Important Social Developments.
Back in 1864, a Royal Commission had been set up to investigate "further education". A great reformer Emily Davies had persuaded the Commission that college education should be made available to women; the outcome was the foundation of two women's colleges linked to Cambridge University. At that time it was considered inappropriate "on grounds of propriety" to have these colleges in Cambridge, so the first was started at Hitchin which was 26 miles away. Lecturers went over from the University and at first they were happy to do so; but after two hard winters the Hitchin College moved to within 2 miles of Cambridge and became Girton College. A second college for women was started, this time in Cambridge, but half of the professors still would not allow women to attend their lectures. There was opposition in the University to the idea of women competing with the men in the examinations; when at last they were allowed to do so they did very well. This was the Cambridge which Margaret Sewell was later to attend, entering Newnham in 1884. At the time of writing this short history of the Red House, Cambridge has just elected a woman to be its next Vice-Chancellor. The age of miracles is not yet past!
The second social development which had a bearing on the work of the Red House concerned trade unions. The first union for agricultural workers was started in Norfolk in the villages around Aylsham; the life of its founder floats in and out of the Red House history over many years so it is worth drawing together some of these events. The story begins in the year that Babington became Superintendent of the school when a destitute Marsham family named Edwards had been taken into the workhouse. One child George was allowed to start work at the age of six, scaring crows for 3 pence a day. When he reached the age of 16 in 1866 he was earning six shillings a week; at the age of 22 he founded a local union for land workers. The Eastern Weekly Press and the Peoples Weekly Journal helped to spread the movement. The union's first success was the Norfolk agreement of 1873, for pay of 13/-(65 new pence) for a six day week and time off for breakfast; but the working day was then from dawn to dusk or later. The remarkable story of the progress of George Edwards, from the workhouse to Westminster, is full of local interest. He tells in his book that the only schooling he ever had was at the Marsham Sunday School. He was helped by a wonderful wife, and by some local people who were well known Liberals in the old sense. They believed that men should be free to shape their own lives in the way they wished; they also believed that all men should be free to use their talents to the full.
One of those who helped George Edwards was Charles Louis Buxton; he was Liberal leader in North Norfolk and lived at Bolwick Hall, Marsham. When an employer turned George Edwards out of his farm cottage, because of his union activities, Mr Buxton gave a helping hand. He had a word with the farmer. The following letter tells of the happy outcome of this occasion.
Bolwick hall, Aylsham
"Dear Mr Edwards,
I was delighted to hear yesterday that your employer had withdrawn his notice for you to leave your work and house. I hope that everything will go on smoothly and that you will be quite happy and that we shall have no more of this kind of victimisation.
In North Norfolk most farmers voted Tory at that time whilst many of the big landowners supported the Liberal cause. Farm labourers had not then "got the vote" but George Edwards organised meetings to demand this and again lost his job, at Alby, for so doing. Louis Buxton then put in a word with Mr Ketton of Felbrigg Hall and he provided the Edwards family with a cottage and work on the estate. What is more, he lent George books and pamphlets on political matters from his library. Felbrigg now belongs to the National Trust; the library and other rooms are little changed from those days. It is well worth a visit.
To cut a long story short, when the Liberals won the General Election in 1885 farm labourers were enfranchised; George Edwards was invited to London to give evidence before a Royal Commission which was to inquire into the working of the Poor Law. The evidence caused a sensation. The eventual outcome was the establishment of local government. As a start, each parish with a population of over 300 was to have a Parish Council which would take over the business of the Vestry Meetings. Edwards had already proposed to the Commission that men over the age of 65 should receive an old-age pension and this was later adopted by Parliament.
When Louis Buxton died in 1906 it was George Edwards who took his seat on the Norfolk County Council as representative of the Buxton Division; later he was elected to Parliament. The union which Edwards had formed in 1872 eventually collapsed, as did the other unions which represented farm workers elsewhere. This was at a bad time when wages came down because farmers just could not make things pay. Some years later Edwards was invited to re-form the Norfolk union; this he did and it then spread to all parts of the country. The full story of George Edwards is particularly interesting because it describes the background from which many Red House boys came in the early days and to which they would have returned but for the after-card provided by the Babingtons.
"How little do we know of what we are;
How less, what we may be"
The last of the three social changes was the development of local government. The first County Council elections in Norfolk were in January 1889, to fill seats for 57 members and 19 aldermen. At the first provisional meeting Philip Sewell of New Catton was elected an Alderman. By the Local government Act of 1888 the administration of county affairs, which had long been the responsibility of the magistrates, was transferred to an elective representative County Council. The Council became responsible for such matters as education, county police and main roads. On the social services side the 500 parishes of Norfolk ha, as long ago as 1834, been grouped into Poor Law Unions and these had become districts (called Sanitary Districts) in 1875.
It had been hoped that the various services would be less costly when they became the responsibility of a lesser number of larger authorities. The Police within the county had cost 312,000 a year and main roads some £45,000. However within a year of the new County Council taking over, the cost of the police had doubled. The writer has not gone into the reasons for this; the cost of living was certainly not responsible for it had been falling slowly ever since the 1970's, and it continued to do so for some years.