Protest, Proletarians and Paternalists. Social conflict in rural Wiltshire

Randall, Adrian and Newman, Edwina (1995). Protest, Proletarians and Paternalists. Social conflict in rural Wiltshire. Rural History, 6(2) pp. 205–227.



Few historians have made a more significant contribution to our understanding of social relations in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century than Roger Wells. In a series of publications, he has consistently and persuasively argued that, in the years from 1790 to 1834, the labourers of southern England fell victim to the rise of a new aggressive agrarian capitalism which fractured and destroyed an older complex social system, replacing it with the naked power of class interest and ushering in a new class consciousness among the rural labourers which corresponded to that developing in the towns among the industrial labourers. This class consciousness was the product of an active resistance which sometimes, as in Swing, took the form of overt protest. Swing, Wells believes, marked the clear expression of class conflict in the countryside. The labourers' defeat was compounded by the New Poor Law, by which triumphant agrarian capitalism imposed its new sway. Placing ‘a priceless premium on employment’, the New Poor Law transferred power into the hands of the large capitalist farmers who speedily came to dominate the Union boards. Under its pressure, residual aspects of ‘class collaboration’ between the labourers and the superior social orders dissolved. The labourers were left to develop a defensive class culture which found echoes in Chartism but was seen more extensively in a ‘class war’ which took the form of disorder, arson, poaching, ‘rough’ behaviour or in a parodied or cynical deference. Persuasive as Wells'’ case is, however, one element of rural society is, by and large, missing from it, and indeed from many other studies of rural protest in the nineteenth century: namely the landlords and, in particular, the largest landlords. Wells sees their role from 1815 to 1830 as being essentially niggardly, continuing to demand social discipline but increasingly failing to play their old role of mediator between the poor and the rate paying classes. Their support for the New Poor Law ‘proved to be the final nail in the coffin of rural paternalism’.

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