Skip to main content

A Radical Historian's Pursuit of Rural History: The Political Career and Contribution of Reverend Dr. John Charles Cox, c. 1844 to 1919


How to Write the History of a Parish (1905) by John Charles Cox is a famous early modern history of the parish-state. Yet its author had an eclectic and radical political career in Midlands' life long before he became famous as an historian of English rural life. Today, Cox's radical activities are in fact an important historical prism. His neglected career demonstrates how a strong personality could bring about genuine political change in agricultural life. Cox always focused on the need to fight for the socio-economic and political rights of the labouring poor. At the same time, he was committed to historical research and record collecting, especially that of the vestry in which the poor found a voice. In so doing, he personifies how the boundaries between private interest and public service, the domestic and the political, were sometimes navigated with personal intensity in rural England during the later nineteenth century.

Hide All


1. Cox, J. C., How to Write the History of a Parish (London, 1905).

2. Sweet, R., Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth Century Britain (London, 2004), establishes the importance of antiquary work for English social history.

3. Despite Cox's scholarly reputation and radical Liberal career no biography of his life has been written. Wearmouth, R. F., Some Working Class Movements of the Nineteenth Century (Leicester, 1948), pp. 293–96, gives an overview of Cox's career.

4. Rural ‘history from below’ has been pioneered in Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class, (London, 1963); Samuel, R., Life and Labour (London, 1977); Snell, K. D. M., Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change in Agrarian England, 1660–1990 (Cambridge, 1985); Hitchock, T., King, P. and Sharpe, P., eds, Chronicling Poverty. The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor (Basingstoke, 1997); Sokoll, T., Essex Paupers Letters, 1731–1837 (Oxford, 2001).

5. Geyl, P., Encounters in History (London, 1967), p. 424, first suggested this in the late 1940s. We will see that Cox would have agreed with this quotation wholeheartedly.

6. Cox, J. C., The Pedigree of Cox of Derbyshire (London, 1889), traces Cox's family tree back to Thomas Cox, a clerk to the Crown in the service of Elizabeth I.

7. Cox's early life has been taken from contemporary obituaries: Who Was Who, 1916–1928; Northampton Independent, 1st March 1919. A fellow guardian, Mr Smedley, recalled at the North Midland Poor Law Conference in 1899 that Cox, ‘shed a little light on the inhabitants of the town of Belper while he lived there’, Poor Law Conference Report (1899–1900), p. 217; Derby Record Office, Belper Union Minute Books, ref. 4782.

8. Midland Free Press, 26th April 1873, lists Cox's personal background and radical interests.

9. There is an extensive historiography that discusses Liberal political divisions by the 1870s. See for example: Bentley, M. and Stevenson, J. (eds.), High and Low Politics in Modern Britain (London, 1983); Bentley, M., Politics Without Democracy, Great Britain, 1815–1914 (London, 1984); Parry, J. P., Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party, 1867–1875 (Oxford, 1986); Bentley, M., The Climax of Liberal Politics: British Liberalism in Theory and Practice, 1868–1914 (London, 1987); Bagini, E. F. (ed.), Citizenship and Community: Liberals, Radicals and Collective Identities in the British Isles, 1865–1932 (Cambridge, 1996); Sykes, A., The Rise and Fall of British Liberalism, 1776–1988 (London, 1997).

10. Jenkins, Gladstone, pp. 339–341.

11. Ibid., p. 344.

12. Jenkins, Gladstone, p. 345.

13. Nicolls, D., The Lost Prime Minister: A Life of Sir Charles Dilke (Oxford, 1995), chapter eight pp. 119–37, outlines his involvement in numerous radical causes.

14. See for example, Taylor, A., ‘Republicanism Reappraised: Anti-Monarchism and the English Tradition, 1850–1872’, in Vernon, J., ed., Re-reading the Constitution. New Narratives in the Political History of England's Long Nineteenth Century (London, 1996), pp. 154–78.

15. Roper, M., The History of Forde Abbey (Taunton, 1996). There is a Bentham room in the abbey to commemorate his summer holidays there.

16. British Library Manuscript Department, Dilke Diaries, Dilke MS, Volume LIX, 43932, (1873). The Dilke diaries are a very useful source but it is worth noting that Gertrude Tuckwell (the niece of his second wife) censored them in the early twentieth century. When writing the official two-volume account of Dilke's life with Stephen Gwynn (published 1917) she removed all personal references to the Crawford divorce scandal that she thought might be incriminating. Dilke was cited as a co-respondent, accused of intimate relations with Mrs. Crawford and her daughter. Despite this, the diaries are still an invaluable source for radical political activities.

17. J. C. Cox, ‘The Common Good and the Enclosure of the Commons’, The Examiner, 13th December 1873.

18. Ripley Advertiser, 31st August 1872.

19. J. C. Cox, ‘The Great Unpaid’, The Examiner, 26th October 1872, recounts Cox's campaign to end justices’ stipends and introduce elected magistrates.

20. BLMD, Dilke Diaries, Dilke MS, Volume LIX (1873).

21. Ripley Post, 12th July 1873; Midland Free Press, 12th July 1873.

22. Hansard (3rd series), Volume 215, p. 100.

23. Jenkins, Gladstone, p. 345; Nicholls, Dilke, pp. 119–37.

24. B[ritish] L[ibrary] R[eading] R[oom], Cox, J. C., The Duke of Edinburgh. The Cost of the Royal Household (London, 1873).

25. N[orthampton] R[ecord] O[ffice], J.C. Cox, Cromwell and the Great Civil War (Northampton, 1899), pp. 1–33.

26. Jenkins, Gladstone, p. 348.

27. J. C. Cox, ‘The Right of Public Meeting’, The Examiner, 1st March 1873.

28. B[ritish] L[ibrary] of P[olitical] S[cience], Pamphlet Collection, ref. P25129, J. C. Cox, The Advantages of Trade Unions! A Lecture Delivered at Ripley by J C Cox FRHS of Hazelwood Belper on Thursday evening August 29th 1872 at the request of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Miners’ Association (Derby, 1872), pp. 1–27.

29. Ibid., p. 22.

30. BLRR, J. C. Cox and H. F. Cox, The Rise of the Farm Labourer. A Series of Articles Reprinted from the “Examiner” 1872–3, Illustrative of Certain Political Aspects of the Agricultural Labour Movement (London, 1874).

31. For example, the Dorset Telegram, 27th July 1872, 23rd October 1872, 19th December 1873; North Wiltshire Herald, 29th March 1873 and the Birmingham Morning News, 16th April 1873 all recount Cox and Arch's activities. Cox was also a regular Times correspondent on agricultural employment disputes. See, for example, J. C. Cox, ‘The Lock-Out Question’, Times, 8th April 1874.

32. J.C. Cox and H. F. Cox, ‘The Farm Labourer's Movement’, The Examiner, 8th March 1873.

33. J. C. Cox and H. F. Cox, ‘The Faringdon Labourer's meeting’, The Examiner, 19th April 1873.

34. Private letter from L. Machell Cox (grandson of J.C. Cox) to P. Riden (formerly editor of the Northamptonshire County History scheme) dated 26th November 1974, confirming Cox's activities in Dorset and his clash with prominent Whigs. L. M. Cox had a number of J. C. Cox's photographs of his NALU activities in Dorset, and a signed petition by labourers thanking him for his work. An ink-stand presented to Cox by the grateful labourers was sold in the 1950s. I am grateful for P. Riden for sharing his file on Cox with me.

35. See footnote 22 above.

36. Bath Journal, 21st June 1873.

37. Cox's role in the Education controversy has been reconstructed from the following sources – B[irmingham] U[niversity] L[ibrary] C[ollection], Chamberlain MS, Chamberlain to Morley, 19. 7. 1873, 10. 8. 1873, JC 5/54/3, JC 5/54/7; A. F. Taylor, ‘Birmingham and the Movement for National Education, 1867–77’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Leicester), 1960, pp. 214–16; P. C. Griffiths, ‘Pressure Groups and Parties in Late-Victorian England: The National Education League’, Midland History, III, 3, (1975) 1–19; P. Auspos, ‘Radicalism, Pressure Groups and Party Politics: From the National Education League to the National Liberal Federation’, Journal of British Studies, 20 (Fall, 1980), 181–204; Jay, R., Joseph Chamberlain A Political Study (London, 1981); Marsh, P. T., Joseph Chamberlain Entrepreneur in Politics (London, 1994), pp. 55–6.

38. BLRR, Cox, J. C., Church Property, National Property (London, 1874).

39. See footnote 50 above.

40. BLRR, National Education League – Verbatim Proceedings of a Deputation to the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone PM on Wednesday March 9th 1870 printed for the National Education League Birmingham (Birmingham, 1870).

41. Bath Journal, 21st June 1873; Bristol Times and Mirror, 23rd June 1873.

42. Armytage, W. H. G., A. J. Mundella, 1825–1897 (London, 1951), p. 130.

43. Garvin, J. L., The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, 1836–1885 (London, 1935), Chapter XIII, pp. 134–7 discusses the aftermath and political fall-out from the Bath by-election debacle.

44. BLMD, Dilke Diaries, Dilke MS, 43932, Volume LIX, (1873).

45. N[orthampton] T[own] L[ibrary] L[ocal] S[tudies] C[ollection], The Third Council for Northamptonshire Elected 1895, No. 862 – A Record of Elections Reprinted from the Northampton Mercury, a resume of the political career of Rev. Dr. John Charles Cox, (Northampton, 1895).

46. ‘J. C. Cox – obituary 1919’, Who Was Who 1916–28 (London, 1930).

47. See for example, BLMD, Gladstone MS, Cox to W. E. Gladstone, Volume CCCC, ff. 75, 14th January 1884; ff. 203, 17th February 1884; Volume CCCXXIII, ff. 262, 28th December 1889. These discuss High Church matters, historical research and church matters; Matthew, H. G. (ed.), The Gladstone Diaries, (Oxford, 1980), entries, 7th October 1876, 20th September 1889, confirm that Cox visited Hawarden Castle to discuss church matters and indicate Cox's delight that his youngest son, Cuthbert, was born on Gladstone's birthday.

48. BLMD, Dilke Diaries, Dilke MS, 43932, Volume LIX (1873) recalls Cox's later career. The diary entry was added around 1885–6.

49. Quoted in contemporary local newspapers in January 1894: Northampton Mercury and Northampton Herald; and later reiterated in S. and Webb, B., English Poor Law History, Volume I, Part II – The Last One Hundred years (London, 1929 edn.), p. 466, footnote 2.

50. NRO, ref. 172/9, J. C. Cox, Presentation Papers for the Crown Living at Holdenby, 24 Jan 1894; P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice], C247/3 ref. 174, Lord Chancellor's Office Records, confirming Cox's appointment by Gladstone personally.

51. Hurren, E. T., Protesting About Pauperism: Poverty, Politics and Poor Relief in Late-Victorian England (Woodbridge, 2007).

52. Williams, K., From Pauperism to Poverty (Manchester, 1981), pp. 96107.

53. Rose, M., ‘The Crisis of Poor Relief in England, 1860–1900’, in Mommsen, W. J. and Mocks, W. (eds.), The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain, 1850–1950 (Manchester, 1981), pp. 5070; D. Thomson, ‘The Welfare of the Elderly in the Past, A Family or Community Responsibility?’ in Pelling, M. and Smith, R., eds., Life, Death and the Elderly, Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 194222.

54. Hurren, E. T., ‘Agricultural Trade Unionism and the Crusade against Out-Door Relief: Poor Law Politics in the Brixworth Union, Northamptonshire, 1870–75’, Agricultural History Review, 48, 2 (December 2000), 200–22; E. T. Hurren, ‘Labourers are Revolting: Penalising the Poor and a Political Reaction in the Brixworth Union Northamptonshire, 1875–1885’, Rural History, 2 (April 2000), 37–55.

55. Ibid.

56. Hurren, E. T., ‘The Pauper Dead-House: The Expansion of Cambridge Anatomical Teaching School under the Late-Victorian Poor Law, 1870–1914’, Medical History 48: 1, 6994.

57. Jenkins, Gladstone, p. 581.

58. Thomson, ‘Welfare of the Elderly’, pp. 194–22, outlines the demography of workhouse residents.

59. Lawrence, J., Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867–1914 (Cambridge, 1998).

60. Northampton Independent, 1st March 1919.

61. See footnote 49 above.

62. Carnell, G., The Bishops of Peterborough (Peterborough, 1981), p. 82.

63. The history of the Brixworth District Outdoor Relief Association is outlined in BLPS, Pamphlet Collection, ref, HV/578, J.C. Cox, Outdoor relief – The Heritage of the Poor – A Paper Read at the North Midlands Poor Law Conference at Grimsby on 13th September, 1899, with notes of a Lecture delivered at Oxford on 2nd January 1900 (London, 1900), pp. 1–24.

64. BLRM, Cox, J. C., ‘Outdoor Relief with Special Reference to Brixworth, Atcham and Whitechapel’, in Poor Law Conference Reports (London, 1899–1900), pp. 193215.

65. BLMD, Althorp MS, K345, Calverley to Spencer, 19th December 1894, quoted with original spelling, phrasing and emphasis.

66. BLMD, Althorp MS, K348, Cox to Spencer, 30th April 1895; Cox to Spencer, 1st May 1895.

67. A selection of Cox's publications on English local history include: Churches of Derbyshire (1876–79) Four Volumes (Derby, 1880); Chronicles of All Saints Derby (Derby, 1881); How to Write the History of a Parish (London, 1910, 5th edn.); Lichfield Capitulary Monuments (Stafford, 1886); Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals – Two Volumes (Derby, 1888); The Sober, Righteous and Godly Life (London 1890); The Gardens of Scripture (London, 1893); Northampton Borough Records (Northampton, 1897); Church of St. Sepulchre's Northampton (Northampton, 1898); Quarter Session Records of Derbyshire (Derby, 1899); Strutt's Sports and Past Times (London, 1901); Little Guide to Derbyshire (Derby, 1902); English Monasteries (London, 1904); Little Guide to Hants (Hampshire, 1904); Royal Forests of England (London, 1905); A History of Canterbury (Canterbury, 1905); Memorials of Old Derbyshire – English Church Furniture (Derby, 1907); The Cathedral Church and See of Essex (Chelmsford, 1907); Parish Registers of England (London, 1909); The Cathedral Guide to Surrey (London, 1910); Rambles in Surrey (London, 1910); Churches of Norfolk – 2 Volumes (Norwich, 1910); Churchwardens Accounts (London, 1913); Pulpits, Lecterns and Organs (London, 1915); Bench Ends of English Churches (London, 1916).

68. There are two schools of thought about why Gladstone accepted Home Rule for Ireland and to what extent it led to the decline of Liberalism. Cooke and Vincent argue that Home Rule was a political tool to deflect attention from much-needed welfare reform; whereas, Parry, Cowling and Bentley argue that Gladstone wanted both Home Rule and to stop the progress of Advanced Liberalism. He achieved neither and so Liberalism declined irrevocably from the mid-1880s. See footnote 9 above.

69. Hurren, ‘Agricultural Trade Unionism’, pp. 200–23, discusses this more fully.

70. See, footnote 59, above.

71. Williams, Pauperism; Rose, ‘The Crisis’; Thomson, ‘The Elderly’; Hurren, Protesting, which all argue that it is neglected.

72. Harrison, B., The Transformation of British Politics, 1860–1995 (Harmondsworth, 1996), p. 71.

73. Northampton Independent, 1st March 1919.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Rural History
  • ISSN: 0956-7933
  • EISSN: 1474-0656
  • URL: /core/journals/rural-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed