Fragments of Two Centuries - Glimpses of Country Life when George III. was King
by Alfred Kingston
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The greatest precaution appears to have been taken to secure a spot where no interruption would be likely to take place, and with this end in view two places were appointed, one on Royston Heath, and the other at Heydon Grange, the seat of the boxing baronet, Sir Peter Soame. But whichever spot was to be fixed upon, Royston was the rendezvous. Jem Ward, the champion, made his head-quarters at the Red Lion, and Crawley and his friends stopped at "a road house about two miles from Royston." The extraordinary ferment of interest and anxiety in Royston as to where the event was actually to come off was kept up till even the morning of the day! To increase the uncertainty, the parties actually got two rings, and one of them was put up at the famous fighting rendezvous near Heydon Grange, as a ruse; but there was little need of such a precaution. The rumour of the erection of the ring near Heydon Grange got wind, and away went an excited avalanche of human beings, helter-skelter, over fields and hedges that winter's morning, for Heydon Grange, only to find themselves disappointed, and under the necessity of running back as fast as tired legs and panting lungs would carry them! In at least one case a Royston spectator lost his life by the excessive exertion and over-heating!

Upon the site of the battle, at the lower end of the cricket ground, about ten to fifteen thousand persons were assembled, including all classes of society from post-boy to nobleman.

The fight came off about mid-day amidst the utmost excitement and enthusiasm. In an age when fighting was reckoned among the "fine arts," Ward was allowed to be "the finest fighter in England." The {138} rapidity of his movements "gave amazing advantage for the display of his inimitably fine science," says the writer of the account in the Cambridge Chronicle for 1827. "On taking the champion's belt many sprung up in bravado, but none in arms sufficiently hardy to dispute his well-earned honours. At length, Peter Crawley got backed against him. Crawley was a giant and stood 6 feet, 2 inches, while Ward was 5 feet, 9 inches, and stout and active."

I am not going to describe the scene further, beyond the remark that the fighting was a furious and tremendous onslaught upon each other, so that in the space of twenty-six minutes, and after eleven rounds, both men were perfectly exhausted, and in a wretched plight. Crawley had his cheek laid open and both eyes nearly closed, and Ward could not stand.

In this short space the two pugilists had reduced themselves to the pitiable condition of simply mauling each other, hugging each other, and because Crawley just managed to push Ward down and he could not rally in time, the champion lost his belt!

The scene as described by eye witnesses, of whom there are very few living, as well as from the facts on record from which I have quoted, must have been a brutal one as we now look upon such things, though it was considered a grand and memorable spectacle to thousands of those assembled on our fine old Heath!

Jem Ward, who was generally looked upon as a little above the ordinary run of pugilists in intelligence and education, lived to an old age, and died only a few years ago.

The frequency of these pugilistic encounters naturally had some effect upon, and was reflected in the local life of the period, and the amount of fighting at fairs and village feasts was in striking contrast with the rarity of such exhibitions now-a-days. The undergraduates from Cambridge gloried in being mixed up with, and promoting such scenes of disorder, and it is well-known that in the "Town and Gown rows" at Cambridge, they sometimes engaged some well-known champion—such as Peter Crawley, who defeated Jem Ward, on Royston Heath—to do the "slogging." They would attend village feasts in such company, and when their riotous conduct had provoked the young men of the village to a general row, these professionals set-to and often made short work of the fray. It was in one such exhibition at the Melbourn feast in the early years of the century that J. King earned the title of the Royston champion, and, for a time, gained more than a local repute.

The undergraduates were bent upon their old game, led by the Hon. George Fitzwilliam, then of Trinity College, and accompanied by two noted pugilists, "Soapy Dan" and a big black man named Mahone. After the men of light and leading from the University had {139} run a course of outrageous conduct towards all and sundry that came in their way, there was the customary general fight, and the two pugilists played terrible havoc among the Melbourn young fellows, till, to the surprise of the visitors, one of the Melbourn party, J. King, came forward, floored "Soapy Dan," and next had a regular set-to with the great black man, whom, after a sharp fight, he vanquished also, to the amazement of the Honorable George. The latter had staked ten guineas on the issue, which he handed over to the Royston champion, took a mighty fancy to him, and "took him in hand." He brought him to London, where, after a short training, he met Jack Power at the noted fighting rendezvous of Mousley Hurst, on an issue of L50 a side. The battle was a terrible one, and though the Royston, or rather Melbourn, champion, was the least skilful of the two, he fought for 47 rounds before giving in to his better-trained antagonist, and practically closed a fighting career which was as surprising as it was brief.

Better remembered perhaps by some who are still living, was a notable prize-fight which, though it carries us a little beyond the era of the Georges, cannot be passed by in these Glimpses of the past, as it affords a striking instance of the fascination which the prize-fighting ring had over many young men of good birth and education, and marks what was practically the disappearance of these exhibitions from this locality. This was the fight between "Owen Swift," a practised hand, and "Brighton Bill," otherwise William Phelps, a young man of only twenty years of age, who had seen little of such encounters and was believed to have been deserving of a more useful career than that which was so suddenly cut off by the fatal fight which, in the year 1838, caused many persons in this neighbourhood to look with shame upon, and to turn with disgust from such exhibitions. The combat took place near Noon's Folly, on the Newmarket Road; Barkway, on the Cambridge coach road, being the head-quarters of the pugilists. It created an immense amount of interest, and, after a brutal exhibition, the unfortunate young man from Brighton simply allowed himself to be pummelled to death, the outcome being an inquest and a trial for manslaughter at the Herts. Assizes.

The evidence given at the inquest, held at the Wheatsheaf, Barkway, throws a very interesting light upon the spirit in which such exhibitions were regarded by the public, and also upon the attitude of the supposed representatives of law and order, who in those days seemed to go with the majority and throw aside the official mantle whenever it was inconvenient.

Upon this point, the evidence given by Mr. John Parr, the high constable for the parish of Barkway, is especially interesting. This official candidly admits in his evidence that he saw the deceased on the {140} Saturday before the fight, believed he was there for the purpose of fighting, that it was generally reported the fight was to take place on Melbourn Heath, and that Owen Swift was to be deceased's antagonist. On the Tuesday, witness went to see the fight, and admits the soft impeachment that he was not there for the purpose of preserving the peace, but went as a spectator! Did not see any magistrates or constables present. There were at least three thousand persons present. Saw deceased and Swift enter the ring and saw them fight for an hour-and-a-half. Saw nothing like foul play, and did not hear anyone call out "shame" when deceased was carried from the ring and put into a carriage. Saw deceased at the Wheatsheaf, Barkway, next day, when he could not speak, and appeared insensible. Saw him again on Thursday and Friday, on which latter day he found him dying, and he expired ten minutes after witness entered the room.

The evidence of Lee, the post-boy, who rode one of the "wheelers" to the fight, showed that the Marquis of Waterford's carriage was there, but he did not see the Marquis.

The jury, after hearing the evidence of Mr. James Balding, surgeon, of Barkway, who attended Brighton Bill—and made a post mortem, with the assistance of Dr. Hooper, of Buntingford—returned a verdict of manslaughter against Owen Swift and against the seconds, "Dutch Sam," otherwise Samuel Evans, Francis Redmond, Richard Curtis, and "Brown, the go-cart-man," for aiding and abetting the said Owen Swift. The jury had the courage to add this significant rider:—"The jury feel themselves called upon to express their deep regret and concern that the magistrates of the adjoining counties of Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, and Essex, did not interfere to prevent the breach of the peace, so notoriously expected to take place for some days previously, and also for the fact that a prize-fight having taken place at the same spot about twelve months since without their interference."

This pointed reference to a former supineness of the representatives of the law was not altogether undeserved, for, on that occasion, the same Owen Swift had fought near the same spot against Lazarus (on June 1st in the previous year) for two hours, and extending over 105 rounds—evidence of itself that the "fancy" men had it all their own way in this happy corner of no-man's-land.

That there was no attempt to disguise the object of the gathering is shown by the fact that the fight took place so near the turnpike road that "the stage coaches drew up as they passed, for some time, to allow the drivers [and the passengers!] to indulge in witnessing the spectacle." Indeed, it is recorded that the spot and time of the encounter were publicly announced two days beforehand.


It was said to be the third fatal fight in which Owen Swift had engaged, while Phelps had only fought once before, and so brutal was the onslaught, that it is said bets were offered and taken on the ground, that both men would die in consequence of the injuries received! Swift was hastily got out of the way, and it was asserted that as soon as his friends in London knew of the fatal result, four expert fellows were sent off with a view to recover the body to defeat the ends of justice by preventing an inquest, a reward of L500 being offered had they succeeded!

The seconds were arrested, but Swift got away to France. When one of the seconds, indicted as Redmond, was placed at the bar, nobody could identify him—and it is said that this was believed to be due to his manipulation of beard, &c.—but the other seconds were identified.

The case came on for trial at the Hertfordshire Assizes in the same year, before Mr. Sergeant D'Oyley.

John Parr, the constable, (and a saddler) said that he saw 60 or 70 rounds fought, and that ten or twelve were fought that he did not see. There were "persons of high consideration" there, and many gentlemen's carriages.

One of the defendants' counsel, in the face of the awful experience of the misled and gentlemanly young Phelps, had the hardihood to "energetically contend for prize-fighting, which, in the opinion of many, formed that national character of courageous fairplay which was the pride of the nation."

The jury found the prisoners guilty, but "recommended them to mercy."

Evidence of character was given, but it amounted to this, that the defendants "were quiet, good humoured people, who never took advantage of anyone."

They were sentenced to three months' imprisonment with hard labour, and "seemed overjoyed with the leniency of the Court."

In his interesting Autobiography of a Stage Coachman, Mr. Cross, who for many years drove the Lynn coach, says he saw the young man Phelps both before and after the fight, and gives the following graphic and pathetic incident. The Lynn coach, on leaving Kingsland Road, picked up three passengers, and upon its being mentioned that the coach had some fighting men inside, a clergyman, who was riding on the box, and whose wife, a young and beautiful lady, was inside, protested against allowing such company to sit in the coach with his wife; and, says Mr. Cross, his mind was set at rest by two coarse-looking fellows in rough great coats getting on the outside, and a well-dressed gentlemanly young man getting in. Upon the husband assisting his lady out, she asked him who was the gentleman who got in last; for {142} his conversation had been extremely interesting, and she was sure by his general information he must be a gentleman of distinction at the University. Dressed in an elegant suit of black, and displaying on a delicate white hand a diamond ring, he took his place at the table at the inn for refreshments on the road, and, his manners corresponding with his appearance, no one could suspect him of being a fighting man. "Reader, this was the man known as 'Brighton Bill'—his real name I never knew, but that he was of respectable parents, and intended by them for a better calling I was convinced. When two days afterwards I saw his contused and distorted countenance, the only part visible from under the bedclothes, at the 'Wheatsheaf,' at Barkway, when he was deserted by all, and had no friend or relative near to watch over his fast-departing spirit, I could not restrain a tear. I silently, as I descended the stairs, invoked a curse on such barbarous practices, as well as on the authors of his death!"

If the writer of the above was correct in the identity of the dying pugilist with his cultured passenger, his parents or friends never came forward to recognise him. He was buried in a corner, the lower corner, of the Barkway Churchyard, and the only trace of him is in the Parish Register, which tells the simple fact of the death of William Phelps, of Brighton, Sussex, aged twenty years.



Many readers, whose lives carry them back before the "forties," taking their stand beneath the broad gateway or pebbled court-yard of our old inns—the Red Lion, the Bull, or the Crown—would require a very slight effort of memory to recall the exhilarating spectacle of the arrival and departure of the stage coach of fifty or sixty years ago. Such a person will once more hear in imagination the cheery coach horn at the town's end; and, watching for only a minute, he knows what to expect—yes, there around that critical corner at the Cross, come the steaming leaders, then a handful of reins, the portly form of the coachman, and then the huge embodiment of civilization itself comes {143} swinging round the corner like a thing of life! Clattering up the High Street! the driver pulls them up promptly at the Lion, or the Bull, and performs that classic feat of swinging his lusty eighteen stone from the box seat with an easy grace which is the envy of every stable boy in the town! He sees once more the busy scene of bustle and animation as the steaming horses are replaced by other sleek animals fresh from the stables, and the old coach rolls on for another stage of the journey.

This, the ideal view of locomotion in the palmy days of stage-coaching, was really an evolution from something much less smart and efficient. Of that interesting evolution of the older locomotion, our old town, by the necessity of the route, saw most of the varied phases, for during many years of the century coaches rattled through our streets with kings, queens and princes, duellists and prize-fighters, daring highwaymen and Bow Street runners, romantic lovers off to Gretna Green, and School boys—poor little Nicklebies off to a Squeers' Academy—jostling inside the body of the lumbering coach, or dangling their legs from the roof as outsiders!

In glancing at the salient points of this evolution as it passed before the eyes of our grandfathers, it may be necessary to go back to the "composite" order of locomotion with the mixture of goods and passenger traffic.

A journey to London, or a distant town, for the purpose of trade or a visit, was a tedious experience full of discomfort. Following the sturdy caravan of pack-horses, the lumbering coaches, and broad-wheeled wagons of last century came the "fly wagons" in the early years of this century, and with them the possibility of poor people once in a life time getting a few miles from home, in case of absolute necessity. The old tilted fly-wagon was used not only for taking up and delivering goods too heavy to go by coach, but persons who could not afford the coach fare of 3d. a mile or thereabouts, would find a place wedged in among the goods at the back of the tilted wagon, sometimes packed away in straw to keep warm. In this way, a whole family, placed under the necessity of moving to a distant part, a comparatively rare occurrence though, have had to remain doubled up in a cramped position day and night, while the slow-going wagon creaked along its ponderous way, till the younger members of the family party peeped out of their hole and caught sight of the splendours of "the lights of London," in the long rows of oil lamps which then illuminated Kingsland Road, by which London from the north was entered, and anon the rendezvous at the "Vine," or "Four Swans," in Bishopsgate, was reached, to the intense relief of all!

In this primitive style, many a small tradesman has journeyed up to London, and, having transacted his business, has returned in the same manner two or three days afterwards.


Fly-wagons and vans travelled from London daily for Buntingford, Royston, Cambridge, Fakenham, Boston, Stamford, York and Edinburgh. Nearly all wagons on this road made their point of arrival and departure in London at Bishopsgate Street—the Four Swans, the Vine, and the Catherine Wheel being the usual inns.

The amount of goods traffic from Royston by these wagons was very considerable, especially by the Wakefield wagons which conveyed the wool from the combers in Royston to the Yorkshire Mills.

The coaching traffic at the beginning of the present century, corresponded pretty much with express and stopping trains of the present day. There were what may be called "main line" coaches from London, through Royston to Edinburgh by the North Road (as well as by other great roads through the Kingdom), and the "branch line" coaches, such as those from London to Cambridge, Norwich, Fakenham, &c., and from London to Ipswich, a route that figured so prominently in the memorable adventures of Mr. Pickwick. The North Road through-coaches did not change horses at Royston, but at Arlington, at the Hardwicke Arms, and again at Buckland at the first farm house (now Mr. Kestell's). The coaches were horsed at Arrington by Mr. Meyer, then the landlord of the Hardwicke Arms, who also supplied horses for the stage from Arrington to Caxton.

As to the time occupied on the road, every age has its own standard of enterprise and progress. Thus in 1806 a writer in an old {145} magazine breaks out into the following eloquent strain over the smartness of those times:—"Who would have conceived it possible fifty years ago that a coach would regularly travel betwixt London and Edinburgh, near 400 miles, in less than three days!" From our standpoint one is tempted to rejoin "who would have conceived it possible 80 years ago that an express train would travel regularly between London and Edinburgh in 8 1/2 hours!" but perhaps the future may laugh at such a boast! Still, that three days' journey by the old coaches was in reality a great thing, and one to be proud of, and as these "main line" coaches rattled through the pebbled streets of our old town they were looked upon with pride as a part of our national institutions.

With regard to what may be called the branch line system of the coaching traffic, we are too apt to think of coaching as a means of through communication by the great routes mentioned to appreciate, at this distance of time, the vast amount of enterprise, and of horse flesh and vehicles brought into the coaching and posting service, to connect places lying off the main routes—places which were served, down to very many of the villages, either by a coach under the management of local persons, or by the system of fly-wagons and van traffic, which brought goods and passengers from distant places at such intervals as could be arranged and worked at a profit.

At the end of the reign of George III. the coaches passing through or near Royston were:—"The Royston Mail," "The Cambridge Auxiliary Mail," "The Cambridge New Royal and Patent Mail," "Cambridge Union Coach," "Safety," "Tally-ho"; "Telegraph" and "Lynn Union" (both through Barkway); "Lord Nelson" (Lynn), "Edinburgh and Newcastle Mail," "York and Edinburgh Mail," "The Lord Wellington," "The High Flyer," "The Fakenham Mail," "The Fakenham Patriot," and the "Stamford Coach." The Cambridge coaches changed horses at Royston (or Barkway, according to the route taken) and Buntingford. Mr. Ekin, of Cambridge, horsed the coaches from Cambridge to Royston, and the other distance from Royston to London was horsed by London men.

From the foregoing list the reader will see that the old coaching days meant no small amount of life and animation, and, for certain trades, money and business, to towns situated as Royston was.

For the palmy days of stage-coaching we must travel a little beyond the era of the Georges, even of the last of them; for at the time when the railway came the coaching traffic of this country had reached a pitch of perfection which was unknown at any previous period in its history, and for smartness and efficiency and for the vast extent of its operations it was an institution of which the English people had every reason to be proud.


A parliamentary return for 1836 shows the highest speed attained by mail coaches in England to have been 10 5/8 miles per hour, in Scotland 10 1/2, and in Ireland 9 1/8. That there were still some terribly bad roads for some of the cross-country mail coaches is shown by the fact that the slowest speed was 6 miles in England, 7 in Scotland, and 6 7/8 in Ireland.

Royston saw some of the smartest coach-driving on the road. Six or seven coaches and three mails passed through the town up and down every day. Posting business was conducted with great spirit by the two rival inns—the young Bull and the older Red Lion, each having half a score of post horses in their stables, and one pair always standing harnessed ready to take "first turn out." These demands upon the principal inns made it impossible for the coach-horses to be stabled there and they occupied stables at various places in the town, but were brought up generally at the Red Lion or the Bull for the changes.

One of the chief characteristics of the old coaching days was the close association of coaches and coachmen with, and keen interest taken in them by, the inhabitants of the towns through which the principal coach routes passed. Royston had its full share of such associations, the institution coloured all our local life, from the pauper or cripple who begged of the coach passengers, to the local gentry who were expecting their newspaper. There was thus always something exhilarating and stirring about the arrival of the stage coach. It had within it so many possibilities. It might contain some great "Parliament man," runaway lovers, or stealers of bank notes, and it always brought some news. Intimately associated with the life and habits of the townspeople were the coaches travelling between London, Royston and Cambridge, the persons in charge of which, and many of the passengers using them, being known to the townspeople, whilst the names and merits of the rival coaches were known to the smallest boy in the parish.

It seems strange in these days that there should have been so much interest centred in these flying channels of civilization. I have mentioned the "Safety" and "Tally-ho," two coaches driven through Royston from Cambridge to London and back. These were well-known as rival coaches—rivals in time, for each went up in the morning and back in the evening, and, what is more interesting, they were also rivals in, and between them there was a keen competition for, popular favour; so much so that one might almost describe them as the aristocratic and democratic coaches. There is sufficient reason for making this distinction between them in the fact that the Royston people of those days (1820-25) did, in the absence of anything more exciting to divide their thoughts and preferences in the quiet daily round of their lives, manage to set up a sort of party-distinction, not {148} exactly on the lines of Whig and Tory, but, strange as it may seem, by the names of "Tally-ho," and "Safety." From the smallest boy to the oldest man in Royston and the district, the inhabitants showed sufficient leanings one way or the other to be classed as "Tally-ho" men or "Safety" men. By these rival coaches men swore, pledged themselves, and regulated their watches—those who had any. But the "Tally-ho" and "Safety" party-cries came out more especially amongst the boys, for when "Tally-ho" and "Safety" boys met, it was a case of "when Greek meets Greek," with frequent fights! The two rival coaches thus became the means of sharply dividing popular sentiment, with many who had never enjoyed a seat on either of the champion coaches!

About 1825 the rivalry between "Tally-ho" and "Safety" was at its merriest, and ten years later other coaches had appeared upon the scene. Thus in 1839 the following were the coaches, and their places of call, passing through Royston:—The "Star," from Cambridge, daily, calling at the Red Lion, Royston, and destined for Belle Sauvage, London; the Cambridge "Beehive," up and down alternate days, the Bull, Royston, and the Catherine Wheel, Bishopsgate Street, and White Bear, Piccadilly; the Cambridge "Telegraph," daily, the Red Lion, Royston, and the White Horse, Fetter Lane; the "Rocket," daily, the Bull, Royston, and White Horse, Fetter Lane; the "Wisbeach," daily, the Bull Hotel, Royston, and Belle Sauvage and Golden Cross, London; the "Stamford," up and down alternate days, the Crown, Royston, and the Bell and Crown, Holborn; the "Wellington," from York, the Queen Victoria, Royston (now the Coffee Tavern), and the Bull and Mouth, London; the "Rapid," daily (including Sunday), the Red Lion, Royston; Edinburgh and York mail and the Cambridge mail, daily, the Red Lion, Royston, for the General Post Office, London.

The times at which these coaches arrived at Royston followed in fairly consecutive order like a railway time table—thus of the up coaches the "Star," 8.20 a.m., "Beehive," 11.30, and so on up to the "Rocket," at 4.30, while the Edinburgh and Cambridge Mails passed through at 1 and 2 in the morning; the return journeys were of course chiefly towards the evening. The usual time from Royston to London was 44 hours, excepting the York mail, in the night time, which reached the General Post Office within four hours after leaving the Red Lion, at Royston.

One of the coaches in the above list, the "Star," naturally leads one from coaches to coachmen. I am not aware who was the driver of the "Tally-ho," but of the rival coach, the "Safety," the driver was Joe Walton, the driver of the "Star" at the later date mentioned above, a famous coachman in his day who lived to see, and curse from {149} his box that "iron horse," which was destined to break up the traditions of the road.

It was the general testimony of those who had ridden behind him, or beside him on the box, that Joe Walton had few superiors on the road as a driver of a stage coach, especially for the manner in which he would handle his "cattle," and pull his coach through the streets of the Metropolis. He was, however, daring to a fault, but a strong will and an iron nerve could only have enabled him to carry that heavy handful of reins for ten hours at a stretch—fifty miles up and fifty miles back on the same day, all through the season. This was no child's play!

He was a driver who was not easily turned aside by difficulties or obstacles in the way, and has been known to conduct his coach across "hedges and ditches" when snow blocked up the highways. The firm grip of his position was sometimes apparent to those who encountered him on the road. Woe-betide any inefficient or sleepy driver whom Joe had to pass on the road, for a heavy smack from his whip was often as effectual a cure as the modern roundabout process of dragging the sleepy teamster before the magistrates and extracting a few shillings from his earnings!

At a recent dinner at Cambridge, Professor Humphry, who came to Cambridge to commence what has been a brilliant career by a journey on the "Star" coach, lightly hit off Joe Walton, the driver of the "Star," as a man who "used to swear like a trooper and go regularly to Church."

Joe Walton was also a man who could show off his powers on the box, and did not like to be beaten. In 1827, finding, just as he was leaving Buntingford with the "Star" coach, that the "Defiance" was cutting out the pace in front of him, he put his "cattle" to it with a view to pass the "Defiance;" but by one of the horses shying at the lamp of the coach in front, Walton's coach was overturned and he and a passenger were injured. Again in 1834, Joe overthrew the "Star" coach not far from Royston, on the 2nd September, but it would almost seem that the fault was as much in the "Star" as in Joe's daring style of driving, for again on the 30th September it was overthrown on the Buntingford and Royston road, when it was being driven by Sir Vincent Cotton. Every inch a coachman, Joe Walton felt the bitter slight upon his high calling, when at last, with the introduction of the railway, his journeys were curtailed to the miserable make-shift of driving only as far as Broxbourne to meet the iron horse, whose approach Walton would hail with a memorable emphasis, and a more forcible than polite "Here comes old Hell-in-harness!"

Other men on the North Road, though having less of Walton's rough grip of their calling, were noted for their urbanity and general {150} intelligence. A place of honour among these was well deserved by Valentine Carter, the son of a Hertford coach-proprietor, the driver of the "Rocket," already referred to, and of the "Royston Coach" from Cambridge to Ware, as a connection with the Great Eastern Railway (1845-50), and in after life known as the genial landlord of the George Hotel, Buntingford. At the time of his death he had reached his 85th year, and when his remains were interred in the Layston Churchyard only a few years ago it was well said of him that "a more upright, truthful, and honourable man never lived."

Another man of some note on the London and Barkway road was Thomas Cross, the driver of the Lynn coach, to whose interesting volumes, "The Autobiography of a Stage Coachman," I have previously referred. The Cambridge "Telegraph" was, at one time, driven by a type of man whose character found expression in the soubriquet of "Quaker Will."

The difference between the risk of accidents on a coach and in a railway train has been well put by the old stager who asked the question—"If you meet with an accident by a coach and get thrown into a ditch, why there you are! but if you meet with an accident when riding by train—where are you?"

A few coaching adventures may be worth mentioning. Thus in 1803 it is recorded that—

On Saturday morning, early, the Wisbeach Mail from London coming down Reed Hill, between Buckland and Royston, was overthrown by the horses taking fright, by which accident one woman was killed on the spot and some other passengers slightly hurt.

On one occasion the Hertford coach met with a very alarming accident when overloaded with 34 passengers, nearly all of whom were severely hurt. A shocking accident, from top-loading, occurred in 1814 to the Ipswich coach, on the top of which the Rev. Gaven Braithwaite, Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, was crushed to death as the coach entered the gateway of the Blue Boar Inn, in that town.

Sometimes a coach was overturned with ludicrous results. Thus the Lynn coach, when being driven through Trumpington, on one occasion was overturned against the wall of a cottage. It so happened that the good house-wife was washing at the time; it further happened that her door was standing wide open, and it also happened that the ladies on the coach were pitched into the open doorway of the cottage, and one of them was pitched into the tub of soapsuds! In 1834, as soon as the day coach from Wisbeach to London, through Cambridge, arrived at the White Hart Inn, Cambridge, it was seized by the Excise officers and taken to the Rose and Crown, where it remained some days "in confinement," owing to the interesting circumstance that smuggled brandy was "on board."


Of the personal adventures of those in charge of the coaches and their hardships, the late Mr. James Richardson used to tell a graphic story to the effect that one winter's day he was waiting at the Cross, Royston, till the coach came in from the North. The townspeople were more than usually interested owing to the severity of the weather. This particular coach changed horses at the Old Crown, and when the vehicle rattled up the street it was noticed that the horn did not sound, and, on pulling up, the driver went sharply round to scold the guard. Poor fellow! He was found frozen to death, fast on his perch!

Sometimes the passengers by coach found themselves in contact with rough characters. In 1825, for instance, the Lynn coach contained three men being taken up to London for trial on a charge of burglary. When ascending Barkway hill the three men took advantage of the slower pace of the coach and began to descend with a view to escape, but the attendant immediately brought a pistol to their faces and one who had actually got off the coach was "persuaded" to get up again by the determination of their attendants to "have them in Newgate this night either dead or alive." They got them there alive and they were transported.

In the coaching days of this century the old highwaymen had for the most part disappeared, but a notable instance was afforded in this district in which the Mellishs, then residing at Hamels Park, were concerned. There were really two incidents, one in which Colonel Mellish fired at a highwayman and killed him, and in the other Captain Mellish was robbed, and as the highwayman rode away, not satisfied with his triumph, he turned and fire at the carriage, and the ball passed through the window and killed Captain Mellish!

Mr. Cross, the driver of the Lynn coach, gives an instance of three rival coaches on the road, of which he was driving one, and that a race for the lead resulted in accomplishing one stage at the extraordinary pace of 20 minutes and a few seconds for an eight miles course, which, if timed correctly, was at the rate of 24 miles an hour! But three of his opponents' horses never came out of the stable again!

One of the most alarming stage coach accidents in England was that between the Holyhead mail and the Chester mail near St. Albans in 1820. There had been a race between the two coaches from just this side Highgate, to near St. Albans. When going down a hill both drivers—Perdy, of the Holyhead, and Butler, of the Chester coach—put their horses into a furious galop, the velocity of the coaches increasing at every step. There was plenty of room, but as Butler found the Holyhead gaining a little upon him, it is said he wildly threw his leaders in front of his rival's and the coaches were immediately upset with a terrible collision. A man named William {152} Hart was killed and others had their limbs shattered. The drivers were put upon their trial at the Hertford Assizes before Baron Gurney, and were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced each to one year's imprisonment.

Railway passengers are at least tolerably free from the "begging nuisance," but not so the passengers by stage coaches when the coach pulled up for the change of horses, as the following entry in the Royston committee book for 1815 will show:—

"Ordered that Notice be given to John T—— and J. B—— if they are found begging in the street from the Coaches that their pay is to be taken off."

One curious indication that the end of the coaching era was approaching was afforded by the invention of steam coaches. Thus we find in 1839 that "Hancock's steam coach" came through Royston for the first time, being seven hours coming from London, including stoppages. Rather a slow rate from the agency which was to annihilate horse coaches!

One of the arguments against railways was that there would no longer be employment for horses, and yet just before railways were heard of one man stood at the Old Tyburn Turnpike and received the toll and issued tickets for the whole of the Oxford Street traffic! What a picture that old Tyburn turnpike man would form now, standing there in his white apron with its two pockets, "one for half-pence and one for tickets," and assessing the great volume of Oxford Street traffic of to-day! Yet the disappearance of coaches from our highways did make a very considerable difference to old towns like Royston, where, next to malting, the posting business was the most important in the town. As to the effect of the decay of coaching upon towns on the great coach roads, it is said that the town of Barnet had been accustomed to keep upwards of 1,000 horses in its stables, and Hounslow, on the Great Western Road, 2,500 horses!

Coaches and coach horses are not the only things which have disappeared from our high roads. One of the things to be met with on the roads in 1800-20 was the velocipede. It was not unlike in form the "Safety" bicycle which is so universally met with on our roads to-day, with a trifling difference which made long and rapid journeys out of the question. The fact is the mechanical genius of Englishmen, which has made such enormous strides during the century, had not then found out that it was possible to use the solid earth as a fulcrum and at the same time to leave the feet and legs free. A horse used its feet to draw a coach and why not a man! So the velocipede was constructed for the rider's feet to just reach the ground, and by pressing first one foot on the ground and then the other he managed in this undignified attitude, to propel the thing along!


Another characteristic thing about the old locomotion was the dog cart—small carts used by pedlars and others drawn along the high roads by a dog or dogs. Sometimes these old pedlars would drive to Royston market with their "carriage and pair" of dogs in rattling style! This sight was very common during the last century and lingered to about the end of the coaching days. In the Gentleman's Magazine, for 1795, a writer says: "I have sometimes seen two dogs yoked one on each side of a barrow drawing regularly and well, similar to ploughing. Their feet being tender, to prevent their being foot-sore, they should have some sort of shoeing; perhaps leather would be properest."

So well established had the use of dogs for drawing carts become that the subject came before Parliament about fifty years ago. An old magazine of this date gives a kind of petition to Parliament, drawn up by a village schoolmaster and signed by three small hucksters, setting forth, like the three historic tailors of Tooley Street, the injured sense of the "people of England" at the prospect of an interference with the use of dogs, and praying for the suppression of horses and the protection of the small trader's dog, "because the dog carts of poor people were continually, almost, and sometimes quite, run over by these rough beasts [horses], and that this tyranny and wilfulness is very difficult for the poor man to bear, who may have as good a spirit as any coachman, although he is not so high up"!

From as late as about 1855 there comes to the writer a vision of a pedlar, muddled with drink, riding home in his little square box cart and the faithful dog drawing the cart and the man as well, and also a faint echo of "shame" from some bystanders. Verily the fable must in those days have been true, that when the goddess Fidelity was lost among men, after long searching, she was found in a dog-kennel!

A picturesque part of the old system of locomotion was, of course, the turnpike. The keepers of toll-gates found their principal customers in the numerous coaches and the wagons which travelled up and down the main roads, for the farmers could, and frequently did, by a little mutual contriving, manage a cross-cut by their field-ways on to the main road on the town side of a toll-gate, as in the case of Bassingbourn and the Baldock Road into Royston. For the wagon traffic, which conveyed much heavy merchandise, the older toll-gates had a weigh-bridge attached to them so that the weight might be ascertained and charged according to their scale. In later times the regular coaches generally ran through without being stopped, and paid the toll periodically.

The turnpike-road to Caxton—or rather from Royston Cross to Wandesford Bridge in the county of Huntingdon, of which the southern part from Royston to Kisby's Hut formed one Trust, is said to have been the first turnpike-road in England.


Certainly the various Acts of Parliament for its repair and maintenance date back to the time of Queen Anne, if not earlier, and, after turning up in Acts all through the reigns of the Georges, ended with the Act of 1822 under which the old Trust was managed in the times of the modern coaching days. The traffic never was sufficient to maintain the road without resorting to a rate upon the neighbouring lands, owing to the diversion of a good deal of the coaching and wagon traffic at Royston for Cambridge, and the Trustees were often in great straits, and on the horns of a dilemma—if they charged enough toll to pay their way, the traffic was driven off the roads; if they modulated their charges the roads went to the bad.

Money was advanced by private individuals upon the security of the tolls, and the road between Royston and Arrington was always in debt and dirty. So bad was it that the mail coaches were delayed, the Postmaster-General came down upon the trustees, and Mr. McAdam, the surveyor to the trustees (at a salary of L50 per annum), whose hands were full of surveying at that time in various parts of England, reported that though the road was "not indictable at common law, it certainly was not in a fit condition to travel upon, at the speed which the excellent regulations of the Post Office require." "It required fourteen hundred tons of material and one thousand pounds value in labour to put it into a proper condition, at a cost of L7,500, or about L500 a mile"!

That this state of insolvency was not due to tolls being too low is evident from the fact that a petition was presented to the trustees, setting forth that the tolls were so high as to drive the traffic off the road. Eightpence per horse at both gates was a considerable sum between Royston and Kisby's Hut. Again and again the bankrupt condition of the road, both in solidity and finance, was submitted to the Postmaster-General and the Treasury Authorities in the hope of getting some relief from that quarter, and in 1833 the Trustees, despairingly, stated that upon the success of their application for a subsidy (including L1,500 to cut through Arrington Hill), depended the question of keeping open "this most important line of general communication."

Between 1790, when the Kneesworth toll bar produced about L5 a week, and 1820, there was a considerable increase in the traffic on the roads, and the highest figure reached was in 1828, when the amount realized from the Kneesworth and Caxton toll gates was L1,367 for the year. As coaching declined, the turnpike receipts fell off so much that by 1847 the Kneesworth and Caxton toll-gate receipts had dwindled down, in twenty years, from L1,367 to L282 a year! That the railway did not knock all the horses off the road, but on the contrary brought them on for other purposes, is evident from the fact that after the establishment of a railway station at Royston the above toll-gate receipts went up again in the next twenty years to L600 a year!


The Wadesmill Turnpike Trust (from Royston to Wadesmill) was a much more profitable road, as it included some of the Cambridge as well as the North Road traffic. Indeed, for three years before the London Road hill was cut through, the tolls from Royston to Wadesmill were let to Mr. Flay for L4,090 per annum, and in 1839 after the cutting was finished, they were let for L4,350, the highest sum ever made under this Trust.

With the disappearance of the last of the toll-gates the last relics of the old coaching days vanish. Antiquated such an expedient may seem—placing bars across the road—yet the system did enable some very notable improvements to be carried out in cutting through high hills at an expense which modern highway authorities would never dream of. Then, they not only secured the desirable result that all who used the roads should pay for them, but helped to preserve the balance of trade between towns and villages, for, no sooner were gates abolished than many heavy users of the roads got off almost scot free of contributing to their maintenance, and the town tradesman could afford to send his carts round and compete with, and, as a natural consequence, to annihilate many small village shop-keepers who had flourished under the old regime.



Over the dark night of the 18th and the dull grey morning of the 19th century there was this remarkable feature, that while the local records show how deplorable was the condition of the people, there was at the head of the affairs of the nation a perfect galaxy of great men, such as the public life of this nation had perhaps never known. There were Fox, Pitt, Sheridan, Burke, Wellington, Wilberforce, Nelson, Canning, Brougham, Lord Chancellor Eldon—whose greatness was only tempered by the fear that the sun of Great Britain would set if a Catholic was allowed to sit in the House of Peers,—the Duke of York—whose speech against Catholic emancipation was printed in letters of gold and sold by our local stationers,—the great Lyndhurst (four times Lord Chancellor) Palmerston, Lord Derby, who, from a maiden speech about lighting Manchester with gas, rose to be "the Rupert of Debate," Macaulay—the brilliant Buntingford school boy who went stamping through the fields of literature with an eclat which made him one of the giants of the coming century,—O'Connell, the Liberator; and Grattan, of Irish {156} Parliament fame. All these great names made up a reflection of the glories of Ancient Greece and Rome in the arena of debate. They shone like stars in the firmament, helping to make the common people content to dwell in the night by the glittering panoply they threw over the public life of the nation. Men and women forgot their grievances in the contemplation of great names whose owners did not then, like the statesmen of to-day, come down to the level of the common life to be jostled on railway platforms.

It is only when one looks into the details of local life that it is possible to realize the sharp contrast of great men and little happiness for the people, or how terrible must have been the strain for the whole nation to have existed under such conditions without a revolution.

The marvel is that Parliament with so much talent in its foremost men should have been powerless to deal with the weakness outside, or that the brilliant leaders should have been content to reach such an eminence by so rough and thorny a path; but the great forces which have been liberated within this century had not then set men's energies free, and they were pretty much confined to, and did not see much beyond, the narrow way along which they were toiling.

Parliamentary Reform, for which more enlightened men here and there had for fifty years been asking, was the first setting of the tide which was to penetrate and revolutionize all our local life. Early in the present century when the then Lord Dacre contested Cambridgeshire, and had the audacity to advocate Parliamentary Reform and Civil and Religious Liberty, he was called the Fire-Brand, and he had few supporters when, in 1810, he moved for an inquiry into the state of Parliamentary representation.

The amount of political literature and printers' ink used in the agitation for "the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill," was perhaps unparalleled in the history of English electioneering. Some of it, to say the least, was not very refined, but it expressed very well the prevailing state of things which the "Bill" was destined to upset. The electors of Herts. and Cambs. were not unlike those of Stafford who said "Now, Gronow, old boy, we like what we have heard about you, your principles and all that sort of thing. We will therefore all vote for you if [slapping their breeches pockets]—you know what we mean, old fellow, and if not, you won't do for Stafford!" Though the candidate did not trouble himself much about his "principles and that sort of thing, you know," his opponents generally managed, in the form of squibbs of a more or less elegant turn, to supply the deficiency. Here is a specimen of a Hertfordshire squib [after other promises put into the mouth of a candidate]—

"Lastly, I engage to hire all the bullies, blackguards, bankrupts, blacklegs, bum-bailiffs, and even the gipsies in the neighbourhood," &c. {157} This and much more of a scurrilous character appeared in large type with the printer's name in bold letters!

It is curious to note how the desire for Parliamentary Reform took hold of all classes of the people, and during that stormy period, when the Commons were engaged in passing and the Lords in repeatedly rejecting "the Bill," Parliament was watched by its constituents, through such imperfect channels as were open to them, in a manner which had never been known before. Here is a local incident which is vouched for by an eye witness. On a certain division in the House, Mr. Adeane, the then member for Cambridgeshire, walked out of the House without voting, and shortly after when he was canvassing in Shepreth village, one, old Jerry Brock, met him with this brusque little speech:—"Muster Adeane, I've heerd say that when a sartin motion agin the Bill was made, you walked out o' the House o' Commons without votin. Now I'll just thank you to walk out o' my house!"

In December, 1832, following the passing of the Reform Bill, three Liberal Members each were returned for Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, to the first reformed Parliament—for Hertfordshire, Sebright, Calvert and Alston, and for Cambridgeshire, Townley, Childers and Adeane, but with the great issue of the Corn Laws looming in the distance, these agricultural counties gradually went round, and in 1841 all the representatives of the two counties were Conservatives. In Cambs., Yorke, Allix and Eaton, were returned without a contest, and in Herts., Grimston, Ryder and Smith, were returned, Alston one of the old members being defeated. In 1847 Mr. Trevor (the late Lord Dacre) turned the tide in Herts. by recovering one of the seats, but it was not till 1859 that a seat was gained for the Liberals in Cambs.—a seat afterwards held by Mr. Brand (the Speaker), the late Viscount Hampden, whose death everyone laments. It was in the election of the first reformed Parliament that Royston first had a polling place.

We can hardly realize what the passing of the Reform Bill meant in the estimation of almost all classes of the people in country districts, but a pamphlet published by J. Warren, Royston, in 1832, in order that "everyone may have in his possession a faithful report of so glorious a triumph," affords us some interesting glimpses of the effect of the passing of that great measure upon our local life. Here is a summary of the record for Royston:—

"The struggle for so grand and important a measure having at length terminated in favour of the wishes of the people, the inhabitants of Royston were determined to commemorate it in that respectful way, so glorious a triumph in passing the Reform Bill into law, really deserved; consequently a committee was formed, and a subscription collected of L130 without difficulty, with a promise of more if wanted. {158} A band was sent for from London, then on Thursday morning the bells were set ringing and the musicians struck up with the beautiful air, 'Away, away to the mountain brow,' in the street, which so struck the ears of the people that they really forgot all business."

"Twenty tables were admirably arranged, covered and fenced in on the green where the horse-fair is kept. Some 1,400 of the towns-people headed by the band filling the street from one end to the other and forming a most imposing spectacle besides innumerable spectators, the windows on both sides of the street crowded, so that it is supposed there was not less than 3,000 pleasant faces to be seen at one time."

The scene at the great booth which accommodated the assemblage was an imposing one too with its outward banners flying:—"Reform Festival, 1832," and "Triumph of Liberty "; while at the head of the tables were mottoes galore:—"The people's Triumph," "Grey, Brougham," "Althorpe, Russell," "The King and people united must prevail," "No slavery," "The House of Dacre," "Townley and Reform," "Speed the plough," "England's wealth, the working classes," "Our aim is peace, our end is victory," "Sebright, Calvert," "Duncombe, Currie," "We unite to conquer," "God save the King," &c., &c. With three carvers, three waiters and a tapster to each of the twenty tables, the eager 1,400 could hardly wait for grace from the Rev. Samuel Cautherley (vicar of the parish), before the set-to upon the beef and plum pudding "with good brown stout." The cloths being removed, "the pipe fillers amply produced their fruits, and the tapster regulated his tap which continued to run freely," while the carvers and waiters were having a set-to in the Market House. Tea followed, and what with tobacco, snuff, peals of bells and the music of the band, the poor continued to enjoy themselves until nine o'clock, when the illumination of the town began, and by ten o'clock at night the streets "with their coloured lamps and candles and transparencies had a most beautiful appearance."

The second day, Friday, 116 of the principal inhabitants sat down to dinner at the Red Lion, Mr. John George Fordham, then of Odsey (father of Mr. Henry Fordham), presiding, and supported on his right by Mr. J. P. Wedd, and on his left by Mr. E. K. Fordham, the venerable banker. Toasts came thick and fast, and all shared the enthusiasm of "this proud moment of conscious victory when the march of ages is over-stepped by the exertions of a day."

We kindle not war's battle fires; By union, justice, reason, law, We claim the birth-right of our sires: We raise the watchword liberty, We will, we will, we will be free!


In this strain the oratory flowed, from the reformers—the Chairman, Mr. Wedd, Mr. E. K. Fordham, who re-called the first reform meeting he attended in that very room forty years before, and the Rev. J. Horseman (rector of Heydon).

The third day, and still the reforming zeal had not spent itself, and the musicians were still in tune, and on Saturday joined in witnessing a cricket match on the Heath, with a cold dinner. Unfortunately for the older cricketing reputation of the town it is recorded that "owing to their having had two amusing days previous there was too much work in the game of cricket for their performance to be worth recording, and so threw away their bats and balls and retired to the Indies who were preparing a social cup of tea, making altogether a party of about 100."

"They then returned to the town headed by the Band, and concluded in the High Street by playing and singing in full chorus the grand national anthem of "God save the King," while the bells rang the old Constitution out and the new one in! Thus ended three days such as the inhabitants of Royston never before witnessed, and probably never will again." Other towns in the district—Hitchin, Biggleswade, Ware, Baldock, &c.,—also had their celebrations, and among the villages there was a "spirited little set out" at Meldreth, where 750 were provided with dinner, and the musical amateurs of the village and neighbourhood with their "violins, clarinets, horns, &c., which they were using to the best of their knowledge, gave youthful spirits to the aged, and so well was the commemoration of the Reform Bill conducted that it was much admired by all who witnessed it. In the evening they all, ladies and gentlemen and poor, about 400 in number, had a reel together, and concluded the evening in a very amiable manner, wishing success to reform."

At the present time when comprehensive schemes of Old Age Pensions are talked of which may, if carried out, transform much of the present character of relief of the poor, it will perhaps be of interest to glance at the state of things just before the introduction of the present Poor-law had worked a complete parochial revolution.

There is, I imagine, a general impression amongst us, when we ever turn our thoughts back to the subject, that the remarkable shaking of the dry bones during the Reform Bill period, which culminated in the great measure of 1832, was merely a matter of politics—that John Bull was only buying a new broom to sweep away here and there an Old Sarum, and dust the benches of St. Stephen's for new company and—voila tout! the nation was reformed at a stroke! Yet that was not all by any means. In most of the rural districts of England there were parishes, not here and there, but parishes by shoals, presenting a state of things more rotten and more demoralizing than anything that the annals of Borough-mongering could furnish.


Then the great bulk of the poor people in our villages held to the sentiment expressed in the lines—

Come let us drink, sing, and be merry, For the parish is bound to maintain us!

When the ratepayers began to assert themselves the pauper element broke out in open riot and incendiarism. Then came severe penal measures, Poor-law commissions, and an awakening of the national conscience to the fact that there was something besides political Old Sarums to reform if the salt in John Bull's family cupboard was not to entirely lose its savour. A state of things was disclosed in many villages in rural England at which the more thoughtful stood aghast, for under the sacred name of charity, laziness and immorality, unblushing and impudent, were found to be feeding the stream of pauperism and eating out the vitals of our country life.

At the root of the domestic and social ruin which the old Poor-law was silently but surely spreading through our villages, lay the two principal factors of labour and public morals—the farmers paying low wages and the parish making up the difference according to the number of a man's family, and the lax way in which bastardy was dealt with by the parish.

As to Royston, in 1831, when the Commissioners were appointed to inquire into the laws affecting the relief of the poor, there were fifty agricultural labourers in the town; wages nine or ten shillings a week without beer; the magistrates required an allowance to be made from the rates to make up earnings, according to the number in family, but, it is added, that "this system is objected to by this parish."

"The desire to build the largest number of cottages upon the smallest space and with no ground attached was strongly condemned," but the seed had been sown and the harvest is still with us. Upon the subject of making up a labourer's pay out of the parish funds, and the labourer looking to the Overseer to pay him when he was not at work, a remarkable test case occurred in Royston, of which I transcribe the following particulars from the parish books—

"There is a difference of opinion existing between the parishioners of this parish and some very respectable and intelligent magistrates acting for this neighbourhood. The magistrates think it is within their jurisdiction (if they are convinced of its necessity) to order Overseers to pay money to able-bodied labourers in full employment by private individuals, in order to make up their earnings to a sum considered by the magistrates necessary for the support of their families."

This the parishioners seemed inclined to resist, and it is added—"the parishioners consider that if the Overseer be ordered to make up the wages of one farmer's labourers, he may be ordered to go round the parish and make up the wages of every labourer. It would then be the {161} interest of every master to lower his wages and throw as much of them as possible on to the poor rates. The poor rates might thus be enormously increased and those ratepayers not employing labourers might be crushed."

Upon this subject the parish officials and two of the local magistrates, the Rev. H. Morice and Rev. T. Sissons, got into conflict; for we learn from a communication to the Commissioners, that the Royston Select Vestry, refusing to add to a labourer's pay, the Overseers were actually summoned before the magistrates for Hertfordshire to show cause why they should not make him an addition to the pay he received in full employment. Two labourers, John James and Joseph Wood, of Royston, having been refused additions to their wages by the parish, applied to the magistrates in Petty Sessions, and the magistrates making a verbal order upon the Overseers to make up the wages to a certain sum, the Assistant Overseer put it off until he had seen the Select Vestry. A few days after, he says he was taking a ride with one of the Overseers and met the Rev. Henry Morice driving his carriage with the man Wood riding behind. Observing them, he pulled up and said, "Mr. Docura, here is this man Wood who says that you refuse to relieve him as we ordered you on Wednesday last!"

Mr. Docura admitted the fact, upon which the rev. gentleman said, "I wish I had given you a written order!"

Mr. Docura: "If you had, I have orders to resist them to the utmost."

The Rev. T. Morice upon this, in the presence of Wood and another labourer, exclaimed in a violent passion, "it would serve you right if your town was burnt down; you richly deserve it!" and then ordered the man Wood to come to him at some other time.

A few days afterwards the Overseers received a summons to appear at the Rev. Thomas Sissons', at Wallington, to show cause, &c.

The Overseers naturally resented being dragged to Wallington, and wrote a letter asking for the case to come before the ordinary Sessions at Royston, as one of the Overseers was ill.

The suggested alteration was not acceded to, however, and one of the Overseers and the Assistant had to go to Wallington before the Rev. Thos. Sissons and Rev. John Lafont. The magistrates first tried to persuade the Overseer by appealing to his feelings, and then to intimidate by pointing out the consequences of his refusal to comply with their order, but he was proof against both, and said if they thought proper to make an order he was under the necessity to say that he must refuse complying with it. Upon which they gave him till Wednesday to consider, and if he did not comply by that time they would certainly give an order and enforce it.


They had orders to appear again on the Wednesday, "but for some unaccountable cause the men did not appear, to the joy, apparently, of the Magistrates and Overseers, since which time they have not tried to enforce it, but we have since had good reason to suppose that they have not either forgotten or forgiven us."

So ended the attempt to enforce a legal right to supplement wages, which was acted upon in all the surrounding parishes.

Everything seemed to conspire to make the labourer a pauper even if he would aspire to independence, until, through early and improvident marriages, the lax treatment of bastardy, &c., paupers became a glut in the market so to speak, and, finding the doles less satisfactory in consequence, discontent, riot, and incendiarism, manifested themselves in many places; hence the inuendo of the Rev. Mr. Morice, the magistrate, about the town being burnt.

At Gamlingay the Overseer was summoned before a Magistrate six miles off because he had a difference with the paupers about their parish pay. On the day of their attendance something prevented the case being heard, and on their return to Gamlingay, all together, they passed the house of another magistrate about two miles from home when the Overseer said, "Now, my lads, here we are close by; I'll give you a pint of beer each if you'll come and have it settled at once without giving me any more trouble about it." The proposal was rejected without hesitation!

It may be appropriate here to give a few instances of the way in which paupers were pampered, and extracts from the Commissioners' report as to how the old system of relief worked in the villages—

"An inhabitant of a large village near Newmarket has taken out a certificate for killing game and actually goes out shooting with his pointer and gun, although at this time he has 3s. weekly allowance from the parish as a pauper, and during last year received 4s. 6d. weekly."

In one small parish containing 139 persons, only 35 of them, including the clergyman and his family, were supporting themselves by their own exertions!

In many villages the expenditure in out-relief—chiefly in orders upon village shops for flour, clothes, butter, cheese, &c.—amounted to from L2 to L3 per head of the population, that is, a village with a population of a thousand persons would expend L2,600 a year in "relieving" pauperism.

It seems incredible, yet it is in black and white in the Commissioners' Report, that at Westoning, in Bedfordshire, there was scarcely an able-bodied labourer in the parish in the employment of private individuals who was not at the same time receiving his allowance from the parish!


As to rent and taxes from cottage property, under such circumstances these too often had to be paid or remitted by the parishes. Thus the Royston Overseers state:—"We have omitted rating the cottages to the number of 99, occupied by labourers and low mechanics, owing to the difficulty of collecting the money and the ill-will it engendered amongst the cottagers towards the parish authorities."

"Order'd that Mr. Simons apply to the justices and inquire of them whether they can compel labourers who have decent earnings to pay their rent"!

The following incidents are mentioned from Over in Cambridgeshire:—

"A widow with two children had been in receipt of 3s. a week from the parish, and was able to live upon this. She afterwards married a butcher, and still the allowance of 3s. for the children was continued. But the butcher and his bride came to the Overseer and said 'they were not going to keep those children for 3s. a week, and if a further allowance was not made they should turn them out of doors and throw them on the parish altogether.' The Overseers resisted; the butcher appealed to the Magistrates, who recommended him to make the best arrangement he could as the parish was obliged to support the children"!

The law and its administration, on behalf of the parish, actually put a valuable premium on bastardy.

The Parish Beadle was tempted to bribe the young woman to lay an information against someone in another parish, "a compulsory marriage" was brought about and the woman and bastard, and all future liability, were sometimes got rid of at one stroke! A Parish Beadle, in addition to looking after little Oliver Twists, often had these delicate negotiations to manage, and whether Mr. Bumble was able to ingratiate himself with 'Mrs. Corney' or not, he often did a good stroke of business for his parish in the matrimonial market, when, as I have mentioned in an earlier chapter, a labourer could not even go into another parish to work without a certificate from the parish he belonged to. In the report of the Commission, to which I have referred, occurs this significant little item:—

"A Beadle in a small district assured me he had alone effected fifty marriages of this description in the course of a few years."

The labour market was the parish, and this was completely disorganised and demoralised. The old law of settlement made it practically impossible for labour to find the best market. Even if a young man had an offer of a situation in another part of the country at double wages he would often refuse to go lest he should "lose his parish," or it might be that the parish where he was asked to go was considered a "bad" parish compared with his own. Each parish {164} was thus considered as a sort of freehold, with a family cupboard bound to provide for nil its children.

It was almost impossible for any individual farmer to stand out and follow an independent course, for if he paid his men full wages he would also, as a ratepayer, be paying part of the wages for the other farmers in the parish. In some cases the masters combined with the men and gave false certificates as to the amount of their wages in order to get more "make up" from their parish.

The farmer preferred to employ men with large families to keep them off the parish, but single young men, finding they were not wanted, contracted early and improvident marriages, to make sure of being "provided for by the parish." Population increased to beyond the requirements for local industry; the law of settlement was squeezed to the utmost against removals, and thus the farmer was creating the Nemesis he was seeking to flee from.

In many cases wages were as low as 8s. per week, the difference being made up according to the labourer's increasing family, and "if he makes more, still he receives his allowance in order that industry may not be discouraged."

At Over on one occasion, Mr. Robinson, the overseer, refused payment to men who would not keep their proper hours at work upon the road. "They complained to the Bench at Cambridge, and beat him as usual," so says the report, and not only that, but they returned home wearing favours in their hats and button-holes, and in the evening collected in a body before Mr. Robinson's house and shouted in triumph!

The report for the parish of Bottisham showed that the effect of the scale for single young men when not working, or receiving less wage than the scale, was that one family, consisting of man, wife, and seven children, were entitled to and were at that time receiving 19s. 6d. a week (over and above their earnings) from the parish, several of the sons being grown up!

"At Little Shelford," says the Commissioner, "a worse case than this was given me by the Acting Overseer, of one family, a man, wife, and four sons, living together, receiving 24s. weekly from the parish"!

The effect of this pauperising system could not fail to be very disastrous—it placed a direct premium upon idleness, as a man was sure of a living from the rates even if he did not work, and also a bounty upon wages, or an inducement for the farmer to pay a much lower wage than he could afford. The ultimate effect of both these circumstances was that there was such a large amount of pauper labour that it became necessary, in order to relieve the rates, to take care that such labour should be employed before any other. In some cases the unemployed men were actually put up to auction, or rather {165} their labour, and an instance is mentioned in the Commissioners' report of ten men in one parish being knocked down to one farmer for five shillings, and that out of a body of 170 men, 70 were let in this manner! The parish also meddled and muddled in the labour market by making a contract with some individual to have certain work performed by the paupers at a given price, the parish paying the paupers. The making of the Newmarket Road Cutting, near Royston, was an instance of this.

Parochial affairs presented this extraordinary condition of things that for the industrious, thrifty man who was desirous of laying up something for a rainy day, there was no hope! Take the following, which I copy verbatim from the Commissioners' report—

"We have already quoted from Mr. Cowell's report a letter from Mr. Nash, of Royston, in which he states that he had been forced by the Overseer of Reed to dismiss two excellent labourers for the purpose of introducing two paupers into their place. Mr. Nash adds that of the men dismissed, one,

"Was John Walford, a parishioner of Barley, a steady, industrious, trustworthy, single man, who, by long and rigid economy, had saved about L100. On being dismissed, Walford applied in vain to the farmers at Barley for employment! It was known that he had saved money, and could not come on the parish, although any of them would willingly have taken him had it been otherwise! After living a few months without being able to get any work he bought a cart and two horses, and has ever since obtained a precarious subsistence by carrying corn to London for use of the Cambridge merchants; but just now the current of corn is northward and he has nothing to do; and at any time he would gladly have exchanged his employment for that of a day labourer, if he could have obtained work. No reflection is intended on the Overseers of Barley; they only do what all others are expected to do; though the young men point at Walford and call him a fool for not spending his money at a public-house as they do; adding that then he would get work"!

A somewhat similar instance is supplied to the Commissioners by Mr. Wedd who is spoken of in the report as "an eminent solicitor of Royston."

Here is another case:—"A man without children in this neighbourhood emerged from poverty and bequeathed many pecuniary legacies, some L100 apiece, and others larger and smaller, to a number of agricultural labourers who were his distant relatives. As soon as the legacies are paid the legatees would not be able to obtain any employment in husbandry until the legacies are spent! The employment in this parish is all wanted for those who from deep poverty can claim it of the Overseers, and these legatees will have no {166} title to claim employment till they have reduced themselves again to poverty by having spent all their legacies!"

It was not, however, so much in favour of the farmer as the system might seem, for they got the worst of the labour—of the two whom Mr. Nash was obliged to take in the above instance, one killed a valuable mare, and the other he was obliged to prosecute for stealing corn—for the farmer was obliged to take his share of the unemployed labour, and often had a dozen idle worthless men on his hands at times when five or six would have done the work.

Those of us to whom the memory of the bent-backed figure of the "wheat-barn tasker" in every village, is now but a dim vision of the past, can hardly realize how bitter must have been the feeling when the threshing machine came to do away with the flail. A simple matter it may seem, yet the peasant revolt which it brought about was for the time more universal, and more effective, than Wat Tyler's rebellion, because, without Wat Tyler's organization, it found a means of working in every village. To the mind of the labourer this uprooting of the habitual daily work of a thousand years, taken in connection with the coming movement against allowing the labourer to go to the overseer to make up his wages out of the rates—these things together presented to his mind an outlook which was bad enough to arouse the sluggish mind of the peasant in every village. So he set about upon a course of retaliation and unreasoning revenge. The threshing machine was threatening their work, and so upon the threshing machine wherever they found it the labourers set with a vengeance. The effects of that vengeance are traceable in the criminal returns for the period. Thus the number of criminals for trial for malicious offences against property, which for the previous five or six years had scarcely averaged fifty a year, in the year 1831 went up at a hound to a total of 1,245, of which no less than 921 were for "destroying threshing machines." Riots, incendiarism, and sending letters threatening to burn houses, &c., also went up almost to a corresponding extent.

One or two local examples of pauper insolence and tyranny may be given from the Commissioners' report:—

"The tone assumed by the paupers towards those who dispense relief is generally very insolent and often assumes a more fearful character. At Great Gransden, the Overseer's wife told me that two days before my visit, two paupers came to her husband demanding an increase of allowance; he refused them, showing them that they had the full allowance sanctioned by the magistrates' scale; they swore, and threatened he should repent of it; and such was their violence, that she called them back, and prevailed on her husband to make them further allowance. Mr. Faircloth, by a stricter system, reduced the rates at Croydon; he became unpopular among the labourers, and after {167} harvest they gathered in a riotous body about his threshing machine and broke it to pieces. At Guilden Morden, in the same neighbourhood, a burning took place of Mr. Butterfield's stacks to the amount of L1,500 damage. Mr. Butterfield was Overseer, and the Magistrates have committed, on strong circumstantial evidence, a man to whom he had denied relief, because he had refused to work for it. I have found that the apprehension of this dreadful and easily perpetrated mischief has greatly affected the minds of the rural parish officers, making the power of the paupers over the funds provided for their relief almost absolute as regards any discretion of the Overseers."

Report of Mr. Power, Assistant Commissioner for Cambs.:—

"If an Overseer refuses relief, or gives less than the pauper thinks himself entitled to, he (the Overseer) was liable to be summoned before Justices to defend himself against the charge of inhumanity and oppression, and unhappily the applicant, who has been refused relief, has frequently recourse to a much more summary remedy than the interference of the Magistrates. The tribunal which enforces it sits, not at the Petty Sessions, but at the beershop—it compels obedience, not by summons and distress, but by violence and conflagration. The most painful and the most formidable portion of our evidence, consists of the proof that in many districts the principal obstacle to improvement is the well-founded dread of these atrocities."

But worse than mere insolence of words were the acts of lawlessness and crime which prevailed. These items occur in a number of typical questions and answers in the report of the Commissioners, extracts from which I give below, with the name of the Overseers or other informants:—

BOURN (Mr. Whittet.)

The poverty which compelled the farmer to use the threshing machine, bore down the labourer to unprecedented distress, and drove him to desperation.


The lawlessness, &c., here was "Chiefly attributable to a long course of bad execution of the Poor-laws. The cause of the riots and fires was chiefly the cruel policy of paying the single men much below the fair rate of wages. The object of the riots and fires was the same, not the wanton destruction of property, but to obtain higher wages which was too generally the result.

"Immediately after the fire at Guilden Morden, in 1831, I went to the parish and found the farmers assembled in Vestry, the very morning after the fire, consulting what they had better do to put their labourers in a better state by raising their wages. I remonstrated with them upon the impolicy of doing it then, as it would be a bonus for such wickedness." [William Metcalfe and William Wedd.]



John Burr (churchwarden) gives this answer:—

"Keep up the price of labour or there will be always cause to fear." A very fair echo of the Guilden Morden farmers' sentiments referred to above.


Dissatisfaction at the decreased parish allowance tended to produce these acts of insubordination. [Gamaliel Docura, Vestry Clerk and Assistant Overseer.]


The fires were lighted up by malice in the breasts of the labourers because the farmers pinched them in their wages; the riots may be called an effort to recover their former rate of wages, and answered their object. [Robert Withers, Land Agent.]


At Stotfold the late Mr. John George Fordham, of Royston, with a foresight and courage that did him lasting credit, used his influence, at personal risk to himself, in suppressing the riots.

During the years of 1830-5, a period of great discontent ensued, and incendiary fires continued to be of alarming frequency. Ashwell and Bassingbourn suffered severely. Of the former it is said that nearly all one side of the place was burned, and of the latter, in the course of three or four years, most of the farm homesteads were destroyed.

The fires at Shelford deserve notice here, on account of the remarkable circumstances surrounding them. In the first place the perpetrator, John Stallan, was the last man executed for the crime of arson, and in the second place his conviction was brought about by a strange piece of circumstantial evidence. Stallan was a labourer of respectable character and in constant work, and became one of the men attached to the fire engine. The fire in respect to which he was convicted, was discovered in time for the owner to run to it and pull out some of the thatch, and with it came out a ball of rag, and in it a piece of ignited tinder. This was found on examination to be made up of material including a piece of a lady's dress of which the pattern was distinct, and was found to be a piece of a dress given by a Mrs. Headley, to Stallan's wife, the remaining part of the dress being found in his cottage! He was arrested, and at first tried to fix the taking of the rag for the tinder upon a half-witted lad, but being unable to shield himself behind this subterfuge, he next went so far as to try and fix the crime upon his own wife, and again in this he conspicuously failed, and at the Cambs. Assizes was convicted and sentenced to be hung, and was executed in December, 1833, after confessing that he had been the author of all the ten Shelford fires, and that his only motive for {169} committing the crimes was to get the ale and the money he received for helping to extinguish the fires!

Under such a condition of things as that described above, the farmer had considerable difficulty in getting any insurance offices to insure his produce.

One notable riot occurred at Fowlmere (about 1833-35). Warrants were obtained for the apprehension of the ringleaders, and for executing this warrant the Earl of Hardwicke, as Lord Lieutenant, came to Royston and swore in about twenty special constables, whose ornamental staves sometimes turn up now amongst local curiosities. These constables went over to Fowlmere on horseback, under the command of a justice of the peace, Mr. Hawkins, who then lived at the Priory, and was an uncle of Mr. Justice Hawkins. On arriving at Fowlmere the posse of armed "specials" found most of the labouring population of the village—male and female—assembled in the open space near the Swan, armed with sticks and other weapons, prepared to resist the execution of the warrant! After some persuasion and the reading of the Riot Act, a skirmish ensued, in which sticks, fire-irons and shovels, mixed with constables' staves, produced some cuts and bruises, and some torn clothes. Eventually the party of the law triumphed, the ringleaders were secured, and marched off under escort of the special constables to Cambridge gaol.

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