Radical East Anglia: Peter Clark Celebrates Some of the 'Awkward Squad' Associated with Eastern England

By Clark, Peter | History Today, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Radical East Anglia: Peter Clark Celebrates Some of the 'Awkward Squad' Associated with Eastern England


Clark, Peter, History Today


East Anglia is different. It is not on the road to anywhere. Norwich may have once been the second city of the kingdom but East Anglia missed out on the Industrial Revolution. A culture of being different has marked its history. It provided serious resistance to both the Roman and the Norman invasions. There has been a strong tradition of rural Nonconformity, and it has been the location for sustained challenges to the established order, from the Peasants' Revolt in the fourteenth century, the Kett Rebellion in the sixteenth, Cromwell in the seventeenth, down to the twentieth-century Burston School Strike, 'the longest strike in history'.

East Anglia was also the birthplace of perhaps England's greatest radical, Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who played key roles in both the American and French Revolutions. Paine, who came from a mixed Quaker and Anglican background, saw himself as a Deist and, in The Age of Reason, made a sustained verbal assault on organized religion. His articulate, eloquent argument for democratic accountability has set the tone for political debate ever since. In the early nineteenth century the printing and distribution of his works became a criminal offence, so dangerous, so influential were his writings.

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As we tour East Anglia we can pause at sites that mark Britain's radical heritage. Many villages and towns show a legacy of an alternative, less celebrated history. East Anglia was always solid for the Protestant Reformation. The Church of England may have had the higher political influence but there was, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a welcome to Methodism and its more radical variant, Primitive Methodism. As we travel around the villages we can marvel at splendid parish churches but we should not overlook the stone or red brick chapels that claimed another allegiance. Sometimes the Dissent was divisive and disputatious. Dissenting communities split up, and often chapels of several denominations survive in one village: the record must go to Upwell in Fenland Norfolk, where there were three Wesleyan, four Primitive and three Wesleyan Reform chapels as well as a Baptist chapel. The church may have held the allegiance of the squire and the richer farmers, but the farm workers, and later on the railway workers, often opted for Dissent.

East Anglia was also a lively centre for rural trade unionism, which was often linked to Primitive Methodism. The founder of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union, Joseph Arch, was a 'Prim'. He was elected to the House of Commons for North-West Norfolk in 1885, becoming one of the first working-class MPs, though he was also proud to number among his constituents the Prince of Wales at Sandringham. The agricultural depression in the last decades of the nineteenth century saw a decline in agricultural unionism. But it was revived by a Norfolk Primitive Methodist, George Edwards, in the early years of the twentieth century. At the excellent Gressenhall Museum of Rural Life near East Dereham, a small exhibition records his life and work. Like Arch, he was also an MP but he ended up as Sir George, and was a friend of the first Labour Minister of Agriculture, Noel Buxton (MP, Liberal and then Labour, for North Norfolk). Noel Buxton introduced the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act establishing Wages Boards for farm labourers, which mitigated the total dependence of the farm labourer on his employer. Noel Buxton was from an upper-class Norfolk family with a strong radical and humanitarian tradition and his grave is at Upshire in south west Essex.

The Church of England was not always in opposition to radicalism or working-class movements. One of Noel Buxton's cousins was Conrad Noel, who became vicar of Thaxted, Essex, from 1910 to his death in 1942. (Conrad Noel had earlier rented from this cousin the splendid sixteenth-century wool merchant's house, Paycockes in Coggeshall--now owned by the National Trust. …

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