Ashby, Joseph (1859–1919), farmer and social reformer
by Alun Howkins

Ashby, Joseph (1859–1919), farmer and social reformer, was born in Tysoe in Warwickshire on 13 June 1859, the son of an unmarried servant, Elizabeth Ashby. His father was the husband of Elizabeth's mistress, yet, common as such births were, Ashby's was in some ways different. His father provided for him but his mother, a fiercely independent woman, refused to use the money. More importantly his mother's branch of the Ashby family had ‘gone down’ in the world but retained wealthy relatives—even if distant ones. These factors gave her, and Joseph, a sense of worth and self-confidence that provided a sure base for Joseph's later self-education and political beliefs.

Ashby attended the national school in Tysoe from the age of five to eleven. He left school able to read and write, but little more, and started work as a ‘boy’ on a farm in Tysoe, which he followed with employment in quarrying and the building trade. Before he was twenty he came into contact with the three great influences that dominated his life. First, trades unionism and Liberalism, which came through his contact with the farmworkers' leader Joseph Arch; second, the friendly society movement, which gave him a belief in self-help; and third, Methodism, which gave him a sure religious faith and, with its insistence on reading and preaching, added to his basic education.

In the late 1870s Ashby made use of these different skills to find work with the Ordnance Survey, carrying instruments and eventually taking simple measurements. In the early 1880s, while working with the survey, he met Bolton King, a young Oxford graduate who had been influenced by Charles Booth and had spent some time at the East End settlement Toynbee Hall. Through his association with King and his contacts with local Liberalism Ashby began writing on the problems of rural life. He wrote first for the local press, and this remained a source of income for him until his death. From the early 1890s he also wrote a number of important articles in national journals, including two with King in the Economic Journal, and these retain considerable significance as contemporary accounts of rural life. Also through King he became interested in allotments, smallholdings, and the reform of land ownership, subjects that continued to concern him for the rest of his life.

However, Ashby's real world remained that of the rural midlands. Again using local Liberal contacts, he in 1893 persuaded Earl Compton (William George Spencer Scott Compton, Liberal MP and later fifth marquess of Northampton) to let a farm to the Tysoe Allotments Association for division into allotments and smallholdings. Ashby became one of the first tenants, and this, together with a legacy from a distant relative of his mother's, enabled him gradually to acquire, first, more land with the association and, eventually, his own small farm in Tysoe.

Throughout these events Ashby kept alive his active Methodist faith, but politics began to take more and more of his time and energy. The enfranchisement of the farmworker in 1884 gave to him, as it did to so many rural radicals, the hope that the vote would lead to far-reaching social and political change. As a result he threw himself into the local and national organizations of Liberalism and radicalism. From 1886 until 1910 he was an active and important figure in Warwickshire Liberalism, and from 1883 to 1906 he acted as Liberal agent for the southern part of the Rugby constituency. He spent the summer of 1893 as a travelling lecturer in one of the English Land Restoration League's ‘red vans’, arguing for allotments, smallholdings, and the restoration of the land to the people through land nationalization. Like many village radicals he was a fierce opponent of the South African War, on both religious and political grounds. In the 1900s he became a parish and district councillor and a justice of the peace.

Ashby married his cousin Hannah Ashby (b. 1861/2), a domestic servant, at Tysoe Wesleyan chapel on 8 April 1885. The daughter of William Ashby, a labourer, she shared Joseph's Methodism—although, like many a radical's wife, she seems to have felt that the practical aspects of living on a low wage in hard times were often made more difficult by her husband's beliefs. They had eight children, three boys and five girls, one of whom died young.

Early in 1914 Ashby's scattered hundred acres in Tysoe were exchanged for a 200 acre holding, Coldstone Farm, at Ascott under Wychwood in Oxfordshire. Now elderly, Joseph and his wife were uncertain about the move but their children were enthusiastic, especially their son William, who had ambitions to farm on a larger scale. The outbreak of war in 1914 brought both difficulty and profit to Ashby, as to many farmers, but he barely survived it and died on 4 March 1919 at Ascott under Wychwood. Two of his children made a considerable mark in their own fields: , like his father self-educated, was a pioneering agricultural economist and professor at Aberystwyth and Oxford universities; Mabel Kathleen Ashby (b. 1892) was principal of Hillcroft College for Working Women, Surbiton, and author of several works on rural subjects. As a result of Mabel Ashby's hugely successful biography of her father, which was published in 1961, his name and his native village have become forever linked: he is—and will remain—Joseph Ashby of Tysoe. His life was remarkable, encapsulating in many aspects the ideal of the self-improving working man, and embracing most of the institutions—the nonconformist chapel, trades unionism, and working-class Liberalism—that so clearly represented social and political betterment in the later years of the nineteenth century.



M. K. Ashby, Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, 1859–1919: a study of English village life (1961) · M. K. Ashby, Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, 1859–1919: a study of English village life, 2nd edn (1974) · Warks. CRO, Ashby papers · ‘Ashby, Arthur Wilfred’, DNB · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1921)


Warks. CRO, CR2500, CR2783


photograph, repro. in Ashby, Joseph Ashby (1961), frontispiece [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£1064 14s. 2d.: probate, 15 July 1921, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Joseph Ashby (1859–1919): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/73036