Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The rural labourer: his health

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If there were such a person as a youth of the working-class who considered bodily health the greatest of all blessings, so that it should be the main object in life, he would choose to be a rural labourer. It has always been supposed that a life spent in the open air, in full exercise, among pleasant objects, and without care must be the very best for health and long life. The peasantry of England, that “bold peasantry, their country’s pride,” has been traditionally considered a class favoured by God and man, dwelling amidst the most charming scenes of life, and exempt from its wearing cares.

There must have been, according to our modern notions of welfare and comfort, many drawbacks on such a condition, even in the times most favourable to rural labourers; and there has been a long period during which it would have been a mere mockery to describe the ploughman or hedger as a favourite of Nature or society. Yet it has been true, throughout the dreary period of his depression, that he had as good a chance of health and long life (supposing him sober and prudent), as any other working-man, and better than almost any other. Other things being equal, he ought to live eight years longer than men employed in some dozen of occupations which might be pointed out. The deaths in his class, in the vigour of their years, is nine in the thousand, yearly; whereas the mortality of dwellers in unhealthy cities is, at the same time of life, twelve in the thousand; while the mortality of persons of all ages in the healthiest parts of England, is seventeen in the thousand.

It is true, these facts are taken from the best specimens; that is, from members of some sort of Friendly Society; and, therefore, to a certain degree, enlightened, sober, and prudent; but still, the advantages of the occupation are so unquestionable that we might expect beforehand that agricultural labourers would have less to do with the doctor than men of perhaps any other calling.

Yet it is a common thing for residents in villages and rural places to see bent old men shuffling along, or to meet one hobbling between two sticks, or to hear from behind the hedge the young man’s cough, which tells to the experienced ear that he will never draw a full, free breath again. It is a common thing in country houses to hear of some young girl taken into the kitchen to train, or some boy for whom employment is made about the premises, because the father has died untimely, and the widow is left with so many children that neighbours must help, if they are to be kept off the rates. Sometimes it is fever that has done the mischief—fever which carries off those who can least be spared, and makes more orphans than any war we have ever been engaged in. Sometimes it is brain disease, or exhaustion from drink (a very strange sort of drink). In cider countries, it may be from colic, or stone, or some form of violent indigestion. In a marshy country, it may be from a long course of agues, or an obstinate dysentery. Too often it is from actual starvation, though the symptoms may be taken for the real cause, and various names of diseases may be given to as many cases which ought never to have occurred at all. It is quite natural that thinkers, meditating in their libraries, should decide that rural labourers must be the healthiest of mankind: but the country gentleman, abroad in the fields, and at the Board of Guardians, may easily doubt whether there are more piteous cases of sickness and death among the poor in manufacturing towns, than in his district of merry England.

If we review the life of any rural labourer who has reached old age, in order to see what his life has been like, we must necessarily dwell upon the most unfavourable period for that class known in our whole history—the period before the repeal of the Corn Laws. When we see how bad it was, we must comfort ourselves with the thought that it is over, and that, if ever men might anticipate “a good time coming” for any class, we may now for our peasantry. The evils of former adversity have not yet passed away; and that is the chief reason why we should carefully bear them in mind: but, though thousands of labouring men die every year who ought to live for many years longer, we see that the next generation must have a much better chance of fulfilling their natural term of life.

Let us see what has been the career of a labourer of the best order, as labourers were fifty years ago. The grass has not yet grown on his grave; and he worked to the latest day that he could hold spade or bill-hook; so that he is no obsolete specimen, but a man of the time, and an example of his calling. He shall be a good man, and an apt labourer; and his wife shall be a good woman, dutiful and housewifely; and their children such as might be expected from such parents. They | shall live in an agricultural county where wealthy men’s estates almost join for an extent of many miles, and where, therefore, there is understood to be employment for every working man, woman, and child.

In John’s young days nobody questioned the luck of the rural labourer, who was provided for, if any man was. Those were the days of agricultural prosperity, when the farmers made a sudden start, and grew grand in their way of living, and when their landlords got high rents, while there was famine in the towns. Farm-labourers had low wages, because the Poor Law pressed heavily upon the farmers; but every hedger and ditcher was sure of a maintenance in one way or another. If wages failed, he could demand a subsistence; and then his wages would be paid out of the rate.

In times like these John arrived at that memorable day in the life of a boy—the day of first going out to work for wages. He was but seven; but he felt like a little man—and very properly. He was a bird-keeper first; and after a time he watched the cattle and the poultry, and got in the turnips for the beasts, and helped in the potato and bean planting. His work hours were as long as his father’s; from eight till four in midwinter, and from six to six in summer. His wages rose from 9d. a week to 1s. 6d. while at this light kind of work. He must have been a strong boy; for at eleven years old he began to lead horses at plough, earning 2s. 6d. a week; and at fifteen he could hold the plough itself, and drive the team, and began to mow, and to help in the harvest field, earning then 4s. a week. As he became a rather tall man, and a hearty worker, his growth could not have been checked by either labour or want. His mother said his food cost half-a-crown a week; and so it ought, as he earned it, and wanted it for his growth. At the then price of bread, he could not make out with less than eighteen pennyworth; and the other shilling paid for potatoes, butter or cheese, milk, and afterwards tea; together with his share of the bacon from his father’s pig, and some occasional cabbages from the garden. He earned his bacon and greens, his father said, by his help in the garden at over hours.

Long before he was twenty he was earning men’s wages: that is, 9s. a week, with occasional opportunities of making more. He must have found or made many such opportunities; for he had laid by largely when he married at five-and-twenty. His parents had favoured him as much as they could; for they were proud of him, and he was in every way a credit to them. The young woman he married was a fit partner for him. She had laid by money in service, and had gained friends there; so that it was a prosperous and promising marriage. Neither John nor Susan had any learning. Neither could read; but both were lively and intelligent. They had 50l. laid by when they determined to marry: and, as John was not in the least likely to come upon the rate, he was chosen for superior and well-paid work such as is carefully kept out of the hands of pauper labourers. They took a cottage of four rooms at 5l. a year, and a garden at a separate rent, large enough to grow potatoes and cabbages for themselves and the pig, even after the house was full of children. For the greater part of his life, from the day he entered this cottage, John paid poor-rate. It was with him a matter of conscience and of pride; and it was a dark day to him when at last he was obliged to give it up; and a darker still when he came upon the rate himself. He thought it hard, after his course of honest toil; but there were his wife and idiot daughter to be considered; and there was no help for it. This, however, did not happen till a dozen years ago.

After his marriage, the complaints of agricultural distress became more frequent and more bitter. Few townspeople believed the truth of them, seeing what a dash the farmers cut at intervals, and what regular grumblers they were; but the thing was true enough, as John could have borne witness, though he could not have explained the reason.

He was better off than most of his class; for he worked on the estate of a nobleman who knew him by name and valued him, and his father before him: but the agent must do as others did and as times grew bad, he retrenched labour and wages. It was well understood that families could not exist on what they earned or received from the parish; and private charity was nearly driven out by the operation of the Poor Law.

How, then, did they live? Nearly all were in debt to the shop, and held out for a time on credit. A more important resource was poaching. It is not my present business to describe the state of society as it then was. I mention the poaching to account for whole families not being starved when they had no sufficient income to support them. Sometimes they ate, in haste and secrecy, the hare or rabbits they obtained; and oftener they sold the game they got on winter nights to the agents of London poulterers, gaming more money on a Saturday night than by the whole week’s toil of the entire family.

John was never tempted by practices of this kind. He was far above them. As his family came on fast, and earnings diminished, he worked harder. That his children should go to school he was resolved, for he felt the disadvantage of being unable to read and write: and to school they went—the elder ones, and for as long as he could manage it.

Before he had been married eight years, the trouble of sickness entered his home.

During his wife’s fifth confinement, when he could not afford such attendance as at first, a sad accident happened. The eldest child, seven, was taking care of three little ones before the door, when one of the boys, in rough play, laid her head open with a shovel. A long illness followed, and she grew up an idiot.

By degrees, the money store in the bank all drained away; and then John was not so comfortably dressed as formerly. He could not change his clothes when wet, and went ill shod to his work. His feet were often wet all day; and he had not always dry ones at home. He had never been taught the mischief of sleeping in his day-shirt and flannel waistcoat, and had a notion of its being somehow a wholesome proceeding. When his wife became overtasked with her large family, and the washing was a heavy business, John spared too much in clean shirts. He began to feel changes of weather “in all his bones,” as he said; and his work became less easy to him in cold and damp seasons.

At the same time, the domestic table fell off in quality. For several years there had always been a goodly dish of meat on Sundays, baked in a dishful of potatoes; and two or three times a week there had been pies or meat-dumplings, made from the cheaper parts of the carcase of ox or sheep, timely bespoken from the butcher; or, very frequently, a dinner of “fry” when a neighbouring pig was killed, obtained by exchange for vegetables, or an hour’s jobbing in some garden or at some fence.

As times grew worse, there was less and less of all this; and bacon became the only meat ever seen on the table, except in pig-killing week. Every effort was made to feed the growing children, body and mind. John denied himself the help in the field of one boy for nine years, which were given to schooling. It was not his fault that the self-denial was nearly useless. At the end of nine years the lad could not do more than “read a chapter” in a way half-intelligible to himself, and not at all intelligible to his eager parents, and just scrawl a letter in large, ill-spelt, ill-chosen words. The other boy was necessarily called off very early from his studies, and never could read at all. He was the better workman, though the “scholard” of the family did not want wit. The fault lay in the quality of the school.

The younger boy had the advantage of his father’s talk and instruction as he helped him in hedge, ditch, or furrow; and this was better than doing nothing at school. As to the instruction, the boy grew up handy and diligent; and, though too fond of money, able and willing to soften his parents’ hard lot. As to the father’s talk—it was not what it had been. He was careworn: he was growing rheumatic, and lost sleep by the pain: he had no longer the flow of spirits of a hearty, well-fed, open-air labourer. His wife, too, was wearing down. Their minds grew contracted; and that feebleness of thought and feeling began to appear which is one consequence of overwork and underfeeding.

But how blessed was their state, even now, in comparison with that of many—even with most—of their neighbours! They themselves were neither unaware of this, nor unthankful for it, nor proud of their superiority. Every winter some cottage household was left desolate by the father or brother being carried off to jail for poaching, or carried to the grave, slain in the woods by keepers’ guns. All the year round there were wives and mothers hanging round the beer-shop or ale-house at midnight, trying in vain to get at the sots within to take them home. The doors were closed; and within were the victims, lying on or under the benches stupified by something else than beer. It would be a painful, but a useful thing to know how many rural labourers die in a year of the drugged beer so familiar to residents in some of our agricultural counties. In the morning the victims are stupid, headachy, sick, and powerless for work. Their limbs grow shaky, their tempers violent, and their ideas confused, till some attack of brain or stomach carries them off, or they sink into a state of weakness and folly, and they are reported dead of “fits,” or “cholera,” or “decline.” John and his sons have escaped these dangers by being honest and sober men. Yet there were persons—not the wisest and best certainly—but well-meaning neighbours, who asked, when seeing John’s funeral go by, how far he had been better off than his neighbours for his pride and honour, and his abstemious ways. He used himself to doubt whether either of his sons would ever be the stout man he once was: and neighbours then also asked one another how John was the better at sixty for having been such a stout fellow at twenty.

At sixty John was indeed sadly bent, and tremulous, and deaf. It was surprising that he could do such excellent work still with so feeble-looking a frame. He well earned his nine shillings a week, which was as much as any man of his class, except a few herdsmen and teamsters, was able to get. Some of the children had died young, two daughters (the third was the imbecile one) were supporting themselves, and the two sons were barely living on a precarious nine shillings a week in the same district. They were always welcome to a dinner at their father’s, when out of work, as long as there was anything to set on the table: but it became a question, at one time, whether there would still be enough for the three poor creatures at home.

The estates changed hands; and a young man succeeded to them who had more power over human welfare than is often consigned to a man of his years. His own wants, however, were paramount in his mind and heart,—the bottomless needs of a man of pleasure. So he wrote to his agent that it seemed to him that John and two others must now be above sixty years of age, and therefore somewhat past their work; and his positive orders were that their wages should be reduced to six shillings a week. It strikes one that the young man and the old must both have heard with very vivid feelings that passage read in church, from the Epistle of James, about the rich man and the hire of their labourers. It is true, John was so deaf that for a time there was no instruction for him at church,—unable either to hear or read: but somebody gave him an ear-trumpet; and he cried through the whole service the first time he used it. One would like to know that the young landlord cried through the whole service after hearing that passage in the Epistle of James.

Before long the young man died, as such unprofitable servants of society often do,—untimely in every way. The wages of the three old men were immediately raised to what they were before. But it was too late for John,—except as a pleasure. For a time he tried to work three days in a week; and there was nothing for it but accepting an allowance from the parish. Then it came to two days in a week; and then to half-days. His children did what they could; and the old couple never actually wanted food and clothes in their latter days. But their long toil and hardship and anxiety had caused them sore ailments of body and mind. Their minds were narrow and weak to a degree which made it incredible that they were the same couple that had begun life so cheerily. They had no new knowledge, no conversation, no interests beyond the care of getting bread. Both had miserable nerves, as under-fed and anxious people always have; and John’s deafness and his wife’s weakness shut them up within themselves. At last, old Susan was undeniably childish; and one day, John sank his head upon his breast, was carried to his bed, and died,—a martyr to rheumatism, as the common talk has it.

Such was the life of the best sort of agricultural labourer in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is so painful and humiliating that it might not be justifiable to exhibit it, if it were not for one of two objects,—either to record a past state of society, or to obtain a reform of an existing one. I have had both these objects in view. There is much reform needed, at this moment, in the treatment of agricultural labourers, before their lot can at all answer to the conception of it as one of the healthiest and happiest of vocations: and, on the other hand, we all believe it impossible that the condition of the labourer should ever retrogress to what it has been.

His vocation is now becoming one of skilled labour; and his qualifications and his wages must both rise. For clodpoles we shall henceforth have agricultural operatives, working by machinery, and paid according to their intelligence and skill.

We see this happening already, and more and more extensively every year. We see prizes won,—not so much now for sparing the rates, but for superior skill in the arts of agriculture, and for success in the accomplishments of horticulture. We see leisure hours and spare pennies spent in floricultural rivalry, instead of at the public-house. We see men of John’s order manifesting his virtues, with a fairer course before them.

Under such improved circumstances the health and longevity of the class must steadily and rapidly improve. Still, we shall have to go on registering unnecessary deaths, and grieving over unnecessary misery from year to year, while our peasantry have not habitations admitting of health, comfort, and decency, and while they are kept ignorant of the knowledge, and untrained in the habits, by which men’s health and life are put, as it were, into their own hands. Whenever this duty of rich men to the labourers who have tilled their fields is done, the lot of the peasant may again become what it once was, and more deservedly than ever,—the cheerful theme of the poet and the moralist.

Harriet Martineau.