This day’s walk would have taken us - save that this is now private land - down from the Southern boundary of the parish on the Lindsey road, where it crosses the road leading from Monks Eleigh towards Semer. On the way, we would have observed large areas that in the 18th century were in freehold ownership, without doubt the property of wealthy men - in fact, we will note the name of one Robert Rich, perhaps a kinsman of Richard, the former Lord Chancellor of England in Thomas More‘s day. So let us take the opportunity to reflect on the question of public money in the early eighteenth century, and then, at the end, we will look at the situation of finance and economics today.
As always in time of war, both taxation and national indebtedness rose during the War of the Spanish Succession, adding to the growing pressure for peace and to the fall of the Whig government.
The war had, however, interfered little with trade with the colonies and other overseas markets, and the City was uneasy about our wartime commitment to Holland because of the long-standing commercial rivalry between the two countries. As a result, it gave little support to the incoming Tory administration, representing the landed gentry and the aristocracy, as it campaigned for an end to the conflict in the years leading up to the Treaty of Utrecht.
Merchants wanted freedom, both from burdensome taxes and from equally restrictive regulation of their trading ambitions; and so, once the peace was signed, business interests were urging ministers to implement policies for the freedom of trade. At the same time, leaders of both the landowning and the trading blocs in Parliament were pressing that the protection of domestic industries against imports from the Americas should be pursued energetically.
In the countryside, though, agriculture having flourished in wartime faced less comfortable times as the country entered the 1720s and 30s.
The country’s debts were financed in large part by the Bank of
England, adding to its increasing grip over the financial sector in the City, but also by the East India Company. Then from 1711 onwards, when the enterprise was founded, the South Sea Company aggressively sought to take on part of the responsibility for financing the national debt.
These times of peace were marked by individual, rather than institutional, initiative. The pervasive abuses that then ran from top to bottom of corporate and political life came to their zenith in 1722 in the rise and subsequent fall of the South Sea Company. Major public figures of all kinds were implicated, including royalty, ministers and great numbers of influential speculators.
We may conjecture that some of the leading local families were not averse to joining this stampede for easy riches, though a more charitable view might be that the recession in agriculture was more