Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Peasant proprietorship

The identity of the pseudonymous author is not known. Illustrated by Frederick Walker


The Poor Woman's Hovel.png
[See p. 167.]

I have always believed that the stimulus of proprietorship is the most powerful that can be applied to labour, and was rejoiced to find that the greatest of modern writers upon political economy (Stuart Mill), in one of the most striking and interesting portions of his great work, sums up, on the whole, in its favour.[1] He says:—“If there is a first principle in intellectual education, it is this—that the discipline which does good to the mind is that in which the mind is active, not that in which it is passive. The secret for developing the faculties is to give them much to do, and much inducement to do it. Few things surpass, in this respect, the occupations and interests created by the ownership and cultivation of land” (vol. i. p. 331).

A Swiss statistical writer speaks of the “almost superhuman industry, of peasant proprietors.” Arthur Young says, “It is the magic of property which turns sand into gold.” Michelet says it acts like a ruling passion upon the peasantry of France, and that in Flanders, the peasant cultivation is affirmed to produce heavier crops in equal circumstances of soil than the best cultivated districts of England and Scotland.

Having dwelt much on this subject, I was a good deal interested in the following simple narrative, which I believe to be strictly founded on fact.

Joseph Austin, a bricklayer, in the neighbourhood of Cambridge, had often looked with a longing eye upon a small piece of land by the roadside—a portion of what is called “The Lord’s Waste”; a term which reflects little credit on manorial rights or parochial management. He had never passed this spot without observing upon its capabilities for improvement, and being a house-builder by trade, and something of a castle-builder by nature, he constantly dreamt that he was at work in his favourite spot, with bricks and trowel.

At length, after much brooding upon his scheme, he made an application to the manor-court, and obtained a verbal permission to build there. Two of his neighbours—moved, as he said, by envy—threatened that if he began his house, they would pull it down. Upon this he applied a second time to the court, and obtained a legal permission, with the consent of all the copyholders, paying for the entry of his name on the court-rolls, and sixpence a-year quit-rent. And here we must do our country the justice to observe, that if a man of known industry and good character, like Joseph Austin, applies for an indulgence of this kind there is very little probability of its being refused.

Austin was at this time forty-two years of age. He had a wife and four children, and his whole stock of worldly wealth amounted to fourteen shillings. But men who deserve friends are seldom long unbefriended, and a master with whom he usually worked at harvest sold him an old cottage for nine guineas, which he undertook to work out.

He had, for some time, been preparing bats—a species of brick made of clay and straw well beaten together (18 inches long, 12 wide, and 4 deep), not burnt, but dried in the sun. With these and the materials of the old cottage he went to work.

The bats made a better wall than lath and plaster with a coating of clay. Less wood is required, and the house is stronger and warmer, but they must be protected from rain as much as possible, especially towards the foundation.

As he had to live and support his family by his daily labour, this building could only be carried on when his regular day’s work was over. He continued it by moonlight, and frequently heard the clock strike twelve before he withdrew from an occupation which engaged all the interest and energy of his character. All this time he had to rise at four o’clock in the morning, to walk four miles to his work, returning the same distance in the evening.

If his constitution had not been unusually strong, his zeal could hardly have carried him through these extraordinary exertions. But he possessed an unweariable frame of body as well as an invincible spirit. When the building was one story high, and the beams were to be placed, the carpenter discovered that the timbers from the old cottage were too short. This was a severe disappointment. Nothing, however, discouraged him. He covered the half-erected walls with a few loads of furze, and immediately began a new building, after the same fashion, only smaller, and connected with the original one. Working at this with as much vigour as perseverance, he succeeded in housing his family in it, with tolerable comfort, at the end of four months from the laying of the foundation.

This great object being accomplished, he went on more leisurely with what remained to be done, spending money upon it as he found he could spare it. After five years he raised the second story; in ten, it was tiled and coated. Although his family had now increased to eight, there was not only house-room for themselves, but another apartment which let for a guinea a year.

The money his cottage had cost him altogether was about 50l., which sum he saved from his daily labour in the course of ten years. The house and garden occupied about twenty poles of ground, and the garden was in admirable order. Nor did he omit all that might set it off to the best advantage. One of the fences was of sweet-briar and roses, mixed with woodbine, and another of the dwarf plum-tree. Against the back of the house he had planted a vine, a nectarine, and a peach-tree. A single row of quickset, which he cut down six times whilst it was young, fenced it strongly from the road.

Meanwhile his children growing up, and Mrs. Austin being, like her husband, of an active and enterprising character, it was proposed amongst them that they should endeavour to rent a few acres of land, on which they might be able to keep a cow. The same kind master who had formerly befriended Austin was yet more disposed to do so, after many years’ experience of his courageous and persevering industry. He let him have ten and afterwards fourteen acres of pasture-land, on which they kept two cows. The rent was never a shilling in arrear, and the produce enabled them to make a profit and to keep several pigs.

The clergyman of the parish became much interested in this family, and used frequently to draw from Austin the history of his difficulties and his perseverance. He justly regarded himself as having attained a proud position, for he had risen to independence and comfort in the noblest manner. He was a great advocate for small holdings for the poor, and always said it was a never-failing spur to industry and exertion.

“You like to see the neatness of my cottage and garden, sir, which you say differ from the greatest number of those you visit; but why should not such a state of things be more common? As long as every nook of land is let to the great farmers, and nothing left for the poor but to labour hard in their youth, and go on the parish in their old age, I fear it cannot be expected; but I am sure it is the way to better the condition of the peasantry of this country, and to make them contented and attached to the soil where they live, and to the gentry who live near them.”

“Yes, but few people manage as well as you do. They may have industry and a desire to help themselves, instead of depending on others; but you could not have effected this, without a good deal of knowledge.”

“Well, sir,” said Austin, “I won’t deny but that it was a great advantage to me, in the building of my house, to have served so long as I did to a good master mason, where I also picked up some little knowledge of joiner’s work, and never neglected any opportunity of learning all I could about agricultural matters. In short, I never let a hint go by me, but kept eyes and ears open, and always employed; but any man is able to do the like. One advantage I had, sir; I had kind friends, and nothing encourages poor folks more than finding that the great folks are ready to lend a helping-hand when a man is striving to help himself.”

The good effected by this family was far from being limited to the example they presented to the neighbourhood. One instance of it deserves to be mentioned.

It happened one day that Austin had occasion to go to a distant part of the country; in returning home late he lost his way across a lonely tract of moor with which he was unacquainted. Being fatigued with a long day’s march, he was glad to discover a cottage in the midst of this wild and desolate scene, although, upon approaching it, he perceived it was little above a hovel; still there were appearances of care and cleanliness which encouraged him to knock at the door and ask permission to sit down and rest himself for a short time.

The woman who opened the door was a remarkable looking person. Her features were strong but regular, such as in youth had probably been beautiful in no ordinary degree, but care and hard toil seemed to have usurped all of grace except a womanly expression of tenderness in the large sad eyes. She received Austin doubtfully, but gave him leave to enter, and he observed that the inside of this uninviting hovel was far from being neglected or comfortless. There were even traces of an endeavour after cheerfulness and decoration. There were flowers in bright scarlet flower-pots in the window, looking well-tended; coloured prints on the white-washed walls, tied up with bright coloured scraps of ribbon; but on the bed lay a piteous object—an idiot-child of about eight or ten years of age, so entirely devoid of sense as to be almost without the power of motion, yet beautifully neat, clean, and carefully dressed. Austin endeavoured to enter into conversation with the mother, whose quaint looks and neglected attire contrasted painfully with that of her idiot-child. He made some remark upon the neatness of the house, and having been gifted by nature with one of those frank and kindly manners which it is next to impossible to withstand, the poor woman’s reserve gradually melted under its influence, and she told him somewhat of her story.

She said she had been deserted by her husband about ten years ago; he had feared to face the poverty that was threatening him, after failing in a small business with which they had begun their married life, and had left her to struggle with penury alone. She had been confined of her poor idiot-child, and for some time had subsisted upon charity; but this existence was repugnant to her spirit, and as her calamity became more apparent with the infant’s growth, she had shunned the intercourse of her neighbours, and had resolved to retire to some solitary spot where she might work for her bread and that of her boy.

As is always the case with natural ties, he had become dearer to her in proportion to his helplessness, and she determined to live and to employ her health, strength, and time for him. She wandered to a distance from her native village, and got permission from a humane farmer to occupy a hovel on one of the sheep-walks of his farm, which had been considered in too hopeless a state of decay to he inhabited by the shepherd. The shepherd, however, proved a kind friend to her. (The poor help one another to a degree which is often a reproach to their wealthier brethren.) She established herself, with his assistance, in the little cottage; worked out her rent—1l. a-year—and earned her child’s food and clothing by labouring on the farmer’s land at picking stones or weeds. She was allowed to bring her helpless child with her; and carefully wrapping him up and placing him on a bed of straw in some out-house, she would devote her dinner-hour to feeding and attending upon him, forgetting her own hunger and weariness in the delight of being able to minister to his.

She said, with the tears in her dark eyes, that he was the only thing she lived for, and the delight of her lonely life—for him she had ornamented the walls and procured the flowers, because the gay colours seemed to attract the poor boy’s vacant gaze. Austin asked if the neighbours were kind to her. She answered that she saw no one but the shepherd, who had assisted her to establish herself. She did not want neighbours. She had her boy to occupy her, and she earned enough to support him. What more did she need? Nobody could feel for her boy but herself—most people would be revolted by the sight of him. She did not care to see any one. Hitherto she had done well, but trouble was now threatening her. After this week her employer was to leave the farm, and as no one else knew her, she was at a loss how she could get employment. Except the shepherd, most people shunned her—it was no wonder. She had first shunned them. Still she must think of something. Her boy must not starve, even if she were reduced to beg his bread.

There was something heroic about this woman, and her devoted love for her helpless child, that touched a cord in Austin’s heart. He was a thoroughly religious man, and his mind reverted habitually, whether in sorrow or in joy, to the source of all comfort and all hope. He touched upon that sacred subject to her, but was disappointed to find not the slightest response. It appeared either as if her religious feelings had become confused and indistinct from want of cultivation and communication, or else (and which he thought more probable) that misfortune and calamity had had a deadening influence, and had darkened her sense of dependence upon a Father who invites us to cast our cares upon Him.

After some conversation with her, it suddenly occurred to this kind-hearted man that, poor as he was, he might benefit this isolated being. Communication with his wife and children he felt certain would prove beneficial to a character soured by penury and solitude, and for her labour he could afford a fair remuneration. He therefore proposed to her to work upon his land, assist his wife with the cows and with the domestic drudgery, and offered her the same wages she had received from the farmer. She joyfully accepted his proposal, and undertook to be at her work by eight o’clock every morning, provided she might bring her child with her.

This was willingly granted, and her work allotted, which she faithfully and diligently performed, attending with the utmost punctuality. The hour’s rest in the middle of the day was devoted to the idiot child, who was comfortably lodged on a bed of hay in the cowshed. She became a great favourite with Mrs. Austin and the children, and her labour was fully worth the humble wages she earned.

Nothing could be happier and more prosperous than this little colony. The children were sent for education to the village-school, and as they grew older they assisted in the little farm. Upon the produce of this farm they almost entirely subsisted, and the feeling of proprietorship added a zeal to their efforts which tells in manual labour after a fashion, which no other motive is ever found to supply.

But it pleased the Almighty that this remarkable example of honest, hard-working perseverance, hitherto blessed and stimulated by success, should be a further example of humility under affliction. “What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.” Thus may many of us say, to whom calamity comes as a stranger, and as a phantom, to scare away the peaceful and even tenour of an innocent life!

The first blow fell upon the poor deserted wife. Her child sickened and died, and it would perhaps be impossible to form any conception of her misery, on the part of those who have never known what it is to live in another’s life, and that life one that depends on our exertions. A fresh creation, as it were, every day drawing its daily life from the fountain of our affection and devotion.

As might be expected, she sorrowed as one that had no hope. She refused employment; she left not her home; she saw no one. Unfortunately, Mrs. Austin’s confinement had recently taken place, and she had been unable to look after her; but feeling now sufficiently strong to go to her cottage, on a bright September morning she set forth with a little basket of provisions for the poor mourner, little dreaming that the happy home she left was, ere night, to be turned into the house of desolation and woe.

On Mrs. Austin’s reaching the lonely cottage, she observed its unusually bleak and deserted appearance. Not a footstep was to be seen near the door; the path was almost obliterated; a miserable hovel it had been at the best, but now indeed it was marked as the abode of wretchedness itself. The cracked mud wall was not more than four feet in height, and the roof had no other covering than the damp green moss, under which the thatch had rotted away. The moor sheep, lying under the black stones which everywhere appeared amid the surrounding heath and peat, seemed better housed and sheltered than the inmate of this abode of misery. The bed was in disorder, and the window, which was broken and stopped up with weeds, was already obscured with dirt and cobwebs. The prints had mildewed on the walls; the flower-pots were still in their places; but the plants were dead, and drops of damp had collected on their decayed leaves.

The poor woman—sullen in her woe,—was sitting erect on the bed with folded arms, and a countenance that afforded no encouragement to kindness. From her neighbours she had received no aid or consolation, for they had begun to abuse and hate her as a witch; and the overseers, with whom she was compelled to have intercourse had brought no unusual degree of feeling and charity to the execution of their office. But nothing could repel the Christian benevolence of Mrs. Austin; she suggested schemes of employment; she made offers of assistance; she pressed upon her the duty of employment, the consolations of religion.

“God,” she said, “will give you strength to go on; do but make a beginning. Do not give yourself up to this sad, stern way of taking your grief. It looks like impatience.”

“And you would be impatient, too!” she retorted. “You never lost a living soul you loved; but what if you were to lose all you loved! All at once! No—no! I thank you, mistress! but leave me to my grief. Nobody has felt grief like mine!”

Mrs. Austin was compelled at length, most unwillingly, to abandon all hope of doing any good. She made one more effort to turn the poor woman’s heart towards the only source of consolation, but her sun was darkened. She could only look upon it as the source of sorrow. Her notions of religion were too indistinct to afford her any comfort; they had never been cultivated, and the fruit was therefore not to be found when it was wanted. Nor was there any of that pride which enables so many to bear up against affliction. It was vehement grief, acting upon a strong mind, and strong frame, unmixed—unsophisticated—unalleviated; and for want of the most precious of all the Almighty’s gifts to man—unalleviable.

But now the consoler was to need consolation. Mrs. Austin returned late to her home to find it in a state of affliction that baffles description. As the tidings burst upon her amid the sobs and groans of her children, that their father’s corpse lay in the adjoining room, she sank down senseless. He had been busied about some repairs which were required in the roof. The ladder on which he stood had slipped, and being a heavy man, his fall had been violent. Some sharp stones lay below, and one moment had ended his useful and energetic life.

Crushed and stunned by her grief, in the first instance, Mrs. Austin’s character was not one in which exertion would fail, whilst she had the power to serve God and her fellow-creatures. Her children rallied round her, giving and finding strength, and in their sympathy and affection she found her best earthly consolation. The eldest son, though still under fourteen years of age, was a lad of sense and conduct, and had inherited his father’s courage and energy. He redoubled his activity and punctuality. His sisters and younger brother seconded his exertions, and after the lapse of some months the routine of the family life was resumed.

Mrs. Austin, however, could not but feel the utmost anxiety respecting their future fate—and the relieving officers made their appearance one day in her cottage and proceeded with more of kindness and consideration than is usual in such cases, to talk over the possibility of maintenance which her circumstances afforded. They proposed to take her five youngest children into the house. It may be difficult to say what system of affording relief to the poor is to be preferred; but this may be affirmed without hesitation, that whatever system tends to weaken the domestic affections by separating parents from children, is radically bad. When this was proposed to the poor widow, she answered in great agitation that she would rather die in working to maintain her children, than part with any of them. If necessary, she would accompany them all into the workhouse; and there labour with them, but never should they be divided except it were the will of God. Still, she added, if the landlord would continue her in “the farm,” she would undertake to bring up all her ten children without any help at all from the parish. This noble spirited woman had, fortunately, a benevolent landlord to deal with. He told her she should continue his tenant and hold the land, rent free for the first year. At the same time he gave private directions to his receiver, not to call upon her afterwards, thinking that even with that indulgence it would be a difficult undertaking to bring up so large a family. But this further liberality was unnecessary. By her high-principled exertions she set the example to her children of patient and unremitting toil, and she had in return from them every assistance which their age and strength enabled them to render.

One evening it happened that the lonely woman who had formerly been their only labourer, found her way to their yet cheerful and happy home. The day’s labour was over, and they had gathered round the tea-table. Their mother was the only privileged one who was allowed the luxury of tea; the rest having respectable bowls of milk and bread. Toil and sorrow had already added many furrows to Mrs. Austin’s open and honest brow, but there was a calmness and repose upon it which struck the other, who had never known a moment’s rest since her sorrow, nor ever sought to check its selfish indulgence. She had made it her thought by day and her dream by night; and from suffering her mind to dwell on her loss incessantly, she had nearly brought herself to a state of phrenzy. Her wild eye was fixed upon Mrs. Austin, who sat surrounded by her children, the most admirable spectacle that humanity can afford.

It would require the pen of Sir Walter Scott to draw the gradual moral influence which this living picture of piety, patience, and fortitude exercised over the diseased mind of the sufferer, whose calamity, though immeasurably the least, was immeasurably the most to be pitied. Her admiration for them all knew no bounds. She entreated to be allowed to work with them, for them; to be admitted, on any terms, into so blessed a community. She promised that her labour should prevent her being a burden to them; and that Mrs. Austin would find she was of use to the younger part of her family, as well as in the most humble offices.

Mrs. Austin felt that oven were it injurious to her interests, she could not as a Christian reject the prayer of the poor woman; and that her continuing amongst them afforded the only chance of arousing her from the melancholy state into which she had fallen. It is needless to add that the result was entirely successful, and that she gradually assimilated herself to the character of those she so deeply reverenced and loved. Mrs. Austin had the satisfaction of finding that her Christian act proved beneficial, as a temporal measure, for the poor dependant was of the greatest service to them in many ways; and that the introduction into the establishment of a second person of mature age was a material convenience.

The rent was forthcoming with perfect regularity after the year of grace. They held the land till eight of the ten children were placed in service; and Mrs. Austin then resigned it to take the employment of a nurse, which enabled her to provide for the remaining two during the short time they required support; and this she found a more suitable employment for her declining years. Had the five children been sent to the Union, they would have cost the parish hardly less than 70l. a year; and the widow, had she been deprived of the land, would have been compelled, with the remaining five, to have had recourse also to parochial relief.

I must not forget to add, that the devoted servant continued her labours until they were transferred to a small farmer who had married one of Mrs. Austin’s daughters; and that, treated with care and kindness, she died at an advanced age, having nursed her young mistress’s children, and been the delight and comfort of many a youthful and merry heart. H. E.

  1. Chapters vi. and vii., vol. i., Principles of Political Economy.