“Servile Historians” (1869) | Samuel Kydd

By Samuel “Gracchus” Kydd

The following letter was written probably written by Samuel Kydd and addressed ‘To the Editor of Reynolds’s Newspaper’ in 1869.[1] I say that it was probably Kydd who wrote this letter because he often wrote under the pseudonym of Gracchus, as recollected by George Julian Harney in the 1890s.[2] Kydd was born in Scotland in 1815 to a poor family and, as he grew up, became a Chartist activist. After the government’s rejection of the Chartist petition in 1848 he attached himself to a number of pro-democracy causes. The letter is interesting because it is reveals a radical, Ritson-esque attitude to the outlaw’s exploits: Robin Hood here is truly a people’s hero, heroically fighting against the injustices perpetrated by an evil, robbing aristocracy.

Sir,—Albeit pretty certain that Britons never will be slaves to foreign masters, it is by no means equally sure they are not even now bondsmen to native tyrants. So long as the land is in the possession of a few holders, the bulk of Englishmen are deprived of their birth right, and with it a large amount of liberty. The land-of the people has been filched from them by fraud and force from time to time, and the present possessors of this stolen property look upon it as their rightful inheritance, whereas they have no more right to their boasted broad acres than the thief has to the handkerchief he has picked from another person’s pocket. Nearly all the evils and privations under which the people suffer are primarily attributable to the robberies that have been perpetrated upon them by the large landholding proprietors in the kingdom. One source of obtaining a living has been cut away from the commonalty by the aristocracy; for, whilst the latter holds the land, the former scarcely profits by its product and abundance. Providence intended that the produce of the earth should be enjoyed in common by its inhabitants. The nobility has thwarted these benign provisions, and defrauded mankind of its rightful inheritance. And yet these heartless thieves are specially prayed for in the Liturgy of the State Church! The robbers revel in riches, the robbed are either half-starved in a Poor-law union, lead a miserable existence on wages that scarcely keep body and soul together, or are coolly told that they had beat take themselves elsewhere—to Australia, Canada, or any other receptacle for the starved out English pauperism that aristocratic robbery, rascality, and rapacity has created.

But it is not only the agricultural labourer that is ground to the earth by rapacious landlords; others in a higher grade of life are stripped, as it were, of their skins, in order that the aristocracy may be kept warm and comfortable. The tenant farmers of England are not only about the most dependent, but they are likewise the most servile and sycophantic, of slaves to their feudal lords. The latter take good care that, albeit their tenants run all the risk, and have all the trouble and labour of tilling the ground, yet they shall have a very small portion indeed of the profits derived from its produce. Heavy rents hang round the necks of tenant farmers like millstones, and leases are so encumbered by clauses favourable to the landlord, and disadvantageous to the helpless tenant, that in very few instances can the latter do more than keep his head above water, and live, as it were, from hand to mouth. Pinched to the utmost by extortionate landowners, the tenants are compelled to pinch their wretched drudges, the farm labourers; and thus it is we find tens of thousands of our fellow men starving amidst plenty. And yet this class—the tenant farmers of England—who are constantly being plundered, bullied, and harried by their landlords, is, to all appearances, Conservative to the backbone. It is they who turn county elections in favour of Tory candidates; it is they who uphold the influence of the territorial aristocracy that shamefully plunders them, and of the State Church, that walk off with a large portion of their substance. I say, therefore, that if you want to behold an embodiment of combined stupidity and servility, look at the tenant farmer, who goes to the hustings and votes for your Church and State candidate.

Servile historians have depicted as robbers, rascals, and freebooters men who in reality were doing their utmost to save themselves and posterity from being plundered by the ancestors of those coroneted robbers who now hold possession of a large portion of English soil. For instance, at the time the Norman barons, from whore loins many of our nobility pride themselves upon having sprung, were pillaging the country, and quartering themselves upon the English people, somewhat after the fashion of the German princes of our own day, Robin Hood was amongst the sturdiest and sternest of those who strove to protect their properties from pillage. Walton, in his “Landed Tenures,”[3] thus spoke of the gallant patriot and his brave band who were outlawed by the crowned and coroneted scoundrels that ruled the land:

Though enemies to the foreign usurpers, they did no harm to those who fell into their hands, and only shed blood in self-defence. These “merry men,” as they were popularly called, granted peace and protection to all who were feeble and oppressed; shared with those who had nothing the spoils of those who fattened on what they plundered from the English, and, according to the old tradition, did good to the honest and industrious. Their attacks fell chiefly on the agents of royal authority and on the king’s sheriffs.

But bend your bows and strike your strings,

Set the gallows-tree about,

And Christ’s curse on his head, said Robin,

That spares the sheriff and the sergeant.

The strongest sympathy was manifested by the men of Saxon origin for Robin Hood, whom they looked upon as their chieftain and defender,—“I would rather die,” said an old woman to him one day—I would rather die than not do all I might to save thee; for who fed and clothed me and mine but thou and Little John.”

The struggle, however, that endured for centuries between the people and the nobility—the former striving to retain possession of their land, the latter determined to dispossess them of it, has terminated in the complete triumph of the latter, and the result of this despoilment is the terrible amount of pauperism, misery, destitution, and crime that overshadows the nation like a funeral pall.

The robbers who defrauded the people of their birth right also obtained the power, as law makers, of giving an appearance of legality to their nefarious proceedings. So if the right and title of any large landowner to his possessions were questioned, he might refer to the grant made of them to his ancestors by some sovereign or another who had himself first plundered them from the people. But the time is coming when, perhaps, the title deeds of our large landholding nobility will be overhauled in a manner not exactly satisfactory to themselves.

Mr. Maguire, the member for Cork, has given notice that he will move for a select committee to inquire into the management of the Irish estates of certain London companies, with a view to consider whether, under existing circumstances, it might not be advisable, for the public interest, to recommend the revocation of the charters of the said companies and the sale of their estates. These London companies hold their Irish estates much in the same way as most of our nobility do theirs. And Mr. Maguire, as an Irishman, is indignant that Irish peasants should be rack-rented for the purpose of enabling a host of London aldermen, common councillors, &c. to gormandize and guzzle at the cost of the hardworking Irish labourers. Perhaps it may be as well to inquire, at the same time, whether the English working man shall longer be pauperized, so that the aristocracy may enjoy all the luxuries of life, and maintain horses, hounds, harlots, &c. at his expense.


[1] Samuel Kydd, ‘The Robbery of the Land by the Aristocracy’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 10 January 1869, 4.

[2] George Julian Harney, ‘Samuel Kydd’, The Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 14 January 1893, in The Chartists were Right, ed. by David Goodway (London: Merlin, 2014), p. 83.

[3] Alfred A. Walton, History of the Landed Tenures of Great Britain & Ireland, from the Norman Conquest to the Present Time (London: Charles Clark, 1865)