In this new book Martin Empson reminds us that class conflict did not start with the Industrial Revolution and urban struggles. In this well researched history he begins with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and then take us up to today’s globalised food market, where in the UK few people now work on the land and most of us are alienated from the process of food production.
Empson is a socialist, and central to his story is the celebration of the ordinary people. As he says; “When we learn about the history of England, we rarely hear the full story of what happened…this book celebrates the rural class struggle for equality, justice and a better life that through this, hopes to inspire people today.”
And indeed is much to be inspired by as Empson recounts the stories of heroes such as John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler, and all the anonymous heroes of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. They challenged their feudal slavery, refused to pay the hated poll tax and literally took up arms to kill the officials who tried to enforce the tax, burning down properities and laying siege to iconic buildings including Rochester Castle.
The book then takes us through some of the most important struggles as the people challenged the authority of the monarchy and sought for civil rights and equality in a very authoritarian state.
One of the interesting chapters is on rebellions during the Tudor era. Forget Hilary Mantel’s histories of the aristocracy or the latest BBC take on this period. Instead read about the women of Exeter who in 1535 physically opposed the destruction of a local priory, St. Nicholas in Exeter, part of King Henry’s policy of destroying the power of the church. For them, it was not about religion but maintaining a charitable institution. So they rebelled .
“The women of Exeter rallied outside ‘some with spikes, some with shovels, some with pikes, and some with such tools as they could get’, trapping the workmen who were taking down the roodloft of the church.” Soldiers had to be sent in to stop them.
By the C19th agricultural workers were organising themselves into trade unions, the difficulties of which are well known in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Empson challenges the way in which their case has has been turned into an industry marked by an annual festival. It has now become very distanced from its poor rural roots and is dominated by the celebs of the trade union movement and a particular London based political and media class.
More interesting for me is the story of union organisation and rural strikes of the 1870s. A strike in Ascot, near Chipping Norton, for instance, saw the farmers bring in scabs from a local village. A group of women, armed only with sticks, blocked the entrance to the fields. The women were taken to court and seven received ten day’s hard labour and nine got seven days. The locals rioted: “Eighty pounds was raised in their support (Arch noted £5 of it came in pennies) and the women were brought home in style, cheered much of the way as they travelled in a ‘handsome drag drawn by four thorough-bred horses.’ And all the women were given £5 each and a dress in the union colours!”
Empson’s book is not just about the past. He also comments about today: “While 17.2% of the British population live in rural areas ( about 11 million people) only 1.13% of the total working population is employed in agriculture.” Trade unions, largely the Unite Union, continue to defend the rights of agricultural workers but it’s not easy in an industry in which “by the 1980s and 1990s the average farm worker saw more of his employer during his working time than he did of any fellow worker.”
Today most people are very distanced from the food we consume – although the rise of the vegan diet says something about concerns for animals and food production. Whether it also reflects an interest in the agricultural industry and those who work in it is another matter. Empson believes that to address the issues of rural poverty and the production of high quality food in a sustainable way must include challenging big business’ domination of agriculture and protecting the rights of workers from the fields to the food factories.
And he sees it not as a national, but an international issue:“When you take a walk in the British countryside today or look out of a train window, the struggle of Wat Tyler, John Ball, Jack Straw…..and countless unnamed and forgotten men and women might seem very distant. But their compatriots in rural communities around the globe continue a struggle that has never been more important.”
Buy it for £14.99 from