The good deed of Rev Bowles of Bremhill

In December 1830 a number of congratulatory newspaper articles were published in the press across southern England, in praise of the esteemed vicar of Bremhill, Rev. William Lisle Bowles, who had considerably raised the wages he paid to his agricultural workers.  According to reports, local farmers were inspired by the good clergyman, including no less a personage than Lord Lansdowne, and had all followed suit.  ‘We hope’, said a Bath paper, ‘the example will be followed by every parish through the Kingdom’

It was on the face of it a wonderfully generous move by a benevolent man concerned by a depression in wages, but there were other factors at play. The summer of 1830 had been an eventful one across much of southern and eastern England. Farm labourers had resorted to violent protest against agricultural mechanisation and a reduction of wages. Amongst the more affluent classes, some feared it would end in revolution.  

By the end of November, the agitation had arrived in Wiltshire, and local magistrates, including no doubt Rev. Bowles, were on high alert. On 29 November 1830, the protest reached Christian Malford, but the ‘mob’ was disbanded without violence when local magistrates promised wages would be increased. On the very same day, the farmers of Bremhill, Wick, Foxham, Spirthill, Tytherton and Studley met and agreed to raise wages. They also nominated several local representatives, such as ‘Mr Gingell’ and ‘Mr Pegler’, to ensure it was carried out. At what point Bowles had already taken the decision is not recorded, but it is unlikely local farmers would have acted in this way without this previous sanction.

It is not possible to deconstruct Bowles’s motives fully. It may be a little harsh to point it out, but he only employed one able-bodied adult labourer, and it is not likely to have caused him any financial hardship.   However, the move undoubtedly gave the labourers some relief, at least in the short term. It may also have diffused a dangerous mix of circumstances which would otherwise have caused a local riot. Yet, some were concerned about raising wages under the threat of intimidation and what this meant for the future. Unless the move was made comprehensively across a parish, there was also the prospect of vastly different wages being paid by different farmers.   Some historians believe the events that year were such a shock to the establishment that they ushered in the dreaded workhouse system, of Oliver Twist fame, in 1834. However, in the country, the years which followed brought good harvests, reducing the cost of food (for a while). But wages remained low, and labourers of Bremhill remained highly economically vulnerable. Something which was to have consequences in the 1840s, and was to bring Bremhill to national attention. Watch this space.

contributed by Louise Ryland-Epton, researcher on the Bremhill history project