The English Peasant/In South Warwickshire

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The English Peasant
by Richard Heath
Walks and Talks with English Peasants — In South Warwickshire


In South Warwickshire.

(Golden Hours, 1872.)

Describe a circle with Warwick for its centre, let the line of its circumference begin at Leeds, and it will as nearly as possible pass round the body of England, leaving the two limbs to the north and south-west to balance each other. Just equidistant from this central point lie London and Manchester, so that we may truly say, from the heart of old England has come the impulse which bids fair to revolutionise the condition of our agricultural labourers.

I lately made a pilgrimage to the spring-head of this movement—to Barford, where dwells its leader, Joseph Arch; to Wellesbourne, beneath whose now historic chestnut the leaders of the movement have found a rural forum.

Leaving Warwick, which in its calm decay recalls the age when statesmen reckoned the prosperity of the country, not by the quarterly returns of the Exchequer or by the increase of population, but by the condition of its men—I take the road whose very name, suggests the genius of that noble era.

"To Stratford" tells me I am now in Shakspeare's England, wandering among scenes which formed for him the background of every rural picture, whether the scene was laid in England or France, Italy or Greece.

Nowhere, indeed, can we find more truly English landscapes. Roads lined with noble elms or beeches; parks clad in greensward, with glimpses of an ancient Tudor mansion seen among the trees; cottages of mediaeval build, laced and interlaced with huge beams, their high-peaked roofs neatly thatched, and often covered with lichen; standing amid their little gardens, bright with the fairest flowers of the season— the streaked gilliflower, the blue hepatica, and the purple polythanus; while the lanes, the fields, the copses, are flowered over with "the violet dim, pale primroses, cowslips wan," and the delicate wood-anemone, blue and white. For the soil is of the richest, well watered by the gently flowing Avon. The farms are large, varying from 50 to 300 acres, mainly arable, but with a good proportion of the land laid down in grass. But however, it is not considered a dairy county, and probably there are not many Warwickshire farmers who could now say—

"At my farm
I have a hundred milch kine to the pail,
Six score fat oxen standing in my stalls,
And all things answerable to this portion."

My first companions on the road were a couple of boys driving a dung-cart. They were little fellows, yet one said he was twelve years old. He had commenced work four years before, having left school entirely at eight years of age. He worked from six to six o'clock, sometimes getting up at half-past four. They always went out in couples, as the horse sometimes ran away, and it was impossible for one alone to manage him. Accidents often occur from allowing children thus early to act the carter, while the long hours and insufficient food are very injurious to their constitutions. Indeed, the lad spoke pitifully of the length of time they had to go without food. Young as he was, he had learnt how a little stimulant would still the cravings of an empty stomach, and asked me for something to drink; but just as he did so we were met by an old man who sent them back and took charge of the horse himself.

Ere long I came upon Barford, a neat village mainly built of red brick, the cottages fronting the street. I saw some very large buildings, evidently old homesteads, one of which was going to decay. At the end of the village I found Mr Arch's dwelling-place, an unpretending modern cottage. It is his own, however, and so is the piece of land upon which it is built.

Unfortunately, he had just set out on a tour, in order that he might meet night after night great gatherings of his fellow-labourers and urge them to union. From Mrs Arch, however, I learnt much that was interesting concerning the origin and spirit of the movement. She was evidently the wife for a public man; self-reliant, and heartily believing in her husband's call to the work.

During the early years of Joseph Arch's married life, he was a labourer on nine shillings a week. But when his family increased he threw up his situation, and soon made more by jobbing for the farmers round. As he could not remove his home, he was obliged to be away for a long time together, and often endured great hardships, seeking to save every farthing he could, sometimes sleeping in barns or outhouses, or beneath hay-ricks, and even on wood-stacks. Thus he received a physical education inuring him to the arduous work he has now undertaken, the Bible and the weekly newspaper being his only means of mental training. Little schooling, indeed, was possible for a lad who commenced to toil on the land at nine years of age.

Mrs Arch said that they had often talked of the condition of their class, but could not see their way to do anything. They were Methodists, and Arch being a man of deep religious convictions, and gifted with natural eloquence, became a local preacher.

One day Arch, when he was engaged making a box for his son, who had gone into the army, two men from Wellesbourne came to see him. At first the wife refused to call him, and would only consent on their telling her what they wanted.

"We want," said they, "to talk to Joe about forming a union; other trades have a Union, and we don't see why we shouldn't have one."

"You form a Union!" she replied; "why, you ain't got spirit enough to do it."

"Yes, we have; only Arch must lead us."

"Very well," she answered, "you must tell him so yourselves, and he will do it."

The man they sought entered heart and soul into their wishes, and the following Wednesday he went over to the village; and then and there, on the 14th day of February 1872, was held the first of those now famous Wellesbourne meetings.

From farm to farm the tidings had been carried. The men of Wellesbourne, a village, or rather two villages, numbering 1,500 inhabitants, were there almost to a man. From the neighbouring hamlets the labouring men came in such numbers that a thousand and more had soon congregated in the little triangular green where stands the great chestnut. Arch urged upon them in his own earnest, sledge-hammer way the necessity of combination, and proposed a Union. The tinder was ready, and the spark was struck; the men came forward so fast to give their names, that they could not write them down rapidly enough. A week after there was another meeting, more names were given in, a committee was formed, a secretary appointed, and an organization instituted. Notices were sent to the farmers, asking that wages should be advanced from twelve shillings to sixteen shillings a week. The farmers made no reply, and so on the following Saturday the men struck. There were more than a hundred who thus "came out" in Wellesborne alone, while from the neighbourhood around nearly a hundred more joined them.

Of course the masters were somewhat surprised and much annoyed at this sudden outburst of their labourers. So war was proclaimed in the disturbed district, and the first action taken was to serve the men who joined the Union with notices to quit their cottages. Just as I entered Wellesbourne I saw several very nice large cottages, let, no doubt, much beneath their value. Sir Charles Mordaunt, the landlord, had given them all notice to quit because they joined the Union. A placard was issued, and posted up about the county, in which the Wellesbourne farmers declared their resolution to employ none who thus acted, and to eject them from their cottages.

Nevertheless the cause prospered. The 200 men who first joined the Union almost all found work, so that when I was there only 29 remained unemployed. Some had been engaged in a soap factory in Liverpool, some in the dockyards at Gateshead, others had emigrated to the Colonies. Very painful, however, to all concerned are the immediate effects of this revolution, uprooting old ties, and introducing much bitterness into the social life of the district. Hard must it be for the men to see the home, tended and loved for many a year, in the hands of strangers; while the masters will feel the want of their old, trusty labourers when harvest comes, and already complain bitterly of the ingratitude of those for whom they have sometimes found work at a loss to themselves.

However, it is a law of the universe that wrong done must be avenged. Strange, perhaps, that it should be so rarely avenged on those who did it. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." Happy they who suffer for their own faults; they are the favoured few. So now the present race of farmers, the present race of landlords, nay, the nation at large, will have to suffer for the accumulated wrongs endured by the agricultural poor of this land for generations.

Just as I left Wellesbourne I met two infirm men, creeping in the sunshine, one after the other. They were not very old, not older than the century. At such an age, in the higher walks of life, men manage empires and command armies, and travel from Dan to Beersheba; and yet at threescore years and ten the grasshopper was a burden to these poor worn-out field labourers.

They subsisted, so they said, on 3s. a week, allowed by their club, supplemented by 1s. and a loaf from the parish. Out of this they paid a guinea a year subscription to the club, and provided lodging, clothes, etc.

On what did they live?

They bought half a pound of pig meat or mutton once a week, a bit of lard, and some bread.

What did they have to drink?

"Taay—nothing but taay."

"A half-pint of beer a day 'ud strengthen us up, but we can't get it; taay is poor stuff."

The elder or taller had had eight children, and had buried five.

What did they die of?

He could hardly tell. Decline one died of—that he knew; it was what they call "consumpted decline."

The other had performed his part in adding to the stock of society, but it brought him no pecuniary benefit, for his children had enough to do to keep themselves, and the old father evidently felt no surprise that they did not help him. Both hoped, as it was natural they should, to be soon in a better land. They said they tried hard for it. One observed, "Faith is a fine thing, as the good Book says."

On the road I stopped a man in a coal-cart, who turned out to be quite a character. He had been an agricultural labourer, and had waggoned for a farmer in Wellesbourne for years. He evidently considered himself a practical man, and a great deal wiser than his employer.

"Often," said he, "have I told the maayster, 'You'd better go home, maayster, and not stop bothering me. I know what's best to do to the land.' What could maayster know? He was only a wool-winder."

I observed that wages did not make so much difference as one might suppose. That one man's house on 12s. a week was a model of comfort; another's, on the same wage, was a den of misery.

"You're right, maayster," he replied; "and I daresay you will agree with me when I tell you what makes the difference;" and then, leaning forward, the crow's-feet round his eyes all puckering up with delight, he exclaimed with emphasis, "It's a good wife that makes a house a comfort! A good wife 'll make 12s. go as far as another would a guinea."

Next day, in the neighbourhood of Stratford, in the hamlet of Shottery, I saw enough to give colour to a statement made the other day in the Chamber of Agriculture at Warwick, by an eminent Warwickshire farmer, that it was his opinion that the cottages lay at the root of the present difficulty.

One of the villagers, accompanied by her little son, was crossing the meadow. About Stratford, she said, the labourers had only 11s. a week up till lately; now they were to have 12s. They were not allowed to keep pigs, and had no allotments. She had a cottage with two rooms up-stairs and a pantry below, for which she paid 1s. 9d. a week. Her little boy went to school; but their betters need not be afraid that these young rustics are taught any superfluous lore, since this Shottery boy, living probably within a stone's throw of Anne Hathaway's cottage, had never heard of the name of William Shakspeare. Nor was he a singular exception, for I asked a baker's boy, who gave me a ride in his cart, and who lived at Hampton Lucy, close to Charlcote Park, the same question, and he too had never heard of such a man as Shakspeare.

Passing through the village I saw four old cots standing in a row together. I had no means of measuring, but I should hardly think each house could have been more than 8 ft. wide and about 15 ft. deep. There were but two rooms. In one I found a woman with four children, and she was on the eve of adding to the number; they all slept, six of them, in one small room.

Next door things look much more comfortable, as it was the home of an old couple, who lived there alone. The little room was very clean, and was furnished with a tall clock, which nearly touched the ceiling. There was a rack, too, with a number of plates of the willow pattern, and some small religious pictures. The old woman had herself worked in the fields until lately, when she hurt one of her eyes. Women are not continuously employed in Warwickshire; but at certain seasons it would appear that many do labour out of doors. In spring-time they are out couching and weeding the crops, in haymaking and harvest they bind up and rake, and at other seasons they pick potatoes and clean turnips. It is not at all economical for married women thus to engage themselves, as they only get 1s. a day in winter and 10d. in summer, working from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, with intervals for meals. All this time they are wearing out their clothes, and leaving their homes and babies to the care of some little daughter. Every now and then sad accidents happen. A medical officer of the union of Warwick says: "I have known at least eight cases in which children left at home have either been burnt or scalded to death. I have occasionally known an opiate in the shape of Godfrey's cordial or Daffy's elixir given by the mother to the children to keep them quiet." The women who thus work rather like it, and it no doubt suits certain temperaments better than the more quiet employment of domestic life. Probably they worked as girls, and of such it is said that they are just the ones who dislike the control of domestic service.

Leaving Shottery, so pretty and yet so miserable, I made my way across the meadows into the Alcester Road.

And now I seemed to have got away from a centre of life, and to be passing into a district so thinly populated that for miles I rarely met a human being. The road was very charming, rising and falling, apple and pear trees frequently growing on the sides of the road. Now and then I came to a solitary cot, or perhaps a couple, probably having their origin in some roadside encroachment.

Alcester is a sleepy town lying on the banks of the Alne, just at its junction with the Arrow. There is a considerable manufacture of needles carried on in the place; but the neighbourhood is purely agricultural, and contains some pretty hamlets, where the cottages are mostly surrounded by good-sized gardens, well stocked with fruit-trees.

In one village, however, which I visited, about two miles from Alcester, I saw no such gardens, and the cots were extremely old. But if those of its inhabitants with whom I talked were not singular exceptions, it was a garden in a higher sense.

Sitting down by the roadside to sketch, I saw a comely, sweet-faced old dame come trudging up the lane. She had a warm kerchief over her shoulders, and looked as clean as a new pin. She was, indeed, a picture of health and happiness, and never spoke but a merry smile played over her lips. And yet she had only two shillings a week and a loaf to live upon, eked out by the proceeds of her little garden. Doubtless she got some help from her children and neighbours; but this was all she had to rely on, and out of this she had to pay her "rent. How she managed to live, and withal to look so blooming and happy and clean, was rather marvellous. But she evidently had a secret source of joy which the world could neither give nor take away. The Lord, she gave me to understand, was always with her, making her happy. Some of the healthiest little ones I ever saw came running up to her; she said they were her grandchildren. With warm affection she dwelt on the memory of her husband, who had been her guide and companion in every sense. It was refreshing to meet so bright and joyous a spirit in such circumstances, and she more than realized Cowper's picture:—

"Content though mean, and cheerful if not gay."

Entering a cottage, a poor wretched place, full of fierce draughts, I found an old man sitting over a little coal fire made between some bricks on the hearth. He had lost all his teeth, and a bad asthma made him pant sadly for breath; but he too was content with his lot.

"I be eighty come Michaelmas," he said, "and have lived thirty or forty years in this place; I was bred at Honeybourn, in Gloucester, and am the last of my family."

He was deeply and truly pious; but his experience was somewhat like that of the patriarch Jacob. In answer to a question as to whether he had had much trouble:—

"No man more," he replied. "It's a wurruld of trouble, and I shall be glad to be out of it."

He had had several children, but did not appear to regret it, or to think that that fact had increased his misery. A sick wife had been his life-long affliction; the poor old body lay above sixteen months bedridden.

Withal he was no grumbler, but disposed to think he had all that he was entitled to. "Yes," said he, "I liked to go to church as long as I could; I was bred up to church. Our parson be very kind; he comes to see me often, and does good to body as well as soul." Referring to the Labourers' Union he said, "I don't think much o' this 'ere Union, and I'll tell yer why, sir. Here have I served one man or his father this forty year, and never had a misword. All the work I have done he's paid me for. How do you think, sir, such a maayster 'ud like it if I was to fly in his face and ask him for more wages? We must all do our duty, sir. The maaysters must do their duty to the men, and the men must do their duty to their maaysters;" and suddenly waxing warm, the old man exclaimed, "England expects every man to do his duty, sir, as Lord Nelson said."

The old labourer's views of life were especially fitting for a man on the brink of the grave. It was well for him to depart in love and charity, and with a good word for all. But his miserable circumstances cried out against the system under which he had lived. He may have had a master who neither defrauded nor abused him, but his life had been little better than the endurance of a sentence of perpetual imprisonment with hard labour. Day by day, year by year, he had trudged the weary round, just as the felon paces backwards and forwards to the scene of his toil. But the felon knows no anxiety, his bread and his water are sure; little recks he of rent-day, or the score at the tally-shop, or of the doctor's bill. Should he fall ill, he knows it will be a passport to the hospital, a time of repose, with extra rations of meat, and possibly wine. Not so with the labourer; far from extra food being his lot, should he or his wife be laid aside, the whole household is impoverished, and have to do with less even of the necessaries of life. So, again, in old age, if he will not resign his liberty, he must be content with just enough to keep body and soul together, to sit panting with asthma in a little draughty hovel, longing for death to release him, and saying bitterly with the patriarch, "Few and evil have been the days of the years of my pilgrimage."

Christianity teaches contentment founded on trust in God, but nowhere contentment founded on the love of ease and the fear of man. But it teaches everywhere to its followers a burning indignation against all wrong and injustice.

This "capacity for indignation," as Mr Kingsley has lately reminded us, is the root of all virtue. Therefore I believe the Christianity of the leaders of the Warwickshire Labourers' Union to be of a far nobler type than that of this good old labourer.

How much the world gains when its inevitable changes are brought about by men who believe in their responsibility to God, may be seen in the unusual moderation and good sense which has marked this movement. And surely its wonderful success may be accepted as a proof that it was the right act at the right time, and therefore of its being strictly within the divine order of things. When 1872 opened, the men of South Warwickshire had scarcely dreamt of agitating. When in February they first sent in their demands, we have seen how little the masters comprehended the situation; so that they quite ignored the notice, believing it was got up by a few discontented spirits, and that the great mass of the labourers would sink again into their old subserviency directly these persons had withdrawn.

But they soon found out their mistake. Village after village took up the cry. Along the dark lanes came the men tramping through the slush, in spite of rain, and darkness, and still darker frowns, no longer groaning forth with a hungry quaver the abject old cry—

"We've got no work to do, to do,
  We've got no work to do;"

but with new heart and hope singing with hoarse but manly voice the Union hymn—

"Then up, be doing, brave-hearted men.
Stand shoulder to shoulder again and again,
Then ask for your rights, and you'll have them, when
Each man has joined the Union.

Be temperate, manly, true, and brave,
Let each combine his comrade to save;
Then, though the masters may storm and rave,
He may shout and sing of union.

We won't be idle, we won't stand still,
We're willing to work, to plough, and till;
But if we don't get a rise, we'll strike, we will.
For all are joined in union."

A great mass meeting was held at Leamington on Good Friday. The Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers' Union was there and then formally inaugurated, rules framed, and officers appointed. It was evident the men meant what they were about, and accordingly the masters began to understand that they must change their attitude.

At a meeting of the County Chamber of Agriculture, held at the Shire Hall, Warwick, April 13, it was admitted that the labourers had a right to form a union, and one of the speakers strongly deprecated the attempt to prevent it by refusing to employ any man who became a member. It was urged that they should meet the labourers in a friendly spirit, and that the Council should try to bring about a conference between the landowners, the farmers, and the labourers. They also unanimously adopted a resolution in favour of piecework where practicable, and against the payment of wages in kind.

The meeting of the Chamber in May was still more conciliatory. One resolution was passed in favour of stringent regulations for the education of labourers' children; while others were agreed to urging all farmers to pay their men the day before the local market, and against the practice of supplying men with beer at the hay and corn harvests.

ages have risen from 12s. to 14s. and 15s., so that the labourers of South Warwickshire may fairly congratulate themselves upon having already gained a great moral victory.

And thus a great agricultural revolution has commenced, the end whereof no sensible man would dare to prophesy. From Northumberland to Cornwall, from Norfolk to Hereford, one hears everywhere the tidings of rising life. The central wave is spreading, and the adjacent counties are forming Unions; and now they talk of a congress of representatives, that they may form a National Union. The heart of old England has heaved, and every member of the agricultural community throughout the country begins to feel the glow of a new life.