Book review: The Ascott Martyrs: Sixteen women from Ascott-under-Wychwood who were sent over the hills to glory

Book review: The Ascott Martyrs: Sixteen women from Ascott-under-Wychwood who were sent over the hills to glory

Ascott martyrs front coverBy Beverley McCombs (Wellington: Writes Hill Press, 2016).

Reviewed by Peter Clayworth.

The Ascott Martyrs were sixteen rural English women, imprisoned during 1873 for their role in an agricultural strike. They were residents of the village of Ascottunder-Wychwood, in Oxfordshire, where they worked as glovers, farm labourers and domestic servants. Their husbands, brothers and sons were farm labourers who had joined the Agricultural Labourers’ Union, following a recruiting campaign by union organiser Joseph Arch. During the spring of 1873, the Ascott labourers working on Robert Hambridge’s Crown Farm went on strike. They demanded a 2 shilling
a week wage increase. Four weeks into the strike, Hambridge tried to bring in two youths from a neighbouring village to work on his farm. A group of Ascott women intercepted the youths, urging them not to break the strike. The youths later claimed they were threatened and obstructed; claims which the women denied. Seventeen of the women involved in this incident were summonsed to appear in the Magistrate’s Court at nearby Chipping Norton. They were tried under the Trades Union Act 1871, which outlawed any form of picketing. The two sitting Magistrates found sixteen
of the women guilty. Both Magistrates were Church of England clergymen with no legal training. The seven women the Magistrates singled out as ring leaders were sentenced to ten days imprisonment with hard labour. The remaining nine women were each sentenced to seven days imprisonment with hard labour. The women were taken away to Oxford County Gaol, two of them taking their babies with them. Mary Pratley was nursing a ten week old baby, while her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Pratley had a seven month old with her. Both mothers and babies suffered greatly from hunger and cold during their seven days in gaol.

In local terminology the protesting women of Ascott, like others sent of to gaol or the work house, were ‘sent over the hills.’ McCombs describes the Ascott Martyrs as being ‘sent over the hills to glory,’ as their case had a series of wide-ranging repercussions. After the womens’ sentences were announced, farm labourers rioted in Chipping Norton. The Ascott women were later greeted by cheering crowds when they were released from prison, with the Agricultural Labourers’ Union organised a rally in their honour at Ascott. Nationally the union used the ‘martyrs’ case as a vehicle to promote the cause of organising rural labour. The Ascott Martyrs affair aroused the interest of the British press, which subsequently fanned public outrage over the women’s imprisonment. Questions were raised in the House of Commons, leading the Lord Chancellor, Lord Selborne, to look into the case. McCombs states that the Ascott Martyrs case helped bring changes to English picketing laws and may have been a factor in ending the practice of having local clergymen, with no legal training, serving as Magistrates.

I was drawn to reading Beverley McCombs’ Ascott Martyrs by the fact that I was completely unfamiliar with the events it discusses. I had heard of such British working class heroes as the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but not the Ascott Martyrs. The author explains how she also began by knowing nothing of the Ascott women, but discovered their story while tracing her own ancestors. McCombs, a New Zealander, is a descendant of Eli Pratley, whose first wife, Elizabeth, was an Ascott Martyr. There is a significant New Zealand connection to the Ascott story as a number of families involved in the protest later emigrated to this part of the world. When McCombs travelled to Ascott-under-Wychwood to visit her ancestors’ home village, she was directed a memorial to the Ascott women. Her curiosity was aroused, leading to a long trail of research and writing from which this book emerged.

The Ascott Martyrs is a combination of labour history, microhistory and genealogical work. Despite being a relatively brief volume, McCombs gives a detailed account of the rural setting of Ascott-under-Wychwood in the 1870s. She describes the working people’s dwellings and their conditions of work. McCombs sets out the relationships between the farm labourers and the tenant farmers who employed them. She also discusses the role of the local clergy, including their positions as land owners and Magistrates. McCombs presents the women in her account as workers, rather than as the spouses and relatives of male workers. The women are glovers, domestic servants and farm labourers in their own right, as well as carrying out most of the household domestic work.

McCombs points out the irony that women could become martyrs for the cause of the Agricultural Labourers’ Union, while the union’s own rules prevented women from joining. Joseph Arch, the union’s national leader, believed that women should not be working as farm labourers. He considered that male farm labourers should be paid enough to act as sole bread-winners for their families. Arch was aware that it was vital to get the support of women, who would in turn pressure their men to join the union. McCombs explains that despite the union’s sexist policies and beliefs, the Ascott women strongly supported it as a way to improve the economic conditions of their families. The Ascott Martyrs gives some of the context of the growth of the union in the 1870s and the spread of rural unrest as labourers struggled to improve their conditions. As such the book can be read in the context of Rollo Arnold’s more extensive work on the Revolt of the Field and rural workers’ immigration to New Zealand in the 1870s.

McCombs points out that for many of the rural workers in Ascott-under-Wychwood there was little improvement in their conditions immediately after the strike. The 1870s was a period where agricultural jobs were disappearing as farming methods changed. Within a few years of the 1873 events, a number of the Ascott families had emigrated to North America, Australia and New Zealand. The final section of McCombs book provides detailed accounts of the family stories of each of the women she was able to identify from the 1873 protest. This section may be of more interest to the genealogical researcher than the general historian, but as such has a value of its own.

I found The Ascott Martyrs a fascinating account of a subject that was largely new to me. It provides a case study of an event that was part of wider social changes. The rural situation in 1870s Britain was a factor strongly influencing many working peoples’ decisions to migrate to New Zealand. The Ascott Martyrs examines the role of women as activists in the labour movement. It also discusses the organisation of rural workers. I would suggest that both subjects need much more coverage in New Zealand’s labour history research. I gather that Beverley McCombs is the publisher, as well as the researcher and writer of this book. She deserves congratulation for a worthy contribution to British and New Zealand labour history.