This was part of my Every Antique tells a Story series published in Oxfordshire Limited Edition but I sought this one out myself. I had seen some of William Clegg’s truncheons and wanted to tell their story. I can’t understand why there is not more interest in this period of social upheaval. Sometimes it appears that in school history lessons pupils continually revisit the Tudors and the Second World War plus a sentimental sprinkling of Victoriana .The UK was the first country to go through an industrial revolution. That experience is relevant not just to us but to the whole world.
A Rural Revolution
Walks on Otmoor are usually for the pleasure of enjoying the peace of the countryside to the accompaniment of birdsong. That music is often punctuated by the sound of gunfire because part of the moor is used as a rifle range by the Ministry of Defence.
But gunfire echoing across the moor has not always been a result of target practice. In the mid-1800s the countryside around Oxford was in revolt. The people of Otmoor were not prepared to let landowners ride roughshod over their interests and drain the wetland when the land was enclosed in 1829.
Desperate agricultural labourers saw the additional sources of income disappearing as the wetland dried up. The anguish of those farm workers inspired this famous rhyme: The fault is great in Man or Woman Who steals the Goose from off a Common; But who can plead that man’s excuse Who steals the Common from the Goose.’ The first drainage attempts were unsuccessful and even led to local flooding. Nocturnal raids to disrupt the drainage work started in 1829 and, on June 5, 1830, enclosure banks were attacked. Later, 29 local farmers were charged with breaking the banks of the River Ray and flooding the lands of Sir Alexander Croke.
The farmers pleaded that the banks were a public nuisance and were acquitted. The people of Otmoor then believed that the whole enclosure was null and void and that they could destroy fences and re-establish their rights of common.
The rioters blackened their faces, wore women’s cloaks and tied black scarves over their heads, and armed themselves with billhooks, hatchets, pitchforks and staves.
On some nights, up to 150 men set out to destroy hedges and stakes.
Everything came to a head on September 6, 1830, when about 1,000 people walked the seven-mile circumference of Otmoor in broad daylight, destroying every fence in their way.
The Riot Act was read to them, and the Oxfordshire Yeomanry was summoned. But they refused to disperse and 66 rioters were arrested, 41 of whom were loaded aboard wagons to be taken to Oxford gaol, escorted by 21 yeomen, commanded by a Captain Hamilton. But the men were not restrained, so, when a large mob – probably in Oxford for St Giles Fair – attacked the escort with stones and bricks on the outskirts of the city, the prisoners escaped. The dramatic rescue was regarded as a popular triumph.
An anonymous letter writer, signing himself Philo Fayette’ compared the “liberties of Otmoor with those proclaimed at the Paris barricades.”
To see how the authorities responded to this revolutionary’ behaviour, I took a trip to the mediaeval tithe barn at Huntercombe which is home to William Clegg’s antique business, known as The Country Seat.
I knew William had a truncheon made in 1829 at Horton, near Banbury, which was probably used in the attempt to quell the Otmoor rioters, and wanted to know how he came across it.
“In 1970, just after Sally and I were married we took a trip to Camden market and came across a dealer selling six decorated truncheons,” William explained.
“We did not have much to hang on the wall and they were cheaper than pictures! When we got them home, I particularly enjoyed their colour, atmosphere and decoration. I have always been interested in social history as I grew up in South Lancashire, home of the Luddites and the less well-known plug-drawers’. They drained reservoirs and their motives were similar to the Luddites who destroyed machinery.”
“My interest in riots as a phenomenon has grown because I think that progress in legislation was hastened by direct action, death and deportation,” he said.
“While the Otmoor disturbances were called a revolution’, I think our habit of protesting prevented a real revolution.”
“Unlike my other Oxfordshire truncheons the decoration on the Horton truncheon is quite crude,” William said. “It was obviously not done by a coach painter and so I think it was made in a hurry. This seems very likely, considering the escalating events on Otmoor.”
William also has truncheons from Adderbury and Deddington, where tradesmen and craftsman from Banbury joined the farm workers in the destruction of new machinery which they believed was takling away their livelihood. But the establishment was fighting back.
William showed me a remarkable rare late-18th century poster from the Stevenage area of Hertfordshire, announcing a meeting of the Association for the Apprehension and Prosecution of Felons and Thieves of all denominations’.
The subscriptions and bounties paid, according to the values of the time, were huge. Nowadays, we would probably regard these groups of landowners as local vigilantes.
Organised police forces gradually developed in the cities and along the routes of the major highways. The word police’ features for the first time in the 1786 Dublin Police Act.
Among the early groups of paid constables were the Bow Street Runners, established by novelist Henry Fielding.
During the period of great unrest in the countryside, a special Police Bill led to the formation of the Metropolitan police force in April 1829.
As late as 1831, 14 armed Metropolitan constables were sent to Otmoor and their presence aroused local hostility.
William also has a collection of early truncheons from the Tudor period, called tipstaffs.
“Henry VIII exempted from retribution any officials who, in the course of their duty, strike with any staff commonly known as a Tippstafe’.
“Tipstaffs became symbols of authority for the magistrates and judges and were sometimes made from precious materials such as silver and ivory,” William said.
He also has a bludgeon which also predates the truncheon.
In Ireland it was called the shelalee.
You can see examples of truncheons at Banbury Museum, which has a display in its Treasures Gallery.
If you want to read more about the agricultural riots of the early 19th century track down a book called Captain Swing by Eric Hobsbawn and George Rude. ‘
From the The Oxford Times
© Newsquest Media Group 2007
© Newsquest Media Group 2008