Spring Conference 2014: Denman College

Dr John Broad: Social housing in the English village before and after the New Poor Law

Dr Broad’s paper concentrated on two periods, 1660-1834 and 1890-1930. He argued that, since the Old Poor Law gave every settled inhabitant the right to be housed, magistrates frequently ordered parishes to build houses for poorer residents. Initially the monies for these projects were raised from the rates or by borrowing against the parish rates. As a result, in the early nineteenth century, about 10-15% of houses in the Midlands were owned by a parish.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 forbade parishes from subsidizing housing and occupiers were required to pay for repairs and upkeep. Rural housing provision now lay with benevolent landowners and the new arrangement led to increasing complaints of overcrowding and insanitary conditions. It was not until after the First World War and Lloyd George’s campaign of ‘homes fit for heroes’ that state-owned housing supply increased.

Dr Kate Tiller: The landscape history of ‘Down and Dale’

Dr Tiller’s topic fit the conference venue, as illustrated by the Vale of the White Horse. She examined the imprint of pre-history on our locality, which encompassed Uffington Castle and the Ridgeway. She suggested that myth, legend and landscape were intertwined and reflected in place names, like Dragon Hill, where St George is alleged to have slayed the dragon.

The rich cache of surviving Anglo-Saxon charters for the Vale of the White Horse allows the historian to visualise the development of the landscape, and towns and abbeys in the area speak about its historiography.

The area was made famous by James Betjeman’s poetry as he used this particular landscape to illustrate the differences between vale and dale.

The Ridgeway.

Dr Susan Kilby: Hidden peasant economies: how the other half lived in late medieval Lakenheath

This paper was a case study of John de Wangford, probably the richest peasant in Lakenheath. Dr Kilby suggested that it was unlikely that de Wangford earned a living purely through sheep farming. He held a reasonable quantity of freehold land and there is evidence of a direct correlation between wealth and sheep farming.

Other peasants were reliant on the fisheries for a living, and one, Richard Lericok, depleted the entire contents of one fishery and as a result ended up in court. Dr Kilby concluded that in order to understand landscape and peasant economies it is necessary to look at occupations and incomes beyond farming and good arable land.

Dr Carol Beardmore: The rural community through the eyes of the land agent on the Dorset and Somerset estate of the marquis of Anglesey: William Castleman and his sons, 1812-1854
Matthew Holmwood: Understanding rural migration in late nineteenth-century England: taking research to a new level

This study formed part of a PhD and was a work in progress. After presenting the historiography of rural migration, Holmwood explained that in past research, looking at individuals from a random dataset often produced results that were too broad to be of worth historically. He argued that village sampling took the wider ideas down to the parish level and explained his new methodology and the reasoning behind his selection of villages and locations. For the study he had identified 36 villages in Sussex, Norfolk, and Northumberland. He had transcribed 15,000 names from the censuses, establishing those who stayed at home and those who migrated. In this study he had not counted sons and daughters who migrated with their parents.

Dr David Stead: Agricultural policy lessons for Ireland from the hot, dry summer of 1976

Dr Stead noted that throughout the twenty-first century drought is predicted to become more prevalent. The ideas in his paper are part of the debate surrounding risk management in farming and food security. No one has ever undertaken a political economy study of Irish agriculture during 1976, and as part of his research, Stead investigated the policy response with particular emphasis on the potato sector.

During the crisis, export restrictions had been placed on potatoes and steps taken to prevent smuggling. However, Dr Stead suggested the policy lessons for the future should not be determined by one case, and the competing interests of farmers and consumers have to be balanced. Local authority water providers in Ireland were in the process of being merged into one utility at the time, and in the event of future droughts cohesive action could then be taken.

Dr Stead concluded that more research was required into the impact of weather-induced food price inflation, particularly on low-income consumers in Ireland and other high-income countries. The debate afterwards centred around whether history could have a role to play in guiding future agricultural policies.

View Dr Stead’s Powerpoint presentation here:

To celebrate our host organization, the Federation of Women’s Institutes, the conference featured a panel session focusing on women in the countryside over time.

Dr Rebecca Andrew: The Girls’ Friendly Society in the Lake District in the 1930s

The Girls’ Friendly Society was founded by Mary Elizabeth Townsend in 1874 to protect and guide young country girls who moved into domestic service in the cities. The society’s leaders had to belong to and regularly attend church, while its members were young unmarried women ‘virtuous character.’ The leaders were mainly upper class and meetings held in their homes sharpened the social divide. Many of the girls attended because it provided a ‘night out’ and a break from their routine. Overall the aim of the movement was to promote moral fortitude. The countryside was seen as a strongly moral place and it was these morals the GFS sought to protect when the girls moved into more urban areas.

Dr Sian Edwards: Good wives and citizens: Gender and the Young Farmers’ Clubs in 1950s England

Young Farmers’ Clubs were formed in the 1920s to prepare young people for their future on the land, and emphasised womens’ proficiency at home and on the farm. In the 1950s the clubs received government funding for training and opportunities for socialization. For rural women, life as a wife and mother was difficult to avoid, but farming from World War II onwards was classed as a male occupation. Women’s perceived importance remained strongly attached to child-rearing, but their classes at Young Farmers’ Clubs included farm craft lessons and were closely related to productivity. The paper concluded that the rural housewife during this period was the lynchpin of society.

Mary Elizabeth Townsend, founder of the Girls’ Friendly Society, 1874

Dr Rachel Ritchie: Rural life and fashionable dress in post-war Britain

Dr Ritchie suggested that before the 1960s, ideas of cultural modernity in dress within the countryside were rare: Barbour and ‘wellies’ were classed as rural chic but did not reflect what people actually wore. Home and Country typically portrayed an outdoor countryside setting which reflected the centrality of rural life. It recognized the problems rural women had in accessing shops. Kays Catalogues advertised regularly in Home and Country, and the patterns contained the same discourse used to describe fashion in upmarket magazines such as Vogue.

Home dressmaking and knitting gave geographically isolated women access to fashion. Dr Ritchie argued that the portrayal of the countryside in high-end magazines encouraged the idea of rural life as fashionable.

Professor Mark Overton’s suitably themed Friesian cow cufflinks.

Dr Chris Briggs: Mortgages and the English peasantry, c.1260-1350

Dr Briggs explored the absence of mortgages in medieval England. He stated that all land in the possession of a landlord was transferred and recorded in the manor court and any idea that mortgage transfers took place outside of this official platform could be dismissed. Even in medieval England, in order to borrow money against land you needed to be able to demonstrate property rights and this was problematic.

In other parts of Europe and particularly Holland, the ownership of land was even more regulated. Mortgages were strict and unforgiving and little leeway was afforded to the borrowers. The strictness of terms made mortgages unpopular, and although mortgages were rare, credit-based transactions were not.

This paper questioned why England lagged in the development of capital markets. A study of the eastern counties discovered 44 mortgages mainly in two areas. Surviving mortgages suggest they occurred where the land was fragmented. Briggs suggested the average debt was fairly high at around tens shillings.

The paper reached three main conclusions. Firstly, it considered whether the medieval mortgage was a form of usury. Secondly, it highlighted the potential weakness of property rights. Finally it questioned whether a creditor would want customary land as security for credit.

Dr Briony McDonagh: The mistress of the estate is the best servant: Women, property and estate management in the long eighteenth century

The proposition was that women owners have historically been ignored despite controlling around 10% of land. The paper explored the theme by using a variety of women as examples and argued that women’s involvement in estate management was illustrated in their account keeping.

Elizabeth’s Dryden’s accounts were kept in her own hand and she continued this practice even after having a stroke. Elizabeth Somerset, fourth Duchess of Beaufort, exerted considerable influence on both the management of the estate and its accounts. Mary Clarke managed both Chipley Estate and its constituency. Dr McDonagh argued that it should not be assumed that women left their estates to be run by male agents: many were personally involved in their daily management and in pursuing measures including enclosure.

Women’s clothing was impractical, particularly their shoes, which were not suitable for walking over their estates. Even with the issues surrounding impropriety women were clearly not confined to the private domestic sphere and frequently proved very capable managers.

Dr Jeremy Burchardt and Nicholas Haigh: Country childhood in twentieth-century England: perceptions and experiences

John Creasey’s collection at the Museum of English Rural Life had been used as the source for this research. It was suggested that the strength of the archive lay in its detailed first-hand accounts, but was weakened by its nostalgia and patchy geographical coverage.

Childhood emerged in British thought as a distinct phase of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the paper maintained that childhood should be explored through a multi-disciplinary approach. During the early part of the twentieth century, children’s leisure time was usually spent outdoors.

Children learnt though their activities, but boys were generally viewed as a destructive influence, hunting and carrying out acts of cruelty to animals and prone to blood-thirsty activities such as pig slaughters. Conditions were frequently harsh and children subject to violence, smoking, sexual abuse, hunger, cold, and poor nutrition. Children were often exploited and classed as a disposable form of labour for stone gathering, potato harvesting, and fruit picking.

On a positive note, village celebrations brought communities together. Village characters and nicknames also forged a sense of belonging, aided by a sense of collective fears which might include gypsies, urban invaders, and spies from the next village.

Childhood changed in the latter half of the twentieth century through car ownership, the growth of communications, village prosperity, mechanization, the impact of planning and heightened social issues. The paper created a lively question and answer session with many of the delegates querying whether the difference between urban and rural childhood were actually more blurred than this paper suggested.

The 2014 Spring Conference was organised by Dr Nicola Verdon held at the Federation of Women’s Institutes, Denman College, Oxfordshire. Photos taken at Denman College, Marcham © Copyright members of the BAHS. Image of the White Horse, the Manger, Dragon Hill and Uffington Castle © Copyright Dave Price and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.