Monday, 5 May 2008

Living in the countryside

There is a tendency for studies of nineteenth century Britain to concentrate on urban life and neglect the rural dimension. This reflects a period of unparalleled industrialisation, urbanisation and unprecedented urban problems. Yet in 1851 nearly half of the population of Britain lived in rural areas and many more had been born in the countryside or had experienced rural life. It can be argued that for most of the nineteenth century a rural view of the world continued to exert a significant influence in Britain. Successive Reform Acts may have redistributed power after 1832, much political power and personal wealth remained in the countryside until the late nineteenth century[1].  Two further myths about rural life should be dispelled.

First, there is a view that rural life was in some way separate and distinct from that of towns. In fact rural life in Britain had never been separate from the towns and, as nineteenth century urbanisation developed, the interconnectedness of rural and urban became stronger and more obvious. Even in the 1830s few areas had no contact with urban areas and by 1850 few rural dwellers had no contact with the nearest market town; by the 1890s even upland Wales and the Highland and Islands of Scotland were being integrated socially and economically into a regional system focused increasingly on the larger towns. This connection took various forms:

  • Communications developments, especially the railways, linked most villages into a comprehensive and complex transport system.
  • Towns were economically dependent on rural labour.
  • Through rural to urban migration which could lead to family links between town and countryside.
  • In some cases through the rural-based but urban-financed putting out industries.
  • Through social interaction between rural and urban at fairs, markets and other meeting places.

Secondly, that life in the countryside was easier than that of urban dwellers. Commentators like Engels misleadingly contrasted the images of an idyllic rural life and the horrors of urban living: 'They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which, in itself, was recreation for them, and they could take part besides in the recreations and games of their neighbours....They were, for the most part, strong well-built people....Their children grew up in the fresh country air....while of eight or twelve hours work for them was no question.'

In 1830 rural housing was a mixture of poor quality decaying older properties, poorly built new houses and a minority of decent stone or brick-built cottages for the more prosperous. The nature of work was, in some part, a determinant of the nature of rural housing. Living space was more important for the domestic weaver or knitter who spent much time indoors, than for the farm labourer who toiled for 12 hours a day in the field. In contrast the single migrant who left home to seek work might have been hired at a hiring fair and either given accommodation as a lodger in the master's house [most common in the north and west of England] or housed and fed in sheds or outhouses along with other hired hands as in the arable counties of England in the early nineteenth century. Population growth since the mid eighteenth century had resulted in a crisis in rural housing that had several consequences:

  1. Many families were permanently overcrowded.
  2. Individual privacy was difficult and much of life, especially the development of friendships and courtship, was lived outside the home in lanes, woods and fields.
  3. Marriage was often delayed due to the lack of opportunity to set up home.
  4. Epidemic diseases such as smallpox or typhus fever spread rapidly in overcrowded and insanitary conditions.
  5. Some landowners maintained 'closed' villages, where accommodation was limited to keep down the size of the population, made the housing situation worse.

In 1830 living conditions could be as unhealthy and harsh as in many towns: a combination of poor housing, lack of employment and poor social prospects frequently impelled townward migration rather than any specific urban attractions. The density of occupation of rural housing was often as high or higher than that in towns. High natural increase in rural areas mostly offset migration losses and rural population densities continued to increase up to the 1840s. In many rural areas the housing supply expanded more slowly than population; indeed some large landowners demolished cottages and took less responsibility for housing their labour force. Many rural parents brought up eight or more children in tiny two-room cottages[2].

The quality of rural housing varied greatly and for the very poor it was often worse than its urban counterpart. Increasingly, urban housing had proper foundations, solid walls and slate roofs. In contrast much rural housing was severely substandard when first built. Most landowners accepted little responsibility for the provision of decent homes and, even in more prosperous areas such as north west England, cottages were often small, cold and wet. In southern England, where there was more abject poverty, cottages often had mud walls, earth floors and neglected thatch roofs.

Such conditions persisted until the 1850s but during the remainder of the century, housing gradually improved as out-migration lessened pressure on the countryside and sanitary and housing reforms began to percolate into rural areas. On large estates and big arable farms there was considerable rebuilding from the 1860s. Nevertheless, not all rural housing was bad: surviving nineteenth century houses include not only good quality homes of landowners, farmers and artisans, but well-built estate cottages and good-quality late eighteenth century dwellings of rural factory workers.

For many rural families poor housing was combined with acute poverty. Between 1815 and the mid-1830s arable England underwent a deep depression. Population growth led to a rural labour surplus that, except in areas where there was alternative employment, led to low wages. James Caird found, in his agricultural survey of 1851, that there was considerable variety in wages between the 'high wage' north and west and 'low wage' south and east. In the West Riding wages were 13-14s per week but in southern counties like Berkshire and Suffolk they were only 7-8s per week. Northern wages were higher because of the greater prosperity of mixed and pastoral areas compared to wheat-growing counties and, particularly, to competition for labour from industrial towns where wages were generally higher. This led to widespread rural distress and rural protests like the Captain Swing riots of 1830 in southern England.

Rural industrial workers were usually better off. In such areas as the south Pennines survival of a dual farming-weaving economy gave some protection against poverty though, as the textile industry became more mechanised and centralised in factories, the distress of rural textile workers became more documented. The effects of rural poverty can be seen in malnutrition and associated ill health. A survey of 1863 showed that most English rural labourers relied heavily on a diet of bread and potatoes, with meat consumption varying from season to season and area to area, though men were generally better fed than the rest of the family. Even so, the food supply in the countryside was rather better than that available to the urban poor: it was fresher and there were more opportunities to supplement it informally or illegally from fishing to poaching or from the cottage garden.

The social composition of rural areas changed during the period 1830 to 1890 in several respects:

  1. Selective rural out-migration removed many younger and more active members of the community.
  2. Areas close to towns began to experience urban to rural movement of rich families seeking a house in the countryside.
  3. Commuter villages grew around cities like Leeds, Manchester and especially London particularly where there were good rail connections.
  4. Rural resort areas also began to expand. In the late nineteenth century Windermere became a centre of the invasion of the Lake District for recreation. This was especially true of Manchester merchants who could afford to establish second homes around the fringes of Lake Windermere and elsewhere.

The image of the rural idyll had by the 1890s become firmly implanted as a middle class vision of the countryside that was increasingly imprinted on rural areas through residence, landownership and conservation movements. The National Trust was founded in 1895. However, the reality of rural life in the early years of the twentieth century was, for many, harsh and often unpleasant. Despite increasing mechanisation agricultural work was still hard and poorly regulated, while rural labourers worked longer hours for less pay than most other workers. The National Union of Agricultural Workers was established in 1872 but its membership was low and much of the welfare legislation passed between 1900 and 1914 did not apply to or was ignored by the agricultural sector.


[1] The  most  useful general works on rural society are P.Horn The Rural World 1780-1850, Hutchinson, 1980 for the early period and G.E.Mingay The Social History of the English Countryside, Routledge, 1990 throughout. See also the collection edited by Brian Short The English Rural Community, CUP, 1992. A.Howkins Reshaping Rural England, Harper Collins, 1991 deals with the post-1850 period.

[2] W.Hasbach A history of the English Agricultural Labourer, 1908 despite its age, contains much useful information but should now be read in conjunction with  W.A.Armstrong Agricultural Workers 1770-1970, Batsford, 1988. Howard Newby Country Life, Weidenfeld, 1987 is a major and readable study. K.Snell Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England 1660-1900, CUP, 1984 is a mine of information and recent interpretation.

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