THE VILLAGE LABOURER, 1760-1832, by J. L. and Barbara Hammond
“Enclosures might have benefited all parties, but now they form part of what Blackstone denominates a ‘failed rural policy’, one which has completed the degradation and ruin of our agricultural poor.”
Chapter I in the First (1913) Edition, The Concentration of Power, was omitted from subsequent editions (1920 & later). It seems that too many people were put off by the conclusions in Chapter I; and consequently the remainder of the book was called into question, labeled unobjective, leftist, or worse.
THE CONCENTRATION OF POWER: One way of describing the changes that came over English society after the break-up of feudalism would be to say that as in France everything drifted into the hands of the intendant, in England everything drifted into the hands of the Justice of the Peace. This office, created in the first year of Edward III, had grown during his reign to very great importance and power. Originally the Justices of the Peace were appointed by the state to carry out certain of its precepts, and generally to keep the peace in the counties in which they served. In their quarterly sittings they had the assistance of a jury, and exercised a criminal jurisdiction concurrent with that which the king’s judges exercised when on circuit. But from early days they developed an administrative power, which gradually drew to itself almost all the functions and properties of government. Its quasi-judicial origin is seen in the judicial form under which it conducted such business as the supervision of roads and bridges. Delinquencies and deficiencies were ‘presented’ to the magistrates in court. It became the habit, very early in the history of the Justices of the Peace, to entrust to them duties that were new, or duties to which existing authorities were conspicuously inadequate. In the social convulsions that followed the Black Death, it was the Justice of the Peace who was called in to administer the elaborate legislation by which the capitalist classes sought to cage the new ambitions of the labourer. Under the Elizabethan Poor Law, it was the Justice of the Peace who appointed the parish overseers and approved their poor rate, and it was the Justice of the Peace who held in his hand the meshes of the law of Settlement. In other words, the social order that emerged from mediæval feudalism centred round the Justice of the Peace in England as conspicuously as it centred round the bureaucracy in France. During the eighteenth century, the power of the Justice of the Peace reached its zenith, whilst his government acquired certain attributes that gave it a special significance.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century there were still many small men taking some part in the affairs of the village. The old manorial civilisation was disappearing, but Mr. and Mrs. Webb have shown that manor courts of one kind or another were far more numerous and had far more to do at the beginning of the eighteenth century than has been commonly supposed. Such records as survive, those, e.g. of Godmanchester and Great Tew, prove that the conduct and arrangement of the business of the common fields–and England was still, at the beginning of this period, very largely a country of common fields–required and received very full and careful attention. Those courts crumble away as the common fields vanish, and with them there disappears an institution in which, as Professor Vinogradoff has shown, the small man counted and had recognised rights. By the time of the Reform Bill (1832), a manor court was more or less of a local curiosity. The village vestries again, which represented another successor to the manorial organisation, democratic in form, were losing their vitality and functions, and coming more and more under the shadow of the Justices of the Peace. Parochial government was declining throughout the century, and though Professor Lowell in his recent book speaks of village government as still democratic in 1882, few of those who have examined the history of the vestry believe that much was left of its democratic character. By the end of the eighteenth century, the entire administration of county affairs, as well as the ultimate authority in parish business, was in the hands of the Justice of the Peace, the High Sheriff, and the Lord- Lieutenant.
The significance of this development was increased by the manner in which the administration of the justices was conducted. The transactions of business fell, as the century advanced, into fewer and fewer hands, and became less and less public in form and method. The great administrative court, Quarter Sessions, remained open as a court of justice, but it ceased to conduct its county business in public. Its procedure, too, was gradually transformed. Originally the court received ‘presentments’ or complaints from many different sources–the grand juries, the juries from the Hundreds, the liberties and the boroughs, and from constable juries. The grand juries presented county bridges, highways or gaols that needed repair: the Hundred juries presented delinquencies in their divisions: constable juries presented such minor antisocial practices as the keeping of pigs. Each of these juries represented some area of public opinion. The Grand Jury, besides giving its verdict on all these presentments, was in other ways a very formidable body, and acted as a kind of consultative committee, and perhaps as a finance committee. Now all this elaborate machinery was simplified in the eighteenth century, and it was simplified by the abandonment of all the quasi-democratic characteristics and methods. Presentments by individual justices gradually superseded presentments by juries. By 1835 the Hundred Jury and Jury of Constables had disappeared: the Grand Jury had almost ceased to concern itself with local government, and the administrative business of Quarter Sessions was no longer discussed in open court.
Even more significant in some respects was the delegation of a great part of county business, including the protection of footpaths, from Quarter Sessions to Petty Sessions or to single justices out of sessions. Magistrates could administer in this uncontrolled capacity a drastic code for the punishment of vagrants and poachers without jury or publicity. The single justice himself determined all questions of law and of fact, and could please himself as to the evidence he chose to hear.
It was a handful of magistrates in the different counties, acting on their own initiative, without any direction from Parliament, that set loose this social avalanche in England. Parliament, indeed, had developed the habit of taking the opinion of the magistrates as conclusive on all social questions, and whereas a modern elected local authority has to submit to the control of a department subject to Parliament, in the eighteenth century a non-elected local authority, not content with its own unchecked authority, virtually controlled the decisions of Parliament as well. The opposition of the magistrates to Whitbread’s Bill in 1807, for example, was accepted as fatal and final.
Now if the Crown had been more powerful or had followed a different policy, the Justices of the Peace, instead of developing into autonomous local oligarchies, might have become its representatives. When feudal rights disappeared with the Wars of the Roses, the authority of the Justice of the Peace, an officer of the Crown, superseded that of the local lord. Mr. Jenks is therefore justified in saying that ‘the governing caste in English country life since the Reformation has not been a feudal but an official caste.’ But this official caste is, so to speak, only another aspect of the feudal caste, for though on paper the representatives of the central power, the county magistrates were in practice, by the end of the eighteenth century, simply the local squires putting into force their own ideas and policy.
Down to the Rebellion, the Privy Council expected judges of assize to choose suitable persons for appointment as magistrates. Magistrates were made and unmade until the reign of George I, according to the political prepossessions of governments. But by the end of the eighteenth century the Lord Lieutenant’s recommendations were virtually decisive for appointment, and dismissal from the bench became unknown. Thus though the system of the magistracy, as Redlich and Hirst pointed out, enabled the English constitution to rid itself of feudalism a century earlier than the continent, it ultimately gave back to the landlords in another form the power that they lost when feudalism disappeared.
Another distinctive feature of the English magistracy contributed to this result. The Justice of the Peace was unpaid. The statutes of Edward III. and Richard II. prescribed wages at the handsome rate of four shillings a day, but it seems to be clear, though the actual practice of benches is not very easy to ascertain, that the wages in the rare instances when they were claimed were spent on hospitality, and did not go into the pockets of the individual justices. Lord Eldon gave this as a reason for refusing to strike magistrates off the list in cases of private misconduct. ‘As the magistrates gave their services gratis they ought to be protected.’ When it was first proposed in 1785 to establish salaried police commissioners for Middlesex, many Whigs drew a contrast between the magistrates who were under no particular obligation to the executive power and the officials proposed to be appointed who would receive salaries, and might be expected to take their orders from the Government.
The aristocracy was thus paramount both in local government and in Parliament. A class that wishes to preserve its special powers and privileges has to discover some way of protecting its corporate interests from the misdemeanours and follies of individual members. The great landlords found such a device in the system of entail which gave to each successive generation merely a life interest in the estates, and kept the estates themselves as the permanent possession of the family. But the lawyers managed to elude this device of the landowners by the invention of sham law-suits, an arrangement by which a stranger brought a claim for the estate against the limited owner in possession, and got a judgment by his connivance. The stranger was in truth the agent of the limited owner, who was converted by this procedure into an absolute owner.
Lastly, the class that is armed with all these social and political powers dominates the universities and the public schools. The story of how the colleges changed from communities of poor men into societies of rich men, and then gradually swallowed up the university, has been told in the Reports of University Commissions. By the eighteenth century the transformation was complete, and both the ancient universities were the universities of the rich. The university was a power, not in the sense in which that could be said of a university like the old university of Paris, whose learning could make popes tremble, but in the sense that the university was part of the recognised machinery of aristocracy. What was true of the universities was true of the public schools. Education was the nursery not of a society, but of an order; not of a state, but of a race of rulers.
Thus on every side this class is omnipotent. In Parliament with its ludicrous representation, in the towns with their decayed government, in the country, sleeping under the absolute rule of the Justices of the Peace, there is no rival power. The Crown is for all purposes its accomplice rather than its competitor. The aristocracy controls the universities, the Church, the law, and all the springs of life and discussion. Its own influence is consolidated by the strong social discipline embodied in the family settlements. Its supremacy is complete and unquestioned. Whereas in France the fermentation of ideas was an intellectual revolt against the governing system and all literature spoke treason, in England the existing régime was accepted, we might say assumed, by the world of letters and art.
English landowners have always believed that order would be resolved into its original chaos if they ceased to control the lives and destinies of their neighbors. “A great responsibility rests on us landlords; if we go the whole thing goes.” The English aristocracy, considering itself the pillars of society, very naturally concluded that this old peasant community, with its troublesome rights, was a public encumbrance.
The classes making their living mainly as agricultural laborers were the cottagers, farm servants, and squatters. The cottagers either owned or occupied cottages and had rights of common on the waste, and over the occupied fields. These rights included not merely tillage of arable land, but pasturage, and the cutting of turf and fuel. [Blackstone—common appendant, common appurtenant—a right belonging to the owners and occupiers of arable land to put commonable beasts upon the wastes and other lands.]
The squatters or borderers were, by origin, a separate class, though in time they merged into cottagers. They were settlers who built themselves huts and cleared a piece of land in the commons or woods, at some distance from the village. A common rule was that right was established if the settler could build his cottage in the night and send out smoke from his chimney in the morning. In the open-field village, the entirely landless labourer was scarcely to be found.
Otmoor, in Oxfordshire, was enclosed in 1814 by Lord Abingdon; even though no mention of Otmoor could be found in any single record from the time of William the Conqueror on down. Even the Domesday Book contained no reference to Otmoor. The custom of unstinted usage in common pointed to some grant before the memory of man. Lord Abingdon received some 750 acres, the enclosure of which cost £20,000 to £30,000, more than the fee simple of the soil. Fifteen years later, Otmoor was in open rebellion, asserting that, “…the right of Common on Otmoor was always in the inhabitants.”
The commons were the patrimony of the poor. A commoner’s child was born with a spoon in his mouth; he came into a world in which he had a share and a place. The civilization, which was submerged by enclosure, represented the interest of the community in its soil. One act of confiscation blotted out a principle of permanent value to the state. Ancient possessions and ancient families disappeared. In losing his cottage and his land, the English peasant lost also his rights to petition and to legal representation.
The Industrial Revolution had an effect like this on the imagination of England, for it made people think that their society was to be judged solely by its commercial success in a struggle of which the whole world was now the arena. The test of success was the test of profits: if a society could make its social and political conditions favourable to the earning of high profits that society was prosperous. Under this influence there grew up the idea which more than any other branded the workers as servile: the idea that they were to be treated as the instruments of this power, and not as citizens with faculties and interests of their own for which society should make some provision.