Robert Lee. Rural Society and the Anglican Clergy, 1815-1914: Encountering and Managing the Poor. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006. 235 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-202-7.
Reviewed by Eric Tenbus (Department of History, University of Central Missouri)
Published on H-Albion (March, 2008)
Losing the Rural Poor in Victorian Norfolk
This fascinating book examines the rural Anglican clergy's role in the steady distancing between the rural laboring poor and the Church of England from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the eve of the First World War. In his effort to "explore the social, cultural and political tensions in nineteenth-century rural communities, and to understand the part played by the Church of England clergy in creating, exacerbating or soothing those tensions," the author detects a significant part played by the clergy in cultivating anti-clericalism, a process that was, in part, the fault of the clergy who all too often in their various roles of authority in the parish aligned themselves with the local elite (p. ix). The long-term result was the marginalization and eventual alienation of the laboring poor vis-a-vis the established Church.
The focus of the study is Norfolk and Lee weaves an intriguing and vast web of characters to tell his story, much of it in their own words. In fact, one of the great strengths of the book is the incredible amount and variety of sources. The reader hears directly from the clergy faced with the sudden violence of the "Swing Riots" in 1830, those who found themselves struggling as Poor Law guardians in the wake of the New Poor Law in 1834, and those thrust into the local tensions following passage of the Education Act in 1870. In these and many other situations, the Anglican clergyman, as a principal authority figure in the community, was often intricately involved with the forces trying to prevent or implement the subsequent changes on the way. Lee writes, "The Anglican clergyman was central to the process of change…. [He] was not usually the instigator of change--though in the cases of enclosure and education he could often be its prime mover--but he was frequently its administrator" (p. 182). As the countryside tried to cope with the myriad of changes that nineteenth-century legislation brought, much of it perceived by the laboring poor as burdensome and invasive, the local clergyman was often perceived as the point man simply doing the bidding of the landowners and doing so for material benefit. Whether the issue was tithes, poor relief, poaching, footpaths, church pews, elementary education, or even the size of the local rectory, Lee effectively shows how the majority of clergy found themselves opposing the wishes and opinions of the rural poor, thus leading to a situation where "the Church of England lost contact with rural society and lost its relevance to the lives of the labouring poor" (p. 184).
Lee's chapter titled "Ranters and Radicals: Encountering Dissent" relates the often lively tale of how dissent and established church co-existed in rural Norfolk. First, he explores the connections between religious and political dissent. Using the number of meeting house applications for all nonconformist denominations from 1810 to 1851 as an indicator of the strength of dissent, the author reveals surges of applications in years close to those that experienced the greatest social unrest: 1816, 1822, 1830, and 1843. From this, Lee argues that perhaps dissent served as a second option when more traditional forms of protest failed. While he concedes that most clergymen viewed their local nonconformists benignly, Lee argues that many Anglican clergy looked suspiciously upon nonconformists, especially non-Methodists, precisely because their choice to attend services other than those in the local church was a political act in a country where there was no separation between the religious and political realms. For those clergy who acted upon these suspicions, such as the Hempstead vicar who convinced the landowner to withdraw permission for the construction of a chapel or the Freethorpe parson who physically knocked down the wall of a chapel under construction or the more subtle withdrawal from nonconformists of access to local charity, the message to the nonconformist laborer was clear: the clergyman stood with the Church of England, the Tory party, and the local elite.
The chapter on the New Poor Law discusses the ramifications of this utilitarian legislation on the local parish and the role of the clergy in the working of the new poor relief system, as well as other aspects of managing the poor. Although Lee shows that the actual number of Poor Law guardians who were clergy was less than 20 percent on average for the entire county between 1850 and 1910, he argues that popular perception placed a larger number of clergy into these roles than existed in reality and, thus, clergy suffered from guilt by association with this highly unpopular poor relief measure. At the heart of the rural popular resistance to this new way of managing the poor stood the notion that local and ancient custom had been replaced with a remote and dehumanizing authority that had removed the "poor's customary rights in relation to charity, poor relief, and common land" in return for an efficient, regulated, and punitive system (p. 100). Lee reveals that some clergymen questioned the efficacy of the new system verbally and in writing, but more often than not they "subordinated their private doubts and misgivings to the greater good of the rule of law and the preservation of the status quo" (p. 102).
According to Lee, guilt by association also marked the relationship between local parishes and clergymen who served as magistrates in managing law and order. As with the Poor Law guardians, the percentage of magistrates who were clergy dropped steadily in the nineteenth century, yet "clerical magistrates were seen to operate at the heart of a system that divided, dissembled, and discriminated" p. 114). The law and order example on the closing of footpaths and rights of way is particularly illuminating. While the number of footpath closure orders peaked early in the century and was associated with property enclosure, closures continued through the end of this study. Lee shows that the clergy initiated nearly 25 percent of the closures between 1790 and 1919; more importantly, many more clergy carried out closure orders in their role as county magistrates. Lee notes several interesting arguments used by clergy to close off customary footpaths, but most stated that the paths allowed immoral behavior near church grounds and implied that the "proximity of customary routes to rectory houses and gardens was no longer desirable," especially when such clerical residences were growing larger and fancier (p. 120). Again, the poor felt aggrieved by the loss of customary rights, and Lee argues the clergyman's participation in such disputes placed him in a drama that was growing increasingly politicized by such factors as the nascent trade union movement, which complained loudly of the loss of the idyllic, pre-enclosure golden age. When the pulpit remained silent on the inequities of the legal system, and the sense grew that clergy benefited materially from its workings, respect for the Church dropped and anti-clericalism continued to propagate.
In the chapter on education, Lee reveals the struggles the rural clergy experienced implementing and overseeing the evolving educational system, especially after the two monumental education acts in 1870 and 1902. While social control was indeed part of the Victorian education system, Lee's indictment of the Anglican clergy efforts in education is somewhat heavy-handed. The evolution of the educational system in Britain in the nineteenth century was a slow, tortuous process but attitudes changed over time. Those Anglicans promoting social control in the wake of the Swing Riots transformed into men (and women) advocating the obligation to educate those who were being enfranchised in 1867 and 1884 because of the responsibilities of participating in the democratic process or because they thought Germany's education system was surging ahead of Britain's. The author rightly acknowledges that parents had long represented an obstacle to the education of their children. This rang true whether the school was in rural Norfolk or central Manchester. Yet this fact is downplayed while the Church of England's efforts to control education, for example by keeping the curricula focused on religion, is emphasized and criticized. Whether it was for all the right reasons or not, at least the clergy were trying to educate the local children, even if just for a few years. Since the education system in Britain until 1870 was, in effect, a religious system, it almost seems anachronistic to censure the Church for pursuing these ends. Anglicans, Catholics, and many nonconformists desired to keep religion in education and even the new board schools were designed to allow nonsectarian religious instruction. That said, Lee's argument that the intrusion of the education system, to which the clergyman was intricately linked, into the local community often dovetailed with other antipathies toward outsider interference and clerical power is well founded and strengthens the book's overall message.
Lee makes ample use of helpful tables and figures that reflect a tremendous amount of archival research, and the book absolutely pulses with the voices of many diverse characters, making it a lively read. However, Lee's narrative would have benefited from a few more footnotes reminding the reader about the various and more obscure legislative acts referenced in the text, and a map of Norfolk showing the numerous communities mentioned would have pleased those readers less informed about the local geography. One final remark on what is overall a fine monograph is one that no doubt plagues most books that focus on one region but whose title indicates a broader sweep. The author does not extrapolate the findings in Norfolk out to English rural society as a whole. This leaves the reader asking whether similar experiences occurred in Cornwall or Yorkshire and if the same arguments would apply in areas outside Norfolk.
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Eric Tenbus. Review of Lee, Robert, Rural Society and the Anglican Clergy, 1815-1914: Encountering and Managing the Poor.
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