The Laboring Classes of England/Letter 4

LETTER IV.


AGRICULTURAL LABORERS OF WILTS, DORSET, DEVON, AND SOMERSET.


I have been very careful to collect the facts here set down from the most correct sources; and have inserted nothing but what was confirmed by my own experience and investigation. In this and future letters I shall treat each branch of industry separately. And first of agriculture.

The agricultural districts of England are widely separated from each other; the nature of the employment, the remuneration for labor, habits of the people, &c., are also different in the several districts, and it will therefore be necessary for a clear understanding of the subject, that I should take each district separately. I shall confine myself in this letter to the four counties of Wilts, Dorset, Devon and Somerset.

Strictly speaking, there is no great uniformity in the agricultural features of these contiguous counties, although there is sufficient in their practice, customs and peculiarities, to justify the classification here adopted. They are all more or less dairy and grazing counties; that is, devoted to the manufacture of cheese, rearing of young cattle, and sheep farming. Pigs are also reared in vast numbers, and constitute an essential appendage to the dairy farm; and in the low tracts, immense flocks of geese and other fowls are annually fatted for the city markets. The most extensive orchards in Britain are to be found in the valleys of Devon and Somerset, and hence the management of these, and the subsequent manufacture of cider and perry, constitute one of the main duties of the farmer.

The practice of employing women prevails more or less in all these counties; their out-door labor consists in hay-making, reaping, hoeing turnips, weeding corn, picking stones, beating manure, planting and digging potatoes, pulling turnips, and occasionally hacking them for cattle. They are also sometimes employed in winnowing corn, about the threshing machine, and in leading horses and oxen at the plough. The in-door labor is milking and making cheese, and looking after, cleaning, turning, weighing, and removing the cheeses that are already made. This is a sort of work that is said to be "never finished."

The wages of women differ slightly, not only in adjoining counties, but even on different farms, according to the character of the farmer, or the ability and skill of the laborer. Generally speaking, all light work, such as apple-picking, turnip-hoeing, stone-gathering, and the like, is paid at the rate of sixteen cents a day, with an allowance of cider. Hay-making at twenty cents, and potato lifting and harvest work at twenty-four cents, with dinner in harvest time, and a quart of cider. Most of the cider is saved by the women for their husbands. When women work by the piece, they strive to earn higher wages, say $1,25 a week in summer, $1,00 to $1,10 in winter. These are the regular wages with cider.

In some of the Dorsetshire villages, the younger females are much engaged in button-sewing, and as it is a lighter employment, are not tempted to field work, unless during summer, and then only at twenty to twenty-four cents a day.

Women accustomed to field labor, represent it as good for their health and spirits; this, however, must be taken with some restrictions; for where women poorly clad are exposed to cold and wet, and this for ten or twelve hours a day when the weather will permit, catarrhs and rheumatism will be the result.

From this cause we find them complaining, as their husbands too often do, of stiffness and pains at the joints, long before such complaints can be the result of old age, or natural infirmity.

Regarding the moral condition of the females in these counties, the evidence is very conflicting. Here we find a clergyman inveighing against field labor, as the source of most of the immorality in the district; another, an old fashioned farmer, declaring quite the contrary; a third, less biased than either, admitting that field labor is not the best school for morals; a fourth, a grave old man, says, "those young ones would never stick to their work were it not for the cider I find them, and the fun they make for themselves."

There are three modes in which the employment of children may take place within these counties: they may be taken to assist their parents, may be hired by the day or week as women are, or may be apprenticed by the parish. The servitude, in the case of agricultural apprenticeships, extends from the age of ten to twenty-one for boys, and generally till marriage for females. The younger girls are employed in the farm houses to look after children, and to do other light work. Boys from seven years of age (I have seen them even younger,) to twelve are employed in bird-scaring, taking care of poultry, following the pigs in the acorn season, herding cattle, getting wood for the house, and the like. As they get stronger they lead the horses and oxen at the plough, make hay, and hoe turnips, and by fourteen or fifteen years they begin to hold the plough, attend to the stable, help the carter and drive the team. After that time they commence mowing, reaping, hedging, ditching, and the other difficult operations performed by the farm laborers. The hours of labor for boys are the same as for men and women; their wages are from thirty-six cents to $1,10 a week, with a pint of cider a day. They are taught to love drink from their earliest age, and a few years so confirms them in the taste, that they rarely, if ever, get rid of it in after life.

Such is an outline of the employment of women and children in agriculture in these counties, and the effect which it is calculated to produce upon their physical and moral condition. The labor, taken by itself, would seem to be comparatively harmless; but, taken in connection with the general condition of the laborer, it tends in a great degree to depress that which is already by no means exalted. The early age at which most of the children are taken from school, prevents their getting even the rudiments of education. They are too early associated in promiscuous labor with men and women, in whose vices they become adepts long before they have attained the years of maturity.

The almost constant employment of women in the fields has many bad effects upon their families; their cottages are not properly attended to, their children are neglected, clothing is allowed to get dirty and torn, and many matters in domestic economy are allowed to fall into disorder, so much so, that some women say it is more to their advantage to stay in and attend to affairs at home. It is, however, to the general condition of the agricultural laborer in these counties that we are to look for the main evils that are said to affect his case. His wages vary from two to three dollars per week. This is inadequate when he has a large family to support; and the consequence is, want of sufficient clothing, neglect of personal cleanliness, and scantiness of diet. At the farm houses, where the single men live with their masters, of course the fare is better; it is by the married cottagers that the greatest evils are felt.

Their cottages are small and in bad order; they are generally damp and in a state of decay; there is no inducement to cleanliness or neatness on the part of the laborer, and hence what ought to be homes, are mere hovels for shelter. Cottages generally have two apartments; a great many have only one. The consequence is, that it is very often extremely difficult, if not impossible, to divide a family so that grown up persons of different sexes do not sleep in the same room. Three or four persons not unfrequently sleep in the same bed, and in a few instances I have heard of families who have arranged it so, that the females of both families slept altogether in one cottage, and the males in the other. Generally an old shawl is suspended as a curtain between two beds in one room.