In 1801 the British government conducted its first nationwide census, which allows today’s student of history to obtain a fair snapshot of the time. The facts gathered were limited compared to the statistics routinely developed today, but nevertheless they provide a basis for the historical fiction writer’s speculations.
From this census we know that Darking’s parish in 1800 had a population of just over three thousand souls. The town had no street lights, very primitive waste management and water supply, and mostly unpaved streets. The late eighteenth century had seen a decline in its status as an important market town; Guildford to the west was more successful, having improved its connection to the great economic driver of London by building a canal that connected the city to the Thames. Recurrent crop failures in the 1790s had suppressed economic activity around Darking, and the old market house in the centre of town was in a state of disrepair (it was demolished not long afterwards, in 1813).
Darking’s communication with the outside world had been improved with the construction of a turnpike road in 1755 that ran from Horsham, in northern Sussex, to London; but all of the secondary roads remained in sorry condition, muddy and rutted, making it impossible to transport timber, produce, and other goods from their sources in the countryside to market most of the time. One economic highlight was Darking’s poultry trade, centred on its unique local breed of five-clawed hens, which were highly prized as far away as London. The region’s chalk pits, producing high-quality lime for masons and for soil amendment, were prosperous by the early nineteenth century, and the impact of this industry can still be seen all around the neighbourhood though the pits have long since ceased operation.
Within the area of Darking Hundred, agriculture was still a widespread way of life. In the parishes of the hundred excluding Ockley (for which I lack data) there were nearly 9,000 acres under cultivation in 1800, out of a total acreage of about 25,000. Abinger parish was almost entirely agricultural, the other parishes less so; the remaining lands, with the exception of the town itself, were mostly woodland, waste, or pastureland. Oats and wheat were the principal crops, with barley popular in some areas depending on the soils, and smaller quantities of turnips, pease, and potatoes grown here and there. Hops were an only experimental crop there in 1800.
There were pockets of fine alluvial loam, but most of the hundred consisted of thin greensand over limestone or heavy, hard-to-till Wealden clay towards the south. The challenges of making a living from the soil, combined with the proximity to London—only a few hours’ carriage ride away—made Darking vulnerable to a form of social change that owed everything to the Industrial Revolution, even if there were no mechanised industries in the area: an early version of suburbanisation. Self-made men who became wealthy in the Metropolis, such as successful bankers or people like the Broadwood family of pianoforté makers, bought estates all over Darking Hundred and set themselves up as squires. But many of these men continued to work in London and most had little connection to Surrey or to the tenants who lived in the cottages on their properties.
This change was felt most keenly by those whose feet were planted deep in the soil of the hundred—the intricate web of mutual obligation between landlord and tenant was severed by the newly wealthy, who may not even have been aware of what their tenants expected of them. Gone for many yeomen and labourers were the harvest suppers, the barrel of home-brewed ale set out by the manor’s kitchen door for the refreshment of all comers, the Boxing Day traditions, the pipeline for service employment that benefitted excess sons and daughters—so many traditions that had rescued families from hunger and cushioned the uncertainties of agricultural life.
Some landlords were enclosing the waste lands of the parishes, cutting off the poor from their traditional rights of herbage and pannage. Agricultural wages were so low that tenant farmers could not afford the coal to cook the little food they had, and once they could no longer collect firewood or fruits from the common lands their lives became grim indeed. Even the structure of parish relief was changed in the years leading up to 1800, causing shortfalls in some areas, including Newdigate at the southern end of the hundred. For yeomen with freeheld properties, the proliferation of banking services held new dangers: after bad harvests they were tempted into borrowing and mortgaging their land, only to default and lose their farms after the next failed crop when they could not make their payments.
In 1800 the economy of England was also distorted by the long years of war against France. The government, desperate to raise funds for the conflict, was inventing new taxes—notably the income tax, first levied that year—and imposing duties on imported goods of all kinds, both luxuries and necessities. The taxes burdened not only the wealthy but also many people barely making do, and import duties affected everyone. Duties on imported goods also gave birth to a thriving ‘underground’ smuggling economy, which played a role in Darking’s history, situated as it was along one of the main routes from the Sussex coast to London. Its happy accident of geology—being built atop a system of sandstone caves—also contributed to its role in the transport of contraband.
The government also employed a variety of means to ensure a steady supply of men to serve as cannon fodder, from press gangs to mandating that every community supply a certain number of men to serve in the army. And the wars contributed to disruptions in food supplies, when the markets in flour and bread (among other staples) were manipulated to ensure adequate provisions for the army and navy at the expense of those who remained at home. This led to rioting, including riots in Darking during the winter and spring of 1800.
In many ways, although Darking Hundred at the dawn of the nineteenth century appears on the surface to be an Edenic haven of beautiful landscapes lost in time and far from the ugly realities of the industrialising cities of England, it was still radically affected by the changes happening far from its fields and hills. The characters in the Darking Hundred stories must all engage with uncertainty and change to one degree or another.