Why Little Egypt?

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Fact, Legend, Urban Myth? An attempt to start unravelling the truth.

This question pops up with predictable regularity, and has never been satisfactorily, or at least conclusively, answered. The favourite of the moment is that of the 1885 Melford Riot, the reason the name was adopted by the Morris Men of Little Egypt. That story has been rehearsed many times: It says that, at the time of the first "Working Man's" election, of 1885, the new voters of the village were prevented, by their "betters", from casting their vote in the village, through the simple measure of not providing a polling station. Instead, they were expected to walk to the neighbouring village of Long Melford. This, of course, would have meant the loss of wages.

Nevertheless, the men insisted, and marched together to cast their vote. On arrival in Long Melford, the angry men of Glemsford proceeded, in time-honoured fashion, not only to vote, but also to slake their Glemsfordian thirsts at the various hostelries of their host village. As the day progressed, so did the level of inappropriate activity, including the looting of the odd pub or two and the concomitant terrorising of the fair burghers of Melford.

In the end the authorities felt obliged to summon law and order assistance, in the form of troops from the garrison in Bury St Edmunds, who duly arrived, by train, in the late afternoon, to be met by the still-drinking and ever-so-slightly disorderly Men of Glemsford. The Riot Act was read, and arrests followed.

The legend goes that the troops had lately returned from the Sudan where they had been fighting against the forces of the Mahdi. So fiercely did the Men of Glemsford fight that the troops are reputed to have declared that they fought like "them Egyptians". Since then, Glemsford has been known as "Little Egypt" - at least, that is one of the legends. This is not fully convincing, this possible early version of what we would today call an “Urban Myth”. There are too many inconsistencies:

  • why should troops returning from the Sudan compare the Glemsford men with “Egyptians”? why not “Sudanese”?

  • by the time the troops arrived from Bury late in the day, most of the Glemsford rioters were, apparently, so far and so deep into their looted liquor as to be unable to fight off a cold, let alone the British army;

and so on.

So, perhaps, we have to look elsewhere. Glemsford has never had a whole History Book devoted to itself. A previous rector of the village, the Rev. Kenneth Glass did publish a “Short History of Glemsford” in 1962, and it is reproduced in full in Andrew Clarke’s magnificent Foxearth website: http://www.foxearth.org.uk/GlemsfordGlass.html Inevitably, some of the research has been left far behind, but Glass does refer to two other possible explanations, although, interestingly, does not refer to the Melford Riot.

The first is contained in a somewhat fanciful examination of the possible origins of settlement in the village:

It is possible that the hilltop was fortified from early times, as it is known that these three races were continually involved in tribal war. The Iberians, as civilised as their neighbours, were wholly under the influence of Druidism and the locality abounds in references to the Druids and their Groves, It is a popular saying that the nickname of Glemsford, still used incidentally, of 'Little Egypt' dates from these times, 'Egypt' presumably referring to an Egyptian priest system. It is possible that the Romans may have given this name to Glemsford because of the priestly character of the settlement.

However, perhaps Glass may get nearer to the point with another observation:

Glemsford in medieval times was isolated from the life which passed by along the pack routes from Melford to Clare or Bury. Some have suggested that the nickname "Little Egypt" is a survival of the independent and unfriendly inhabitants of this period who kept very much to themselves as a self-sufficient unit upon their hilltop, viewing all strangers with grave suspicion. A characteristic which may well linger on and certainly was common in those days.