The Letters of Richard Hodgkinson of Atherton

One of Hodgkinson’s cross-written letters (DDX211/8)

[This article first appeared in the Lancashire Record Office Annual Report for 1961]

In 1792 Louis XVI of France had been dethroned and was shortly to be guillotined : in England George III had already reigned for 32 years, the American Colonies had been lost and the country was preparing for the long war with Revolutionary France. Forty-five years later on the 20 June, 1837, Queen Victoria came to the throne and the great era to which she gave her name commenced.

On the 4 July, 1838, Richard Hodgkinson who had the previous year retired after 45 year’s service as the agent, first of Miss Henrietta Maria Atherton and then of her husband the Hon. Thomas Powys, later 2nd Lord Lilford, wrote to his former master” We have got the coronation festival over very comfortably and very creditably at Chowbent….at the first meeting on 21 June and I was elected president which placed me in a situation in which it is very improbable any individual will be placed for a century to come, that is, of being unanimously elected president and presiding at three successive coronation dinners.”

Obviously here was a man of more than ordinary “worthiness” and” respectability.” One attribute of the man we have particular reason to be grateful for : he was methodical and a tidy correspondent. Of every letter he wrote he appears to have kept a copy, or to be more accurate, his first draft, and these together with the replies he received he carefully fled away for future generations. There can be no doubt as to his intentions in this matter for to one bundle of letters he attached a note-”1837 Jan. 27th. Arranging some of my papers – I thought these letters might be destroyed, but finding they embraced a correspondence of more than twenty years and that they alluded to many local as well as family circumstances. I thought they might at some time afford some amusement for a vacant hour to the person into whose hands they might happen to fall after my death”.

Nevertheless Richard Hodgkinson would no doubt be surprised to find his correspondence preserved as archives both in the Manchester Central Library and in the Lancashire Record Office ; those in the latter belonging to two distinct collections ; the one deposited in 1952 by a descendant of his then living in Droitwich [Lancashire Archives reference DDX 211], the other, part of the extensive muniments of the 7th Lord Lilford which have only recently come into the Record Office’s care [Lancashire Archives reference DDLI].

The cover of one of Hodgkinson’s notebooks (DDX 211/19)

By and large, the correspondence deposited in 1952 is as might be expected domestic correspondence with friends and members of the family and that preserved in Lord Lilford’s muniments arose out of Hodgkinson’s responsibilities as Lord Lilford’s agent, but both collections contain references to many other matters of more than general interest.

Lord Lilford’s seat was in Northamptonshire and when he was not there he was generally living in London. For this reason Hodgkinson has more than the ordinary cares of a steward : he had not merely to look after the estates of his master, buying and selling land and stock, renewing leases and holding rent days but also to attend to many of the innumerable duties of local administration and welfare which in those times normally fell upon the shoulders of the owners of large estates. For example he had a lot to do with the local militia, poor relief, charities and even lobbying at Westminster when local bills were being passed. To complete the picture of the diversity of his talents it only remains to mention that before he was appointed agent at Atherton he had been a school-master.

The variety of his functions is reflected in his correspondence but probably the most interesting letters are those in which he describes local conditions in the terrible years of the Napoleonic Wars when the visitor to Atherton, in Hodgkinson’s words “Would find here little but misery and distress-beyond your power to relieve or even palliate.” The three years from 1799 to 1801 were particularly bad. The summer of 1799 was very wet : on the 18 July Hodgkinson wrote” At the time of writing this it has been raining 16 hours.” On the 5 August” I never experienced such weather in my life…nearly one half of the hay in this county will be…completely spoiled.” He watched the markets carefully : on the 22 March, 1800, he noted “Oats are not to be bought for less than 9s. Per bushel.” On 17 October-”Markets rose very rapidly at Preston on Saturday and at Warrington on Wednesday. Last Tuesday I sold 20 bu. of your wheat at 16s. Per bushel and it is still rising.” On the 31 October he wrote gloomily “Government must and will encourage and protect the purchasers and vendors of grain, and this will be construed by the populace into encouragement of monopolists.”

What “the populace” thought was indeed assuming some importance. As early as May 1798 in reply to a letter about arming volunteers for defence against the French Thomas Powys had written-”I conclude they will not think it prudent to enroll indiscrimately all who may come forward…it must be very essential that arms should not be put into dangerous hands.” In October 1800 Hodgkinson wrote “The poor here certainly cannot subsit under present circumstances-last winter was a hard one for them but this will, I doubt, be worse.” Trade, thank God, goes tolerably well, but should…a rupture between England and the Northern Powers take place…I am persuaded in my own mind that all the exertions of Government could not support, nor all the military strength of the Empire supress, the people.”

There is no doubt that Hodgkinson was in a better position than most people to judge the desperate mood of the masses. The potato fields were being raided-”Some early ones which the Keeper planted in a corner of the Park” – a forerunner of the “Dig for victory” campaign of the last war?- ”have been entirely carried off in the night.” “When there is no more plunder in the fields how must we guard our barns and our houses?-Hunger cannot…sit still.”

By the spring of 1801 the situation was even worse. “The people…seem only waiting for opportunity to break out into open riot…if the explosion do take place it will be dreadful…the poor are absolutely starving for want of both food and clothing. An industrious family in full work cannot earn more than half meat. The manufacturers are already beginning to reduce their work people….The Bolton Volunteers keep guard every night.”

There were ugly incidents : “A cow belonging to the D[uke] of Bridgewater was driven out of the pasture upon the Moss in front of Worsley Hall and there slaughtered and the whole carried off except the entrails and skeleton of the head.”

Hodgkinson’s views were quite orthodox ; he was a humane person, critical of the government’s handling of the war and sympathetic to the plight of the poor, but naturally he looked at things from the point of view of the “Landed interest.”

“The people”-he wrote- ”have been tampered with by evil designing persons who have been industriously administering oaths for combination to them. Fifty persons of this description were taken up at Manchester a few days ago. Last week 3 were taken up at Bolton and sent to Lancaster.” In a passage which is particularly redolent of the prejudices of the time he writes “I have long predicted that the pressure of the times would have a worse effect upon the morals of the people than upon their health and constitutions. My predictions have already been too well verified and I own I know not how the winter will be got over.” The only solution to the problem of poverty still appeared to be charity and yet more charity. A soup shop for the poor of the townships of Westleigh and Pennington was opened in December 1800, to be supported out of the poor rates, and Hodgkinson wrote asking Lord Lilford what money he might spend to provide for “Casual poor,” that is, those who belonged neither to Pennington nor to Westleigh, and he asked permission to kill five does out of the park for the poor. On the 12 January, 1801 he “Called a general town meeting at Chowbent…to take into consideration the state of the poor. The Overseer has already expanded what was to have sufficed until May. We allowed another book to the same amount so that the poors rates this year in Atherton will be exactly doubled…we have appointed a committee to assist the Overseer and Visitors, three for each month, who are personally to visit and view the poor. Their reports of distress and starvation are too shocking to repeat-the bedding and clothes of the poor are entirely worn out and yet their earnings will not procure them half food.”

Hodgkinson was not in an enviable position. He commented wryly-”The great extent of Lord Lilford’s property and concerns necessarily involves me in all the inconveniences and distresses of this populous parish, being guilty of two offences unpardonable at the present day, viz. of being possessed of property myself and of managing the property of a nobleman. I am of course supposed to be a foe to Reform.” Yet something of his humanity and good will must have been obvious for he felt in no peril, though “Some of my neighbours…I really think, are in personal danger.”

The inevitable results of poverty and famine before the present age of mass immunization campaigns were epidemics of frightening proportions. On the 18 November, 1801, Hodgkinson reported to Lord Lilford “The fever does not abate in our neighbourhood, but rather rages with renovated malignity. I have three friends at Chowbent so ill that I am every hour in expectation of hearing of their deaths.” Whatever the malady was, it was sudden and devastating -”A young woman about 25 years of age spent the afternoon with my wife while I was receiving rents at Chowbent. She…left us at 10 o’clock in as high health and spirits as ever I saw her. Before she got up next morning she was so suddenly and violently attacked that she has literally been raging made ever since…and the doctors all agree that…should she survive the fever her reason will never return.”

Indeed, death was never far away. Almost as an after-thought, it appears, in a letter dated the 6 December, 1800. Hodgkinson wrote “I was apprehensive I should have lost my youngest daughter this last week, but I ipe all danger is over now.” Even mild illness which only entailed a week in bed could have disastrous effects on a family already on the edge of starvation and the two factors of poor health and poor wages acted upon each other in a vicious circle.

In the midst of the general calamity Hodgkinson had other cares not unconnected with the distress of the poorer classes. The landed gentry suffered from the rising prices and were often in the unfortunate position of having great wealth locked up in their estates but very little spare cash. A mortgage which would normally have solved a temporary problem of this nature was difficult to come by, for “Merchants and tradesmen of large capital have of late been so much accustomed to immense gains arising from speculations…that legal interest of money and the common profits of trade are becoming contemptible in their eyes.” On the 22 October, 1801, Hodgkinson wrote to Lord Lilford “I never knew the run for money against me at Atherton so unfortunate as it is at present. Having settled with and paid Mr. Hornby, Mr Gorst then applies for £300 to take with him to London….I had no sooner arranged this business with Mr. G. then I received a letter from Miss A. desiring me to come to Tulketh the latter end of next week and bring her all the money that is now due to her which is about £180. This completely nonplussed me, particularly as I hate the idea of it being imagined that money is not always ready at Atherton to satisfy just demands.” However, for a man of Hodgkinson’s resource there was always some solution and nowhere in the correspondence is there any indication that he ever let down his employer or any one else in financial matters even if he had, on at least one occasion, to place his own money in the post.

So far we have dealt only with a short period, drawing almost exclusively on the series of letters contained in the Lilford archives. In actual fact sufficient material survives for a short biography of this interesting local worthy, though there is space here only to list some of the correspondence and the topics upon which their letters touched. For example still in the same series of letters to Lord Lilford, interesting light is shed upon the response of the locality to the call for Armed Associations in 1798-”The reason why Atherton produces so few [volunteers] is that one half at least of the more opulent and respectable householders in Chowbent are dissenters and refuse to come forward at all.”

Particulars of wages,both of agricultural workers and silk and cotton weavers occur intermittently. In a letter to Lord Lilford dated the 21 December, 1801, there is an intriguing reference to “Three or four of my friends who…have determined to go to France immediately in the way of trade.” Mr Newton [who] keeps a very respectable shop in Chowbent in partnership with a Mr. Smith in the twist spinning business,”Mr Gregory in the same business in partnership with a Mr. Part, and a Mr Cook” Engaged in the…weaving branch of the cotton business.” The fourth member of the party was a Mr. Valentine who was to act as interpreter. The purpose of Hodgkinson’s letter was to ask Lord Lilford to use his influence to smooth the path of the four men. Unfortunately they are not mentioned again. The war had ended on the 1 October in that year and the peace only lasted some eighteen months, so if in fact this miniature trade mission achieved anything it must necessarily have been short-lived, but we cannot but admire the enterprise of these local examples of our “Nation of shop-keepers.”

In the Droitwich deposit is an interesting series of letters to and from Richard’s nephew John Hodgkinson who was a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars and finally settled at Gosport as a waterman. Hodgkinson and the Rev. John Blundell of each other mainly local and personal news until Blundell died n 1834.

Nine letters survive of a triangular correspondence between Richard, his son David and Mr Curwen of Workington Hall, upon whose model farm at Schoose David spent some time studying the latest methods of agriculture in 1815.

Though the word “respectable” has lost much of its force through being overworked and has become almost a synonym for “dull and uninteresting,”Richard Hodgkinson of Atherton, who was so capable and efficient in everything he undertook, so aware of the great issues of his time and having such a wide range of interests in matters great and small, could truly be described as worthy and respectable.

Notes: see DDLI; DDX 211 for details of material at Lancashire Archives

Tax assessment (DDX 211/1)

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