Rural Rebels

Updated: Apr 2, 2019

In my mind’s eye the word rebellion conjures up images of town and city. This is probably a legacy from watching TV news footage of the 1968 Paris riots in my impressionable youth. But ‘peaceful’, rural East Anglia has a long tradition of resistance against the authorities.

In 1381 at the Battle of North Walsham, a locally grown branch of the Peasants Revolt was decisively cut down by Henry le Despenser the ‘Fighting Bishop’ of Norwich.

Robert Kett, a farmer from Wymondham, is commemorated by his oak tree and in the road name Ketts Hill leading up to the site of his rebel encampment on Mousehold Heath.

During my transcription of The Brockdish Diary, (more next month) I came upon the line ‘Mr Shearings Barn and Mr Pretymans Corn stacks willfully set on fire’(1792) and upon investigating the background further discovered that the Hoxne Hundred was notorious for its agricultural dissent, when impoverished farm workers burned ricks and destroyed machinery in a lengthy series of protests at working conditions that culminated in the ‘Swing’ riots of the 1830s.

Nearer to the present was the Burston Rebellion, when Violet Potter led her classmates on strike against the dismissal of their beloved teachers, Kitty and Tom Higdon. The longest strike in British history is still celebrated by labour representatives each September, following the Candlestick route of the striking schoolchildren and ending in a rally and speeches on the village green in front of the subscription-built Strike School.

Even closer to my home, Daniel Baker, my partner's Nonconformist great-uncle, was part of the Passive Resistance movement in the early 20th century, refusing to pay the Education Rate for his family who attended local Church schools. As a result, bailiffs removed large amounts of furniture and equipment from his home - including much belonging to his wife, who sat determinedly playing her piano as they did so. The family consequently emigrated to Australia, where, soon after, Daniel fell ill and died.

Standing on a field edge at Manor Farm, Wortham is this memorial to the Tithe Wars of the mid 1930s.

Tithes had originally been meant to provide for impoverished clergy but by the time of the Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, many farmers so resented it that they organised a campaign to refuse to payment.

Fifty police to-day raided a farm near Diss, Norfolk, where a “tithe war” was in progress, and arrested 18 black-shirted Fascists on a charge of unlawfully conspiring for the public mischief by obstructing the removal of pigs and cattle lawfully impounded under a distress warrant in default of the payment of £565. The bailiff alleges that the Black Shirts dug trenches and felled trees to obstruct the entrance to the farm and prevent the police from performing their duties. The defendants were remanded and bail was refused. The owner of the farm states that the Black Shirts were acting without his permission. The bailiffs subsequently seized 15 cattle and 143 pigs.

Robert Halliday will speak on ‘The Tithe Wars in East Anglia' on Wednesday 10th April at 7.30 pm.

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