The Smock Frock Martyr

In 1861, the Berkshire Chronicle reported on the case of the so-called ‘Smock Frock Martyr’.  William Winkworth was first in the service of Mr King in Beedon, a small village in Berkshire, where he was convicted for not attending church.  It would seem that he was a non-conformist, as after his conviction, he was then taken to ‘a chapel in Fetter Lane’, which would appear to be the Moravian Chapel in London, a church founded in the mid-eighteenth century which had a strong influence on Methodism.  Winkworth was paraded in his smock frock and ‘rustic clothing’, looking clean, tidy and healthy, and creating ‘much interest’.  He was a rural non-conformist martyr against the Church of England, omni-present and a powerful influence in rural villages.

Sometime afterwards, at a Michaelmas hiring fair, he was taken on by Mr Freemantle of Kingsclere in Hampshire, as a yearly servant.  However, a couple of months into his contract, he ‘absquatulated’ into Berkshire, where he was soon caught and brought before the magistrates.  Absquatulate is a very mid-19th century word, a blending of abscond, squattle ‘squat down’, and perambulate, put together to simulate Latin, an American fad which had developed from the 1830s.  This fad of inventing playful Latinesque words included discombobulate, more common today.  Behaving with ‘considerable cheek’ towards the police, he was then fined nine shillings by the magistrates for this misdemeanour, probably at least a week’s worth of wages. However, ‘he promised to behave better in the future’, and expressed great penitence for his actions.  The newspaper report was censorious of his activities though, and of his position as a non-conformist ‘martyr’ and ‘victim to intolerance’, with his ‘breach of one of the most obvious moral duties – that of keeping an engagement and working honestly for …[his] daily bread’.

His moral character was again questioned with his actions back with Mr Freemantle where he carried out disruptive working practises, presumably to highlight his situation of not being able to leave his position.  He stopped his plough seven times in one day to light and smoke his ‘short’ pipe. He also did everything to ‘annoy his fellow-labourers and Mr Freemantle’.  When Freemantle questioned him about this he answered supposedly in an insolent manner.  Freemantle went to Newbury Fair for the day leaving his carter to spy on Winkworth for him.  He said that Winkworth had sat by the hedge four times that day to smoke his pipe. Of course, this was before the days of regulated working days and stipulated breaks.

For this troublesome behaviour, Freemantle prosecuted him in court in Winchester, where Winkworth was found guilty and sentenced to a month in gaol.  This early example of working to rule was supposedly caused by Freemantle under paying by a shilling the wages he had agreed with Winkworth when he hired him, a charge that Freemantle denied.  Winkworth’s character was once more questioned by the newspaper which speculated that his celebrity as the ‘smock frock martyr’ may have made rural life too ‘slow’ for him, while querying the non-conformist choice of a man to stand up for their rights who frequently seemed to end up before the magistrates and in gaol.  Whatever the truth of the matter, it is an interesting tale of conflicting religious practices, the difficulty of work contracts for rural labourers, and possibly personality clashes, hung on the yoke of the smock frock.