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LETTER VII.


AGRICULTURAL LABORERS OF SUFFOLK, NORFOLK, LINCOLN, YORKSHIRE AND NORTHUMBERLAND.


Leaving the counties of Kent, &c., let us now proceed northward, into the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincoln. These counties are distinguished from other districts of England, in consequence of their being more exclusively under tillage. The business of mixed husbandry—that is, the production of almost every variety of white and green crop—is here carried to great perfection; this involves a constant routine of manual labor, which the custom of the country consigns chiefly to women and children. As in the counties already noticed, we find the people engaged in field labor occasionally suffering from bad colds and severe rheumatism. The employment of married women is much lamented, as it takes them away from their domestic duties, and leaves their cottages and children in a neglected state. But the crowning evil in these counties is "the gang system."

This is a method of working which had its origin at Castle Acre, in Norfolk, about twenty-five years ago, and now prevails in many contiguous parishes. Mr. Denison, a Government Commissioner, thus describes the system:

"Suppose a farmer wishes to have a particular piece of work done, which will demand a number of hands, he applies to a gang-master, who contracts to do the work, and furnish the laborers. He accordingly gets together as many hands as he thinks sufficient, and sends them in a gang to their place of work. If the work, as usually happens, be such that it can be done by women and children, as well as men, the gang is in that case composed of persons of both sexes, and of all ages. They work together, but are superintended by an overseer, whose business it is to see that they are steady to their work, and to check any bad language or conduct. The overseer usually goes with the gang to the place of work, and returns home with them when they leave off for the day."

The system is said to be productive of the worst consequences, which will be readily admitted, when it is considered that the gangs are generally composed of the lower orders from the towns, yoked together without regard to age, sex or character, and crowded together at night when the distance compels them to lodge on the farm. There is a complete disseverment between the farmer and the laborer; the former has no interest either in the character or condition of the latter; the whole power, as well as responsibility, is delegated to an ignorant and grasping gangsman, whose tyranny is the more oppressive, that he is little if at all superior either in intellect or station to the laborer.

Such a practice as this has no necessity to justify, no single advantage to recommend its continuance. The gang-master may find it a profitable affair, and to the farmer of 600 acres it may prove an easier mode of getting his work performed; but it seems to be at once injurious to the interest and morals of the laborer.

It subjects him in the first place, to the truck-trading oppression of the gang-master, who not only screws down his wages to the lowest cent, but supplies him with inferior articles at the highest price; while it subjects him to greater personal toil, and contaminates the morals of his children. There is nothing in the agricultural peculiarities of this district which demands the maintenance of such a system.

With respect to education, it is not much better than in the counties we have just left. In the spring of the year 1842, I was engaged by a wealthy Baronet to take the management of a school in this district, and I well remember he stated to me, in conversation upon this subject, "that the children in his parish were as ignorant as brutes." An unforeseen occurrence prevented me from fulfilling that engagement.

Let us now pass on to Yorkshire, Northumberland, &c. In this district the women and children work in the fields, under much the same circumstances as in most other rural situations, and for much the same remuneration. There is in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a mode of paying wages which is considered a great evil, and may be thus described. The male laborers are fed in the farm-houses, and have a certain proportion of wages deducted to pay for their meat. This sum, (twenty-four cents a day,) amounts to nearly one half his whole wages; so that setting aside her husband's food, about $1,50 to $1,75 is all that a woman has with which to confront the rest of life; her food, that of her children, the rent of the cottage, fuel, schooling, clothing, medical attendance, and taxes, have all to be provided for out of this sum.

The farmers like this system, either because they profit by it, or because they have a notion (which is very reasonable,) that men work better with a full belly than an empty one. The men like it, because, no doubt, they get a better dinner than would otherwise fall to their share; but upon the women and children it must operate as an evil.

In the more prosperous districts of Yorkshire, many of the cottages have small gardens in which most of the vegetables for the family can be reared, and some are permitted to have a cow at grass. These, however, are exceptions. In point of mere victualling and personal comfort, the Yorkshire peasantry may be said to be comparatively well off; but there still seems ample room for the improvement of their condition in education and more comfortable housing.

Farm servants in Northumberland, are engaged upon a system different from that which prevails in other parts of England. In the absence of villages (which are rare) to supply occasional assistance, each farm must depend upon its own resources; a necessity is thus created for having a disposable force of boys and women always at command, which is effected in the following manner. Each farm is provided with an adequate number of cottages, having small gardens adjoining, and every man who is engaged by the year has one of these cottages; his family commonly find employment, more or less, but one female laborer he is bound to have always in readiness to answer the master's call for assistance, and to work at stipulated wages. To this engagement the name of bondage is given, and such female laborers are called bondagers; or women who work the bondage.

Of course, where the hind (as such yearly laborer is called) has no daughter or sister competent to fulfil for him this part of his engagement, he has to take his wife to do it, or hire a woman servant; and this, in some sense of the word, may be a hardship to him; but, in the first place, this is not very common; and in the second, the advantages of the system, even with this drawback, are unquestionable. The wages of the laborer are paid chiefly in the produce of the farm, viz: in addition to a cottage and small garden, he has a certain quantity (as per agreement) of wheat, rye, barley, oats, peas, beans, potatoes, wool, &c., with about $20 in money during the year, and the keep of a cow. The wages of the women and children are paid chiefly in money. This system seems to be the best of any in England for agricultural laborers, and is deserving of all the commendation which the practical farmers of Northumberland unite in bestowing upon it.

It is pleasant to hear that the education in Northumberland is good, that the people eagerly seek to acquire knowledge, and that it is a rare thing to find a grown-up laborer who cannot read and write, and who is not capable of keeping his own accounts. Such a state of things contrasts favorably with the neglected condition of more southern counties; and when we are told that this education is not obtained through national schools, charitable institutions, and the like, but by the exertions of the peasant himself, it indeed bespeaks a state of society where sobriety is habitual, and intelligence held in high estimation.

There is not much said against the morality of this district, but it. must be borne in mind that this is comparatively a thinly inhabited county, and that there is no inducement for people to come here in search of employment from other parts of the country; consequently the farms are not crowded with the superfluous population of large towns, like the hop-grounds and orchards of Kent.

The question may here be asked, are those relations which ought to subsist between the employer and employed, honestly attended to? Does property discharge its duties to those by whose arm it is rendered productive? To this question I regret to find that all the evidence before the public, replies in the negative. Each district exhibits in a greater or less degree the neglected state of the peasant; there is little or no provision made for the proper education of his children, and equally scanty attention is paid to the fostering of sober and industrious habits. Instead of the smiling cottage garden, which we naturally associate with our ideas of "Merrie England," we are told of, and see in many places, miserable hovels, with accommodation so niggardly allotted, that parents, sons and daughters, must eat, sit and sleep in one apartment! From Kent to Northumberland, these evils are complained of; and if hovels, which would be thought unfit housings for dogs and horses, are to be the reward of "industry embrowned with toil," we may cease to wonder if that industry should degenerate into careless and improvident habits, and that the workhouse, with its "regulation diets" and "ventilated halls," should be preferred to the cottage hearth, and the home of an honorable self-dependence.[1]

The London Daily News of November 30th, 1846, contains an account of the Taunton Agricultural Society, from which I make the following extracts.

Sir Alexander Hood presided on this occasion, and among his supporters was Sir Thomas Lethbridge; whose speech on proposing the health of the chairman, was the leading feature of the festival. The latter part of this truly admirable speech I give at length, as it will show the reader that the subject of insufficient remuneration for labor, is beginning to occupy the attention of all classes.

The venerable baronet spoke at great length of the advantages of agriculture, and then drew the attention of his hearers to the farm laborer, as follows.

"There is one thing I wish to tell you. You have gone far enough in fattening stock. It strikes me that you are putting too much fat on lean bones. That does no good to anybody. We have shown what we can do, and you can do what you have done, over and over again. But it is not wise and profitable to do it. If it takes away an atom of food from the poor, stop it. Breed as much as you like; breed to the top of the tree. Breeding in all branches! (Cheers.) Go on with your breeding, gentlemen, but don't put too much fat upon lean bones. You are starving people by doing so. One of my tenants told me last week that he had two beautiful oxen for which he has got a prize. They were brought here to-day. They were fed with ten times as much as they ought to have been. Is this wise? Where is your money? It is not in your pocket. It is on the animal's back. One half of it will go into the chandler's shop, and into the soap-basin. Who will thank you? You have shown what you can do. See if you cannot do something better. I meant to say a great deal on the subject of the laborers, but I have not breath enough to do it well. But I must say this, that you and I may take counsel together and spend money; but if you forget the men whose labor gets all for you, you are acting ungratefully. I therefore, in three words say, 'Raise your wages.' I have done it myself, and I tell all my friends to do it. I tell you all to raise your wages, and I tell you this—there never was a man in your employ who ever struck a stroke for his master, but struck that stroke with redoubled force and energy (and if he does this, who profits?) when he knows he is well used. (Cheers.) How is he used? In Somerset they give what? (A voice, 'They give what it is worth.') I guessed I should be interrupted, but recollect my grey hairs. Recollect my experience. Recollect my triumphs in farming. Recollect how many laborers I have employed—how I have lived among them. Recollect, also, that though lower in the scale than some are, they are men before God as well as yourselves. (Cheers.) Woe be to him who will not mete out to others what he wishes to have meted out to himself. But must you do it if the rules of political economy say you should not do it? I say, ' Avaunt, political economy,' if they say so. But, gentlemen, the rules of political economy say no such thing. They do not make men brutes. They do not seal up and freeze all the finer feeling of human nature of man toward man. They have thrown open the whole world to competition, and I hope and believe that out of this the best results will come to all. I believe that those principles are true. (Cheers.) So far as we have tried them, they appear to be true. No man can predict what they may do for us in the future. But looking, as I have always looked, and always do look, I am well convinced, as surely as I am standing in this room—most likely for the last time—(Loud cries of 'No, no,' and vehement cheering) I firmly believe we are going on in the right path—to the path which leads to the prosperity of the landlord, the prosperity of the laborer, and to the prosperity of the whole people, and even more than all, to permanent peace; and let me say, God grant it may be so, for peace is the greatest blessing that can flow to a people like the English, who are united among themselves, and are beloved by the whole world because they have made the rule of right, their rule. (Cheers.) Now, sir, I have one more word to say, and then I will sit down. It is this: I shall offer a higher reward if the society will not, but the society had better do it, not for putting fat upon lean bones, but for putting comfort into the cottages of the poor laborers. (Cheers.) If you do not encourage them, all your meetings here are good for nothing. You may as well go home when you leave this, and say, ' Well, I have done very little.' (Laughter.) What I propose, is, to give to the farmer who from the first day of December, 1846, to the first day of November, 1847, shall employ the greatest number of laborers and servants, at the highest rate of wages, by the week or month, and without reference to the size of the farm, the sum of £15. ($75.) (Cheers.) I hope the society will do more than it has yet done for the laborer. He must be raised from his present poverty and degradation, and I call upon you to do what you can towards accomplishing that purpose."

  1. Those persons who may wish for further information upon the subject of agricultural labor, may consult the reports of the Government Commissioners.