Riots, Writs And Social Reform – Sir John Stuttard Talks About John Rutter

Shaftesbury Civic Society is hosting Civic Day on 21st June, to celebrate the people and organisations that make this town special.

During the afternoon, Shaftesbury author Sir John Stuttard will talk about a special former resident, John Rutter.

Sir John has been working with Gold Hill Museum’s Ray Simpson, researching the role that Rutter played in both Shaftesbury life and in national social reform in the early nineteenth century.

At the time, if you asked a Shaftesbury resident for their opinion on Rutter, you would have had a very different response depending on the status of the person you were quizzing. Rutter was unpopular amongst the small circle of privileged men that controlled local life.

“He was a meddler,” says John. “Rutter was going to ruin their nice, comfortable, corrupt way of life,” he adds.

Sir John Stuttard

At the time, very little public money was invested in roads, pavements or almshouses. Councillors appointed their friends to the Town Council and enjoyed drinks and lavish meals on expenses.

But the majority of the town’s workers felt that the Bristol-born reformer was on their side. “He was becoming a bit of a folk hero,” says John.

Rutter grew up as part of a Quaker family that operated a printing and newspaper business. He moved to Shaftesbury and used his father’s will money to purchase a printing press of his own. One of Rutter’s legacies is the snapshot of life in late Georgian Dorset and Wiltshire that he recorded through the books that he published.

“He produced a guide to the Cranborne Chase. The history and origins of it and the deer hunting that took place in medieval times when it was a royal chase,” says John. “In 1822, Rutter wrote a guide to Wardour Castle and then Fonthill Abbey. The owner of Stourhead House, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, encouraged him and became a supporter of Rutter in his writing,” explained John.

Rutter’s publishing offered him access to the more enlightened, socially aware members of the gentry. Rutter formed friendships with influential people who shared the strong sense of fairness and justice that had been instilled in him as part of his Quaker upbringing.

Portrait of John Rutter by French artist Monsieur Jacqueline

Today, society recognises equality and democracy but in the early 19thcentury, Rutter faced a challenge in getting these principles accepted. In those days, few Shaftesbury residents enjoyed political representation. The town returned two MPs and their election would be considered a ‘stitch up’ by today’s standards.

“Grosvenor owned most of Shaftesbury and the MPs were in his pocket,” said John. In the early 1800s, electors paid a tax based on the value of their home, whether it was owned or rented. This restricted the electorate to under 500 people.

“In 1818, the first Earl Grosvenor bought three-quarters of the town. His agents decided whom they wanted as MPs. Voting wasn’t secret then and if Grosvenor’s tenants didn’t vote for those candidates, then they could be ‘turfed out’ of their houses,” John explained, before offering evidence of the intimidation voters experienced. “In the 1830 election, eviction orders were issued for 33 tenants who didn’t vote the right way.”

MPs had to buy their power, too. “Anyone wishing to stand as a candidate would pay Grosvenor’s agents the equivalent of today’s £200,000,” John said.

Rutter was challenging the status quo. And the men who had most to lose started fighting back. In 1826 Lord Grosvenor demolished the former Market Hall because it stood in the middle of Shaftesbury’s High Street and restricted traffic.

The mayor planned a celebration to mark the decision to build a new town hall. The gentry and wealthy were invited to dine with him at the Grosvenor Arms but less important locals were offered drinks at The Bell Inn, which wasn’t as prestigious.

Rutter, unsurprisingly, was asked to attend The Bell along with a trainee lawyer called Bardelow. He was incensed at being put on the ‘B list’ and he sent a stroppy letter to the mayor. The mayor wanted to circulate this angry letter, so he took it to Rutter’s business for printing, but unfortunately, Rutter made a mistake that cost him dearly.

“Rutter had a cursory glance at the letter but he was so preoccupied with his own issues that he got one of his apprentices to print it,” says John. In those days, it was a criminal offence not to put the name of the printer at the foot of the letter. It made it easier to trace people who were circulating revolutionary or radical literature. In printing Mayor Swire’s letter, Rutter had failed to include this reference. Swire and his friends were magistrates and Rutter had been caught out.

“The political clique in Shaftesbury saw this as an opportunity to deal with the turbulent Quaker,” says John. Rutter was first fined £5, but went on to appear before the magistrates on four further occasions and was fined another fiver.

More legal action followed, as the printing press Rutter had purchased to share his enlightening views on social reform was used to mock the town’s establishment. John Rutter and James Acland started to produce the Shaftesbury equivalent of Private Eye. John says that The Shastonianwas a, “highly satirical document that had imaginary and fictitious letters in it about individuals around the town.”

The pair printed four editions, although the last issue was not distributed. “In the second edition there were remarks about the mayor which he considered libellous,” John explains. “A writ was issued and Rutter had to appear at the Assizes in Dorchester.”

In advance of that court date, a deal was done and Rutter had to pay damages to the mayor, Swire. The process had been expensive for Rutter. “The whole action, he estimated, cost £400 in legal costs and damages. It was a huge amount of money in 1826,” John says.

Rutter was back in court in 1830, a difficult year across Britain. Crops had failed and agricultural workers were resorting to angry protests over farming mechanisation with the introduction of threshing machines.

“The election of 1830 was particularly violent,” says John. “There were riots in Shaftesbury and the windows of the Grosvenor Arms were broken on two occasions. Rutter was charged. The judge at the Dorchester Assizes tried to deal with the matter quickly and asked all defendants to plead guilty in order to receive a nominal sentence.”

Rutter refused. He said that he hadn’t incited people to riot. Rutter accepted that he had spoken at the election hustings but he maintained that he had advised the innkeeper to close the Grosvenor’s gates. The charges eventually lapsed.

The 1830 general election led to massive change in Britain. The more liberal Whig party gained power and they introduced wide-ranging reforms to the political system, democracy and representation. They abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. “Rutter had achieved what he was seeking to achieve,” says John.

In 1835, Rutter became part of the establishment on his election to Shaftesbury Town Council. “He was a member of the committee which built the Bimport Gas Works. This provided light to private houses and to the town,” said John, adding that Rutter also encouraged the South Western Railway to open the train line from Salisbury through Semley and Gillingham and down to Exeter.

The gasworks and Semley station are long gone but one of Rutter’s personal achievements is highly visible around the town today. He founded a Shaftesbury law firm. Before the political reform, Quakers like Rutter couldn’t act as lawyers because they had refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the monarch. The requirement changed in 1828.

“Rutter now saw an opportunity where he could become a lawyer and fight against injustice from a legal point of view,” says John. “He set up a practice called Hannan and Rutter. Then he started up on his own before his son, John Farley Rutter, joined him and the business became Rutter and Son.”

You can learn more about Rutter’s life and his achievements during John Stuttard’s talk on Thursday 21st June at 3.30pm in Gold Hill Museum.

John’s lecture forms part of Shaftesbury Civic Society’s Civic Day programme.

“It is not Rutter’s fault that people don’t know about him,” says Sir John. “The work that we have done over the past six months means that we can now communicate what an extraordinary and special chap he was – a man who achieved a huge amount. This is the benefit of historical research.”

John Stuttard’s book, The Turbulent Quaker Of Shaftesbury, will be published in the autumn.