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The Bigger Picture

In his book Sarum, the author Edward Rutherford imagines a conversation between one of his characters and John Constable.

“It won’t do, Mr Constable. I complain of your scenes because they are too pastoral – you make our Sarum too beautiful, our countryside too kind.” Reminding him of the pitiful state and abject poverty of the agricultural labourers he asked “Why do your pictures not show these too,?”….“Pointing up to Old Sarum he cried: “There you know lies the most rotten borough in all England- a deserted ruin that returns two members. Do you paint that iniquity, too, as a cheerful scene?”

Allegedly, in the book, Constable subsequently changed his style as a result of this and his picture of Old Sarum certainly shows storm clouds gathering.

Old Sarum by John Constable 1834 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Rutherford has a point. Even today large parts of Wiltshire and Dorset have a beauty that is hard to beat. It is difficult to imagine that such natural beauty could ever have have been despoiled by starvation, rioting, whippings, transportation and the like. And yet it was. Amongst all this beauty you could find yourself so poor that the parish had to buy your child a pair of shoes one week and a shroud the next.

John Martin was 9 yr’s old when the French revolution broke out and 13 yr’s old when the war with France started. With a short break in 1802 the war was to last over 20 years, but it’s effects on the rural community would last long past this. In the space of two decades a world rooted in the customs, practices and relationships of countless generations was to be thrown over and replaced by a way of life that bewildered many.

This was by and large unexpected; the 14th century villager, transported four hundred years into the future, would have found his village in large part unrecognisable, but the changes that occurred during those centuries were often slow, incremental and took place in a piecemeal fashion. In the space of one man or woman’s life it would often be hard to spot what had changed. This led to a widespread belief that the world was essentially unchanging; the fact that it had always changed was lost in a profound belief that there was an order to the world which was pre-ordained and immutable. Anyone alive and living in the countryside in, say 1750, would have had no reason to doubt that the world tomorrow would be more or less the same as it was today and as it had been yesterday.

In the middle of the 18th century life in England appeared to be good. The country could feed itself without help from abroad, something that even today we are unable to achieve. It was an England where, for example, fresh meat began to be eaten by the common people for the first time, instead of “the salted carcases of half-starved and aged oxen”. An England where real wages for the first time were higher than they had been before the reign of Henry VI some three centuries earlier. An England where wheat was used to make fine white bread instead of course brown rye bread. An England where the population was peaceable and almost fully employed. This was the glowing picture of England in the early and mid 18th century as painted by Rowland Prothero, Fellow of All Souls Oxford, Historian and first Baron Ernle. He forgot to mention the [17]‘45 rebellion in Scotland, the banditry of the early 1730’s and the state of government: “Politically and morally, the period was corrupt and coarse” but materially, he said, “it was one of the Golden Ages of the peasant.” [1]

But this golden age was but a brief interval; if the 17th century had been dominated by the traumas of the civil war, then the early 19th century was to be overshadowed by the Napoleonic. Until the last decade of John Martin’s life the population of Britain had been a predominantly rural one. The 1851 census was the first to show a majority of people living in towns and cities although this was not the case in Dorset where the majority still lived in the villages and most of the population was still working on the land. Throughout the 18th century the population had grown continuously but it was not until the late part of the century that the effects of this began to show. Through the late 1790’s rioting over food shortages was common and the situation was aggravated by two other factors. The first was the consequences of inclosure, a subject I will examine later in more detail. By the mid 18th century there was little doubt that agricultural production could be increased by altering the course, or practice, of agriculture through innovation [see section on farming]. The belief arose that such innovation could only be implemented if there was a radical restructuring of the way land was owned, managed and taxed. If the course of agriculture was to change it was necessary to abolish the old open arable field systems and inclose them together with the remaining common land.

The price for this increased efficiency was paid by those at the lower end of society. Inclosure was an expensive business and not all could afford to remain on the land they had worked for centuries. All too often the result was the transformation of a semi-independent class of yeoman farmers into a population of agricultural labourers who were dependent on wages set by others. With a rising population and increased mechanisation these labourers found it hard to find work which paid them enough. Two consequences flowed from this, firstly the amount of Poor relief began to rise and secondly towards the end of the 18th century there was sporadic food rioting.

The second force, which has continued to effect our lives, was the accelerating pace of the industrial revolution. Dorset, and many other south-western counties, by and large escaped this. There were to be few, if any ‘dark satanic mills’ in the west country, but this lack of large scale development created its own problems. Whereas a rising population, in the midlands and north, could be employed in the factories in Dorset this was not possible. Indeed industrialisation in the north may have made the plight of those in the south worse. Many Dorset families were dependent on ‘outwork’; in addition to their agricultural work, they also weaved, made buttons, stitched lace or sewed in their own homes. Busy enough in the summer, but hard pressed to find employment in the winter, the plight of the Dorsetshire [agricultural] labourer became a byword for abject poverty.

If the war had not intervened who knows what might have happened, but like a black hole bending the course of light, the Napoleonic wars bent and shaped the course of history in ways that were worrying and disconcerting to the ruling classes. Leaving aside the political risks of the time which are better dealt with elsewhere it may be said the war had positive benefits [2]. The war had soaked up the excess population, men one way or another went into the navy and the army.

Industrialisation advanced quickly with the armaments and clothing sectors doing particularly well. In the countryside new land was brought into cultivation for the first time and many more parishes were inclosed. Some men grew rich, but not in rural areas. As might be expected the agricultural labourers fared worst as, whilst their wages had doubled, living costs had trebled and the cost of the poor rate had risen from £1.9m in 1783 to £7.9m in 1818. At Swanage six out of seven inhabitants were paupers. Nor, oddly, had the farmers benefited greatly, although for a while they thought they had. During the war they benefited from inflated prices but they incurred great costs: “Better horses were kept, better cattle and sheep bred. Land was limed, marled, or manured. Wastes were brought under cultivation; large areas were cleared of stones in order to give an arable surface; heaths were cleared, bogs drained, buildings erected, roads constructed.”[3] All of which required money that, in general, they did not have. Land and other taxes had been high and all too often the money had been borrowed.

Even before the war ended there were signs of trouble. The biggest disaster from the landowners point of view was the harvest of 1813. In January the price of wheat bought by the navy was 123s 10d a quarter [8 bushels] but such was the phenomenal nature of the harvest that year that there was, a glut the like of which nobody could remember. By November the navy was buying wheat for 67s 10d. At this level all the investment and inclosures became unsustainable and the value of “farming stock”, by which I take Ernle to mean the overall value of farms was reduced by a half. The harvests in the next two years were much as expected but the price did not rise and after the war ended in August 1815 the government were forced to introduce the first of the Corn Laws. Henceforth foreign wheat could not be imported until the price of wheat had reached 80s a quarter.

The end of the war in 1815 did not bring a peace dividend. The population having increased by two million during the war combined with the sudden discharge of the military forces led to a glut of available labour. Widespread unemployment followed and the explosion of a volcano, Mount Tambora, led the following year to the ‘year without summer’. Now instead of a plentiful wheat supply there was near famine and widespread rioting occurred across the country in protest.[4] In 1818 a severe drought made I likely that famine was imminent and massive amounts of wheat, maize beans and hay had to be imported from abroad despite the corn law. The government was saved eventually by the return of more typical summer weather – rain. Another bumper harvest in 1822 saw many estates being sold [as we shall see] and farmers going bankrupt: by 1824 agriculture was recovering and people being optimists began to invest again, until in 1825 another property crash occurred and another depression ensued. In 1830 widespread unrest led to the [Captain] Swing riots associated with much machine breaking and arson. And so it went on.

The government was not inactive in this periods and after the mid 1830’s things began to improve, not the least as they strove to tackle two, seemingly insoluble, problems. The first of these was the tithe, that tenth part of each farmers annual production that had by law to be given to the church or what were known as lay impropriators. Tithe-owners were a permanent drain on farming, “They contributed neither capital nor labour to the enterprise of the farm; they risked nothing in the venture. But they shared the profits derived from increased productiveness.”[5] But the problem of the tithe created an existential tension for the landowners. On the one hand most farmers resented the tithe and few were willing to spend money improving agriculture when they would not get the full reward from their labours. On the other hand they accepted the need for an established church. De facto, if not de jure, the church was a branch of government concerned with maintaining the moral fabric of the country and maintaining society’s right order. Tithes were the principle source of income for the church and were deemed to be a form of property. An attack on the tithe became an attack on property, something which even today is anathema. The problem of the tithe was only solved [and then not satisfactorily] after the passing of the Tithe Commutation Act in 1836 but the drive for its reform began during the war.

Another issued that demanded a solution was how to provide for the care of the poor. The old Poor Law had been passed in 1601 and was simply not capable of coping with the demands of an industrialising society. Again we will see later how this affected Martin in his work.

By the middle of the century a certain stability prevailed in the country but the problem of unemployment and over population remained and was solved by another means. Aided by formal ‘colonisation societies’ large scale, voluntary emigration started, and Martin records two instances of this himself from Evershot. He may have had a direct connection with the families involved, His son Edwin had married into the Dibble family and his sister into the Perratt family,

1st October 1852

Valuing the Farm– Edwin was gon [sic] to see the Dibbles depart for Australia”

21st December 1854

Gave Eliza Perratt *** Clark going to Australia-£5

Finally there was the war with France; fear of revolution at home led to widespread political repression, whilst the need to feed a standing army caused even bigger food shortages. Repression was to lead to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and food shortages to rioting.

If this was the state of Britain in the early 1800’s it is true to say that not one jot of this appears in the diaries. Admittedly they do not cover the whole of this period but it is remarkable that historical events appear but rarely in them. The Corn Law’s were finally repealed in 1846 and yet in the 1845 diary there is no mention of the national debate that preceded this. I think we can say fairly confidently that he would not have been in favour of repeal but the diaries do not help us reach this assessment. In fact he displays a remarkable equanimity to current affairs. He was 9yrs old when the French revolution broke out, twenty five in the year of Trafalgar and fear of the French [and civil disruption at home] had led him to join the Dorsetshire Yeomanry. He was thirty five in the year of Waterloo by which time Britain had been at war with the French for twenty three years. Yet it seems not to have worried him when in 1854 Britain and France became allies in the war against the Russians.

On Wednesday 26th April 1854 he attended church on one of the days “proclaimed for solemn humiliation and prayer for the restoration of peace”,

At Home – A Day of Thanksgiving and prayer for the success of Armies & Fleets in the war with Russia

Later in the year he gave money for the bells to be rung for the Sebastopol Victory as he called it although in fact it was merely the beginning of a year long siege.

3rd October 1854

Gave the Ringers for the Sebastopol [sic] Victory 2s 6d

On the Tuesday 26th December 1854 “A very numerous meeting of the inhabitants of Evershot” was held in the school room with the Earl of Ilchester presiding. “There was also a numerous array of clergy and churchwardens of the several adjacent parishes present. The noble chairman introduced the subject with a forcible appeal to the meeting as Englishmen..”. The Hon. Wm Strangways proposed “That it is the duty of every Englishman to sympathise with his countrymen engaged in the present war and to do his part towards alleviating the distress of those who fell in the service of their country.” The answer was to subscribe to the “Patriotic fund for the relief of Widows and Orphans”. Martin must have attended the meeting and certainly heeded the call,

26th December 1854

Pd Subscription to Patriotic Fund £3

In the event the inhabitants of Evershot was to contribute £35 12 10d to the fund.

The general impression is that he took little interest in contemporary affairs and even though the Act was passed in a diary year there is no mention of the events leading up to the “Great Reform Act” of 1832, although there is a record of him voting. It’s not clear what the purpose of his journey to Dorchester was in the following entry but Arthur Johnson was the stipendiary curate at Rampisham as well as lord of the Manor itself.

16th October 1832

Journey to Dorchester for Mr Johnson respecting Ransom Votes

General elections took place in two of the nine diary years [1832 and 1852] but he mentions voting only in the 1832 diary. The voting requirements were different between the country and towns, “The counties are therefore represented by knights, elected by the proprietors of lands; the cities and boroughs are represented by citizens and burgesses, chosen by the mercantile part or supposed trading interest of the nation.”[6] In the counties eligibility to vote was generally based on owning freehold land worth forty shillings or more. Eligibility in the boroughs was much more varied, in some cases just being in the borough on the day the election was held was qualification enough.[7] By custom only men voted but there was in fact no legal prohibition against women voting – not until 1832 that is, when the new act restricted the franchise to men. Since the forty shillings qualification originated in 1265 under Simon de Montfort and the value had not been inflated over time it might be that there would be numerous voters but in fact by the time the act was passed only four hundred thousand out of a total population of some twelve million had the vote.

A part of the reason for such a restricted franchise was the limitation to freehold land. Suppose a landowner held a single property worth forty shillings as freehold, which he then leased to tenants. Prior to 1832 he would have been entitled to the vote but not his tenants. Under the new act the vote was extended to owners of copyhold and long leaseholds but the estate they leased had to be worth £10 per year [8]; for the time a very high qualifying rent. To give some idea of costs at the time Martin undertook in Swanage in 1831 two cottages owned by lease were worth 2 shillings a year rent [each] and the attached three fields were worth only £3 10s 4d. [9]

It is not known if Martin was entitled to vote prior to 1832. He was certainly a juror as early as 1821 but the qualifications for jury service were usually that the person paid the poor rate. He certainly owned land at the same time worth more than forty shillings, but this could have been held by leasehold and therefore not a qualifying rent. It is possible therefore that Martin was probably one of the new voters, although interestingly he obtained the vote not in his own parish, where his land holdings were insufficient to be eligible, but in Somerton in Somerset. The freehold of this land, some one hundred and five acres in all, belonged to the Earl of Ilchester, and John Martin and Benjamin Jesty were “leaseholder for lives” on land “named Mowries; John Walton occupying tenant.” This complex tenanting arrangement gained Jesty and Martin the vote. John Walton was already the owner of free and leasehold land in the parish and may well already have been entitled to vote. It’s not clear what the purpose of his journey to Dorchester was in the following entry but Arthur Johnson was the stipendiary curate at Rampisham as well as the owner of the Manor itself.

16th October 1832

Journey to Dorchester for Mr Johnson respecting Ransom Votes

Voting took place over several weeks and in December Martin exercised his vote, probably for the first time.

   Went to Ilchester to Vote for Sanford and Tynte

Both men were Whig politicians,as was Lord Ilchester and we can count Martin amongst the Whig fold as well. Edward Sanford was a relatively young man [38yrs] who represented Somerset West from 1832 to 1841 and was later to become Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of Somerset. 1832 was a lucky year for Sanford as he was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. It is not clear why he deserved this but his proposal described him as “a Gentleman attached to Sciences and a promoter of the arts, as highly deserving of the honor of being elected a Member of the Royal Society and as likely to prove a useful and valuable member”. Charles John Kemeys Tynte was even younger [32] and when elected appears to have been a colonel in the Royal Glamorgan regiment. He too was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, this time in 1834, being “a gentleman much attached to Science” and “being desirous of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society”.

There is only one other diary entry referring to politics Of the great 19th century statesmen, Peel, Palmerston, Lord John Russell, Disraeli and Gladstone – we hear nothing, except a short entry in 1852 about the Russell ministry.

20th February 1852

“Resignation of Lord John Russell’s Ministry” [10]


This too was an election year but there is no mention of him voting. Martin lived through the reins of four monarchs: of George III he makes no mention but of George IV he noted

19th July 1821

King Geo the 4th crowned

Of William IV there is no mention but in 1827 there is an entry, the “Duke of York died”. In 1838 Queen Victoria was crowned, he records the fact and that he gave money to the fireworks in celebration.

28th June 1838

5th July 1838

Paid Subscriptions to Coronation Fireworks &c £1 10s

Although he makes scant reference to the day it started in Evershot with a brass band and a peel of bells. A big gathering of some five hundred villagers from Evershot, Melbury Osmond and Woolcombe gathered in Melbury Park. There was country dancing and Roberts’s band played and the Dorset County Chronicle reported that “Thus with divers rural sports did the assembled groups pass the time of this auspicious meeting until evening approached, when the whole was concluded with a brilliant play of fireworks. In 1852 the Victor of Waterloo died,

15th September 1852

The Duke of Wellington died at Walmer Castle in his 84th year.

It appears that the Duke was pretty well embalmed for two months later, on 13th November 1852 Martin records the lying in state and its consequences,

1-day of the Duke of Wellington lying in State at Chelsea Hospital the Crowd was so great that many were Killed Working on the Valuations &c


Finally in March 1861 he noted “The Duchess of Kent died age 75” and on 14th December 1861 the death of Prince Albert, even if he did get the name wrong!

Prince Alfred [bert] Died aged 42 At Home making up Ransom Acctts

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1 English Farming Past and Present Rowland Prothero Ist Baron Ernle 1912

2 For example see E P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class.

3 Ernle ibid.

4 A Short History of English Agriculture W H R Curtler 1909

5 Ernle ibid

6 Blackstone ibid.

7 Confusingly ‘boroughs’ could be in deepest countryside. Old Sarum was one such and was said to be ‘rotten’ as an electorate of thirteen men returned two MP’s.

8 I don’t know about today but in the past there were potentially two ‘owners’ of a single piece of land or property if it were leased. The Freeholder to whom the land or property would revert when the lease expired, and the leaseholder during the term of the lease. Leasehold for lives were in theory perpetual.

9 Actually in today’s money not a bad deal. £10 then is worth about £700 today and a rent of 2 shillings a year is worth about £6.78.

10 In December 1851 Palmerston was dismissed by Russell for recognising Napoleon 111’s coup in France. In February Palmerston tabled a no confidence motion in the government which Russell lost.