s an anti-establishment song. It’s ‘anti’ people who are negative. A song against the revolution because … a revolution is not going to change anything at all in the long run, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.

Symbolically, perhaps, the group has usually played the full eight-and-a-half minute version of the song at the end of its concert. More than any other song, it sums up the relationship between pop music and sixties’ counter-culture.

Sources:

Joanna Bourke, Shompa Lahiri, et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. London: Macmillan.

Kevin Howlett (2014), The Beatles: The BBC Archives, 1962-1970.

 

Posted July 18, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, BBC, Britain, British history, Britons, Cartoons, Commemoration, Domesticity, Fertility, History, homosexuality, Journalism, Marriage, Maternity, Midlands, Migration, morality, Music, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, Proletariat, Respectability, Satire, Second World War, Suffolk, Uncategorized, USA, West Midlands, Women's History

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part Three.   Leave a comment

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The Wars of the Roses and the Tudor State of Wales:

By the time of the ensuing Wars of the Roses, the Crown territories had spread throughout Wales, leaving the Marcher lordships with less power. Yorkist and Lancastrian families in the March provided fighting men for the armies of the rival factions, and when Harlech fell to William Herbert, the first Welsh-speaking earl,  the poet Guto’r Glyn had no hesitation in calling upon him to unite Glamorgan and Gwynedd, pardon not a single burgess, and expel all Englishmen from office in Wales. Only the Anglo-Welsh Lancastrians should be spared. However, it was Edward of York, earl of the March and Lord Mortimer, who became Edward IV in 1461. As a result, many of the lordships changed hands or were forfeited. Many of these passed to the Crown, the twenty-two Mortimer lordships included. York controlled the March and Lancaster the Principality, and practically every family of substance was drawn into the conflict. William Herbert built himself up to become Earl of Pembroke, the effective ruler of south Wales. Griffith ap Nicolas rose from humble origins to make himself and his family ‘kings of south-west Wales’ and to establish the ‘House of Dinefwr’.

The Crown lordships and the Principality now dominated the political landscape of Wales, enabling the king to establish a Prince’s council of the Marches of Wales in 1471 which continued to function intermittently until the Tudor ‘invasion’ of Wales and ‘takeover’ of England in 1485. The Tudors of Anglesey were, like the bulk of their compatriots, survivors. The family fortunes had been established by Tudur ap Gronw, whose sons had fought alongside Owain Glyndwr as his cousins. One of them, Rhys was executed and another, Maredudd, was driven into exile. His son, Owen, was taken on as a page-boy by Henry V, later marrying his widow, Catherine de Valois. His stepson, Henry VI, made his Tudor half-brothers earls of Richmond and Pembroke. Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, married Margaret Beaufort, who brought a claim to the English throne. Edmund died and was buried in Carmarthen; his son, Henry, was born posthumously. His mother was now a fourteen-year-old widow, so the boy was taken in by his uncle Jasper at Pembroke Castle, where he learnt Welsh. Following the Lancastrian disaster of 1471, Jasper took the boy to Brittany, and when his small army landed at Dale in Pembrokeshire, he depended entirely on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England. Many of the northern Welsh lords did rally to him at Shrewsbury, and at Bosworth Henry unfurled the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr. He called his eldest son Arthur, and the Venetian ambassador commented that,

The Welsh may now be said to have recovered their independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman…

The old Yorkist order in the Marches tried to hang on and, in the boroughs, made a last stand against the incoming tide of Welshmen. Henry kept St David’s Day and packed his own minor offices with Welshmen. By the end of his reign almost every marcher lordship was in royal hands, ‘over-mighty subjects’ had been cut down and charters of emancipation issued to north Wales. Under Henry VII’s firm hand a reinvigorated Council in the Marches began in the king’s name to bring about some uniformity in the government of the various lordships, particularly in the field of administration of justice. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw an increasingly centralised Tudor state in which the special political arrangements of the March were becoming untenable. In 1490, Henry VII agreed to a form of extradition treaty with the steward of the lordships of Clifford, Winforton and Glasbury which allowed ‘hot pursuit’ of criminals in certain circumstances.

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However, as he himself had demonstrated by his successful invasion on the way to ‘picking up the crown’ at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there remained a problem of the defence of the extended kingdom. Wales was England’s weakly bolted backdoor. Some degree of unified defence of Wales was of major importance to England’s security. His second son was left to find a solution to this problem, which was further complicated by his decision, in 1529, to go into action against the papacy. As the commissioners moved on the monasteries and their property, with Welsh gentry eagerly joining in, there was cause for alarm. As the Marcher lordships collapsed into gangster fiefdoms, just across the water, Catholic Ireland was also restive. If Wales was its backdoor, Ireland beyond ‘the Pale’ remained its back gate. It was from there that the Plantagenets had sought to dethrone Henry VII at Stoke Field in 1487, and even in the 1540s, Henry VIII remained paranoid about the threat from that quarter. The March of Wales had become so disorderly as a separate part of the kingdom that the Duke of Buckingham asked for a royal licence from Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to allow him to have an armed guard when he travelled through his lordships, declaring that he did not dare enter his lands in the March without an escort of three to four hundred armed men. Under these circumstances, the King’s solution for the disorder in the March of Wales was not to tinker with the constitutional anachronism which had become, but to abolish it.

By 1536, Thomas Cromwell realised that a ham-fisted coercion would not suffice. The law and order of England would have to embrace Wales with the aid of Justices of the Peace drawn from its gentry. The ‘British’ nation-state in the making was faced with the difficulty that there were two nations within it, with a visible border between them. So both the border and the smaller nation would have to become invisible. Therefore, between 1536 and 1543, the English crown put through a number of measures which have gone down in British history as the Acts of Union. The Act for Laws and Justice to be Ministered in Wales in like Fourme as it is in this Realm united the Principality and the March of Wales as part of ‘the kingdom of England and Wales’. The Acts of Union in 1536 and 1542, bound the two countries into a single state of ‘England and Wales’. The Act of Union of 1536 completed the long process of the absorption of the Principality of Wales and the March of Wales into the English kingdom. It rendered superfluous the castles that until then had held these territories in subjugation.

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The old Principality was wiped off the map, and the lordships in the March were abolished and, by combining them in groups, new shires were created to be added to the two established by Henry III in South Wales, and the four in Gwynedd and Dyfed, which had been created by the Statute of 1284. Wales became thirteen counties in all. The marchers were permitted to retain their lands and rights of lordship as practised in England, but they lost their previous prerogatives and privileges. The whole country was subsequently administered as a corporate element of the same realm. Shrewsbury remained in all but name the administrative capital of the whole of Wales, with the Council in the Marches, responsible for maintaining law and order in the English Marches and Wales, meeting there until its abolition in the 1640s. A consequence of these changes was that the language of the ruling gentry class became predominantly English. The key office of the Justice of the Peace passed to the gentry as ‘kings of the bro‘ (the ‘locality’). Welshmen became entitled to the same rights under the law as Englishmen, including the right to representation, for the first time, in the Westminster Parliament. However, because Wales was poor compared to most regions of England, the ‘burden’ of sending an MP was reduced to one MP per county, and the boroughs of each county were grouped together to supply a second MP. Wales was provided with a distinct system of higher administration and justice, in that twelve of its counties were grouped into four circuits of three for a Welsh Great Sessions, meeting for convenience in the borderlands, which also meant that Ludlow became an important centre for many years.

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In the Tudor ‘nation-state’, English was supposed to be the only official language. Henry VIII proclaimed the necessity of extirpating all and singular the sinister usages of customs of Wales. No person or persons that use the Welsh speech shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm. The threat of cultural genocide was not, in fact, fulfilled. In many ways, Wales remained a ‘peculiar’, if not a separate nation, with a unique administration and its own customs and language. Although the official, written language of local administration and the courts was to be English, the right of monolingual speakers of Welsh to be heard in courts throughout the country necessitated the appointment of Welsh-speaking judges and ensured the continued public use of the language. The dominance of the local gentry ensured that the justices of the peace and the men running the shires on behalf of the Crown were magistrates of their own nation, thereby guaranteeing that Wales would not come to be regarded simply as a part of England. This was the case even in Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, and became part of Wales only in 1972.

At the same time as its administration was being remodelled, Wales also experienced the religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. At first, the Reformation simply substituted one barely intelligible tongue (Latin) with another (English). However, in contrast to Ireland, where little effort was made to make religious texts available in the native language, Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer came out as early as 1547, and these were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. Since the Welsh could not be made invisible in the Tudor state, they had to be made Protestant, which meant that the Crown was forced to accede to pressure and authorise Welsh translations of the Bible, whose 1588 version was to prove a sheet-anchor for the threatened language. The early translation of the scriptures into Welsh also helped Protestantism to be accepted in Wales. In fact, the Welsh people embraced it enthusiastically, and later Puritanism and Nonconformity.

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Above: The frontispiece of the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh, published in 1588.

Nevertheless, although it could be used when necessary in the courts, Welsh ceased to be an official language and had to retreat into the Church and the kitchen. The long-term effects of this were very serious for the language. Since it was all but excluded from administration, the position of Welsh gained as the language of religion did much to ensure its survival. The survival of Welsh as a living tongue compensated for the collapse of the medieval bardic tradition with its characteristic prophetic elements. Another Celtic tradition that sank into disfavour was the use of patronymics, by which a person’s second name identified or her as the child of a known parent (e.g. ap Arthur). This was superseded by the use of surnames, in the English manner, handed down from one generation to another. Many traditional Welsh Christian names also fell out of fashion in this period.

At the time, however, the Union was celebrated among the self-confident Welsh burgesses, who saw themselves as being as free as Englishmen under the law of England and Wales. Most importantly, perhaps, the ‘ordinary’ Welshman was no longer at the mercy of his lord or prince in terms of justice, which could no longer be administered arbitrarily by a master who was ‘a law unto himself’. Henry VIII was as masterful a monarch as Edward I in cutting the Lords Marcher down to size, and the lords seem to have accepted that their time for full submission to kingly authority had finally come. Now fewer in number and with most of the lordships already in the hands of the Crown, they were largely absentee landlords; their interests in England were, vulnerable to royal retaliation, were more valuable to them than their Welsh ones, which were still recovering their economic value from the long-term effects of the Glyndwr Rebellion.

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These political changes in Tudor times left the Border itself with less strategic importance. Wales after the Union was no cultural backwater. The Welsh adopted Jesus College in Oxford (founded in 1571) and the Inns of Court in London to complete their education. The Welsh gentry took enthusiastically to the Renaissance, building houses and art collections comparable with those anywhere else in Europe. Against these cosmopolitan tendencies should be set the work of Sir John Price in defending the Arthurian tradition in the face of general scepticism, and the work of Gruffydd Done, in the sixteenth century, and of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, in the seventeenth, who both collected and preserved Welsh medieval texts. By the time of the early Stuarts, ‘the Wales of the squires’ was entering a golden age in which Anglicanism and royalism were becoming rooted among the Welsh gentry. James I and VI was therefore favourably disposed to them and their loyalties were easily transferred to the Scottish dynasty with its own idea of Great Britain, not far removed from their own developing identity as Cambro-Britons. William Vaughan of Cardiganshire, who tried to launch a Welsh colony, Cambriol, in Newfoundland, was also keen to discard the ‘idea’ of the old frontier when he wrote:

I rejoice that the memorial of Offa’s Ditch is extinguished.

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Above: Plas Teg, near Mold, Flintshire, the earliest Renaissance-style house in Wales, built c. 1610 for Sir John Trevor, a senior figure in naval administration.

Administration, Language, Trade and Religion:

Wales had acquired its historic frontier in the estate boundaries of an Anglo-Norman oligarchy. Ethnic minorities were left on both sides of the line. Old Ergyng (Archenfield) disappeared into Herefordshire but remained Welsh-speaking for three hundred years. The integration of Britain became visible in the large-scale migration of the Welsh to London, the growing centre of both trade and power. Dafydd Seisyllt, from Ergyng, was one of those who went up to London as a sergeant of Henry VII’s guard. He bought land and installed his son as a court page. His grandson was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s potent statesman. The Seisyllts, in a transliteration which became commonplace, became the Cecils. The family of Morgan Williams the brewer who had married a sister of Thomas Cromwell changed his name and Oliver arrived three generations later.

Monmouth became an anomaly; nearer to London and relatively wealthy, with an early tin-plating industry, it was saddled with the full parliamentary quota and subjected to the courts of the capital. Always reckoned to be a part of the ‘Welsh’ Church in diocesan terms, it was, however, excluded from the Great Sessions and the Welsh parliamentary system. This led to the curious hybrid title of ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ as a standard secular description, which continued English settlement in the county reinforced. Among the landowners clustering thick in Glamorgan and Monmouth in the south were some of the richest squires in contemporary Europe.

The lordships had varied greatly in size and in physical character, which largely governed their capacity for profitable exploitation, their lords’ primary aim in winning, holding and administering their conquests:

Glamorgan (Morgannwg) was large, much of it agriculturally productive;

Maelienydd, a core lordship of the Mortimer family, was small, an upland and sparsely populated territory of little intrinsic value other than its strategic location;

Clifford, another Mortimer lordship, was very small, perhaps only twenty square miles in extent, but of strategic importance in the Wye valley, the ancient and medieval gateway into Wales.

Conquest was followed by settlement and the evolution of ‘Englishries’ and ‘Welshries’, an ethnic division of population. The Welsh were evicted from the more low-lying arable districts of the lordships which then became ‘the Englishries’, organised in the English manorial system. Here the lords established their ‘vassals’ and immigrant settlers to farm their ‘demesne’ as tenants, paying rent. Often the marcher lords would be absentee landlords, leaving their officials to administer the lands. In this respect, the Mortimers were atypical in that their power and prosperity lay in the March of Wales. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had connections all over Wales of long duration. A Mortimer had married Gwladus, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in the previous century, and in the last half of the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March, had probably as good a dynastic claim as any to the inheritance of Gwynedd. He became the focus of extravagant hopes among the Welsh gentry. The poet Iolo Goch, who was one of his tenants, wrote a fulsome ode of loyalty to him, presenting him as an Arthurian ‘Hero Returned’ who would rescue the Welsh from their degradation. What made this all the more significant was that Mortimer also had a good claim to the inheritance of Richard II. This shift in consciousness came just at the time when a  renaissance of the Welsh language and culture was beginning to provoke political responses and to meet with judicial resistance.

The dispossessed Welsh, were effectively ‘internal exiles’, resettled in ‘the Welshries’ which consisted of the upland and less productive districts of the lordships where raising cattle and sheep were the principle agricultural enterprises. These areas would be more or less self-governing, with courts conducted according to Welsh customs and practice, and in the Welsh language, with little if any interference from the lord provided its inhabitants gave no trouble and paid their tributes in kind. In the lordship of Hay, in the mid-fourteenth century, while the men of the Englishry paid for their land with rent and services, the Welshry as a whole gave the lord the traditional tribute of twenty-four cows every year, though this was later replaced by payment in money. In the later Middle Ages the gradual abandonment of Welsh laws, customs and systems of land tenure was welcomed in some quarters of Wales, particularly among peasant farmers; in the second half of the fourteenth century, Welshmen in Clwyd were eager to surrender their holdings and receive them back on ‘English’ terms, while others were willing to pay for the privilege of ‘English’ status. This was because they preferred the inheritance law of primogeniture to the Welsh system of gavelkind, the equal division of a man’s inheritance among his sons, involving restrictions on his disposal of land according to his family’s individual circumstances.

These moves towards greater integration in the March of Wales had various manifestations. The Welsh language had started to reconquer the Vale of Glamorgan; Welshmen began to appear in the lowland and valley towns, in Oswestry, Brecon and Monmouth; the Welsh began ‘harassing’ English merchants in the March. A chorus of complaint against them burst from boroughs not only in Wales but in the English border counties. Nearly every Parliament which sat between 1378 and 1400 demanded urgent action against these impertinent ‘scrubs’. Even as the gentry turned their hopes towards Richard II, the English administrations in Wales slammed their doors hard. This was a reassertion of colonialism in a régime that was breaking down under its own contradictions, and the Welsh-English tensions that it provoked provided an even greater incentive for the discontented Welsh to support Richard II and Roger (VI) Mortimer.

Although the distinctions between Englishries and Welshries were breaking down by the later Middle Ages, these can sometimes be identified on the landscape today from old place names, where these appear as either English or Welsh, or sometimes bilingually:

Gwerthrynion and Cwmwd Deuddwr (the latter identifiable on today’s map as one of the longest original Welsh place-names, Llansantffraed Cwmdeuddwr) were two Mortimer upland lordships, located north-west of Rhayader on the upper reaches of the Wye. Presumably, they were unattractive to English settlers as there is also a notable absence of English placenames in that area.

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Newtown bears its English name, with a translation provided into Welsh (Y Dref Newydd), despite being surrounded by villages with Welsh nomenclature, because it was established as a borough by Mortimer. Other attempts by them to found boroughs were not so successful. Cefnllys remains the name of a long-ruined castle near Llandrindod Wells, because the Mortimers failed to take into account both its isolated position remote from major trade routes as well as the very limited potential for agricultural production within its close vicinity. When the once important castle had been abandoned as no longer of strategic value, its fate was sealed. Similarly, the prosperity of the borough of Wigmore, and the value of its castle languished after the Mortimers moved their seat of power to Ludlow. The military security of the marcher lordships depended on castles, boroughs and the lords’ private armies. Castles were pivotal in their survival and territorial ambitions as well as being status symbols; they served as ‘launching pads’ for aggression, defensive strongholds and bases in which they could reside when in their Lordships. They were also administrative centres from which their stewards could operate, collecting rents and dues and exercising justice.

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The marcher lords inherited from the Welsh princes the obligation of all free men to fight for them, and Wales throughout the Middle Ages provided a pool of experienced fighting men on which the marcher lords, and by extension, the king, could draw. Most of the infantrymen in the king’s armies were Welsh, and the archers, in particular, distinguished themselves in the Hundred Years War, and for both Yorkist and Lancastrian armies in the Wars of the Roses. The bowmen of Monmouthshire and south Wales were celebrated in both English and Welsh writing; in the March this intensified a loyalty to their lords which became a political as well as a military force. Thousands of Welshmen in their proud livery – like Mortimer’s men, all clothed in green with their arms yellow – were a force to be reckoned with in the politics of England itself, whenever the marchers were heavily involved, as they nearly always were.

Some of the larger lordships, like Glamorgan and Pembroke were organised along the lines of English shires, long before they were formally recognised as such in Tudor times. Maelienydd, by contrast, did not even have knight service, and the Mortimer administration was far less English in form. Rhys ap Gruffydd was knighted by Edward III, one of a number of Welshmen who achieved rank, office and respect in the king’s service and in the March. He commanded the Welsh bowmen in France, as a discrete unit in the English army. Hywel ap Meurig’s family had long been associated with the Mortimer family. In 1260, he was appointed as the negotiator with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on behalf of the Crown and then became constable of the Mortimer castle at Cefnllys. He served as the king’s bailiff in Builth and soon after the end of the Welsh War of Independence of 1276-77 was commissioned as a justice in Wales. He and his family prospered as important cogs in the administration of Wales. Roger Mortimer (IV) maintained a retinue, or private army of Welsh soldiers during his ascendancy in the late 1320s. Although the final resort in settling disputes among the marcher lords, and with their princely Welsh neighbours may have been to engage in warfare, a full-blown war was unusual and arrangements developed among them for settling quarrels which would usually have been of a minor nature over such matters as cattle rustling and boundaries. ‘Letters of the March’ were forms of passports for travellers and merchants passing from one lordship to another. If a traveller was arrested in a lordship other than his own, he could present his letter, which would have been issued by his lord stating that he was a tenant, and request to be returned to face justice in his own lordship.

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The prosperity of the lordships depended largely on agricultural exports of cattle to England and across England to the continent. In 1349, four hundred cattle were driven from the Bohun lordship of Brecon to Essex for fattening. The first part of this journey was along long-established drovers’ roads through the hills, which still mark the landscape of Wales today. Twelve years earlier fourteen sacks of wool were dispatched to from the Mortimer lordship of Radnor en route to Dordrecht, and in 1340 another thirty were awaiting dispatch (each sack weighed 165 kilos). They were probably held up because of the chaotic conditions in trade as a result of the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Wool exports to Flanders had been a thriving business since the early twelfth-century. Welsh border wool may have been of an inferior quality to that of the prime sheep-rearing centres of the Yorkshire moors and dales, but it was certainly superior to the wool of East Anglia.

When Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack, the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Yet Suffolk was richer than Shropshire and closer to their foreign customers. The sight of foreign buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of pack horses laden with Welsh wool was a familiar one in medieval East Anglia. Suffolk farmers and merchants could do a brisker business with the continent because they were closer, but they could not compete in volume or the quality needed by the weavers of fine cloth in Flanders. Then Edward III decided to levy swingeing taxes on markets and customs duties on ports both in order to raise money for his wars with France and as an economic weapon in those wars. In the wool-producing areas the immediate effects were catastrophic, but after 1350 the introduction of weaving to East Anglia, accompanied by the migration of skilled weavers from the depressed textile industries of Flanders, led to a boom in demand for fleeces.

Throughout the early modern period, Wales remained predominantly agrarian, specialising in cattle production, rather than sheep-grazing; dairy products, and, until the Industrial Revolution, cloth-manufacture. The countryside underwent gradual enclosure and deforestation. Settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer homes and lowland winter houses. Towns, other than the boroughs already referred to, were not an important feature until the eighteenth century and even then were restricted largely to Glamorgan. There was some tin-plating in Monmouthshire, but neither coal-mining nor iron-casting was as important as they were to become.

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Dislike of the Anglo-Norman hegemony in Wales was not confined to the civil sphere; it was also present in the Church. The great religious revival of the eleventh century in Normandy was carried to England by the Conquest, which the Roman Church and the Norman barons themselves regarded as a Crusade, predating the ones they began to the ‘Holy Land’ in 1096. They considered the Welsh Church, still with its independent Celtic roots, to be, like the English one, in need of reform and physical rebuilding. The early conquests in Wales were accompanied by expropriation of church property for the benefit of religious foundations in Normandy and appointed French bishops whose dioceses by the early twelfth century had been incorporated into the province of Canterbury. In the Anglo-Norman borderlands and the Anglo-Welsh March, the abbey at Much Wenlock was refounded circa 1080; the Mortimers founded an abbey circa 1140 at Shobdon, a predecessor of Wigmore Abbey, and were later benefactors of the abbey at Cwm Hir in Maelienydd. Llanthony Abbey (detailed below) was founded in 1107. The native religious houses of Wales were slowly superseded by Anglo-Norman foundations or reformed in the new tradition as religious and cultural control of the Church passed out of Welsh hands for the next eight hundred years. Hardly surprisingly, this meddling was a cause of great resentment, with that champion of the Welsh Church, Giraldus Cambrensis, indignantly asking the Pope, …

… Because I am a Welshman, am I to be debarred from all preferment in Wales?

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A Pilgrimage to Llanthony Abbey & through Gospel Pass:

Above: The Landor Estate at Llanthony.

This is an appropriate point to engage with the path itself. The section from ‘Pandy to Hay-on-Wye’ officially begins where it crosses the A465 from Hereford to Abergavenny by “the Lancaster Arms.” However, by following the Afon Honddu northwards along the B4423 from Llanfihangel Crucorney, we can find our way to Llanthony Abbey. Given the remarks of Giraldus Cambrensis above, this is perhaps a better place to start a historical walk. The Priory is directly below in the deep Vale of the Ewyas which, as the twelfth-century itinerant Giraldus described it, is about an arrow shot broad. The priory he found, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, not unhandsomely constructed. It is, in fact, well worth the detour, either along the ‘B’ road or coming down from the Loxidge Tump from the Dyke Path (see maps below).

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You come to the priory ruins in a beautiful setting of meadows and groves of chestnuts. It is said that St David settled at Llanthony during his travels through Wales in the sixth century, establishing the llan (church). It is unlikely that he stayed long, but Llanthony’s special claim to fame is that he supposedly ate the leeks here that were to become the Welsh badge during the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ Wars with France. The priory was founded in 1107 by the powerful marcher lord William de Lacy at the place where, while on a deer hunt, he is said to have forsaken ambition and decided to devote his life to the service of God. As a result of Welsh raids on the Augustinians whom they no doubt considered to be the Roman Church’s supporters of the Norman incursion, the monks sought refuge with the Bishop of Hereford, only a few of them returning to the priory. From 1300, with Edward I’s conquest, the priory flourished once more, and at some point housed the largest single body of medieval Welsh ecclesiastical manuscripts, but by 1376 it was in a poor state of repair. Owain Glyndwr burnt it down around 1400; by 1481 only four canons and a prior remained, and its end came with its Dissolution by Henry VIII.

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In 1807 the estate was bought by the poet Walter Savage Landor (right) for twenty thousand pounds. From a wealthy Whig family, he held estates at Rugeley in Staffordshire and Bishop’s Tatchbrook in Warwickshire, but had been looking for a more secluded country property in which to write, and settled on Llanthony. The previous owner had erected some buildings in the ruins of the ancient abbey, but an Act of Parliament, passed in 1809, was needed to allow Landor to pull down these buildings and construct a house, (which he never finished). He wanted to become a model country gentleman, planting trees, importing sheep from Spain, and improving the roads. The Victorian diarist Kilvert wrote of his varied experiences of coming down the valley to the Abbey:

Under the cloudless blue and glorious sunshine the Abbey looked happy and peaceful. … How different from the first day that I pilgrimaged down the Vale of Ewyas under a gloomy sky, the heavy mist wreathing along the hillsides cowling the mountain tops. 

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There is still an avenue of trees in the area known as “Landor’s Larches” and many old chestnuts have been dated back to his time. But though he had literally fallen in love with Welsh people as a young man in Tenby and Swansea, where he lived for a time, he quarrelled with local people and the Bishop of St David’s, also finding the Black Mountains to have an “ungenial clime”. He left the estate in the hands of trustees and moved to Italy with his wife, whom he had met and married in Bath while living at Llanthony. They had returned to live in Llanthony. The remains of Landor’s house lie at Siarpal in the ‘cwm’ above the priory formed by the Hatterall Ridge and the Loxidge Tump. Together with the tower of the priory, they form what is now the Llanthony Abbey Hotel. The main surviving buildings of the priory are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh ‘keeper’ of historic monuments. Entrance is free.

It’s a pretty steep climb up the cwm to the ridge and the tump where the path can be regained, so the four-mile trek up the valley road to Capel-y-ffin seems more inviting, particularly as it’s rewarded by another monastery, founded in 1870 by the Rev. J. L. Lyne (Father Ignatius) for the Benedictines, in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce monasticism into the Anglican Church.

Soon after his death in 1908 the community ceased to exist, and the church became ruined. In the 1920s, though, the artist Eric Gill lived at the monastery for four years, and the house remained in his family after he returned to London. Besides the Catholic church are an Anglican chapel and a Baptist chapel. Capel-y-ffin means ‘chapel on the border’.  Just over a mile further on towards the Gospel Pass is the Youth Hostel.

The road goes on through the pass between ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ and ‘Hay Bluff’, where it eventually joins the Dyke path for the descent into Hay-on-Wye, avoiding the steep section on the road. This is where you are likely to see the Welsh mountain ponies.  Following the path itself from Black Daren northwards brings you very gradually to towards the unmarked summit of the ridge, and of the path, at 2,306 feet, on a broad and bleak nameless plateau of peat.

The surrounding landscape becomes wild and remote, a place to avoid in mist and rain. The Welsh have a saying, mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffin, meaning “it’s raining old ladies and sticks” (“cats and dogs” in English, of course!) Although “ffin” could mean “boundary” as suggested above, it might also mean “sticks” and there is a legend tell of the Old Lady of the Black Mountains, who is said to appear at night or in mist with a pot and/or wooden cane in her hand and who, going before wayfarers, will cause them to lose their way.

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A friendlier spectre, said to appear to travellers lost in the mountains between Llanthony and Longtown, is of a man who will guide them to the nearest road before disappearing. Best take the road in the first place, I say, with its beautiful views along the Ewyas Valley (above). At Pen y Beacon (or Hay Bluff), which is bypassed by the official path, we come to the to the steep north-west facing scarp of the Black Mountains, high above the middle Wye Valley. The way-marked alternative path to the beacon itself was described by the Victorian diarist Kilvert, and has apparently changed little over the last century and a half:

Soon we were at the top, which was covered with peat bog and black and yellow coarse rushy grass and reed. Here and there were pools and holes filled with black peat waters. … The mountains were very silent and desolate. No human being in sight, not a tree. 

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On the high and windswept bluff, on the very cornice of the range, a wide-sweeping countryside stretches away almost to the limits of vision. Beyond the Wye, hidden from view, where the Dyke path continues its journey, the Silurian hills of Radnorshire rise to grassy tops or to open hill common. In the distance are the outlines of Mynydd Eppynt, and the Radnor Forest. Dropping down over the cornice of Brownstones you aim between two deep gullies to join the Gospel Pass road on its way from the Honddu Valley. The path leads past the prehistoric burial mound at Twyn y Beddau and along the side of Cusop Dingle, on a steady descent into Hay. In a triangle bounded on two sides by main roads, Hay forms a compact and sleepy town, except when the International Book Festival is in town, in May.

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In the town, there are the remains of two castles, both Norman. The mound of the earlier motte and bailey, built around 1100 by William de Braose, is beyond the medieval core of the town, near St Mary’s Church. Legend has it that the castle was in fact built, not by William, but by his wife, Maud de St Valerie (‘Moll Walbee’). She is said to have built it in one night, carrying the stones in her apron. A pebble that dropped into her shoe is reputed to have been thrown into Llowes churchyard, three miles away. The ‘pebble’ measures nine feet in length and a foot in thickness! The later castle seems to have been destroyed by King John in 1215, the year that he signed the Magna Carta. It was rebuilt and then burnt by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1231, though it was apparently still in use when Henry III rebuilt it about two years later. In 1236, the town walls were built, and by 1298 a compact town had grown within them. The castle was captured and changed hands several times in the succeeding decades so that John Leland in the sixteenth century found Hay to show…

… the token of a right strong Waulle having in it three Gates and a Posterne. Ther is also a Castel the which sumtime hath bene right stately.

The seventeenth-century Jacobean castle incorporated into it was owned in the 1980s by R. Booth, who ran a remarkable second-hand book business in the town. Apart from the castle itself, where rarer books were kept, many shops and other buildings have become bookshops. The collection is claimed to be the largest collection in the world, and it is well worth setting aside time to explore the bookshops. It is this recent remarkable piece of social history which has given rise to the book festival and Hay’s unofficial title as ‘the book capital of the world’. As a postgraduate student in Cardiff, I well remember organising a minibus trip to Hay and returning with a number of books which were out of publication, dating back to the early twentieth century, the period I was researching.

North of Hay, the Dyke crisscrosses the border into Herefordshire, before reaching the lowlands of Montgomeryshire. This is the ancient territory of the kingdom of Powys known as Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (‘between Wye and Severn’). Although Mercian influences were strong along this part of the Border, this is essentially a countryside of dispersed habitation in the Welsh tradition. Much of the walk is through some of the quietest and most beautiful, undulating country along the Border. Leaving Hay en route for Knighton you cross over the Wye into Kilvert country, where the wayfaring diarist we met at Lanthony Priory and atop the Black Mountains, Francis Kilvert, was curate of the parish of Clyro from 1865-72 and where, in 1870, he began his diary, describing vividly both the way of life in the area and much of the surrounding countryside. As it is only a mile along the road, but is not on the Dyke Path, it seems sensible to include the short walk to Newchurch as part of a sojourn in Hay. That is where I plan to end my journey this year.

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For some of its course, the Dyke marks local government boundaries, or more locally the boundaries to farmsteads, like Pen Offa near Chirk, where I hope to get to next year. But while, for the most part, the political boundary between England and Wales no longer follows it, and there are many gaps in the great earthwork itself (mostly due to modern development), the Dyke retains its place in the imagination as the symbolic frontier. It represents a natural if man-made division between upland and lowland peoples, as the only visible and historic structure which corresponds both to the imagination of those peoples, and to the fundamental reality of that division.

Sources:

Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers, Lords of the March. Hereford: Logaston Press.

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, John Morrill, et.al., (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

George Taylor & J. A. Morris (1939), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe, 1485-1783. London: Harrap.

John B. Jones (1976, ’80), Offa’s Dyke Path (Long-Distance Footpath Guide No 4). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (Prepared for the Countryside Commission). 

 

 

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

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

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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.

 

026

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.

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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.

The Legacy of Tudor and Jacobean England: Part Two: Poets, Ports and Puritans.   Leave a comment

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Above: pages from Spot the Style: A Mini Guide to architecture in Britain, by David Pearce. London: P Murray.

Below: Seckford Street in Woodbridge, Suffolk, named after the Tudor lawyer, parliamentarian and benefactor. In 1587 he decided to donate a large measure of his wealth to endowing ‘certain almshouses’ in the town. He died the same year, and his tomb can be seen in St.Mary’s Parish Church.

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Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Languages of Anglicanism and Puritanism; East Anglia and New England

017As Anglicanism became established, parish churches continued to hear the celebration of the eucharist (holy communion) in the form set out in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and readings from the translations of the Bible later consolidated in the Authorised Version of 1612. The repetition of prayers and readings, noble in expression, brought linguistic unity to England. The adoption by the Scottish Kirk of English translations of the Bible may have thwarted the separate development of Lallans (lowland Scots) and a different cultural tradition, which made the transition to the unity of the kingdoms much easier. Those devising the new services had a long tradition of devotional literature to draw on. Tyndale and Cranmer had a language ready for expression and translation of the complex Judaeo-Christian tradition  in new forms. This was due to the creation of English as a language of intellect and the higher emotions by authors of vernacular works by poets and writers who drew their themes and inspirations from shrines, pilgrimages, visions and the telling of legends of saints and Arthurian heroes.

Some of those writers were women, such as the turbulent visionary Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography in English, and the gentle, reclusive Julian of Norwich. The poets and writers included, most notably, Geoffrey Chaucer, who set his greatest poem in the framework of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. William Langland’s Piers Ploughman arose from a vision on the Malvern Hills. Thomas Malory gave new life to the common British tradition in his Morte D’Arthur. The holy place that most fully commemorates the English literary tradition is Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where the names of those buried among kings and knights make it a resting place of genius unrivalled in Europe. The only name missing is that of England’s national bard, William Shakespeare, but it is perhaps appropriate that he lies by the altar of his parish church, Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was also baptised and grew up listening to the language of Cranmer’s English Bible and Prayer Book.

 

003Looking back on the achievements of Elizabeth’s reign, historians have referred to it as an age, one in which England survived national and international crises to be recognised as a centre of artistic splendour. During her reign and that of James I, a total period of seventy years, or one full lifespan, the English language achieved a richness and vitality of expression that even contemporaries marvelled at. However, contemporaries at the beginning of this period had recognised that their native tongue was barely ready, after centuries of Latin and French dominance, for serious literary and scholarly purposes. England, not even yet united with the Tudor homeland of Wales, was a small nation, just beginning to flex its international muscles. Its statesmen tended to indulge in hyperbole, like the poet, courtier and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney, who claimed that English hath it equally with any other tongue in the world. It was the confluence of three historical developments, at least two of which were common to much of Europe, and occurred earlier in many countries, the Renaissance and the Reformation, which really propelled England forward during these years. The third, most dynamic factor, was its emergence as the leading maritime power.

 

The Renaissance had different effects in each European country. In England it had coincided with a communications revolution following Caxton’s setting up of his printing press at Westminster. This revolution has only recently been surpassed by the present age of computer and internet technology. The printing press transformed society. Before 1500 there were only about thirty-five thousand printed books in Europe as a whole, mostly in Latin. Between 1500 and 1640, some twenty thousand items were printed in English alone, ranging from pamphlets and broadsheets to folios and Bibles. The result was to accelerate the education of the middling sort and even some of the lower orders of society, so that by 1600, it has been estimated, as much as half the population had some kind of minimal literacy, and a much higher proportion in the cities and towns. In a growing free market in the printed word, the demand for books in English outstripped the demand for the old classical media of the universities, and booksellers and printers were keen to meet this new market. Lexicographers were keen to introduce new words, like maturity, from Latin, as part of the necessary augmentation of our language.

001English could not escape the influence of the classical languages in the age of the Renaissance, as the revival of learning produced a new group of scholar-writers from Thomas More to Francis Bacon who devoted themselves to the cultivation of style in Latin. Although they wrote their scholarly works in Latin, when they wrote their letters in English, they embellished their prose with Latinate words. They ransacked the classical past for words like agile, capsule, absurdity, contradictory, exaggerate, indifference (Latin) and monopoly, paradox, catastrophe, lexicon, thermometer (Greek). The scientific revolution of the time also prompted new borrowings, such as atmosphere, pneumonia, skeleton. An encyclopedia would now be required to explain the idea of gravity. Vesalius’ transformation of anatomy meant that English would need descriptions like excrement and strenuous. In physics, the work of scientists like William Gilbert were introducing words such as external and chronology. There were also further borrowings from French, like bigot and detail. Besides some specific architectural words from Italian, and some bellicose Spanish words, there were also important nautical words from the Low Countries like smuggler and reef. Sailors also brought Low Dutch into English at this time, words which are sometimes falsely attributed to the Anglo-Saxons, like fokkinge, kunte and bugger.  These words are not what we would normally associate with the Renaissance, but they form part of the same desire to make English a communicative, everyday language with a broad vocabulary. Altogether, the Renaissance added as many as twelve thousand words to the English lexicon.

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These innovations and inventions were typical of the kind of adventurousness we associate with the Elizabethans, especially in their brave explorations of the New World. Francis Drake traveled well beyond the bounds of Christendom, circumnavigating the globe, plundering Spanish ships in the Caribbean and exploring the Americas. It was the guidance and inspiration of Drake’s fellow Devonian, Sir Walter Ralegh (pronounced Rawley), which led to the first English-speaking communities in North America. A lesser-known adventurer was Thomas Cavendish of Trimley St Martin in Suffolk. He was one of the many sea dogs who served Queen Bess and his own pocket by harassing Spanish shipping and settlements in the Americas. In 1586 he decided to emulate Drake’s great exploit of sailing around the globe. Setting out with three ships, he completed the incredible journey in a little over two years. In 1591 he set out to repeat the venture in order to open up commercial relations with the Orient, but was worn down by storms and disease, dying off the coast of Brazil, where he was buried at sea.

 

The story of what was to become the first North American settlement starts in the late 1570s when Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under charter from Elizabeth, claimed Newfoundland for England. (One of his fellow explorers was a Hungarian, about whom I have written elsewhere.) Heading South, Gilbert was then drowned in a storm with the famous last words, We are as neer to heaven by sea as by land. Sir Walter Ralegh then took up the cause of founding a new colony, temporarily establishing the Cittie of Ralegh in Virginea, on today’s coast of North Carolina. The story of The Lost Colony, as it became known, exemplifies the adventurous mariners of the Elizabethan era, but also shows how hazardous and difficult the settlement of the New World was. Ralegh, now out of favour with the Crown, continued to express his undying faith in an English empire overseas. With hindsight, the colonisation of the new huge land-mass of North America by English-speaking settlers seems inevitable and Ralegh’s boast to Sir Robert Cecil in 1602, that he would yet live to see it an English Nation might not seem so idle, had he been allowed to live on. However, at the time neither Ralegh nor the prospective settlers could envisage what they were taking on, let alone confront the harsh realities of the new frontier on the other side of the ocean. In the meantime, raiding and trading was continuing to prove far more lucrative. 

In contrast to the internationalism of scholarship and commerce,  Tudor politics – the Reformation and its creation of a distinctly English Church, emphasised the age-old desire of the English, and to a lesser extent the Welsh and the Scots, to establish their independence from French and other continental influences. The breach with Rome, followed by the almost continual wars with France and Spain, the superpowers of the age, culminating in the defeat of the Armada, with the small island nation beating off the huge invasion fleet of a transatlantic Empire, was matched by the declaration to Parliament of an independent-minded Queen:

 I thank God I am endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom. 

002In reality, the threat of 1588 failed to strike much of a patriotic fire in the coastal towns of Suffolk. The decayed coastal defenses had to be rapidly repaired and when the eastern ports were required to provide a quota of ships for the royal fleet they all pleaded poverty. The Spanish wars had already caused them severe loss of trade, they argued, and they could only afford a fraction of the ships needed. When the time came for the county levies to assemble before their Queen at Tilbury, the men of Suffolk had to be cajoled once more, for they were reluctant to leave their farms at harvest time and even more reluctant to leave their county. In the event, they were not really needed, as Drake’s fireships scattered the heavy Spanish galleons, laden down with heavy cannon and balls which disintegrated on impact, and God’s wind did the rest.

The long war with Spain disrupted the cloth trade with the Spanish Netherlands, an important cause of its decline, or rather of transition, with old draperies giving way to new ones. The old system had been badly hit not just by wars and market changes, but by the introduction of new techniques and the growth of monopolies. The planting of European colonies in Africa and the Americas provided new and often captive markets for the goods of the Old World, but the requirements of these new consumers were not the same as those of England’s old trading partners. The inhabitants of tropical and sub-tropical lands did not want to drape themselves in heavy Suffolk broadcloth. The county’s clothiers could probably have risen to this challenge as they had to previous market changes, but powerful mercantile groups saw regional specialisation as the solution to the problems.

Fulling could be carried out more efficiently and cheaply in counties like Yorkshire with its abundant supply of fast-flowing tributaries running off the Pennine moors into its great, navigable rivers, flowing into the North Sea. Within a few years, Suffolk’s small-scale yet integral fulling industry dwindled and many craftsmen had to take to the Great North Road to find work.

DSC09762Growing control over the East Anglian industry was being exercised by London merchants, most of whom belonged to trading companies which had official or unofficial monopolies in large trading areas overseas. These merchants could therefore combine to outbid the local clothiers for yarn and to pay more for unfinished cloth than the exporters of Ipswich and Colchester. Suffolk clothiers who tried to break these monopolies were frequently prosecuted through a growing volume of legislation. The erosion of free trade by sharp mercantile practices led to prohibitions and restraints of trade which, in 1588, left the merchants of Ipswich unable to transport Suffolk cloths even to the continent, and especially to Spain. By the second decade of the seventeenth century, this stranglehold on trade had left the cloth industry in Suffolk extremely exposed to the sharp practices of some unscrupulous London merchants. In 1619, one Gerrard Reade refused settle payment with eighty Suffolk clothiers for the cloths he had already sold for twenty thousand pounds. The Suffolk magistrates complained that the work of at least five thousand weavers was at stake. The clothiers did not have the funds to pay them, having not been paid themselves for the cloth, and were they to be thrown on the parish for relief, there would not be enough funds to relieve them.

DSC09679The Elizabethan Poor Law, which reached its final form in 1601, made the parishes responsible for all their inhabitants unable to care for themselves. Throughout the country the number of those in need of relief rose and the poor rate with it. The magistrates heard frequent pleas for leniency from overseers and churchwardens who simply could not collect the necessary money. Three years later the same justices reported to the Privy Council that bankruptcies were continuing among the Suffolk clothiers, unable to sell the 4,453 broadcloths they had left on their hands, distributed across twenty different towns, worth more than thirty-nine thousand pounds. Poor houses and alms houses were built in many places, including inside the castle walls in Framlingham (pictured left)

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The clothiers reacted to these pressures by banding together themselves into local organisations capable of resisting them. A company of cloth-workers was formed at Ipswich in 1590, with the avowed intention that the said mysteries and sciences may be better ordered, the town better maintained, and the country near about it more preferred… A similar trade organisation was formed at Bury in 1607. However, they failed in protecting local trade from the tycoons in London. What they did achieve was to help the clothiers to restrict the wages and impose strict conditions upon the craftsmen who worked for them and who were already experiencing severe hardship. They also tried to restrict to check the import of new, lightweight cloths from the Low Countries, but the Flemish weavers were producing a fabric which, while warm, was easier to work and lighter to wear, and whose popularity was therefore irresistible. Many Suffolk craftsmen, especially the persecuted puritans among them, decided to practice both their trade and their religion in the Netherlands, before some later emigrated with the Pilgrim Fathers to New England. At the same time, some cloth-makers had been copying the skills of earlier Flemish immigrants, turning their attention to spinning yarn and weaving new draperies. These new cloths included fustian, bay, say and stuff. The Suffolk centre for these was Sudbury, but the kembing (spinning) of yarn was more widespread. At first the spinners were independent and made their own arrangements for selling the yarn in London or Norwich, but before long merecantile capitalists took over the organisation of the industry.

DSC09865In Tudor times, fishing, shipbuilding and coastal trade continued to be thriving activities along the coasts and estuaries. Two hundred or more ships out of ports of Lowestoft, Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich, Aldeborough and Orford plied the North Sea herring grounds and Icelandic cod fields throughout most of the sixteenth century. In 1572 these ports, together with Ipswich and Woodbridge owned 146 coastal trade vessels, carrying cloth, oil, flax, hemp and wine across the Narrow Seas and plied along the coast with timber, fuller’s earth, hides and Newcastle coal. The growth of maritime enterprise in these times brought prosperity to the shipyards of Ipswich and Woodbridge. Ipswich was the principal supplier of large merchant ships to London, and thousands of Suffolk oaks went into a succession of fine vessels.

Woodbridge was always a close rival to its neighbouring port but Ipswich added to its prosperity by producing the cordage and sail canvas. By the turn of the century business was booming and a succession of fine ships were laid down, including the 320-ton Matthew in 1598.

However, coastal erosion posed a continual threat to the east coast ports, in particular, Dunwich. In 1573, The Queen’s majesty’s town was by the rages and surges of the sea, daily washed and devoured. The haven was so badly silted that no ships or boats could get either in or out, to the utter decay of the said town. Year after year more houses, churches and sometimes whole streets simply vanished. The inhabitants lacked the technical skill and resources necessary to construct sea defenses and, despite desperate pleas for help, there was none forthcoming from the government. Southwold was also fast silting up by 1620 and fishermen could no longer rely on access to the harbour at Walberswick. These ports were also plagued by piracy, which had become particularly virulent in the North Sea from the late sixteenth century. Operating out of Dunkirk, Ostend, Sluys and Nieuport, the privateers caused havoc to coastal and international shipping. In 1596 a small fleet of Dunkirkers blockaded Harwich and in 1602 east coast merchants were forced to adopt a convoy system. In 1619 a national subscription was raised to relieve the people of Dunwich, Southwold and Walberswick whose misfortunes were, in part, blamed on pirates. In 1626 a Dunkirk privateer sailed into Sole Bay at Southwold with guns blazing. While the townsfolk fled from the harbour the pirates cut out a merchant ship and made off with her. Between 1625 and 1627 no less than thirteen Aldeburgh ships of a total value of 6,800 pounds were lost to pirates.

DSC09763Despite these problems, many Suffolkers were as proud of their mother-tongue, in all its vernacular plainness, as they were of defying the pope and denying the might of Spain access to their island’s shores.  Some writers such as Ben Johnson and even Shakespeare himself wanted to defend the language against the incursions of Latinate terms, calling them inkhorn terms and showing a preference for plainnesse. When Berowne finally declares his love for Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, he announces that he will shun taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, and instead express his wooing mind … in russet yeas and honest kersey noes.

The combination of these twin traditions, homespun and continental, led to the emergence of a language, to quote Logan Pearsall Smith of unsurpassed richness and beauty, which, however, defies all the rules. Almost any word could be used in any pat of speech, adverbs could be used for verbs, nouns for adjectives, and nouns and adjectives could take the place of verbs and adverbs. In Elizabethan English, you could happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. Shakespeare himself wrote of how he could out-Herod Herod, ask that ye uncle me no uncle and describe how she might tongue me.

When Shakespeare moved to London, he would have encountered the speech of the court, which was sufficently different from the standard speech of a market town like Stratford for a sharp-eared contemporary to note what he called a true kynde of pronunciation (what, today, we would call received pronunciation). We find some clues as to how this might have sounded in Shakespeare’s own plays, where he puns with minimal pairs like raising and reason, which would then have sounded much more like its French original, raison. Similarly, in All’s Well that Ends Well, a lot of the humour is conveyed in language rather than action, based on exchanges of puns as with the words grace and grass, much more similar among the courtiers then than they are now. Shakespeare would also rhyme tea with tay, and sea with say. Elizabethan English would have sounded much more like the English of Banburyshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire to twentieth-century ears than that of East Anglia, London and the South-East.

008However, it was the English of London and East Anglia which was first to take hold in Massachussets, the language of the rigorous Puritan mind. The text owed much to earlier translations, especially that of Tyndale, but also to the scholarship of John Bois in ensuring the faithfulness of the overall text to the original Hebrew and Greek. He was born in 1560 and grew up East Anglia, reading the Hebrew Bible at the age of six, and becoming a classics scholar at St John’s College at fourteen. He passed through the examinations at record speed, and soon became a Fellow of the College. When this expired he was given a rectorship at Boxworth, an isolated hamlet a few miles north of Cambridge, on condition that he married the deceased rector’s daughter. This he did, moving into the Fens, but still rising at four o’clock to ride into Cambridge to teach, reading a book on horseback. Bois continued  to live quietly in Boxworth, a man with a brilliant scholarly reputation. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, called by James I to discuss matters of religion, Dr John Reynolds of Oxford proposed a definitive translation of the Bible to ameliorate the developing friction between Anglicans and Puritans. The rex pacificus gladly assented to the idea of one uniforme translation, though he doubted whether he would see a Bible well translated in English.

By June 1604 it was settled that there would be six groups of translators, two in Westminster, two in Oxford and two in Cambridge, each made up of eight scholars. John Bois was recruited for one of the Cambridge committees, and he was put in charge of translating the Apocrypha from the Greek, but his level of scholarship soon made him indispensable to other committees. The six committees were instructed to base their Version upon the previous English versions, translating afresh, but also comparing their work with that of the previous translators, from Tyndale to Parker. At the end of six years, the six committees delivered their texts to Westminster for a final review by two scholars from each centre. John Bois went from Cambridge, together with his old tutor, Dr Anthony Downes. For the next nine months in 1610, the six scholars worked together on the final draft of the AV, refining and revising the texts. Their brief was to re-work the text not just in order to make it read well, but also sound better when read out loud. In their Preface to the finished text, the translators commented interestingly on this process, addressing their remarks to The Reader.

During these nine months, Bois kept a diary containing notes on the revisions which still survive, and through which we can see how the six translators honed the text to near perfection. In the First Epistle of Peter, chapter two, verse three, the key word is pleasant. Bois had several choices from previos versions; pleasaunt  (Tyndale), gracious (Great Bible), bountifull (Geneva), gracious (Bishop’s), sweete (Rheims), …if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious… (KJV), …how gracious the Lord is… (Bois’ revision). Not only does he make the right choice with the word gracious (pleasant would sound like nice in today’s English, and have roughly the same far too general and everyday meaning), but by inserting the adjective before the proper noun, Lord, he also makes the sentence sing (compare it with the great hymn, How great Thou art.) If we also compare the King James’ Version with Henry VIII’s Great Bible in the translation from the Hebrew, we can also detect the work of a brilliant linguistic and literary scholar. In chapter twelve of Ecclesiastes, the preacher says:

Or ever the silver lace be taken away, or the gold band be broke, or the pot broke at the well and the wheel upon the cistern, then shall the dust be turned again unto earth from whence it came, and the spirit shall return to God which gave it. All is but vanity saith the preacher, all is but plain vanity. (Great Bible).

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. (KJV).

005The King James Version at once reads more clearly and sounds more poetic. It is an irony of the process by which the final text was created that only the king himself is credited with its creation. The version he only had to authorise came from the hard work of a scholarly committee, rather than a single writer. Compared with Tyndale and Cranmer, Bois is now almost forgotten. He returned to the Fens, where in 1628 the Bishop of Ely offered him a canonry at the cathedral, in which position he remained for the rest of his life, being buried in the cathedral in 1643.

The King James Bible was published in the same year as Shakespeare produced his last play, The Tempest, in 1611. Both the play and the Bible are masterpieces, but there is one crucial difference between them. While the playwright used more words than ever, inventing new ones as he wrote, the King James Version employed a mere eight thousand words, God’s English for Everyman. The people for whom the new, simplified yet poetic text became a weapon saw themselves as God’s Englishmen and Englishwomen. They became known to others as Puritans. Their heartland was East Anglia, birthplace of John Bunyan and Oliver Cromwell. Besides these very English revolutionaries, about two-thirds of the early settlers of Massachusetts Bay came from the eastern counties, from Lincolnshire in the north to Essex in the south, from Suffolk and Norfolk in the east to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire in the west.

007Throughout the seventeenth century, the villages and towns of these counties supplied the New World with a ready and steady stream of immigrants, country people with country skills who were already well adapted for the hard life of the pioneer. The speech-features of East Anglia that were transplanted to the place the Pilgrim Fathers named New England are still to be heard in the rural parts of Norfolk and Suffolk. People there still say noo instead of new and don’t sound the r in words like bar, storm and yard, very different from the burr of western English counties from rural Oxfordshire and Worcestershire down to Dorset and Devon.

009Many, perhaps most, were Puritan dissenters, or separatists, who would not conform with the liturgy and practices of the Church of England, and their story became the story of American English. Their motives were a tangle of idealistic, colonising, self-interested and religious ambitions. The Pilgrim Fathers went to escape, in the words of Andrew Marvell, the Prelate’s Rage. They were also escaping from a monarch of Great Britain who hated both Scottish Presbyterians and English Independents among his subjects, vowing to harry them out of the land. Their impulse to migrate was both profoundly conservative and revolutionary in religious terms. They hoped to find an austere wilderness where they could establish an authentically English Christian community. They were not abandoning their East Anglian identity, but rather purifying and transplanting it. They did not see themselves as creating a new country, America, but recreating the old country, free from what they felt were the papist poisons prevalent in the national church. When the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on 16 September 1620, the largest group on board came from East Anglia, but they represented thirty different communities from all over England. These can still be seen in the place-names of New England… Boston, Bedford, Braintree, Cambridge, Lincoln and Yarmouth. By the middle of the seventeenth century, there were some already a quarter of a million colonists on the North-Eastern seaboard of North America, mainly from London and the eastern counties.      

Today, it is claimed that over 360 million people speak English as their mother-tongue, many of these with a recent history in North America. However, their heritage as English-speaking peoples goes back for a millenium and a half. The role of churches and holy places in the creation of the language and literature, and therefore in its creation as a worldwide language, whether first, second, or as a foreign tongue, means that they form part of a much greater heritage. From the religious strife that followed the breach with Rome there remain many holy places, but they are sectarian in nature, such as the sites of the burning of the Protestant martyrs at Smithfield, Oxford, Canterbury and Hadleigh, or the hanging, drawing and quartering of the Catholic martyrs at Tyburn and the site of the beheading of Sir Thomas More in the Tower of London. There was, however, a wider spirit at work to reconcile these differences. The spirit in which the King James Version of the Bible was consolidated from earlier translations, mostly based on Tyndale, in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, in a conscious effort to appeal to as wide a cross-section of beliefs as possible. The spirit of toleration in forgiveness and reconciliation which informs the last plays of Shakespeare, before he went back to rest in his parish church in Stratford. Perhaps Prospero’s speech from The Tempest (c 1611), often thought to be Shakespeare’s own valedictory speech, can be seen as the supreme antidote to the speech of the dying John of Gaunt in one of his earlier plays, Richard II (c 1595):

 

005This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,…
 

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,

 Like to a tenement or pelting farm: (2.1.3) 

 Prospero, in The Tempest:

 And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i. 148158)

 

By the time The Tempest was written, England had been given a renewed identity by the first Elizabethan age, and, though the Essex Rebellion, late in 1601 and the Midland Rebellion of the Catholic gentry of 1605 threatened to disrupt this new vision, it became a vision of Great Britain. Under the dual monarchy of the Stuart kings, this was to become more than simply a geographical entity, Grande Bretagne as opposed to little Brittany, but a vision of an island and an independent people chosen by God for great deeds and heroic achievements. The expression of this is found not only in Shakespeare, but also in Spenser’s mythical history of Britain in The Fairie Queen and in the great antiquarian work, Camden’s Britannia. History, or rather national mythology, was to become a potent political force in the seventeenth century, with the myth of the Norman Yoke and the legends of Robin Hood finding their usage among counter-cultural nonconformists.

Legacy of the Tudors: The Island Myth in Word and Image

A later visionary portrayal of the unity of Britain appears in Blake’s prophetic poems, in which he sees the dawning of a new form of consciousness when sleeping Albion, the spiritual essence of Britain, will awake with the light of the Divine imagination and be joined to his female emanation, Jerusalem, a holy shrine re-built in England’s green and pleasant land. In one of the versions of the Glastonbury legends preserved among Cornish and Somerset miners, on which Blake based his poem, Jerusalem, now England’s alternative national anthem, Joseph of Arimathea had visited Avalon, Ynys yr Afal (Apple Island in the Cymric), bringing with him the young Jesus of Nazareth who, as a trained carpenter, built a shrine made of wattle and daub, dedicating it to his mother.  Even the coronation oath of both Elizabeth I and II refers back to the mythology of a Christianity dating back to the time of Joseph’s second visit, sent by the Apostle Philip in 63 A.D. with a band of missionaries, to establish the Christian faith in Britain. As the last Welsh-speaking monarch, Elizabeth, like the first,  her grandfather, was not averse to using popular British legends as propaganda, to point out to a Papacy about to excommunicate her that she owed her title as Defender of the Faith not to the Bishop of Rome, nor even to St Augustine, but to the ancient British saints and rulers who went into battle with pagans, like Arthur, carrying crosses and pictures of the Virgin Mary, as well as their dragon emblems. After Blake, the legends were again reinterpreted in the Gothic and Celtic revivals of the Victorian period, inspiring both Anglo-Catholics and Pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones, who created so much of the stained glass for churches built in this period.

 004Any traces which may have remained of this most ancient shrine to Mary were destroyed by a great fire in 1181. All that survives to claim credence for the legend is The Glastonbury Thorn, marking the place called Wearyall, a hill on which Joseph thrust his hawthorn staff into the ground and it immediately burst into blossom, though it was winter. It still blooms around Christmas-time. The branch is on one of the several trees descending from the one, thought to be the original, which was cut down at the Dissolution. Originally surrounded by marsh and water, the four-hundred-foot Tor (which means rocky outcrop in the Cymric), with its fifteenth-century tower of the ruined St Michael’s Church, the site of the abbey and the town to its west, all formed an island until the Somerset levels were drained in Stuart times. The association of this island with Arthur’s resting place received a great boost when, a decade after the great fire, a monk apparently discovered the coffin of Arthur and Guenevere.

 The resulting flood of pilgrims must have helped to fund the abbey’s rebuilding, by the thirteenth century, but this early tourist industry was also what led to its ultimate destruction. Nevertheless, few of the ruins of the Dissolution bring about such a pang in the visitor as those of Glastonbury, whether because of the destruction of a great architectural work of an abbey rebuilt in the Transitional and Early English styles, or because of the psychological damage done to both England and to the British Isles as a whole by the sudden and violent denial of a contemplative tradition in the expulsion of the monks.

Excavations have shown traces of the original British monastic settlement, first recorded as existing in 658, and there are strong traditions that St Patrick, St Brigid and St David all visited the monastery. Re-founded by King Ine of Wessex in the eighth century, ravaged by Danes in the ninth, the abbey began its great period in 940 under Abbot Dunstan, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. We know, from the chroniclers, that some of the Kings of Wessex were buried there, including Edmund Ironside, in 1016, but there no Anglo-Saxon remains have yet been discovered.

003Ascending to the summit of the Tor, the modern-day pilgrim stands on the place where in 1539 Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, was executed as a traitor on Henry VIII’s command. After the death of the previous abbot in February 1525, the community elected his successor per formam compromissi, which elevates the selection to a higher ranking personage, in this case Cardinal Wolsey, who obtained King Henry’s permission to act and chose Richard Whiting. The first ten years of Whiting’s rule were prosperous and peaceful. He was a sober and caring spiritual leader and a good manager of the abbey’s day-to-day life. Contemporary accounts show that Whiting was held in very high esteem.The abbey over which Whiting presided was one of the richest and most influential in England. Glastonbury Abbey was reviewed as having significant amounts of silver and gold as well as its attached lands. About one hundred monks lived in the enclosed monastery, where the sons of the nobility and gentry were educated before going on to university.

Whiting had signed his assent to the Act of Supremacy when it was first presented to him and his monks in 1534. Henry sent Richard Layton to examine Whiting and the other inhabitants of the abbey. He found all in good order, but suspended the abbot’s jurisdiction over the town. Small injunctions were given to him about the management of the abbey property.  Whiting was told a number of times over the years which followed that the abbey was safe from dissolution.

However, by January 1539, Glastonbury was the only monastery left in Somerset. Abbot Whiting refused to surrender the abbey, which did not fall under the Act for the suppression of the lesser houses. On 19 September of that year the royal commissioners, Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyle, arrived there without warning on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, presumably to find faults and thus facilitate the abbey’s closure. Whiting, by now feeble and advanced in years, was sent to the Tower of London so that Cromwell might examine him himself. The precise charge on which he was arrested, and subsequently executed, remains uncertain, though his case is usually referred to as one of treason. Cromwell’s manuscript Remembrances contains the following  entries:

Item, Certayn persons to be sent to the Tower for the further examenacyon of the Abbot, of Glaston… Item. The Abbot, of Glaston to (be) tryed at Glaston and also executyd there with his complycys… Item. Councillors to give evidence against the Abbot of Glaston, Rich. Pollard, Lewis Forstew (Forstell), Thos. Moyle.

 Marillac, the French Ambassador, wrote on 25 October that;

“The Abbot of Glastonbury. . . has lately, been put in the Tower, because, in taking the Abbey treasures, valued at 200,000 crowns, they found a written book of arguments in behalf of queen Katherine.” 

As a member of the House of Lords, Whiting should have been condemned of treason by an Act of Attainder, and beheaded, but his execution was an accomplished fact before Parliament met. Whiting was sent back to Glastonbury with Pollard and reached Wells on 14 November. There some sort of trial apparently took place, and he was convicted of robbing Glastonbury Church. The next day, Saturday, 15 November, he was taken to Glastonbury with two of his monks, John Thorn and Roger James, where all three were fastened upon hurdles and dragged by horses to the top of the Tor, overlooking the town. Here they were hung, drawn and quartered, with Whiting’s head being fastened over the west gate of the now deserted abbey and his limbs exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. His gruesome death at so peaceful a place was symbolic of how 1539-40, the year of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the dissolution of the great monasteries and the official publication of the Bible in English, marked the key point of transition to the development of a distinctively English form of Christianity, based on the word, rather than on the image.

 

Printed Sources:

See Part One 

 

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