Boris Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture, with its implied contempt for people with an IQ of less than 85, and with its explicit patrician contempt for the lower orders, sharply reminded me, when travelling to work on the number 14 bus (now, what did Mrs Thatcher say about people who travelled on buses?), of Edmund Burke’s (in)famous late 18th century speech. Burke, MP for Bristol btw, used this phrase to describe the lower orders: ‘the swinish multitude’. I think you see my point.
Tom Paine was incensed by Burke’s insulting condescension: he feverishly wrote ‘The Rights of Man’ (sic) in reply. The book quickly sold 200,000 copies and, in a country of about 10 million, with an accelerating birth rate and a consequently low average age, and with low levels of literacy, and with a tradition of shared reading and discussion amongst the ‘swinish multitude’, this book was an intimidating red rag to a John Bull. An enormous number of lower class adult swine must have heard about this book and read it too. You didn’t need an IQ of 130 to understand its political analysis.
Who knows how many copies were bought and read in our local area? And who knows how many of our villagers in the Stroud Valleys, with or without second homes, are at the moment chuckling over Boris Johnson’s consummate command of all the arts of rhetoric? Who knows how many are guffawing at a speech that so ably segues from the demotic (‘amigos’) to the recondite and classical? Who knows how many of them know of our earlier radical traditions in the likes of Painswick, Bisley and Minchinhampton?
So, in response to Mr Johnson’s rewriting of recent history, let us go back a bit further in time. We’ll start by remembering the 1658 Quaker burial ground in Painswick: at that time, Quaker beliefs were very close to those of the Levellers and the Diggers. And there was a very sizeable Quaker community in Painswick. A sizeable proportion of the community held beliefs completely at variance with those proclaimed in the Thatcher lecture; short shrift for Boris, therefore, in 17th century Painswick.
Now we’ll skip a couple of centuries and have a look at the Miles Report (1839) on Bisley and Minchinhampton. Erasmus Charlton, Police Serjeant at Hampton, wrote to Wm. Augustus Miles: “The weavers are much distressed; they are wretchedly off in bedding; has seen many cases where the man and his wife and as many as 7 children have slept on straw, laid on the floor with only a torn quilt to cover them…has witnessed very distressing cases; children crying for food, and the parents having neither food nor money in the house…These men have a constant dread of going into the Poor Houses…witness has frequently told them they would be better in the house, and their answer has been “We would sooner starve.”
The Reverend Jeffreys wrote thus about Bisley: “ Beggarly Bisley has long been a proverb, and the improvidence of the people has been as conspicuous in the way they have married young in spite of this, and also the way in which they have kept their children at home hanging on to a miserable and uncertain pittance, in preference to sending them out to work for their bread elsewhere. The way in which parents keep their grown-up children at home to this day is quite vexatious…”
“ In the winter, you must remember the frost hinders their work very much, for they cannot afford fires in their shops and working by candle-light, which they are forced to do for a full six of their sixteen hours…takes a good deal from their earnings.”
”The last few years of extreme distress seemed to have caused an alteration…and many of the young people now go out to service, though not before they were clean starved out.”
I am reading the ghost stories of MR James at the moment on the bus, as the dawn comes up. So many academics, antiquarians and ancient piles are haunted by revenants and ghosts stirred up by research into the past in his tales. Perhaps this forgotten and ignored past will do something similar and haunt the lanes of our villages. The present day is a Shelley ghost-scape: ‘Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know.’
And glancing out of the window, at a late November apology for sunrise:
‘Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many - they are few.’