Caught by the River

The English Village

27th February 2012

By Martin Wainwright.

School history’s long-standing tendency to focus on urban affairs, the Industrial Revolution and the notorious Peterloo Massacre, can obscure the fact that by the end of 1830, more than 2,000 men and women were in custody in the southern counties of England, awaiting trial for rural rioting.

Nineteen were executed, 600 jailed for more than a year, and 500 transported to Australia as convicts for terms of between seven years and life. The riots helped to bring political reform, but the remnants of Arcadia in village life could not be so simply restored by statute books. Their very gradual return began instead through the unlikely means of depopulation, as industry boomed and the obvious escape for any villager with energy and drive was to pack up and light out to the towns. The means to do so was helped by the creation first of the canal network, which transported hundreds of destitute families from East Anglia’s countryside to the Lancashire and Yorkshire mills, and then by the railways. The effect of the latter was dramatic to an extent which conventional history has tended to overlook, as with the rural violence in the early nineteenth century, because in retrospect it proved a hiccough.

For some fifty years, villages which had relied on coach and wagon trade for both communication and an elaborate system
of inns with high-arched carriage entrances – still a feature today – were all but deserted. Their economies were wrecked by the collapse of passing trade. In a series called Rambles Around Manchester in the 1880s, the Manchester Guardian described ‘fields and meadows looking as unkempt and disused as if they had been ravaged by an invading army’. The author of the articles, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Tomkyns, later used his impressions to good effect in his book The Battle of Dorking, whose description of a fictional foreign invasion was so realistic that it helped to fuel the armaments race which culminated in the First World War.

The arrival of motor cars not only restored prosperity but took it to unprecedented levels, as the twentieth century
brought blessings to villages on a scale which finally made those Arcadian impressions of hollyhocks, contented rustics and pinkcheeked lads and lasses a reality for most of the rural population.

The scars of the previous century remained, but gradually assumed the mantle of heritage, like Towton battlefield or, a
new feature of almost every English village, the memorial to the dead of the two world wars. The progress of recovery was not uninterrupted; briefly in 1918 the flu pandemic seemed to threaten scenes reminiscent of the Black Death. Standing as a Conservative candidate in that year’s general election, the future editor of the Daily Telegraph, Colin Coote, canvassed farmhouses in the Isle of Ely where he found the entire household dead. As he toured other villages in Cambridgeshire, he noted that not one was without its limbless or shell-shocked victims of the trenches. But the twentieth century’s terrible twin convulsions were the final instrument in the creation of the English village as we know it today: they brought three great changes by transforming farming, establishing sound and healthy living
conditions, and re-energizing parish democracy – the ‘localism’ of current political discussion – after the battering it had been given for at least three centuries.

The English village has never been as prosperous as it is today, but challenges do not fade away. Those of today include the withdrawal of many local services from the countryside, partly because of the continuing concentration of most of the population in towns or conurbations, but also in recognition of individual prosperity. People who lose out are those who are without their own transport or too old or too young to use it; and those without IT communications – a dwindling number and one which public computer services are working to ease. Novel arrangements have been introduced such as the ‘telesurgeries’ conducted over the Internet from Airedale general hospital in West Yorkshire to the village hall at Grassington, 25 miles away. The greater problems are those brought by success: the financial effects of ever more desirable housing and the pressure for new homes, so that ever more people can enjoy the English village ideal.

And it still is an ideal, and an immensely powerful one, as the recent history of a Cinderella group of villages in the former coalfields of county Durham eloquently illustrates. Famously, the privations of mining and its tradition of tough men combining against tough management have made ‘pit villages’ intensely communal. The battle of residents to save a score of decayed examples whose mines had closed, staggered the well-meaning planners of Durham County Council who had spent months designing a bright new future elsewhere.

The largely tenanted communities strung out towards the Pennines and the Northumberland border were classified in the mid-1950s as ‘D-villages’ which would be demolished and returned to agricultural land after their residents had been
decanted to modern housing in Bishop Auckland or the new towns of Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee. The benign intentions
of the solidly Labour council were highlighted by the second town’s name, which honoured Peter Lee, a miner and Methodist preacher who was one of the industry’s most respected union leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But that didn’t help.

The villagers were having none of it. As Peter Crookston describes in The Pitmen’s Requiem, his moving history of the
miners’ brass-band ‘hymn’ ‘Gresford’ and its composer, Robert Saint, families in colliery-built housing at South Hetton, dilapidated nineteenth-century versions of the simple old village cottage which the council declared ‘unfit for human habitation’, led a revolt. Posters appeared in windows and on lamp posts saying ‘Peterlee is a nightmare, not a dream.’ There was a mass demonstration outside Bishop Auckland town hall and steady losses of Labour council seats led to anti-demolition Independents taking control of the district council in 1968. Victory was finally sealed by other factors. The growth of commuting changed the area’s economy and brought in new residents who worked with long-standing locals to repair houses and communal buildings and restore pride. The D-village policy was finally withdrawn in 1977 and public resources were redirected to helping with the renewal, creating the attractive mixture of homes and occupations which the villages boast today.

But the line had been held for a vital decade by twentieth-century versions of John Gray’s ‘village Hampden’ who drew on 150 decades of tradition to refuse to change. It is no coincidence that the English speak of ‘pit villages’, almost always built around previous, long-settled parishes, while the transitory Americans, forever upping sticks and starting over, call their counterpart communities ‘mining camps’. Durham had forgotten this, just as many of us, in our busy, scampering, urban lives, can forget too. As the novelist and historian Sir Walter Besant wrote on first reading the great chronicler of village and countryside life, Richard Jefferies: ‘Why, we must have been blind all our lives! Here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not.’ From church to parish council meeting, it is good to be reminded just how much there is to relish.

That was an extract from chapter one of The English Village by Martin Wainwright, recently published by Michael O’Mara Books. Copies of the book can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £9.99.

An earlier extract can be read HERE.