How the poor were airbrushed from history
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th February 2009
Is there any other democracy so adept at editing its history? Even Spain, for years notoriously reluctant to get to grips with the legacy of Franco, has begun to acknowledge the past, as the success of Guillermo del Torro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth shows. The French are aware of every sordid detail of the excesses of both monarchs and revolutionaries. The Germans are pricked by their past every day. In the United States everyone knows about slavery, the civil war and segregation. But in Britain our collective memory has been wiped clean.
Despite the efforts of authors such as Mike Davis, John Newsinger, Mark Curtis, Caroline Elkins and David Anderson(1,2,3,4,5,6), our colonial atrocities still leave the national conscience untroubled. We appear to be even less aware of what happened at home.
Last week the National Trust, which is Britain’s biggest private landowner and biggest NGO, announced that it is creating 1000 allotments – small patches which local people can rent for growing vegetables – on its properties, among them some of its grandest parks and estates(7). This was universally, and rightly, hailed as a good thing. But no one stopped, as no one ever does, to ask where this land came from.
The National Trust has done more than any other body to open up the countryside to the British people, and more than any other body to close down our minds. It bears more responsibility than any other body for the sanitised, tea-towel history which dominates the national consciousness. Last year over 100 million visitors explored its properties(8). They were exposed to a partial and selective view of Britain’s past.
Take one of its finest and most famous holdings: Stowe Landscape Gardens. I know them well, for I enjoyed the astonishing unearned privilege of attending the school that’s housed there. The gardens (really a landscaped deerpark) were a vast playground of crumbling follies and overgrown lakes, of coverts and laurel brakes in which ruined monuments could, like Mayan temples, be discovered by adventurous boys. Licensed by tolerant teachers, I played swallows and amazons here for five years.
Now the gardens have been beautifully, if starkly, restored by the National Trust. The temples have been cleaned and mended, the thickets cleared, the volunteer woodland felled. They have been returned to the state intended by their authors: the first Viscount Cobham (1675-1749) and his descendants.
When you visit the gardens today, or read about them on the Trust’s website, you will learn about the thirteen phases of the development of the gardens, the creation of the avenues, monuments and temples, the commissions executed by the famous architects and designers who worked here(9,10). But nowhere, as far as I can discover, will you find a word about who lived here before the estate was consolidated in the late 16th Century, or how local people were treated after the gardens were established 150 years later. The Trust, in other words, says nothing about the village cleared to create the deer-park, or the eviction, imprisonment, transportation or execution of those who lived there(11).
In his book Whigs and Hunters, EP Thomson gives us a vignette of what happened here. As constable of Windsor Castle, the first Viscount Cobham had been responsible for enforcing the Black Acts, which created some 50 new capital offences for poaching and resisting the encroachments and enclosures carried out by the ruling class. He imported this management ethic into his estate at Stowe. “In 1748 two young men … were caught while raiding his deer-park. According to a firm local tradition, the wives of the men sought an interview at Stowe and begged for their husbands’ lives. It seemed that old Cobham, now in his eightieth year, was moved by their tears. He promised that their husbands would be returned to them by a certain day – and so they were, for on that day their corpses were brought to the cottage doors on a cart. Cobham celebrated the occasion by striking statues of the dead men in his park, a deer across their shoulders.”(12)
In Liberty Against the Law, Christopher Hill tells the story of the redistribution of land and wealth from rural labourers to the landed classes between the 16th and 18th centuries and the rack-renting, eviction and persecution of the poor. For landless labourers, he says, the termination of rights to common land “meant the difference between a viable life and starvation”(13). Many died in the famines of the 1590s, 1620s and 1640s(14). Many more – 80,000 in the early 17th Century according to the historian Peter Clark(15) – became vagabonds whose wandering put them on the wrong side of the law. They were branded, flogged back to their parishes, press-ganged by the navy and the merchant marine or forced into industries whose conditions and wage rates were “little better than slavery”(16). The children of vagabonds and paupers were transported to Virginia, effectively as slaves(17). Many of them died in transit. There were enclosure riots (attempts to resist the landlords’ seizure of the commons) all over the country(18). Almost all of them failed, and many of the rioters were transported or executed. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Marion Shoard records in her book This Land is Our Land, a further 7 million acres of England – 20% of the total land area – were enclosed by landowners(19).
Of course there is no single history of the countryside and no single means of interpreting it. Sir Tony Wrigley, for example, emphasises instead the constraints of a local agrarian economy, and sees population growth as the main driver of migration(20,21). But neither version of the lives of the other 99% is given by the National Trust when you visit its stately homes and grand estates. The story is told solely from the point of view of the landowner. History, to the Trust, is the propaganda of the victor.
In its document History and Place, the National Trust maintains that “we can never hope fully to understand the past, but we can at least recognise that history is open to widely different interpretations … The Trust is ready to explore unfamiliar or uncomfortable history in new ways.”(22) And it is true that if you visit one of the workhouses it has lovingly restored, you can relive “the harshness of the nineteenth-century Poor Laws.”(23) But when you read what it says about its great estates, you will find no clues as to how those workhouses were populated. Perhaps because it doesn’t want to scare its visitors away, perhaps because it has absorbed the views of previous landowners, it has airbrushed the poor from history.
Allotments have been used as a sop to the dispossessed for at least four centuries. The General Enclosure Act of 1845 took 615,000 acres from the poor and gave them 2,200 acres of allotments in return(24). Just because we love and value allotments should not stop us from seeing that they also represent paternalistic tokenism. But I’m not asking the Trust to divide up all its lands and give them back to the people: its management of property on our behalf is liberal and benign. I am asking it to give us back our history.
1. Mike Davis, 2001. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso, London.
2. John Newsinger, 2006. The Blood Never Dried: a people’s history of the British empire. Bookmarks, London.
3. Mark Curtis, 2003. Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World. Vintage, London.
4. Mark Curtis, 2007. Unpeople: Britain’s secret human rights abuses. Vintage, London.
5. Caroline Elkins, 2005. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Jonathan Cape, London.
6. David Anderson, 2005. Histories of the Hanged. Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
7. Sarah Mukherjee, 19th February 2009. Trust frees land for allotments. BBC News Online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7898314.stm
8. Rebecca Smithers, 19th February 2009. Dig for recovery: allotments boom as thousands go to ground in recession. The Guardian.
9. The National Trust, viewed 23rd February 2009. Stowe Landscape Gardens: History. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-stowegardens/w-stowegardens-history.htm
This page then refers us to the following:
10. John Tatter, 2007. Stowe Landscape Gardens: A Summary History. http://faculty.bsc.edu/jtatter/summary.html
11. Interestingly, Tatter (see above) records that “This early seventeenth-century landscape also included Stowe church and the village of Stowe, to the east.” But he doesn’t mention the village again. It simply vanishes from the record. In reality, all its buildings were destroyed, except the church.
12. EP Thomson, 1975. Whigs and Hunters, p223. Penguin, London.
13. Christopher Hill, 1996. Liberty Against the Law, p31. Allen Lane, London.
14. ibid, p.33.
15. Peter Clark, 1983. The English Ale-house: a social history. Cited by Christopher Hill, ibid, p.52.
16. ibid, p.30.
17. ibid, p.165.
18. ibid, p.38.
19. Marion Shoard, 1997. This Land Is Our Land. Gaia Books, London.
20. Tony Wrigley, pers comm. See:
21. EA Wrigley and RS Schofield, 1981. The Population History of England 1541-1871. Edward Arnold, London.
22. The National Trust, no date given. History and Place.