Old Lakeland: a Golden Age Ideal

Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


J. D. Marshall has argued that Wordsworth erred egregiously in calling the customary tenant a ‘statesman’.1 This term was rarely used in parish registers in Cumbria, before the late eighteenth century, to describe land occupiers who were generally regarded as ‘yeomen’ or ‘husbandmen’. The holder of a customary estate of inheritance, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was quite content to call himself a ‘yeoman’.2 He even considered this ‘feudal’ name a mark of respect. Marshall has argued that late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century travel writers, like John Housman and William Wordsworth (the poet), were largely responsible for the word’s vogue, in the early Victorian Age among prosperous middle-class professionals, industrialists, and tenant farmers, who were searching for their roots in a glorious past.3 His claims make it necessary for the student of Golden Age ideas to consider carefully the poet’s interpretation of rural ‘facts’, on the one hand, and the relationship between reading, writing and reality, on the other. Marshall’s argument, however, is weakened by his lack of evidence, and the several concessions which he makes to alternative views of the topic. He admits, for example, that etymologically and geographically regarded, the origins and growth of the word ‘statesman’ are both obscure and ambiguous.


Industrial Revolution Lake District Guide Book Lake County Border County 
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  1. 1.
    J. D. Marshall, ‘“Statesmen” in Cumbria: the Vicissitudes of an Expression’, CW2, 62 (1972), pp. 248–73.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    ‘Isaac Dobson’, for example, ‘who founded one of the great cotton-spinning firms of Lancashire, was the youngest child of an old yeoman family, established in Westmorland since the fourteenth century’. (P. Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century (1961 edn), pp. 371–2.) Likewise, Issac Wilkinson, the father of the famous iron master John Wilkinson, ‘was a Lake District farmer who became the foreman of a neighbouring iron works at 12s. a week’ (ibid., p. 372).Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    C. M. L. Bouch, Prelates and People of the Lake Counties (1948), p. 353.Google Scholar
  4. 18.
    Wordsworth’s Description of the Scenery of the Lakes was written as an anonymous introduction to the series of drawings by his acquaintance Joseph Wilkinson, whose work, Select Views of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire, appeared in 1810. Wordsworth’s text was probably written between mid-June and early November 1809. See J. O. Hayden (ed.), William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 9.Google Scholar
  5. 20.
    C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, A Short Economic and Social History of the Lake Counties 1500–1830 (1961), p. 95.Google Scholar
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    T. W. Thompson, Wordsworth’s Hawkshead (1970), p. 80. Cf. p. 81.Google Scholar
  7. 31.
    W. Wordsworth, ‘Preface to’ Lyrical Ballads (1802) in J. O. Hayden, William Wordsworth. The Poems (1977), Vol. 1, p. 867.Google Scholar
  8. 32.
    A. L. Becker, ‘Text Building, Epistemology, and Aesthetics in Javanese Shadow Theatre’, in A. L. Becker and A. Yengoyan (eds), The Imagination of Reality (Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1979), p. 236.Google Scholar
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    P. Mantoux, op. cit., p. 137 incl. n. 1. Cf. G. E. Mingay, English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 88: ‘“Yeoman” might indicate a freeholder, but just as well a copyholder or leaseholder whose interest in the land was more than an annual tenancy but less than a freehold.’Google Scholar
  10. 37.
    R. Williams, The Long Revolution (1961), pp. 120–31. In this regard it is interesting to note that my father, in 1963, was described on my English birth-certificate as a ‘journeyman’ electrician and not as a ‘tradesman’ which was the more current term for a skilled worker.Google Scholar
  11. 38.
    G. E. Mingay, op. cit., p. 89. Cf. pp. 87–9. Richard Ferguson, the original editor of The Victoria County History of Cumberland, wrote, in 1894, that: ‘In Westmorland and Cumberland … proprietors are called “estatesmen” or “statesmen”. In these two counties a “yeoman” is used only of a horse soldier, or by a lawyer.’ R. S. Ferguson, A History of Westmorland (1894), p. 291, n. 1.Google Scholar
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    Cf. C. Moor, ‘The Old Statesman Families of Irton, Cumberland’, CW2, 10 (1910), p. 148.Google Scholar
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    Marshall also refers to the statesmen as a self-sufficient ‘peasantry’, working within the constraints of a ‘subsistence economy’. Many statesmen, however, were involved in the highly profitable sheep and cattle trade in the Lake District; and ‘even the very modestly placed yeomen had a chance of forming a surplus of grain for sale’. In spite of this tension in his argument, Marshall concludes that ‘the yeoman or husbandman’ belonged to a ‘basic or subsistence economy [which] demanded that he should be a mixed farmer, growing his own food and selling any surplus, just as he grew his own hemp and flax. His domestic organisation and farm work [therefore] rested upon family labour’. J. D. Marshall, ‘The Domestic Economy of the Lakeland Yeoman, 1660–1749’, CW2, 73, (1973), pp. 196–8, 212 and 199–200.Google Scholar
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    W. Wordsworth, A Guide Through the District of the Lakes, 5th edn (1835) in J. O. Hayden (ed.), William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (1988), pp. 38–9 and 60–1; cf. too pp. 18, 33–7.Google Scholar
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    Cf. J. Lucas, England and Englishness (1990), p. 135. Professor Lucas would disagree with my interpretation of the word ‘peasantry’, but I have culled the quotations from his book it seems only fair to acknowledge him as my source.Google Scholar
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    See the copy of Bewick’s engraving in Kenneth MacLean, Agrarian Age: a Background for Wordsworth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 47, Plate 6: ‘A Bold Peasantry’.Google Scholar
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    William Wordsworth quoted in Jared Curtis (ed.), The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (Bristol Classical Press, 1993), p. 20. Re. Westmorland, John Housman observed, in 1800, that: ‘Flax and hemp are now rarely seen in this county, though, fifty years ago, they were sown by almost every cottager and statesman’ (idem, op. cit., pp. 98–9).Google Scholar
  19. 51.
    E. J. Evans and J. V. Beckett, ‘Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness’, in Joan Thirsk (ed.), AHEW, V, 1640–1750, Pt i, Regional Farming Systems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 29.Google Scholar
  20. 53.
    W. Wordsworth, ibid., l. 337 in J. O. Hayden, ibid., Vol. 1, p. 87. Thomas Gray mentions, with regards to the Kent River, ‘the thumping of huge hammers at an iron forge not far distant’. See his Journal entry, dated 9 October 1769, reprinted in Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium 1660–1886: the Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (ed. by Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge) (André Deutsch, 1985), doc. 54. See too W. Wordsworth, The Prelude (Text of 1805), Bk 8, ll. 498–510. pp. 139–40.Google Scholar
  21. 55.
    Cf. G. E. Mingay, English Landed Society (1963), p. 98. ‘Within half a mile of Carlisle’, wrote John Housman in the early 1790s, land ‘is [let] from 3L. to 5L.10s. per acre. In old enclosures, and pretty good soils at a greater distance, from 1L. to about 2L.10s.’ ‘40 years ago’, adds William Hutchinson, ‘land which did not rent for more than 8s. per acre’ was now let ‘for 2L. to 3L.10s. per acre. “It was at that period in common field”’. W. Hutchinson, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 678.Google Scholar
  22. 59.
    F. M. L. Thompson, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (1963), pp. 114–17. Thompson used John Bateman’s figures from the New Domesday Books of 1873 for his different tables of the Greater Gentry, Squires, and Small Landowners in England. For the 1883 edition see:Google Scholar
  23. John Bateman, The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland (Intro. by David Spring) (Leicester University Press [Reprints], 1971). Re. the greater gentry, the counties of Lancashire (12 per cent), Westmorland (11 per cent), and Cumberland (10 per cent) were all considerably below the national average of 17 per cent. Re. the smallest estates of 1 to 100 acres, we find Cumberland (16 per cent), Lancashire (18 per cent), and Westmorland (16 per cent) were all above the national average of 12 per cent. Re. other groups of small landowners, we find estates of 100 to 300 acres were more common in Cumberland (22 per cent) and Westmorland (18 per cent) than in Lancashire (12 per cent), which was just below the national average of 12.5 per cent. Estates of 300 to 1000 acres were also more common in Cumberland (16 per cent) and Westmorland (16 per cent) than Lancashire (13 per cent), which fell just short of the national average of 14 per cent. These figures suggest that the Lake Counties were well endowed with squires and wealthy yeomen, whose social and economic interests were closely connected with the smaller landowners rather than a demographically scarce peerage and gentry. Thompson, for example, concluded that ‘Cumberland and Westmorland formed a region in which the more genuinely agricultural yeomen groups were strong, although in Westmorland their independence of the higher orders[, in 1873,] was limited by the presence of an above average quota of great estates [that is 300 to 1000 acres]’ (ibid., p. 118).Google Scholar
  24. 65.
    J. D. Marshall, ‘Some Aspects of the Social History of 19th-Century Cumbria: (II) Crime, Police, Morals and the Countryman’, CW2, 70 (1970), pp. 222–3; cf. pp. 233–4.Google Scholar
  25. 67.
    Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal gives several examples of the Wordsworths’ old-fashioned hospitality and alms-giving to the vagrants who came to their door or whom they met on the public roads. We shall see later that this paternal attitude was part of the ‘moral economy’ of Old Lakeland, which saw public relief as a customary right of the poor no less than a traditional duty of the rich. On the other hand, Dorothy and her brother were also aware of the reckless character of many travellers and vagrants. D. Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 2, 3, 9–10, 12, 31, 52, 95, passim. Cf. too J. Housman, op. cit., p. 105.Google Scholar
  26. 71.
    T. W. Thompson, op. cit., p. 281. Wordsworth himself wrote of the neighbourliness of the farming classes in a footnote to the third edition of his famous guide book to the Lakes. The note may have provided a model for T. W. Thompson’s own remarks about Hawkshead in the poet’s childhood. ‘One of the most pleasing characteristics of manners in secluded and thinly-populated districts, is a sense of the degree in which human happiness and comfort are dependent on the contingency of neighbourhood. This is implied by a rhyming adage common here, “Friends are far, when neighbours are nar” (near). This mutual helpfulness is not confined to out-of-doors work; but is ready upon all occasions. Formerly, if a person became sick, especially the mistress of a family, it was usual for those of the neighbours who were more particularly connected with the party by amicable offices, to visit the house, carrying a present; this practice, which is by no means obsolete, is called owning the family, and is regarded as a pledge of a disposition to be otherwise serviceable in a time of disability and distress.’ W. Wordsworth, Guide to the Lakes, 5th edn (ed. by E. De Selincourt) (London: Henry Frowde, 1906), p. 67, n. 1.Google Scholar
  27. 74.
    F. M. Eden, The State of the Poor ([Facsimile of the 1797 edition] London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd, 1966), Vol. 2, pp. 57–8. The passage from Eden’s book might also remind the reader of George Crabbe’s famous description of the typical poor house in the Rural South — with ‘The moping idiot and the madman gay’. Wordsworth, however, objected to these lines on agrarian grounds. In a letter to John Wilson, dated 7 June 1802, he wrote (that): ‘Persons in the lower classes of society have little or nothing [of] this [feeling of “loathing or disgust … at the sight of an Idiot”]: if an Idiot is born in a poor man’s house, it must be taken car[e of] and cannot be boarded out, as it would be by gentle folks, or sent [to a] public or private receptacle for such unfortunate beings’. Poor people ‘seeing frequently among their neighbours such objects, easily [forget what]ever there is of natural disgust about them, and have t[h]erefore a sane state, so that without pain or suffering they [perform] their duties towards them’.Google Scholar
  28. Perhaps he was thinking of the idiot son of Willy Park, a statesman who lived near the Wordsworths at Rydal. G. Crabbe, ‘The Village’ (1783) in W. H. Auden and N. H. Pearson (eds), The Portable Romantic Poets: Blake to Poe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 70.Google Scholar
  29. William Wordsworth to John Wilson, letter quoted in A. G. Hill (ed.), Letters of William Wordsworth. A New Selection (1984), p. 53. See the next paragraph for more information about the Park family.Google Scholar
  30. 75.
    William Wordsworth to Thomas Poole, letter dated 9 April 1801, in E. De Selincourt, The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Volume I, The Early Years 1787–1805, 2nd rev. edn (1967) [= Vol. 1], p. 266.Google Scholar
  31. 76.
    William Wordsworth to Richard Sharp, letter dated Grasmere, 13 April 1808, in E. De Selincourt (ed.), The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Volume II, The Middle Years, Part I, 1806–1811, 2nd rev. edn (1969) [= Vol. 2], p. 211.Google Scholar
  32. 82.
    Cf. P. Deane, The First Industrial Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), pp. 11–13.Google Scholar
  33. 84.
    R. W. Emerson, English Traits (1956), in M. Van Doren (ed.), The Portable Emerson (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 403. Perhaps he was thinking of the Yorker family of Lowther Parish in Westmorland, whose forebears came to England with William the Conqueror, and had ‘been park-keepers at Lowther upwards of 300 years’ (W. Parson and W. White, op. cit., p. 594). Or maybe he had heard of the Tyson family of Ravenglass in Cumberland, who farmed the main stock of Lord Muncaster’s famous breed of Herdwick Sheep. Their forebears were said to ‘have lived in this sequestered spot above four hundred years’ (J. Bailey and G. Culley, op. cit., p. 16). Unfortunately, I have not found any evidence that such families and events were discussed in Emerson’s conversations with Wordsworth in 1833 and 1848. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits (London: George G. Harrap and Co., n.d.), pp. 12–16 (re. Emerson’s visit to Rydal Mount on 28 August 1833);Google Scholar
  34. and E. M. Tilton (ed.), The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 7 (1807–44) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 51–2 (editor’s note re. Emerson’s visit to Wordsworth’s home in late February, 1848).Google Scholar
  35. 88.
    A. Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), passim; idem, The Culture of Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), esp. Ch. 1; idem, A Guide to English Historical Records (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), passim; and idem, ‘The Myth of the Peasantry; Family and Economy in a Northern Parish’, in R. M. Smith (ed.), Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 333–49. For a recent debate over the methods and sources used by Macfarlane, see: PP, No. 146 Feb. (1995): ‘Debate: the Family Land-Bond in England: Comment’ by R. W. Hoyle, pp. 151–73; and ‘Reply’ by Govind Sreenivasan, pp. 174–87.Google Scholar
  36. 89.
    C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, op. cit., pp. 331–2. A similar conclusion was reached by Dr Charles Moor in his major study of the statesmen families of Irton in Cumberland between c.1575 and 1775, which he took to be fairly representative of other parishes in the area. By carefully listing the names of statesmen, who had left wills and inventories for the probate register, he found considerable evidence that several of the yeomen families involved had moved ‘from one part of the parish to another’. Very few, indeed, were ‘found always in the same place’ and almost all of the specific locations studied showed ‘a succession of different names’. He therefore concluded ‘that their families cannot be clearly traced through two centuries without reference to the neighbouring parishes. If they moved at all, it is unlikely that they confined their removals within the borders of one parish’Charles Moor, ‘The Old Statesmen Families of Irton, Cumberland’, CW2, 10 (1910), pp. 148 and 195–8. On the other hand, even William Blamire, a hard-headed advocate of enclosure, remarked candidly that: ‘A considerable portion of the property’ in Cumberland and Westmorland, ‘is copyhold, and I have frequently seen admittances from the time of Queen Elizabeth in the same family name’. See the ‘Select Committee on Agriculture with Minutes of Evidence’, BPP, 5 (1833), p. 309.Google Scholar
  37. 92.
    The main issues are discussed in the following books and articles: T. S. Ashton, The Early Industrial Revolution 1760–1850 (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), passim. J. V. Beckett, ‘English Landownership in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: the Debate and the Problems’, in loc. cit., pp. 567–81. Idem, ‘The Decline of the Small Landowner in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England: Some Regional Considerations’, loc. cit., pp. 97–111.Google Scholar
  38. J. H. Clapham, An Economic History of Modern Britain: the Early Railway Age: 1820–1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1967, passim.Google Scholar
  39. C. Clay, ‘Landlords and Estate Management in England’, in J. Thirsk (ed.), AHEW, 5, 1640–1750, Pt II, Agrarian Change (1985), Ch. 14. P. Deane, op. cit., passim. P. Mantoux, op. cit., Ch. 3.Google Scholar
  40. G. E. Mingay, ‘The Size of Farms in the Eighteenth Century’, ECHR, 2nd ser. 14, No. 3 (1962), pp. 469–88.Google Scholar
  41. J. H. Porter, ‘The Development of Rural Society’, in G. E. Mingay (ed.), AHEW, 6, 1750–1850 (1989), Ch. 9. The general rate and size of the small holders’ decline is discussed in works dealing with the land tax assessments. See the second article mentioned by Beckett;Google Scholar
  42. E. Davies, ‘The Small Landowner, 1780–1832, in light of the Land Tax Assessments’, ECHR, 1 (1929), pp. 87–113;Google Scholar
  43. G. E. Mingay, ‘The Land Tax Assessment and the Small Landowner’, ECHR, 2nd ser.. 17. No. 2 (1964), pp. 381–8;Google Scholar
  44. and the celebrated lectures on the topic by A. H. Johnson, The Disappearance of the Small Landowner (1910), passim.Google Scholar
  45. 93.
    Cf. D. Simpson, Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination. The Poetry of Displacement (1987), p. 87.Google Scholar
  46. 94.
    J. D. Marshall and C. A. Dyhouse, ‘Social Transition in Kendal and Westmorland, c. 1760–1860’, NH, 12 (1976), p. 140 incl. n. 62.Google Scholar
  47. 106.
    E. P. Thompson, op. cit., pp. 242–4. According to Karl Marx, ‘The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, his separation from the soil, is the basis of the whole process [of primitive accumulation of capital in the formative years of urban and industrial society]’. Nevertheless, he wrongly concluded that the process received its ‘classical form’ in the Enclosure Movement in England. Karl Marx, extract from Das Kapital (1867), Vol. II reprinted in T. B. Bottomore and M. Rubel (eds), Karl Marx. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (tr. by T. B. Bottomore), (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), Part Three, Ch. 1, ‘The Origins and Development of Capitalism’, pp. 142–51 (esp. pp. 144–5).Google Scholar
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    W. H. R. Curtler, The Enclosure and Redistribution of our Land (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920), p. 228.Google Scholar
  49. 115.
    Figures taken from B. R. Mitchell, Abstract of British Historical Statistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 235.Google Scholar
  50. 119.
    C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, op. cit., pp. 236–7. Cf. too the account of the death and birth rates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries given by M. W. Flinn, Origins of the Industrial Revolution (London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1966), Ch. 2.Google Scholar
  51. 133.
    R. S. Ferguson, A History of Westmorland (1894), p. 167.Google Scholar
  52. 140.
    C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, ibid., p. 237; C. M. L. Bouch, op. cit., p. 343; and G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History: a Survey of Six Centuries [from] Chaucer to Queen Victoria (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1942), p. 375 n. 1.Google Scholar

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