The only good thing about having a fluey-throaty-coldy thing is that when you have gone past the unable-to-lift-aching-head-from-pillow-stage you can take advantage of the strangely emptied hours to read Very Long Books that under other circumstances might take months to finish. I’ve taken advantage of my not-yet-done-with-me cold to read several books connected with a novel I’m working on, and in particular the work of E P Thompson. I’ve galloped through Whigs and Hunters and enjoyed it enormously, and now I’m on Customs in Common, a collection of studies looking at how the customs and culture of working people resisted the march of what the ruling elite – and later historians - liked to give such names as enlightenment, reform, or progress.
I find Thompson a very refreshing read. It’s partly because it’s an antidote to the thing called Social and Economic History I was taught at school. It was not merely that this was dull – all those spinning jennies, mechanical threshers, and fattening pigs – but that I was troubled by some vague feeling that the whole thing was somehow fraudulent. In this history (as I remember it) everything was subsumed into the great scheme “progress”. Luddites and other rioters throughout the eighteenth century were silly fellows with no grasp of the significance of the events in which they were caught up. They rose up in the text books, burly chaps in corduroy trousers and big boots who moved and spoke very slowly. They pounded away ineffectually at the magnificent machines their superiors and betters had introduced and when they had done their backwards, blinkered worst those S and B, with patient benevolence, picked up the pieces and pressed on with their reforms.
It just didn’t ring true. I’d already done Roundheads and Cavaliers and the Battle of Blenheim. I knew there was always another side to the story. But not in the tale of Progress. Something was being left out.
It is thanks to historians like Thompson that that something has been put back in. His aim, he said, was “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. In his marvellous, passionate, often satirical, sometimes angry prose he demands that we look a bit closer, dig a bit deeper, ask a few more questions. Ask: is that the whole story?
Take the case of Mary Houghton, wife of John, who in 1788 was prosecuted for trespass when she entered a farmer’s fields to exercise gleaners’ rights. The lawyers argued about property rights, Mosaic law, the limits of charity, and she lost the case. Yawn. But Thompson wasn’t convinced. He suspected there was a lot more going on than simple trespass on a farmer’s land. He dug a bit deeper and a complex and fascinating story emerged, a tangle of relationships and interests, power and vulnerability, loss and gain, a story that takes us from Timworth to Bengal. And if that sounds like the blurb on the back of a novel, it’s deliberate.
Historian Peter King took up Thompson’s tale and dug deeper still. Between them they pieced together something of Mary Houghton’s life. She lived in the parish of Timworth, Suffolk, which was almost entirely owned by Earl Cornwallis. She was the daughter of a local husbandman. In 1762 she had an illegitimate daughter. Two months later she married John Houghton, a shoemaker with dissenting connections from a neighbouring village. Through a small property owned by Mary’s father the couple had access to a number of common rights, such as pasture. They must have made enough to live on as they paid at least one rate and did not draw parish funds.
Then they made the fatal mistake of blocking Cornwallis’s enclosure plans. The court case followed; the legal costs ruined them. They fell into debt and were forced to sell their property. It was purchased by Cornwallis. The Houghtons lost everything: their land, their common rights and their home, which Cornwallis demolished as part of his enclosing programme. The last we hear of Mary is that she is a widow living on the parish. As for Cornwallis, as Governor General of Bengal he went on to impose on India the same pattern of property rights and ownership that resulted in the ruin of the Houghtons with, in Sir Charles Metcalfe’s words, the destruction of “hundreds and thousands of proprietors”.
Mary Houghton. What couldn’t an artist make of her! The novelist could give her madness, genius, illness, lovers, disappointing sons or beautiful daughters (though I don’t think such wild embellishments necessary). The painter could portray her as the Amazonian leader of rebellion marching at the head of her sisters to assert their rights in the land. The quilt maker could pay tribute with an ear of corn on a square tucked away in a harvest pattern. For Mary Houghton’s is a great story, and it is thanks to E P Thompson that we have it.