Thomas Pike (1800-1865) and Jane Pike (1802-1882)
Neither Thomas nor Jane could have met their mutual grandfather as he died in the last months of the old century and they were born in the first months of the new. Their grandfather was the latest in a long line Thomas Pikes who owned and farmed land in and around Great Bedwyn, a village of just over 1500 people on the edge of the Savernake Forest in Wiltshire. In his will he left most of his freehold and copyhold land to his two eldest sons, but the rest, including legacies of several hundred pounds to his unmarried daughters, was divided between the other five children. In particular all his livestock was left to George and James, the future fathers of Thomas and Jane.
George and James were both farmers, but theirs were large farms, so how much they dirtied their hands, and how much they simply managed others is not clear. James' farm was Manor Farm in Upper Chute, still in the parish of Great Bedwyn, where he and his family, including Jane, lived in the 17th century farmhouse; his widowed mother, Mary, lived in a smaller house behind theirs.
A description of James Pike's house in 1818
The horse driven thresher; one of the causes of the 1830 Swing Riots
George’s farm was a little further away in Charlton, near Pewsey, but it was also a farm of several hundred acres, employing several men, many of whom lived on the farm. In general the first years of the nineteenth century were good times to be a farmer. The Napoleonic War meant that there could be no imports, so the price of corn remained high, encouraging farmers to grow more. That led to more employment opportunities for labourers (although the high price of bread meant the living standards were lower). Towards the end of the war, though, corn prices plummeted and landowners put pressure on the government to help them. In 1816 the Corn Laws were passed, prohibiting the import of cheap foreign corn unless the price of English corn was high. This was good news for the farmers, but not for the workers, whose numbers had increased hugely as ex-soldiers returned from the wars. Workers who might have been expected to be taken on for a year now started to have shorter and shorter contracts, which meant that they were at the mercy of the parish relief when not working. Parishes, which were having to provide more and more relief were under pressure from ratepayers to reduce costs, so the amount of relief offered was reduced. In Berkshire in 1795, the norm was three and a half ‘one gallon’ bread loaves, but in Wiltshire, by 1817, this had been reduced to two loaves. Other economic changes added to the pressure before two events eventually led to breakdown. First a horse powered threshing machine was introduced by farmers, further reducing the manpower needed, and then two terrible harvests in 1828 and 1829 left agricultural labourers approaching the following winter in fear as the winter months were when many were laid off by farmers, themselves going through economic difficulties.
Thomas and Jane would be well aware of these problems as they watched their fathers and, in Thomas’ case, learned to be a farmer himself. This was an inauspicious time to get married, but in 1829 the cousins, who had led very similar lives and would, no doubt, have met each other regularly, married. With the family farms destined for elder brothers, Thomas and Jane needed to find somewhere else to live and moved to Bucklebury in Berkshire.
As a landowner Thomas would have become an important member of the community immediately, and by 1830 he was already a churchwarden and overseer of the poor. In August of that year he and Jane baptised their first child, Laura, in Bucklebury church, but only weeks later the first riots broke out in farms in the South. The objectives of the rioters were higher wages and regular employment. Their main activity was breaking farm machinery, especially threshing machines, which deprived men of work in the winter months. The rioters expected the justice of their cause would receive wide public support. Indeed some magistrates urged farmers to destroy their machines and increase wages. Many farmers either gave tacit support to their workmen, or urged the parish vestry to improve the levels of poor relief.
Locally the riots started in Thatcham on the 15th November, but on the evening of the 17th the labourers of Bradfield, Bucklebury and Stanford Dingley assembled and marched from farm to farm, destroying machines, burning hayricks, demanding higher wages and forcing others to join them. They met up with the Thatcham labourers and headed for Richard Tull’s farm. Here they were met by a number who had been sworn in as special constables and by Mr. Tull and his labourers. The Riot Act was read by the Reverend Mr. Cove. The mob refused to disperse and Mr. Tull and his party seized the principal ringleaders, who with eight or ten others were taken to Reading Gaol.
Over the next few weeks, while some talks between labourers and landowners were polite, others were not. Rioters demanded money from farmers and, if they were given it, spent it on drink. Eventually the riots were brought under control, many of those involved were brought to trial, and then sentenced to transportation. Over forty Berkshire men suffered that fate, and their families now found themselves not only worse off than before the riots, but losing their husbands, brothers and fathers.
Bucklebury is not a large place, so it is difficult to see how Thomas’ farm can have come through the episode unscathed, but the farm recovered and their family grew. Two years later, though, the village was hit by a new tragedy. The grand old Elizabethan house where the lord of the manor lived caught fire, and was so damaged by the fire that it quickly fell into ruin and had to be pulled down. Thomas may well have attended the auction where the materials were sold off.
A poster put out at the time of the riots
Following the riots, a Royal Commission reported on the Poor Laws in 1832, and recommended changes as they feared the present system undermined the natural laws of supply and demand, and were harming the country's prosperity. Their principal recommendation was that parishes should group together and build a workhouse which would be the only place where those in need could obtain relief. However 'less eligibility' meant that the conditions inside these workhouses would be worse than anything outside, thereby discouraging people to enter them. Bucklebury formed part of a group which had their workhouse in Bradfield and, although parishes resented having to fund them, they became popular with employers as fear of neding up there meant labourers tended to work harder. Farmers reported that men no longer left with no notice to go to London for better work, as they worried about having no work when they came back: working for local farmers during the harvest for lower wages at least led to work during the winter months. Thomas Pike was interviewed by the commissioners when they reported in 1834 and said '' 'He did not care if we increased his rates £10 a year for we should do more good than equal to that by the improvement of the labourers'. '' He went on to say that he had not approved of the workhouse at first, but now thought it a good idea. (Note 1)
By 1845 the family was complete, with four surviving sons and three daughters, and the 600 acre farm, which employed over thirty men, was thriving. Thomas continued as an overseer – indeed, in 1837 he had been fined 1s, with two other churchwardens, for not laying open parcels of land for the poor – but that year his father died. Thomas’ elder brothers received several hundred pounds each, but Thomas received half of his father’s household goods, plate, linen, books and residual estate, which included some public stocks and government securities.
Thomas Pike in 1865, taken when visiting his son at Cambridge University
Thomas and Jane’s lives turned to focus on their children. None of the four sons would become farmers, and only one of the daughters would marry one, so perhaps their farming experiences were not entirely positive. As parents they were keen that all the children should become respected members of society and took an interest in their education. At least one son, Sidney, went to school in Newbury, where there was an ancient grammar school that had fallen on hard times for a time but, from 1849 onwards, was thriving. Other children may have gone too, but Sidney was destined to join the clergy and, after school, went to Caius College at Cambridge University in 1860 to prepare for ordination.
Their second son, Thelwell, became a doctor. By seventeen he was already a medical student and he went on to have a successful medical career, but he carried a secret with him for most of his life. His medical training took him to Devon where he met a girl called Elizabeth Gee, a few months younger than he was, and a house servant to the widow of a Royal Navy lieutenant. She became pregnant by him and, in 1854, when Thelwell would have been twenty, gave birth to a child in the Newton Abbot Workhouse. Thelwell went on to marry the daughter of a local doctor, but the child, Hannah, deserted by Thelwell and Elizabeth, was brought up by grandparents. It is possible that Thelwell did not realise that Elizabeth was pregnant, but more likely that the social differences led him to leave her alone. Did Thomas and Jane know? Were letters exchanged between the two families? Or did Elizabeth’s family just assume that the Pikes would not help, so not approach them? We will never know.
The lives of Thomas and Jane’s other children were more conventional. Their eldest son became a corn salesman; their youngest emigrated to New Zealand; and their daughters lived locally marrying farmers and businessmen. Thomas himself died in 1865, but Jane lived for nearly another twenty years, living first with her son Sidney, in his vicarage, and later with her daughter.
Thelwell Pike as a young doctor c1860
1. <ref> Annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners Vol 1 page 317 1834</ref>