Our English autumn is the time for our English rural labourers to make a figure in the eyes of society. Autumn is the season in which they are called forward into notice of one kind or another; and the circumstance of there being such a season is favourable to a general understanding of their position and prospects. We can compare their aspect and their doings, from year to year, or at intervals of five or ten years; and we can watch the operation of new influences upon them without violating their self-respect by any impertinent prying into their private affairs. The great operative class entered upon its modern existence late enough to escape the intrusive curiosity or benevolence to which the rural labourers have always been, and still are, subject. They are, for the most part, left to manage their own affairs, without dictation as to what their aims and views in life should be, and how they should manage their homes, their income, and their children. The tract-distributor, indeed, spares no class. That sort of intrusion is an impertinence to which all are subject, from the nobleman on his journeys to the scullion in the kitchen and the weaver at his loom, or the hedger in the ditch. Apart from that sort of meddling, the manufacturing and artisan working class are nearly as independent in their homes as the merchant or professional man; whereas there are traces all over the country of the old relation between the agricultural labourer and the owner or holder of the land, which was once serfage, passing into servitude, and at length becoming a dubious something between servitude and a bargain in the labour-market. I need not discuss the good and evil of either condition. Some people advocate the one, and some the other. The point on which, I suppose, we all agree is, that any confusion between the two—or, at least, any confusion in our minds of the ideas of the two—is bad. It must be important to that order of men, as well as every other, to be clear as to what their position in life, and their aims in life, should be, so that they may not be set striving after virtues and benefits which are no longer virtues and benefits, nor discouraged in aspirations which they have at length a perfect right to entertain. Every autumn for some years has brought English society obviously nearer to the requisite clearness as to what the agricultural labourer should be and aim at, and the indications of the present season seem to me to be more marked and more encouraging than ever before.
The public occasions on which I, for one, have been accustomed to meet that sort of men have been of four kinds. Three of them are always to be had in the autumn, the other falls nearer midsummer.
If any of my readers have chanced to be at the Holkham Shearing, any time in the life of the fine old man whom we know best by the name of Mr. Coke; or if they have more recently attended the Babraham Sheep shows, they understand the type of the English rural labourer at his best. How very low that best had once fallen, we see now by the rising of the order. Mr. Coke’s estates were honourably known throughout Europe as the scene of the most generous landlordism, as well as of the most advanced agriculture; and the cottagers were at least as much cared for as the farm tenants and the soil. After all that could be done in those days, how servile, how clownish, how dull were the labourers,—how hopeless to talk with, how incapable of any sort of ambition! Land was reclaimed from the sea to afford them occupation and maintenance: they hsdthe best cottages in the county: there were schools supported from Holkham for their children: but nothing seemed to avail towards making men of them. They stared and grinned and touched their hats to the gentry at those gatherings, and talked about the sheep and the crops when asked questions; but the real interest of the class throughout the country was in the poor-rate; and they could not rise above it. To the rate all rural labourers looked for marriage, for the support of children, for so many loaves a~week, for making up the week’s wage to a fixed sum; and then for getting rid of aged parents, and for everybody’s old age. So the men were grandfathers before they were forty: the girls went to the Board to ask to be paid for nursing mother or granny: the boys learned poaching as soon as they could keep a secret; and they looked on their teachers in jail as a sort of heroes, who would do still more daring deeds in winter nights when they came out again. The first agricultural improvers laid the foundation of the advancement we now see: but the sense of it did not penetrate downwards till the corn-laws were abolished. It was a fine thing to see Mr. Coke and the Duke of Bedford, in smock-frocks, busy during a whole midsummer day, handling and sorting sheep, with as deep an interest as either of them ever showed in a debate on the state of Europe: and their agents and leading stock-managers were no doubt animated by their zeal: but the clodpoles throughout the country were incapable of enthusiasm, and more like their own pigs than like their landlords. What the change is now, any meeting at any flockmaster’s will show. Amidst the oldest prejudices and the most singular notions of the way in which improvements work, one finds evidence that the lowest farm servant believes that breeds of animals may be modified, and that treatment of soil affects the crops; and that stock and crops bear a relation to each other: and this dim conception is nothing less than the opening of a new world and a new life. It has stimulated the will, offered a field to the intellect; and, in short, turned the labourer from a tool into a workman.
Of the autumnal celebrations, the first is the Harvest-Home. What an inane affair it was when I was young, and used to run away from the noise in terror! To my eyes, the harvest-men were a sort of savages. They used to tear down the street of the village or town,—some in Sunday coats, blue with brass buttons; some in fustian,