Friday, 29 August 2014

On the night of 24th January 1889 ...

On the night of 24th January 1889, the people of Felsham, Gedding, Rattlesden and Woolpit were involved in an event that created such as “stir” that even the oldest inhabitants of the area could remember nothing like it.  A local newspaper reported that at nine o’clock “the parish bells sent forth a merry peal, and the excitement which had been showing itself during the day became intense.” 

The village was Rattlesden and the event that created such a “stir” was the election of a County Councillor for the Rattlesden Division in the newly formed West Suffolk Council. 

The Local Government Act of 1888 set up the County Councils of West Suffolk and East Suffolk. Prior to 1888, apart from the borough corporations, Suffolk had been administered by magistrates meeting in quarter sessions, one in the east at Ipswich and one in the west at Bury. From 1889 County administration passed from appointed magistrates to elected councillors.

The Rattlesden Division was contested by two members of the local Conservative Association: one was Mr Duncan Parker, JP, living at The Grange, Woolpit Green and the other was Mr John Anderson, a retired barrister, who resided at Yewlands in Felsham.  The Parkers were a well-established family with roots in both Woolpit and Rattlesden; while the Anderson family were well-known for their good works in both Felsham and Gedding over many decades.  Their respective supporters tended to align themselves according to whether they lived in one or other of the two sets of villages.

The election campaign began in earnest in December 1888 when a meeting of electors was held at Rattlesden School where both candidates addressed the audience which contained a large and unruly group from Felsham.  The Bury & Norwich Post reported what happened:
“Unfortunately the rough element preponderated in the audience, and as it seemed friendly disposed towards Mr Anderson, that gentleman obtained a good hearing.  On Mr Parker rising, however, the hitherto placid state of the meeting was displaced in favour of a most riotous scene.  Hooting and braying was indulged in while Mr Parker was endeavouring to speak, and he ultimately had to desist…”

The ringleader of the “rough element” may well have been a Felsham farmer named Samuel Scott from Brook Hall Farm.  There are two pieces of evidence from local newspaper accounts that support this conjecture. Firstly, Samuel Scott was John Anderson’s main supporter having nominated him for election.  Secondly, this same farmer had been involved in a fracas on Felsham Upper Green during an election rally three years earlier when he and other young farmers had fought with labourers from Rattlesden.

John Anderson appears to have been the favourite candidate.  Certainly, his supporters worked hard to secure his success in the weeks leading up to the election.  The Ipswich Journal (1st February 1889) reported that:
“Mr Anderson’s agents have been assiduously busy in the four parishes in spotting and counting voters, at one time even declaring they could command 150 in Rattlesden alone out of its 214, the largest of the four.  In the distant parts of the parish people were called up at night even, and some in a semi-frightened state suggested the “Jack the Ripper” had made his appearance.”  [It needs to be remembered that reports of the horrific killings in London were in all the newspapers at this time.]

Who was Jack the Ripper?

The election took place on Thursday 24th January and the results were:
Parker               270
Anderson          197
            Majority  73

Despite the concerted barracking of their opponent at public meetings and despite their energetic canvassing of the neighbourhood electors, the Felsham faction was left licking its wounds.  

The Ipswich Journal reported that John Anderson was magnanimous in defeat.  He “thanked his supporters, and was sure they would find in Mr Parker a worthy gentleman as County Councillor, and hoped that no ill-feeling would be shown between the people of the different parishes.”  

As the evening progressed, “the Felsham people began to draw off, evidently downcast at the result, while some of Mr Parker’s supporters were enjoying the ditty of ‘O dear, what can the matter be?’ 

Between ten and eleven o’clock the parish bells ceased ringing, and the usual quietude of the village was apparent, but never in the remembrance of the oldest inhabitant had there been such a “stir” as in the election of the first County Councillor for the Rattlesden Division.”

Note on the Conservatives:
The politics of the Conservative Party at this time was coloured by its opposition to Irish Home Rule and its coalition with the Liberal Unionists.  Much of the rhetoric was similar to that currently taking place concerning an independent Scotland.  In October 1887 Duncan Parker addressed the audience at the Annual Dinner of the Woolpit Working Mens' Conservative Association:

Bury & Norwich Post, 4 Oct 1887

Note on the social composition of the new West Suffolk Council:
The new Council was dominated by Justices of the Peace.  JPs had previously had an important role in administering local affairs at the Quarter Sessions so it was hardly surprising that they retained their interest within the new arrangements.  Farmers in the village divisions also predominated while tradespeople such as ironmongers, wine merchants and hotel proprietors held sway in the town divisions such as Bury St Edmunds.

Note on John Thomas Anderson
Thomas Anderson’s eldest son, John Thomas Anderson, had returned from Canada soon after the death of his father.  He lived in Bury St Edmunds for a while and then moved to Yewlands [Felsham House] after the death of his sister, Mary.  He carried on living at Yewlands with his wife, Mary Montgomerie, for twelve years until his death, at the age of 72, in April 1894.  Apparently, their initials appear on the dining room mantle-piece with the date 1883, when four large rooms were added to the house.  His tragic death was reported in the Bury & Norwich Post:

3rd April 1894

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Clerical magistrates in the 19th century

Nowadays, we are used to regarding local clerics as fairly benign figures who are more community social workers than guardians of "Victorian values".  They are usually tolerant, run 'messy churches' and produce relatively saccharine pastoral newsletters for their parishioners. Occasionally, more senior clerics may intervene in moral and political matters as in Bury St Edmunds recently, but on the whole, village clerics avoid the limelight and try to be as even-handed as possible in relation to local issues.

This was not necessarily the case in Victorian times when clerics combined their church duties with the responsibility of being local magistrates.  Sometimes these two roles were in conflict: how could you act as pastoral "shepherd of your flock" but at the same time administer the law which was often severely punitive?

The clerical magistrate

John Glyde was adamant that "a clergyman's connection with the civil power, as magistrate or guardian of the poor, is detrimental to his spiritual influence".
(Glyde, John, Suffolk in the Nineteenth Century, Simpkin Marshall & Co., 1856, page 284)

Some clerical magistrates became very unpopular.  The Reverend Robert Davers (1772-1853) seems to have been loathed by his working class parishioners.
A prominent magistrate and Rector of Bradfield St George with Rushbrooke and Rougham, the Rev Davers possessed a large land holding in his own villages as well as Felsham’s 63-acre Davers Farm (Capel Farm) with farmhouse and 3 cottages.  He worked closely with the Felsham Rector and was a trustee of the village bread charity.  He was probably the most aristocratic of all our landowners being the son of Sir Charles Davers of Rushbrooke Park and first cousin to the Marquis of Bristol.
He does not appear to have been particularly popular with his parishioners partly because like many clergy he was the target of resentment over the payment of tithes before they were reformed in the 1830s.  Payment of tithe had never been popular with farmers.  It was regarded as a tax on improvement, since the more efficiently one farmed the more one paid.  In 1822, he promised his tenants that he would be making a reduction in his tithes and rents to compensate for “the distressed situation in agriculture.”  This led to an angry response in the Bury & Norwich Post where a correspondent writing under the pseudonym ‘Rusticus’, declared:
“… now, Sir, I have paid the above Rev. Gentleman a large sum of Tithes ‘to the uttermost farthing’ positively out of my Capital, but can assure you that I have not nor can find any one that has received the slightest abatement or return.”
His unpopularity among agricultural labourers was reflected in the fact that his property was frequently targeted by incendiarists particularly during the early 1840s when rural unrest was at its height.
In 1843 he appeared in court to answer a charge of riding his horse on a foot-path on one of his regular visits as magistrate to Bury Gaol.  A local man was reported as telling him off saying, “What business have you to ride on the foot-path any more than a poor man?”  To which the Rev Davers replied, “A Commissioner may ride where he thinks proper.”  This high-handed response led him to being fined 10s with 10s 6d costs, no doubt to the satisfaction of many disgruntled locals who must have rubbed their hands with glee at seeing him brought so low. 
His wife was equally unpopular, particularly among the dissenters of Bradfield, against whom she actively campaigned when they founded a Baptist congregation in the village.  Many non-conformists lost their homes and jobs because of her intolerance.  It was reported that she came into the meeting-house and
 “… carefully noticed every individual present as the number by which this time was much reduced by the persecution to which the poor people were exposed who came to hear the gospel.  The poor man who occupied the house in which the services were now held had regular notice to quit his occupation.” 
Resentment against Robert Davers was not confined to non-conformists.  The congregation of the Church of England in Rougham frequently complained that they were served by a mere curate during the 50 years he was Rector.
Sport was an all-embracing enthusiasm for many landowners who frequently rode to hounds and joined shooting parties.  The Reverend Davers was no exception.  He owned some of the best wooded land in the locality for hunting and his library contained books like “Strutt’s Sports & Pastimes”.  Furthermore, between 1797 and 1812 he was master of a pack of fox-hounds.  He also took a lively interest in horticulture and horse breeding.  On his death in 1853 the sale of his property included a “Thorough-bred entire horse, “YOUNG PREMIUM”, a beautiful Bay, with splendid action…”
Shooting, like fox-hunting was a fairly exclusive activity since it was restricted by law to landowners, though after 1831 tenants could shoot game on their farms with the landlord’s permission.  Local newspapers published lists of those people licensed to shoot game.  In 1832, Robert Davers’ gamekeeper brought a prosecution against a young gentleman named Thomas Cocksedge for shooting game without having obtained a certificate.  The magistrates decided that this was a genuine oversight and “convicted Mr Cocksedge in the penalty of one farthing.”  The reporter present sarcastically commented:
“It is lamentable to find the servant of a clergyman employed in such a task as that of proceeding against a school-boy for so trifling an irregularity, because it chanced to be committed near the ‘sacred groves’ of his master.” (Bury & Norwich Post, 5 Sept. 1832)
Poaching was rife during Robert Davers's lifetime.  The deliberate preservation of game birds in enclosed woods like ‘Felsham Hall Wood’ encouraged poaching by both organised gangs and by the opportunist local labourer looking for something to supplement his family’s meagre diet.  Landlords sought to protect their property by employing armed gamekeepers.  In Bradfield and Felsham woods a running war broke out between poachers and gamekeepers with casualties on both sides. 
Bury & Norwich Post, 1 December 1841
This extract was first published in Signposts to local history, May 2014, available from the Felsham PO Stores price, £3.50


Green Wars

Whilst researching nineteenth century Felsham I have been very dependent on the reports to be found in local newspapers, such as the Bury & Norwich Post, which can be accessed through Suffolk Libraries online. Using this facility, fascinating bits of village history are reported which do not appear in any other local records.  A good example is the report of the violent disturbances on Upper Green in 1885 during an election rally.  Even today village politics only makes the headlines when something unusual or illegal occurs such as that at Wyverstone in July 2014: "Explosives found among huge arms' haul on parish council chairman's property."

I often wonder what resources local historians of the future will use to describe events occurring today.  Perhaps the archives collected by the Local History Recorder will be of immense value here because this person is tasked with seeing that the present is adequately recorded at local level.  But as the post is currently vacant the interesting events of the last few months in Felsham may well go unrecorded.  I am thinking here of the controversy amounting to a "cause celebre" that surrounded the 'experimental nature reserve' on Lower Green. This began with a resolution, accepted by the Parish Council in May 2013, that a revised maintenance regime should be adopted for Lower Green for an initial trial period of one year.  A year later, after much local acrimony and the resignation of the Parish Clerk, the experiment was abandoned.

OS Map showing Lower Green c. 1900
Over the months villagers rapidly divided into two camps - the 'pros' and the 'antis'.  In the account that follows I will refer to the pros as the Eco Messy Mob and the antis as the Neat and Tidy Brigade.

Right from the start, objections were raised to letting the grass grow longer.  In this minor skirmish at the beginning of the Lower Green War, the idea that wild flowers were to flourish on Lower Green was anathema.  One objector even resurrected some archaic enclosure laws from the nineteenth century to buttress her case for a tidy Lower Green.  The SALC legal team quickly pointed out that these archaic laws did not apply to the land under dispute and the objection was rejected.  The experiment continued and by July 2013, the Green was looking very different to its usual 'short back and sides' appearance with flowers growing in profusion.

Self-heal on Lower Green, July 2013
Sadly, as the year progressed an unforeseen development reared its head.  Suckers put up by the old Black Poplar situated in the middle of the Green began to spring up everywhere.  This was a definite turning point and resulted in the Neat and Tidy Brigade gaining many converts.  It was unclear whether these suckers could be prevented from growing in future years and the Eco Messy Mob were put on the defensive.

Black Poplar sucker, Lower Green
The controversy over the maintenance of Lower Green only became acrimonious when, in March 2014, the grass was 'accidentally' cut short, though there was some suggestion that this was done at the instigation of a member of the Neat and Tidy Brigade.  As the year's experimental period had not expired, the Eco Messy Mob came out with all guns blazing, marshalled their forces, and bombarded the Parish Council with their views on why the experiment should continue.

The Neat and Tidy clique on the Parish Council panicked.  An attempt was made to move the date of the April Parish Council meeting so that all Neat and Tidy Councillors could attend to vote down any motion to continue the experiment.*
In any event, the Neat and Tidy clique came out victorious voting by 5 to 2 to abandon the experiment forthwith.  

Not content with this victory, some Councillors felt that old scores had to be settled.  The target was the Village News Editorial Team who were to be arraigned for daring to report on the controversy.  They argued that a recent article in the Newsletter "undermined the position of the council and belittled the decision-making regarding the maintenance programme for grass cutting on Lower Green."  A correction to be printed in the next edition of the Village News was insufficient; they wanted their "pound of flesh" and insisted that a retraction and an apology was required.  This was satirized in a spoof newsletter called THE FELSHAM PARISH PUMP.

Fortunately, with the absence of the main instigator of this nonsense (see Parish Councils and the law of defamation), the attempt to humiliate the Newsletter team was voted down at a subsequent meeting of the Parish Council.  There was now a definite desire to draw a line under the controversy and the Green War was finally over.  But have any lessons been learnt?

It has been officially acknowledged by MSDC (2 April 2015) that it is acceptable for a chairman of a parish council to change the date of a scheduled meeting to influence the outcome of a proposed vote through the deliberate and subsequent exclusion of some councillors and the inclusion of others.
The Parish Clerk, who at the time of the Green Wars controversy was in cahoots with the"neat and tidy" faction on the Council, changed the date of the scheduled meeting at which an important vote was to be taken over the future of Lower Green.  When challenged on this she blew her top and eventually resigned in a huff.  She asserted she had been insulted.  On closer investigation it appears that she disliked being reminded that she served all councillors and all parishioners and not just her associates and friends.  Furthermore, she took particular exception to being reminded that she was "public servant"; a term which, among the self-serving, self-employed local ruling clique, is regarded as a term of abuse.  It is a sorry state of affairs when people who serve the community in a public capacity, whether teachers, nurses, planning officers or local authority clerks, are ridiculed and demeaned by Tory types and their Lib Dem lackeys.