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A Suffolk Market Town: Framlingham – a Graphical History Tour.   Leave a comment

 

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Location, Population & Administration:

Framlingham is located in SuffolkFramlingham is an English market town and civil parish in East (‘Coastal’) Suffolk (shown on the right). Of Anglo-Saxon origin, it is mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book. In the 1960s, Framlingham had a population of about 2,300 which had grown to 3,342 at the 2011 Census. Nearby villages include Earl Soham, Kettleburgh, Parham, Saxtead and Sweffling.

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In 2006, Country Life magazine voted Framlingham the best place to live in the country, despite having no rail connection. The Framlingham Branch line connected the town with the main Ipswich to Lowestoft railway at Wickham Market in the 1850s, eventually becoming part of the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862. The railway station building stands adjacent to the Station Hotel, but the line was closed to passenger traffic in the 1950s and to goods in the 1960s. The nearest working stations are now at Wickham Market and Saxmundham, on the East Suffolk line, seven and eight miles away. The town is in the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency of the UK Parliament and the East England constituency of the European Union (at least until 31 October 2019). It is eighty-eight miles from London, nineteen from Ipswich, eleven from Woodbridge and thirty-two from Bury St. Edmunds. The main parish church is ‘St. Michael the Archangel’ and the parish stretches north-east to Brundish with a total ward population of 4,744.

Below: The Road Network around Framlingham today

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The name ‘Framlingham’ is probably derived from the Saxon ‘Freynlingham’ meaning ‘Settlement of the Strangers’, referring to the Danes, but it could also be simply named after the river flowing through the town, formerly called the ‘Fromus’, but now known as the ‘Ore’ which has its outlet on the Suffolk Coast, some twenty miles away. Below Marlesford the river unites with the Alde and the combined stream flows past Aldeburgh and then Orford on its way to the sea. It is a matter for speculation as to just how the town grew but it seems fairly safe to conclude that as long as the castle was a place requiring defence no house would be allowed to be built where it would be an advantage to an attacker. However, since St. Michael’s Church was, it seems, in existence from early times and it would afford a sheltered area to the south and west and geographically ‘over the hill’ from the castle. Archaeological investigations in the 1950s have exposed where most of the older buildings lie. There is also little doubt that the dismantling of the interior of the castle in the early seventeenth century gave a great impetus to building in the town. Some of the beams now in houses in Southwold are said to have come from Framlingham Castle.

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The medieval castle is a major feature of the town, recently honoured by the singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran in his song, ‘Castle on the Hill’. Like his fellow-singer, Laura Wright, Sheeran went to the local comprehensive, ‘Thomas Mills High School’, which began life as a special school for girls on Fairfield Road called the ‘Mills Grammar School for Girls’. There is also an independent school, ‘Framlingham College’ which was built in 1865 as a memorial to Prince Albert, then the late Prince Consort. The money was raised by public subscription, so it was appropriate that to celebrate its centenary a very fine hall was built, the ‘Athlone Hall’, for the use of both the College and the local community. The local ‘Robert Hitcham Primary School’, now a Church of England Voluntary school, is the oldest school in the town, dating back to at least 1654. Originally erected under Sir Robert Hitcham’s Will, it was located over the Market Cross on Market Hill. In about 1788, the Cross was taken down and the school was rebuilt at the end of the Hitcham almshouses. At first, the number of pupils was limited to forty, as set by Sir Robert, but in 1837 the number was increased and in 1841 a school for girls was created by using one of the rooms in the castle. In 1862 both these schools and that created under the Mills Trust were handed over to the Charity Commissioners who united them in 1878, in a school built on the ‘White Horse Meadow’ where the primary school stands today.

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The town has the two oldest functioning Post Office pillar boxes in the UK, dating from 1856, located on Double Street and College Road respectively. The town is also home to one of the smallest houses in Britain, known as the ‘Check House’, converted to a two-storey residence of less than twenty-nine square metres, the ground floor measuring just 6.1 metres by 2.21.

A Chronology of Events:

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Saxons, Danes & Normans (865-1154):

From the beginning of the ninth century, the Viking warlords probed the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until in 865 they came to stay. Ivan the Boneless and his brother Halfdene landed on the Suffolk coast at the head of the ‘great heathen army’. The terrified Anglo-Saxons fell back before the invaders. Their East Anglian King, Edmund sought peace and by the terms of the treaty, the Danes were allowed to winter in Suffolk and assured of horses to carry their baggage. Edmund’s speedy capitulation may have lacked valour but it saved his people much suffering. In the Spring, Edmund’s people watched with sighs of relief as their unwanted guests departed westwards to attack Northumbria and Mercia. But they returned in 869 laden with spoil, flushed with triumph and heedless of former treaties. They wintered at Thetford and used it as a base from which to ravage the farms and, especially the monasteries of East Anglia. Edmund could not honourably allow this Viking rampage to go unchecked. He came forth to do battle with the heathen invaders and thus an otherwise insignificant king became a martyr, a saint and a legend. Pious legends, well-sprinkled with miracles and signs, are our only source of information for the campaign of 869, but we know that there was a great battle fought near Thetford. According to Roger of Wendover, the battle lasted from dawn till dusk, till the stricken field was red with the blood of the countless numbers who perished. 

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Edmund, it would seem, won the day, but not long afterwards we find him and his bodyguard besieged in the Saxon fort at Framlingham. This once topped the mound next to the one on which the Plantagenet castle now stands. In 1954, when the Ministry of Works began excavations at the castle, the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology report recorded that there had been an Anglian settlement there surrounded by a wooden stockade on the site of the present bowling green and the meadow beside the castle where the annual Whitsun Fair was held. There was also evidence of an early church on the east side of the path leading to the castle entrance, probably the one later recorded in the Domesday Book. 

The green itself is very old and was played on by the then Duke of Norfolk in 1553, and was built over a burial ground just outside the original settlement. Edmund escaped the siege, fleeing northwards, and it is at this point that these few facts become submerged beneath a sea of romantic myth, with a great deal of confusion over places. The King’s standard-bearer related the details of his capture and martyrdom to Bishop Dunstan, on whose ‘trustworthy’ evidence they were incorporated into the tenth-century Passion of St Edmund. This account portrays Edmund as a deliberate martyr, surrendering to save his people further suffering. Other accounts recount how, on the contrary, the king escaped from Framlingham by cunning. One story tells of how having left the fort, Edmund encountered a party of Danes who asked him if he knew where the King was. He was in the fort before I left, Edmund replied and went on his way unmolested. Before long, however, he was caught, tortured and executed.

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The Ordinance Survey map of central & coastal Suffolk, showing the towns and villages near Framlingham and the rivers Alde and Deben, most of which are recorded as manors in the Domesday Book (1086).

Following the Norman invasion in 1066, William I gave the manor and lands around Framlingham to Ralph de Guader, an East Anglian nobleman of Breton origin, who was appointed earl of Norfolk and Suffolk. But Ralph was involved in an abortive rebellion nine years later and the lands were passed to Hugh de Avranches, his nephew, who later became a monk and died in 1101. By then, William II (1087-1100) had given the manor to his steward in East Anglia, Roger de Bigod, along with 117 manors in Suffolk and other lands in adjoining counties. Roger razed the old Saxon/ Danish fort and settlement and erected a stone castle, also rebuilding the church where St.Michael’s is now.  Roger was succeeded by his eldest son, William, who became High Steward of England. But in 1120, he was drowned in the White Ship disaster. Henry I’s only son, Prince William, set sail from Harfleur with three hundred companions, the flower of English chivalry, but the ship foundered, with all the company lost. William Bigod was succeeded by his brother Hugh, who was made Earl of Norfolk in 1135 and built a ‘strong castle’ in Framlingham. It was said of him that…

… he appears to have surpassed his fellows in acts of desertion and treachery, and to have been never more in his element than when in rebellion.

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He had plenty of scope for self-aggrandisement and coat-turning during the anarchic era 1135-54 when Henry’s nephew, Stephen, and his daughter, Matilda, were contending for the throne left vacant by his heir’s drowning. Hurrying back from Rouen, where he had been attending the dying King, Hugh convinced the Archbishop of Canterbury that Henry, on his deathbed, had nominated Stephen as his heir. He did this because he (mistakenly) viewed Stephen as a weak man whom he and the barons could manipulate. As soon as his expectations were proved unfounded, Bigod raised the standard of revolt at Norwich, where he besieged Stephen and forced him to surrender. Stephen then bought off Bigod, but by 1140 Bigod declared for Matilda and rallied his East Anglian forces to fight for her. He felt very sure of himself and his power-base, having constructed his formidable castles at Framlingham and Bungay. The accession of the new Plantagenet King, Henry II, did not divert him into the paths of loyalty. Royal and rebel armies made many appearances in the fields and heaths of Suffolk until the final showdown of 1174. By 1165 Hugh’s position was unassailable. No matter who wore the crown in London, the Bigods ruled Suffolk.

Plantagenet kings, Bigods & Mowbrays (1154-1483):

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However, Henry II (1154-1189), the first of the Plantagenet kings, was not a King who would allow anyone to defy him indefinitely, whether he was an Archbishop like Becket or an over-mighty subject like Bigod. He was also a brilliant strategist who steadily and stealthily hemmed the troublesome earl into the north-east corner of Suffolk. He secured control of Norwich, Thetford and Walton, and gave the stewardship of Eye Castle to a trusted follower. Henry’s masterstroke was the building of a royal fortress which embodied all the latest techniques of military architecture. Orford Castle, with its well-preserved keep, is the most imposing of all the medieval strongholds, guarding the sea and river approaches into Bigod territory from the thriving port on the estuary, also only a short march from Framlingham. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before Bigod attempted to break out of this cordon of royal control. The situation was resolved in two brief campaigns in 1173 and 1174. Hugh commanded forces with a detachment of French and Flemish mercenaries. They set off from Framlingham towards Bury St. Edmunds and Cambridge, overthrew the royal forces at Haughley, held by Ranule de Broc, and made their way west commandeering food and committing many outrages in the villages and farms along the way. Peasants and freemen fled before the foreigners’ advance and watched angrily from a safe distance as barns were looted and animals slaughtered. The indignant Suffolkers soon had their revenge, however, as a mile north of Bury St. Edmunds the rebels were surprised by a detachment of royal troops as they crossed a river near Fornham All Saints. The King’s men scattered the enemy among the low-lying meadows and marshes, where they were also confronted by angry countrymen with pitchforks and flails. Hugh Bigod agreed to a truce, but the noose around his neck grew tighter. More royal troops were stationed in Bury and Ipswich.

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When the next campaign season opened, Bigod made his last desperate bid for independence. He bought more mercenaries and tried to capture first Norwich, and then Dunwich. Henry then entered Suffolk in person and led his army straight to Framlingham. Rather than prove his proud boast of the impregnability of his fortresses, Bigod surrendered and agreed to the dismantling of his castles. Henry ordered the destruction of Framlingham, but Bigod bought the King off destroying Bungay. He then went on a crusade and died the following year. But his son, Roger was restored to favour and rebuilt the walls as we see them today, up to forty feet high in places and eight feet thick at the base, with thirteen towers. Some of these were surmounted with Elizabethan chimneys. Part of the outer moat still survives in the castle pond at the ‘entrance’ and in the stretch of water running behind the houses on the north side of Castle Street.

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But the kings of England had not yet heard their last of the Bigods. The second earl, Roger, redeemed Framingham from an impoverished Richard I (‘Lion Heart’) and rebuilt the castle on a more massive scale than its precursor. Stone for the castle and the church almost certainly came by water from Caen in Normandy, from Ketton in Rutland, and Barnack Rag from Northampton brought up the Alde and Ore. Flint and septaria, much used in the early buildings, were obtained locally. The river Ore was dammed to form a marsh which augmented the defence system on the western side. The new castle was formidable, with a three-thousand-foot circumference, walled and moated outer bailey itself moated and contained within a forty-four-foot high wall set with towers, and within that a massive keep. To the west of the inner bailey was a lower bailey or ‘base court’. Today only the inner bailey wall and the dry moats remain. In its medieval prime, the fortress must have provided a secure bastion for the lord, his family, retainers, animals and a considerable body of armed men. Adequately provisioned, the Bigods could have defied a besieging army for a long time. It was finished at about the time of King John came to the throne in 1199.

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Soon the King and the barons were in conflict again. The basic issue between them was the issue of the absolute power of the monarch and the rights of his subjects. John’s exercise of an arbitrary rule made it clear to many of the barons that finding a permanent resolution of this issue was an urgent priority. Twenty-five of them made their way to Bury St. Edmunds in November 1214, ostensibly to celebrate the feast of St. Edmund. In fact, they had come together to draft a list of liberties and laws for presentation to King John. They then…

swore on the great altar that if the king refused to grant these liberties and laws, they themselves would withdraw their allegiance to him, and make war upon him till he should, by a charter under his own seal, confirm to them everything they required.

This was the first draft of the Magna Carta, sealed reluctantly by King John at Runnymede seven months later. John mustered his forces in the Midlands while the rebel lords, who included Roger Bigod, levied troops, victualled castles and hired mercenaries. The first royal advance into East Anglia was repulsed but in March 1216 John, having subdued the rest of the country, turned his undivided attention on the eastern earls. He marched straight on Framlingham where Roger Bigod yielded without a fight on 12 March. Despite this setback, the Bigods remained the leading family of Suffolk for almost another century and were, to the last, men of independent spirit. Roger Bigod died in 1221, aged seventy and was succeeded by his son Hugh, but since he was a minor, the manor was held in the King’s pleasure. He was followed by Roger, the fourth earl. Henry III (1216-1272) visited him in 1235, 1248 and 1256. The Earl helped the King in the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey and his arms are in the North Choir Aisle. The nave of St. Michael’s Church was also built in the mid-thirteenth century, during the time of the fourth earl. He died in 1270 aged about fifty-seven. He was succeeded by Roger, the fifth Earl and last of the line, who was visited by Edward I in April 1277. This last earl was one of the leaders of fresh constitutional conflict with the crown during Edward’s reign. The last glimpse the chroniclers give us of the turbulent family is of a row between Roger and his King. Edward wanted Bigod to serve in his campaign in Gascony, but Bigod declined to put himself in harm’s way in an army which Edward himself was not going to lead:

With you, O King, I will gladly go; as belongs to me by hereditory right, I will go in front of the host before your face.”

“But without me, you will go with the rest?”

“Without you, O King, I am not bound to go, and go I will not.”

“By God, Earl, you shall either go or hang!”

“By God, King I will neither go nor hang!”

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Bigod did not go, despite Edward’s punning, and neither did he hang. But he died in 1306, all his possessions reverting to the crown, the year before Edward I himself died. Edward II then created his half-brother Prince Thomas Plantagenet Earl of Norfolk. After the death of Prince Thomas and that of his widow, the manor was assigned to Sir Robert de Ufford in the reign of Edward III (1327-1377). He died in 1369 and was succeeded by his son William who built Parham Church. The river was once navigable by small ships in the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries and there are wall etchings on the pillars either side of the entrance to the nave in Parham Church depicting such ships, probably done when the church was built. William died in 1382 and Framlingham was given to Princess Margaret Plantagenet, Thomas’ older daughter, who was created Duchess of Norfolk in 1378 in the reign of Richard II (1377-1399).

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In 1386 King Richard garrisoned the castle against an invasion by the French. The Duchess died in 1398 and the estates were given to Thomas Mowbray who was made first Duke of Norfolk. So there was a Duchess of  Norfolk before ever there was a Duke. Very shortly he was banished by the King and died in Venice in 1399. His son, Thomas, also rebelled against the King and was beheaded. The manor was given to Sir Thomas Erpingham till his death, four years later, when it passed to Henry, Prince of Wales, who held it until 1412 when the King gave it to John Mowbray, who was made second Duke of Norfolk. He died in 1432 and was succeeded by the third Duke, but he never became possessed of the estates and he died in 1461 and was succeeded by the second Duke’s grandson. This fourth Mowbray Duke added the aisles in ‘Decorated’ style to St. Michael’s Church, dating from about 1450. He had no son and his infant daughter was espoused to Richard, Duke of York, second son of King Edward IV (1461-1483) and one of the ‘Princes in the Tower’. She died aged nine and the manor again reverted to the Crown. There were, in fact, two creations of the Dukes of Norfolk, first the Mowbrays and later, their descendants the Howards.

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The Tudors & The Howard Dukes of Norfolk (1483-1635):

Richard III (1483-1485) gave the manor to John Howard whom he created 1st Duke of Norfolk. Both men were killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry VII (1485-1509) then gave the lands to de Vere, Earl of Oxford, but in 1489 he restored them to Thomas Howard, son of the 1st Duke, who became 2nd Howard Duke of Norfolk and had a very distinguished career, commanding the English forces at Flodden. He died in Framlingham in 1524 and his helmet, surmounted by his funeral wreath and crest, hangs above his tomb in the church (pictured below). He was succeeded by his son, also Thomas, the 3rd Duke, who was a great personal friend of Henry VIII (1509-1547), who made him Earl Marshal, Lord High Admiral and KG (Knight of the Garter). He was also uncle to two of Henry’s wives, Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard. Malicious gossips accused him of attempting to usurp the King’s rights by impaling the arms of Edward the Confessor with his own, and both he, and his son, the Earl of Surrey, were attained and thrown in the Tower. The Earl was executed but the Duke escaped the axe through the death of the King the night before the execution.

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It was this Duke who so changed the appearance of the church. His immediate ancestors had been buried at Thetford Priory, but following the dissolution of the monasteries, that place fell into disrepair and the Duke brought the family tombs to Framlingham in order to give them a suitable resting place, including his own. In order to make room for them, he had the Norman chancel built by Hugh Bigod pulled down to build a wider one now dominating the eastern aspect of the church. However, due to his attainder, the estates reverted to the King, and in the hope of avoiding their fragmentation, the Duke petitioned for them to be made over as a whole to Edward, Prince of Wales. When he became King, Edward (VI, 1547-1553) did not release the Duke, but he did order the completion of the chancel. He then gave the castle and the estates to his sister Mary, the chief reason why she came to the castle whilst awaiting news from London of her acceptance as Queen. When in July 1553, the boy king died, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, ‘de facto’ ruler of England from 1549-1553 during Edward’s minority, tried to exclude his sister Mary from the succession by setting Lady Jane Grey on the throne. The Commons of England were almost unanimous in rejecting the Duke and his ‘protegé’, the great-granddaughter of Henry VII through his younger daughter, Mary and therefore a cousin of Edward VI. The genuine grievances of the poor and the incompetence and brutality of the government in dealing with them stirred up an intense hatred of Dudley, whose son, Lord Guildford Dudley had married Jane Grey in May of that year.

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All along her procession to Framlingham from Sawston Hall, south of Cambridge, where she had narrowly escaped Northumberland’s possé, Suffolk men and women left their kitchens, some to cheer and gaze, others to fall in behind Princess Mary’s retinue. Nor was it only the common people who flocked to her support; many of the local gentlemen came to kneel in fealty before her. She made her temporary headquarters at the Duke of Norfolk’s house at Kenninghall near Thetford. Emboldened by her growing support, Mary proclaimed herself Queen and summoned the rest of the Suffolk gentry to come to her aid at Framlingham with men and arms. By the time she set out for the town on 14 July, the entire shire had committed itself. A sizeable army encamped around the castle under the leadership of the Sheriff, Sir Thomas Cornwallis. Two days later, Northumberland’s men, who had reached Cambridge, heard reports of the thirty thousand men under Mary’s command. Their refusal to proceed against the Suffolk host sealed the fate of the Duke and Lady Jane Grey, the  Nine Days’ Queen.

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The newly-proclaimed Queen selected a council from among her gentry supporters, emptied the prisons to swell her army and secured the support of the main towns and ports of East Anglia. But all opposition collapsed in any event. When Mary Tudor made her way through Suffolk and Essex a few days later it was at the head of a triumphant procession, not a cautious army. Towns and villages turned out to greet the rightful heir to the throne, whom they believed would heed their petitions and deliver them from the anarchic government of self-seeking lords. The honeymoon was short-lived; disappointment and disillusionment soon set in, nowhere more so than in loyal Suffolk, where one of the earliest burnings of protestants took place on 9 February 1555, on Aldham Common in Hadleigh. Dr Rowland Taylor, the local incumbent, was the first of eighteen men and women in the county to be martyred before Mary died in 1558. She restored the manor of Framlingham to the old duke whom she released from the Tower, but he died in 1554 and is buried St. Michael’s in Framlingham, where his tomb is positioned between his two wives in the rebuilt chancel, along with the tombs of the beheaded Earl of Surrey and Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII who married Surrey’s sister.

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During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the Earl of Surrey’s son succeeded as 4th Duke, but he intrigued against the Queen and was imprisoned in the Tower, where he died in 1572. It is said that he had hoped to marry Mary Queen of Scots. From 1580, Elizabeth used the castle as a prison for recusant priests. The family tree of the Howards then became complicated by the fact that the 4th Duke had married three times. James I (1603-1625) restored Framlingham to Thomas, the eldest son the 4th Duke’s second marriage, and made him Lord Howard of Walden and 1st Earl of Suffolk. His son, also Thomas, was made a joint heir to Framlingham with his nephew, Theophilus, who eventually succeeded to the whole estate, becoming 2nd Earl of Suffolk and holding his first manorial court in 1627. On 14 May 1635, Theophilus sold the estate to Sir Robert Hitcham, who settled it on Pembroke College, Cambridge for pious uses on the Master, Fellows and Scholars, who have held it ever since.

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Stuart and Commonwealth Times (1616-1708):

Sir Robert was a prominent lawyer and at one time was Attorney-General to Anne of Denmark, Queen Consort of James I. In 1616 he was made King’s Senior Serjeant-at-Law and was knighted. He died in 1636. Although he was such a prominent lawyer he did not make a very good hand of his Will in which he left instructions that on his death the interior of the castle was to be dismantled and the materials used for the building of almshouses and a school for poor children; but to the poor of Framlingham he added those of Debenham, six miles away, and Coggeshall in Essex. This infuriated the people of Framlingham who saw no reason why they should pay for these others and they took the trustees to law. In the end, the matter was resolved by an Ordinance issued under the Seal of the Commonwealth allocating money from the trust to each of the places concerned.

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In the meantime the country was going through troublesome times, being divided into the two factions of the Civil War, the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. The latter were very strong in Suffolk and the religious conflict is exemplified in the story of Richard Golty, Rector of Framlingham with Saxtead. He had been given the living in 1621 but at first, had to be content to act as Curate-in-Charge as there was already a Rector in the Reverend Thomas Dove who, though Bishop of Peterborough, was also Rector of Framlingham, though he never visited the parish. The Bishop died in 1630 and Golty entered fully into his own, but when Charles I was executed, he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Commonwealth and was ejected from the living and retired to Ashbocking where he had a small estate. On the return of the Monarchy in 1660 he returned to Framlingham. His fame rests largely on a wonderful account book which he kept and entered all the details of tithes and other transactions in which he was involved. Another resident of Framlingham, who was also churchwarden, was Nicholas Danforth. A widower at the age of fifty, and being of a more puritan persuasion, he decided, like many other East Anglian dissenters, to emigrate in 1634 to the New World, taking with him his six children. He settled first in Boston, where he at once became a man of importance, being first a ‘townsman’ and then a ‘selectman’. His son Thomas was virtually the founder of Framlingham in Massachusetts. He crossed the ocean in the ship Griffin but alas left no record of the perils and hardships his family faced. He was accompanied on the voyage by the Reverend John Lothrop, together with William and Anne Hutchinson with their families.

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Not long after Danforth set out for the New World, in 1640, a young man from nearby Grundisburgh, Thomas Mills arrived in Framlingham. He sought work from Edward Smith, a wheelwright, and was taken on and so well did he endear himself to his employer that the latter, on his death, being childless, left the whole business. He married a rich widow, Alice Groom from Ufford, and built up a fine property not only in Framlingham but in several of the surrounding villages. A strong dissenter, he did much to protect a small colony of Baptists who used to meet in Link Horn’s Barn on Brook Lane. Sadly, he lost his only child whilst still an infant, and no doubt influenced by seeing the Hitcham Almshouses in the course of erection, he too decided to build some of these, giving detailed instructions in his Will. He died in 1703 when the houses, originally six in number, were built by his faithful steward, William Mayhew, who added two more under the supervision of the Trustees of the Will. Mills himself is buried in his own garden which has given the name ‘Tomb House’ to the house in Station Road that stands back slightly from the street. Inside the small building is the tomb itself, covered with a fine slab of black marble. The nearby almshouses (pictured below) are still in use, thoroughly modernised and now privately owned.

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A feature of the church is the organ and the gallery on which it stands. The organ case belonged to Pembroke College and though the interior was destroyed by Cromwell’s Commissioners, the case escaped and after the Restoration it was used again to house a new organ made by Thamar of Peterborough in 1674. It is one of only eight pre-Civil War cases remaining in England. It is believed to date back before 1630, perhaps to 1580 and some of the pipework may at least pre-date the Commonwealth. The only other painted pipes of this style are to be found in Gloucester Cathedral. In 1707, the College decided it would like a larger organ for their Wren Chapel, so the Thamar organ came to St. Michael’s with its old case in 1708, as a gift from the College.

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Victorian Times & The Twentieth Century:

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‘Fast-forwarding’ to Victorian times (1837-1901), the other significant events, not  referred to elsewhere in this text, are listed as follows:

1850: Gas-lighting introduced into the town (this was heralded as a great improvement over the old oil lamps that had been erected in 1828).

1898: Rev J Pilkington succeeds Rev E Bickersteth and continues the scheme for the alterations in St. Michael’s Church when the organ was moved from the west end to the north aisle and then to the Chancel.

1900:  First sewer and sewage works provided.

Above: Various Victorian items, posters and pictures in the Castle & Town Museum.

And in the rest of the Twentieth Century:

1906: First Manual telephone exchange opened in Bridge Street, with twenty-two subscribers, limited to the hours of 7.00 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.

1920: Electric street-lighting introduced in the town.

1948: Fire-station opened; prior to this, the fire-engine was housed in various premises in the town.

1970: Thamar Organ (below) replaced on the rebuilt gallery at the west end of St. Michael’s Church, with the aid of the Pilgrim Trust.

1982: Another organ by William Allen of Soho Square (1797) brought to the church, given in memory of Joseph Tanner, 1853-1934 … scholar of Pembroke College, Cambridge and of his daughter, Margaret Josephine Millard, 1907-1980.

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The Town Heritage Trail:

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Above: Framlingham Town Centre today. Below: As it was in 1970, drawn by O.R. Sitwell.

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The oldest house in Framlingham is almost certainly the ‘Guildhall’ on Market Hill (above). It is now divided into business premises, but a good idea of how it looked 250 years ago can be gained from a small drawing in the Castle Museum. The house is described in Green’s (1835) History of Framlingham as having stood on the site of a still older building that existed in 1363, but the Guild as such probably suffered dissolution along with other religious houses under Henry VIII. Inside, there is a very fine old panelled room. Both this house and the one to the east of it, nos. 33 and 33a, are remarkable because although they look as if they were built in brick, they are, in fact, Suffolk timber-framed, with specially-made brick tiles cleverly hung on the front. At the corner of Market Hill and Church Street is another old house, now the Chemists (below).

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This also runs up Church Street and appears to join on to the one which used to be a gunsmith’s shop, but originally the two were separated by a stable with a hayloft over. The gunshop, ‘Normans’, was taken out of the very fine house overlooking the churchyard (below), though now partially restored to it. It is thought that judging by its position and style, it may originally have been erected for himself by the Master Builder engaged by the 3rd Howard Duke of Norfolk to pull down and enlarge the chancel of St. Michael’s, sometime between 1545 and 1550.

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The former Rectory stands at the West end of the church. It is not known exactly when it was built, but it could have been adapted from a farmhouse and certainly was greatly altered and added to by the Reverend George Attwood who was rector from May 1837 till his death in 1884. It was converted to flats in 1963. The present Rectory stands at a lower level in part of the former garden.

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Returning to Market Hill, we pass a row of old houses, now shops, which stretch from Crown and Anchor Lane to the Crown Hotel, an old posting-house. Originally there was a through-way for coaches right through the building. Those coming from Ipswich entered from Fairfield Road, opposite at the back, and emerging onto the Market Place on their way to Norwich. This coach-way was blocked up when the hotel was reconstructed by Trust Houses in 1951. At the same time, the old Corn Exchange, which was built in 1848, was incorporated into the hotel. Tucked away in the extreme South-west corner of Market Hill between what was the butcher’s shop (now a delicatessen) and what was the Queen’s Head Inn is the Queen’s Head Passage, apparently allowed for in the building of the Inn since part of the underside of a staircase can be seen overhead. The passage gives access to the houses behind and to a former small brewery on Lower Fore Street.

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The houses along the west side of Market Hill (above) are of several periods, the oldest being used as teashops, estate agents and charity shops. Opposite them and just up the lane that leads to the west end of the church via its steps there once stood a fine Queen Anne house known as ‘Step House’ which was pulled down in 1833 following the bankruptcy of its owner. The gardens extended down to the old meeting-house and covered the site of the present Court-house, which was built in 1872. Petty Sessions have been held in Framlingham since 1826, but prior to the erection of the Court-house, they were held at the castle or in an upper room in the Crown Hotel. The Old Meeting-house is used by the congregation of Unitarians. It was originally built in 1717 by a congregation of Presbyterians and Baptists, who later became Unitarians. Next to it stands the Manse with the date 1681 on the door.

Next to the river bridge is an old house with a high-pitched roof, formerly thatched, and the small dormer windows are indicative of its period. In the 1960s, this was divided into two shops (see the Sitwell sketch below). Similar old houses are to be seen in Fore Street, Double Street, Castle Street and elsewhere in the town.

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Crossing the bridge and turning left down Riverside we come to the Post Office, the business part of which has been added to what was a farmhouse. At the apex of the triangle between Riverside and Albert Place is the Methodist/ United Reform Church. The Wesleyans first arrived in the town in 1794 and their first chapel stood where the Railway Inn now stands in Station Road. There was a conflict over the mortgage on the property and the building was sold and then pulled down in 1868. In the meantime, a steam flour mill was erected on the site of a former coach-house, but it failed. The machinery was removed and the building converted into ‘the People’s Hall’. In 1885 the Methodists purchased it and it has served them ever since, latterly in the company of URC members.

Beside the river near the corner of Fore Street with Riverside stands one of the old town pumps. This one is unusual in having two spouts, the lower one was used by the townspeople when drawing water but in the days when a water-cart was used to lay the dust in the streets, the driver used to block up the lower spout and by means of a short hose fill his cart from the upper one. Across the junction with Lower Fore Street, on the corner of Station Road, is the ‘Ancient House’, a typical Suffolk frame house with interesting pargetting on the front. A section of this has been removed to reveal the original timber beams. The windows are of a type that dates the house as prior to 1670-80 when the cruciform type with leaded panes gave way to the prevalent sash window which became a feature of late Jacobean to Queen Anne houses, like the one on the other side of the Belisha crossing on Albert Place. The earlier style of window in the ‘Ancient House’ opens on an iron frame hung on two hooks. The small square opening frames are more modern.

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Above: A sketch of the ‘Queen Anne’ House on Albert Place by Grace Sitwell, c. 1970

Turning back up Fore Street, we pass the end of the path from the Queen’s Head Passage (above). Across the road from this is the small wooden hut converted by the Roman Catholics into a church, and a little further up on the left is the Congregational Chapel, dating from 1823, now converted into private residences. The Congregationalists were originally established in Hermitage Place in 1819. Higher up one passes the back entrance to the Crown Hotel with the old blacksmith’s forge opposite.

Returning to the junction of Fore Street with Riverside and turning right along Albert Place, then proceeding via Wells Close Square (now a traffic roundabout) to Lower Bridge Street, we come to a small group of seventeenth-century houses on the right-hand side of the road. One of these, now a charity shop, formerly a granary, has a stone-built well underlying the steps to its lower floor.

Directly opposite, where there is now a development of sheltered housing behind the bus-stop, there was once a cattle market which was in weekly use on Market Day until 1937, since when the present house, bakery and shop (now a café on the corner of New Road) were built. Wells Close Square was named after Henry Wells whose all-embracing shop became the home of the Framlingham Engineering Company, now the premises of Clarke & Simpson Estate Agents on the left. Crossing Bridge Street into New Road, we come to the Hitcham Almshouses which were built in 1654, with the second of Hitcham’s poor schools at the far end, now the Masonic Hall (as can be seen from the symbols on its circular window above the door). Returning to the right of the roundabout leading up College Road, the former White Horse Inn is on the other side of the road, which at the time of writing is undergoing transformation into a close of apartments and houses. The Inn is an early seventeenth-century building, and beyond it are a series of old houses in front of the old gas works, one of the first in the country to change to modern Butane gas.

Next on the right in College Road comes the Primary School, now enlarged and improved from the days when the Charity Commissioners built it after the amalgamation of the Hitcham and Mills Trusts; and keeping to the right at the junction where the B1119 leaves the B1116 and where there is one of the two Victorian pillar boxes in the town, we approach the College with splendid views of the castle across the Mere. Passing the College and the Athlone Hall, we turn left along Pembroke Road, and left again after the Doctor’s surgery. Crossing Saxtead Road below the High School, we come to the lane known as New Street, not to be confused with New Road in the town, a here stands the farm which was once the home of Nicholas Danforth, founder of Framlingham in Massachusetts.

At the bottom of the hill, Brook Lane goes off to the left, whilst on the right is the bridle path that was once the main road to Earl Soham. Following Brook Lane, we pass the Link Horn barn once used by the Baptists in Thomas Mills’ day, and then comes a turn which, if taken, brings us back into College Road via Vyces Road. Keeping straight on, we come to Station Road between the Mills Almshouses on the left and the wing of Tomb House on the right. Beside the road is a small red-brick building once the home of William Mayhew, and later the first Mills school and after that the town reading-room.

Turning right along Station Road we come to the front of Tomb House with the tomb itself in the garden close to the railings. In it lie Thomas Mills and his faithful servant William Mayhew, as set out on the tablet. At first, the tomb stood in the open, but later the trustees built the little house over it in which they then held their meetings. A little further down Station Road, past ‘The Wine Shop’, are the remains of what was the station itself when the railway line reached Framlingham in 1859. Since it was closed to all traffic in 1965, the line has been taken up and all crossings have been removed. Situated next to the station, the Station Hotel is well worth a sojourn, if only to sample the ales provided by the Earl Soham Brewery.

The road leading up the hill to the right is Victoria Mill Road, joining New Street at Red House Farm. Just past the station yard, is a terrace of fine mid-Victorian ‘villas’, no doubt built soon after the coming of the railway. In the opposite direction, leading across the old, publicly-owned ‘Fair Field’ is a footpath to the new Fairfield Road, with its first modern housing, built before 1970, both for Council and Private housing. On the left are two very pleasant houses, Fairfield Hall and Fairfield House, and along with an old ‘forge’ cottage, before we emerge again onto Fore Street at the end of the old coaching road opposite the Crown Hotel.

The lane opposite to Fairfield Road is Crown and Anchor Lane, once called White Hart Lane. All the buildings on the right of the lane were once part of a large brewery owned by John Brook Keer, whose bankruptcy has already been mentioned. In all, twenty-one inns in Framlingham and the neighbourhood were sold, along with a lot of other town property, including the former Mansion House and the Manor House. The purchaser of the ‘White Hart’ as it was then called, changed its name to the ‘Crown and Anchor’ and dispossessed the landlady. These two actions so annoyed her son, a builder, that he bought the piece of land nearest to the Inn on which he built another public house, which he then named the ‘White Hart’. Apparently, this can be identified by its having cut deeply into a row of bricks about ten feet from the ground the initials of the men who helped him build it.

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Continuing up Fore Street we pass another former pub, the old ‘Waggon and Horses’, which became a butcher’s and is now a private house. On the right-hand side of the street is the entrance to the cemetery, opened in 1856 when the churchyard was closed for burials. Re-crossing the road we come to the Police Station, ‘Glenview’, which was connected directly to Woodbridge via the telephone exchange next to the cemetery in 1926. The service was maintained single-handed until 1937 when daytime help was provided and became automatic in 1961.

Fore Street curves to the left and brings us between an old farmhouse and ‘The Haynings’, to an open space in the road junction with the Badingham and Saxmundham Roads where there is an open brick shelter covering a former town well. The shelter was erected in memory of John Cordy Jeafferson, a historian and novelist.

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Turning down Castle Street, the house next to the former corn-drying plant is known as ‘Moat House’ because part of the castle moat lies in the garden. It is probably as old as the house next to it called ‘The Readery’, so-called because it was restored and converted for use by the ‘Readers’, whose duty under the Will of Sir Robert Hitcham was to read from the scriptures twice every day to the inhabitants of the alms-houses who were assembled in the church for this purpose. A little further on is an old low house with dormer windows and a bow-front window which was once ‘licensed to sell tea and tobacco’, as etched into the fascia on the window. We are now opposite the end of Double Street where one of the two remaining Victorian pillar boxes stands.

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Double Street used to be called Bow Street, no doubt according to its shape; Castle Street and Church Street forming the plucked string and Bow Street the bent bow. It was said to have changed its name to Double Street when it became the first street in the town to have dwellings on both sides. Originally, Castle Street may have been restricted from having properties backing onto the castle for defensive reasons, as referred to above. Double Street was once the principal shopping street in the town as can still be seen from the remaining shop fronts, although all but one (an antique shop) are purely private houses now.

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The oldest houses (above top), numbers 19 and 21, are on the right-hand side as we go down the street. A little further around the curve, we come to no. 9, which is where Richard Lambert, the printer, had his offices. He recorded all he saw and heard in the Framlingham Weekly News and his Almanacks, copies of which, from 1860 to 1917, are in the museum.

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He also worked just around the corner in ‘Church House’, now ‘Regency House’, in Church Street. This house is misleading to the eye as the front, with its distinctive balcony, does not belong to the original house, but was brought from London and incorporated into the original timber frame. Also, the whitewashed walls are actually made of wooden panels, shaped to look like stone blocks, as can be seen in close-up below. Appropriately, crossing Church Street at this point, we return to St. Michael’s Church precincts.

Sources:

O.R. Sitwell (1970), A Guide to Framlingham. Framlingham & District Local History & Preservation Society.

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

http://www.stmichaelsframlingham.org.uk

http://www.wikipaedia.com

All photographs by Andrew J Chandler, 2018-19, except the external pictures of the castle, taken from English Heritage publicity.

 

Posted September 20, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, Anglican Reformation, Anglicanism, Anglo-Saxons, baptism, Baptists, Britain, British history, Britons, Castles, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Conquest, Dark Ages, democracy, Demography, Domesticity, Early Modern English, East Anglia, Economics, Education, English Language, Framlingham, Henry V, Henry VIII, History, Integration, liberal democracy, Literature, manufacturing, Marriage, Medieval, Memorial, Mercia, Methodism, Middle English, Midlands, Migration, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, Norfolk, Normans, Plantagenets, Population, Poverty, Remembrance, Stuart times, Suffolk, terror, theology, Tudor England, Tudor times, tyranny, United Kingdom, Warfare, Wars of the Roses

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part One – The Legacy of a Lost Generation.   Leave a comment

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 past the temporary cenotaph to commemorate the end of the war.

The main effect of the first world war was a loss on a scale that exceeded the Holocaust, together with the traumas that matched it. As many as nine million combatants from all warring nations were killed in action, at an average of over six thousand on every day of the war’s four-and-a-quarter years’ duration. It was a hell of mud, blood, barbed wire and broken bodies, as vast rows of artillery thundered tons of hot metal on to each already churned-up square metre of earth, tree and human remnant. Spectral memories of the lost men haunted the gleaming white cemeteries, memorials and shrines that sprang up, from Melbourne’s shrine of remembrance to Whitehall’s cenotaph to the battlefield graves and ossuaries at Douaumont and Thiepval. The founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission calculated that if Britain’s war dead were to have marched past Edwin Lutyens’ austere London monument, it would have taken three-and-a-half days before the rearguard trooped by. There were also fifteen million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, as well as many others whose minds were so damaged they would never recover their equilibrium, and I have written about these survivors elsewhere.

Here I want to concentrate on the psychological torments of parents who lost sons during the conflict, wives who lost husbands, children who lost fathers and sisters who lost brothers. One of those who lost both brothers and lovers was Vera Brittain. Her first world war classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, told the story of the ‘lost generation’ wiped out in the trenches. It was first published in 1933 and remained influential in the late twentieth century, being made into an excellent BBC Television drama in the late seventies. She lost a number of her closest friends as well as her fiancé and brother in the conflict.

Testament of War – Letters of Vera Brittain & Roland Leighton:

003At the heart of Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain’s own anguished love affair with Roland Leighton, the dashing best friend of her brother at Uppingham School. Their letters were published in 1998 and revealed the unbearable poignancy of their relationship. Roland’s first letter to Vera from Uppingham on 15 July 1914 demonstrates just how quickly the plans of young people changed that summer:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the two days you were here… You will let me know how you have got on in your exams, won’t you? I suppose I shall not see you again until October at Oxford.

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Roland Leighton

Vera replied from her parents’ home in Buxton (in Derbyshire) that she thought she had failed her Latin exam and so would not be able to go up to Oxford that autumn. On the 29th, Roland wrote back that he would not give up hoping to see her at Oxford that October unless he knew for certain that she had not passed when the results came out at the end of August. But less than a week after he wrote this letter, Britain declared war on Germany. Roland and Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been sent home early from their Officers’ Training Corps summer camp at Aldershot, attempted to find temporary commissions in the army. Roland then wrote to Vera from his mother’s home in Lowestoft on 21 August 1914:

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expected Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. . I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters. The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, … but it was of no use … PS: You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache – as an experiment.

Vera wrote back immediately to express her sympathy with him over this rejection, but felt it was for the best as he could now exercise his ‘intellectual qualities’ at Oxford; they would be of little use to him in gaining promotion in the Army. Two days later, on 27 August, she wrote again to inform him that she had, after all, passed her Latin. She was much relieved at this, as she didn’t know how she could have endured the thought of you and Edward enjoying Oxford life and myself cut out of it for another year. Roland confirmed that he was now expecting to go up so that all three of them would be at Oxford together. But on 28 September, with just ten days to go before the start of term, he wrote to tell Vera that he could no longer say confidently that he would be at Oxford after all. He stood a good chance of being accepted into the 4th Norfolks and would know definitely within the week. He wrote that:

Anyhow, I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it – except that perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very enobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

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Vera Brittain

Vera replied, on 1 October, that she never expected him to want to go to Oxford; conditions were now very different from those of a month previously. She didn’t know whether his feelings about war were those of a ‘militarist’ or not: She had always called herself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinated her, horribly but powerfully, as it did him. Her mixed feelings about war were complicated by her being a woman:

… whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war & none of its exhilaration.

A week later, Roland was informed that he had been approved for a commission. In her next letter to him in mid-October, Vera wrote from Somerville College that he had been right in thinking that life at Oxford would have been difficult for him as an undergraduate in war-time. She didn’t know how those there could endure not to be in khaki. Roland’s mother took rooms in London at Christmas and Vera was invited to visit before New Year. On 1 January 1915, he wrote to her, thanking her for her visit:

It has been such a delight to be with you these past two days. I think I shall  always remember them in their wonderful incompleteness and unreality. When I left you I stood by the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly circus to see the New Year in. It was a glorious night, with a full moon so brightly white as to seem blue slung like an arc-lamp directly overhead. I had the feeling of extreme loneliness one is so often conscious of in a large crowd. There was very little demonstration: two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the Marseillaise: a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When twelve ‘o’ clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer, and then everyone seemed to melt away again leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched.

At the ‘Ides of March’, Roland went to Buxton to say his farewells. Early on the wintry morning of 19 March, Vera said goodbye to him on Buxton Station as he left on the first stage of the journey, with his regiment, to France. After crossing the Channel on 1 April, the regiment’s only immediate sign of war was a sudden flare of light along the road at night and a glimpse of a French military car rushing past, together with an occasional patrol of blue-coated cavalry. Although they could hear the distant sound of heavy artillery fire, for the time being, they were out of the danger zone.

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

On 5 April, Vera wrote from Buxton to tell Roland that she was volunteering to help in a large hospital nearby which had been extended to admit the wounded. The Matron said that they had more work than they could manage satisfactorily so that she was glad to accept Vera’s offer. She was to serve as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse for the rest of the war. By the 11th, she had heard that they were expecting a great many wounded in the summer and would probably want all the extra nurses they could get. They would be almost sure to need her, not merely to darn socks as she had been doing, but to do the usual probationer’s work. Joking, she wrote that if he ‘must get wounded’ he should try to postpone it ’till about August’ by which time she hoped to be efficient enough to be able to look after him. By 12 April, Roland was in the trenches but wrote that there was not really much to do, just that the officers…

…have to go round now and again to see that the men are in their right places and the sentries looking out (in the daytime through periscopes). They go round every three hours or so at night as well and so don’t get much sleep. No one is allowed to take his clothes off, and so you have to scrape as much mud as possible off your boots with a bayonet, tie up each foot in a small sack to keep the mud out of your sleeping bag, and get in boots and all. You rarely have much opportunity to shave or wash properly. It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take the letters back with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you. Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account…

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May 1915 in the trenches

On 19 April, the Norfolks’ trenches in the middle of a ‘vast wood’ were shelled for some time, and they had their first man killed, shot through the head. But sitting in the sunlight while writing, facing a bank of primroses, Roland was struck by the grim contrast between the danger of war and death and thoughts of the beauty of life and love. The previous morning he had gone up to his fire trench through the sunlit wood and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path:

He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all of this time … You do not mind my telling you these gruesome things, do you? You asked me to tell you everything. It is of such things that my new life is made.

Vera wrote back affirming that she did want to be told all the gruesome things since she knew that even war would not blunt his sensibilities. She wanted his ‘new life’ to be hers to as great an extent as possible. Her now more conscious ‘feminism’ is evident in the rationale she gave for this:

Women are no longer the sheltered and protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery and the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are … Now you are in the midst of it all, do you still feel you will come through to the end? 

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On 29th, Roland wrote his letter just after dawn, when everything was very still. Again, he was struck by the contrast between his natural surroundings and the accompanying reminders, sometimes in dramatic interruptions, of the reality of war:

From where I am sitting I can see the sun on the clover field just behind the trenches and a stretch of white road beyond. There are birds singing in the wood on our left, and small curls of blue wood smoke from the men’s fires climbing up through the trees. One of our Machine Guns has been firing single shots every few minutes with a cold and lazy regularity that seems singularly in harmony. Everyone else except the sentries is asleep. … 7.30 am: A French biplane went up a few minutes ago and is circling round and round over the German lines. They have got two anti-aircraft guns and a Maxim trying to hit him. It is a marvellous sight. Every minute there is a rapid report like the pop of a drawn cork magnified, and a fluffy ball of cotton wool appears suddenly in the air beside him. He is turning again now, the white balls floating all around him. You think how pretty it all is – white bird, white puffs of smoke, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It is hard to realise that there is danger up there, and daring, and the calculated courage that is true heroism…

The ‘colour’ in this description also contrasts sharply with our popular images of a war fought in sepia or black-and-white. Meanwhile, on May Day morning in Oxford, Vera was up at dawn for the famous celebrations at the Magdalen tower, the choristers singing the traditional Latin hymn while turning slowly to the sun. Again, her feelings were a mixture of the appreciation of beauty and the pain of thinking how different their lives were now from what they had pictured the previous July, with both of them there enjoying the celebrations together. A week later, she wrote that her greatest object was to get this term over. She didn’t think that another term while the war was in its present condition (and you in yours) would be tolerable. 

Two days later, the first man in Roland’s battalion was killed. He described to Vera the way he had been taking things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who would see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. Soon after, Vera received a letter from one of her school friends whose brother was wounded and was then in a hospital in London. Vera’s friend wrote that there were only three officers surviving, including her brother, out of his battalion, and 159 men out of five thousand. They had had to hold their trenches while under shell fire without a single gun to help them and had watched the Germans forming up to attack them without being able to do anything. Their trenches had been taken and as he had been lying wounded he saw the Germans bayoneting his men, including several of his friends, who had also been lying wounded. Vera wondered how he would be affected by this experience.

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On 21 May, Vera wrote that she had never read anything quite so terrible as the official report of the German outrages in Belgium, especially their treatment of the women and children. As a signal of how her attitudes were hardening, like those of many others in response to what we now know was anti-German propaganda, she wrote that she didn’t know how any man could read it and then not enlist, and urged Roland and everyone at the front she knew, “Once you get hold of them, do your very worst.”  She also felt increasingly hostile towards some of the young men among the Whitsuntide trippers whom she witnessed ‘lounging down’ the streets of Oxford…

 … smoking cigarettes with a vacant expression … and a self-satisfied smile on their faces, twirling Japanese umbrellas… and poking them at the passers-by … I can scarcely bear to look at them and think that you and such as you are enduring toil and weariness and risking death that they may remain safe, and that your task is made is made all the harder and heavier because the hero of the Japanese umbrella refrains from relinquishing it for a bayonet. No one has the right to lounge these days, not even an American…

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Above & below, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War

A week later, at the end of May, Vera wrote to Roland of the more than usually heated conflict… going on in the papers about the war in general and conscription in particular. Lord Northcliffe’s papers seemed to be attacking everyone in authority, especially Lord Kitchener, and the rest of the press was attacking Lord Northcliffe. It seemed…

… a dreadful state of affairs that the authorities are quarrelling among themselves at home while men who are in their hands are dying for them abroad. One begins to doubt the advisability even of the freedom of the Press.

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At the beginning of June, Roland wrote to Vera of his growing disillusionment with the war after two months at the front:

I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford … It all seems so very far away now, I sometimes think that I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s.

On 6 June, he wrote again of the possibility of his getting six days’ leave in the near future. Vera wrote back that sometimes she felt that she couldn’t bear to see him again until the war was over, that the only thing she could not endure living over again the morning of March 19th on Buxton railway station, when they had said goodbye. But she knew that even a short visit from him would be worthwhile and that she was willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life. Roland, inexplicably, ‘fell silent’ during July, and at the end of the month, Vera heard that there was a ‘faint chance’ of her getting into a large London hospital as a VAD (auxiliary nurse). The hospital was an ‘immense place’ at Camberwell (No 1 London General), established at the beginning of the war but recently extended, containing over a thousand beds. The hospital administration needed to make an increase in nursing staff as a result and to recruit more VAD staff like Vera. She was keen to transfer there as the hospital got all the wounded straight from the trenches and the VADs were needed to do all the minor dressings.

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

On 29 July, she sent Roland a volume of the poems of Rupert Brooke, whom she had regarded as the most promising poet of the younger generation. Brooke was a well-known poet before 1914 who had had his poem The Old Vicarage included in a 1912 volume of Georgian Poetry. He had enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out and fought in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, where the naval brigade fought as if they were soldiers. He wrote his five famous war sonnets at Rugby School during the last months of 1914 when he was home on leave. He served in the fleet that was attacking the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles, but on 23 April  1915, he died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship of the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. He was buried on top of a high hill on the Greek island of Skyros; among the burial party was Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Brooke had not been dead long, however, before the more clear-sighted of his fellow-poets saw the limitations of the poetry that he typified. Charles Sorley expressed in one of his letters his conviction that Brooke’s sonnets had been overpraised:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances.

Arthur Graeme West, who was killed in 1917, expressed his contempt of poets who wrote such lines as ‘O happy to have lived these epic days’ and ignored the revolting appearance of the dead and dying in actual warfare. One of his own poems began with a direct attack on Brooke and his imitators:

God! how I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

From a literary perspective, the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that Brooke’s verse exhibited a genuine sensuousness rather like Keats’s … and something… rather like Keats’s vulgarity with a Public School accent.  On the other hand, Robert Nichols, a leading Georgian poet and friend both of Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon from before 1914, was still insisting in 1943 that:

Rupert Brooke’s sonnets are full of that sensation of being gathered up. They are wonderful works of art and it is sad that they have come to be regarded by many with suspicion.

But the latter half of the war produced a second generation of young soldiers who produced very different kinds of war poetry from that of  Brooke or Nichols. At the time Vera sent them to Roland she thought he would love them all … not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful. She was right, as on receiving the volume, he read it straight through. He wrote of how it made him feel that he wanted to sit down and write things himself instead of doing what he had to do as an officer there, and of how…

It stirs up all the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soulless nonentities one finds around one here. I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty; but that is all.

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‘No road this way’: the Germans made access very difficult for the advancing Allies.

On 15 August, Roland wrote to let Vera know that he was coming home on leave in three days’ time. He then sent a telegram arranging to meet her at St Pancras’ first-class ladies’ waiting room as soon as he could get across there from Liverpool Street Station. Roland’s leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become unofficially engaged “for three years or the duration of the War”. After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled to Lowestoft to be with his family. As they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure, Roland rested his head on Vera’s shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As she had to return to report for nursing duty in Buxton and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, he saw her off at St Pancras on 23 August. He kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. Later that day, Vera wrote in her diary, I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much.

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur “Goodbye”. She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd, not turning around. What she could see of his face was ‘set and pale’. That was the last Vera saw of Roland. His next leave was due to be at Christmas 1915, but he died on 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. Instead of receiving him home in person, his family were sent his ‘personal effects’ in the New Year. What follows here is are extracts from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a nurse. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland’s family:

I arrived at a very opportune, though very awful, moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them  and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of the his death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted and putting them where nobody could ever find them…

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply raked with mud. And I was glad that neither of you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn those things when he was living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse heap of a country’ or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’. 

And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all – let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition – the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head – with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him trampled on it …

We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front – well below where the belt would have been, just below the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic – was almost microscopic, but at the back almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest … which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry – probably the doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained. He must have fallen on his back, as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained and muddy than the front.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Mrs Leighton said,

“Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of death; they are not Roland, they seem to detract from his memory and spoil his glamour”.

And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived and walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not him. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide and felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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On 1 July 1916, Vera also lost her brother Edward to whom she wrote a poem in 1918 (right). In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera wrote of how she felt on Armistice Day in 1918, having lost Roland, Edward and two other friends. She felt that she was already living in a different world from the one that she had known during the past four years. This new world was one in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. She would have no part in that alien world because she had no-one to share it with; all those with whom she had been intimate had gone. For the first time, she realised how completely everything that had hitherto made up her life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey:

The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.

002

Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

The First World War was a deep shock to every individual who experienced it personally, from poets to politicians, either directly or indirectly. It often left a lasting sense of loss with them. The war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the Armistice was signed, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, produced brilliant, often pathetic or vituperative, but always compelling pieces of literature on the nature of trench warfare on the western front. I have written extensively about Owen’s life, tragic death and his poetry elsewhere on this site. Sassoon (1886-1967) began the war as a patriot. Already enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, he broke his arm when falling from his horse; consequently, he did not go to the Front till November 1915 and until then his poetry showed much the same attitude as Brooke’s did. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and early in 1916 was sent to the First Battalion in France. He showed remarkable and rather eccentric courage. His heroic episodes in bringing back wounded from no man’s land and in capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed won him the Military Cross; these episodes were described by Robert Graves, an officer in the same regiment, in Goodbye to All That.

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The war radically changed Sassoon’s approach to poetry, the romanticism of his early works replaced by muddy death, blood, cowardice and suicide. In July 1916 he was invalided home; on leave, he became a virtual pacifist. He had lost faith in the ethical cause for which the Allies were fighting, and in the strategy and tactics used by Allied generals on the Western Front. He was, therefore, the first poet to publish poetry that was openly critical of the Allies’ motives and methods in waging the war. By the spring of 1917, he was back in the front line at the Battle of Arras and was wounded in the neck. Invalided home again he adopted more dramatic methods of showing his opposition to the war. Graves persuaded Sassoon to appear before an army medical board, which sent him to a hospital for neurasthenia at Craiglockart in Scotland, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, and where he encouraged his fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen, in writing poetry.

As the historian Henry Pelling pointed out, in 1914 the country had not been psychologically prepared for the trials it had to undergo, the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties never previously experienced. Britain and its Empire had lost almost a million men, with twice as many wounded; this placed them fifth behind Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary in a war that claimed more than thirty-five million civilian and military casualties around the world. Technology had given these powers the artillery gun and the machine-gun, and their leaders elected to kill more than sixteen million people with these weapons. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reluctance to get to grips with what had happened. In some ways, this was surprising because, for the first time ever, the ranks were filled with natural reporters. The troops who went into action at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 were mostly volunteers who had answered the appeal of Lord Kitchener. They came from every stratum of society, from the unemployed to factory hands, clerks and office workers, and on through to lawyers, doctors and landed gentry.

As John Buchan wrote in 1935, a war solves no problem but the one – which side is the stronger. In November 1918 the Allies felt that they had overthrown a great menace and arrogance. But what was to come next? It was an old assumption that some spiritual profit was assured by material loss and bodily suffering, but it was certain that the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain. He went on:

The passions of many millions cannot be stirred for years without leaving a hideous legacy. Human life has been shorn of its sacredness; death and misery and torture have become too familiar, the old decorums and sanctions have lost something of their power. The crust of civilisation has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of the primordial fires. … Principles, which seemed fundamental, are… weakened, and men are inclined to question the cardinal articles of their faith. …

But the chief consequence of so great a war as this was the mental and moral fatigue. Minds were relaxed and surfeited, when they were not disillusioned. They had had enough of the heroic. After the strain of the distant vision they were apt to seek the immediate advantage; after so much altruism they asked leave to attend to private interests; after their unremitting labours they claimed the right of apathy. The conundrums of peace had to be faced not only by jaded statesmen, but by listless, confused peoples. Mr Lloyd George found the right word for the malady when he described it as a “fever of anaemia.”

The situation was the more dangerous for the Allies, because the intricate business of peace should have been the work of the peoples, as they had been the architects of victory. The war was not won by the genius of the few but by the faithfulness of the many. It had been a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature. … But the peoples seemed to stand aside, and cast the whole burden of settlement on statesmen whose shoulders were already weary. Nothing was more striking than the popular apathy about the business of peacemaking. …

Britain caught the same infection as the rest of the world. … As for youth, it shut its ears for a little to every call except the piping of pleasure. … The War was a memory to be buried. Young men back from the trenches tried to make up for the four years of natural amusement of which they had been cheated; girls, starved for years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. …

002

The soldiers had returned, both male and female, as the picture above of them sitting on Brighton beach in 1919 reveals. The well-known blue uniform was seen about the streets. The wounded looked cheerful in the second picture below, presumably, simply because they were alive.

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The newspaper reporting of the time was factual but restrained and relatively free of ‘comment’ apart from the editorials; “morale” was all-important. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon supplied a tiny audience what was missing from the reportage. He continued to show his distrust of England’s ‘ruling classes’ in several ways, writing Aftermath in 1920:

Have you forgotten yet? …

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game …

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look down , and swear by the dead of the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

There were some undistinguished novels in the 1920s, but it was ten years before Robert Graves and Sassoon felt able to release their officer-class memoirs and before R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was first performed. Sassoon became the first literary editor of the Daily Herald, the new Socialist newspaper, and his prose books such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer implied considerable criticism of the class system. The experience scarred many, on all fronts, including the home front, in deep psychological ways.

(to be continued…)

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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