A tranquil village now overrun with apple, plum and pear trees was born out of great political unrest. Chris Upton finds out how.
The little village of Dodford, not far from Bromsgrove, must be one of the wealthiest places in Worcestershire.
The high – very high – hedges suggest a community which values its privacy, and each Victorian cottage stands in substantial grounds. It is, at first sight, quintessential middle England: comfortable, green and at ease with itself.
Delve a little deeper, however, and not all in Dodford is quite what it seems. For one thing, the cottages are all, give or take a few modern alterations, exactly the same as each other. Then there is the fruit.
Dodford is almost literally buried in it. Meet one of the house-owners – as I did a couple of years ago – and they will almost beg you to take it off their hands. They have more plums and apples and pears than they can possibly handle.
The explanation lies in events of some 160 years ago. One of the most tranquil villages in the Midlands is, in fact, the product of one of the greatest political upheavals of our history.
In the 1830s and 1840s Great Britain came dangerously close to class warfare and revolution. The gap between rich and poor was growing, and all power lay in the hands of a tiny elite. Nor was it possible, it seemed, to overturn this state of affairs by democratic means, since none of the poor and dispossessed had the power to vote.
The Reform Act of 1832 had widened the franchise a little, and given towns like Birmingham a seat at the high table, but had changed little else, and the new urban members found themselves continually outvoted by the country members, whose voters were exclusively landowners.
It was in this atmosphere that Chartism was born, with its demands for universal franchise, the removal of property qualifications for MPs, secret ballots and annual elections.
Only when such changes were implemented, argued the Chartists, could the political system be overturned, and the lives of working people improved.
Three times the Charter was presented to Parliament and three times it was rejected.
It appeared unlikely ever to get past the Commons, let alone the Lords. It was after the third failure – in 1842 – that one of the Chartist leaders, Feargus O’Connor, came up with a new strategy.
The Land Plan, as it was called, was cunningly designed to address both the problem of urban poverty and the grip of conservatism on rural England. A cooperative called the Chartist (or National) Land Company was to be created, which would purchase land in the countryside.
Working families would then be shipped out of the cities to settle there. On their new plots the people would become self-sufficient and, as the proud owners of a house and four acres of land, they would also have the right to vote in general elections.
So imaginative and novel was the idea that no one knew whether it was legal or not. But by the time a select committee had been set up to investigate, four pieces of land had been purchased and four new communities established. They were O’Connorville in Hertfordshire, Charterville in Oxfordshire, and Snig’s End and Lowbands in the Forest of Dean. Great Dodford was the fifth and last to be created in July 1849. A sixth site – at Mathon, near Malvern – was bought but never settled.
The 280 acres of the Dodford estate, purchased by O’Connor in May 1848 for £10,200, was divided up into four-acre plots and 40 cottages constructed on it.
Compared to the average farm labourer’s cottage the ones at Great Dodford were spacious. Each had a pump and well in the kitchen, and each was supplied with good furniture and outbuildings for animals.
The surrounding land, of course, was to provide each family with sustenance, and to allow them to earn an income by growing produce for sale at Birmingham and other markets. The fruit trees which overwhelm the current owners are largely the product of the original planting.
All of the Dodford cottages are now in private hands, but one of them (Rosedene) was bought by the National Trust in 1997 and has been largely returned to its original condition. I can thoroughly recommend a visit, but check the opening hours before you go. They are not as extensive as in most NT properties.
The settlement at Great Dodford was never quite the New Jerusalem O’Connor had conceived. For the first four settlements, anyone who bought a share in the company was entered in a ballot, and names of settlers drawn at random.
This form of lottery was later declared illegal, and prospective settlers at Dodford had to pay a substantial deposit, well beyond the means of the urban poor. Rosedene was bought by an East India pensioner – William Hodgkiss – for £120. By the time of the settling of Dodford the Chartist Land Company was in trouble. It had been forced to buy land above its true value, and many of the shareholders looked unlikely ever to get their home in the country.
Of those who had been settled, many were struggling to pay the £5 a year ground rent. And changing from a factory worker to a farmer was not an overnight step.
At this point the select committee made its damning report, and the Government moved in to wind up the company. The company had never been legally registered, either as a joint-stock company or as a charity, and no proper accounts had been kept. As with much of the Chartist movement, high ideals were compromised by messy practicalities.
Most of the plots at Dodford were sold off when the company was abolished.
The failure of the scheme was enough to tip Feargus O’Connor over the edge into insanity, though many had called him mad for launching it in the first place.
And so the socialist paradise at Great Dodford became something very different. “New Chartism” we might call it.