By Ruth Mather
How do we determine whether or not an object is radical? This was a question that troubled me as I explored the ceramics collections of the People’s History Museum in Manchester looking for objects that might be related to the popular radicalism of the early nineteenth century. Some items are easy to designate as radical – they feature the face of a political figure, a slogan, a reference to a major event such as the Peterloo Massacre. But others are far more subtle.
I was particularly interested in objects that would be commonplace in an ordinary home of the period, perhaps made even more radical because of their everydayness – following Daniel Miller’s assertion that the most powerful ‘stuff’ is usually that which shapes our lives without our noticing it. I was drawn to a fairly battered earthenware jug precisely because it looked like it had been well-handled before finding its way to a museum. The jug was a commemorative for the Farmer’s Arms pub, and it was the depiction of two farmers on the front of the mug which first caught my attention. Both man and woman are pictured, each with the tools of their labour, and while the latter appears conventionally feminine in dress, her hard work is in evidence through her sturdy arms – strengthened by her work with the churn which stands at her side. The depiction of male and female farmers on this commemorative for the Farmer’s Arms reminds us that pubs could be sociable spaces for working-class men and women alike, in which the bonds of community could be strengthened through shared leisure time.
Perhaps even more strikingly, however, the reverse of the jug features an image and a poem relating to the behaviour of a country parson. While usually eager to share a drink or a joke, the parson becomes grasping and mean when it comes to collecting his regular tythes. He is, however, thwarted by a canny farmer’s wife, who informs the parson that, rather than take the family pig, he can instead have their child:
The Priest look’d gruff, the Wife looked big,
L—ds, Sir quoth she, no Child, no Pig.
The bold, taunting farmer’s wife in the poem fulfils a similar function to the Billingsgate fishwife in Georgian caricature, who, in Diana Donald’s analysis, performed a patriotic role, symbolic of liberty, in spite of a rough-and-ready nature played up for humour. The comedy of the piece is all in its inversions of power – the woman gets the better of a man, the hardworking laypeople over the greedy parson.
It is possible that the poem and image also played upon resentment towards the established church, whose abuses of power were most readily encountered in the collection of tythes from the local population regardless of whether or not they chose to celebrate in the Anglican faith. The jug now resides in a collection based in Manchester, where in the early nineteenth century political radicals would have been particularly aware of the power of the Anglican clergy. As Katrina Navickas has pointed out, clergymen were prominent amongst the region’s magistrates, and these staunch opponents of radicalism were among those who ordered and later endorsed the use of the military at Peterloo in 1819. This particular jug has been retained according to the collection policies of the People’s History Museum – a museum which celebrates radical ideas – but similar items, also representing the ‘tythe pig’ story, can also be found in the collections of the V&A, whose remit is design-focused. The story of the farmer’s wife and the parson itself seems to have been well-known – a short story depicting Christmas in a Cottage, published in 1790, has a guest at the festive celebrations offer a rendition of ‘the song of the Parson and Pig’, assuming that the reader would recognise the reference.What is difficult to assess, however, is the extent to which humour at the parson’s expense provided an outlet for a deeper resentment, or represented a wider political critique of the power of Church and State.
Beyond a humorous dig at the power of the established Church, then, the political credentials of the jug remain difficult to verify. Though it is now in Manchester, the jug itself does not bear any marker of its origins. One could attempt to trace the ‘Farmer’s Arms’ to which it refers, within the many establishments of that name, but such an undertaking might well prove futile in attempting to trace the origins of this particular item. There is also no specific date associated with the jug, though it has the look and feel of an early nineteenth-century creation. As with many ordinary, lower-status objects of this period, lack of documentation makes the tracing of any detailed object biography difficult. But perhaps such certainty is not required. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the object is in itself inherently radical, created for a radical purpose, but the ways in which it can be interpreted by those who encounter it.
Ruth Mather is a Post Doctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter working on a project to recover and make publicly available poetry associated with the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-1865). She is interested in histories of gender and class, popular politics, everyday life, and material culture. She tweets at @ruth_mather and @CottonPoetry.