The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951.   Leave a comment


Introduction and Part One: 1851-1901: Change, Decay and Resistance in the Countryside

During the period 1851 to 1941, the pace and style of life in the Midlands and East Anglia changed more rapidly and radically than in any preceding period, including the previous hundred years. Mechanisation came to the farms, piped water to the villages and street lighting and trams to the towns. Radio eventually pierced the isolation of rural areas. Trades Unionists and socialists attacked the centuries-old social structure, weakened as it was by economic decline. Patronage and paternalism were replaced by concepts of equality and the assertion of new rights to education and housing, alongside the continuing demands for a fair week’s pay for a fair week’s work. A generation of men were buried on the western front while many of their children were left to fight for their way of life against unemployment, poverty and despair at home and against fascism and dictatorship on the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.

The changes in village life that took place during these years constitute one of the most fundamental developments in the history of the last five centuries, since the end of the Wars of the Roses. The parish of Brandeston near Framlingham was typical of these changes. In 1842, it was a self-contained community with a population of 555 souls. It had a fourteenth century church with Perpendicular additions and a Tudor hall recently bought by Charles Austin, Q.C., and High Steward of Ipswich. There was an ancient inn and a new Congregational chapel. Henry Collins’ mill stood on the edge of the village and is reputed to have had eight sails. It was self-sufficient in services, with its own blacksmith, wheelwright, joiner, butcher, grocer, tailor and builder. Derek Wilson continues:

There were thirteen farmers, and the rest of the community were employed directly or indirectly in agriculture. On the rare occasions when a man needed to leave the village he would walk or go with the carter to Wickham Market where he could pick up the Royal Mail or the Lord Nelson coach to London. A Hundred years later, the population of Brandeston was 312. The third and last generation of Austins had left the Hall, which was on the point of becoming a boys’ school. The Congregational Chapel was closed. There was no trace of the windmill and the mill house was now the post office. There were still eight farms, employing between them only twenty to thirty men. The old stables of the Hall had been converted into flats. Hill House, a substantial Georgian residence, was a saddler’s workshop. The forge was still operating but the nearby wheelwright had long since closed his shop. Some of the houses were empty and many, especially the thatched cottages, were in need of repair. The railway at nearby Hacheston Halt and Parham linked Brandeston with Ipswich and the world, and the Eastern Counties bus came through regularly. Villagers frequently went on shopping expeditions to Framlingham, Wickham Market and the county capital. And who were the villagers? Retired farm workers and servants from the Hall; newcomers in search of rural seclusion; men and women who travelled to the nearby towns for work. Compare the names of Brandestonians in 1842 and 1947 and you will find only a few that are identical.


In many ways, the transition began with what became known as The Railway Age, although in the 1850s there were still many parts in the extremities of East Anglia, including Framlingham, into which the steam trains had not yet reached. By 1850 speeds of fifty to sixty kilometres per hour were commonplace on the main railway routes. Moreover, travel by rail was cheaper than by road. Railways cut out the hidden costs of coach travel such as the tips to the coachman and guard and the expensive meals at the coaching inns along the road. By 1850 the long-distance coaches had disappeared and people were travelling far more than they had ever done before. The Times commented:


Thirty years ago not one countryman in one hundred had seen the metropolis. There is now scarcely one in the same number who has not spent the day there.


The railways brought change in numerous ways. They speeded up the distribution of mail and in the 1850s newspaper expresses were leaving Euston and Paddington. The need to keep to railway timetables caused Greenwich Time to be adopted throughout the country. The engineering works often provided pleasing new features on the landscape, such as bridges and viaducts. Cities were also transformed, not always for the better, by the approach lines, stations and marshalling yards. In addition, the railways encouraged the expansion of industry. Goods traffic moved more quickly and could grow at a rate which would not have been possible had it still been confined to canals and navigable waterways. The railways gave particular impetus to the development of the iron, steel and coal industries. In the 1850s, over a million tonnes of coal a year were being consumed by the steam engines and more miners were needed in the coalfield areas and towns. Here again, the railways helped in making it easier for agricultural workers to move to these areas in search of higher wages.

Quite apart from all these effects, the railways themselves were a major industry. In the 1850s, apart from the navvies, sixty thousand people were employed in running the railways. As well as engine drivers, they included clerks, porters and carriage builders. Some of them lived in new railway towns, like Crewe, housing the carriage and locomotive works required by the railway companies. Others lived in older towns, like York, which were rejuvenated by becoming important junctions. Unlike any other industry, the railways employed people throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. Wherever a railway station was opened, station staff were needed and a station master was required to supervise them. Moreover, as other countries began to industrialise, they needed the machinery, rails and locomotives which only Britain was able to supply in the middle of the century. By 1851 Britain’s output of iron had already risen to two and a half million tonnes, ten times the amount produced in 1801.

004014In the second half of the century, steel production took over and increased forty times to nearly five million tonnes in 1900. Not all of the iron was used to construct machinery or to build railways. Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, was made of iron and glass. Iron was used increasingly in all kinds of buildings, including houses. It was used for gas pipes, fireplaces, doorstops and kitchen ranges, as well as for iron railings outside. However, in 1856 a swifter and cheaper method of producing steel was devised by Henry Bessemer, and by 1890 steel had replaced iron in railways, bridges and shipping. By 1900, however, Germany had overtaken Great Britain in steel production, and was catching up in pig-iron and coal production.

Nonetheless, Britain’s output continued to increase in every industry, including the expansion of the railways, despite having industrialised far earlier than all the other European countries (see statistical tables, right).

By 1870 there were over thirteen thousand miles of railway track in England and Wales, four and a half thousand of which had been laid by 1848. Yet the accurate assessment of the difference made by the railways to society in terms of facilitating provision of goods, means of personal travel and the development of holidays is difficult to conclude and necessitates more detailed, specific, local studies. In Suffolk, the Eastern Counties Railway Company took over its rival, the Eastern Union, and other branch lines were laid by small local companies bringing Lowestoft, Beccles, Halesworth, Framlingham and Woodbridge into the steam age, and these were eventually also gobbled up by the ECRC, which was reconstituted as the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862.

Returning to the condition of agriculture, it soon became evident that the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 did not produce the market chaos predicted by many wealthy landowners. Instead, agriculture continued into a period of prosperity, known as High Farming, successfully feeding industrial society. The industrial advances of the mid-Victorian period also eliminated the risks of repeats of the serious social discontent of the 1830s and 1840s. Although labour may have been hard, and wages low, the seasonal rhythm of the land was maintained. Where modern technology could increase yield or cut overheads without involving prohibitive capital expenditure, farmers hurried to use it.

This was when the agricultural contractor came into his own. He hired to the farmers the large machines and the operators and engineers they could not afford to buy for themselves. Most important of these was the steam threshing outfit. It could do in a few days the work which had previously been one of the jobs which kept farm staff busy throughout the winter. Steam threshing was a busy, noisy, back-breaking time, becoming as much a highlight of the farming year as harvest itself. The thresher’s hoppers filled sacks with chaff and with graded grain. A full sack of oats weighed twelve stone, one of barley sixteen stone and a sack of wheat was eighteen stone, and each one had to be stacked or carted as soon as it was full.

001The novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was brought up in Dorset, and his novels were largely based on his knowledge of a rural society, in many ways simpler than the main stream of Victorian life recorded by George Eliot and Charles Dickens, far more like that of Flora Thompson. Like all of them, however, Hardy powerfully communicates the experience of social change, especially in the following passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), in which he describes the impact of the advent, at some point in the 1860s, of the steam-powered threshing machine at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, and on his heroine, the victim-of-circumstances farm-labourer, Tess Durbeyfield. She arrives at the farm, with her fellow labourer, at dawn on a March morning, for the threshing of the last wheat-rick:

When Izz Huett and Tess arrived at the scene of operations only a rustling denoted that others had preceded them: to which, as the light increased, there were presently added the silhouettes of two men on the summit. They were busily ’unhaling’ the rick, that is, stripping off the thatch before beginning to throw down the sheaves; and while this was in progress Izz and Tess, together with the other women-workers, in their whitey-brown pinners, stood waiting and shivering, Farmer Groby having insisted on their being on the spot thus early to get the job over if possible by the end of the day. Close under the eaves of the stack, and yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining – the threshing-machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.


A little way off there was another indistinct figure; this one black, with a sustained hiss that spoke of strength very much in reserve. The long chimney running up beside an ash-tree, and the warmth which radiated from the spot, explained without the necessity of much daylight that here was the engine which was to act as ’primum mobile’ of this little world. By the engine stood a dark motionless being, a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side: it was the engine-man… He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke… He travelled with his engine from farm to farm, from county to county, for as yet the steam threshing-machine was itinerant in this part of Wessex. He spoke in a strange northern accent; his thoughts being turned inwards upon himself, his eye on his iron charge, hardly perceiving the scenes around him, and caring for them not at all: holding only strictly necessary intercourse with the natives… The long strap which ran from the driving-wheel of his engine to the red thresher under the rick was the sole tie-line between agriculture and him.


While they uncovered the sheaves he stood apathetic beside his portable repository of force, round whose hot blackness the morning air quivered. He had nothing to do with preparatory labour. His fire was waiting incandescent, his steam was at high pressure, in a few seconds he could make the long strap move at an invisible velocity. Beyond its extent the environment might be corn, straw, or chaos; it was all the same to him.


The rick was unhaled by full daylight; the men then took their places, the women mounted, and the work began. Farmer Groby… had arrived ere this, and by his orders Tess was placed upon the platform of the machine, close to the man who fed it, her business being to untie every sheaf of corn handed on to her by Izz Huett, who stood next, but on the rick; so that the feeder could seize it over the revolving drum, which whisked out every grain in one moment.


They were soon in full progress, after a preparatory hitch or two, which rejoiced the hearts of those who hated machinery. The work sped on till breakfast time, when the thresher was stopped for half an hour; and on starting again the whole supplementary strength of the farm was thrown into the labour of constructing the straw-rick, which began to grow beside the stack of corn. A hasty lunch was eaten… without leaving their positions… the perspiring ones at the machine, including Tess, could not lighten their duties by the exchange of many words. It was the ceaselessness of the work which tried her so severely… there was no respite; for as the drum never stopped, the man who fed it could not stop, and she, who had to supply the man with untied sheaves, could not stop either… it was usually a woman who was chosen for this particularly duty, and Groby gave as his motive in selecting Tess that she was one of those who combined strength with quickness in untying, and both with staying power, and this may have been true. The hum of the thresher, which prevented speech, increased to a raving whenever the supply of corn fell short of the regular quantity…


Dinner-time came, and the whirling ceased; whereupon Tess left her post, her knees trembling so wretchedly with the shaking of the machine that she could scarcely walk… In the afternoon the farmer made it known that the rick was to be finished at night, since there was a moon by which they could see to work, and the man with the engine was engaged for another farm on the morrow. Hence the twanging and humming and rustling proceeded with even less intermission than usual…


027Thus the afternoon dragged on. The wheat-rick sank lower, and the straw-rick grew higher, and the corn-sacks were carted away. At six o’clock the wheat-rick was about shoulder-high from the ground… From the west sky a wrathful shine – all that wild March could afford in the way of sunset – had burst forth after the cloudy day, flooding the tired and sticky faces of the threshers, and dyeing them with a coppery light, as also the flapping garments of the women, which clung to them like dull flames… The man who fed was weary, and Tess could see that the red nape of his neck was encrusted with dirt and husks. She still stood at her post, her flushed and perspiring face coated with the corn-dust, and her white bonnet embrowned by it. She was the only woman whose place was upon the machine so as to be shaken bodily by its spinning… The incessant quivering, in which every fibre of her frame participated, had thrown her into a stupefied reverie, in which her arms worked ion independently of her consciousness… Whenever Tess lifted her head she beheld always the great upgrown straw-stack, with the men in shirt-sleeves upon it, against the gray north sky; in front of it the long red elevator like a Jacob’s ladder, on which a perpetual stream of threshed straw ascended, a yellow river running up-hill, and spouting out on the top of the rick.


However, steam machinery was much too heavy for most of the everyday jobs around the farm and the horse continued to provide most of the motive power. Harvest time also remained a very labour-intensive period and, although mechanical reapers began to appear, few farmers or their labourers thought that they would replace the traditional methods anytime soon. In her book, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson describes in considerable detail Oxfordshire village life during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Here she writes of harvest time:

002I026n the fields where the harvest had begun all was bustle and activity. At that time the mechanical reaper with long, revolving arms like windmill sails had already appeared in the locality; but it was looked on by the men as an auxiliary, a farmer’s toy; the scythe still did most of the work and they did not dream it would ever be superseded. So while the red sails revolved in one field and the youth on the driver’s seat of the machine called cheerily to his horses and the women followed behind to bind the corn into sheaves, in the next field a band of men would be whetting their scythes and mowing by hand as their fathers had done before them.


With no idea that they were at the end of a long tradition, they still kept up the old country custom of choosing as their leader the tallest and most highly skilled man amongst them, who was then called King of the Mowers… With a wreath of poppies and green bindweed trails around his wide, rush-plaited hat, he led the band down the swathes as they mowed and decreed when and for how long they should halt for a ’breather’, and what drinks should be had from the yellow stone jar they kept under the hedge in a shady corner of the field. They did not rest often or for long; for every morning they set themselves to accomplish an amount of work in the day that they knew would tax all their powers till long after sunset. ’Set yourself more than you can do and you’ll do it’ was one of their maxims, and some of their feats in the harvest field astonished themselves as well as the onlooker.


There were also various horse-drawn machines such as drills, hoes, reapers and binders, which cut running costs. In Suffolk, Ransomes and Garretts of Leiston were still leaders among the firms producing agricultural equipment. They kept up with the times by supplying traction engines and steam lorries during this period. However, when Ryder Haggard went to buy a reaper in Bungay, he found he could only get one of American make. Nonetheless, Ransomes did lead the way in adapting the internal-combustion engine to mowing, and in 1902 they patented the first ever ride-on mower.

HenryTidmarsh&FamilyWorking on a threshing machine was not just extremely hard work, but also dangerous, especially because many of the early machines were unguarded. My Great Aunt Jessie Gulliver was born in 1901, just ten years after Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published, but her family stories went back to her grandfather and grandmother on her mother’s side of the family, the Tidmarshes. Her grandfather Tidmarsh and grandmother (neé Webb) were born in about 1840. They lived in the village of Great Rollright, in modern-day Oxfordshire, then part of Banburyshire. Henry Tidmarsh was an agricultural labourer at Great Rollright. When still a young man, some time in the late 1850s or early 1860s, he had his arm pulled out just below the shoulder by a threshing machine. As he bent to wipe a nest of mice off the belts, he slipped and fell into it, presumably trapping his arm on the drum. He had to try to walk to Chipping Norton, where the nearest hospital was, bleeding to death. When the village doctor got news of the emergency, he went after Henry with a horse and cart, saving his life. However, neither he nor the hospital could save Henry’s arm. As Henry could no longer work on the estate farm with one arm, and compensation was unheard of in those days, so all the family had to live on were seven loaves a week for seven people, charity bread given through the parish as outdoor relief. Together with the vegetables and the fruit out of the garden, they just survived, and avoided going into the recently established workhouse. They had not a thing from the squire and his relations, who lived in the Hall at Great Rollright, his employer, but the parson of the village was quite well off and very kind. He gave Henry a little pony and trap, so that he was able to fetch parcels for people, halting on the hill at Ufton, where he would go round the village with pins and needles and cottons, and other haberdashery. He lived into his nineties, and was re-united with his right arm on burial in the churchyard at Great Rollright. He therefore became known in local folklore as the man who was buried twice!

006GeorgeGulliverBertha Tidmarsh met her husband when working as a maid at the Chamberlains’ House at Ufton-on-the-Hill near Leamington. The Chamberlains also owned the Harbury cement works. George Gulliver (right), born in Ufton in 1862, was a groom and coachman with the Chamberlains. He used to drive them around in a coach with two horses. His father, Vinson, born in Hethe in Oxfordshire in 1833, had married Hannah Green, George’s mother, from Wormleigton in Warwickshire, in 1855. They had five children, the third of whom was George, followed by Henry, who was also born in Ufton in 1865. It was therefore this Vinson Gulliver who, according to family folklore, marched Joseph Arch, through the Warwickshire villages of Wellesbourne and Barford in the late 1860s, possibly with his relative Charles Gulliver, who was another Wesleyan preacher. It was his son, Henry, George’s brother, who took over as secretary. This story has been confirmed by the discovery of a letter from Vinson Gulliver (b. 1888), to his brother Alfred in 1979:

He was a Primitive Methodist preacher. He knew Joe (Joseph) Arch and was a secretary of the Agricultural Union, and later his son Henry took it over until he was the only paying member, although by what grandfather said, he acted in that service until he left the district.


Joseph Arch was the son of a Warwickshire shepherd. They formed the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union, leading to the founding of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU) in 1872, the first trade union for unskilled workers, which eventually became part of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Despite internal division, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong in 1875, organised in thirty-eight districts.

At that time, agricultural workers’ wages were just a little better than subsistence level, amounting to no more than twelve pounds a year for ordinary labourers, rising to twenty pounds for a good head waggoner. For this, he would often work alone in the fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of life beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and the village pub and church. He and his family could be evicted with little justification or notice. Joseph Arch and the Union tried to put a stop to this by organising mass marches and meetings. These meetings, attended by thousands of farm workers in borrowed fields, often in pouring rain, ran the risk of incurring the wrath of both squire and parson. God bless the squire and all his relations and keep us in our proper stations was how prayers ended in many rural parish churches at that time, where life was ordained by the unholy trinity of tyranny composed of Squire, Parson and Farmer. Joseph Arch described his first glimpse of a communion service; First up walked the squire to the communion rails, then up went the tradesmen, the shopkeepers, the wheelwright, the blacksmith and then, very last of all, the agricultural labourers. Opposition to the Union from farmers and landed gentry was fierce and the labourers, scattered in isolated villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of this hostile squirarchy. The children of Wesleyan supporters could also lose their places in the village schools, which, at that time, were all controlled by the Church of England and watched over by the parish priest or rector. Despite the threat of losing their homes as well as their livelihoods, open-air meetings often ended with rousing renditions of When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, the chorus of which was:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

The view of the Nonconformist British Quarterly Review of July 1872 on The Agricultural Labourers’ Strike was that whilst a trade union was by no means the best way of remedying the social inequalities and injustices of the time, it was the only means available:

… It has been doubted, and perhaps with some justice, whether in England, at least, these associations have had the effect of raising wages. It is contended, and with great appearance of truth, that workmen have been in the various mechanical trades so much in demand, that the principle of competition for the employment of labour has had full play, and that the rise of wages among artisans and factory operatives is to be ascribed to natural, and not to artificial causes. But it cannot be doubted that workmen’s associations have shortened hours of labour, have educated artisans – as they will the agricultural labourer – into the sense of common interest and a common duty, and have made the interests of the working classes so notable a matter of public interest, that political parties are fain to attempt association with them, and to legislate for them.


The article went on to argue the low wages of agricultural labourers were largely the result of the Poor Law, because the habit of giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied but destitute poor had grown into a practice which was reproducing some of the features of the old Speenhamland System. In those cases where a rural district was added to a thriving town, the temptation on the part of the farmer-guardians to give this form of outdoor relief in aid of wages was almost irresistable, since by doing so, they were able to reduce labour costs and maximise profits at the expense of the ratepayers. While wages remained so low, there was also little prospect of labourers joining provident societies and saving for their own maintenance in sickness and old age. The authors argued that,


 With greater comfort and contentment come more independence, more enterprise, and a higher standard of decency, morality and religion. It is an error to imagine that independence makes men unmanageable or unreasonable. Few men take more intelligent estimate of their position than English artisans do. When they do unite for co-operative purposes they show no symptom of insubordination or disobedience to the necessary orders of their managers or directors… there is no reason to think that the English agricultural labourer can sink to any lower level than that which he occupies now… it is no wonder that the religious sense of the peasantry is obtuse; the marvel is that it should exist at all, and be capable of being stirred by the homely but earnest eloquence of the Methodist preacher, , the apostle of the agricultural labourer. In the last session of Parliament, Sir Roundell Palmer, taking up the defence of the Anglican Establishment,… invited the attention of the House to the benificient functions which are performed by the country clergy. If, indeed, they are to be responsible for the condition in which their flocks are found, no severer censure of their efforts can be uttered… it is not too much to say that nine-tenths of the religion which the agricultural labourer believes is gained in spite of the clergy, and by agencies which they name only to scorn or ridicule.


To some labouring men, the young trade union movement seemed to hold out some hope, as workers from all over East Anglia combined into groups, instinctively believing, as their fathers had done half a century before, that solidarity meant strength. Just as instinctively, however, farmers felt that solidarity meant trouble. They dismissed, or threatened to dismiss, any men who carried a union card. The farmers usually won but, in 1874, a sufficient number of labourers stood firm enough to enable an effective strike to be mounted. The demand was for fourteen shillings a week. There were violent scenes in many places, and in Brandon troops were called in to confront a crowd armed with sticks and bearing a banner proclaiming Bread or Blood in Brandon this day. The demonstrators won on this occasion, with the magistrates agreeing to provide cheaper bread and flour, and the triumphant cry of revolt was taken up elsewhere. From Halesworth to Ely the countryside was up, with rioters breaking into shops and barns and threatening farmers and magistrates. It took several days for law and order to be restored. As at the time of Captain Swing, such violence expressed everything but solved nothing. There was no solution: the workers, the farmers and the government were all powerless. As one farmer complained in a letter to The Times,

We have to pay more for labour, manures and feeding stuffs. Yet we are selling the best wheat England ever produced at 25s. Per quarter, wool has reached the lowest price ever recorded and, notwithstanding the poor root crop, beef hardly averages 6d. Per lb. But there is another feature of the farming outlook which is very sad to contemplate, and that is the decreasing influence agriculture has upon Parliament.


We also know that there was considerable overseas emigration from the Warwickshire countryside and other areas where NALU had grown strong, in the 1870s and 1880s, sponsored by the union. Questioned by the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1881 about how the union set about achieving higher wages for its members, Arch replied that they had reduced the number of labourers in the market very considerably by helping seven hundred thousand men, women and children during the nine years of the union’s existence. Asked where the funds had come from for the emigration of such numbers, Arch replied that he himself had travelled to Canada and made arrangements with the Canadian Government for them to give the migrants a certain amount, which the union then matched with trade union funds. In fact, the growth of the union had come about at a time when farm labourers’ wages were rising, and the rural revolt led by Arch stemmed more from the raising of expectations which accompanied these rises, however marginal. Even so, the harvester who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could still, in the 1890s, find himself standing in front of the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. Against this continuing absolute social control, it took a special kind of courage to stand with a few labouring brothers and sing:


Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.


However, by the last quarter of the century, fundamental changes in the shape and character of agriculture in England had also become fully evident: fewer worked on the land and the golden age of profits had vanished in the face of imported meat and wheat, especially from the American prairies. This hit the South Midland and East Anglian cereal farmers and their labourers far worse than those producing mainly meat and dairy products for the West Midland and Northern industrial towns. Most of these men and women who remaining on the land were trapped there by a combination of the rigid class structure and rural poverty, as this 1898 extract from Henry Ryder Haggard shows:

Notwithstanding the care, knowledge, and intelligence which are put into the working of the land, under present conditions it can scarcely be made to pay. The machinery works, the mill goes round; the labourers, those who are left of them, earn their wage such as it is, and the beast his provender; the good man rises early and rests late, taking thought for the day and the morrow, but when at Michaelmas he balances his books there is no return, and lo! The bailiff is glaring through the gates… in our parts the ancient industry of agriculture is nearly moribund, and if the land, or the poorer and therefore the more considerable portion of it, is farmed fairly, it is in many instances being worked at a loss, or at any rate without profit… The small men only too often keep up the game till beggary overtakes them, when they adjourn to the workhouse… The larger farmers… at last take refuge in a cottage or, if they are fortunate, find a position as a steward on some estate. The landlords… unless they have private means to draw on… sink and sink until they vanish beneath the surface of the great sea of English society.


This passage may seem, in parts, rather exaggerated in both the claims it makes and the style it is written in, but Ryder Haggard could claim to know what he was writing about, since he farmed a considerable amount of land on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The decline he described had begun in about 1875. By a combination of industry and improved techniques, farmers had survived the ending of protection and the had prospered during the middle years of the century. Then the full impact of free trade was felt. Grain from the American prairies was carried to New England ports in new steam trains, exported in new steam ships and sold on the English market at prices lower than home produced corn. In 1877 wheat was 56s. 9d. A quarter. By 1894 the price had slumped to 22s. 10d., a figure at which it could not be grown in England at a profit. By the end of the century the amount of land under cereals in Suffolk had been cut by half, with those farmers who could diversify rearing stock as well. However, this market area was not free from competition either, since refrigerated container-ships were bringing cheap lamb and beef from New Zealand and Argentina. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the landed interest had dominated Parliament and had forced the Corn Laws through but the balance of political power had now shifted; the middle classes and property-owning town dwellers benefited from cheap, imported foodstuffs, so that free trade had come to stay.

The depression which fell upon the agrarian communities of East Anglia was the worst that it had ever experienced. Land values and rents tumbled. Thousands of labourers were thrown out of work and left their ancestral homes. Ditches and hedges were unkempt, fields unploughed; houses, cottages and barns unrepaired. Men who had once owned their own farms were now living on the parish dole, a pound of flour and threepunce a day. Alongside them, the army of impoverished farm-workers who had once worked for them, grew daily, a powerless host who had little idea as to how to relieve their misery.

… to be continued…

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