Halloween and the festival of All Hallows on the first of November are modern versions of the ancient celebration of Samhain; the Pagan day of remembering the people who once worked the land, and who now lie beneath the soil. Traditions change – the ‘trick or treat’ activities of kids owe more to the United States than to the prehistoric practices of the people who buried our ancestors in barrows and constructed mysterious monuments such as Avebury and Stonehenge, without leaving any written instructions telling us how to use them. But the seasons and the events associated with different times of the year show how much modern humans still respond to the natural changes in the countryside which were vital aspects of rural life thousands of years ago
Where the River Churn often flooded, it attracted Roman invaders – a mere two thousand years past – as a suitable location for a fort, and provided water for plumbing and sewage in the town: Corinium. It seems the local British Dobunni tribe decided not to make too much fuss, and carried on farming in a ‘live and let live’ relationship with the Romans. Undoubtedly there was mutual benefit in the arrangement.
Although the Roman town was equipped with all sorts of ‘mod-cons’ the locals weren’t so impressed by sanitation and baths that they wanted to give up their country ways and become townies after the Romans went away, so they just carried on farming. It’s not even certain what they thought of the arrival of the Saxons in the sixth century, except that the locals still carried on farming.
The Normans, four centuries later, didn’t seem to be too much of a nuisance; they built things and started a farmers’ market in Cirencester, so the locals kept calm and carried on farming. But in the twelfth century the Abbey was built, and started to take everything over, including the best farming land and control of the market. The Canons were not well liked by the locals, but since they could still carry on farming, they didn’t put up much resistance. Then Henry VIIIth did them a favour by demolishing the Abbey, so as well as carrying on farming, they were able to ‘liberate’ useful bits of stone to build things.
The local dislike of Catholics was probably revived by the Gunpowder plot in 1605, so later, when the protestant parliament decided to fight the Catholic monarchy in the Civil War, it’s not a great surprise the locals sided with parliament, since they remembered the Catholics interfered too much with farming. On this occasion they put up a fight and resisted the Royalists in a battle at Barton to the North of the town. Unfortunately, the Royalists occupied the town for a while, but they didn’t really stop the locals from carrying on farming and doing very well particularly with the wool trade. The importance of wool declined after the seventeenth Century, but Cirencester farmers and their workers were flexible enough to prosper.
The invention of the Threshing Machine in the early 1800s led to farm workers throughout England, including Cirencester, rioting. Across the agricultural South, soldiers were called in to suppress angry farm labourers whose livelihoods and earnings were rapidly disappearing. They rioted against supporting the church through tithe taxes, tenant farmers replacing workers with machines, and the parliament’s Poor Law of 1834.
In an attempt to avoid military action, Special Constables were recruited in thousands. In Cirencester the local Magistrate, Joseph Cripps (after whom Cripps Road leading to Tesco and the Brewery Car Park is named) even recruited pensioners to try to prevent serious riots. In 1839, Cirencester established a paid police force.
So, as we remember the fifth of November, we shouldn’t forget the farm labour riots of the 1830s.
Next month we shall remember the ghosts of Christmases past and some forgotten traditions.