Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Duke

Fear seized upon the shepherd-boy: the Duke was Jove himself to the rural population, whom to offend was starvation, homelessness, and death, and whom to look at was to be mentally scathed and dumbfounded. 

Thomas Hardy – What The Shepherd Saw (1913)

Hardy’s story has a shepherd boy alone at night in the shepherd’s hut keeping watch on the sheep. From the hut window he sees the Duke in the moonlight and his immediate reaction is to stay out of sight. Nothing good can come of making himself known to such a powerful aristocrat in mysterious circumstances.

This is one of those quotes which stayed with me for years, an insight into a grim reality of agricultural life not so long ago. There is something distinctly criminal about such a level of personal power over other people. Hardy’s Duke is not so far removed from a gangland boss living a life of surface respectability when everyone knows they must never cross him. Even being known to him is a risk.


James Higham said...

“Nothing good can come of making himself known to such a powerful aristocrat in mysterious circumstances.”

Not unlike meeting Lumsden in Decline and Fall.

Sam Vega said...

I've just finished reading Ronald Blythe's Akenfield (highly recommended) and it contains memories of a gardener who worked for "His Lordship" and "Her Ladyship". Apparently, a lot of his time was spent sneaking around so that they wouldn't actually have to see him. If he heard their voices, he left the job he was doing and made himself scarce behind a wall or potting-shed. Smoking meant instant dismissal. Being noticed seemed to be perceived as giving deliberate offence.

Michael said...

Just about all the property around here was Copyhold, and owned by a priviledged few.

I have documents about how the gentleman who lived here escaped all that and became a freeholder. The original owners are safely buried close by, and thank goodness for that!

Demetrius said...

Interesting. Allowing for a little artistic licence, who were the local aristocrat's in the vicinity of where Thomas Hardy lived and grew up in Dorset? At his London home it was not the same, his neighbour was Chaplain to the local prison at Wormwood Scrubs.

Edward Spalton said...


My father knew a farmer who had been a copy hold tenant. I think this sort of tenancy was abolished in the 1920s. He was a substantial
farmer and owned a race horse at the time. There were some advantages to copy hold. The rent was low but there were "fines" to
be paid on certain occasions - such as the coming-of-age of the son of the Lord of the manor, when a new Lord succeeded ar if
the Lord of the manor entered military service etc.

In this case, the elderly Lord of the manor was taken ill and the copyhold tenant moved very quickly to sell,his racehorse to a
friend, so that he was no longer the owner but just caring for it.

So, the old Lord died and the bailiff came for the "fine" which was the best beast on the farm, he could not take the valuable race horse. Country folk have ways of looking after themselves and, of course, substantial tenants were men of some substance and the landowners
needed them and their working capital,to make their estates pay.

My father ( born 1907) told me that until the First World War, tenant farmers were frequently expected to provide a man and a horse
to serve in the yeomanry. Our family had been tenant farmers but had become feed millers and corn merchants
When one of my uncles decided to join the Territorials in the Thirties, he was was turned down for the yeomanry because they " didn't take shopkeepers". So he became a gunner instead

Michael said...

Edward, that's fascinating - thankyou!

One of my cousins has been doing an 'Ancestry' thing on our family, and discovered that yeomanry was no sucker's punch by a long chalk!

I reckon the old chap who lived here was better informed than the owners realised, and he got what he wanted after just a few discussions, but of course I cannot prove that.

The properties in question were owned by Wye College and the Duke of Nottingham, but as we're on the Kent/Sussex border, none of these people had any interest other than income.

When I was studying surveying, these 'rights' were part of the curriculum, and it's not surprising that I never passed the exam...

Edward Spalton said...


I was actually introduced to the old chap who had made such a quick sale of his race horse. He was one of father's very important business friends and became chairman of an animal feed supplement company on top of his considerable farming activities in Cheshire. I was told he was very important before I was ushered into his presence at the first agricultural show after the war in 1947 and I could really believe he was important because he must have been 20 stone ( and in a time of severe rationing!)
He produced a plate of cakes such as I had not seen before and a small bottle of ginger beer.
"Now let's see what you can do!" he said. Unfortunately the cakes were rather dry and stale and I was too polite to ask for another ginger beer , so my performance was not very impressive.
Funny what sticks in your mind!

Father went with him and other chums on a trip to Sweden to study their pig farming methods - quite a big adventure in the early post war years. In his passport, the old chap's occupation was given as "Yeoman".

A K Haart said...

James - I must read that again. Always enjoyed his writing.

Sam - I've just downloaded a sample onto my Kindle. If I remember rightly there is a tunnel at Calke Abbey which allowed estate workers to move from one place to another without being seen.

Scrobs - it's a remarkable story, the story of land ownership.

Demetrius - I don't know but he must have had someone in mind, although not necessarily from that county.

Edward - interesting, there must be a book in there somewhere.