Fisticuffs and dirty political tricks
In 1892 a general election had been called, and the political situation in the county was tense. On the evening of July 11th, 1892 the incumbent Liberal candidate Herbert Leon (he had won a byelection the year before) was speaking before a large crowd of several hundred persons who had gathered on the village Green, effectively blocking the road. Arriving on the scene was William Hedges of the Lodge Farm, on his way back from the Black Horse Farm with five cart loads of hay and about a half dozen of the men in his employ. Unable to pass and the crowd refusing to make way, tensions boiled over and according to which account you read, one side or the other commenced hostilities. Hedges was described as a “Tory Farmer” by the Bicester Herald and that, “a large number of Tory conspirators” came to Hedge’s aid and attempted to overturn Mr Leon’s cart, with a general melee ensuing in which “sticks were freely used and several blows struck.” A somewhat different account in Croydon’s Weekly Standard describes the court case that followed, which was brought by Hedges against a Frank Ireland of Newport Pagnell. Hedges alleged that on arriving at the entrance of The Green and asking that the crowd make way, Ireland had taken hold of the Nag that Hedges was riding and declared, “You bastard, we will not let you go”, whereupon the crowd rushed him and in the crush he was dislodged from his horse. In this telling of the story, the number of the crowd had swelled to 500 and Hedges presented himself as acting not from politics, but a simple desire to have the freedom of the highway to which he was entitled. The court agreed and fined Ireland 5 shillings with costs of 10 shillings, or 7 days imprisonment if unable to pay.
The court had attempted to keep politics out of the case and concentrated on the legality of blocking the highway, though it is intriguing that Hedges is described as one of the managers of the school, and that in his evidence he claimed that permission had actually been granted for the school house to be used for the meeting, provided any damage was paid for. Did the organisers decline this offer and so might have avoided the confrontation?
Perhaps not. Turning back to the Bicester Herald, the allegation is made that the Liberals were expecting trouble, and had brought in supporters from Wolverton and Newport Pagnell to defend their candidate from trouble, and as one paper put it, the threat of him being thrown in the canal. It seems that the small school would never have accommodated the numbers arriving in the village. At a subsequent meeting that evening, Leon was quoted in The Croydon’s Weekly Standard of the 16th as saying, “Not 10 minutes ago they had almost a free fight at Great Linford, where there was an organised conspiracy to upset their meeting. The same thing had happened at other places, but despite the attempts of their opponents to interrupt the meetings, they had succeeded in maintaining their political rights.”
The Herald also describes something of the aftermath of the meeting, alleging that as the departing candidate’s carriage passed the village conservative club, hot water and cinders were thrown out at it. It would be interesting to pinpoint where exactly the conservative club was located.
As an interesting postscript to this story, in January of 1893, an enquiry was held at the County Hall into riotous behaviour in Aylesbury town that occurred on election day. There was much bad behaviour including fighting and egg throwing directed at the victorious candidate, the same Herbert Leon who was caught up in the scuffles at Great Linford. Included in the 3 hours of testimony was a an additional detail of the altercation at Great Linford; that two men had been severely beaten with blackthorns, this it appears a reference to a Blackthorn Shillelagh, a traditional walking stick made from Blackthorn wood that also serves as a handy cudgel.
The 1893 election was clearly a highly charged affair. In a detailed account of the election day and comments on the campaign, the Croydon’s Weekly Standard of July 16th, editorialised that, “on no previous occasion has political rancour run so high as in this pitched battle of the two political forces” and that on several occasions, “has resulted in a battle of fisticuffs.”
In 1886 Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone’s liberal government put before parliament a, “home rule” act in the hope of granting Ireland its own devolved government. This was defeated, but the battle would continue for many years to come, and in 1891 there was a brief skirmish in Great Linford between the two sides. It is a curious little story, but reflective of the power wielded by the Lord of the Manor. As such, the full text of the article is worth repeating here, not only for the insight it provides of village history as regards its common land, but for the withering editorial scorn poured on the squire.
A fine instance of real and dried old Toryism, not Conservatism or Unionism, but the real old crusted variety, bottled centuries ago, was exhibited at Great Linford on Thursday. The Home Rule Van, under the control of Mr. S. T. Pike, pitched at that Eden of the Tory squire. The standing was taken on a piece of waste ground, there being no open common, the space that had been used for “pitches” from time immemorial having been enclosed by the squire about two years ago. The van was absolutely out of the way, but the autocrat of the village objected to it, and ordered it to be moved on, and not getting his own way, in the temporary absence of Mr. Pike he, with a team of men, put themselves between the shafts and dragged it away. The sole result of this was a more sympathetic meeting than would otherwise have been held. This is really getting back to the good old days. It is plain proof that the Unionism of to-day is simply the horrid old oppressive Toryism of the past – Mr Evelyn Hubbard to the contrary notwithstanding.
Northampton Mercury - Friday 29 May 1891 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The language of the article certainly paints an unflattering portrait of the squire, who we can take to be William Francis Edolph Andrews Uthwatt (1870-1921), but it is hard to argue against the feeling that his political control of the village must have been substantial and perhaps draconian. The Evelyn Hubbard mentioned at the end of the article had been the conservative candidate for Buckinghamshire in 1889; he had been defeated by the Liberal Edmund Hope Verney, and would be defeated again in 1891, a state of affairs that doubtless did much to darken William Uthwatt’s mood of defiance.