Now then, so far we have spoken of a happy, happy story as regards the state of English agriculture; farmers and landowners are relaxed poised and confident, making decent money and decent profits, huntin’ shooting fishin. There’s a tadge of argy bargy in the world of religion, but basically things up to the 1860s were pootling along just fine and indeeed – just dandy – especially if you had a few quid. Well, I need to remind you that every silver lining has its cloud. And after 30 years of silver lining, said cloud caught up. And change would come on its wings.
The problem started in a thoroughly traditional way – a bad year and harvest in 1874. The problem stayed traditional, sadly, between 1874 and 1879. Now to repurpose the words of Lady Bracknell, to lose one harvest may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose several looks like carelessness. Farmers, especially large ones, could ride out a year, probably two, maybe even three; four was a nightmare. Things in the Chilterns in 1879, as John Orr explained, were parlous in the extreme, more than a little tricky, because after arranging the hideous weather that gave rubbish corn yields, whatever organises these things then sent a plague on the other side of the sheep-corn husbandry duopoly – and sent sheep foot rot to boot. Livestock diseases reached ‘epidemic levels’ in 1879-82 and in the Chilterns Orr reported that
‘so many of their sheep died of the ‘rot’, and so much of their corn was wasted, that neither capital nor income was left to some.’
As it happens, it was kind of all rather worse than all this seems. For the first couple of years, everyone focussed on the weather and harvests; but actually people began to notice that prices were still falling. Well that can’t be right – if there’s dearth, at least we should get a better price for the feeble dross we do produce, supply & demand innit guv’. Not a bit of it. Foreign competition had arrived, and farmers from the US, Canada but also more traditional suppliers in Europe were winning hands down on price and quality and imports were whizzing up, taking markets away from local farmers to add to their woes.
Now we know now, that this was a sustained, extended crisis; that between 1873 and 1894, farm output in Oxfordshire would reduce by 20%; the impact of what became known as the Great Depression, because it was big and it was depressing, rather than it was you know, magnificent and depressing, it’s impact once again varied in degree across different regions. You will be unsurprised to hear that Oxfordshire was hit worse, because of its Sheep-corn reliance; so that its 20% reduction was almost the worst rate in the country. But Farmers in Swyncombe did not know that at the time; in fact, what they were living through was a fundamental restructuring of farming in England and Wales. But when that sort of thing happens we don’t necessarily know that to begin with, so when historians look back there’s a danger they judge accordingly. I mean historians are supposed to try not to be judgy and all that but hey, we are all human.
But as the crisis wore on, Swyncombe farmers and landlords did react, they had to, the continuing nature of the crises forced them to. There are some clear and quite obvious signs that something was going on, that would have been very immediately clear especially to landholders. The Directories that were published frequently, list rateable value of land for each parish; Swyncombe’s annual rateable value had risen to the princely total of £2,400 by 1851. By 1881 after 5 years of crisis already that was slipping to £2,240. By 1901, that had fallen dramatically to £1,500. Rents of course were going with it; those poor dears, the Ruck Keenes, would have to start worrying about the grocery bill if this went on. Population went with it, though that’s a bit more complicated; but by 1861, Swyncombe’s population had topped out at around 460; from 1881 it fell, and by 1901 it had reached 340, a quarter of the population at its height, and actually it would just keep going south so that by 1911 it was a third lower at 315. Families were leaving the land. Where were they going?
Well, they were going to the towns and cities. By 1800 there had been a substantial move to cities which had fuelled the industrial revolution, but England was still a rural society with 75% of people living on the land. In 1851 it was still a 50/50 split, town and country. By 1891 though, it was not. By 1891, 72% of the population lived in towns and cities, just 28% on the land.
For landowners and famers everything had changed then. One indefinable thing that changed which is unmeasurable but nevertheless very important, was confidence. In 1851, English farming was quite obviously the bees elbows – we were smashing it, roll over Beethoven, out of the way Europe, English farming coming through watch and learn, watch and learn. Now I am going to give you an extremely pertinent example of the terrible impact of the loss of confidence. Every day when I feed the dog – yes feed Dylan the dog, stay with me on this one – I give the lad a scoop of food into his bowl, return to the room where said massive sack of doggy biscuits is held and over a massive distance throw the metal scoop into the bag. Well I say massive – 4 foot maybe but it feels like half a mile. Now I know that I have magnificent eye to hand co-ordination and cannot miss – and then, gentle listener, I lost confidence. I couldn’t hit the side of a barn door, As a consequence, the wall behind send bag of boggy discuits is now pitted and scared with a significant impact on my standing withing the Crowther family. Now performance athletes like myself don’t suddenly become bad players, and I can announce I’m back. I may well be stretching an analogy too far, but Swyncombe’s farmers, and indeed farming across southern England in particular, which was most badly hit, went through the same process. Farmers felt they could no longer hit the bag. As it were. Shall I stop this metaphor? Eitherway, the consequences were to be a little more serious than the doggy biscuit thing.
I’m going to give you another example actually. If you ever walk the pathways of Swyncombe – and let me tell you there is lovely walking and also beer and pubs – you will often come across substantial holes in the ground. There are multiple reasons for this; they might be old clay workings, if shallow, evidence of charcoal burning; or if deep of chalking, liming; often a field might be called Chalkpits or something where this last is the reason. This came from the practice of digging up chalk, crushing it, and spreading it on the fields – liming it was called to try and improve fertility. John Orr remarks that the farmers of the Chilterns now felt poorly served by their light soil, that it quickly lost the impact of manuring; he was able to show that their work specifically in Swyncombe as it happens, undertaken in good times 30 years ago, had increased the hay yield from ½ ton per acre, to 2 tons per acre. Great – more of that please! But the impact of the Great Depression sapped confidence in such work and crucially, in investment. And the first response was just to ‘farm light’ as John Orr called it. The countryside went through a process of greening – more marginal lands previously worked for crops of some kind were just turned to rough pasture. Livestock returns seem to have been less badly affected by falling prices which accounts partially for why northern England suffered less under the Great Depression, but crucially it also required fewer labourers per acre, so farmers could reduce investment and costs. Fodder costs were rising fast unlike con prices, so agricultural land which they kept under tillage could be switched from grain to fodder crops. Basically rather than looking for improvements, farmers tightened the belt, battened down the hatches, they lost their mojo for a while; it’s tough to invest when times are hard.
Landowners, amongst other things, worried about the structure of landholding; did large farms hold back innovation, because the larger farmers could ride out a few bad years without changing very much, so needed less to be nimble and innovative? Maybe the tenant farmers they’d hired from far away had fibbed in their interviews, and were really just a bunch of farming hacks, and what the landowners needed to do was keep their land in hand now, and get expert bailiffs in to manage the farms under their squirely eye. And also since the squirely eye was frankly as much use as a chocolate teapot, they should hire expensive land agents with the gift of the gab and management consultant techniques. Let’s get some consultancy in here. Maybe you have heard that more recently at work, who knows eh? Somebody young with a slide rile or a smart laptop – that should sort thing out. Am I sounding like an old farty all of a sudden? Comes to us all you know. Anyway, it was getting harder to find farmers to take up tenancies anyway; there was already a rather harsh disregard for the idea in Swyncombe of social mobility, the idea that labourers families might take on small holdings, or that Farmers’ children might stay in the business and take over their parents tenancies; what were they to do now, when the idea of making a miserable existence in farming was competing with glittering opportunities in the world’s largest industrial economy?
So, panic hit the disco, and there are some remarkable numbers to demonstrate it. Ready for the Stats? The percentage of land in the Chilterns used for arable had remained remarkably consistent over the century at over 70%. By 1901 it had fallen to less than 50%, as farmers just took land out of production; I mean there will be a better story coming, but there’s an element of just giving up – Orr remarks that the quality of how farming land was maintained noticeably dropped in the Chilterns; things looked less well managed as he went around. Also, the kind of arable changed; wheat had always been a carefully managed crop on the light Swyncombe soils, once every several years rather than every year; now it was grown even less frequently. Barley and oats predominated, and fodder crops like turnips increased, to keep the cost of livestock down. And this was not just a re-balancing of the sheep-corn equation; the number of sheep fell too. Are you ready for sheep numbers? I know that’s what you came for. Well, in 1870, there were 2,384 woolly mammals scattering the fields of Swyncombe; in 1910, there were less than 1,500. Because unfortunately the price of wool had also fallen. Kick a farmer when he’s down why don’t cha. By the way, in 1870 there were about 178 pigs around the parish; quite a few of those would have been one or twos in labourers’ cottage gardens, because commercial piggeries aren’t really a Chiltern thing; and there were 75 horses, because of course everything had to be carted somewhere.
The impact on the labouring poor of the Great Depression was largely to make hard lives harder, though there was probably some variation. It may be that the scarcity of new skills like cowmen and carting had a positive impact on wages for some jobs; but for the average labourer, opportunities for employment were much reduced. Farmers were reducing their workforces. You have probably been sitting, running, cycling, ironing there thinking – is this it, at last, the point where he’s going to start talking about the impact of mechanisation in throwing people out of jobs, the indignity of threshing machines and that sort of thing? This is surely one of the stories of the 19th century countryside – swing riots, luddites all that. If so it’s been a long time coming…well no actually I am going to continue to disappoint you. The thing is that mechanisation was much faster in areas of high wages; because it made sense to spend money on machines if you had a big wages bill to save thereby. And so mechanisation was quite quickly adopted in arable areas of the north for example, which was competing with industry for wages, and so labouring wages were high and labour scarce. In the south though, and the Chilterns in particular, as you now know, wages were dirt low. The game of Spending money on machines wasn’t really worth the candle since humans were so cheap. So Buying expensive machines won’t really start happening until the population dearth really hits home, and investment costs fall with better technology, in the new century. I think there’s evidence of one horse rake bought on parish. Just to be able to tick that box of mechanisation.
No, rather than investment in mechanisation, what happens is that land is taken out of production; or turned to pasture which requires fewer labourers to maintain and work. Casual work disappeared as well – partly for falling production, because arable is much more seasonal whereas looking after sheep or cattle is all year round. And farmers just tightened belts and employed fewer people; In the 1881 census returns, a farm of 500a reduced its workforce from 21 to 11; at Ewelme Park Farm the reduction was from 14 to 12, but 3 of the 12 were now boys, presumably on suitably low pay. In some cases, farmers turned to manual work themselves, alongside their labourers.
The Ruck Keenes had to make changes too. Now they had been making adjustments as things changed; basically their commitment to the parish and their role within it seems undiminished, but the flavour does change. As population fell, they needed fewer houses for labourers; they’d had a couple of houses they used specifically for poor relief, and those get sold; and in total the number of houses falls from 91 at the height, to 84, so some are just knocked down or fell into disrepair – which can’t have helped the general atmosphere. But generally they’d been buying up land where they could so that by 1910, they owned 1900 acres – they owned 70% of Swyncombe now. Monarchs of the Glen. Charles Edward Ruck Keene was now at the helm, 22 when his father Edmund died in 1888, and he would be paterfamilias until 1919. But they are for a while no longer resident; Charles was captain in the Royal Fusiliers, and after opening Swyncombe house in grand style for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations, leased out the manor to a German Shipping magnate, Emil Reiss and family. He would return though. And from a distance, continued to make decisions about the estate.
Getting new tenant farmers was tough, and confidence is gone; so Ruck Keene turned to experts – in the form of Bailiffs, and a land agent; 4 farms were now held in hand and managed by bailiffs. But at the same time, he created more farms, splitting things up a bit, and this again lay in line with current thinking. The idea was to generate some innovation in smaller, nimbler farms, able to change and respond to new challenges with new ideas. So whereas in 1851 there were 8 farms 4 of them large between 300 and 500 acres, in 1910 there are 11 farms and 5 of them are medium sized; One of those was Ewelme Park which of course was not his. Sorry for the blizzard of stats but look I did all the digging so no reason you shouldn’t suffer for it. 60% of the farming land in Swyncombe was now held in hand by the landowner rather than given out to tenants – in the high farming period, 80% was held by tenants, often just Home farm kept in hand.
The Swyncombe farmers were not just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, although there’s probably a bit of that. There were opportunities emerging alongside the Armageddon. And the main opportunity wore the proud name of Reading, about 15 miles down the road. Reading was the recipient of proper, industrial revolution style growth. A town of 20,000 in 1801, it was 60,000 people strong by 1901 and those people had needs ladies and gentleman, as we all have needs, pointless to deny it – specifically they liked milk, and demand for milk grew strongly. There was a plus and minus to this. Milk was quickly perishable, and bulky to transport and Swyncombe was not the closest to Reading. Swyncombe had little tradition of cattle farming; and cattle farming tended to flower in areas with much smaller farms; herds varied from 8 at one end to 50 for a really large dairy farm. So Swyncombe faced a disadvantage – there were plenty of upland farms between them and Reading, particularly in Caversham. But the need for speed favoured local producers of all kinds, so there was less outside competition, certainly not from abroad such as had killed the corn market for example. Whatever the equation, the farmers of Swyncombe backed it, and went for it; there were 175 head of cattle on various farms, and there you can see another reason for the smaller farms the Ruck Keenes put in place. Some of the farms might breed and then sell on to other local farms for dairy for example, so there’s a sort of ecosystem being put in place The breed selected seems to have been Alderney, by the way a breed which had been earlier introduced into surrounding parishes.
That’s probably more agricultural detail than you were looking for I dare say. There’s one other thing one farmers try though, which is Cherry – fruit generally again has a big resurgence in English farming because it’s high value, quickly perishable so favours local producers/ And so in Swyncombe so 30 acres of cherry orchard were planted. And you might like to know that next to Beech, cherry remains a real local feature of our part of the Chilterns there’s loads of it about and wild cherry to boot. Indeed, my local for many years was the Cherry Tree, and there are many anecdotes about our time there on which I won’t inflict you.
Ok so, we are there basically, fin de siecle sort of feeling. By 1897 Swyncombe and English farming was sort of in recovery; it’s a halting, uncertain kind of thing, but things are getting better. And as we watch Victoria gasping her last, it might be good to reflect and look forward too.
Just as the economic crisis of the 1830s had split asunder the curtain hiding the temple, and revealed the economic realities hiding behind the supposed social contract between landowner and labourer, so again did the Great depression. The pressures on employment challenged the idea of the paternalistic closed parish, where in return for deference and control, the landowners would protect their work force. The commercial nature of farming, always the reality in fact, was made more evident as farmers changed the way they did things, laid people off, sold cottages. In many ways, the parish remained unchanged to that earlier time; actually society was even more dominated by agriculture – 80% of the population were farmers or labourers. Social mobility is no more in evidence than before, but look, the parish of Swyncombe was opening up and here are the signs, some speculative.
The parish boundaries are more porous than they once were, and rural isolation lower. 80% of Swyncombe’s population originate outside the parish or are married to folks outside the parish. Personal networks are extensive therefore, but communities of interest also now broader later in the century and easier to access. Literacy is now assumed, and this is the heyday of the local journal and newspaper; The Henley Free Press was founded in 1885, and became the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard in 1892. Jackson’s Oxford Journal was already well established, but circulation and editorial range expanded. The Chapel in Swyncombe was now well established, and the parish firmly pluralist in religion and that also connected it with the outside world. And some of the institutions of control were slipping from the grasp of the traditional gentry. In 1894, they officially lost control of the Parish Council. Now, those of you who have dealings with your local parish council are probably wondering why I mention such a thing as significant; after all the average Parish budget is enough to buy a half chewed pencil and contribute a Chelsea bun to the annual summer fete, and the decisions they are making will not start a small nuclear conflict in SE Asia. But once upon a time, the government of the parish was strictly controlled by the Ruck Keenes through the church parish council. Now by law there was a civil Parish council – so the influence of the church in daily administration is reduced as well as the local gentry; and there are elections to that council. Delightfully, we have the minutes of the first meeting, where the new civil structure was implemented; 9 people stood to be elected, George and Elijah Sarney among them, there are farmers, Gardeners and labourers; actually, it’s a procession of names from Park Corner, including the ubiquitous Wixen family, and it’s these people elected too. The Ruck Keene is still there but look this is significant – the Sarney’s and Wixens, James Tout the gardener from Cookley have a say in the running of their parish – and by right, by the decision of their peers, not on the nod from Captain Ruck Keene. Now, Ruck Keene is still charman, and the Rev. Irwin still on the council. But something had changed, and people felt strongly about this, it is significant. As one article in a Norfolk paper put it
The finger of the labourer has stopped an inch shorter of his cap when the Parson passed
What is probably more significant is that the old confidence in the power of landownership and its relationship with social status has been punctured. It’s not dead in 1901; but it is under pressure. The first two decades of the 20th century saw an explosion of flight of the Gentry from country estates – record number of estate sales, estates broken up. The Great Depression had dealt a firm blow to belief in the financial return, permanence and social status of the traditional land system. The Miss Keenes no longer spend their time in possibly unctuous if well meaning good works by giving lessons and making inspections round the village school – and anyway it’s a state funded school now.
And so it is, that maybe the best way to finish is with a sales catalogue, in 1921. Now obviously I am hopping over a small matter of the Great War, but then I am essentially book ending the Victorian age; because while the Great war no doubt exacerbated the breaking up of rural estates, the trend started earlier.
The sale Catalogue is of course that of the Swyncombe Manor, the accumulation of 170 years of Ruck Keene assumption, consolidation and growth of local hegemony. 2,500 acres of estate, centred in Swyncombe but including surrounding parishes too. Rents of £1800 a year, much reduced from previous greatness, but massive asset value – the woodland alone valued at £31,000. A variety of landholdings – farms, cottages, wheelwrights, the chapel at Russell’s Water, manorial rights and rights of common. The general summary sings the praises of the 12 bedroom mansion, estate, gardens and farm buildings and extols the hunt and game. There’s a ‘Simple old world Pleasure garden’, 10 acres equipped with the essentials of the Gentry Sunday afternoon – mature trees, including a cork tree, tennis lawn, an Italian Garden, a rose garden of course; a walled kitchen garden; heated glass houses with vinery, tomato, melon peach. We learn that Elijah Sarney has vacated Darkwood and Westwood Manor farms – evicted not by the Ruck Keene, but by the grim reaper. The Ruck Keenes were being evicted from paradise, and it would never be the same again.
Now that brings us to the end of Victorian Swyncombe but before I close the account I think it’s worth just looking at the history of an ordinary family through the whole century, and I managed to piece together a reasonably complete history of the Wixens throughout the century, and the ups and downs through which the family passed. This family as it happens for much of it managed the one Forge in the parish. This means they are the family whose bits of old scrap iron I keep digging up in my veggie patch, because that is where I live. So give it up for the Wixens.
The Wixen family live at Park Corner, and for several periods of their collective life they will live at the Forge there’s a pic on the website by the way about how the place looked before it was converted into the house. The first reference I have is to one Stephen Wixen, born in 1774; he was born at Swyncombe so who knows, there may well have been generations of Wixen at the Forge before him. Stephen Wixen Senior describes himself as a Master Blacksmith and Labourer, and I have to say multiple trades is something of a Wixen family trait through the following generations.
Stephen Senior had at least one son, Stephen junior, born in 1808, who stayed in the parish, and married Mary Butler, from Kennington, I assume in London, so an exogenous marriage, and maybe one of them had moved for work so that’s how they met; they were married at St Botolphs in April 1834; not being agricultural labourers they didn’t need to worry unduly about when they chose in the year. Only Stephen was literate and able to sign his name, Mary signed with an X. They set about going forth and multiplying. So you know that multiple jobs thing? Stephen Junior is described as the Parish Clerk, Blacksmith and Beer retailer. The force of ducking and weaving to make ends meet is strong in this one, and will remain strong in the Wixen DNA.
Mary and Stephen have something of a torrid time with their children and childbirth history. They have 10 children, 7 girls and 3 boys in the 17 years between 1835 and 1852, and unfortunately they have to bury several of them before Stephen died at the age of 47 in 1855; and Mary probably a couple more before she died. Sabrina was an infant death; born and died in December 1850, so very probably rushed down to the church to be baptised as soon as possible. Abraham dies at the age of 8, Emily at 17 and William at 19. All very tragic. Most of the rest are a bit hidden, and probably leave and therefore their lives are beyond the time available to me to find. But Stephen proves a lucky name again, because it’s Stephen Junio Junior we see lead the Wixen family name into a third generation at Park Corner, when in 1863 he marries Susan Saunders, of this parish unusually, so an office romance; Susan was the daughter of a labourer, both she and Stephen were able to sign their names, now both are literate. But by the time Stephen started work, the situation at the Forge has changed. Because he is a blacksmith now just like dad and grandad, but he’s working for the man now, the man being someone called Henry Rackshaw. Because it looks as though when his dad Stephen died in 1855, his widow married again; and her new husband, said Henry Racksaw, a man 13 years younger than her, took over the Forge.
Stephen and Susan get a shufti on and manage to produce 5 children in the 7 years before Susan died in 1870; she probably died in childbirth, and their son Arthur died too, an infant death, so another double tragedy for a new generation of Wixen. Stephen was close behind sadly, dying just the following year in 1871. By then they’d suffered yet more tragedy, with two sons George and Stephen both dying at the age of 2, and so they left 2 small orphans– Mary Anne, 7, and William just 5 years old. That pair of youngsters stay in the Rackshaw household and are looked after by the grandmother and Step Grandfather; I don’t know when their protectors die, and by 1881 the business of Blacksmithery at The Forge has been taken over by someone new – William Westall was his name, and he carried on the tradition of selling beer to boot.
Incidentally I am guessing a little, but from the photos I would guess that all of this multiple business and trade stuff is working out pretty well, financially speaking. The Forge obviously has no residence attached as part of it, but next to the main Nettlebed Watlington road, Red Lane, there is quite a substantial house, and we know beer retailing went on there in the 20th century from the front room; so that was probably where the owners of the Forge, and the Wixen family for much of the 19th century lived.
Well, we have one more generation to go, the fourth. William Wixen takes over the Forge from the Westalls. Maybe William Westall had just rented it, while the family got back on their feet, who knows, but by 1887 at the latest, William Wixen was back listed as the proprietor of the Forge in Kelly’s Directory, aged just 20 years. And in June 1890 he married a 20 year old woman from Reading, Annie Grant, and had taken on an apprentice William West as well. A name that sounds suspiciously like Westall…wonder what’s going on there. Hmm. Oh well, by 1901, blood being thicker than water and all that, Annie’s brother had joined the gang as a Blacksmith instead. And they’d started a young family – 3 children aged 5 to 9, Alice, Annie and William – a new dynasty to take the family and the Forge which had sustained the family now for well over 100 years, into a new century. It’s a story of unusual longevity for Swyncombe.
Well, that’s the end; any reflections on what we learned about Victoriana from the history of Swyncombe? The thing that strikes me is the sharp contrast between the rural life of Swyncombe and the general image of the England of the industrial, of smoking shock cities, vast opportunities, social change. In Swyncombe, change was slow, horizons took time to expand, the power of the Gentry was overwhelming. The takeaway I suppose is yet again that once you get into the weeds, every period of history is experienced by specific communities in very different and individual ways. National histories can only ever be a summary, a rationalisation, an average/ To know how it felt – you have to get micro.