William Harrison petitions the Commissioners of the Bedford Level

By the end of the 1820s the Fen Commissioners were active in drainage improvements. This often involved what is now called ‘compulsory purchase’ orders – but back in the early 19th century the modern day constraints did not apply. As part of these developments the commissioners also ‘acquired’ a significant portion of William’s land alongside the Hundred Foot drain. He was not happy, and predictably went into print.
Here follows over 2,000 words which give us a chance to appreciate William’s use of words and rhyme and – perhaps even more so – his command of the language and obvious depth of awareness of ancient history and of the wider happenings in Britain at the time, in both the social and political arena. He also shows that he knows how just far he can go without being libelous with his use of initials or xxx rather than the words that every reader at the time would know.
To help understand words that are no longer commonplace I’ve linked them thus (1) to footnotes at the end of the piece. There is a rhyming style in this document but it was not ‘versified’ by William. It is, after all a serious petition seeking to make a very important point. It is noticeable that William never drifts into ‘feeling sorry for himself’. It is a meaningful, deeply thought out address on a very important point.
The original published work was in a short line format. I toyed with making it easier to read without detracting in any way from the text rhythm by presenting the ‘Petition’ in mini paragraph groups of lines that followed William’s words. It didn’t work! What you see below, not counting the footnotes, is what was printed some 150+ years ago.
To the Honorable the Corporation of Bedford Level – The Petition of W. Harrison which Sheweth

With all humility and due submission
Becoming persons in his low condition
Wherever they attempt to make approaches
To those who drink Champagne and ride in Coaches.
All that respect which etiquette makes lawful,
When peasants undertake a charge so awful
As that of making an intrusive entry
To ask for justice at the hands of gentry.
He feels on this occasion and in short, all
The reverence mortal ought to feel for mortal,
As crockery Pipkins (1) should who know their places
On offering up their prayers to Chinese Vases.
But he’s a unit of that injured hundred
Whom your Right Honorable board has Blundered
Of land which you have cut away for ever
To make the Hundred foot a wider river.
Whose area according to a Survey
Made when the cradge (2) was turning topsy-turvey
Contain’d five statute roods and eighteen perches
Though what is the result of Baker’s searches
From excavating halfway to the centre
He cannot guess and therefore will not venture.
But this he knows it was a piece of good land
Without its equal in the wash as woodland
That he has lost it and if Baker laid it
At but one shilling you have never paid it.
That oftentimes his indignation waxes
To think that Evans should demand the taxes
With as much pertinacity as ever
For what is partly bank and partly river!
While all the rents for fishing and for grazing
That ever Legge is capable of raising,
You sweep away, unflinching and unfearing
He asks you, Gentlemen, is this fair steering?
He thinks it is not tho’ he boasts no knowledge
Beyond the rules of common sense’s college
Whatever it may be in those fine regions
Where logic proves eel pies are made of pigeons,
Or with an art superior to Pygmalion’s (3)
Changes horse chestnuts into chestnut stallions.
Whatever Cole, or Wells’s new Edition (4)
Of Cole may say, he speaks with due submission
As all must do, save libertines and bravos (5),
Whene’er they mention two such huge octavos
As those your learned Register produces
Adorned with Sections and ground plans of Sluices
Which give the work a zest with such as Dyson
As rich as scandal to the finest hyson. (6)
Although the learned obstetric operator
Brought forth contrary to the course of nature
And his Subscribers, maugre (7) their supposes
Met with the tail where commonly the nose is.
But whatsoever those two awful volumes
Contain within their pages or their columns
In form of statutes precedents or pleadings
To justify or sanction such proceedings.
Your conduct in this business discloses
Cole’s Laws are different from the Laws of Moses
Though most may think that Moses on the whole is
As competent as either Wells or Cole is.
Who in the use of registorial functions
Affect such disregard for his injunctions?
Had they perused those lithographic labels
Engraven on his two eternal tables,
They’d seen the law which guards our neighbours’ spouses
Extends its interdict to lands and houses,
Nor shows a single clause in mitigation
Not even in favour of a Corporation.
Whatever Cole might think of its austerity
It stands in all its primitive severity
Conjuring you by every name worth naming
To grant the restitution we are claiming;
To drop the tax and pay for what you’ve taken
Which may perhaps our gratitude awaken
And save that virtue from completely starving
Towards those who seldom think it worth deserving.
Perhaps such language may appear too fervent
For such a passive simple humble servant
And from the style becoming a petition
(Meek supplication and profound submission)
Degenerates into a downright lecture.
But as he is no personal respecter
Owning the meanest beggar in the nation
As much as him who fills its highest station,
And all unbiased by considerations
Which weigh with sycophants on such occasions,
He feels resolved however you may take it
To speak the truth as plain as words can make it.
Believing that for honor and veracity
In every individual capacity
Your conduct stands as far above impeaching
As roll the stars beyond our finite reaching.
And should he search from April to December
He could not find one solitary member
One Bailiff, Governor or Conservator
Who would not scorn an act of such a nature.
Who holds not sacred neighbours lands and houses
Nor is there one of all your loving spouses
Who like old Jezebel the lord would pardon
For robbing a poor Naboth of his garden (8)
Thus as your names shine thro’ the mists of slander
Clear as your streams which through the fens meander
(An older metaphor we might have quoted
One borrowed from the Sun, but he is spotted.
And far enough from absolute perfection
To justify the must in its rejection.)
Yet humbly wish the one we have appended
Less apropo’s when those clear streams are blended
But see from Salters Lode and Denver Sluices
What alteration unity produces!
From thence to Lynn altho’ the stream runs stronger
It keeps its limpid purity no longer.
So human virtue though severe as spartan
In life’s domestic walk, is almost certain
To lose its stern inflexible rigidity
And dwindle to indifference and cupidity.
When ‘tis compounded and amalgamated
With bodies politic or corporated
A noxious clime where all good feelings wither
And bad propensities are clubb’d together.
From whence (like the diseases of Pandora
Of which we read in mythologic story)
They come in shape of taxes rates and cesses (9)
All fertile sources, pregnant with distresses
As dire in consequence to human nature
As Simoons (10) burning blast or Etna’s crater.
While all the mischief’s mal-administration,
Through ignorance or folly may occasion
Is placed to the Account of some nonentity
Like “Miles’s Boy” a name without identity;
And is the blame to any member hinted?
This is the answer always ready minted
“The fault was none of mine Good God forbid it!
It was the House or Board or Bench that did it”.
All empty names of little worth or meaning
Excepting for the purposes of screening
From public eyes views of the avaricious
Weakness of fools, or whims of the capricious.
But surely now instead of supplicating
We’ve got into a strain of downright prating (11)
‘Tis time our prayer should finish and determine
Grown long enough in concluding on a sudden
To weary’d patience and a damag’d pudding.
Yet some assert who understand sound teaching
That “application is the soul of reaching”,
So we’ll apply the Subject with a question,
By way of Dessert to promote digestion,
Where is Sam Wells, the first on most occasions,
To deprecate the inroads and invasions
The Court, the Crown, the palace and the steeple
Make in the privileges of the people?
Is he grown dumb? or has he lost the feeling
He erst has been so forward in revealing?
The honest anger and just indignation
At knaves and fools however high their station
That thus in Sergeant’s Inn he softly slumbers?
Oh could the music arouse him with her numbers
She’d tell him “words are breath and breath is vapour”
And all not worth the ink that stains this paper
Unless accompanied with fitting actions.
Which the world weighs and counts to grains and fractions
And always marks in counting and in weighing
Due difference “twixt the doing and the saying
Preferring in her judgement of the matter
An ounce of action to a ton of chatter.
How often have we heard his declamation
Against corrupted rulers of the nation
Arraigning every scheme that ow’d its planning
To Wellington or Liverpool or Canning. (12)
And ringing changes on the various users
Of radical reform to check abuses
To prove how warm his patriotic zeal is
And what he’d do if he were but where Peel (13) is.
Now if that place he e’er should chance to stand in
Here’s just a little job to get his hand in
A happy nick for showing us a sample
Of what he’d do with energies more ample.
That ’tis not all bombastical parading
Where Rhodian (14) heaps and Spanish gasconading (15)
Or does he see oppression and detest her
As a reformer not as a register;
And think what’s base and odious in a nation
Quite amiable in a corporation?
But is there (we appeal to any wise man)
A single impost levy’d by excisemen
So opposite to every shade of reason
As that he levies season after season
On lands which you have taken from the people
And never paid for, from the Lake to Mepal? (16)
And if he still refuses to redress us
Or can and dare thus knowingly oppress us
‘Tis hoped hell be consistent for the future
Change sides in politics, at least, stand neuter.
For should injustice to a speech provoke him,
Perhaps his conscience may arise and choke him,
Then all your cottage tenants in the level
Will sigh and mourn as they did for old Bevill (17)
For whom they griev’d as they would for the d-v-l (18)
How Hunt (19) will weep and good old worthy Cobbett (20)
Bedew the grave and in the sequel rob it.
To show the Zones in radical devotion
With those he shipp’d across the Atlantic Ocean.
But this is by-the-bye and all sheer nonsense
For whoe’er knew a lawyer choked by conscience?
Since careful nature in the process plastic
Makes theirs so very supple and elastic.
A compound of all opposite ingredients
To meet all exigencies and expedients,
To cut like steel or stretch like India rubber
Freeze into ice or liquefy to blubber.
Just as self-interest, priest of Mammon’s idol,
May chance to clap the spur or pull the bridle
O how unlike that simple awful bolus (21)
Which other classes have to swallow solus.
A stubborn unaccommodating leaven (22)
Made from the dread of Hell and fear of Heaven
But in the dust we left our hero sleeping,
With hosts of radicals around him weeping.
We’ll therefore reassume the hint we started
With all due reverence to worth departed
A circumstance which had we the averting
Fate’s fatal shears should long be kept from hurting.
And spite of all the little wrong he did us
We’ed never clip the thread until he bid us.
Though time will surely render necessary
The business of the bard and lapidary. (23)
The last to charge perpetuating marble
With what the former may be pleased to warble
Yet though few lives afford sufficient matter
To fill four lives unless survivors flatter
As some have done in their attempts to sweeten
Names which have stunk like carrion maggot eaten
Here we would humbly hope the stone engraver
Will find a character of different savour.
For some inform us while the poor cold carcase
Lies rotting at the foot of death’s dark staircase
Its former virtues in surviving noses
Are substitutes for bergamot (24) and roses
And would if the supply were somewhat fuller
Cut up the trade of Deverreaux and Muller,
When all their trash for pickling unsound mutton
Would be reduced in value to a button.
But as things go those Frenchify’d perfumers
Are like to meet with custom and consumers
Since living vices are too strongly tainted,
For the departed virtues of the sainted.
And our defunct we fear will smell but faintly
At least in the olfactories of the saintly
And in whatever Iight the world may prize him
We scarcely hope the Pope will canonize him.
His recent conduct must be such a sticker
Within the gizzard of the Romish vicar
Though doubtless B _ S _ (25) will grant him freely
A niche in his cathedral church at xxx. (26)
For that display of filial resolution
He made for Mother Church and constitution
As for the pretty paltry Tythes of Cottenham (27)
The Reverend father has no doubt forgotten ’em.
Such happy chances and such tempting offers
Have since occurred to fill his hallow’d coffers
Prebends and rectors have been so complying
Some by resigning and the rest by dying.
That all the family are well provided
And all his late dislike to Sam (28)subsided
Whose character less some should stain or garble
And with untruths defile the sacred marble
We’ll just conclude this long extravaganza
And tag it with an ornamental stanza
Which may from our anticipated token
Like cold church prayers be either “sung or spoken”
And truths essential rules remain unbroken.

The Epitaph: (29)
Beneath this stone in irksome silence dwells
What once was downright radical Sam Wells
Who, though his cause was good and reasoning strong,
Spent so much time in saying what was wrong
That he forgot (through luckless oversight
On one occasion) doing what was right.

The footnotes
1 – A small pot
2 – An emergency bank added on top of an existing dike bank
3 – Ovid in ‘Metamorphoses’ tells the story of Pygmalion, a lonely sculptor who carves an ivory statue representing his ideal of womanhood. He falls deeply in love with his own creation and prays to Venus, the goddess of beauty & love, who takes pity on him and brings the statue to life.
4 – C.N.Cole mapped the Bedford Level around 1789 and S.Wells developed the plans for the Duke of Bedford around 1830
5 – A daring villain; hired assassin
6 – A very fine sort of Chinese green tea
7 – In spite of; notwithstanding
8 – The Biblical story in the First Book of Kings of Naboth’s murder for his vineyard at the hands of Ahab by the wiles of Jezabel.
9 – A tax; a local rate
10 – A hot suffocating desert wind
11 – Talking foolishly; talking boastfully or insolently
12 – The previous three Prime Ministers of England before William wrote this petition
13 – The Home Secretary at the time of the petition – later Prime Minister
14 – Of Rhodes – the island and city-state that was the originator of the earliest known system of marine law
15 – Extravagantly boastful talk
16 – An illustration of the area covered by the Hundred Foot expansion
17 – Bevil’s Leam (a ditch/drain) was completed in 1631 and ran from Whittlesey Mere to Guyhirne. It was 40 foot wide and 10 miles in length
18 – Devil
19 – This is probably Henry Hunt, a radical politician who died in 1835. In 1800 he had been imprisoned for challenging a Colonel of Yeomanry; in 1810 he was imprisoned for assaulting a gamekeeper who was presiding over the meeting that ended up as the Peterloo Massacre!
20 – William Cobbett was an essayist, politician & agriculturist who died in 1835. He was an active champion of the cause of the underprivileged.
21 – A rounded mass; a large pill
22 – A ferment (yeast for instance); anything that makes a change
23 – A cutter of stones – mainly gem stones
24 – A tree/fruit of the orange family. The fruit’s rind is the source of ‘Oil of Bergamot’ and is used as a key constituent of many perfumes
25/26 – At the time of William’s writing Bowyer Sparke was the Bishop of Ely and an active supporter of the Drainage Board
27 – In 1826 a dispute about tithes at the Fenland village of Cottenham – which represented around 75% of the rector’s income – was resolved after 500 years of arguing
28 – Sam Wells as referred earlier
29 – William’s ‘suggestion’ as to what should go on the headstone when Sam Wells ‘passed on’.


One comment

  1. Gilly Vose · · Reply

    Learning a lot from your blog Brian : ) Gilly

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