There are some myths and legends that are told throughout Europe. One such tale is that of the wicked person who uses their power in evil ways. The story may be about a feudal lord, knight, master or prince. Often these people do not see the trouble their actions will bring them, until it is too late. In England, from the 18th century onwards, most of these tales were about the wicked squire or local landowner, just like Sir Thomas Sidley.
The term 'squire' meant a country gentleman. From the 1600s until the 1850s, the squire was the main person in charge of a village community. He usually lived at the manor house, in this case the Old Hall, Ranworth, and he owned lots of land in or around the village. He had the power to evict (throw out) tenants (who rented homes or land), choose the vicar, sort out local arguments and even appeal to the rulers to save a convict from the gallows. Everyone in the village had a reason to be polite to the squire.
Why are so many of the squires in the stories wicked?
Before enclosure - strip farming and common land
The squire was the person in charge. Some squires looked after their villages well, but others did not. Also, big changes were taking place in the countryside at this time. These changes often made life hard for people and so they resented the squires who owned the land.
During medieval times, the whole village owned much of the land (called common land). Things had been changing slowly until the end of the 17th century. Then 'enclosure' took place and the land became privately owned. This was carried out to make farming more efficient and to make more profits for the owners of the land. Although this helped to provide enough food for the larger number of people living in the cities, it was terrible for poorer village families. Land that had been common land, for all members of a village to use, was hedged or walled in. These poor people could not use the land any more to farm, hunt or gather fruit and firewood.
The people who wanted to 'enclose' the land had to show that the land was not being used by others and that they were the only ones who had a right to use it. They had to get rid of any other claims to the right to use it, before they could enclose it. Many were fair but some cheated the poorer villagers or even used force to make them give up their rights. The largest landowners had the most votes and could force what they wanted on the rest of the people. People who had no land of their own, but had rights to use the common land, were then left with nothing and were often evicted or forced out to the cities to look for work. Those who remained became more dependant on the landowners. So, the local squire was not always a popular figure.
What was life like for the Lord of the Manor?
A typical manor house
At this time, the great cities were becoming the centre of social life. Most landowners also had a home in London where they enjoyed a lot of entertainments and parties known as 'The Season'. All this fun had to be paid for and that money came from their land. Village people's rents were raised and the 'bailiffs' were there to evict those who could not pay. By the mid 18th century, the owner of the 'great house' often became very powerful.
High walls were built round the house to stop villagers coming near. Relationships between landowners and villagers sometimes became bitter; many landowners were seen as using the labour of the poor to make money for themselves, which they threw away on drink and having fun, while their tenants struggled just to feed their families.
This separation also led to gossip and stories - just what did go on behind those high walls? These changes were shown in the stories of the time. By the beginning of the 19th century, the 'wicked squire' had often become a character in village 'melodramas' (plays) and also in the novels of writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and 'Gothic' and Victorian storytellers.
Did Sir Thomas Sidley actually exist and how did the story arise?
Sir Thomas disappeared into the steam and mist
The Old Hall, Ranworth, was built about 1600 by the Holdich family. It has now been pulled down. There is a record of a marriage in 1600 between the daughter of the Holditch family, of Ranworth, to Sir Isaac Sidley, Sheriff of Kent, 1st Baronet of the Great Charter. Because of this marriage, the house then belonged to the Sidley family. Sir Isaac died in 1627. Sir Thomas was probably a descendant.
Local stories tell that Colonel Sir Thomas Sidley, the local squire, was a wild character. He disappeared on a misty night in 1770, when he was called away from a party by a stranger; stories say it was the devil. We do not know if Sir Thomas Sidley was really a bully and a drunkard.
It may be that Sir Thomas was not popular with some of the local people and they used this common story to explain his disappearance. There are many stories where the devil turns up in disguise to collect a wicked person. The devil or 'dark stranger' then carries them off into the night, never to be seen again. Like many good stories it also has a moral; the moral being that, if you act like the devil you may just find yourself in his company.
Victorian County History
National Archives Learning Curve
J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700 - 1820