Britain's history from an economic/social standpoint - the long version
This section is a more detailed history of Britain, from an economic/social/political angle. We have attempted to identify how the principal changes would have affected people living in the Fox Corner area.
The years to 1750
Let’s start way, way back. The population of England was around 5 million in 1325, but the Black Death in 1348 reduced the population significantly. No-one knows how many people died: Estimates range between 25% and 60%, but in any case it was a huge number. It is thought that the population only returned to 5 million around 1600, then grew slowly to 8 million by 1800, and since has rocketed to over 50 million. We assume that the population of Fox Corner more or less followed this trend up to 1800. But the increase from 1800 to today has been only around a third that of the rest of the country.
Pirbright historically has been an agricultural area. From at least the 13th century the Lord of Pirbright Manor owned much of the land (it having been granted to him in earlier days by the Crown. Over the years, pieces of land were granted (freehold) by the Lord to individuals – maybe as rewards for some service, or as inducements to farm the land. In the Fox Corner area the majority of the land was owned freehold by individuals from the 1600’s. The manors of Crastock/Bridley and Worplesdon also owned land in the immediate area.
But for the vast majority of people it was a very different story. It is sobering to think that in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, virtually all of the country’s inhabitants would have had a standard of living similar to their parents, grandparents and their ancestors who lived 500 years earlier. Of course there was a wealthy elite of aristocrats and gentry who owned most of the land in the country, but this was a tiny minority – perhaps 1% of the population. This was the case in Pirbright and the surrounding villages as well. In between the wealthy and the poor there was also a small minority (perhaps 3% of the population) who could be described as “bourgeoisie”, comprising lawyers, merchants and bankers. These people tended to live in towns, rather than rural areas like Fox Corner.
Wage and price levels
In today’s money, the average income per head in Britain (including non-working women and children) in 1300 was c£780. 350 years later in 1650, it was c£980. Agricultural labourers (ie, most people at Fox Corner) were amongst the lowest paid in the country, and by 1700 they earned around 12 pence a day. In today’s money, this equates to only £1,800 a year. It’s no wonder that many families were so large in number (the children were made to work from a young age to help support the family).
Of course there were good harvest years and there were bad harvest years. 1622-23 was a particularly bad 2-year period, and a famine followed. There was also the occasional plague year. All these would have affected the amount of work to be done on farms, and therefore affected the level of peoples’ wages. Winters could be hard. In winter 1683-84 for example, the Thames froze for 2 months, the ice being 11 inches thick at times. A print from that year (below) records the event. The view is looking along the river, with Temple in the foreground and London Bridge in the distance.
There was a long period of inflation in the 1500’s and into the mid 1600’s. Whilst the rate of inflation was low – maybe 1 or 2% per annum, the long duration of this inflationary period caused prices to double (or possibly triple) over the course of 150 years. The primary losers were the wealthy (whose income was largely based on fixed rents) and the working class (whose wages were usually fixed). The latter (which would have included maybe 100 or 200 agricultural labourers at Fox Corner) would have found their “real” wages (which equates to their standard of living) were reduced by around a half. The winners were the middle class (eg shopkeepers) who could adjust their prices upwards.
There had been improvements in agricultural productivity, eg improved crop rotation schemes, increased drainage and improved ploughs. But for the vast majority of people, what they ate, where they slept and how they worked would have changed little from 1300 to 1750. Life expectancy at birth remained at around 35.
From 1200, every church in England was supposed to have a school, but we can only guess whether there was any school at Pirbright or Worplesdon. Literacy amongst agricultural folk would have been close to 0% for much of the period. The introduction of the printing press to the UK in 1476 would have helped to improve literacy, but probably only to a small (if any) extent in the Fox Corner area in the early years.
By 1700 poverty was rife. Money or food was made available to the poorest via “Poor Relief”, a rate levied on wealthier households. The system was administered by the local “Overseers of the poor”. Around 1700 the first workhouses were built, and they were pretty grim places. At this time the nearest to Fox Corner was in Chertsey, built c1730. The systems for helping the poor changed several times over the next 100 years, which suggests that none of them worked very well.
Of the many notable historical events in the period to 1750, we will comment on just one which may well have impacted the area - the civil war (1642-51). In 1643, a Parliamentary garrison was formed at Farnham, but there was little fighting there. A Royalist army did visit Farnham and would have pitched camp in various Surrey locations, but we do not know if this included Fox Corner.
After the civil war, in 1661, John Baker of Bakersgate, an apparently staunch royalist gave a ‘Free & Voluntary Present to his Majesty’ of fifty shillings (worth £360 today). In fact this “free and voluntary present” to King Charles II was a tax enacted by Parliament to support the new king.
1750 - 1850
The Industrial Revolution
Then came the Industrial Revolution, which was a series of technology-led changes in the UK occurring roughly between 1750 and 1820. The key contributor to these changes was the use of steam power, generated by coal. This meant that workers could be more productive (ie each worker could produce more). Cotton weaving was an early beneficiary, but other industries rapidly joined in. Agriculture, however, did not really benefit much at the time (although later, steam-driven tractors helped).
An immediate benefit to the Fox Corner area was the opening of the Basingstoke Canal in 1792. Coal was now able to be transported to the wharf by the railway arch at the top of Dawney Hill and from there delivered by horse and cart. Some of the larger farms and houses at Fox Corner would no doubt have welcomed this as it enabled them to heat their houses more easily. However we doubt that the average labourer would have been able to afford to use coal to any great extent. Instead, peat continued to be cut from Pirbright Common by the poor and labouring classes. Rickford Malthouse would surely have used the new coal supply as a source of heat in their malting processes. But Rickford Mill – relying on water power – may well have eyed the canal from another angle - as a selling opportunity (ie to ship their grain to London).
The other effects of the Industrial Revolution across the country were much more deep-rooted: Food improved in quality and was more plentiful, and life expectancy started to rise rapidly. Unsurprisingly a great deal of wealth was generated, but – also unsurprisingly – most of this did not filter down to workers. Instead it was retained by the newly-promoted bourgeoisie (eg factory and cotton mill owners). Indeed, a well-researched book of 1845 suggested that workers (eg mill employees) were by then materially worse off than their pre-industrial peers.
Enclosures of land
From around 1750 a series of Enclosure Acts transferred ownership of what was regarded as common land (or “waste”) to landowners. This process had actually started in the 1500’s, but only gathered pace around 1750. This process of enclosing land hurt smallholder families who had been used to farming a particular strip of land for years, as the strips were usually consolidated into fields, which were then fenced and hedged, and farmed more efficiently.
We think that any enclosures in the Fox Corner area or Pirbright would have occurred in the 1500’s, as the Manorial records indicate that ownership and tenancy rights were established by 1650. The closest Enclosure Act we can find to our area was in Wyke & Wanborough in 1803.
Population in the country increased dramatically: Between 1700 and 1800 it grew by 50%. It doubled in the next 50 years and doubled again in the following 50 years. To save you the maths, that’s a six-fold increase (from 5 million to 30 million) in 200 years.
Changes to agriculture
But the Industrial Revolution did not benefit the farmers particularly. The increase in population in the early 1800’s saw people in general move away from rural areas into towns and cities. In 1801 33% of people were employed in agriculture, but by 1851 that proportion had fallen to 20%. Wealthy landowners were relatively less wealthy (although they were still extremely wealthy compared to Joe Farmworker). The effect in Fox Corner was a reduction in population, as younger people moved away to seek their fortune. Census information showed that the 1841 population of 258 reduced markedly during the next several years, and was only exceeded 60 years later in 1901.
And agricultural life was tough. Hours during harvest time were typically 3am to 8pm for men in the fields and 2am to 7pm for women who were doing the gleaning (ie collecting the leftover grain). 7 days a week. Boys would be employed from the age of 10 to do jobs such as crow-scaring, sowing crops and driving horses. The hours for these boys were typically 4am (5.30am in winter) to 7pm.
The Napoleonic Wars prevented Britain from importing cheap grain, and so the price of bread increased in the very early 1800’s. Agricultural wages, however, did not increase, which meant that several labourers and their families fell into poverty, and this would have included some Fox Corner families. The government in 1814 introduced the Corn Laws, which introduced tariffs on imported grain and hence kept the price of bread high even after the war had ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. A depression and high unemployment followed. Agricultural riots broke out in East Anglia in 1816. 5 of the rioters were hanged and 9 of them were transported to Australia. A plaque on the wall of St Mary’s Church, Ely (pictured below) commemorates the 5 who were hanged.
4 years of poor harvests followed, which didn’t help matters. In particular, the “year without a summer” of 1816 (caused by the eruption of Mt Tambora in Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) would have caused great hardship in rural communities. Prices continued to rise, and unemployment didn’t go away.
In 1830, the “Swing Riots” were a further demonstration of agricultural unrest, with a series of incidents starting in Kent, but spreading across the South-east, including Surrey. In addition to dissatisfaction with their harsh working conditions, they were concerned about the new technology (eg threshing machines) which was displacing them. The slogan of the rioters was “Bread or blood”, but the actions of the rioters were directed mostly towards property rather than people. A letter threatening to set fire to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge is shown below it is signed “Swing”. A reward poster is also shown. Both documents date from 1830.
In the end farmers agreed to raise wages and some landlords reduced their rents. But 19 rioters were hanged, and 481 transported to Australia.
Some other far-reaching changes
2 major Acts of Parliament during the next 4 years, and a third Act in 1846 went some way to meeting the agricultural rioters’ grievances.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 brought big changes to Parliament, and therefore to how the country was governed. Prior to 1832 the distribution of Parliamentary seats had not been changed for years, and was (to our modern eyes) nonsensical. For example, Manchester and Birmingham (both of which had large populations) elected no MPs, whilst there were cases of MPs elected in some places with no residents! The qualifications for voting varied by seat, but generally, the only people eligible to vote prior to 1832 were freeholders. Hence Parliament had tended to represent landed interests more than it should have.
The Act redistributed seats in accordance with population, and standardised the eligibility for voting (which now included tenant farmers and householders in properties over a certain size). It also specifically excluded women from voting. In 1832 (after the Act) our area lay in the Surrey Western constituency, and was represented as follows:
Pirbright had 20 electors, 5 of whom lived near Fox Corner (and whose lives are therefore described on this site): Samuel Greenfield (Bakersgate), James Honer (Heath Mill), John Linnard (Gander Hill), James Stedman (Tods Farm) and James Watts (Whites Farm). In 1742, Pirbright had had just 6 electors, and in 1780 it had 12.
Worplesdon had 43 electors, 1 of whom lived near Fox Corner (William Collins (Nortons Farm).
Woking had 77 electors, 1 of whom lived near Fox Corner: Charles Collins (Bridley Farm).
A new Poor Law in 1834 paved the way for more workhouses to be built around the country, including one at Guildford and one at Woking.
The Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 would have had a small positive effect on Fox Corner’s community. The background to this major political event started 30 years previously in 1815 at the close of the Napoleonic wars. At this time the strong agricultural elements in Parliament had voted to impose high tariffs on imported grain. This had the effect of keeping the price of corn artificially high (benefitting the landed gentry, but disadvantaging the general population). Parliament’s vote to abolish these tariffs in 1846 benefitted working people to a small extent (through slightly lower prices), but had the opposite effect on wealthy landowners (introducing competition to their businesses from overseas). More importantly in the long run, it helped to establish Britain as a free trade country, which would reap huge dividends for the country over the next 70 years.
But, from a long-term viewpoint, the most significant change to Fox Corner in this time period was surely the opening of the London and Southampton Railway in 1838. The line initially ran from Nine Elms (in Battersea) only to Woking Common (now Woking) in May 1838. But within 4 months an extension from Woking Common to Shapley Heath (now Winchfield) had opened. Initially it must have been quite a novelty. Carriages were not lit, and second class carriages were "sideless". Third class passengers were carried in open trucks attached to goods trains. The nearest railway stations to Fox Corner initially were at Woking (Woking Common station) and Farnborough, so we doubt that many of the Fox Corner inhabitants used the railway at this time. However the construction of the railway would surely have provided employment opportunities for local residents.
In 1767, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, agricultural wages were only 15d a day (less during winter), which in today’s money equate to £2,300 a year.
Average income per head (including non-working women and children) across the country in 1850 was c£2,500 – a rise of 50% in 50 years. But this was not at all equally spread. Factory and mill owners would have become much wealthier, but the farm worker in Pirbright would have seen only a moderate improvement - agricultural wages were on average only 9/6d per week (today worth £2,500 a year).
Endowed schools had been around in England for a long time, but were relatively few in number. Edward VI introduced a series of grammar schools, offering free tuition for those who could not pay. And charity schools for the poor started in the 1500’s. But in practice, the children of poor families did not attend school, as they were required to work in order to support their family.
In the 1700’s and 1800’s more charity schools were founded. But literacy amongst adults was only around 50%. Pirbright probably opened its first school in the early 1800’s as a “Dame School” (a small, private school taught by a local lady for a small fee). It was inside The Old House on Little Green. By 1845 there was a free school supported by the Lord of Pirbright Manor (Henry Halsey) and the local C of E representative (Rev Parson). We do not know whether any Fox Corner children attended any of these schools. Perry Hill School in Worplesdon did not open until 1861.
1850 - 1890
Technology developments continued apace: Faster shipping, the opening of the Suez Canal and greatly increased rail links increased the level of international trade. The success of Britain’s trading meant that the movement of farming labourers to towns and cities that had begun in the early 19th century continued in the second half. Between 1851 and 1901, the number of farm workers fell by 25%. Railway transport enabled male workers to move out of the area to seek jobs in manufacturing and trade elsewhere, principally London. Female workers largely worked in domestic service.
During this period Britain achieved global economic dominance. In 1870, for example a staggering 40% (by value) of all globally exported manufactured goods were made in Britain. To put this in today’s context, the same proportion for China in 2018 was just 13%. And that caused (and still causes) great angst among western economists and politicians.
But there were negative signs. Other countries had started to implement the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and began to catch up in terms of technology. The 1870s and 1880s were marked in Britain by falling prices, especially agricultural prices, as we explain below.
There were 3 major infrastructure changes at the time which would have far-reaching impacts on the everyday lives of local residents (and still do to an extent today): The construction of Brookwood Cemetery, The building of Brookwood Station, and the arrival of an Army presence in Pirbright. We shall devote a paragraph or 2 to each of these in chronological order.
Firstly, Brookwood Cemetery (or as it was originally known, The London Necropolis) opened in 1854, designed to be the largest cemetery in the country, covering 2,000 acres. As it happened only 500 acres at the western end of the land was used, but it was still the largest cemetery in the UK (and still is today). In case you are wondering what happened to the missing 1,500 acres, we deal with part of the difference in the section below (1890 – 1914).
Several houses were built for workers at the cemetery (including 2 on the Bagshot Road for managers), and it would have provided several jobs (as labourers, gardeners, etc) for local people. Fox Corner (being less than a mile from the cemetery) benefitted in this respect, with several examples of local people employed there. Below is a great picture of the cemetery in autumn, taken by Joel Robison with thanks.
Secondly, Brookwood station was built in 1864 (in order to serve the cemetery), and this would surely have had a significant impact on encouraging Fox Corner residents to explore outside the local area. It would probably have also encouraged some people who lived “further down the line” to move to Pirbright and Woking in search of work, especially after the opening of the Brookwood to Farnham line in 1870. Worplesdon station was opened in 1883.
Improved transport links also drove down house prices across the country. Until the railway arrived, most people needed to live within walking distance of their work. But the railway now enabled people to live further from their workplace, effectively increasing the supply of housing, and therefore driving down prices. It would have affected London prices particularly, but in an agricultural environment like Fox Corner, however, it would have had little impact on most people for some time. Below is a picture of the station, again taken by Joel Robison with thanks.
And thirdly, in 1875, the War Office bought 3,000 acres of Pirbright heathland. This idea stemmed from the Great Camp at Chobham, where Queen Victoria reviewed her troops in 1853, just before the Crimean War. A stone cross just north of the M3 marks this occasion. The camp was considered to be very successful in providing a good training ground for the soldiers in preparation for the Crimea. Further explorations of the area revealed that the bedrock of virtually all of West Surrey and NE Hampshire comprised the sand and gravels that they’d found at Chobham. Accordingly the War Office purchased land in Pirbright, Bagshot, North Camp and Aldershot. Later, Deepcut, Mytchett, and other bases followed.
Apart from annual training exercises in the 1880’s and 1890’s (some of which involved troops marching past Fox Corner), this would have had little immediate impact on Fox Corner residents initially. But in the early days of WW1, a training camp was established on Bullswater Common for troops prior to their departure to Northern France. We have covered this in more detail (including describing the evidence that still exists of these camps) in the Bullswater Common section.
The presence of the army meant that more and more military types lived in and around Pirbright. Initially some of these were officers on secondment (for example at Waldens and Mount Lodge in Malthouse Lane in the 1900’s). But later on, Fox Corner became a popular retirement spot for captains, majors, colonels and even the odd brigadier, who had probably spent time at Pirbright Barracks and liked what they saw of the local area.
Today, the army presence is accepted as completely normal by local residents, who are well used to the occasional bursts of automatic weapon fire in the distance. Here is a picture of soldiers at the camp.
A fourth infrastructure project – Brookwood Asylum (later renamed Brookwood Hospital) - opened in 1867. It was the second asylum to be built in Surrey (Springfield in Wandsworth was the first). Some Fox Corner people were employed there in the early days, and Joan Garai, who lived at Abney, was the senior medical official at the hospital for several years from 1968. A picture of the hospital c1900 is shown below (with thanks to TheTimeChamber).
We could also mention the Inkerman Barracks, which opened in 1892 in Knaphill. It was actually a converted prison, which had opened in 1860 for mentally and physically disabled convicts, and held up to 600 patients. Its effect on Fox Corner seems to have been negligible.
The 1870’s to the mid-1890’s was a dire period for British agriculture, and is known as “The Great Depression of British Agriculture”. For a start there was a series of poor harvests in the 1870’s (especially 1879) due to adverse weather throughout the decade. But more insidious was an increasing flood of cheap grain from America. This had been created by a combination of 3 developments: The settlement of the prairies in the American Midwest by farmers, a substantial rail network built to serve these farmers in their new settlements, and cheaper steam transport across the Atlantic. Consequently over 25 years the price of wheat halved, and in 1895 fell to its lowest price for 150 years. And agricultural wages dropped by 10-20%.
So it is not surprising that between 1871 and 1901 although the population of England and Wales increased by 43%, the proportion of male agricultural labourers decreased by over one-third. In the Fox Corner area over the same period the numbers are even more extreme – a population increase of 57% (thanks to a lot of local housebuilding) and a reduction in the proportion of agricultural workers of nearly one-half.
All this would have put pressure on landowners and agricultural workers alike. So it would have been a tough time at Fox Corner, with not a lot of money flowing into peoples’ pockets. Henry Greenfield, who owned Bakersgate, was forced into liquidation in 1876, for example. 2 silver linings would have been that prices were generally lower, and it was easier to migrate to towns and cities, and emigrate abroad than previously.
One subtle effect of the improvements in technology and transport was in the motivation of famers. For centuries, yeomen farmers had farmed principally to meet their own needs, and only then to sell any surplus in order to buy other things. In other words, farms tended to be a bit of everything – arable, pasture, cattle, poultry, sheep, crops, etc. But during the 19th century the prime objective of self-sufficiency developed a more capitalist side to farmers. They sought to maximise their income through new ideas and new machinery, and as a result increasingly specialised in one form of farming, ie dairy OR sheep OR corn. Perhaps we can see a little of this effect at Fox Corner. The 1807 Pirbright map and the 1841 Tithe maps show that many farms had a mix of fields designated as arable, meadow and pasture. However by the end of the century, we begin to see the odd specialist farm (notably Storr’s poultry farm at Lawfords Farm). But by then, farming had almost disappeared at Fox Corner.
A negative at this time was Britain’s investment in education. Adult literacy had grown from 50% (in 1850) to 75% in 1870, but education was not compulsory. State-aided schools were introduced in the 1870 Education Act, but did not become fully compulsory (between the ages of 5 and 9) until 1880. Secondary education however was very patchy.
Pirbright School operated in the School House in School Lane from 1870. A few (but by no means all) children from the Fox Corner area attended. Although not compulsory, the school did contact parents if their children were not at school. Often the excuse was inability to pay the fees (which were 6d per week). But other reasons were given. For example, Henry Greenfield of Bakersgate said that his daughter was feeling “rather queer” and had been “frightened by the strict enquiries as to her age”. Some of the Fox Corner children attended Perry Hill School in Worplesdon.
In 1867 the eligibility to vote was broadened to include more people who rented properties, increasing the electorate from 1.5 million to 2.5 million. In 1884, the vote was broadened further to include agricultural workers, increasing the size of the electorate by around 3 million people. These changes would have benefitted Fox Corner’s inhabitants, but they still fell way short of what we are used to today: 0% of women and only 60% of men had the vote.
1890 - 1914
Global trade continued apace and Britain maintained a leading role, although its share of globally exported goods had dropped from 40% (in 1870) to 30% in 1912. People were also migrating more freely than before. In 1913, one in every 60 people migrated across borders. The idea of a worldwide passport standard was not invented until 1920, and quotas on immigrants only started in Britain in 1905 (though operated much less formally than today). So it was easier than today in some ways to move and work in a different country. We have mentioned elsewhere on this site 2 examples of Russian immigrants to the UK at this time who ended up at Fox Corner.
The vast majority of global trade was carried out in sterling, and financed through London. By 1914 the London Stock Exchange was the world’s largest, and its share of companies listed across the globe was 40%. London was unarguably the centre of global finance. Britain also dominated other markets – shipping and insurance, notably. Britain was the world’s second-largest (after the US) miner of coal, and the world’s largest exporter of the stuff. Duncan Weldon has summarised this neatly by writing that Britain combined the roles that China, the US and Saudi Arabia play today.
Having said all that, the British economy was slowing during this period. The advantages of having been the first mover in the Industrial Revolution were now exhausted. Other countries had caught up. In particular British industry was having difficulty competing with Germany and the US. Trade Unions were discovering their powers, and there was a quite rapid increase in the number of days’ work lost to strikes.
In this period before WW1, the wealthy became wealthier, and there were more of them. They sought things to do with their cash – both in Britain and abroad. Fortunately some of this investment found its way to Fox Corner. The most obvious examples are Pirbright Cottages (thanks to the generosity of Lord Pirbright). But there are others: John Sherman, the miller at Heath Mill, had benefitted from cheaper grain prices and built Waldens and Mount Lodge in Malthouse Lane. In fact over 40 houses were built in this period at Fox Corner – 5 times as many had been constructed in the previous 50 years. Many of these houses were relatively small (some semi-detached) and quite close to the Corner itself, almost as if a small hamlet was being formed.
The reader may have wondered what happened to the 1,500 acres not used by the Necropolis Company (referred to in an earlier section above). Well the short answer is – golf. About a third of it went to provide 3 high-quality golf courses – Woking (founded 1893), Worplesdon (1908), and West Hill (1909). These 3 golf clubs would have provided employment opportunities for gardeners and the like. An unusual example of this is 3 of the Stonard children, who lived at No 8, Pirbright Cottages. In 1911 they were golf caddies, presumably at Worplesdon Golf Club. Golf caddying in those days was a far cry from what we see today on TV, where caddies advise their pro’s on the vagaries of the course being played. In those days, caddies were often 12-16 year-old boys. The main jobs of the youngsters were to carry their client’s clubs, replace their divots, and clean their clubs. It was a reasonably well-paid job, and not particularly taxing, but the children were often given their notice when they reached the age of 16.
The Great Depression of British Agriculture ended in the mid-1890’s, resulting in an improvement in workers’ standard of living. This coincided with the housebuilding at Fox Corner (as described in the previous paragraph), and so the area would have received quite a shot in the arm in 1895-96. This would have been doubly welcome after the previous winter, when January and February 1895 were especially cold months.
With increasing prosperity came increased life expectancy at birth, which had risen from 35 (1800) to 40 (1850) and now 50 (in 1900). But the increased prosperity was very unevenly spread – approximately 15% of the population lived in poverty, and Fox Corner would have had its share of those. Birth rates had fallen from 5 (in 1800) to 3.5 (in 1900).
Childrens’ education became more mainstream than in earlier years, and Pirbright School seemed to have a greater level of attendance than in previously.
The Liberal party’s landslide win in the 1906 general election allowed some social reforms, which would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. For the first time, Old Age Pensions were paid to the over-70’s from 1908. National Insurance and unemployment benefits were introduced in 1911.
And back to Britain’s economy
As well as increased spending on welfare, government spending on defence was also rising (in response to perceived threats from Germany). In those days, Britain regarded it as sacrosanct that government spending should be matched by government revenues (how things have changed since then!). The only real choices were to raise tariffs or raise taxes. The first option (to raise tariffs) was seen as contrary to Britain’s strength as a free-trade country and was ruled out by the ruling Liberal party (led by Lloyd George). Therefore they had to raise taxes.
We recommend that you sit down before reading the next few lines, giving the detail of the new tax rates. The standard rate of income tax was raised from 3.33% to 5.8%. And a new top rate was introduced of 8.33% - to be paid on incomes above today’s equivalent of £470,000! Death duties were increased, but a proposed wealth tax of 2% was not approved by Parliament. These tax rises would have impacted only very few at Fox Corner, but the social payments would have helped many.
In addition to a balanced budget and tariff-free trade, British governments also applied a third “golden rule”: A fixed exchange rate (known as the Gold standard), and this was to prove a mistake. Times have indeed changed...
1914 - 1918
Much has been written by others about WW1, and we will not repeat or summarise the military aspects. Specifics of some of the men from Fox Corner who fought are listed at https://www.pirbright.info/index.html. Instead, we will simply cover a few of its (very significant) economic impacts on Britain.
The government realised that a substantial piece of the country’s economy needed to be devoted to the war effort. This required personal consumption to be reduced, and the government’s chosen method of doing this was inflation, ie to allow prices to rise. In fact prices doubled during WW1. The price of a pint of beer rose from 3d to 6d (ie 1p to 2p in today’s money). In today’s money this would be equivalent of a rise from 90p to £1.80.
The huge cost of armaments meant that the previously-held dogma of balancing the budget disappeared without trace. In addition Britain had to advance funds to its continental allies. Accordingly, various War Bonds were issued by the government as a way of borrowing to finance the cost of the war. The last of these were redeemed in 2015. And massive amounts were borrowed from the US.
By 1918, the war had been won, and Britain had acquired mandates to run ex-German territories in Africa and ex-Ottoman province in the Middle East. It was one of the 3 major countries at the Paris peace conference. But the economy was in a bad place. All the hard-earned surpluses earned during the previous 80 years disappeared, export markets had been lost and industry needed to refocus away from war production.
Lloyd George had promised during the war that the post-war period would pave the way for a “Land fit for heroes”. A nice turn of phrase, but in practice little or no serious planning took place. Instead, there were massive war-related pensions which would need to be paid over the ensuing years.
1918 – 1939
The problems of the immediate post-war period
The inter-war period was very difficult for Britain’s economy. Unemployment was high, wage growth was low, and the immediate post-war period started with a deep recession. And governments were unstable - there were 5 general elections in the 9 years between 1922 and 1931.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 200,000 people in Britain. In those days the government bore little or no responsibility for this sort of problem, and so there were no enforced lockdowns (or national vaccination programmes). The disease spread in crowded environments, such as troop transports and factories, and as a result most of the victims were of working age. It would seem that Pirbright’s agricultural basis (albeit much reduced from earlier times) and well-spread housing would have been a bit of a boon at this time.
But the country’s underlying economic problems were grave: Wartime industries such as munitions manufacture had stopped, and there was little demand to replace it. Export markets had been lost, principally to the US and Japan. As a result, there was an immediate post-war slump, with output levels only returning to 1913 levels in 1925. Unemployment was running at 11% in 1921.
On top of all this, the level of Britain’s new wartime debts was enormous. Rising interest rates made things worse. Between 1913 and 1925, the country’s interest bill had risen 9-fold. The government responses (to increase taxes and reduce government spending) sound strangely familiar today. Taxes had risen sharply – doubling in total from 1913. The highest rate of tax had risen from 8.3% to 52.5%. Government spending on education and social housing was cut.
There was another problem, which was not recognised at the time. Britain had re-entered the Gold standard in 1925 at the pre-war rate. In other words, the exchange rate of the pound was fixed, and fixed at too high a level for Britain to compete internationally. Exports were accordingly low.
So the country endured high unemployment, high interest costs, high taxes and falling wages, offset to some extent by falling prices. Unsurprisingly there was general unhappiness about all this. Governments in the 1920s were unstable, and in 1926 the General Strike took place.
Ireland had gained its independence from Britain in 1921, but we don’t think that this would have impacted Fox Corner in any way.
In terms of housing, in 1918, there was very little private ownership of houses. Instead, 80% of people were renting their houses from private landlords. House-building was sluggish immediately after WW1. It picked up in the mid 20’s for a short while (eg Markham, Elcombe, Derry Cottage, Crimscote, Hillbrow), only to stall again.
In 1918 the eligibility of people to vote was widened markedly. Men over 21 were allowed to vote whether or not they owned property. Women were given the vote provided they were aged over 30 and either they, or their husband, meet a property qualification. These changes increased the size of the electorate by 15 million.
But the 1929 general election was a landmark, in that women were granted equal voting rights to men for the first time. Women aged 21-29, who had previously been unable to vote were now enfranchised. This increased the electorate by a further 5 million.
The period from 1929 onwards
The 1929 Wall Street Crash was very damaging to the US economy, but considerably less so in Britain. America had grown much more rapidly in the preceding years and so had further to fall than Britain. In fact the US economy fell by c25%, whereas the reduction in Britain’s economy was only around 7%. But it did cause most other countries to reduce their imports, which affected Britain’s export trade badly. By 1931 interest rates had doubled, and a new round of austerity (ie cuts in government spending, including pay cuts in the public sector) was proposed. Things were bad, so bad that some sections of the navy mutinied (ie refused to follow orders).
The Bank of England was forced to leave the gold standard – something that had hitherto been unthinkable, but to our modern eyes seems obvious. It had the effect of devaluing sterling by a massive 25% and – more importantly - reducing interest rates by 60%. This immediately gave a shot in the arm to exporters, to business investment and to housebuilding. As a result, unemployment fell, particularly in the south-east.
This would have seemed like a breath of fresh air to Fox Corner folks. Lower interest rates saw a new rush of private sector house-building. Throughout the country 3 and 4-bedroom semis were being built rapidly, and home ownership rose from 10% in 1918 to nearly 30% in 1939. At Fox Corner, The Fairway was constructed with just 4 houses. In addition Braemar and Bakersgate Cottage were built. Additional social housing was built throughout the country, though not in the Fox Corner area.
But things were not so good in the more depressed areas such as the north of England, where the Jarrow March of 1936 showed the levels of discontent in that area.
And of course the good times stopped in 1939.
1939 – 1951
Much has been written about WW2, and, as we stated with reference to WW1, we will not repeat or summarise the military aspects. In terms of damage to local buildings, the Blitz of 1940-41 clearly impacted Britain’s cities in a major way, but Fox Corner and its surroundings were untouched. The remains of a searchlight encampment between Malthouse Lane and Chapel Lane, and a bomb crater on the heath nearby are the only traces visible today.
As in WW1, much of the country’s economy had to be devoted to the war effort. In order to suppress consumption, the government chose a different strategy to WW1 – taxation. The standard rate of income tax was doubled (from 25% to 50%), and other tax rises were introduced. A novel feature was the introduction of PAYE – which of course remains with us today. Inflation during WW2 was “only” 50% (in WW1 it was 100%).
Another lesson learned from WW1 was in relation to debt. The government was determined not to repeat the experience after WW1, when interest on debts ran at 5% and caused so much damage to the recovery of the economy. Lower rates were negotiated. Lend-Lease in 1941 made a massive difference. Effectively America supplied much of the country’s food, oil and war equipment for free.
Yet another lesson from WW1 was put into practice: Planning for the end of the war needed to be done properly, and this was done via the Beveridge Report of 1942. This report proposed a system of universal benefits, a National Insurance scheme and a health scheme which would be free at the point of delivery. All this came to pass in the Attlee government post-WW2. Beveridge also proposed that full employment should be the goal, and this too came to pass (for a while...).
In fact after the war, unemployment was indeed low, as were interest rates, and this ushered in a benign period for the economy. The Attlee government nationalised a slew of industries – rail, coal, gas, electricity, iron and steel, for example. But all this meant that the government now controlled a much larger share of the UK economy (40%) than it had previously – 4 times as much as it had in 1913. These changes also caused exports to fall dramatically, which caused the government to increase taxes and to devalue sterling.
The feelgood factor
But on balance people of Fox Corner should have been relatively happy: Virtually everyone would have had a job and there were greatly enhanced benefits available from the welfare state. Against these were increased taxes, higher prices of imported goods (eg cigarettes) and continued post-war rationing (which did not finally end until 1954).
1951 – 1959
Stability for a while
The Conservatives came to power in 1951, offering to build more houses and to make people wealthier. This allowed Macmillan in 1957 to claim famously (and truthfully) that “most of our people had never had it so good”.
The Suez crisis of 1956, however, was a demonstration that Britain’s standing in the world was falling. Pressure from the US caused Britain to call a ceasefire and ask the IMF for a loan to prop up sterling. The old empire had already started to be dismantled (begun by the independence of India in 1947) and the country’s level of imports and exports was in decline.
The feelgood factor
At home though, most people would have considered themselves much better off than either pre-war or post-war. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose by 3.2% on average, whereas today GDP growth of only 2% is regarded as pretty good. The number of cars on the road doubled during the 1950’s. Whilst a TV was a rarity at the time of the coronation in 1953, 80% of households owned one by 1960. People would have also noticed a lower level of inequality between the rich and the poor. In fact the share of the national income taken home by the top 0.1% of earners had fallen from 11% in 1913 to 2.5% by the end of the 1950’s. So still pretty unequal, but much less so.
House-building reached new peaks, and low interest rates encourage people to take out mortgages. Fox Corner certainly felt the effects of the housebuilding boom: 3 houses were built in Berry Lane, 2 along the Ash Road, 2 in Heath Mill Lane, 2 on the main road near The Fox pub, 1 in Malthouse Lane, 4 more houses were built in The Fairway, and Bullswater Common Road was extended from 2 to 18 houses. That’s a total of 32 houses in the space of 10 years. What joy for the local residents of the time! At the end of WW2, home ownership was around 30%, but by the end of the 1950’s it had reached 40%.
But inflation had started to appear, and it rose above the level of interest rates. This helped the government in paying off its war debts, but penalised savers. It was also a portent of what was to follow in the next 20 years. Another ominous sign was the level of productivity: By the end of WW2, Britain’s GDP per capita was 30% higher than France’s, but during the 1950’s the gap narrowed fast.
1960 – 1969
The dark clouds that had appeared in the 1950’s grew darker in the 1960’s. Productivity continued to decline relative to other countries (France overtook the UK in the 1960’s in this regard). This was attributed to 3 principal causes: Poor management, insufficient investment and overly aggressive trade unions.
The Labour government introduced several reforms in the late 1960’s: The death penalty was abolished, homosexuality was decriminalised, and abortion legalised. But economically, the country’s economy started to suffer. Inflation continued to rise. An artificially high exchange rate yet again made things difficult, and the pound was devalued by 14% in 1967, coupled with a rise in interest rates.
But by the end of the decade both inflation and unemployment were rising, which, according to economic textbooks should not usually happen. The cause was the power of unionised labour, which was extracting an increasing share of the country’s wealth.
Was there any good news?
House-building had continued apace, albeit not quite at 1950’s levels. But people continued to buy their homes instead of renting. At the start of the 1960’s, home ownership was 40%, but by the end of the decade it had reached 50%.
Builders continued to put up houses at Fox Corner: 5 along the Ash Road, 4 in Berry Lane, 7 on the main road near The Fox pub, 2 in Heath Mill Lane, 4 on the Bagshot Road. That’s 22 houses, so not so intense a period as the previous decade, but still a big increase on the existing housing stock. The 50 houses built in the local area in the 1950’s and 1960’s increased the area’s housing by a staggering 60%, which would have altered the look and feel of the area considerably.
One bright spot in the economy was the City of London, which found a niche as the global centre of the new Eurodollar market. Another bright spot was England’s win in the 1966 World Cup. And British music at this time was not bad, either. But trouble had started to rise in Northern Ireland.
1970 – 1979
The 1970’s marked a nadir of Britain’s economic performance. Most impactful was the level of inflation, which averaged 12% each year throughout the decade. Prices nearly trebled between 1970 and 1979. Strikes were more frequent since they had been in the 1920’s – it was the decade when a 3-day working week was introduced, when “rubbish piled up in the streets” and when we experienced the “winter of discontent” in 1978-79. Unemployment was also a sorry story – it reached levels not seen since the 1930’s. Housebuilding was at lower levels than in the 1960’s. Only 11 houses (including 6 in Hockford Close) were built at Fox Corner in the 1970’s.
The UK had joined the European Community (in 1973), VAT replaced the old purchase taxes, and North Sea Oil started to flow. The system of fixed exchange rates was abandoned, and sterling duly fell rapidly. The government stepped in to rescue several “lame duck” companies (notably British Leyland). In 1976 the government was forced embarrassingly into asking the IMF for a loan. The conditions of the loan involved tax increases, cuts in public spending, and higher interest rates.
Having said all that, things weren’t all bad. Women gained the right to equal pay, and there was legislation on racial equality. Those people with unionised jobs would have found their pay rising faster than prices by nearly 3%. Car ownership rose from 45% to 70% of households by 1979, and foreign holidays started to become the norm.
As inflation started to rise, people started to realise that a combination of medium-low interest rates and inflation would make them richer (on paper). The “Barber Boom” of 1972 and deregulation of lending resulted in more house purchases and therefore increases in house prices. As more and more mortgages were taken out, people started to care about interest rates.
Civil strife in Northern Ireland
The troubles in Northern Ireland were at their peak during the 1970’s. The Guildford Pub bombings in 1974 were uncomfortably close to home. As far as we know no Fox Corner residents were directly impacted, but it cast a pall over the area for many months. The following year the “Guildford Four” were convicted and jailed. Their convictions were overturned in 1990, and the Four were released after 15 years in jail.
The IMF loan was repaid in 1979, but the decade ended on a bleak note: Inflation was still around 10% and strikes were at recorded levels.
1980 – 1997
The 1979 election of a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher led to massive economic changes to the UK, not all of them popular.
Almost immediately the post-war mantra of full employment was dropped in favour of control of inflation. Another big change was to allow market forces (rather than the state) much more say in driving the economy.
To start with public spending was squeezed and interest rates increased. As a result sterling rose, but so did unemployment. Inflation was reduced dramatically, but unemployment remained high, particularly in the north.
Tax rates were cut drastically over the period. The top rate of tax (which was an astonishing 83%) was cut immediately to 60% and then to 40%. The basic rate was cut from 33% to 24%. Corporation tax was cut from 52% to 31%. By today’s standards (when politicians are afraid to raise the basic rate of tax by even 1%), these are dramatic. They represent the biggest tax-cutting sequence in British history. However, the rate of VAT was raised from 8% to 15% and then to 17.5%, so the benefits to the ordinary taxpayer of the income tax cuts was reduced somewhat by more tax on consumer spending. How did the government manage to afford these tax cuts? In just 3 words: North Sea Oil. The taxes on North Sea Oil effectively funded tax cuts which ended up in peoples’ pockets.
Trade Union powers were reduced via a series of Acts of Parliament, which were obviously unpopular amongst unions. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was pivotal in determining the future of Trade Union power. The strike lasted a year, but in the end the union accepted defeat. Strikes pretty much disappeared from Britain’s economy for nearly 40 years, and the economy benefitted as a result.
A series of privatisations (reversing the post-war nationalisations) followed, which led to better management decisions in the companies affected. Many of the industries had become bloated, but privatisation allowed managements to improve efficiency. A lot of redundancies followed (which would have been completely impossible in the old days of state control and strong unions).
The tax cuts and a reduction in interest rates prompted a small boom in the 1980’s, during which house prices rose at 30% per annum. Not surprisingly, subsequent government tightening soon converted the boom into a recession in the early 1990’s. Sterling had entered the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), meaning that it was semi-fixed. But by the early 90’s it was clear to some that sterling was overvalued. On “Black Wednesday” in 1992, the Bank of England pushed interest rates up to 15% in an effort to support sterling, before admitting defeat and allowing sterling to float (downwards). Some speculators were able to pocket fortunes by betting against the pound at the time.
The free float of sterling righted the economy quickly. Interest rates and inflation fell, as did unemployment.
Home ownership across the country accelerated in the 1980’s, mainly driven by the 1980 Housing Act, which allowed certain council tenants to buy their homes at a fat discount. But housebuilding slowed to immediate post-war levels, largely due to stricter application of planning laws allowing local homeowners to block new developments in their neighbourhood. The Green Belt around London had been introduced in the mid-1950’s to protect green spaces around the city, but was by now slowing new developments.
Fox Corner was affected by the Green Belt restrictions with at least 2 attempted conversions of green space into housing refused around this time. We think that just 3 new houses were built on new sites in the Fox Corner area in the 1980s – and none in the 1990’s for that matter. Whether one thinks the lack of building new houses in the area was a good thing or a bad thing depends of course on one’s perspective. We should point out that although there were no new houses built, there were lots and lots of house extensions/conversions, and a few cases of buildings being demolished to be replaced by new ones. So overall the housing stock in the area was modernised, albeit not expanded.
Legacy of the Thatcher years
House prices doubled during the period. The “Big Bang” of 1986 enabled the City of London to flourish globally. Activity in the City increased, as did staffing levels and salaries. This was all good for the south-east. But it wasn’t at all good for the industrial north, where manufacturing jobs dropped by a third in number. Inequality across the country rose sharply as well – a small number of people were taking a larger share of the cake. And the poverty rate rose from under 10% to over 20%. Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney” character seemed to typify the times.
1997 - date
Recent history is fairly well-known, and so we will not write much about it here. The main economic impacts during the last 20-odd years have been:
The newly-elected Labour government in 1997 generally continued many of the previous government’s policies: Keeping inflation at bay was a high priority, and – to reinforce this - the Bank of England was given independence to set interest rates. Laws to restrict trade unions were maintained, privatisations were left alone, and taxes were kept relatively low.
Spending on health and education rose during the Blair years, only to be restricted after 2010.
Inequality stopped rising, but did not fall. Poverty was reduced via a minimum wage, tax credits and generous public sector pay rises (until 2010).
The financial crisis of 2007/08 was evidenced in the UK by the collapse of Northern Rock. A deep recession followed, together with rescue packages for other banks. Interest rates were cut to near zero and the government pumped money into the economy to stimulate demand. Unemployment rose and sterling fell by 20%.
The new government of 2010 immediately tightened the economy by increasing VAT to 20% and cutting government and welfare spending. The country was very slow to recover from recession, but rather surprisingly unemployment started to fall. But productivity rose only very slowly, seen by some as a fundamental problem for the economy. And wages, in real terms, fell after 2008, not recovering their pre-2008 level for 10 years.
The financial sector quickly re-established itself as a source of wealth after 2008. A new sector – technology – created many new jobs, especially in the sough-east.
The recent shocks of leaving the EU, the COVID pandemic and the rise in energy prices due to the war in Ukraine have caused much instability, mainly evidenced by further cuts in interest rates (to record lows), a fall in the value of sterling, and a sudden sharp rise in inflation. Anyone under the age of 40 would not have experienced inflation before.
As far as Fox Corner residents are concerned, many of the economic trends of the 1980’s and 1990’s continued. Some (1 or 2) houses were built on new sites in the area, but Green Belt planning restrictions continued to be applied strictly. House extensions became even more popular.
A highlight of the era for Fox Corner was the purchase by a local resident of The Fox in 2015. This injected new life into the pub and the area in general. Post-COVID there have been other enhancements to the pub, which have further benefitted local residents.
The COVID-related lockdowns forced many people to work from home. This suited many Fox Corner residents well, and enhanced the sense of community spirit. The local footpaths on the heaths suddenly became very well-worn, and a few new paths appeared as people discovered short-cuts. Dog ownership appears to have risen as well, although some of the new dog-owners seem not to understand that dog-mess needs to be taken home and disposed of (and not left on footpaths).