Upheavals such as machine-breaking and swing riots were widely reported in the press and those tried and convicted appear in court records, both locally and nationally. For instance, a listing found among the Petty Sessions records held at Essex Record Office describes ‘divers tumults and riots’ that had taken place in the Braintree area in 1830.
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The old farm buildings at the Farmland Museum at Denny Abbey near Waterbeach have been renovated and tell the story of village life and Cambridgeshire farming up to modern times. Dating from 1831, the Stretham Old Engine near Wicken and Ely is the last of the ninety steam pumping engines installed throughout the fens to replace 800 windmills. It remained working until 1925, and was kept on standby until the 1940s. It is only open a few days a year, but there is a post of the engine in action on their website. Prickwillow Drainage Museum has been in continuous use as a pumping station since 1831 and has a unique collection of large engines associated with the Fens drainage.
The March and District Museum tells the story of the people and history of March and the surrounding area, including a working forge. Thorney Heritage Museum has some lovely displays of Fenland life throughout the ages, including details gathered through people’s research into their own ancestry. The Ashdon Village Collection in Essex is a museum of village life with interesting displays of agriculture, the home, shopping and entertainment. Dedham Vale on the border of Essex and Suffolk is often referred to as ‘Constable Country’ because of its association with the artist. Many surviving buildings, like Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s cottage, are immortalized in his works, providing both a contemporary representation and physical reminder. Farm building at the Farmland Museum at Denny Abbey near Waterbeach. Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, Norfolk, is a museum of rural life and traditional farm with rare breed animals.
Denver Sluice was originally built in 1651 by Vermuyden as part of the Fens drainage scheme and is still in use today. The Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, Suffolk includes a wide array of displays and artefacts relating to rural life. In Suffolk, close to Wortham churchyard on Redgrave Road, is a memorial to the tithe wars of the 1930s, when farmers resisted paying an ancient tax used to support the church. It began when husband and wife Rowland Rash and Doreen Wallace refused to pay their tithes in 1934, and led a march of farm workers to the rectory in protest. In a less than savoury alliance, they used a guard of fascist blackshirts in a failed attempt to prevent the bailiffs seizing their farm goods in lieu of payment. Other tithe protests occurred in East Anglia, such as at Elmsett in Suffolk, that highlighted the burden this arcane practice still placed on rural dwellers. The legal abolition of tithes finally occurred in the 1970s.
The insights of a local smallholder into the rural economy of a Cambridgeshire village can be found in A Peasant’s Voice to Landowners by John Denson of Waterbeach (Cambridge Record Society, 1991). This is a collection of letters sent to local newspapers by Denson, which were subsequently gathered into a pamphlet with additional facts and opinions. The letters are accompanied by a history of Waterbeach originally published in 1795. Parson Woodforde’s diaries provide numerous accounts of work and life in a rural village in Norfolk. For instance, when he describes employing a rat-catcher in 1782: Cobb of Mattishall, a Rat-Catcher came to my House this morning by Order, and I engaged with him for to kill all my Rats at one Guinea Per Annum and likewise kill all my Mice He is to come as often as there is an Occasion for him – And to be kept in Victuals and drink. Norfolk-born George Edwards (1850-1933) rose from a life of poverty to become a farm workers’ union pioneer, an MP, and be granted a knighthood. In his autobiography, From Crow-scaring to Westminster (London, 1922) he describes how, as a boy of six, he went to work for a shilling a week scaring crows: During the wheat cutting I made bonds for the binders.
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