A few days ago, I wrote that I could “only imagine” what Joseph Ashby – the agricultural trade unionist; and Tysoe’s most famous son – “would make of… the threats [the village] faces from developers”:
I believe he would have fought such menaces, though: as he always did so keenly for the causes he so strongly believed in – with “an economy of indignation… saved up for the big things and kept turned in the right directions.”
Well, reading Joseph Ashby’s Victorian Warwickshire, edited by Anne Langley – which features extracts from “a series of delightful articles” from the Warwick Advertiser – I began to uncover his views, and make some of those imaginings concrete. (I therefore hope that a visit to Warwickshire County Record Office, where Anne is a volunteer, will help me fill in some of the gaps, and build a more complete understanding.)
His description of Tysoe – echoing his daughter’s; and demonstrating the love he had for his own village (although attempting to be objective and fair…) – sets the scene:
The village of Tysoe, seen from the Edge Hills, forms part of one of the finest landscapes in Warwickshire. There below us ancient farm homesteads and cottages have been nestling among the old elms for which the village is famous, for centuries. The village, though scattered over a mile of road and greensward, is seen from end to end from the Edge Hills. It is such a picture of quiet beauty and peace that but little fancy is required to make the scene before us a pastoral Utopia. How rudely such a conception is dispelled when one is face to face with the life and struggles of people.
It is a shame that the heritage (and environment) represented by the old trees that so characterized our village – especially the “great hollow tree in which a dozen men can stand” in Upper Tysoe – disappeared with the invasion of Dutch Elm Disease; but we should be proud – however intent this present Government seems to be on reversing the process… – that “the life and struggles” current villagers face are no longer, on the whole, as dangerous, squalid, or poverty-stricken as those then “lived by the labouring poor in the villages of Warwickshire” (as well as remembering, of course, that Ashby himself contributed a great deal to such improvement…).
Discussing “The enterprise and industry of the villagers of Broadwell”, Ashby also – and we must remember that he was the very model of a nonconformist, working-class, autodidact (not unlike myself!) – explains why he thinks some villages are so successful:
I am inclined to attribute [the enterprise and industry] to the activities generated by the healthy rivalries of the different, though tolerant, convictions and opinions by which they are actuated. There can be no mistake as to the fact that activities of thought, however seemingly opposed, have a desirable effect upon the material condition of any village. It is those villages in which independent thought is suppressed, or upon which the evil spirit of apathy has settled, and those villages only, where the general condition of the people is not improving.
And I don’t think it is too far a leap to claim that it is our lack of – or emergence from – that “evil spirit of apathy” – combined with (as I have said before) our fortune to have so many knowledgeable, independent-thinking, and hard-working residents – that has helped Tysoe develop its unique community feel and spirit; and has so far helped us fight the current spate of “speculative development”.
In some ways, though, nothing changes. (And then, nothing changes again.)
The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
’Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war…
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss
– Pete Townshend (The Who): Won’t Get Fooled Again
Describing new houses being built in Stockton by “the Lime Burning Company of Nelson and Co”, Ashby writes:
These cottages are of the usual size of modern cottages, and built in the usual manner in which new cottages are built in the villages. The great fault of these cottages is that they are placed too near each other. In the case of many of them they are placed in a long row which must always be a most objectionable feature in the erection of new cottages.
And of Ryton on Dunsmore – hinting strongly at ‘subtopia’ (as well as the issue of commuting…), almost sixty years before Ian Nairn coined the word:
There is no glare of the modern red brick which somehow or other is one of the leading evidences of “the march of progress,” which, taking the whole of Warwickshire villages into consideration, means for most workmen a daily “march” into the bowels of the earth, or the stone quarries.
I think Ashby would have been more concerned with the conditions of the insides of any new houses, though, than their architectural aesthetic (however important); and the facilities they provided for his (as he saw them) kindred village folk – especially those less fortunate. His strong hint at the lack of “greensward”, though, and the density of new housing – because of its effect on “the whole social surroundings of the rural community” – is still relevant over 120 years later (as well as being the driving force in the delivery of ‘The Promised Land’ of allotments, which Ashby himself fought so hard for); as is the obliteration of productive agricultural land.
From the following excerpt (and many others – often to do with the affordability of rents, and the attitudes of landlords), it is obvious that Ashby – as an extension of his deeply-felt concern over villagers’ living conditions, and the local environment – was also extremely conscious of (and concerned with) both “social well-being” (a term he uses in his description of Southam) and sustainability (a word only adopted in the late twentieth century): echoing our current anxieties with flooding, drainage, water treatment and capacity. And it is sad that nothing much has changed in this respect, either. [It will take another wet winter, I fear, to see whether Severn Trent Water’s latest works, at Oxhill – I was going to say “attempt at a solution” (sorry) – have been successful.]
The most painful aspect of life in the village of Oxhill is that of the water supply. Passing through the village a few days ago I was informed that, excepting the water gathered out of the holes of a brook, which passes near the village, which have been scooped out by the changes in the course of the stream… there is no water in the village for man or beast. Of the quality of such water I need not stop to speak…. Whether the water be as clear as a stream can be in April, when the excess of winter’s rainfall has rippled in tiny streamlets and rolled with increasing force in its progress to the sea, and before the cattle, driven by flies and heat, have converted it to a stream of mud, or whether incessant rainfalls give the stream an almost dangerous volume, or drought dries the bed of the streams bare, this stream alone appears to be the only available source of water. I am bound to say, too, that not two miles away, is the village of Tysoe, a village of 900 inhabitants, the whole of the sewage of which comes into this stream. To put the matter briefly, the sewage of about 250 houses, and perhaps half as many pigsties, and several farm yards, directly or indirectly, flows into the water which the people of Oxhill have to drink.
Travel – and the condition of what passed for local roads – of course, wasn’t such a problem in the 1890s. Most villagers rarely strayed from their place of birth; with only occasional forays to the local market town. Even Joseph Ashby – with his extensive tours of the local villages for his Warwick Advertiser articles “by train, penny-farthing bicycle and on foot”; and as a travelling lecturer in one of the English Land Restoration League’s ‘red vans’ – didn’t venture much beyond the county boundaries.
Regardless, Joseph Ashby’s life was remarkable – in many ways. We should therefore be prepared to learn from him, his beliefs and his actions, as we gaze out at Tysoe from atop his erudite giant’s shoulders. Like him, we must build on our history, our context, our roots. We must defend those causes we know he would also have fought for. We must therefore not lay down our arms easily, assuming – as some did with the initial planning hearing – that – because Gladman have appealed (although they in no way can be described as actually being ‘appealing’), and a public inquiry is being held – all is yet lost. Instead, we should respect his memory, as well as the village he left behind, by championing his values, as they apply to our times.