The Laboring Classes of England/Letter 5

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LETTER V.


AGRICULTURAL LABORERS OF KENT, SURREY AND SUSSEX.


The reader's attention is called in this letter to the condition of the agricultural laborers of the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex. I may here remark that I have resided in various parts of these counties, and superintended one estate of about twenty acres of land, and that many of the facts here related have come under my own observation.

The agriculture of these counties differs in many respects from that of other districts in England. These counties present a great variety of external features, when taken separately; but when collected and compared together, they exhibit a remarkable unity and sameness. The great formation of the wealden clay, the sand and the chalk, belong to each and all. This large and central tract of country is girt with a belt of chalk hills, a fringe of sand forms the union between the chalk and the wealden.

The employment of women is not so varied and promiscuous in these as in other counties of England. Generally speaking, there are few grain-growing or stock-rearing districts; hence corn, hay, turnip and potato work, is by no means common. Occasionally we find them at the hay-harvest, picking stones from the meadow land, dropping beans, or hoeing turnips, but very rarely at reaping, or potato lifting. The winter work is performed by the men and boys kept on the farms. The chief employment of the women is in the hop gardens and orchards, and in the former there is continuous work for the greater part of the year.

As the culture of the hop is peculiar to this district, it may be necessary to give a brief description of the mode in which it is conducted. The land is prepared with considerable attention by fallowing, deep stirring, and cleaning; it is next thrown into rows of little hillocks at equal distances; and in these hillocks the young shoots of the hop (previously nursed in the orchard) are planted.

Opening the hills consists of digging a hole about two feet square and two feet deep in the centre of these hillocks; this is done for the purpose of loosening the soil, and depositing the manure for the future crop. When the soil has been replaced, and the hillocks again completed, several young shoots are planted. This is performed in February and March by men and boys. Poleing is the next process, which is performed in April, before the hop begins to shoot. The pole, or stake, from eight to ten feet high, furnishes a support to the climbing vine of the plant; several are fixed in one hill, and it requires strong muscular exertions to do so. It is invariably performed by the man, who, however, receives assistance from his wife, his son, and sometimes his daughter. Tying is the next process; that is, fastening the climbing vine to the poles. This process is carried on from the moment the vine has shot above ground, to the time that it arrives at maturity.

Tying is invariably done by the women, who are occasionally assisted by children. When the hops reach the top of the poles, the women have to mount on a kind of ladder, which enables them to fasten the vines which may have blown off; this is called horseing. Skimming, is effected by an instrument, so called, drawn by horses between the rows of hillocks for the purpose of loosening the earth and weeds. The horses are carefully led by boys, and the instrument is guided by men.

When the seed of the hop is ripe, which generally takes place in September, the picking season commences; and in this process women and children of all ages are employed. It is necessary that it be carefully and speedily done, hence the great annual influx of Irish and Londoners to the hop districts. Thus it will be seen that hop growing is one of the most difficult and laborious duties of the farmer, its culture requiring an all but ceaseless round of watchfulness and toil.

In some parts of Kent, there are many thousand acres of orchard land, and in these, women and children are much employed in weeding, gathering fruit, and the like.

We very rarely hear of cider being allowed by the farmer; the practice is almost unknown in these counties.

The hours during which female labor is continued are variable in these counties, owing to the almost universal practice of doing all sorts of work by contract; that is, at so much per acre, per bushel, and so on. The time of work and meals are fixed by the laborer, who is naturally anxious to earn as much as possible. We may, however, mention from ten to twelve hours per day as the most general.

With regard to wages, it is still more difficult to strike an average, though we may mention sixteen, twenty, and twenty-four cents a day, for females, on arable farms; twenty to twenty-four cents in orchards; twenty-four to thirty-six on harvest fields; and from twenty -four to forty-eight cents in hop plantations, according to the skill and ability of the worker. The men and boys earn much the same as mentioned in my last communication. The employment of children, especially boys, is more common in this, than in any other district, owing to the abundance of light work which can at all times be easily obtained. They generally commence at seven or eight years of age, and continue at this work till twelve.

The effect of juvenile labor upon health is not much complained of, although it may be observed that a weakness of limb, great turning out of the feet, and a draggling gait, is common to most of the boys, owing to being set to labor at too early an age.

Rheumatism is the chief disease complained of by men and women, arising from exposure to wet and cold, a want of cleanliness, and inadequate clothing and diet.

On the arable and woodland districts there is nothing peculiar in respect of morality; but in the hop and orchard localities, the morals of the work people is far from being well spoken of; and the cause generally assigned is this.

At the proper season, hop-pickers come from all parts of England and Ireland, and amongst them may be found unfortunate members of various classes. Great numbers go from the crowded districts of London, and they are the most vicious and refractory. These associate promiscuously together during the day, and are for the most part, herded together, if I may use the term, during the night, so long as the season of hop picking continues.

Ignorance prevails to an alarming extent among the resident laborers in this district. The school masters say that two-fifths of their scholars are regularly absent. It is quite common to meet with boys engaged on farms who cannot read or write. I have had boys in this state of ignorance working for me, and it is remarkable how eagerly they avail themselves of any favorable opportunity of learning, when proper encouragement is held out to them. The being of a God, a future state, the number of months in the year are not universally known. Superstition, the result of ignorance, in this case at least, still lurks among the laboring classes in these counties. The belief in charms for healing of bodily hurts is not uncommon.

The agricultural laborer in this district holds at present a low position in the social scale; and the urgency of immediate wants, and the desire to keep out of the workhouse, compel him too frequently to drive his children to labor at an early age. It is a distressing fact, that the wife and children are obliged to accompany the husband in his labor in the fields. The calling of the mother away from the charge of her household, and the intrusting domestic matters to very young girls, are attended with consequences which the reader may imagine better than I can describe. The cottager cannot be said to have a comfortable home. The common practice of keeping as many lodgers as can be crammed into an apartment during the hot season, does not improve the health or comfort of the inmates. While the food and clothing of the laboring classes in this district is much better than in some others, it is by no means such as these industrious people ought to be able to obtain in return for their industry. But while the laborer has much to answer for his own improvidence, his master can by no means be exempt from a share of the evil. In addition to a want of comfortable cottages, which every landlord ought to feel it his duty and interest to provide, the laborer is half robbed of his scanty earnings by the truck system.

It is a common practice in these counties to pay the wages, both of men and women, by a check drawn upon the miller of the village, who is generally related to the farmer, the laborer getting part of his wages in flour and part in money; or, it may be, that the miller again hands him over to the grocer; and thus the poor man in general pays from 25 to 30 per cent more for his victuals than in justice and honesty he should. Nor is this all; he pays the highest price for the worst goods, and dares not complain. This crying evil ought to be removed.