Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/How to deal with our rural poor

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VII  (1862) 
How to deal with our rural poor

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HOW TO DEAL WITH OUR RURAL POOR.


Circumstances caused my husband and myself to settle on a property of which we had rather unexpectedly become possessed in one of the largest counties in the north of England. Wild and extensive, remote from the county-town, or indeed any town, the sea and the moors cutting it off from society on one hand, and an enormous property in the hands of an unsocial proprietor as effectually doing so on the other, our children and ourselves looked forward with some dismay to the loss of the agreeable and varied society we had enjoyed in a very different part of England. Our new home was aptly described by one of them as “ten miles from everywhere.” However they as well as we fully responded to the now somewhat trite saying that “Property has its duties as well as its rights,” and we set forth in no desponding mood to take possession—perhaps even with some little feeling of pride in becoming landed proprietors and members of the genuine squirearchy. We had a very old and rambling house to make inhabitable, a wilderness to form into a trim garden, and, last not least, a tenantry whom we were very sincerely anxious to attach to us and to benefit. In this last we were successful; and I do not think the little history of the means we pursued can be uninteresting in these days, when such real zeal exists for benefiting the lower classes of society. All landed proprietors cannot build model cottages and mediæval schools, but all may exert an influence of a most beneficial character, with even small pecuniary means at their command. The day in which we are living is one of peculiar difficulty as regards the dealings of classes with each other. The acknowledged tendency of all European nations is towards democracy, though our insular position has staved off this evil—if we may venture to call that evil which seems, in the order of Providence, to be at least one of the phases through which the nations must pass in their progress to the unknown Hereafter—the old feudal feeling of the poor towards the upper classes has all but disappeared, though it is retained to a certain extent in the higher classes towards them. Antagonism is too often the consequence of this divergence on their part, and irritation arises in the mind of a landlord when he finds his schemes for benefiting his people received at best with indifference, and too often thwarted altogether, his schools unattended, and a disheartening ingratitude his sole return for much honest effort. Sometimes, again, a great return is expected for small mercies, and much subserviency required for doles of broth and flannel—one altogether disproportionate to the benefit conferred.

I determined from the beginning to take these people in hand in my own way. But I must begin at the beginning of my little history.

We brought with us from the south a staff of servants on whom we thought our comfort depended—treasures who, one and all, gave warning when they saw the wilderness we had brought them to, and that all was not exactly ready to their hands, and, as I learnt afterwards, frightened by there being a well-authenticated ghost-story attaching to the house. Their places were soon supplied by natives; the gardener we found there had been retained from the first.

The expenses of taking possession of this neglected property were enormous. In addition to our own house, every farm-house and its buildings required repairing, and the whole of the land wanted draining, and I felt that we must give up London and every expense that would take us from the place. We determined to throw our whole minds into the business we had undertaken, and to find our happiness in doing our duty in the position we were placed in. I was told that the village had been entirely spoiled by our predecessors, that its inhabitants were a dishonest, ungrateful crew, and had always had the habit of living on the Hall and pilfering all they could lay their hands on, and that, far from being as I supposed an unsophisticated set, they were up to all sorts of tricks. I had always had my own idea of how the power of influencing the poor should be obtained, and I determined to take these people in hand my own way. I argued thus: Human nature is the same in all classes; if I wished to obtain the affection of people in my own rank in life, how should I set about it? Should I not see them frequently, to become thoroughly acquainted with them, in the first instance, and then, by sympathy in their joys and sorrows, obtain their regard? I determined from the first never to give money when I visited in my village. It must act in two ways. I felt sure, in the first place, not being rich, it would make my visits fewer, and if I was looked upon as a mere doler of half-crowns, the expectation of this donation would, on their part, unconsciously perhaps, give them the feeling that they must give the money’s worth in flattery and humbug. A physician’s feeling, when he knows you have your guinea in your hand, will best explain what I mean, all but the flattery and humbug. Advice I determined not to give till I knew them well. In my own class of life there are many who are really poor, but what would be their feelings if I called on them, advised them how and where to buy their clothes, ordered their dinners, and gave them a ten-pound note? Depend upon it, the poor feel as we do, and that it often requires an effort and all the feelings of dependence they have on a landlord not to reject our money and advice with scorn; and love will never spring up if there is no better intercourse than that with the poor. I determined to see them each and all constantly, to make myself thoroughly acquainted with the characters and circumstances of each family, not doubting that events would arrive in which they would find they had in me an intimate and reliable friend, to whom they could open their hearts in joy and sorrow; but I was aware that this could only be the growth of time.

My first visit was to an old farmer, the only freeholder in the place. I ought perhaps to mention, that in one respect we enjoyed a peculiar facility in dealing with these people, for both my husband and myself belonged to the old county families, and our names were well known to them; several had relations living under the heads of our families, either as tenants or servants; so we were accepted at once as a gentleman and a lady, and those who know the poor know that there is no class that has a higher notion of what those two words mean, or of that to which noblesse oblige.

My visit to the old freeholder in question was thus described by him to one of my family:

“Heh! but you have a good mother; none of your little set up, cocked up bodies, but a good[1] plain woman. Mary made her a cup of tea, and she talked just as if she had been my mother.”

It is very essential to understand the grades of rank amongst the lower orders, or we may unconsciously offend them grievously. Have we never been offended by those above us forgetting our own smaller claims of this nature? An English freeholder, living on the land that has come down to him from father to son, for many generations, ranks very high; his stake in the country is as valuable to him as to the country gentleman; and his politics are generally conservative; his feelings are perfectly independent; and I have seen in such a much nearer approach, both in manner and appearance, to the old British nobleman than in any other class. There is in such persons an entire absence of assumption, and great simplicity of manners.

Beware of appearing to condescend and be affable to a man of this class; behave to him, when you visit him, as you would to the man he resembles. You are then “the good plain woman,” namely, the simple-mannered gentlewoman he admires. This one had always been in opposition to every plan suggested in the parish, and would not go to church, because he had a personal quarrel with the rector! We won him over, and before a year had passed he was willing to aid in every scheme we had on hand.

My husband had brought with him from the south many of the new—at least, what were then new—farming implements: drills and clod-crushers, hoeing and hay-making machines. These were the subject of a very great curiosity. I have seen all the scanty population of our parish gathered together to watch them at work. They saw their merits at once. The draining of the land was the great stumbling-block.

“It’s to noa use, Cunnel, saying what’s done in other parts. I woant say I has not heard tell about drainin’; but you’re clearly wrong with your land, Cunnel; t’ land will graw varry little with t’ whatter (water) on it; and what will it graw if ye tack it away?”

Many were the shakes of the head over the Colonel’s “newfangled notions,” and the prophecies that “he would ruin them twa fine lads o’ his.”

The draining of his own farm was the first experiment; and in two years after that all his tenants, by their own wish, paid him five per cent. on what he laid out for them in this way.

We invited the whole of our tenantry, farmers and cottagers, to a housewarming on our first arrival. I took as much pains to ascertain the rights of precedence, as if I had been receiving the first people in the county. I am sure this caused the success of our fête, which gave immense satisfaction.

The freeholder (he was the only one in our parish), the farmers and their wives, we had at our own table, in our own dining-room; their sons and daughters at another table, presided over by our sons and daughters; the cottagers in the servants’ hall, waited on by our upper servants.

My directions were, that the tables should be entirely covered, each dish to touch the other.

“Heh! Cunnel, but your missis is a rare provider!” I had the gratification of overhearing.

We had many such gatherings.

Shortly after this entertainment, one of our family had an illness. If he had eaten all the ducks and chickens and dozens of new-laid eggs which were sent as appropriate presents for invalid diet, he might soon have had another. He constantly had tea with our tenant-farmers, and never refused to taste the cake and (what was a real trial) the gin and the rum which was offered with it.

We were determined to be popular, and to have our ideas adopted; and as we decidedly succeeded, where many who are equally anxious signally fail, I hope my readers will excuse my detailing all the methods pursued.

A school existed in the village—such a one as satisfied a bygone generation. The master was a cripple and a drunkard, and had been a saddler. Our good rector had made many efforts to get a more efficient man, and at one time thought he had succeeded. He had engaged a master from the Training School at N——, and had a promise from the farmers to guarantee a certain income to the man, independent of scholars, who in a scanty population always fluctuate much in number. During the rector’s absence he unfortunately fell ill, and had to return to his friends at a distance, for some months. On his return he found the saddler reinstated; and on complaining to the principal tenant, who, he found, had been mainly instrumental in effecting this change, the answer was:

“Why, you see, sir, it was a deal o’ money we had to give you chap; t’ ould maister was good enough for the likes of us. What’s t’ use o’ such a deal o’ schooling? You see, sir, I was at school mysel’ for a month when I was a lad, and what good did it do me?”

Certainly none. The objection was unanswerable. A school-room was built, and a first-rate master engaged. We had to build a house for him, and this contained a room large enough for us to gather our people together, and to give a lecture in, occasionally. The master had under his care a well-selected lending library; but I think nothing we did gave more pleasure, or promoted more the happiness of young and old, than a system of prizes for the prettiest and neatest flower gardens. Our cottages were low, miserable places: to rebuild them all at once was to us an impossibility. Most of them consisted of one room on the ground floor, with one above, reached by a narrow ladder, and a “lean-to” behind. It was a service of difficulty to visit the sick. One poor woman, who was yearly in an interesting situation, and who had broken her arm, the bone of which had never afterwards united, was always unable, for the last month, to climb her perch, and used to take to her bed at that period, and lie there, patiently awaiting the event! It is well old times are passed away, when such dwellings could be built for labourers. By fencing in the ground before their doors, and thus giving each a neat little plot of ground, it was for many months of the year like an additional room. It was most pleasing to see every spare moment devoted to these little gardens, which were altogether de Saxe, for they had others for cabbages and potatoes out of sight. The whole aspect of the village was altered; a small sum effected it, and it answered so thoroughly, that I am tempted to give the rules[2] by which the prizes were obtained, to show how much may be done with small means, when they exactly hit the circumstances of the case: given, a frightful village, to make into a sightly and pleasant one.

The garden was delivered over into my especial charge, and the gardener duly informed that my orders were to be carried out. He had lived all his life on the property, and a garden, according to my understanding of the word, he had never seen. If he had been altogether ignorant, I should have had hopes of him; but he was self-taught—a genius in his own estimation, and the oracle of the village. He had the most supreme contempt for all female learning. My husband had told him that the garden was my exclusive domain, and that every order I gave was to be carried out exactly, to which he replied, “Yes, sir, we must indulge the weaker sex.” The “Gardener’s Chronicle” he would not read. “He had learnt all that when he was a ’prentice.” His learning was indeed overwhelming. He was transplanting for me a shrub, which I was unacquainted with. I asked him its name. He left his place, came within a few paces, placed his foot on his spade, assumed an attitude: “That, mum, is the Athenian Laurel, with which the ancients bound the brows of their heroes at the Olympian games.” This was said with a look of, “What have you to say to that, mum?” I found contention with him hopeless. I had brought the loveliest plants with me, which all died under his hands, so his days in our service were numbered; for utterly deprived of society as I was, if my garden had failed me as an amusement, I should have been badly off indeed.

In many outlying districts, money that has been left for charitable or benevolent purposes, has been diverted by neglect and the cupidity of overseers from its original intent; and it is very useful to look up these things and restore them, when feasible, to their rightful purpose. Money had been left by a benevolent ancestor to maintain a footpath between our church and a distant village. For generations the overseers had appropriated this sum for mending the roads (such roads!) and saving their pockets. My husband set this right, and a nice dry causeway was made through the street, to be carried on as the fund allowed. Our predecessors had been quite old, jog trot, country gentry, who had never thought of this, nor of an open sewer, which ran the length of the village. We found typhus a constant autumnal visitor—it left us for ever under the new régime.

In making my calls and ascertaining exactly of how many each family consisted, I was truly shocked to find the number of, what they were pleased to call, love children, and the very lenient view taken of lapses of male and female chastity. One old woman, who I knew was unmarried, showed me, with evident pride, two great louts who had come home on the Saturday to bring her their linen to wash.

“Your sons! I did not know you were a married woman!”

“Well, you see, mum, they were little mistakes of mine when I was young.”

Little mistakes indeed! I showed my disapproval of all such proceedings by omitting to invite any such delinquent to our tea-drinkings, and by giving no caudle to such damsels as returned to the paternal abode under disgraceful circumstances.

Neither parents nor children seemed to view this great sin as they ought.

My garden-prizes were strictly for gardening. It so happened that the greatest scamp in the parish obtained the highest prize the first year. It was suggested by a friend that it ought not to be given him, on moral grounds; but I adhered to the rules, and I have reason to believe that the strict justice shown did more for morality than any deviation would have done, and gave me more influence. I told him, on presenting it, that when I gave a prize for the best man, I hoped he would obtain that also.

We had a contumacious blacksmith who never would come into the gardening rules, and who had the gratification of seeing his home the only eye-sore of the village. My husband allotted a certain field for what were then called cow-gates, and built a row of cow-sheds. A cricket-club he also organised, in which our sons played; it was most useful in keeping the young men from the public-house on Saturday nights, and made the rising generation intimately known to us.

Our labourers’ wages were always paid on a Friday, to enable a judicious expenditure of them at the Saturday market. So much labour was in demand that the rate of wages, for some miles round, rose considerably and permanently. It was delightful, after working on for seven years, to see the changed aspect of everything around us—it was a rich reward for what had been very happy work.

My pen almost refuses to go on with my history, but I should never have known the deep affection felt by these poor villagers, had not one of those life shocks that scatters existence, and leaves it a blank and dreary waste, henceforth and for ever fallen on me!

I was gone—my place knew me no more. No explanation had these poor friends; but, years after, I found they had never doubted me. I was staying in the neighbourhood and drove over to see them, and few such days greet one, in this life, as the one I spent with them. My visit was wholly unexpected. As I walked down the village, the first woman I met was one whose child had almost died in my arms. She looked as if she had seen a vision; then, setting down her water-pail, she seized both my hands, and finally threw her arms round my neck and wept there. I went into every home—tears and the tenderest welcome greeted me; they showed me much true delicacy—such an absence of all unseemly curiosity, and of questions that might have pained me; such charming anecdotes were remembered and told me about my children! All that could cheer and comfort me they seemed to think of with such demonstration of affection that it was what one would have thought more appertaining to Irish than English character: it was beautiful and deeply affecting. I had put up our horses at a neighbouring farmhouse; the tenant who held it when I lived near was dead—and my visit was to his widow. There had been a sale after the sad catastrophe I have alluded to, and all the little treasures accumulated in happy days—each with some dear association attached to it—were scattered for ever. One single article I had commissioned this good man to bid for; it chanced to be—so his daughter told me—now, the one thing he wished to buy himself, and several persons also came from a distance to purchase it. But he passed the word in the crowd that he was “bidding for the missis,” and no one bid against him. He had insisted on packing it and sending it with his own team to the station.

In no spirit of self-laudation have I written this little history, but to prove that the hearts and feelings of the poor may be gained by those who will try, as we tried, by sympathy and real love to them in the beautiful words of Scripture, “Weeping with those that weep, and rejoicing with those that rejoice.” The poor are accurate judges of character—I should say, better judges than we are; they see it more undisguised, and know its deep springs, which, with us, are lost in artificial wanderings over cultured fields, and are too often absorbed in the selfishness of over-refinement. All affectation with them is seen through in a moment. Nothing is gained by an undignified familiarity. The manners of a gentleman and a lady you must never attempt to lay aside to accommodate yourself to their vulgarity; their manners will refine under your influence; hats that, at first, would not have been even touched as you passed them, will come off altogether, if they feel sure of a kindly greeting in return.

How natural this is! Did we never look another way if a fine lady, whom we thought likely to cut us, was driving past us in the park?

The old feudal feelings of aristocracy are dying out all around us. Democracy is upon us—it is inevitable—and we must accept the situation; but, if we are to be the “masters” of it, we must help to carry out the only safe democracy, which is that of a developed Christianity.

K. T. L.


  1. Simple.
  2. Rules for the Cottage Gardens.—First prize, 12s.; second prize, 7s.; third prize, 5s.; fourth prize. 3s. 6d.; fifth prize, 2s. 6d. These given on the 1st of November. The first prize cannot be obtained two years running, but may the third year. The cottages to be all washed the same shade of stone-colour, every year, in March; the hedges to be neatly clipped, all of an even height; the walk to be kept neat and even; any of the following creepers to be trained against the house,—pyracanthæ, pyrus japonica, Virginian creeper, climbing roses. April primroses, Van Thols, polyanthus, hepatica, yellow auricula, wallflowers, pansies, red and white daisies. July: roses, white lilies, pinks, carnations, nasturtiums, sweet-pea, any gay annuals. September: scarlet geraniums, white petunias, dahlias, marygolds, &c., &c. The gardens will be inspected in the months named, and those that are neatest, as well as the gayest, all the year, will have the preference.