The 18th Century

The 18th Century: Peaceful Change, Corruption, and Social Conscience

In the early years of the 18th century Hampshire towns were in decline: Daniel Defoe, writing of Winchester in c. 1720, described the city as a place of no trade, and Southampton as ‘a truly ancient town dying with age’. Portsmouth (and presumably he had not heard of the corruption of the Corporation), he found flourishing, taking note, however, of Camden’s verdict that ‘Portsmouth flourished in time of war but not in time of peace’. He was a townsman; the New Forest horrified him with its wasted and undeveloped land, and unlike later travellers through the county, particularly Arthur Young, William Marshall and Charles Vancouver, he was not really interested in the many agricultural changes that were taking place and bringing some measure of prosperity to Hampshire farmers, for as the century progressed the agriculture of the county was improved. An important part of this change was the enclosure movement, enclosures for improvement, not just for sheep-farming as they had been in the Tudor period; and carried out by mutual consent, by Act of Parliament or illegally. The great open fields of medieval Hampshire gradually disappeared, and small farmers were often swallowed up by richer landlords, for enclosure could be an expensive process. Crops and stocks changed, and machinery was introduced into a way of life which had relied almost entirely on the labour of men’s hands. One of the earliest farmers to improve his crops and to vary them was Edward Lisle of Crux Easton, in the north of Hampshire, who grew turnips and new grains, rape grass, clover, and sanfoin, and who used malt dust as a fertiliser, but it appears to have been the south which was enclosed before the rest of the county. Crown lands there were in poor condition, and in the New Forest there were too many deer and not enough good timber for the Royal Navy. Even in Vancouver’s time, however (c. 1817), a large area around Portsmouth still preserved the open three-field system, though much of the fallow was being used for market gardening. Roots were being grown everywhere, turnips, swedes and kohl-rabi, and regional specialities included the hops of the Alton-Farnham area, and cabbages grown for the prevention of scurvy amongst patients in the Royal Naval hospital founded at Haslar in 1744.

Agricultural implements changed, too, but only very wealthy landlords could afford the new threshing mills Vancouver noted at Abbotstone, Twyford and Tichborne. There were almost as many varieties of plough as there were varieties of Hampshire land, and there was no indigenous breed of cattle. Special milking varieties were introduced very slowly: when Jane Austen was. a child her father kept five Alderney cows at Steventon. Vancouver found Guernsey cattle at Lymington and Milford, and in 1817 an Ovington farmer advertised a few Alderney cows for sale in the Hampshire Chronicle. Hampshire horses were not considered to be very good, but pigs were improved by cross-breeding; as far as sheep were concerned the county had been divided into two sections at the villages of East and West Meon, but the small heath sheep of the west disappeared and the Southdown flocks from the east spread along the chalk hills. Prominent owners like Sir Henry Tichborne and Thomas Miller owned famous flocks.

All these changes in agriculture were accompanied by another quiet revolution, the changes in transport, which made it possible for surplus crops and stock bred for a market to be moved from producer to consumer with increasing rapidity. Change came first to roads and to bridges, and there were attempts to provide canals, though Hampshire was never a canal county. Many of the bridges over the Test were built or rebuilt in the late 18th century, and the county justices spent money regularly on those bridges which served county traffic, Redbridge, Fordingbridge, Christchurch, Ringwood, and Stockbridge. Improvements to main roads were usually financed by money collected at tollgates and turnpikes set up under a long series of Acts of Parlia­ment, and a number of these rather picturesque toll houses survive. In towns, Paving Commissioners, also set up under Acts of Parliament, slowly improved local roads, made pavements, licensed sedan chairs and hackney carriages, and controlled alterations to all house frontages, including the making of bow windows.

There were still the occasional highwaymen, like the Golden Farmer of northern Hampshire, but facilities for travellers improved greatly as the century continued, and many coaching inns like the Black Swan, the White Hart, and the George in Winchester, the Dolphin in Southampton, and the George at Portsmouth became nationally famous. Even small towns were linked by regular services, and a Guide to Coaches, published in 1753, gives a long list of towns in alphabetical order with the names of the London inns from which their services started. The first regular coach service from Southampton to London had begun in 1720, and the Southampton Guide of 1774 describes the many services available to the travelling public, setting out usually under ‘Mr. Rogers” direction to London via Hook and Holborn, to Lymington, and to Gosport and Salisbury. Coach travel was expensive and the travelling poor went on foot, by horse, or by carriers’ wagon. Amongst the most successful Hampshire carriers were the Waidrons of Winchester and the Asletts and Harpers of Southampton; Collyer’s ‘Reading Wagons’ took goods across the county border from Southamp­ton on to Reading, and then to Birmingham. Letters could be carried by the coaches of the Royal Mail from about 1784 onwards, and the postage on a letter from Southampton to London was fourpence. By 1790 the most luxurious public vehicle on the Hampshire roads was Collyer’s ‘Flying Machine on steel springs, with a guard’, which left the Star inn at Southampton every weekday at 5 a.m., for The Belle Savage on Ludgate Hill. Some members of Gilbert White’s family were very interested in travelling; a nephew went in the first carriage which travelled up Stonor Hill on the new Petersfield road in 1826, and a great nephew, the diarist, Edmund Yalden White, curate of Crondall, recorded the death of ‘Mr. Collyer, the Great Coach Proprietor’ in 1836. Faster speeds brought their inevitable increase in traffic accidents: the Alton coach overturned on 24 July 1823 because one horse had staggers, and the day after the Birmingham coach overturned with fatal results when a wheel came off.

Map 11 Winchester as a Coaching Centre
Map 11 Winchester as a Coaching Centre

It was unfortunate that these improvements, the so-called peaceful revolution in Hampshire agriculture and transport, brought prosperity to only a few; the situation of the mass of the people was often miserable and poverty-stricken, and made worse by political corruption.

Most Hampshire men had found it easy to accept the peaceful accession of George I, for the county had had enough of civil war and change by violent political revolution. In 1717 the Grand Jury of Hampshire presented the Warden, Fellows, Master, Usher and Children of Winchester College for their known disaffection and corruption of manners; the school was rightly suspected of Jacobite leanings. The number of commoner boys was only 12, for county gentlemen were hesitating to send their sons to such a notorious place, and later on there were county petitions drawn up ‘against’ the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 and the French Revolution. It was easier to secure allegiance for a cause through men’s pockets than by appealing to their principles.

There is plenty of evidence for the extent of political corruption in 18th-century Hampshire. In the town, the right to vote was restricted to a small number of freemen, whose votes could be bought and sold, and who were subject, if they were tradesmen, to the political pressures of their most important customers. In 1705 the then mayor of Winchester, John Penton, managed to get the Common Assembly to agree to a resolution that in future freemen were to be chosen only at the November assembly, on pain of the mayor being fined £30 for such transgression; but this reform did not last, and the two local dukes, Bolton (of Abbotstone and Hackwood) and Chandos (from Avington Park) managed the Corporation in their own interests until 1835. In Portsmouth, the Corporation was subject to pressure from the Admiralty, and reform was achieved by the rather dubious efforts of the Carter family. In 1750, John Carter, a wealthy dissenter, secured at a meeting in his own home the election of 62 burgesses, of whom 18 were children, including Carter’s own two sons, aged eight and five. There was trouble about this, and the Admiralty party applied economic pressure by threatening to withdraw naval contracts, but from 1782 onwards the Carter family, ruled the town and corruption died away; another, result, eventually, was the emergence of the family (as Bonham-Carters) as a major political influence in national affairs. In Southampton the Corporation evolved a method .of prevent­ing change and helping its finances by creating burgesses, men of fortune from the surrounding countryside, who were prepared to give donations to local causes as well as to the Corporation’s funds direct. This apparently lessened the supply of ‘unsuitable’ parliamen­tary candidates and the chances of disputed elections, but Southampton was very corrupt. Anthony Henley, one of the two members of parliament in 1733, was asked by his constituents to vote against Walpole’s Excise Bill, and replied to their letter in no uncertain terms. . . ‘You know what I know very well, that I bought you. . . and I know what perhaps you think I don’t know, you are now selling yourselves to somebody else. And I know, what you don’t know, that I am buying another borough’. Peter Delmé, M.P. in 1747, who had bought the Cams estate near Fareham, paid £500 to become a freeman of Southampton. Amongst the smaller Hampshire towns Stockbridge was notorious. By 1689, a vote there cost between four and six guineas: by 1784 it was established as an ‘open borough’, that is, not one in the pocket of some great lord, but one where anyone could get elected provided be paid the Bailiff a sum larger than that of his opponents. The general election of 1790 was particularly notorious, and evidence given before a Select Committee of the House of Commons revealed that the price per vote was 70 guineas to each elector. In the event, a Bill proposed to prevent bribery and corrup­tion in Stockbridge never became law, and by 1816 the electors were still expecting £60 a vote, and a successful candidate in 1831 in fact paid £1,000 for his seat.

Hampshire towns were not the only seats of bribery and corruption. Until 1884, when Gladstone brought in single-member constituencies, the county returned two members (the old Knights of the Shires) chosen by Hampshire freemen at a kind of election in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Whoever brought the greater number of supporters won the day: county members were inevitably ‘court nominees’, as a writer in the Victoria County History describes them: in 1780 ‘anyone may be chosen for Hampshire that the government pleases without trouble or expense’.

Yet it was not because men were without social consciences that political life in  Hampshire was so corrupt. It was a malaise of the age. Life was still rough and harsh for many people, to be improved only by the possession of money. Social change came with economic change in the county, but many of the most important economic changes brought misery for ordinary people, and it was not until the last quarter of the century that Hampshire towns began once more to prosper. Even then, some of this prosperity was false, brought about by the long wars with France which prevented the import of cheap food, encouraged the industries of war, and eventually prepared a recipe for social disaster by a series of repressive Acts of Parliament which forbade men to assemble in public meetings, forbade the formation of trade unions, censored the press, and restricted the freedom of family life for the poor and needy. Recruiting for the war with France by press gang and with men under the influence of drink was usual; the army and the navy continued (until 1884) to discipline its rank and file by flogging, and there were serious mutinies and desertions. When Anson began his voyage round the world from Portsmouth in 1740 the authorities had to make up his numbers with 500 invalids, out-pensioners from Chelsea, and of these more than half who had the strength to walk out of the town deserted. The great mutiny at Spithead in 1797 was brought about by very real grievances: poor pay and insufficient food.

By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century standards of living in the Hampshire countryside were poor, and much criticised by one of the most vehement radicals of the time, William Cobbett (1763-1835), journalist, politician and unsuccessful farmer, the self-taught son of a farm labourer. Like Defoe, Cobbett rode all over Hampshire, but unlike the earlier writer be was a countryman born and bred, and his Rural Rides are essential reading for anyone interested in this period of Hampshire history. He was a defender of the rights of the people, the champion of the English yeoman. He disliked paper money, and the Hampshire family who manufactured it, ‘Squire Portal of Rag Castle’; he suspected absentee landlords, amongst them the Ogles of Worthy Park, and was suspicious, too, of the Baring family because he felt that they probably used their money to apply political pressures disguised as social relief. He disliked the first Duke of Wellington, in many ways an admirable landlord; though as a farmer himself at Botley Cobbett was a failure. The labouring classes viewed with increasing anxiety the important changes which made up the agricultural revolution, and Cobbett urged them on. In 1830 there were, widespread agricultural riots in the county, followed by famous trials, and some men were hung and many more transported.

Cobbett edited a famous newspaper, The Political Register, and in the development of Hampshire’s social conscience a new phenomenon, the local newspaper, played a fair part. Local papers with long histories, and still in existence, include the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, established in Salisbury in 1729, and the Hampshire Chronicle, the county newspaper, first printed in Southampton in 1772 but published from 1778 in Winchester. Such papers were rarely sensational or lurid, even when reporting serious crime, like the affair of Jack the Painter who set fire to Portsmouth Dockyard in 1776 because he was in sympathy with the American revolution. The painter’s body hung in chains on Portsmouth front, and public executions were the order of the day. Women convicted of poisoning their husbands were still burnt alive, and in 1784 the execution of Mary Bayley, who was burnt at the stake about a mile out of Winchester on the Newbury road, attracted a vast crowd of spectators.

It was a rough, harsh world, but a society which produced in 1736 the first county hospital set up outside London, innumerable village schools and individuals who gave large sums to charitable causes, a society which cared for prisoners of war, and even refugee Papist priests, was neither uncaring nor uncivilised. The Hampshire County hospital was founded by Alured Clarke, a Canon of the Cathedral, and though the Church in the 18th century has been much criticised, it was never wholly indifferent to the needs of its people. Gilbert White of Selborne (1720-93) was a good clergyman as well as a great naturalist, and even Philip Williams, absentee rector of Compton from 1781 to 1830, took care to arrange for the work of his parish.

There was probably never a time when 18th-century ‘jobbery and snobbery’ were the only contributions of the Hampshire gentry to local society, and though they can be criticised, the architectural inheritance of the county would be the poorer today had it not been for their good taste and learning. This is not the place to list Hampshire’s ‘stately homes’, but Avington Park, The Vyne, and Hale Park are splendid examples, and on the smaller scale, Houghton Lodge is a kind of early Brighton Pavilion. The old town halls of Whitchurch, Winchester and Stockbridge and the smaller buildings of some of Hampshire’s towns – Odiham, Bishop’s Waltham, and Airesford, for example – show how the 18th-century style, so varied in application, spread, and shops of merchants and tradesmen have an elegance and simplicity never surpassed. In Southampton and Winchester the vast plate glass window of the 19th century was an architectural disaster, but there is still much to be admired at first-floor level. No. 105 Winchester High Street, now a bank, was designed by an unknown architect for a Hamp­shire apothecary in 1772; Minster House, in the same city was built as a bank; the offices of the Hampshire Chronicle still retain the dignity of their time; and Robert Mudie’s charming views of c. 1840 show how much the county