BoAr: FNQ: C19 Economics           Latest edit 24 Apr 2008.   

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The Bourne Archive


Fenland Notes and Queries. Edited by Rev. W.D. Sweeting, Rector of Maxey.

Part 50. July  1901.

This quarterly periodical took the form of a forum in which people sent in questions about the history, ecology and so on of the Fens and the region’s environs and others replied with some sort of answer. Some ‘answers’ seem to have been spontaneous, so qualifying as ‘notes’.

Nineteenth Century Economics

895 – “The Romance of a Hundred Years.” – Mr Alfred Kingston has recently written a book with this title (published by Mr. Stock) which was reviewed in The Athenæum for 16 March last. From this review we extract a portion of much interest to inhabitants of the Fenland. An article on the Littleport Riots appeared in Fenland Notes and Queries (Vol. III., p. 287, Art. 636); and our correspondent, Mr. C. Johnson, published a good account of them in a pamphlet noticed in our number for July, 1893.

Most noticeable is the chapter called “The Peasants’ Rising after Waterloo.” The discontent aroused chiefly by low wages and the high price of provisions first showed itself in an attack on the Norwich flourmills, but its most picturesque manifestations were in the Fen Country. At Downham, in Norfolk, on May 20th, 1816, a crowd  of country people, numbering, it is said, some fifteen hundred, not only looted the shops of the bakers, millers, and butchers, but even “went to the Crown Inn and drove the magistrates (who were holding their weekly sitting) from the rooms into the street, who with great difficulty succeeded in escaping.” The Upwell troop of cavalry, however, arrived upon the scene and used the flats of their swords; and by next morning everything seemed at an end, after a meeting had taken place between the inhabitants and the rioters, resulting in an agreement for an advance of wages and the release of the men already captured. But the news of these doings having speedily reached Littleport, in the Isle of Ely, the local leaders rallied their forces at the public-house, whence they sallied forth in marching order, their standard-bearer one Walker, carrying a long pole “with some printed stuff at the end of it, like a flag.” Behind him were a mob “some 100 to 150 in number, some armed with pitchforks and crowbars, one with a butcher’s cleaver.” They refused the offers of the local farmers to raise wages and sell flour at 2s. 6d. a stone, or less, and exacted money form several houses, besides carrying away valuables of all sorts. Finally, having induced John Dennis, a publican and small farmer, to become their leader, they got together gunpowder and shot, with several old swivel-pieces and punt guns, and mounted the latter, “deeply loaded,” upon a waggon drawn by two horses. Inside the waggon, behind the rustic artillery, were placed the women: in this guise the procession moved towards Ely, whither the fugitive parson of Littleport had carried the news of their approach. At sunrise a party of magistrates and clergy met the insurgents three-quarters of a mile outside the city. Demanding the reason of their disorderly conduct, they received the men’s reply “that they came for redress from the magistrates. Wages at 2s. a day, flour at 2s. 6d. a stone” (and “beer at 2d. a pint,” added a thirsty one in the crowd).  They were told that their complaints should be examined by the overseers, for which purpose the magistrates entered into a sort of treaty with them and urged them to conduct themselves peaceably. They said they had not come “to hurt anybody,” but when told that they had much better go back home, they, “having little faith in the old arrangement, and staking all upon the issue, made answer that they ‘might as well be hanged as starved’; and one Rutter, seeing the clergymen, magistrates, and men of the law by their side, said ‘they might if they pleased hang him up on the next thorn bus.’” So they went on into Ely, where for some time they “exercised complete dominion,” levying contributions of money, which was placed in the hands of the three leaders for systematic distribution among the three contingents from Littleport, Downham, and Ely. The Ely men deserted, and the others fled homewards before soldiers and volunteers reached the cathedral city; but at Littleport, ere the arrest of seventy-three raiders put a period to the rising, a struggle took place in which one of the rioters was killed and another wounded, while one of the 18th Dragoons, who had been at Waterloo and had passed unscathed through many other engagements, lost an arm. Five men suffered death and nineteen others slighter sentences as the result of what its narrator describes as “one of the saddest little tragedies in fustian which the sorrows of Arcady have ever compassed.” We are not so sure as the author about Arcady’s having “its heart in the right place” when it could extort notes from a defenceless village shopkeeper by flourishing a butcher’s cleaver over her head, though it is doubtless gratifying to hear of the raiders sparing a farmer when his son was dying, and leaving his house untouched “with some expression of sympathy for the sorrowing father.”


Agriculture has always had its times of economic prosperity and its hardships. Compare FNQ 887  and FNQ 918. Broadly, during the period of the wars with France, there was demand for labour and its products but this slackened sharply when the wars ended with the battle of Waterloo and the re-establishment of the French Kingdom. It was in response to unrest such as that reported here and the recent experience of revolution in France, that over the following couple of decades, court houses or prisons were built or extended in Lincoln, Sleaford, Folkingham and Bourne. The list of donations painted on a board in Bourne Town Hall, a place designed as a court, reads like a record of philanthropy but the givers were more or less worried men, attending to their own best interests. By 1820, around Bourne, some of that surplus labour was taken up in rebuilding, and in the case of the Bourne to West Pinchbeck road, building the turnpike roads; but also, in building the court-house, Bourn Town Hall, opened in 1821. The old one had been an isolated building, in the middle of West Street, so very exposed to potential rioters.

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