- Angmering's Political Firebrand
© Neil Rogers-Davis, 2002
It is doubtful whether Edwin Harris was ever an easy person to live or work with and ever achieved much popularity (particularly with his peers), but I believe this man, who lived in Angmering for most of his life, should be remembered with gratitude alongside the villages' wealthy benefactors of the last 200 years. Here was a man bent on change - a significant change in the living conditions of the working man.
This is not an account of a man risen in life from rags to riches. Edwin Albert Harris started life in relatively comfortable surroundings. He was born in Donnington near Chichester on 11 November 1866 to farmer William Harris and his wife Sarah and was the seventh of their nine children. William farmed only 40 acres of land (Hardings Farm and a freehold field in Jury Lane) but I suspect he may have been slightly wealthier than this modest acreage would suggest.
Later in his life, Edwin wrote with great knowledge of the land, its farmers, the large landowners and how the smaller farmer had almost been squeezed out of existence. Was he reflecting his own experiences and perhaps bitterness of his father resulting from 19th Century agricultural change - a man who had lived through the Swing Riots and their later repercussions? What we do know is that Edwin's ancestors had owned and farmed land in Donnington for 300 years. One early antecedent was Thomas Harris, bailiff of the manor of Chichester in the late 1500s.
All William and Sarah's children initially attended the local Donnington school, the two eldest sons leaving to work on their father's farm. There are indications in the school records that the Harris children challenged authority. Edwin and his older brother Joseph certainly did and older sister Dora was withdrawn to attend a private school in Chichester.
There are also indications that some of the Harris children were educationally bright. On leaving Donnington school at the age of 12 to go to Chichester, Dora was the only child in school at that time to have reached the 6th Standard. Edwin was actually withdrawn from the school some months earlier, the assigned reason being "Discipline objected to", another sign of the Harris family's independence and perhaps unwillingness to accept Victorian attitudes and the structured class system of which Edwin was to attack in later years.
The Donnington school records suggest that even at an early age Edwin was able to read and was advanced in comparison to many of his peers. Today we would probably recognise signs of a bored child waiting for the others to catch up and consequently perhaps disruptive. Edwin was therefore sent to the Tower Street Boys' British School in Chichester which later became the Chichester Lancastrian School. Here Edwin seemed to flourish educationally passing the 6th Standard in 1879, a level that few of his peers in the school achieved. His brother Eldred, two years his junior, followed him to Chichester but his educational achievements, if any, are not recorded.
Although reasonable, Edwin's educational attainments were probably insufficient for him to enter one of the professions. Perhaps even if they were good enough, he may not have had the desire to do so. He therefore settled down to learning a trade - that of a wheelwright - and one which would hold him in good stead through his working life.
In his early 20s, Edwin set up business as a wheelwright in Angmering in 1887 along with his brother, Eldred. They initially lived at the bottom of the Arundel Road near The Square.
During his apprenticeship, Edwin would have learned about the manipulation of materials and especially wood and metal. For most wheelwrights however, wheels were only part of their work. They often built the cart or wagon, complete with shafts and axle-beds; it would be their responsibility to see that the wheels were properly hung from the axle-arms. He probably was familiar with and employed the use of modern equipment such as machine driven lathes. Within a few years he had branched out from his prime business and had included plumbing as part of his activities.
The 1890s and early 1900s saw a tremendous demand for additional housing and the ambitious Edwin seems to have taken full advantage of that opportunity establishing himself as a builder before the end of the century.
One of his early assignments was the building of Gladstone Cottages (right) in Water Lane in 1898. The inscription "AH 1898" can still be seen on the front of the cottages today. He may well have named the Cottages after the great Liberal statesman who died that year. Later work included the building of a substantial home for himself in the High Street in 1900, and later, The Cottrells.
His own house, in which he lived for the rest of his life, lies beyond Somerset House (east of the old Post Office) which today comprises two houses known as Mont Coline and Farthing Down. Originally it was a single property - Mont Coline. It is was probably the biggest dwelling built in the village in the first half of the 20th Century. The house was an imposing development, rather than beautiful, but it did make substantial use of local flint to its frontage.
The building of Mont Coline must have been a costly affair and gives some indication of the status of Edwin Harris by 1905. The Sussex Blue Book and Court Directory of that year lists Harris as one of the village notables alongside Sir Henry Fletcher and landowner Charles Duke. The population of Angmering at that time exceeded 1000 yet Harris was one of only sixteen listed notables in the village.
Edwin married his wife Mary Grant, daughter of Angmering baker Henry Grant in 1891. Their one and only child, a daughter Mary Sophia, was born in 1893. It is interesting to note that they were married at the New Street Baptist Chapel in Worthing. In 1891 it would appear that the Angmering Baptist Chapel did not have a licence to solemnise marriages; even at the Worthing Chapel, a registrar was required to be present. Many Baptists at that time had sympathies with the emerging Labour Party - fighting social inequalities. This seems to be in keeping with the feeling gained from Edwin Harris's writings that he was not anti-religion but anti-Established Church.
How did he achieve this status in such a short time as he was only 38 at the time and his building business was still in relative infancy? His father's Will of 1890 indicates that he left sums of money (about £3000 in today's values) to all his children except Edwin. Did this mean that there had been a rift between father and son or could it have been that William had already given Edwin his inheritance to set up business in Angmering? Mary's relations were also not without money, a couple being farmers in the district, and bakers, which were among the better off tradesmen at that time.
If our knowledge of Edwin's working life in Angmering is a little sketchy, it is certainly not when it comes to his politics. Edwin was a true radical - and a radical with a mission. That mission was to improve the living conditions of the working man and to fight against his exploitation by the landed classes. He abhorred the class system, the big landowners, and the clergy of the time; this must have led to unpopularity with (a) the Angmering notables, (b) those who wished to be seen in their company, and (c) perhaps some of the working men themselves who feared for their livelihoods if they became associated with him. By 1905, however, Harris had achieved the status to enable him to ignore criticism or intimidation and was in a position to commence his crusade.
The 1890s was the time when more intrepid men began to voice their feelings against exploitation of workers. It was the time when Kier Hardie came to the fore. Hardie, already branded an agitator in 1878, took up journalism and began to work for the organisation of miners campaigning for better social and working conditions. Disillusioned with the Liberal Party he turned to socialism and became Chairman of the newly formed Scottish Labour Party in 1888. He founded the 'Labour Leader' newspaper in 1889 and eventually was elected Independent Labour MP for South West Ham in 1893. Keir Hardie became the first leader of the Labour Party in England when it was established in 1900. This then is the political backcloth of the time.
Harris reflects all of these socialist sentiments in his later writings and must have kept very much abreast of the developing political scene. He probably read a great deal. In 1910 he writes in praise of St. Wilfred's Reading Room and Social Club founded by Rev. Father Von Osbach in 1900 which had a membership of 100, and in 1912 bitterly condemns the authorities who closed down that facility.
We will come to his publications a little later.
Edwin Harris was a man of many parts. He was obviously successful in business. Later writings showed that he had much ability with the pen. He also had deep socialist sympathies. But did he make any attempt to put his politics and wealth to use and actually improve the conditions of the working man? The answer is an overwhelming affirmative.
All started with the Local Government Act of 1894 which established local Parish Councils. On 4 December 1894, Angmering Parish Council held its first meeting, Edwin Harris receiving 31 of the 671 votes cast. There are indications of probably pre-arranged block voting at that meeting and it is interesting to note that half of the Angmering Cricket Club committee members were elected! Voting was also performed by show of hands which may have had some impact on the outcome. The Rev James Bond Orme received the most votes and was subsequently elected as the Council's first Chairman. Harris just managed to get elected but lost his seat just three months later when a smaller Parish Council was formed.
Five years elapsed before Harris was back on the Parish Council but by then I am sure his political thoughts had crystallised and he had experienced first hand the influence on the local electorate by the principal landowners, the clergy, and Sir Henry Fletcher MP of Ham Manor.
Re-elected as a councillor in 1901, Harris was soon appointed to the Lighting and Village Green Sub-Committees and the minutes showed that he constantly proposed motions urging better housing conditions for labourers. Many of his battles were lost but nevertheless he pressed for change and there is little evidence that he achieved any popularity or support. Perhaps as a way of channelling his energies away from providing costly social improvements in the village, in March 1904 the Council appointed him as a manager for Olders Charity School and St Wilfreds RC School. In April the following year, he was appointed as an Overseer (for the poor). In 1907 he lost his place on the Council and was replaced by W Lindfield.
However, Harris was not to be deterred by all these rebuffals and, as mentioned previously, built Gladstone Cottages in 1898 and the Cottrells ebetween 1912 and 1914, good habitations for the working man. It is unclear how the building of these properties was financed but it is apparent that the initiative came from Harris himself.
It would appear that Edwin Harris's experiences on the Parish Council infuriated him, especially the lack of progress that was being made to improve housing in Angmering. He began to write.
Possibly as support for getting re-elected to the Parish, Harris published the first of three pamphlets in December 1910. The village magnates were obviously infuriated and perhaps fearful to hear of his intended work and suggested to him that it was "as unwise, as it was useless, to instruct the 'common people' in their parish history"!
It is not intended to enter into great detail on these writings or to produce extensive tracts from them, but summaries of each pamphlet are shown below. The titles appear to show increasing frustration.
Angmering - A Study. December 1910
This is essentially a history of Angmering with political
comment which, relatively mild by today's standards, must nevertheless have
caused alarm bells to ring with the establishment of 1910. Harris talks of the
land, the houses and cottages, the population, the iniquities of the closure of
the commons, the church and chapels, the schools, the ineffectiveness of the
Parish Council, the Charities, recreation and the reading rooms, sick and
benefit clubs, old and new roads, and the public houses. All in all a
most interesting and readable document.
Angmering: A Study And a Question for Clapham and Patching - Written expressly for Working Men. 1912
This is more 'dangerous' political material. Harris traces land and property ownership in the parish from before and after the Reformation. He is highly critical of the exploiting landowners and the ineffectiveness of the clergy to improve the living and working conditions of labourers. He is scathing of all the major landowners over the centuries and the Rectors of Angmering. He attacks the attitudes that pertained on the Parish Council and deplored the appalling housing conditions of many of the villagers. The increasing theme is one of the maintenance of the class system by the landowners and wealthy, and their submission of the workers.
A thousand copies of this pamphlet were sold in a few months. The local clergy and squire sought opinion from their lawyers who, somewhat out of character according to Harris, offered advice free of charge in this matter. The squire accused Harris of 'setting class against class' - perhaps that alone was ample justification for Harris publishing the document in the first place as it challenged the authority of those attempting to keep down the working classes paying them as little as possible.
Angmering: A short Treatise, shewing its descent from Congregated Wealth to Congregated Poverty - from Maypole and Morris to Servitude and Workhouse. 1914
This final work is a continuation of Harris's attack on the landowners and the manors in Angmering through the centuries although this time he is more circumspect, no doubt aware that litigation might follow. It is perhaps a more considered work and certainly uses statistics to prove a point. He strongly condemns the enclosure of the Common Land and its impact on the villagers. He also pillories the clergy for failing to release land in order new and improved houses can be provided for the poor. He continues a tirade against the Parish Council - here is an extract:
"For the burden of an ill-conceived structure is saddled on the parish, and already found practically useless. Moreover, it must at the first flood, prove a bitter and an incalculable expense. Thus we sadly inscribe a 20 years' record of narrow ignorance and self-interest, equalling, or even exceeding, the squire, parson, and farmer combination that preceded it. .........So presently the working men in Angmering, who sweat and toil on bad and dear allotments, when they might easily have good and cheap ones, or who pay dear rent caused by double rents on their cottages, which lies equally in their power to alter, will wake and ask themselves why they vote for their own affliction"
"Till the present, because it is a main plank of the system, they are carefully taught from infancy to support any farmer or squire, let him be never so dense. But the time is nigh in Angmering when they will see through the sham, and by a little consideration and common sense, escape very much of their present unfair hardship, and the galling injustice."
It is pleasing that Harris finishes this pamphlet on a more cheerful and positive note recognising changes that were beginning to happen and providing amusing anecdotes of village life in Angmering.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that these fairly substantial pamphlets were printed by Linfield Bros., Littlehampton, price 2d each, a price presumably the working man could afford.
Between 1914 and 1925, we know little about Edwin Harris other than, according to the Kelly's Directories of the period, he continued to be registered as a builder for much of that period living at Mont Coline. The only reference to him in the Parish Council minutes is an entry under the 9 July 1917 meeting in which it states that he sent a letter to the Council relating to the cost of the allotment fence, presumably the allotments close to the Cottrells.
In 1911, Harris aquired land behind what is now Cottrell House and Winchester House where he established his builders' yard and a year later commenced constructing the terraced houses which he named The Cottrells. These he let out to working men at low rents.
What we do know is that Harris is no longer listed as a builder in the Kelly's Directory of 1922 and perhaps he was winding up his business at this time. Certainly, from a legal action in 1925, he described himself as a retired builder.
In 1925, at the age of 59, Harris was returned to the Parish Council. Mr G Field immediately proposed him as a manager of Older's Charity School (it will be remembered that he was elected in that capacity in 1903) but this time no one would second him for the appointment. It would appear he had few friends on the Council - perhaps they were still smarting from the content of his 1910-1914 pamphlets. However, he did represent the Parish on the Board of Guardians.
If there are any cynical thoughts that his cry for new and/or improved housing was of benefit to him as a builder, perhaps they would be assuaged by his actions of the 1920s after he had disposed of his business. Through 1925 he constantly condemned the insanitary conditions and overcrowding of cottages in the village and demanded that new houses be built to replace them. The Parish Council seemingly was at last in agreement with him and letters pursuing the matter were sent to the East Preston Rural District Council (the forerunner of Worthing Rural District Council and subsequently the Arun District Council).
Also during 1925, Harris became the Parish Council's representative on the East Preston Rural District Council and he continued in this capacity until about 1934. In 1928, he persuaded the Parish Council that, in view of the size of the parish, another representative was required for Angmering on the District Council but it does not appear the Parish Council was successful. Today, Angmering has three representatives on Arun District Council - although its population has substantially increased - so perhaps Harris was not too wide of the mark when making his proposal.
During 1924 and 1925, although probably not representing the Parish Council, he took legal action against the trustees of the William Older Charity who had lost a legal case against Mrs Mant following their aquistion of land in what is now St Nicholas Gardens for a school playground. They had broken a way into this land through Mrs Mant's garden and had removed her fence. The trustees wished to pay the legal costs of that case out of the charity's funds to which Harris objected. He does not appear to have succeeded in his quest but at least managed to clarify the status of the trust as an educational charity.
Through the latter half of the 1920s he continued his campaign for better housing and was vociferous in many matters. In 1926, he was again appointed as a manager of St Wilfred's RC School, and to the Allotment Sub-Committee.
In 1927, trying to improve quality of service and getting greater value for money, he convinced the Parish Council of the need to investigate changing the supply of water from Littlehampton to Worthing. They gave the task to him and, within two years, the supply source was altered. Still in 1927, Harris was given authority by the Parish Council to close down houses in Barrack Yard and the Bunnes due to the insanitary conditions which he had reported.
The year 1928 saw him appointed as leader of the Footpaths Sub-Committee which he executed with great energy and efficiency, later reporting back to the Parish Council identifying and documenting all the footpaths in the parish. All these were detailed in the Council's minutes. Below is a typical example extracted from those minutes:
"The Lightening" - just west of the school and running eastwards parallel with Church Road continuing through the Garden of The Lamb Inn and emerging on Water Lane at the South West Corner.
Ushering in the new water scheme in 1929, the Parish Council proposed a charge of 1/3d in the £; Harris opposed this as he considered it far too high but failed to receive support from any of his fellow councillors. The new Sewerage Scheme was also under discussion at that time and Harris urged the Parish Council to seek assistance from the Government to finance the Scheme.
From the foregoing it is clear that 1927-9 were indeed busy years for the Parish Council and for Harris himself.
Harris opposed the appointment of a Council representative to sit on the new Village Hall's Management Committee but, again, his was a lone voice. During the year, Harris became aware of an attempt by the Littlehampton Urban District Council to absorb Angmering, East Preston and Rustington within the boundaries of that administrative body. He called for a motion opposing this approach and was fully supported by the rest of the Parish Council. The fight continued into 1930 and eventually after representations by Harris and Parish Council Chairman, Dr Chaplin, the plan to change the boundaries was finally dropped.
The last Parish Council battle of Harris was in the early 1930s when he proposed that the Council purchase land for allotments - he had had a long association with Angmering's allotments. However, Dr Chaplin rebuffed this proposal as he felt the Council did not have the necessary powers. To settle the disagreement, the Council wrote to the Ministry who confirmed Harris's view.
Harris continued as a member of Angmering Parish Council between 1930 and 1934 but it appears that some fire had gone out of him. He was in his mid-60s by this time and perhaps he had obtained some satisfaction that he had been successful in pursuing and implementing vastly improved living conditions for many people in the parish.
His last documented activity was to propose that action be taken to restore the Village Green and send the bill to the County Council. This was an act of frustration as the County Council had on several occasions been requested to undertake the work but had failed to act.
Another reason perhaps why Harris eschewed local politics in 1934 may have been that he had received an approach from another quarter.
In that year, Harris was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the Western Division of the County of Sussex. It appears he was active in this capacity for at least the next four years.
Edwin Harris was undoubtedly well off. At his large house, Mont Coline (right), he acquired a sizeable collection of works of art and pictures.
At the age of 74, he finally died and was buried in St Margaret's churchyard in the village on 3 September 1942. His wife Mary had pre-deceased him, dying in January 1932 at the age of 65. Daughter Mary Sophia Harris was buried along with her parents on her death in 1963.
Edwin left effects valued at £7365 8s 5d at the time. To put this into perspective, it would have the purchasing power of about £250,000 at today's values, a reasonable but not substantial sum. However, works of art and paintings have considerably outstripped inflation over the last 60 years and, if such articles had been included, the estate may have been worth anything up to £1 million today.
What is rather strange is that Harris made a very simple Will in 1898 and never made another thereafter, despite his increasing wealth. Describing himself as a carpenter, he left all his estate and effects to his wife, Mary, and appointed her as the sole executrix. As Mary died some ten years before Edwin, daughter Mary Sophia was granted Letters of Administration by the Probate Registry at Lewes in 1943; however, due to some incapacity, she was unable fulfil these duties. Further Letters of Administration were therefore granted the following year to Emily Grant, wife of Sydney James Grant, presumably one of Mary Harris's relations.
Wheelwright, plumber, builder, political firebrand, Baptist, local benefactor, parish and district councillor, local historian, writer, Justice of the Peace, collector of works of art - Edwin Harris was all of these - a man of very many parts.
Harris was largely successful in highlighting the living and working conditions of Angmering's working classes and certainly accelerated implementation of improvements and better housing. In doing so, however, I am sure he made many enemies, not that would be of much concern to him. He had achieved the wealth and social status that granted him a certain immunity from intimidation by the parish's magnates.
But why is Harris relatively unknown today? I believe that he was probably born 20 years before his time. Twenty years later, his politics would have been more acceptable. He would have come to the fore in about 1920, shortly after the end of the Great War. History has taught us that the result of major wars is inevitably change and that is exactly what happened in the 1920s. The class system was under attack. Working men were no longer prepared to kowtow to the squire and the landowner; after serving their country through the Great War, they demanded better. The influence of the clergy had also greatly diminished by this time.
Perhaps, due to such changes, Harris was more comfortable during the time he served the councils in the 1920s and 1930s because his politics were at last being embraced, although still somewhat reluctantly in some quarters. I would like to think that he would have approved of the approach to social matters taken today by the Angmering Parish Council and the clergy of recent years although I am sure he would still have been impatient at the pace of change.
It is sad that, despite an on and off involvement with the Parish Council over a period of 40 years, the minutes of the Council in 1942 failed to mention his passing or his contribution. This is particularly surprising as the long-standing Chairman, Dr Chaplin, lived next door to Harris for many years and up to the time of his death.
Not even the local newspapers recorded the event but, in their defence, it was wartime and it was probably not reported to them. They had limited resources and paper was in short supply.
Born 20 or 25 years later, Edwin Harris could have become one of the most notable leaders of Angmering Parish Council and perhaps his name would be known and inscribed on the Council's board for posterity. In the event, he has been largely forgotten which is to do him a great injustice.
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