Sunday, 19 June 2011

Working in the countryside

By the early 1830s, many rural areas were beginning to emerge from the worst rural distress of the agricultural depression and direct rural protest, such as the Captain Swing riots in 1830 in southern England, were not repeated, rural wages remained low and highly variable from one area to another.[1] James Caird surveyed wages in England in 1851 and identified variations from 13-14s per week in the West Riding, Lancashire and Cumberland to only 7-8s per week in southern counties like Berkshire, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.[2] Northern wages were higher because of the greater prosperity of mixed and pastoral areas compared to the wheat-growing counties of southern England and competition for labour from industrial towns where wages were generally higher. Counties close to London such as Sussex, Essex and Hertfordshire also had higher rural wages of 9-10s per week. In the second half of the century, farming round London became more varied and prosperous because of the growth of market gardening, cash cropping and milk production for the urban market.[3]


Rural industrial workers were usually rather better off. In areas like the south Pennines, the survival of a dual farming-weaving economy gave some protection against poverty though, as the textile industry became more mechanised and factory-based, the distress of rural textile workers became acute and well-documented.[4] The effects of rural poverty can be seen in malnutrition and associated ill-health.[5] 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. Men were generally better fed than the rest of the family. [6] 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 gleaning, fishing or poaching or from the cottage garden.[7]

The social composition of rural areas also changed after 1830. Selective rural out-migration removed many younger and more active members of the community, but areas near towns began to experience urban-rural movement as rich families sought houses in the countryside. Commuter villages grew around such cities as Leeds, Manchester and especially London in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly where there were good rail connections. Rural resort areas also began to be exploited. While the reality of rural life was, for many, harsh and unpleasant, the image of 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.[8]

[1] On living in rural society, see below, pp. 231-237. Clark, Gregory, ‘Farm wages and living standards in the industrial revolution: England, 1670-1869’, Economic History Review, Vol. 54, (2001), pp. 477-505, provides a valuable longitudinal study. See also, ibid, Armstrong, A., Farmworkers: a Social and Economic History 1770-1980.

[2] Ibid, Caird, James, English agriculture in 1850-51, pp. 511-519.

[3] See also, Vaughan, W.E., ‘Agriculture output, rents and wages in Ireland, 1850-1880’, in Cullen, L.M. and Furet, François, (eds.), Ireland and France, 17th-20th centuries: towards a comparative study of rural history, (Éditions de l’Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), 1980, pp. 85-97, Houston, George, ‘Farm wages in central Scotland from 1814 to 1870’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, Vol. 118, (1955), pp. 224-228 and Molland, R. and Evans, G., ‘Scottish farm wages from 1870 to 1900’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, ser. A: General, Vol. 113, (1950), pp. 220-227. See contemporary analysis in Wilson, Arthur Fox, Earnings of Agricultural Labourers By Great Britain Board of Trade, (HMSO), 1905

[4] Chartres, John, ‘Rural industry and manufacturing’, in ibid, Collins, E.J.T., (ed.), The agrarian history of England and Wales, Vol. 7: 1850-1914, part 2, pp. 1101-1149.

[5] See contemporary analysis in Denton, John Bailey, The Agricultural Labourer, (Stanford), 1868, pp. 35-44, Wilson, Arthur Fox, Earnings of Agricultural Labourers By Great Britain Board of Trade, (HMSO), 1900.

[6] Burnett, John, ‘Country Diet’, in ibid, Mingay, G.E., (ed.), The Victorian Countryside, Vol. 2, pp. 554-565 provides a summary.

[7] Freeman, Mark, ‘Investigating rural poverty 1870-1914: problems of conceptualisation and methodology’, in Bradshaw, Jonathan and Sainsbury, Roy, (eds.), Getting the measure of poverty: the early legacy of Seebohm Rowntree, (Ashgate), 2000, pp. 255-274.

[8] Burchardt, Jeremy, Paradise lost: rural idyll and social change in England since 1800, (I.B. Tauris), 2002, pp. 67-76, 112-120.

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