Wellesbourne, Warwickshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013



A tale of Wellesbourne's crucial role in British agricultural history. Chris Mowbray reports.

A tale of Wellesbourne's crucial role in British agricultural and trades union history, involving a champion hedge-cutter and thousands of farm workers who were fed up with their lot. Chris Mowbray reports.

On a miserable February evening in 1872, a meeting took place in the Warwickshire village of Wellesbourne which would prove to be one of the defining political moments of the 19th century and an event which shook the British establishment to its core.

The organisers had been expecting no more than around 30 people at the gathering in the Stag's Head overlooking the tranquil remnants of Wellesbourne's Mediaeval village green. They were therefore thunderstruck when more 2,000 turned up and the meeting had to be hastily reconvened outside around an ancient spreading chestnut tree.

There, standing in the dark and rain with only a few fitfully flickering lanterns on wooden poles to light up the square, the crowd of angry, sullen men listened to the person they had come to see and hear. That man was Joseph Arch, a farm labourer from the neighbouring village of Barford, the official champion hedgecutter of all England and a Primitive Methodist lay preacher who was metaphorically setting the countryside ablaze with his fiery rhetoric about social injustice.

His audience was made up of fellow agricultural workers seething with resentment about the reduction of their wages to as little as nine shillings a week. They could just about avoid starvation only if they could find extra work for their wives and children to supplement their meagre income. If they became sick, they died and the system expected them to do that as quickly and cheaply as possible.

That meeting in Wellesbourne led to the formation of the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers' Union and two months later this became the National Agricultural Labourers' Union with Arch elected as its full-time President. Within two years, the union had over 86,000 members - more than one-tenth of Britain's entire farming workforce - and this terrified the ruling classes. To understand why, it is necessary to look at the history of the preceding 100 years.

The last quarter of the 18th century was dominated by two events which rattled Europe. Firstly, the American War of Independence saw the British kicked out of the New World which they had come to regard as their own and this was followed immediately by the French Revolution which, in a decade, swept away a complete class and Royal governmental system which had developed over the previous 1,000 years.

The shock waves from these two cataclysmic events rippled throughout Britain for the first half of the 19th century. Everywhere, the scent of rebellion was in the air as a million displaced people took to the roads in a search for food and for emancipation from the slavery of feudal landlords.

This was the age of the Chartists who sent activists from town to town stirring up trouble among working men. This was the age of the machine smashing Luddites, of hayrick arsonists who were hung if they were caught and of the grinding Poor Law with its workhouses so evocatively recorded by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist.

This was the age of the Swing Riots which ended with 600 starving agricultural workers being imprisoned, 500 transported and 19 hanged. These were followed by the transportation of the six Tolpuddle Martyrs from Dorset who were illegally framed on trumped up charges by a landowner who had witnessed the French Revolution and feared something similar might happen here. His actions caused such a public outcry that the men were pardoned and repatriated from Australia.

And just when the establishment dared to hope that all these upheavals were safely in the past, here was Joseph Arch preaching the same gospel of rural sedition which attracted 2,000 people to a peaceful Warwickshire village on a rainy night with the underlying threat of violent disorder. As a young agricultural worker, he had witnessed the vicious whirlwind which had engulfed the Swing rioters whose only sin had been to protest about their starvation, and his angry oratorical powers gathered together an army of desperate malcontents who had nothing to lose.

The British ruling classes genuinely feared that just as their French counterparts had been swept away by revolution at the end of the 18th century, they might suffer the same fate at the end of the 19th.

What in fact happened was that the formation of the union resulted in an immediate pay rise for agricultural workers and the agitators, assuming they had won their battle, stopped agitating. The union lost its broad support and folded in 1896, although it was reformed early in the 20th century.

Because of the name he had made for himself, Joseph Arch was consulted by the Canadian government about the availability of British farm workers for their fledgling country and he was so impressed by what he found there that he helped 40,000 men and their families to emigrate to both Canada and America to build new lives.

He then went into politics and, as a Liberal MP, was the first agricultural worker to be elected to the House of Commons. He also served on the Warwickshire County Council from 1889 to 1892 where he continued to use his political skills on behalf of farm workers. He is credited with having played an instrumental part in obtaining the vote for them in the Reform Act of 1884-85.

In 1900, he retired to his native village of Barford where he died in 1919 just seven years short of his centenary. Ironically, at the time of his death, Britain was again in fear of violent revolution, this time in the wake of the Bolshevik uprising in Russia culminating in the execution of Csar Nicholas II who was a cousin of the British monarch, George V.

The Encyclopdia Britannica describes Arch's achievement in founding the union from that meeting in Wellesbourne as 'an astonishing feat of management and drive' and it has long been regarded as a pivotal moment in the development of trade unionism in Britain.

The chestnut tree under which he spoke that night had to be felled in the 1950s for safety reasons and was replaced with a stone marking the spot. In 1952, the National Union of Agricultural Workers erected a bus shelter next to it for the benefit of the people of Wellesbourne and set up inside it a commemorative plaque which is still there. Recently, a new chestnut sapling was planted nearby to replace the original tree and the villages of Wellesbourne and Barford are now linked by a footpath called Joseph Arch Way.

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