A nobler sense of duty
Simon Wills celebrates the life and letters of the high-born champion of the poor: Sidney Godolphin Osborne
Published in December ’10
For over forty years, Rev. Sidney Godolphin Osborne was a renowned correspondent to The Times. ‘SGO’, as he was universally known, provoked authority figures and expressed himself in a manner that challenged and sometimes shocked his 19th-century readers. The issues he addressed could be from the last ten years: the nation’s healthcare, unpopular foreign wars, education, and a global pandemic (cholera). However, his first and most famous cause was the agricultural poor in Dorset.
SGO had an unlikely pedigree as an agitator; he was a descendant of both Lord Godolphin, Queen Anne’s prime minister, and of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. His father was a baron, his brother a duke, and his brother-in-law the novelist and fellow clergyman, Charles Kingsley. Had he been content to conform to the expectations of his class and station he would probably have entered the House of Lords as a bishop.
Yet this high-born Anglican was not concerned with personal ambition, nor even with the great theological questions of the Victorian era. SGO revealed that he only joined the Church because his father suddenly told him to do so one morning when they were out shooting. Nevertheless, he took holy orders and shortly afterwards became rector of Durweston in 1841. He was by all accounts a striking preacher who used ‘language plain, direct and earnest’ and seldom relied upon notes.
He soon saw first-hand the appalling living conditions of agricultural labourers. Although they worked twelve hours a day for six days a week, their families often went hungry and cold. One of them described how landowners had absolute control of the local economy: ‘As long as we has to go and beg a job, it is little enough they will give us for doing of it.’ SGO made a public statement in 1844 criticising the poverty in Dorset; this attracted the wrath of the county MP, George Bankes, who like many MPs had long resisted calls for the review of welfare amongst the poor. After all the poor, unlike landowners, could not vote.
Then as now, politicians complained when the Church intruded into political matters, and Bankes protested that SGO was abusing his position. In what was an astonishingly spiteful over-reaction, Bankes condemned the rector publicly in a speech in Parliament, asked his Bishop to censure him, and threatened to bring in a motion for SGO to be arraigned before the Bar of the House of Commons. Fuelled by Bankes, Dorset landowners began criticising SGO openly; even the Home Secretary waded in to condemn this ‘popularity-hunting parson’. Many men would have weakened at this point, but the rector of Durweston did not.
Instead, he wrote the first of his many letters to The Times. His text was unrelentingly provocative – he dismissed Bankes’s latest speech as ‘one of those commonplace appeals to the prejudices of a country audience which minister to little minds’, and his manner of making it as being ‘the pitiless pelting of his pompous declamation’. This was all good stuff and the editor of The Times probably couldn’t believe his luck.
Bankes had railed against SGO at county meetings, and had the ear of the bishop and of Parliament. However, suddenly SGO had a bigger audience than his MP and he used it. SGO complained to the nation about Bankes: ‘If he is so very thin-skinned as to find it necessary to seek protection from the Speaker or the bishop from any criticisms of mine on his public conduct, will he be kind enough to inform me to whom I am to apply for protection against his repeated personal attacks on myself? Really, Sir, there is as much modesty in his complaining of my personality as there would be in a cuckoo talking of monotony.’
SGO made it clear that Bankes’s bullying was not going to deter him from continuing to stand up for the under-privileged: ‘I do think it an honourable ambition to be known as an untiring advocate of a class who, until lately, have had their sad condition treated with neglect.’
The key difference between Bankes and SGO was that the MP believed that farmworkers’ wages and accommodation were satisfactory, but SGO’s research revealed this often to be untrue. Furthermore, landowners were commonly both employer and landlord, so could pay a small wage to maximise their profits from farming and then recoup some of that as rent.
The Times continued to publish SGO’s incendiary letters regularly, despite the outrage they created. In an era when the concept of celebrity was totally unknown, SGO asked why the taunt of ‘popularity-hunting’ was constantly levelled at him. Why, he asked, was it improper to be popular with the poor, and what tangible, pocketable benefit could he gain from it? Yet although his tireless fight earned him the friendship of the poor, the price of such advocacy was the overt hostility of his own class. SGO quickly realised that controversy had kept the welfare of the poor on the public agenda, so he next visited farmland in Ryme Intrinseca that was owned by the Prince of Wales. Here he described for Times readers that ‘whole families are living in unroofed houses, without any but invisible means of subsistence; the wages of at least nine out of ten labourers in husbandry being paid to them in the shape of goods sold to them by their masters, including meat which would be condemned in Newgate Market.’
This letter met with a storm of criticism, but SGO returned to the village and held a meeting where he courageously proved his case ‘to their teeth’ despite them being ‘as insulting as they dared to be’. Two weeks later he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, through The Times, exhorting him to action. In it he says that the average farmworker had become ‘a mere reproducer of his race, working to live, but content to buy life at any price’.
Increasingly, SGO felt that overcrowding and poverty encouraged immoral behaviour, crime, and disease, and denied hard-working people a fair chance to lead an honest, healthy life. He cast around for practical solutions and hit upon emigration. In 1849, in conjunction with like-minded friends, he offered financial and practical assistance to 136 impoverished Dorset labourers to resettle in Australia, explaining to his readers that: ‘It is the young and middle-aged who go, it is the old and the infirm who are left; the moment is a bitter one which tells the aged father or mother that in a few short weeks their children, their grandchildren, propose quitting them – and that, in all probability, for ever.’ But as one emigrant suggested (with echoes of the theory of supply and demand), relocating some of the workforce might also help those remaining in Dorset: ‘I tell you what it is, Sir; we are starving each other; we be too thick in our place; the best of us can’t earn what will find us bread for our children and ourselves, let alone the clothing and the rent; when we be gone [it] will be better for they we leave behind.’
SGO went with them to Plymouth to check on the ship’s facilities, which he found satisfactory. ‘I saw no one reason to regret the pains I and my neighbours have taken to launch these our fellow poor creatures on a sea of adventure which I trust will bear them to lands where their industry and honesty may win for them comforts for life denied them here.’
The letters of SGO kept the pressure on for reform and his honest and very public assessments effectively shamed many landowners into acting. By the middle of the century he wrote that most Dorset gentlemen regretted the living conditions for the poor ‘and are now doing much to remedy them’.
SGO’s writings were important in the public debate of many other issues. For example, he did much to promote Florence Nightingale after visiting the Crimea, but he championed the poor consistently and vigorously throughout his life and much of the improvement in education, health, and poverty that came in the second half of the 19th century owed something to his tenacity. SGO continued as rector at Durweston until 1875 when, aged 68, he retired to Lewes where he died on 9 May 1889. The Times never paid SGO for his work, despite his regular contributions for over forty years. He wrote because he had clear ideas of right and wrong and needed to express them; he became a social conscience for the country. His Times obituary notes that ‘a voice is now silent for ever which, in times gone by, has often stirred the nation and roused it to a new and nobler sense of its duties.’
And what of his Dorset emigrants to Australia? He wrote: ‘I have reason to know that they have, with but one exception that I ever heard of, done so well that the great majority possess property and position in the colony far beyond what could possibly have been anticipated.’
All images from the author’s collection