You are in [Places] [Combe] [Combe and its labourers, 1840-43 and beyond]

This article was written by Dr Donald Peck and presented to the Virtual Museum February 2022.

Combe and its landless cottagers - the Wadsmere Common dispute of 1840-43 and beyond. 

Change was in the air in the 1830s and 1840s in Combe, before the relative calm of the more prosperous 1850s quietened life down. The poor, reaching peak numbers as the village’s population peaked between 1840 and 1860 were growing in numbers and paupers (except for orphans and widows) had little recourse to relief under the New Poor Law, now in full force at the neighbouring, scandalously badly-run Andover workhouse.

There is no sign in the records that there had been any protest in Combe relating to the Swing Riots of 1830, not even the burning of hay ricks. Of course in the Kennet valley and in several parts of North Hampshire (as well as across the whole of the south-east) there had been in 1830 many violent Swing protests and transportations to Australia – and there were also some incidents involving excessive leniency by Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra’s fiancé’s brother, the aged vicar of Kintbury, Rev. Fulwar Fowle. The sudden threat of Chartism in 1838 and soon after never spread far into rural areas in the south, but farmers in nearby Hurstbourne Tarrant and Faccombe during the 1830s and 1840s continued to sell up at frequent intervals; and three farmers at Faccombe had their barns or ricks burnt seemingly in protest between 1846 and 1849. As we shall see, things were to get much worse for the remaining farmers in the villages higher up the downs after the start of the agricultural depression in the 1870s.

What happened at Combe in the early 1840s was what was the press came to call the Wadsmere Dispute. In January 1840 a large group of Combe agricultural labourers in dire need of winter fuel annoyed King’s College and upset its woodman Robert Bulpitt by persistently gathering fuel on the common at Wadsmere (which is crossed by the footpath to Combe Wood to the right after the top of Granny’s Lane), refusing to accept that it was not their right to do so. King’s employees must have pointed out to all and sundry that the people involved were, as far as the College was concerned (mostly) annual tenants of the College, being cottagers whose rent had been doubled to (usually) 2s a month around 20 years before (as against wages still averaging often less than 10s a week). However William Hooper, by then 85, but formerly woodwarden of King’s as well as tenant of the Manor Farm and the father of two of Combe’s leading copyholders, then came forward. (We will tell the story of Mr Hooper elsewhere - in another piece). On this occasion Mr Hooper went to court, perhaps at the College’s request, to defend his own rights to take underwood on the commons and contest the rights of the cottagers. King’s may or may not also have contested Mr Hooper’s rights when the whole subject came to court later in the year, but Henry Earle, the College’s solicitor in Andover, wrote to the College that he was secretly pleased when the rights of copyholders like Mr Hooper (as well as those of the cottagers) were not upheld by the court; Earle claimed some credit for this with the College.

Things came to a head in court during 1840 because the College persisted in stopping against the labourers collecting fuel. The labourers found their own lawyer (as well as other supporters in the area) who would present their case for the long-held common rights they claimed, and would also get them a favourable hearing locally and in the local press and eventually, in January 1841, in The Times. For example, under the headline: ‘The Tender Mercies of King’s College, Cambridge’, the Oxford Chronicle produced the conclusion: ‘The College tried the right with the poor and were beaten’.

Mr Earle, the Andover solicitor, who was also solicitor to and defender of the management of the Andover Workhouse, felt the need to write to the Hampshire Advertiser to give another side of the story. In actual fact, he wrote, the court had, to King’s satisfaction, given short shrift to the cottagers’ claims to have been cutting wood on the commons for (at least) the previous 60 years. The court accepted Mr Hooper’s lawyer’s demonstration that protesters had absolutely no rights at all, as they were [mostly, in fact, but not all] ‘yearly tenants of the college and, as they would not desist from cutting the underwood, they were served with six months’ notices to quit at Michaelmas last’, ie in March 1841, not January 1841… The next thing that happened was that, despite this discrepancy in dates, King’s forcibly evicted a number of Combe cottagers in January 1841, to even greater consternation in the area.

Mr Earle offered readers of the press his own judgment on the Wadsmere dispute and on the protesters: the labourers, he wrote, had been ‘acting, I fear, under the influence of bad advice and the folly and illegality of their ways, but all without effect; and unless the commoners [ie the copyholders] as well as the college felt inclined to yield up their property to the most unfounded of claims and thus to encourage equally flagrant invasions of private rights, I am not aware of any other course that they could have adopted.’

The Times thundered back on 30 January 1841: ‘The parish of Combe itself belongs to King’s College; and, as happened with the physician who could not take from his patient the phthisic, but took the patient from the phthisic, the College, though they could not take the common from the poor, in revenge took the poor from the common. The College gave notice to five families to quit their cottages. On Monday the 4th January inst. the five families were turned out of their houses into the road and would have perished from the cold, had not their neighbours kindly taken them in. One poor woman has, we understand, been in fits ever since and is not expected to recover. About a week after the ejectment, much of the goods of the poor persons were still exposed on the road or street. The snow was drifted there to a depth of four and five feet. A single proprietor might have been actuated by feelings of humanity or fear, and have shrunk from driving five poor families to the street in the beginning of January during the severity of a snow storm. But a corporation knows neither mercy nor fear’.

Unfortunately, we do not know which families were ejected for ever and which, if any, were allowed back into their houses. There is just one Combe record from 1842 which suggests that the College sought and had received legal advice for further proceedings against the Cumming family, but this family in fact never left Combe (though one George Cumming was a notorious Faccombe poacher later in the century). George Cumming was still there as a pauper 60 years later. It is probably safe to assume that few of the protesters, if any, were permanently evicted.

Nonetheless it seems that King’s was quite soon moved to shore up its position among the ‘baser inhabitants’ of Combe. By this time the enthusiasm of landlords elsewhere in England for conciliating cottagers dispossessed by the enclosure of commons was nearing its peak. Legislation had tentatively begun to be formulated in 1834, for a popular remedy - the creation of allotment gardens to compensate cottagers for enclosure – a cause which was strongest in East Anglia and championed there by Sir Thomas Bunbury of Great Barton in Suffolk. Such allotments would probably have been seen as being confined to the deserving poor. Elsewhere such allotments were supposed to be cultivated with ‘spade not hoof’, ie for potatoes not grain.

In 1842-3 Robert Bulpitt, the College’s ageing woodman and bailiff, is the person who seems to have taken an initiative to formalise the ‘allotment gardens’ which 23 labourers of Combe were allowed to rent for cultivation on Mill Down (it’s worth noting that these allotments were right under the eyes of Bulpitt and his son, who took his job when the elder Bulpitt died in 1844 – this was at the top of Granny’s Lane, on the left). At the Manor Court of Combe in October 1843 it was agreed that each allotment garden would be 20 lugs in size, ie 1/8 of an acre, hardly bigger than a town allotment today, and about half the normal allotment measure at the time. It was also agreed then that each labourer was to pay 1s a year for this land. This would certainly confirm that they were tenants of the College and therefore would help the College, delegitimise, or at least would not allow them to legitimise any squatted encroachments; such encroachments were a major preoccupation of landlords, and King’s College in particular, now that it was in a position to begin to tidy up its title too the whole manor for its eventual sale, as it now did, slowly regularising every part of the manor (including cottages built on waste land and their surrounding gardens – and a windmill too). All this was now formalised in a new type of agreement signed by Robert Bulpitt and all labourers concerned; all of the labourers save one could only sign with a cross.

If we compare this list of allottees with the 1841 census, we find that 23 of the 26 labourers who were then heads of households in Combe did get allotments (it seems likely that the 3 or 4 heads of household from Eastwick were catered for elsewhere by the College; the Mill Down allotments were not geographically convenient for them). Unfortunately we cannot relate this to the families who were possibly evicted in 1841 because the census was taken in April 1841, 3 months after the evictions. One more labourer who did get an allotment garden, William Annetts, had, we also know, moved into Combe from Vernham Dean between 1841 and 1843. [The first of the Annettses, William’s eldest daughter, Charlotte, had arrived in Combe in 1841 as a servant to Robert Bulpitt the bailiff]. Another was George Cumming whom the College had wanted to get out of the parish. The only 4 Combe heads of household who did not get allotments were 1 transient labourer and his family, 1 ageing labourer in his mid-50s with no family, who was soon to become a pauper, 1 young man who was later to figure as a road labourer not an agricultural labourer, and 1 man who was only 25 in 1841. Finally, the allottees included Robert and John Bulpitt, sons of Robert the woodman-bailiff himself; both of these families lived high on the downs near Mill Down, both Roberts together near the top of Granny’s Lane, and John 100 yards away beyond that, in a cottage which is no more, on the edge of the northernmost extension of Combe Wood beside Wadsmere Common.

Being remote, Combe was a close-knit community; the 23 allottees came from a total of only 13 families (and some of those were doubtless further interrelated). They were all from the families that were very well established in Combe, back to the 18th century and sometimes well beyond. It would seem that King’s had got the result it wanted: a group of deserving poor cottagers. What is more the allotment remedy worked: the allottees and their families would all to stay on for very long periods in Combe. 10 of the families given allotments had been in Combe at the time of the vicar’s census in the 1780s; all 10 of these families, and 12 of the 1842 families, were still there nearly 30 years later at the 1871 census, the younger ones now being old men. The sole exception in the 13 families given allotments was James Criswick, the publican, whose pub was in the cottage on the track at the eastern edge of Walbury Fort: Mr Criswick’s name and cross on the agreement came a few days later, as an afterthought. James was already in his 70s in 1841 and his son must have left Combe soon after that, taking with him a 16 year-old illegitimate girl from the neighbouring Challis household as his second wife. By 1891, however, only three of the 13 families remained: Matthews (now the parish clerk), Annetts (including Matthews’s successor as parish clerk) and the Bulpitts.

Combe was perhaps unlucky as it did not have an active vicar at this point; Henry Horatio Woods, who had added Buttermere to Combe to make ends meet, was nearing the end of his life and, in order to make ends meet, had added to his care for Combe the curacy of Buttermere, where he was to be buried. In neighbouring Faccombe, Rev Everitt was soon to take over from the well-heeled Rev Lance; his plan was at once to turn the substantial rectory at Netherton, which the Lances of Southampton (earlier moneyed friends of Jane Austen’s naval brothers) had spent so much money expanding to its current Georgian perfection, into a kind of struggling boarding school. And when hardship faced Faccombe later in the 1840s Rev Everitt, the new rector, would redistribute to the parish 10% of all the tithes he was due, a sum which as it happens was more than half the meagre £120, which is all Rev Woods was entitled to receive for the living of Combe. Despite then being in Hampshire, Combe had to look towards Buttermere in Wiltshire and it was not for nearly another 100 years that Combe would begin to look towards Faccombe (in Hampshire) - and only in 1967 did it turn from Faccombe (and Winchester) to Inkpen and Berkshire for religious sustenance.

Turning to the land and rights on the commons of Combe, it was in 1845 that the most effective General Inclosure Act was passed, trying to tidy up landownership and promote the cultivation of ‘waste’ land. It was only a full decade after 1841 Combe’s farmers got what they must always have wanted: clear ownership of almost all the downland of Combe that they had still not enclosed and ploughed up. At the College’s suggestion, they entered an unofficial enclosure agreement with the College, making minimal provision for the cottagers. The agreement thus reached was in the spirit of the new General Inclosure Act of 1845, which was designed to encourage the enclosure and ploughing up of most types of unenclosed land in England, leaving a small amount aside for the benefit of cottagers, or non-landholding commoners.. The College presumably wanted to tidy up its holdings. Combe had always been less enclosed than many places, because of the wide extent of its downland, and the Eastwick valley, like Faccombe, had more enclosed closes than Combe. But enclosure was not a panacea: Faccombe was experiencing a rapid decline in population – from 305 in 1821 down to 190 in 1871, which was almost 15% smaller than Combe - with arson, a number of poaching cases and a number of farmers going out of business; the estate was also quickly sold by the rector’s family, to be developed as a shooting estate by Mr William H Heath.

In 1851 a King’s College official, the Rev J Jeffries Bumpsted, summoned a meeting of the four remaining farmers of Combe. Then, in 1852, the College got a legal opinion to back their supposed magnanimity:

‘… A considerable quantity of commonable land consisting of open downs and other land on which the copyholders have the right of feed and to cut the underwood according to the extent of their estates. A portion of this commonable land owing to its distance from the village and the difficulty of approach is of little value and encroachments have occasionally taken place on it without interruption from the Lords of the Manor or the copyholders having the right of pasturage over it. Some parts of the Common down are covered with furze which the labouring classes of the parish have been in the habit of cutting and using for fuel. Some portion of what was formerly commonable land has for many years past been cultivated as arable land and at the summit of the Down called Combe Hill there is a part called The Oathill containing between 30 and 40 acres of arable land which the copyhold tenants many years ago inclosed and allotted between themselves taking about 4 acres for each Yard Land’.

In the end, 2 years after Mr Bumpsted held the first meeting, agreement was reached. After quite a lot of expense, presumably, as with other enclosures, borne proportionally by the beneficiaries, and quite a bit of careful measuring and re-measuring of plots of land on the downs, the College reached a solution with its key tenants. By this time the College, it seems, had come to realise that it needed to induce farmers to stay on the land, to be able to pay decent leasehold rent for their land, and even be ready to build a bit of new accommodation for labourers – eg the 2 cottages built by Michael Cooke, who had become the new farmer of the Manor in 1851, and the 4 Slate Cottages, built probably in the 1860s.

A formal agreement was prepared by Mr Earle of Andover. The four farmers who signed the agreement with the College were:- Michael Cooke (the farmer of the Manor Farm - a leaseholder), Robert Hooper (still a copyholder for 7 yardlands in his family, 2 ½ of them in the name of his sisters), Richard Kimber (now copyholder for 6 yardlands in Eastwick but soon to remain only as a leaseholder), and the increasingly unfortunate Thomas Challis (old and mired in debt, and no longer a copyholder, just with a lease for 1 yardland in Upper Eastwick).

Cutting of underwood on the commons and downs was now seen as an important right for the farmers to keep, not one for the College to worry about, as previously. The cottagers got no more such rights; all that was preserved for the poor of the village were some insignificant rights on the top of the Downs [this plot was near the sheep pens by the car park on the Faccombe road], ie:- 4 acres ‘to the inhabitants of Combe for the purposes of a sand pit and for the use of the Poor for the purposes of cutting furze’ for firewood.

It is perhaps worth noting that people from outside the village would sometimes come and help themselves to sand on the common as well.

The College itself kept 32 of the remotest acres, the poor got their 4 acres (2% of the total), and the farmers Hooper and Kimber split the remaining 158 acres almost equally, with poor Thomas Challis losing out altogether. What this implied was that the rest of the parish’s 300-400 acres of downland had already been split up and ploughed up. After this final enclosure, the poor’s rights to take wood or perform any other activities on the commons would have been very tenuous and very difficult to defend if they were ever challenged. Elsewhere the right to recreation on common land was fought for extensively, but the right to access the downs in Combe was not restored until the recent ‘Right to Roam’ provisions, for which the public subsidises the landowner.

In fairness to King’s, it continued to treat some of its most deserving cottagers well; its steward at this same time suggested, for example, that one of the Combe labourers with allotments, Mark Jones, be given an extra allotment of 1 acre on Oat Hill because he was looking after his family and his land so well. Mark’s father John had earlier had his cottage rent reduced by the College from 12s to 10s a year.

The conclusion of the Wadsmere Dispute is a mystery as we know neither from the King’s records, nor from the censuses, nor the press whether any of those prosecuted by King’s in 1840-41 were actually removed from the village for ever.

But there is a footnote from the end of the nineteenth century. Things did not improve much for labourers even during the years of labour-intensive ‘High Farming’ from 1855-1870. Wages barely changed at all and, after 1870, just as things began to get markedly worse for farmers, Joseph Arch of Warwickshire introduced the idea of a national farm labourers’ union, which in practice helped raise labourers’ wages significantly across much of the south midlands and the south of England. The story of the decline of upland farming in Combe and Linkenholt is one that I will tell elsewhere.

In Combe feelings still ran strong. Around 1871 Combe’s fairly liberal vicar, George Pearson (then about 40 years of age), preached a sermon in favour of the labourers and of Arch’s union. He was at once ostracised and kept out of his church for several weeks by the Combe churchwardens and the remaining farmers of Combe, Richard Chillingworth, then farming the Manor, Richard Kimber of Eastwick, by then on his last legs, and the last of the Hoopers, Robert, who was also soon to die, leaving Kimber’s widow Susan as the only surviving farmer, clinging on deep in debt until she died in 1895, just as Alfred Cole bought the whole manor for the shooting.

The rise in labourers’ wages in Combe in the 1870s was due in part to the union, but in a more lasting way to a fall in the supply of labour; the number of agricultural labourers fell drastically in Combe, as everywhere else in the south, in the long years of agricultural depression after 1871. The numbers of labourers in Combe fell from 65 (59 agricultural labourers + 4 shepherds and 2 gamekeepers) in 1871 to only 16 (12 labourers + 2 shepherds and 2 gamekeepers) in 1901.

When Rev George Pearson, looking back on his 45 years as vicar of Combe, told a rambling visitor, the naturalist WH Hudson, in 1901 about his memories of the beginning of the agricultural depression, his passion had to some extent diminished. This is how Hudson put it: Pearson ‘preached it [the labourers’ cause] in his own pulpit in a way that offended the landowners and alarmed the farmers in the district. The church-wardens, who were farmers, then locked him out of his church and for two or three weeks there was no public worship in the parish of Combe’. But, Pearson then told Hudson, 25 years later one of the men who locked him out admitted that he, the vicar, was right and he was wrong.

Footnote - the farmer who made this comment to Pearson must have been the Combe Manor farmer John Chillingworth, as the other Combe farmers in 1871 were Robert Hooper and Richard Kimber, both of whom were dead soon after that date. Chillingworth in fact soon went bankrupt, after agreeing to pay much too high a rent to King’s, and also left the parish in 1874, after only 8 years farming the Manor.


The names of the Cottagers who were allotted land were the following:

 John Joyce

Christopher Batt

George Matthews

Daniel Bray

William Hall

Thomas Silvey

Maria Tanner

Charles Jones

Thomas Bray

Nathaniel Winkworth 

See also:

Manors and Combe - A short background to manorial agriculture in southern England and why manorial farming characterized the whole period from before 1000 to after 1350 and continued to influence life and farming in the following centuries.

Combe and the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin - Combe (c 2,200 acres including woodland) as it appears from the account rolls of the owner of the manor, the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin, in the Middle Ages:

Combe as a manor of Bec in the Middle Ages - from the custumal records of Bec-Hellouin.

Combe gibbet - myth and background.