- THE WITHAM FIRES AND THE 1820S
- THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND THE WITHAM FIRES
- THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND
Poverty and prosperity
The Witham fires were fairly typical in the sense that two out of the three main suspects were labourers, and that the prosecutors were farmers and tradesmen.135 In Essex, the available information for 1824 and 1829 shows that 63 per cent of Assize suspects were described as labourers, and 80 per cent of Quarter Sessions prosecutors were non-labourers.136 A high proportion of recorded crime therefore took place in the context of relationships between the poorer and the better-off members of the population. The circumstances of the fires in 1829 highlight questions about this relationship, particularly within the farming interest. Some of those questions will be discussed here.
During the Witham episode, Robert Ling was the only suspect known to have given a view of his own motives and situation. He was unequivocal about his hardship and low status, and attributed it to the harshness of the employers and overseers.137 The other few suspects in the area whose views are known, spoke of their need itself rather than its cause. One had 'two children very bad', and his 'girl longed for a rabbit', one said that he was 'induced to steal to keep himself and his wife from starving', and another 'had got a large family and [prosecution] would be a great hurt to him and prevent his getting any more work'.138 One of these statements came from a man who was said to have taken 98 wheat sheaves, which seems a lot for a spontaneous act of starvation. So perhaps incidental information about the suspects' circumstances is more revealing than their own self-justification. For instance, one made two sacks he had stolen into a bed, and a married couple were 'at lodgings and have no property'; the husband had 'an old smock frock not worth £5', so a distraint of goods to pay a £5 fine was not expected to be very productive.139 And the knowledge that at Witham James Cook's father had died two years before James' alleged arson, leaving his widow and young children to be supported by poor relief, is particularly revealing.140 Similarly, the fact that Robert Ling, a thatcher, was reduced to unskilled labouring work, tells as much about his circumstances as his own frequent complaints.141
To put these suggestions of individual poverty in context, it should be borne in mind that Essex fell into the low-wage southern part of England, where workers had been much affected by the inflation of the Napoleonic Wars. The Wars had also accelerated the change from mixed to arable farming, thus increasing winter unemployment, which was also now being aggravated by the introduction of threshing machines. There had been a series of protests by farmworkers in Essex and East Anglia since the 1790s, which had produced no changes except an increasing sense of desperation amongst them.142 Charlesworth suggests that in south-eastern England, farmworkers were 'gradually becoming a group apart from their employers'.143 To quote a contemporary view, there had here been a decline in 'harmony and good will' between them, and the development of a 'separate interest'.144 This trend in the south-east is often said to be illustrated by the development of a taste for luxurious living by farmers and their wives, and by their reluctance to have farmworkers continuing to live in the farmhouses.145 It seems that in Witham very few workers did 'live in'.146 Ironically, Olivers Farm was one where they did, but when he was accused of arson there, James Cook did not actually 'board in the house; he slept ... over the brewhouse' with another boy.147 However, there was not complete separation, as William Green the farmer had been sitting by the kitchen fire whilst Cook and the female servant went 'backwards and forwards'.148 This perhaps suggests a transitional period in the separation of farmer and worker. Obelkevich has suggested that this transition was an uneasy one, and that it was only later in the century, when farmers were more confident of their position, that relationships eased.149
Certainly contemporaries found it difficult to face up to the possibility of dissent within the agricultural interest. For instance, when commenting on the committal of the tailor Edmund Potto at Witham, the local newspaper reported that, 'We were always averse to believing the agricultural labourer to be implicated ... and we derive no small degree of satisfaction in finding our impressions confirmed in this respect'.150 Western thought that the poor owed an obligation to defer to all their 'superiors' who treated them 'with courtesy and condescension'. Western's escape when faced with the reality of deviance amongst the poor, was to make the common distinction between the 'industrious labourer' and the 'idle, profligate and the dissolute', whom he 'would visit with a prompt execution of the law'.151
An equally common scenario which was put forward in the 1820s, was that the whole agricultural interest was suffering together; particularly as a result of low wheat prices. Thus the Chelmsford Chronicle felt that the reason the farmworkers were poor in 1829, was that 'those who ought to employ them are deprived of the means of so doing'.152 A Select Committee witness said that in Suffolk, 'whenever corn has been the cheapest ... the labourers have been the most pressed upon, by their inability to procure the necessaries of life'.153 However, several factors, including the circumstances of the Witham fires, suggest that in reality there was an opposite relationship between prices and crime, namely that crime was aggravated by high rather than low prices. For example, in the winters of 1823/4 and 1828/9, there were two sudden leaps in prices, which co-incided with marked increases in the occurrence of recorded offences, even above the usual high winter level. The second one included the beginning of the wave of arson at Witham.154 This may be explained by the fact that wheat prices did not actually affect all participants in agriculture in the same way. Low wheat prices naturally distressed the farmer, but as they arose from the over-production of a good harvest, they often meant more work for the farmworker, as well as cheaper food. Conversely high prices, and high profits for the farmer, arose from shortages of corn and of work, and caused expensive food. So there was not as close a similarity in the interests of farmers and their workers as the farmers liked to believe.
The Poor Law was another subject whose problems gave rise to conflicting contemporary interpretations. The lack of poor relief was one of the most tangible of the factors mentioned by Robert Ling at Witham in explaining his grievances. He was reported to have said 'the parishioners do not use me well - they neither find me work nor relieve me - they want a good blowing up; and I would not mind laying a train of gunpowder and doing for them'. Speaking of the fires he said 'D--n them, it serves them right - for they don't use the poor well. I should like to set old Philbrick in the midst of them'.155 John Philbrick was an overseer of the poor.156 The victims of similar fires at Saling and Finchingfield in 1829 were also overseers of their respective parishes.157 But where respondents to the 1826/8 Select Committee related crime and poor relief, they usually claimed that too much relief was the problem, causing the 'demoralisation' which fostered crime.158 This is the interpretation that was being used to justify increased strictness in granting relief in England and Wales as a whole, and which was ultimately to result in the severe restrictions of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834.159 Until 1825 the fall in relief spending could possibly be related to better times when relief was not needed. But during the harder times afterwards, it was not restored to anything like its former level, thus indicating a deliberate attempt to reduce poor rates in spite of increased demands for relief.160 An analysis of Essex parish figures for poor relief and crime suggests that where there was the most strictness in prosecuting crime in 1824, there followed the greatest reductions in spending on poor relief. Witham was one of the parishes which cut relief drastically. It set up a Select Vestry in 1822, and in 1824 paid out 10s.5d. (£0.52) per head of population, compared to 16s.7d. (£0.83) in Essex as a whole. Furthermore by 1829 Witham's spending had fallen yet further to 7s.0d. (£0.35), whilst the Essex rate rose slightly to 16s.10d. (£0.84).161 The money payments from Witham Vestry to James Cook's widowed mother and her children fell considerably before the fires.162 Nevertheless, Western claimed in 1828 that the poor of Witham and the surrounding area were 'fairly dealt with'.163
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