Not Fit to Live in England

We follow the efforts of William Cowburn, a London solicitor resident in Selborne, to save Robert Holdaway from the gallows

To order scripts ISBN 1-873855-45-1Cast ListExtract


One Monday in November in the year 1830, a mob several hundred strong attacked the workhouse in Selborne, Hampshire, turned out the occupants, burned or broke the fittings and furniture, and pulled down the roof. The next day an even larger mob, containing some of the Selborne rioters, did the same to the workhouse at Headley, some 7 miles away. The parsons in both villages were also coerced into promising to reduce by half the income they took from tithes.

Less than a month later, at a special court hearing in Winchester attended by no less a person than the Duke of Wellington, eight local men were sentenced to transportation and one, Robert Holdaway, sentenced to death.

In this play, we follow the efforts of William Cowburn, a London solicitor resident in Selborne, to save Holdaway from the gallows.

But who is really condemned by the court's judgement?

Running time approx 30 minutes

Participants: Male 11, Female 1 – with potential for doubling male characters

© John Owen Smith 1994 & 2002

First performed: on Radio - Wey Valley Radio, May 1994; on Stage - Headley Theatre Club, March 2003

Cast List . . .

Baron Sir John Vaughan, chief Judge at trial
James Bridger, a Selborne farmer
Timothy Loe, clerk to the Selborne vestry
William Cowburn, London solicitor, resident in Selborne
Laurence Wright, his lawyer friend in London
Mrs Cowburn, William Cowburn's wife
William Rust Cobbold, vicar of Selborne
Aaron Harding, a Selborne labourer
Robert Holdaway, wheelwright & ex-publican of Selborne
Edmund Yalden White, vicar of Newton Valence
James Shoesmith, master of Headley workhouse
Henry James, one of the rioters at Headley
Other rioters
Servant to William Cowburn


Bridger Happy New Year, Mr Loe.
Loe And to you, Mr Bridger – it has to be better than last year.
Bridger We must hope so. How are repairs going down at the workhouse?
Loe Slowly. The place was thoroughly sacked, as you know.
Bridger It was an unfortunate business.
Loe Indeed, and a costly one to the ratepayers of Selborne.
Bridger And to think, the objective of the action was to reduce the rates.
Loe (breaking in) You should be cautious in referring to an objective, Mr Bridger. You might implicate yourself in the affair.
Bridger We farmers did nothing, except try to stop the mob from causing trouble.
Loe But you didn't succeed in that, did you – and there are some in the village who would accuse you farmers of starting the riot.
Bridger Mr Loe, you and I have been friends for many years - in your position as Vestry Clerk, you are not seriously laying this charge at our door?
Loe I, no – though clearly, you would have benefited from the reduction in rates and tithes had it been achieved
Bridger (breaking in) But it was not, and now more than 20 of our village men lie in Winchester gaol – eight are to be transported, and one is to pay for it with his life.
Loe Robert Holdaway, yes, and unfairly so in my opinion.
Bridger In the opinion of all right-minded people here.
Loe All except Mr Cobbold, the vicar.
Bridger Even Mr Cobbold should see the injustice of it – after all, he did speak up for Holdaway at the trial.
Loe He damned him with faint praise. There's no love lost between those two.
Bridger Yet Holdaway stopped the mob from attacking him outside the vicarage – there's no denying it.
Loe But at the farmers' urging, I'm told. You asked him to use his influence on the ringleaders.
Bridger He was the natural choice – a man respected by labourers and farmers alike.
Loe No hope of a reprieve for him then?
Bridger Not much I think, though I've just been to see Mrs Cowburn.
Loe Mr Cowburn's a good solicitor.
Bridger Apparently he's writing to the trial judge today.
Loe Mr Cowburn has friends in high places, I'm told.
Bridger He'll need them all in my opinion. The authorities have chosen their scapegoats now, and they won't want to be seen to back down.

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