In 2009 I cleverly broke my hip while cycling home from work. My recuperation was aided by a boxset of the first series of The Wire, a gift from work; we quickly purchased all the following series, essentially because it’s amazing. I was soon seeing evidence of its accuracy everywhere: watch your managers at work and you see Rawls and Burrell; watch the government explaining some set of reforms and you’ll see them ‘duking the stats’ to suit their purposes.
You can see some of the same sort of totalising explanation in the Marxist view of history, which aims to show the domination of capital in every sphere of life be it economic, cultural or political. I’ve never been an out-and-out Marxist, but start looking at the historical actions of those you might call capitalists, and it’s difficult not to agree with the beardy man (not Santa). I recently took a diversion through somewhere not a million miles away from here that seems to demonstrate this quite well.
On the way to visit the charity shops of Bromsgrove we took a detour through the village of Dodsford. Although close to Birmingham and the M5, the village feels exceedingly rural, almost an un-centred sprawl of dwellings rather than a traditional, English village. There’s a good reason for this. Look a little closer and you’ll see that many of the houses are nearly identical, that the plots of land in which they sit are all the same shape too.
Dodford was home to an Augustinian priory during the medieval period, later merged into Halesowen’s larger Premonstratensian one. After Henry VIII’s dissolution the area was hardly touched until 273 acres of it were purchased by the National Land Company in 1848. This was the year of revolution across Europe, and the NLC was an initiative of the most likely revolutionary movement in this country, Fergus O’Connor’s Chartists. 1848 was their peak, with a vast meeting on Kennington Common and a petition to Parliament, but it was last hurrah too – a combination of political undermining and O’Connor’s own hubris led to a rapid falling away in support after 1848. Dodford was part of that picture.
This was actually the fifth area purchased by the NLC as a new settlement for Chartist subscribers. The intention was that members could pay a subscription to raise money for the land, and then be entered into a ballot for a fresh plot of land with a home, of between 2 and 4 acres, with the intention of smallholding for market to get them out of the industrial cities of England. The first was the modestly-named O’Connorville near Chorleywood, followed by Lowbands and Snigs End, now in Gloucestershire and Charterville, at Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire. Great Dodford was to be the final attempt at a new settlement – it opened amid rising dissent amongst settlers of the other villages, disappointment at the quality of the land in Dodford, and unrelenting hostility from local and national governments and press. The land purchased at Mathon, near Great Malvern, was therefore never developed.
The Chartist ideal of communal living, outside of the sway of big business, was unpopular with many of those big businessmen. Petitions were successfully put in (and here, to me, is where the Marxist can raise their hands in an “aha!”) citing the Lottery Act to prevent the original equal ballot being used to decide who gets to move to Dodford. O’Connor reluctantly agreed that whoever had paid the highest subscriptions got first dibs – which of course left the poor behind, again: he appealed to the brains at the NLC “I beg of you–and you are not fools–to set your genius to work in every locality to devise some means by which we may get rid of the ballot without imposing a bonus that will operate against the more speedy location of the poor.”
The principles were simple: a small piece of land, enough to make a living from, to begin a new, more tranquil and self-directed life. The devil of course, was in the details. Dodford lies on the typically dense red clay of these parts, and as such is a nightmare to farm without modern agricultural technology. A special ‘Dodford fork’ was created in Stourbridge for the purpose, but the land was still bog in the winter, brick in the summer. On top of that, the plots were big enough to keep a pig, but not sheep or cows; O’Connor discouraged wheat, leaving the increasingly desperate residents to try a sort of market gardening approach; and generally those that moved to Dodford were less than impressed with the open wells, lack of pumps and so forth that the village should have provided.
Life in Chartist settlements was hard for many years – utopia is far easier to plan than to achieve. The residents of Dodford scratched a living supplying Birmingham with strawberries and Lea & Perrins in Worcester with garlic. Many supplemented their living with the typical extra earner of the era, nailing. At Charterville, many residents sold their plots to investors and leased them back, but at Dodford life persisted just about as intended, at least until the early twentieth century when property investors moved in.
These days, Dodford is a very handsome village, well-maintained and with a remarkable survival rate of those Chartist cottages thanks to a conservation order and a National Trust purchase. You would expect to pay a very hefty whack for one of these houses now – if Fergus O’Connor saw the prices of these houses, and who was therefore excluded from owning them, he would have thrown up his hands in horror and frustration. There were many such schemes in the nineteenth century – I’ve spent a lot of time research model dwellings companies in London, and of course very often these model houses now command higher prices than their more recent equivalents. The nature of property speculation favours the better off, and the poor are always left with the dregs. This was the stated aim of many in the nineteenth century – the better off you are, the better the residence you can move to, and the poorer can move up into yours. Of course, it never really works, and the poor stay poor.
More information can be found in the article “Great Dodford and the later history of the Chartist Land Scheme” by P. Searby (Agricultural History Review, 1968) and the Chartist Ancestors blog