Anyone who has been to, or lived in, the coastal areas of the north-west of England will know what desolate, wild places they can seem even to modern eyes (well, perhaps not Blackpool, but…).
In Georgian times, landowners had great difficulties in such terrain, primarily due to the wind – in exposed places, the wind could damage the loose ground, and impact on the lives of local residents, exposed to these strong winds.
In order to lessen the exposure, landowners would go to great expense in planting a long, reedy grass called starr or bent, replacing it annually and making sure it was maintained. It served primarily to help bind the loose sand and soil on the hills, whilst also offering some protection from the wind.
However, the local poor realised that it made an excellent, free, mat for their houses, as well as making good brushes for domestic use, and so would regularly pluck parts of the grass and take it home.
This was a well-known custom; in 1791, Thomas Newte’s Prospects and Observations on a Tour in England and Scotland noted that, “It had been the custom to pull up the bent, a long spry grass, near the shore.”
But the stealing of bent cost landowners money – and so it became a specific criminal offence. If any person, without the consent of the landowner, pulled up or carried away any bent ‘off the hills on the north-west coasts of England’, they could be convicted before a single justice, on the testimony of a single witness, and be fined 20 shillings. This fine would be split – half going to the landowner, and half to the informer.
If the convicted bent-stealer could not pay the fine, and hadn’t enough property to be taken as distress for the fine, he or she could be sent to the House of Correction for three months, with hard labour, and if caught again, would be whipped and sent to the House of Correction for a year.
And if any person were found in a five mile radius of the Lancashire and Yorkshire hills with bent on them, they would suffer the same punishment.
There was one exception to all of this. Those found to be cutting or taking away bent on the coast of Cumbria were not committing a crime at all – for they had an ‘ancient prescriptive right’ to do so, and the law – specifically, The Starr and Bent Act of 1741 (15 Geo 2, c.33) – did not alter that right.
So in the eighteenth century, you were allowed to get bent – as long as you were on the Cumbrian coast at the time.