Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Hard Times In Old England

There's something very peaceful about wandering around the fields when the harvest has been gathered. Especially when someone else has done all the work! But I've recently been reading about a time when this countryside was a much less peaceful place.

Back in the early decades of the nineteenth century the farm-workers of Cambridgeshire, along with their brothers across the south of England went on the rampage, setting fire to corn ricks and haystacks, burning farm buildings, destroying farm machinery (particularly the threshing machines which they saw as a threat to their jobs) and threatening violence to farmers, clergymen and anyone else who represented the wealthier classes. This must have come as a huge shock to the authorities, especially if these workers were similar to the peaceable, passive, patient men that I knew when I worked on the farm.

And everything I read about them suggests that English farm workers have always been the same stolid citizens that I knew, whether it's books written about them or the very songs that they themselves sang in the pubs at night. Despite the fact that they lived lives of hardship and poverty in a world where the wealth was very unequally distributed, I only know one song that refers to "the hard times in old England" and it seems to be the exception that proves a rule - every other song I've heard suggests that they were "all jolly fellows that follows the plough". However, as I learned when I was a cheeky youth, you could only push these men so far! 

But what could have pushed them to go on such an orgy of destruction as took place in 1830? They must have known the risks they were taking - you could be hanged for much less in those days, and the people who acted as magistrates were the very ones they were targeting.

The economy of the whole country was in a bad state at this time with inflation making bread increasingly expensive - there were riots about this in Ely and Littleport earlier in the century which were dealt with harshly and did not spread to this part of the county. But there were other factors which continued to make life harsh for the farm workers.

The traditional way of hiring labour was through "hiring fairs" where men were taken to work for a year at a time. These men would be paid even if the weather meant they could not work on the land. They would not of course be allowed to sit around, but work was created to keep them employed. Many of the seemingly extravagant schemes, such as building a wall around large estates or creating ornamental lakes, were devised to absorb this source of labour. In the nineteenth century this system began to be replaced by men hired by the day, meaning that they had no job security at all.

The Enclosure Acts, whereby formerly scattered holdings were consolidated into more efficient farm units, also meant that less labour was necessary. But, more importantly, former commons were incorporated into the farms, robbing the village people of land on which to graze their cow or goats. The Enclosures also opened the way for some early mechanisation of agriculture, again meaning less work was available.

It gets worse! The government chose this time to change the Poor Law. This was never an easy option but the new laws made things even more harsh. As a result many chose a life of crime rather than be committed to the Poor House. A few clergymen spoke out against the changes but most sided with the landowners. In general terms the Church of England tended to support the rich rather than the poor - whatever the Bible has to say about it. This is hardly surprising; many of the clergy were the younger brothers of those that had inherited their fathers' lands. They were also supported financially by the lords of the manor and large landowners.

However these were times of change in the church too. I've written elsewhere about the dissident preachers who were forced out of their churches and, if they were not put in jail, had to preach their sermons in the woods. Unsurprisingly the hard-pushed farm workers tended to side with these men rather than those who they saw as part of the establishment.

All these changes led to the riots which took place. It's important to realise though that these men were not protesting about unequal opportunities, they took their drastic action because they and their families were hungry. And they did not seek to establish a new order, they merely wanted a return to the older system which, though harsh and unfair, at least ensured them some kind of security. 

Those who had taken part in the riots were quickly rounded up and tried by the magistrates. Many were sentenced to death or transportation. In the end though most of the sentences were reduced, probably because the magistrates still had to live amongst these people. Those sentenced to transportation were often held in this country, which accounts for the fact that some are recorded as returning to their villages at the end of their sentences. Many others emigrated to seek a better life in North America, Australia or New Zealand.

Take care.


  1. I think that the riots affected the whole county because we had them around here as well, the enclosures act was just a way to make the landowners richer at the cost to the poorer people. Things don't change. What happened to the old bails I remember, the round ones don't quite do it for me

    1. The south of the country mainly, Bill, further north industries and mining absorbed a lot of the workforce meaning that agricultural workers were in more demand and consequently paid a little more. Interestingly it's been shown that areas where there was more poaching going on had less riots too - people just weren't so hungry. As for the old small bales they needed a lot of manual handling, the bigger the bale the easier it is to mechanise the process.

  2. Farming is never easy but those times must have been horrible. What would those workers think of the industrialized farms of today? A movement back to the small family farm has begun here. Bravo I say!

  3. Fascinating history of farm labor. My Grandfather was a farm worker who came to Canada.

  4. Interesting bit of history. Yeah, always the same, the rich suppress the poor and the poor revolt.

  5. Beautiful late Summer images John.

  6. Hi John - thanks for this ... wonderful, wonderful photos of an English summer at its best. Times were tough then ... and I'm sure will get tough now too - take care and thanks for the interesting post of times nearly 200 years ago - cheers Hilary

  7. This is a terrific farm history lesson, John. Thanks.

  8. An interesting history lesson and a lovely collection of photos with it.


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