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Land is Free
Land is Free


School of Economic Science Mid-term lecture, 28 October 1953, attributed to Leon MacLaren.  Copyright© School of Economic Science London

Tonight I shall talk about the relationship between human beings and land, without which man cannot earn a living. I shall talk about free land and enclosed land; and I must tellyou what I mean by these terms.

Whether land is free or enclosed, we must occupy some of it to the exclusion of others.We need space for our homes, places of work, meeting, recreation and the rest, The difference consists not in the private occupation of land, a necessary condition, but in the customs and laws governing its occupation.

Enclosed land exists in any community wherever, by habit, custom and law, some members may enclose it against the rest without incurring any substantial duty towards them. Then some can and will take far more land than they themselves can use, and others will be deprived thereby. They will be free to use it or not as they please; to buy it r sell it; to let it out on such terms as they can obtain, or neglect to let it out. The important question is the duties which attach to ownership or occupation as such, not those which attach to use. In England today, many duties attach to use. If you use your land there will be rates and taxes to pay; the Town Planning Authority may harass you, but if you do not use it there will be little trouble.

By “free” land, I mean a system under which any man who claims land for himself automatically incurs a commensurate duty. The kind of duty may vary. It may be a military duty; to repair the roads or bridges. The duties may be many and various.

In this School, we have sought to define duties commensurate to the occupation of land, appropriate to our time and civilization.

Today, the land in England is all enclosed. The history of enclosures goes back many centuries. Some of the first records of enclosure in this country follow quite directly onthe introduction of Christian orders into this country. Before these times, the Kings, in whom the land was vested in the name of the community, usually leased out the land on a military or other service tenure. The King only benefited from the performance of these services during his lifetime. An army is no protection after death. The monks offered an extended service; they offered to pray for the souls of the monarchs after death. By granting land to monasteries, the rulers might be assured not only of prayers whilst living, but of prayers after death – for ever. It thus became usual to grant land to religious communities in perpetuity. Such a grant – a grant of Boc land – gave the land to the religious community for ever whilst they, in addition to the prayers, performed only whatwere considered the necessary duties – the maintenance of bridges and roads, and things like that. Now the Saxons, living a thousand years ago, understood the law of rent as well as a modern speculator. They knew that to get hold of land for ever was very profitable.They commenced to grab.

Boc lands could only be granted by the Witan by an unanimous vote in full session, and could only be granted in any case to religious communities. This practice soon degenerated. The Witan began to grant Boc lands to those expressing an intention to set up a religious community. Moreover, as the kingdoms grew larger, it became moredifficult for all with a voice at the Witan to attend. Accordingly, the proposed beneficiaries arranged matters so that only those favouring the grant attended the meeting. Much land was granted away by a packed Witan to people whose expressed intention to form a religious community was no more than a matter of form. They wanted the land, and by devious means they got it.

Bede writes of this in Northumbria, where in his day this practice was becoming widespread. 1 He wrote that land given away in such a manner was good neither to God nor man, but carried in it the seeds of the destruction of the Kingdom. He was right.

  • Bede’s letter to Bishop Egbert of York, 734 c.11-13 Egbert became Archbishop the following year.Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People published by Penguin ISBN 0-14-044565-X includes an English translation of this letter in addition to his Ecclesiastical History.

Shortly after his death Northumbria collapsed. In the South, although the same system developed, its effects were softened by war against the Welsh. Each push added to the kingdom more land on which to settle their heroes and others. Northumbria lacked this outlet and the grants of Boc land finally meant that there was practically no army, no administration, and the whole system of Government began to rot. Bede foresaw this quite plainly, but his warnings made little difference.

Mediaeval history records similar stories of this type of enclosure. In the l4th and 15th centuries, for example, there were enclosures on a fair scale in Warwickshire. One hears of whole villages being destroyed, and the church around which the village was built used as a barn. These enclosures were important in the small kingdoms where they began. Later, they were important to the particular area affected. But the first big enclosur movement to sweep through the whole of England began in Tudor times. The Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries enabled the King’s favourites to usurp the monastery Boc lands. The last big enclosure movement which formed the England we know today and laid the foundation for the industrial revolution, for the mass production technique, for Ford’s at Dagenham and Morris’s at Cowley, started at the beginning of the 18th century. The movement was well under way by the middle of that century, and continued until the middle of the 19th century, when little of England remained free. This was the consolidating movement which killed the free and independent English Yeoman. The enclosures before 1750 were sporadic, usually taking in only part of a village and leaving part free. Thus England in the seventeen-hundreds was still largely a country of common fields alongside old enclosures. Gregory King estimated in 1685 that about 50 per cent of England was cultivated land, and of that three-fifths were farmed under the system of the common fields.

The word “commons” applied to three types of land. 2 The arable field, which was divided into strips, was owned by the villagers. It was cultivated on a uniform system by

  • The Village Labourer 1760-1832 by J L Hammond and Barbara Hammond, Edition referred to is that published by Longmans,Green & Co in 1920. Accessible online at: page numbers given are those within the book itself.

agreement in the village, and after the harvest was thrown open to all as pasturage. The “common” also applied to meadow land; that was usually divided by lot and pegged out and distributed amongst the members of the village, and after haymaking was thrown open as pasturage for all. The last was waste land, still known today as “commons”; and was used as a common pasturage all the year. Almost certainly the waste had some wood on it, which the villagers used for fuel. Occasionally it was a strip alongside the road in and out of the village and, on other occasions, truly waste ground of the type we call  “commons” today, although there was still fuel to be gathered from it.

What then was the normal village like at the beginning of the l8th century? We must remember that England at the time was a country of villages. At the top was the Lord of the Manor. Following him were the freeholders, often known by the name of the “yeomanry”; some were large holders and some were quite small. Then were the copyholders. Then the tenant farmers, who again were a very wide class, some possibly only tenants at will who could be thrown out at a moment‘s notice; others with leases as long as three lives. Next were the cottagers; then the squatters, and, at the bottom of the ladder, the farm servants, who normally lived in the house of their employer. 3

By seventeen-hundred the manorial courts had lost most of their power. But the economic relationship between the Lord of the Manor and the villagers had not altered much. The Lord of the Manor did not always have strips in the common field, though more frequently he had many, but the whole of the waste was vested in him. By the Statute of Merton he could enclose part of the waste, but he must respect the rights of the villagers.

The division as between the freeholders, copyholders and cottagers varied considerably from village to village. 4 Probably the only general distinction between them is that some worked for the greater part of their time on their own land, and only very occasionally or not at all for anyone else, and others worked mainly as hired labourers, and only for a small part of their time for themselves either on their own particular strip tending their

  • Ibid Page 4
  • Ibid Page 6

 cattle on the waste. None of them was free to cultivate his strip as he pleased. In most villages the method of cultivation was decided by the jury of the Manor Court, theconstitution of which varied according to local customs. In almost every case the jury consisted of members of the village, elected by the village community. This jury decidedwhat should be grown, where it should be grown and how it should be grown. Again, one armer could put on common 1and two cows, three geese and four chickens while another could put half a dozen cows, no geese, but twelve chickens and possibly a few pigs. The limits were laid down in each case.

Earning their living manually as labourers were the cottager, farm servants and squatters. 5 Cottagers were those who owned a cottage, with probably a yard about it. They had attached to the cottage rights to the Common waste, and it appears that generally cottagers also rented strips from those with rights to share in the arable field. A usual custom throughout the country was that if a stranger arrived at the edge of the village, put up a shack overnight and had smoke coming through the chimney by dawn, he could stay there, This class of people were known as squatters. They were allowed to cultivate a plot about their shack, although they had no rights in the village itself, excepting those obtained by infiltration. After a while many squatters merged into cottagers. Squatters usually went out as day labourers to the freeholders, to the Lord of the Manor and to the other tenants.

Farm servants in most villages were children of the cottagers or of the poorer tenants, and went to work for the richer freeholders or the Lord of the Manor. Normally, they worked for their employer, lived and fed with him until such time as they had saved enough to buy a cottage in the village with all its attendant rights. Then they moved out, married and settled down as cottagers.

Such was the typical English village at the beginning of the l8th century. Near the village, which I have been describing, there would commonly be a large area of enclosed land.

  • Ibid Page 7

 But there was still the free land. Indeed, the enclosed farms may have provided the squatters and the cottagers with some employment. There were great disadvantages in this mode of life, but it was well ordered and harmonious.

The drive for enclosure came from many directions, some good, some avaricious. Because the jury of the Manor Court settled how a village would cultivate the common land, new methods of cultivation were not easily introduced. The only way to do it was to influence the jury until all agreed to the new system. This irritated the man of ideas and at this time ideas on farming were beginning to move.

The main drive, however, was for rent. John Mortimer wrote: “I shall only purpose two things that are matters of fact, that I think are sufficient to prove the advantage ofinclosures; which is first the great quantities of ground daily inclosed, and, secondly, the increase of rent that is everywhere made by those that do inclose their lands”. Rent was the prize and generally the rent of enclosed land was three times that obtainable from a strip.

But the rent was not all. The common land and the right to the strip gave villagers independence. They were not prepared to work on any terms at all; they would work, and work well, on their own terms. They were independent men. Mr Bishton, reporting on Shropshire towards the end of the century, says; “The use of common land by labourersoperated upon the mind as a sort of independence . . . After enclosure the labourers will work every day in the year, their children will be put out to labour early, and that subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present time is so much wanted would be thereby considerably secured”.6

Even that is not the whole story. The urge to enclose was powerfully stimulated in the gambling dens of London, by the gentlemen who moved between White’s and the House

  • Ibid Page 14

of Lords or the House of Commons. There is the case of Kings Sedgemoor, an enclosure which failed. Fortunately a whole series of letters written by the movers in the House of Commons came to light and their publication laid bare the reason why Kings Sedgemoor was to be enclosed. The proposed Act of Parliament stated that it needed draining and was useless as it stood. The letters revealed that the gambling creditors of certain peers were demanding payment and enclosure of the common land was the only way they could see of getting their money.7 This is one case that came to light. How many other lands were enclosed for the same reason, one will never know. There were probablymany, because frequently the persons paying large sums to secure the passage of an enclosure Bill through Parliament had no apparent interest in the land. MPs wererequently granted favours for voting for enclosure Bills in the Commons. This is often admitted in letters and books and biographies of that time. Few considered it to be corrupt; it was the usual way of running the Government. Indeed, the only practical way.

In history books one reads of the work of Townsend Coke and men of that calibre that the driving force behind enclosure was the desire to improve agriculture, grow more food, and boost exports. In part this may be true; in very small part. Contemporary documents make this abundantly clear.

How did these men secure the passage of an enclosure Bill? First, they needed the money, for it was expensive. The procedure began with a petition from local people setting out the advantages of enclosure and the disadvantages of the existing system in the locality. In fact, the petitioners were normally the Lord of the Manor and other selected owners. The villagers were not consulted, although they were to lose everything. Parliament automatically gave leave for the reading of the Bill. It would come up one dayfor its first reading, on the next day for its second reading and finally, it would go into Committee, when all petitions against were considered. Only those who were powerful and wealthy could hope to petition against the Bill. So it went cheerfully through Committee, backed by Members of Parliament who were bound by one reason or another

  • 7.Ibid Pages 41-43

to support it. The Committee reported to the House. The Bill was given its assent; passed to the House of Lords; received the Royal Assent, and all in a matter of a few weeks.

Very occasionally, owing to a slip, some important person in the locality was left out, and the Bill was opposed and rejected. The Kings Sedgemoor Bill was rejected at the first attempt for this reason.

After the passing of the Act, the Commissioners appointed under it descended on the district and distributed the land. The Act invested them with terrible powers. Some Acts imposed the death penalty on anyone actively opposing the Commissioners’ decisions. The Commissioners were willing instruments of enclosure. It was their job. By pleasing powerful owners they were likely to secure recommendation for further appointments. They cared little for the weak and poor. On occasions, the Commissioners appointed were peers, clergymen, or some other gentlemen of the locality. And these gentlemen gave their services as Commissioners without fee. Cobbett remarked: “To lay down the principle that men are to serve for nothing puts me in mind of the servant who went on hire, who being asked what wages he demanded, said he wanted no wages; for that he always found about the house little things to pick up”.

Sometimes the villagers did rebel and rebel firmly against enclosure. One example was at Otmoor, where rioting continued for some years. 8 Seventeen years after the enclosure the Oxford magistrates appealed for soldiers, and said in their appeal “Any force which Government may send down should not remain for a length of time together, but that to avoid the possibility of an undue connexion between the people and the Military, a succession of troops should be observed”. One of the biggest riots followed a remark made by one of the Oxford magistrates in Court, which remark gave a wrong impression to the people who had been commoners at Otmoor. The dispossessed Commoners broke down fences and declared the enclosure void. Immediately troops were sent and there was a battle and a number of villagers were captured. The cavalry loaded the prisoners onto carts and riding alongside, escorted them to Oxford. The way lay through St Giles,

  • 8Ibid Pages 69-72

and the soldiers had forgotten it was the day of St Giles’ fair. They rode with prisoners from Otmoor to St Giles – and that was as far as they got. The men of Otmoor raised the cry, “Long live Otmoor”, and the whole of St Giles was in uproar. The soldiers managed to fight their way through the fair to Beaumont Street, finally reaching Oxford Castle without a single prisoner. Attempts to recapture the Commoners were unsuccessful, but a few of those who had helped the escape at St Giles’ fair were arrested. Such was life in England in 1832.

But what were the effects of these enclosures? Plainly they revolutionised the life and relationships in the village. Instead of a landless labourer being unknown, a labourer with land was a rarity. Dunkin, in his book “Oxfordshire”, writes on the enclosures at Merton 9: “About the middle of last century (about l750), a very considerable alteration wasproduced in the relative situation of different classes in the village. The Act of Parliament for the enclosure of the fields having annulled all leases, and the inclosure itself facilitated the plan of throwing several small farms into a few large bargains (actually 25 farms to 5), the holders of the farms who had theretofore lived in comparative plenty,became suddenly reduced to the situation of labourers, and in a few years were necessitated to throw themselves and their families upon the parish. The overgrown farmers who had fattened upon this alteration, feeling the pressure of the net burden, determined if possible to free themselves”. The enclosers thought they had done very well until they discovered that all the dispossessed villagers were going on the poor relief, and they, the landlords, had to pay. Dunkin continues: “They accordingly decided upon reducing the allowance of these poor to the lowest ratio . . . and resolved to have no more servants so that their parishioners might expect no further increase from that source. In a few years the numbers of the poor rapidly declined; the more aged sank into their  graves, and the youth, warned by their parents’ sufferings, sought a settlement elsewhere. The farmers rejoicing in the success of their scheme, procured the demolition of thecottages, and thus endeavoured to secure themselves and their successors from the further expenses of supporting an increased population, so that in l82l the parish numbered only 30 houses inhabited by 34 families.” Firstly there was the enclosure. Then, having

  • 9Ibid Page 75

reduced the villagers to the state of paupers, the new owners had to pay out poor relief. To avoid this, they rid themselves of the families who lived in the village by eitherstarving them to death, letting then die of old age, or causing them to remove to other parts. It remained only to destroy their houses.

I mentioned earlier that even the squatters could obtain fuel from the common. Now transport in England in those days was expensive, slow and erratic and in consequencecoal was always expensive and in some parts unknown. Fuel rights were a very important item in a village budget. An estimate from Surrey stated that it cost a family an average of 48/- a year for fuel. Then wages were only about l/- to l/6 or perhaps for a skilled labourer 2/- per day. 48/- a year was a lot of money, and most people could not afford it. On the common the labourer had his fuel free in every sense. True, he had to cut it, but he did this when no other work could be done. The farmers of the village would normally give the labourer free carriage for his fuel in return for the ashes. The ordinary family could always have sufficient fuel for cooking and warmth. After the enclosure, fuel became a political problem. One writer of the day suggested in all earnestness that the labourers should leave their hovels, and live in the stables, because, he said, the animals generated a great deal of warmth which was being wasted. That was one solution to theproblem: go to the stables, at least the cows are warm!

Another important and ancient right of the commoners was the right to glean after harvest. It is estimated that the gleanings which a family obtained – usually the wives and children went out – were the equivalent of about six or seven week’s wages, and they went a long way towards feeding the labourer’s animals during the winter. Gleaning rights were abolished by enclosure. Although at that time a lawyer rarely took up the defence of a poor person, gleaning rights were contested both in and out of court, but the case failed. This contest is interesting because it showed that the gleaning rights had existed in the English village from time immemorial. The mosaic law states 10, “and when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleanings of thy harvest; thou shalt

  • 10 Leviticus 19.9

leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger”. Until two hundred years ago, English custom observed that ancient law, but a House of Commons packed by bribery and corruption abolished it as a mere incidental of enclosure. Gleaning became an offence punishable by transportation for life.

The labourers also found that prices rose against them. In the old village, the bulk of the produce on which a labouring family lived was either produced by themselves or they obtained it by barter with other members of the village, or in bulk at the fair. That was the method in the old village. But when the land was enclosed, the newly created class of big farmers sent their produce in bulk to the markets, whence it returned through a chain of merchants to be retailed in very small portions at rack prices. It could be retailed at rack prices because the labourer could only afford to purchase in small quantities. He no longer had his pig or his goose, which he could exchange for a bulk purchase. In the village food was short. One reads in the old records of a great scarcity of milk. Previously, of course, each labourer had his own cow.

So free land was secured by rights of common and rights of access to waste lands for grazing, fuel, timber and building materials, and in a hundred diverse ways, free land supported wages. With the support taken away by enclosure wages fell to the least the labourers were willing to accept. In money terms, wages rose during the period, but prices rose faster to fantastic levels. The Bedfordshire report on agriculture tells us that between l746 and l796 the price of provisions went up by 60%, while at the same time the money wages of the labour went up by 25%. Moreover the labourer was now living on money wages alone. Previously he had the produce from his own land to sell. Enclosure radically altered this. Thereafter he had nothing but his labour to sell.

There were various efforts, particularly by Samuel Whitbread, to introduce a minimum wage bill. Whitbread’s Bill was rejected on its first presentation to the House, mainly on

a speech by Pitt, who suggested that the real cure for the small incomes of the poor was child labour. A brilliant speech! It affected the whole House, who readily agreed with it.

Pitt’s speech made injustice certain. The solution to poverty proposed by a British Prime Minister was “Send the children out to work”! They were sent.

Deprived of their own livestock, the dispossessed labourers turned to poaching for a living. In 1803 an Act was passed in Parliament making the resistance to arrest by a poacher who was armed punishable by death. The death sentence was frequently executed. In 1816 this law was extended so that an unarmed poacher could be transported for seven years. To say a man was transported for seven years is not like sending him to prison for seven years; because he never came back. The Government never brought an ex-prisoner back; if he wanted to come back he must pay his own fare. Plainly a man released from a penal settlement in Van Deiman‘s Land had no means of paying his fare back to this country. These transportations were terrible. There are contemporary official reports from Tasmania, stating that a common method by which the men escaped from a penal settlement was by bunching together, a half dozen or ten, and marching straight out into the bush, drawing lots as to who would be eaten next, in the hope that there would be at least one who would be left alive by the time the coast was reached. Transportation was worse even than hanging.

There is a report by Mr Macqueen Potter, MP of Bedford. In 1789 he visited Bedford gaol, and questioned a man accused of firing and wounding a keeper. It was stated to be his first offence. Asked why he did it, this man replied – “Sir, I had a pregnant wife, with one infant at her knee and another at her breast; I was anxious to obtain work; I offered myself in all directions, but without success; if I went to a distance, I was told to go back to my parish, and when I did so I was allowed . . . What? Why, for myself, my babes, andmy wife, in a condition requiring more than common support, and unable to labour, I was allowed 7/- a week for all; for which I was expected to work on the roads from light to dark, and to pay 3 guineas a year for the hovel which houses us”. He was sentenced to be hanged at the Spring Assizes.

  • 11.The Village Labourer 1760-1832 by J L Hammond and Barbara Hammond, Page 169

 This warfare between poachers and the landowners’ servants became very fierce indeed, and into it was thrown every scientific device that could be found in this country. Spring guns and other diabolical traps. Men were maimed, or killed, or torn away from their village and sent to Australia for life. The irony of it all was that most of the poultry that the villagers procured was not for themselves. It was sold to merchants who brought it to London for the tables of the very landowners whose servants were murdering the poachers.

With grinding poverty the only method of living became stealing. The answer of the landlords was increased severity of the law. Often the children were sent out to steal, while the father was working on the roads from light until dark. The Superintendent of Prisons reports that a large number of the boys that were in prison at that time were so young that they were unable to dress themselves. Mr. Richard Potter records in his diary for the 13th October 1813: “I was attending to give evidence against a man. Afterwards two boys, John & Thomas Clough, aged l2 & 10 years, were tried and found guilty of stealing some Irish linen out of Joseph Morley’s warehouse during the dinner hour. The chairman sentenced them to 7 years transportation. On its being pronounced, the Mother of those unfortunate boys came to the Bar to her children, and with them was in great agony, imploring mercy of the Bench. With difficulty the children were removed. The scene was so horrifying I could remain no longer in court.” 12 That was the freedom and justice in this country 140 years 13 ago.

Conditions became so unbearable that in 1795, 1816 and 1830, the labourers revolted. After the first rising in 1795, the enclosers were alarmed, and introduced a system of poor relief, known as the “ system”. Generally it was a method by which the labourers were hired out by the Parish to anybody who wanted them for whatever the Parish could get, and they were kept out of the rates. This led to the poor being entirely dependent upon poor relief, and put sweeping powers into the hands of the village

  • 12 Ibid Page 176
  •  13 140 years when this lecture was given. Now 200 years.

overseer. It eventually reacted on the rich, as they had to pay the poor relief. Pauperism became a prerequisite for employment, since no man with any property could go on the Parish. If any labourer became unemployed whilst owning a cottage, a cow or goose, he immediately got rid of it. One frequently reads of men falling unemployed and indulging in a couple of days of riotous living so that they could go on the Parish, and then obtain work.

Another effect of poor relief followed from giving a higher rate of relief to married men with additions for children. The result was that a married man with, say, half a dozen children could almost exist, and the important thing for the men of the village was to get married. Better still, get married to someone who already had children.’ By the beginning of the 1830’s in the villages of this country, the marriage chances of a woman increased with the number of her illegitimate children. The advantage to the husband was that for illegitimate children, the Parish guaranteed a father’s allowance above the ordinary poor relief.14

The landowners in their turn took steps to be rid of the poor they had to support. A large landowner in one village would purchase a small farm in the next village. The labourers for the small farm would be hired for a year from the village where the main estate lay. When the year was completed, the labourers, under the settlement laws, became a charge on the parish wherein they were employed. The landowner then sacked them, and they obtained poor relief from the village in which they had been working. Their cottage in the village from whence they came was demolished.

The advantage to the landowner was that he paid a small proportion towards their keep, whereas previously, being the sole or major owner, he paid most of it. He then proceeded to hire more labourers, gradually depopulating the parish in which by virtue of his landholdings he paid most of the rates. Plainly not all could win at that game.

  • 14 The Village Labourer 1760-1832 by J L Hammond and Barbara Hammond, Page 204

The appointment of a local overseer for limited periods also added to the rates. During his period, the overseer wanted to attract friends and trade. An overseer would allow his friends to have labourers at a lower rate than those he did not like. That cut the receipts. A trader gave out tickets to buy things at his shop at enhanced prices. That put up the costs. Some reports on the cost of the Speenham land system are fantastic. In some villages the poor relief system was costing in the region of £4 to £5 per head of population per annum, a pauper could earn only about 7/- a week.

So the Speenham land system weighted down the farmers with rates, and they took evasive action. The labourers’ wages were squeezed.

In l830, Lord Winchilsea said in the House of Lords that he had seen three or four labourers under a hedge, dead from starvation at the end of the harvest day. Cobbett wrote 15: “Their dwellings are little better than pig beds, and looks indicate that their food is not nearly equal to that of a pig. These wretched hovels are stuck upon little beds of ground on the roadside where the space has been wider than the road demanded. In many places they have not two rods to a hovel. It seems as if they had been swept off the fields by a hurricane, and had dropped and found shelter under the banks on the roadside. Yesterday morning was a sharp frost, and this had set the poor creatures to digging up their little plots of potatoes. In my whole life I never saw human wretchedness equal to this.” Of Leicester he writes “Hovels made of mud and straw, bits of glass or of old castoff windows, without frames or hinges frequently, and 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 or of bare ground; look at the thing called a bed, and survey the rags on the backs of the inhabitants.”

The revolt of 1816 was centred mainly in East Anglia. In the famous battle of Littleport, two rioters were killed and 75 taken prisoner. Of the 75 prisoners, five were hanged, five transported for life, one transported for 14 years, three for seven years and ten were imprisoned in this country for one year. In his speech, according to “The Times”, Mr

  • 15 Ibid Pages 161-162. Both quotations taken from Cobbett’s: Rural Rides

Christian, the presiding Justice, spoke of the great wages labourers were receiving and said that “any change in the prices of provisions could only lessen that superfluity which, I fear, they too frequently wasted in drunkenness.” The labourers had marched around carrying a banner on which was marked “Blood or bread”, and they threatened to march to London. They were also armed. “The Times” reported of this revolution in East Anglia that immediately their demands were met the disturbances ceased. And their demands were that flour should be reduced to 2s. 6d. a stone, and that their wages should be raised for two weeks to 2s. 0d. a head.

The main and last labourers‘ revolution in this country was in 1830. The revolt started in Kent in August of l830. Canterbury, Maidstone and Sittingbourne were the main areas. It spread from there by November to parts of Sussex and during November it appears that the labourers had control in a triangled area; Maidstone, Hythe and Brighton. “The Times” said on the l7th November, 1830: “The conduct of the peasantry has been admirable . . . Each Parish has risen “per se”, in many places their proceedings have been managed with astonishing coolness and regularity”. Nevertheless, on the 15th November Sir Robert Peel wrote to Lord Liverpool saying he had despatched every troop of available cavalry to the area. But it did not stop. Revolts spread through Kent to Hampshire, Surrey, Wiltshire and Berkshire. In Hampshire a great deal of property was destroyed and the gentry were alarmed. The farmers were not against the labourers. Generally when the labourers came to a farm and made demands, the farmers gave way on the condition that they should go up to the big house and ask for a reduction of the farmer’s rent. The farmers did not join the labourers, but they did not oppose them. One reads of occasions when farmers encouraged men to smash their machinery. Some farmers were charged at the reckoning afterwards. The big landowners were alarmed at the scarcity of troops. Peel had despatched regiments here and there, but before long the revolt had spread over the whole country.

It is interesting to note that during this revolution, with true English reticence, not one person was killed or wounded by the labourers. Only one person was killed, being shot by the yeomanry. The only wounded were those wounded by the troops. Yet the labourers controlled large areas of the country, and caused such fear in London that many of the big moneylenders removed their wives and children out of the town. There was a great deal of property damaged; ricks set afire, and so on, this was frequently aided and abetted by the farmers in the hope that their rent would be reduced.

In the House of Lords on the 2nd of December, 1830, Brougham said, “Within a few days from the time I am addressing your Lordships, the sword of justice shall be unsheathcd to smite, if it be necessary, with a firm.and vigourous hand, the rebel against the law”. Special commissions were set up to deal with the rioters. The law of this country sided with the rich. The judges were of the rich; the lawyers were of the rich. By law, a man committed for trial after these riots could not fee Counsel to speak for him. The prisoner had to speak for himself. If he could afford it, he could fee Counsel to conduct his case, but not to speak for him. In one instance, a labourer on a capital charge was asked by the Judge if he wished to say anything to the Jury. The Jury were the freeholders, that is, the landlords. The labourer replied, “No, I don’t know any of the gentlemen.” That was as much as he realised of what was going on. No one could help or assist him in any way. This is what Lord Brougham called “the sword of justice”. It was the sword, but whether any justice, is another matter.

The first, and by far the worst of these Special Commissions was set up at Winchester on the 18th December, 1830, and there were 300 prisoners awaiting trial. Of these 300, 6 were condemned to death, 95 to transportation for life, 56 to transportation for various periods; sixty-five imprisoned with hard labour, and the rest acquitted. Altogether these Special Commissioners sentenced 457 English labourers to transportation for life. Their only crime had been to ask for bread. They had not taken one life, or wounded one person. Yet 457 were banished to something worse than death. Needless to say, the revolt was crushed. The labourers lost their freedom; they had lost everything. Since then down to today, we have had to attempt to live with injustice. And the attempt to live with it has, I suppose, been successful. Although the fire still smoulders, the memory of justice is dim.

What was the condition of England by the middle of the 19th century? We have a picture of the results of enclosure in a report to the House of Commons given in May 1876. The report purports to be a summary of returns of the owners of land in England and Wales. It is most inaccurate. One person owning plots in various districts is counted as a separate person for each plot; leaseholders for 99 years, copyholders and the like, were all counted as owners; as were people who had less than one acre, and they, on analysis, account for two-thirds of the people mentioned in the report. Here are some extracts from it, by counties: In Norfolk we find 15 peers holding one-seventh of the county; 1,348 people owned three-quarters of the county; 412,820 were landless. In Essex 5 peers held onesixteenth;1,471 persons owned over three-quarters; there were 444,656 landless. Hertfordshire, l0 people owned over one-fifth of the county; 439 people owned overthree-quarters, and there were l80,000 landless people. So it goes on. In Oxfordshire, 57 people owned one-third of the county, l68,000 landless. In other words in England 90% or more had lost their right and title to their native land in a period of 176 years; that is between 1700, when King reported that in his travels in England he found hardly a landless labourer, to l876. The heritage which the English people had held unquestionably through the ages was taken away. We are now strangers in our own land.

Since those days we have gained political freedom which we still enjoy. That is a great deal better than l50 years ago when there was no political justice at all. The country was then governed on the principle of bribery and corruption, and sinecures. Political freedom has been gained, economic freedom lost.

The final clearing up of the enclosures was not until1925 – within the life-time of most of us.

We are not in the School seeking to alter something which has been written in English blood and defended throughout the centuries, We are seeking to change something which is plainly unjust, which was introduced by bribery and corruption and every other devious means that men could think of, and which, in fact, your forefathers of not many generations back tried to prevent, even to the extent of their lives, It is indeed today a matter of life or death.


John Lawrence Hammond (1872-1949) was a journalist, leader-writer and editor for a variety of publications until 1907, when he was appointed secretary to the Civil Service Commission. He was a special correspondent for the Manchester Guardian at the Versailles peace conference, and remained associated with the newspaper throughout the rest of his life. In 1901 Hammond married (Lucy) Barbara Bradby (1873-1961). Together they wrote numerous histories and biographies, including The Village Labourer (1911), The Town Labourer (1917) and The Skilled Labourer (1919); Liberals rather than Socialists, they were nonetheless attacked for promoting the left-wing view that the Industrial Revolution had created social misery for the working classes. These well researched books illustrate graphically the extent of that social misery.


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