Tuesday, 8 July 2014

“Uproarious proceedings” on Felsham Green, 1885

In 1885 there was a violent confrontation on Felsham Green between local farmers and farm labourers.  It illustrates how the mutual respect and shared values that characterized farming communities in an earlier period had broken down, and how the traditional deference paid to farmers and landowners had been replaced by class antagonism and opposed political values.  The Rector’s description of “the poor deluded labourers” is very telling.  The rural elites often regarded the farm labourer as an ignorant simpleton and a low-paid rustic drudge who could not think for himself and was easily exploited by radical forces including rural trade unionism.

Bury & Norwich Post, July 21,  1885
Since 1884, farmworkers occupying property of sufficient value, had enjoyed the right to vote and were beginning to be wooed by politicians.  Waggonettes decked out in either yellow or blue and bearing emissaries of the two major parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives – crisscrossed the Suffolk countryside to garner votes. 

There was a second Liberal meeting in August 1885 when about 700 people assembled on Upper Green to hear Felix Cobbold speak.  The chairman referred to the disturbances of the last occasion and said that they wanted “to preserve the cherished rights of public meeting” and to “protest against such rights being interfered with, whether by the parson of the parish or others.”

The next month the Conservatives held their own meeting but in the Felsham National School rather than on the Green.  The newspaper report records that Sir Thomas Thornhill MP addressed the meeting which was attended by many local worthies including well-known farmers and the rectors of both Felsham and Gedding.  “There was only a small audience in the room, but a number of labourers assembled in the churchyard and around the schoolroom door.  These behaved in an orderly manner until the conclusion of the meeting, when loud cheers were given for Mr Gladstone, Mr Cobbold, and Mr Arch, and groans for Sir Thos. Thornhill and the Conservatives.”

  1. In 1881, only 14% of Felsham male residents over the age of 21 could vote in Parliamentary Elections.  Ten years later, in 1891, the franchise had been considerably extended: 82% could now vote.  Some men were still excluded as were all women.
  2. The 1885 general election was from 24 November to 18 December 1885.. It saw the Liberals, led by William Gladstone, win the most seats, but not an overall majority. As the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power between them and the Conservatives, this exacerbated divisions within the Liberals over Irish Home Rule and led to a split and another general election the following year.
  3. Felix Cobbold (1841-1909) was a British barrister and Liberal politician.  Cobbold was the son of John Cobbold, MP for Ipswich. He was educated at King's College, Cambridge, and later became a senior fellow of this college. Cobbold also sat as MP for Stowmarket between 1885 and 1886, and for Ipswich between 1906 and his death. In 1895 he presented  Christchurch Mansion to the town of Ipswich as part of an arrangement to preserve the mansion and surrounding Christchurch Park from development. He also bequeathed Gippeswyk Park to Ipswich.
  4. Joseph Arch (1826 -1919) was a Liberal politician, born in Barford, Warwickshire who played a key role in what Karl Marx called the "Great awakening" of the agricultural workers in 1872.  When the National Agricultural Labourers Union was established in 1872, Arch became its president and subscriptions were set at 2d a week. A rise then came in the wages of agricultural labourers which had the unforeseen effect of destroying the union as labourers, deeming their object gained, ceased to agitate. Later, lock-outs of union members by farm owners became widespread. The union finally collapsed in 1896 but was resurrected as the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers in 1906.

 This article first appeared in Signposts to local history, available from the Felsham PO Stores.