The Myth of the Selborne ‘Trumpeter’ – The Hazards of Secondary Sources

The Selborne Workhouse

Most cultures acquire myths of various kinds. They often demonstrate a commonly held belief or some statement of acceptable behaviour. As sources for history, they are unreliable, though they are generally based on some event. In Hampshire, a good example is the ‘Trumpeter’ of Selborne, John Newland.

Read nearly any history of Selborne, and you will be told that John Newland, the ‘Trumpeter’, led an attack on the Selborne workhouse in November 1830, blowing his horn, and then escaped capture by hiding up on the Hanger which overlooks the village, while others were arrested and some transported to Australia.

Furthermore, he achieved something of a ‘hero’ status in the village, being buried near the famous Selborne yew tree in a grave marked as ‘The ‘Trumpeter’.

And yet, if we read the contemporary accounts of the riot (which was one of the many ‘Swing Riots’ in southern England at the time) we discover that he was arrested and served six months in Winchester Gaol, but he was not regarded as the leader of the attack.  He was in fact arrested for mobbing the vicar of Selborne. Those who were thought to be leaders, including Aaron Harding, were transported to Australia.

So how did he achieve this celebrity status?

At the time of his death, aged 77, in 1868 it seems that his family had convinced the vicar of his importance and he was therefore buried in a place of honour.

Then 34 years later, in 1902, the noted naturalistand author WH Hudson met and talked with a Widow Garnett in Selborne, who told him the story which he recounted in his Hampshire Days.  In fact, John Newland’s daughter, Eliza, the Widow Garnett to whom Hudson was talking, had not been born at the time of the riot, and was recounting a version which had been handed down to her in the family.  She even got the date wrong by ten years, telling Hudson that it had occurred in 1820.

But all this was faithfully recorded by Hudson, and became ‘fact’ to following generations of historians. On a point of detail, the mob started with Selborne, tearing off the roof, then moved the next day to Headley about 6 miles to the east.

In John Newland’s testimony at his trial – for he was indeed captured –he claimed that he was pressed by Aaron Harding [who is he?] to leave hiswork on the Monday, that he blew his horn (not a trumpet)  only once at the desire of some of the men, and that in the evening he was ‘knocked down by some of the party for not having taken an active part at the workhouse’, and this version seems to have convinced the authorities who gave him 6 months in gaol for his part in the proceedings – somewhat less than the punishment given to the ‘true’ leaders.

Footnote: Although John Newland was not himself transported, his descendants did eventually arrive in the Antipodes. The story is told by Jean Vivian, his great-great-grand-daughter in her book, Echoesof Home.  Newland’s daughter Ellen was sentenced to transportation in 1849, charged with the attempted murder of her husband Robert Heath ‘with arsenic in a pudding.’ In 1850 she travelled out to Tasmania with her baby daughter Mary Ann on board the St Vincent. The baby died soon after they arrived.  Ellen married John Ryan (or Roynan) there in September 1851 and had seven more children.  She died in 1908.]

Further reading

John Owen Smith, One Monday in November…and Beyond: The Selborne and Headley Workhouse Riots of 1830, available from Amazon.

Jill Chambers, Hampshire Machine Breakers: the Story of the 1830 Riots, 1990.

Jean Vivian, Echoes of Home – A Daughter of Selborne Transported to Tasmania, 2008; available from here.

Contributed by John Owen Smith

W.H. Hudson, Hampshire Days, (chapter 9, 1903)

‘In a small house by the roadside in the middle of [Wolmer] forest I found a temporary home. My aged landlady proved a great talker, and treated me to a good deal of Hampshire dialect.’

Hudson recalled the stories the landlady told him about the locality. ‘One was how her father, her mother’s second husband, had acted as horn-blower to the “Selborne mob”, when the poor villagers were starving; and how, blowing on his horn, he had assembled his fellow-revolutionists, and led them to an attack on the poorhouse, where they broke down the doors and made a bonfire of furniture; then on to the neighbouring village of Headley to get recruits for their little army. Then the soldiery arrived on the scene, and took them prisoners and sent them to Winchester, where they were tried by some little-remembered Judge Jeffreys, who sentenced many or most

of them to transportation; but not the horn-blower, who had escaped, and was hiding in among the beeches of the famous Selborne Hanger. Only at midnight he would steal down into the village to get a bite of food and hear the news from his vigorous and vigilant wife. At length, during one of these midnight descents, he was seen, and captured, and sent to Winchester. But by this time the authorities had grown sick–possibly ashamed–of dealing so harshly with a few poor peasants, whose suffering had made them mad, and the horn-blower was pardoned, and died in bed at home when his time came.’


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