‘By a Flash and a Scare’ illuminates the darker side of rural life in the nineteenth century. Flashpoints such as the Swing riots, Tolpuddle, and the New Poor Law riots have long attracted the attention of historians, but here John E. Archer focuses on the persistent war waged in the countryside during the 1800s, analysing the prevailing climate of unrest, discontent, and desperation.
In this detailed and scholarly study, based on intensive research among the local records of Norfolk and Suffolk, Dr Archer identifies and examines the three most serious crimes of protest in the countryside — arson, animal maiming and poaching. He shows how rural society in East Anglia was shaped by terror and oppression in equal measure. Social crime and covert protest were an integral part of the ordinary life of the rural poor. They did not protest infrequently, they protested all the time.
Incendiary attacks were repeatedly the meeting points for large displays of collective protest and celebration, were expressions of grievance, and marked a stage in the development of the rural war. Animal maiming was a retrospective individualistic response to some personal harm and was intended to show that the powerless were indeed capable of striking back. The majority of country people never accepted the game laws. No armies of keepers, no statute book of laws, no mantraps, and certainly no titled gentleman, could dissuade them from their belief that poaching was not a crime. These actions, along with anonymous and threatening letters, were the constant reminders and realities for the landed classes to remain on their guard.
‘By a Flash and a Scare’ dispels any lingering notions of a ‘green and pleasant land’, and makes an important contribution to our understanding of life in the nineteenth century countryside.
John E. Archer is an honorary research fellow at Edge Hill University. He has published widely on 19th century protest and crime. He is currently working on the history of violence in the north west of England.