An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 1
THERE lives in my neighbourhood a venerable dame, in an old bacon box in a fallen cottage, whose condition will be best understood by the annexed illustration.
Fifteen years ago the house was in habitable condition, that is to say to such as are not particular. It was true that the thatched roof had given way in places; but the proprietress obtained shelter for her head by stuffing up the chimney of the bedroom fireplace with a sack filled with chaff, and pushing her bed to the hearth and sleeping with her head under the sack.
But access to this bedroom became difficult, as the stairs, exposed to rain, rotted, and she was compelled to ascend and descend by an improvised ladder.
After a while the ladder collapsed.
Then the old lady descended for good and all, and took up her abode on the ground floor—kitchen, and parlour, and dining-room, and bedroom all in one.
"And terr'ble warm and comfortable it be," said she, when the roof fell in bodily, and covered the floor overhead.
But when the walls were exposed, rain and frost told on them, and also on the beam ends sustaining the floor, and the next stage was that one side of the floor gave way wholly.
"Tes best as it be," said the old woman; "now the rain runs off more suant."
But in falling the floor blocked the fireplace and the doorway. The consequences are—now we come to the present condition of affairs—that the old lady has had to do without a fire for certainly three winters, amongst others that bitter one of 1893-4, and her only means of egress and ingress is through the
window. Of that not one half of the panes are whole; the gaps are stopped with rags.
And now the floor is rotted through overhead by the mouldering thatch that covers it in part, and the rain drips through.
Accordingly my lady has taken refuge in an old chest, and keeps the lid up with a brick.
"Tes terr'ble cosy," says she.
Last year, having a Scottish gentleman staying with me, I took him over to call on "Marianne." We had a long interview. As we left, he turned to me with a look of dismay and said. "Good heavens! in the wildest parts of the Highlands such a thing would be impossible—and in England!"—he did not finish the sentence.
I went back to Marianne and said, "Now, tell me why you will go on living in this ruin?"
"My dear," said she, "us landed proprietors must hold on to our houses and acres. Tes a thing o' principle."
There is perhaps a margin of exaggeration in this—in speaking of acres, as I believe the said estate spreads over hardly a quarter of an acre.
How was it, and how were similar little properties acquired?
Formerly there was a considerable amount of common land, on which the peasants turned out their asses and geese. Then some adventuresome man, who took a wife and had no house into which to put her, annexed a piece of the common, just enough for a cottage and a garden, and none said him Nay. There was still plenty for all, and so, in time, it became his own, and was lost to the rest of the parishioners. Little by little the commons were thus encroached upon. Then, again, formerly there was much open ground by the sides of the roads. Cattle were driven along the highways often for great distances, and the turf and open spaces by the sides of the roads were provision made for their needs.
But squatters took portions of this open ground, enclosed, and built on it. There was no one to object. The lord of the manor might have done so, but he was a little doubtful as to his right to forbid this annexation of ground on the side of the highway, and he and the parishioners generally agreed to let be. It might save the man coming on the rates if he had a garden and house—no harm was done. There was still plenty of food for the flocks and herds driven along. So we find thousands and tens of thousands of these cottages thus planted by the roadsides, with their gardens—all appropriations by squatters.
A curious thing happened to me when I was Rector of East Mersey in Essex. At the edge of the Marshes were a couple of cottages near a copious spring of limpid water. They had been built, and a tract of garden enclosed, some two hundred years ago, and occupied, rent free, by the descendants of the original appropriator. During my tenure of the rectory, the last representatives left, in fact abandoned the tenements. The Rector was lord of the manor. Accordingly these cottages, in very bad repair, fell to me, and I suddenly found myself responsible for them. Should I leave I could be come upon for dilapidations, and it would have cost me something like three hundred pounds to put these houses to right, from which I had not received a penny. Moreover, when rebuilt, no one would have rented them, so aguish and unhealthy was the spot. Accordingly I had to obtain, at some cost, a faculty to enable me to pull them down.
Some years ago Mr. Greenwood drew attention to the "North Devon Savages." These were squatters, or rather descendants of squatters, who held a piece of land and occupied a ruinous habitation, and lived in a primitive condition as to clothing and matrimonial arrangements.
A lady, who was very kind to the family, wrote to me relative to them, in 1889: "Some fifteen or sixteen years ago there was a good deal of talk about the Cheritons, or Savages as they were called. The family had been long known as worthy of this latter name, by the manner in which they lived, and their violence and depredations, real and supposed, which caused them to be regarded with a great deal of dread and almost superstitious awe. The article in the newspaper, written by a correspondent, had called attention to them, and roused their bitter resentment, and some of my menservants said that on one occasion, when they tarried from curiosity on the confines of their little property, they were almost surrounded by the family, young and old, and some almost naked, with pitchforks and sticks, and that they had to continue on their way with haste. I do not know from what cause, but I think on account of some leniency he had showed them as a magistrate on one occasion, they had not as inimical a feeling towards my husband as towards the other landowners. One evening, on his return home from hunting, he told me he had heard a sad story of the head of the family, I suppose a man of thirty-eight or forty, having wounded himself badly in the foot, when shooting or poaching, and that he stoutly refused to see or have any help from clergyman or any other person; that the doctor declared it was necessary the foot should be amputated, but that the man had protested that he would sooner die as he was, and had bid him depart; that he was lying in a most miserable state. I then settled I would go to him, and if necessary stay the night there, and supposing I could persuade him to permit the operation, that I would nurse him through it, and then obtain further help. As Lord —— knew that this might be permitted by the savages, possibly, to one of his family, and as I was determined in the matter, I took a carriage and one of my little children, who could look after the horse (as it was deemed most inexpedient to have any servant with us); also all that we could think of for the comfort of an invalid; and I knew I could arrange to send back the child and trap with an escort, if I had to stay."When we reached that part of the road to Nymet Rowland where their field touched, we stopped, and in a moment some very angry, excited women and children rushed out. I bade them be quiet and hear what I had to say, and then told them that Lord —— had asked me to bring these comforts
THE COTTAGE OF THE "SAVAGES"
"I did not see anything that answered to a bed there; the man was lying on two settles or sets of stools, with, I think, a blanket and something which might, or might not, have been a mattress under him.
"In order to get his head under some certain shelter, it was resting on a settle in the chimney, side by side with a fire; his body and legs were on a settle in the room, if you could call a place with only three walls and half a roof by that name, and I think that the floor was in many places bare earth, and that the grass grew on it. The family were all pleasant enough—rough but grateful—and I found that though the doctor had thought amputation necessary, he now believed it might be avoided—that the man had decided against it, but allowed the doctor to continue to visit him. They were delighted with all I brought, and begged me to return soon to them, which I promised to do, and to send my children when I could not come. The old woman was a character, and quoted Scripture—certainly at random—but with some shrewdness.
"After that time I and mine were always welcome. One of the married sisters of the wounded Cheriton, who quite recovered, had bad bronchitis, and some of my family visited her continually, and on one occasion found her sitting on the thatched bit of roof, against the chimney, for 'change of air' in her convalescence. She was a big powerful woman, who had on one occasion knocked down a policeman who was taking her brother to Exeter gaol, and her mother, the old woman, told me with pride that they had had to send a cart and three men to take her away. She afterwards married a labourer. The rest of the family sold their property, and only the other day when I revisited the place for the first time after many years, I found a smart house erected in the place of the old 'Cheritons.' The women became great beggars till the death of the old mother, and the dispersion on the sale of the property.
"I remember once meeting the man Cheriton in the lane. He had decorated the collar of his horse that he was driving with horrible entrails of a sheep or pig. This was just the kind of savage ornament that would suit them.
"In the case of the woman who married the labourer, this was brought about by the Rector of Nymet, but I fancy, according to any usually received ideas, that was the one marriage; and that my use of the words wife, etc., would not stand legal interpretation."
I remember these savages between forty and fifty years ago, and then their manner of life was the same; the only clothes they wore were what they could pick from hedges where they had been put out after a wash to dry. A policeman told me he had seen one of the women in a condition of absolute nudity sitting in a hedge of their garden, suckling a child. The curate of the parish incurred their resentment because he endeavoured to interfere with their primitive ways. One night, as he was riding up a lane in the dark, he thought he observed a shadow move in the darkness and steal into the hedge. Suspicious of evil, as he was near the habitation of the Cheritons, he dismounted and led his horse, and found that a gate had been taken off its hinges and laid across the way so as to throw his horse, and possibly break his neck. He at once made a dash to arrest the shadow that lurked in the hedge, but it made a bolt over the bank, and by its nakedness and fluttering rags, he was certain that the figure was that of one of the savages.
The old man, or one of the old men, finished his days—not on the paternal acres, but in a barrel littered with straw, chained to a post in an outhouse in an adjoining parish. I used him up in my story of "John Herring."
The usual end of these little holdings is that the proprietor either gets into some poaching affray, or quarrels with a neighbour, and so makes the acquaintanceship of a local lawyer, and this acquaintance leads to a loan of a little money, when the holder of the land is short of cash, on the security of the tenement. The sequel need not be further described than by saying that the property changes hands.
These are instances of paternal bits of acre rather than of acres, and such pieces are very liable to pass away, as not enough in themselves to support a family. But these are instances in small of the manner in which the manors were formed in ancient times. The manor was that estate which a man was able to get his hand upon and to hold and work through his serfs.
There is an idyllic old English home that belonged to an ancient family of the same name, the Penfounds of Penfound, in the parish of Poundstock, on the north Cornish coast.
This coast is wind-swept, yet the winds from the sea are never cold, so that wherever there is shelter there trees, shrubs, and flowers luxuriate. In a dip in the land, at the source of a little stream, snuggling into the folds of the down, bedded in foliage, open to the sun, hummed about by bees, twinkled over by butterflies, lies this lovely old house. The neighbourhood has been modernized and vulgarized distressingly, but as yet this dear old house has not been trodden out of existence. It remains on the verge of ruin, with its old hall, old garden, and stately granite doorway into the latter. A sad record belongs to this venerable manor. The family pedigree goes back to before the Wars of the Roses. The Penfounds mated with the bluest blood of the west, the Trevillians, the Kelloways, the Darells, the Pollards, the Grenvilles, the Chamonds, the Pollexfens—and the last Penfound who sat on the paternal acres died in the poorhouse of his native parish, Poundstock, in 1847, leaving issue, now poor labouring people tilling the land at so much a week—where for centuries they were manorial lords.
In ancient British times the whole country belonged to tribes, and the tribes owned their several districts. At the head of each tribe was the chief. He claimed and was given right to free maintenance by the tribesmen, and he distributed the land among the householders of the tribe. These householders owed no allegiance to any other authority than the chief, on whom they depended for everything and to whom they owed implicit obedience.
Every man who was not a tribesman was an enemy. If the tribe increased beyond what the land could maintain, it fought another tribe and wrested from it the land and drove it away or exterminated it, with complete indifference to the fact that this dispossessed tribe spoke the same tongue, had the same social organism, was of the same blood.
The tribal system from which the Celt never freed himself entirely was the curse of the Celtic race, predooming it to ruin. The history of the Welsh, the Irish, the Highlanders, is just the same as that of the Gauls, one of internecine feud, no political cohesion, no capacity for merging private interests, forgetting private grudges for a patriotic cause.
And at the bottom of all this lay the absence among the clansmen of the principle of private property. The land was possessed by all in common, subject to allotment by the chief, and among the tribal chiefs there was no link; each coveted the lands of the other. This it was which made the Celt to be everywhere a prey to such races as knew how to put self-interest in the background.
When the Jutes, Angles, Saxons, came to Britain they brought with them another social system altogether. They were possessed with the sense of the importance of private property. So deficient had the Britons been in this that they had not other than the most elementary notions of house building. Timber and wattle sufficed for them, but the Saxon, and afterwards the Norman, had a higher conception of the home, and he began at once to fashion himself a permanent abode, and to make it not solid only but beautiful. And he did more than that, he brought the idea of hedges with him wherewith to enclose the land he chose to consider his own.
Saxon, Angle, or Jute put his hand down on the tribal territory, after having destroyed the tribal organization, leaving only a portion of wild moor and a tract of forest land, also a little arable land, for the members of the community whom he converted into serfs. They tilled the land, kept flocks and herds, and supplied him with what meat, wool, yarn, and grain he required; they met under his presidency in the hall at his courts. The tenants were of various sorts; some were bordarii or cotters, rendering occasional service for the use of their houses and bits of land; others, the villains, in complete servitude.
At the Norman Invasion, the Saxon thanes were themselves humbled in turn; the manors were given a more legal character and transferred to favourites of William the Conqueror. But the old Saxon chiefs in each manor were probably very rarely turned out neck and crop, but were retained as holders of the estate subject to the new lords, managing them and rendering to their masters certain dues.
In Saxon times there were book-land and folk-land, the former the private property of thanes and churls, the latter common land of the community. But after the Norman Conquest most, if not all, of the latter fell under the hand of the lord of the manor. Here and there the village community still continued to exercise its right to grant tracts to be enclosed, but usually the manorial lord claimed and exercised this right. At the present time, in my own county, this is being done in a certain parish that possessed a vast tract of common land on the confines of Dartmoor Forest. The farmers and cottagers are enclosing at a rapid rate, paying the lord of the manor a trifling fine, and thus making the land their own for ever. There can be no question that originally the fine would have gone into the parish cash-box; now it goes into the landlord's pocket.
"There is much that is primitive and simple to be met with, but nothing of barbarism in the land institutions of Saxon England, unless, indeed, an excessive love for it, and an almost exaggerated deference for its possession may be so classed. In an age when freedom was the exceptional condition, the ownership of land was the mark of a free man, and ample territory the inseparable appanage of rank. No amount of gold or chattel property conferred the franchise: land alone was recognized as the vehicle of all personal privilege, and the basis of civil rank. Centuries have not obliterated these features in their descendants to this day; the love of land, its estimation above all other forms of property, and its political preponderance."
Reformers have roundly abused, and striven to break down our land system, especially the right of primogeniture, and to resolve the land into small holdings to be cultivated by small owners. There are, as in all social and political questions, two sides to this. I do not deny for a moment that much is to be said in favour of equal partition of land among all the children, and of the multiplication of peasant proprietors. But I venture to think that the system that has prevailed in England has produced results that could have been attained by no other. In this especially, that it has provided at once a stable core, with a body of fluid, migratory, and energetic young people, who have not been bound to the clod.
A man, knowing that his land will descend to his son and son's son, will plant and improve, and spend his money most unselfishly on the land, for the family advantage. But if he thinks that it will go into other hands, will he for this purpose deny himself present luxuries and amusements?
I suppose such an alternative as this has presented itself to many a landowner. "I ought to spend from £150 to £200 in planting this autumn. Shall I do it, or run up to town, go to the opera, eat, drink, and enjoy myself, and spend the money on myself?"There is, surely, something very beautiful and wholesome in the manner in which an Englishman of means lives for, and cares for the family, as a whole—the generations unborn, as well as his own children—and builds, plants, provides for the future, furnishing it with a lovable centre, from which it may radiate into all lands.
It was, unless I am greatly mistaken, the principle of equal subdivision, or of gavelkind, that existed among the Welsh, which ruined their cause. The Celt has more originality, genius, energy than the Saxon, but he was paralyzed in his attempts to resist the invader by the interminable break-up of power and of property at the death of every prince. The kinglet of Glamorgan had ten sons—one became a monk, and the rest parcelled up his lands and his authority over men. A great prince like Howel Dda was able to consolidate the nation, but only for his lifetime; at his death it was torn into petty factions by his sons. It was this that maimed the Briton before the Saxon, not the superiority in genius, numbers, character in the latter; and it was this again which threw Wales at the feet of the Norman kings.
Now look at almost all the farm-buildings in France. Everything there is in ruin, all the outward tokens of decay are manifest. Why is this? Because no owner cares to spend money on putting the place to rights. Everything will be divided at his death, and he must hoard his money for division among those children who do not take the farm. So one gets a tumble-down tenement, and the rest the money that might make it habitable. Moreover, this continued to the next generation ends in the disappearance of the family from its paternal acres. In the Limousin there is hardly a family that retains its hold on its land over the third generation.
I know four delightful old ladies, all unmarried, inheriting a well-known and honoured name in Perigord. On the father's death everything was divided. One took the château, without having the money to repair it, and she lives under the ruins. The second took a farm and lives with the paysan and paysanne. The third took the family plate and china and family portraits, and lives over a modiste in small lodgings, and is obliged to sell her ancestral goods piecemeal to keep herself going. The fourth took some shares the father had in a Pâté de Foix gras factory; it failed, and she has to scramble on upon the alms of her sisters.Among the peasants the tenure of small holdings is mischievous; they are chained to the soil, whereas, if set free, they might emigrate and become energetic colonists, or go into the towns and become intelligent, active artisans. It is just when a young man ought to be starting on a career that he acquires a few acres, and at once he is paralyzed. Those acres hold him, he cannot do justice to them, he has not the means. He does not like to part with them, and he spends his life bowed over them. Worse than this, unable to avert the further dismemberment of his estate on his death, he resolves in compact with his wife to have no more than one, or at the most two children. Now, with us, the younger son of a landed proprietor knows he must push his way in the world, and from the moment his intelligence begins to act he looks about him for openings. Our labourers also, unchained to the soil, go about wherever work may be had. Where there is a market for their abilities, thither they go, but go they would not, if they owned their little plot of land and house.
And, if I am not much mistaken, it is this early developed sense of independence that has been the making of Englishmen all over the world; but, then, it is the conservative element, the holding to the paternal acres, that has made of dear old England one great garden and park, the proprietor spending his money on the land, instead of on his pleasures or self, as elsewhere.