Sunday, June 28, 2020

Pamela Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside

Pamela Horn is a prolific social historian whose recent work has been associated very much with the lives of the wealthy and their households. Her earlier work was much more focused on the poor and working classes, and the transformation of life in the countryside. Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside is an excellent and accessible account of life for working people in the countryside and is highly recommended for anyone trying to get a sense of what that life was like.

This was certainly no bucolic existence. Horn demonstrates time and again that life in the countryside was dominated by poverty, hardwork, poor housing and rigid social class hierarchies. Agricultural labourers were often trapped in relationships that made it hard from them to break free of individual farmers. Take the Dorset farmer, John Butler, who in the 1860s,
normally paid his workers once a month only, but in the interim several of them bought wood, bacon, eggs and butter from him, and then had the relevant sum,s deducted from their earnings at the end of the month. A similar policy was adopted in the 1880s and 1890s by workers employed by Mr Hyatt at Snowshill House Farm in Gloucestershire.
In January 1880, "William Ireland, a labourer ostensibly earning 12s. a week, 'left £1 for pig, 4 bushels barley 14s.' and as a consequence secured only 15s. in cash."

Such economic woes were closely tied to a village hierarchy which placed the agricultural labourer and their family at the very bottom. This began in childhood were school was very much a place were education was limited to what the farmers thought the children should know. In fact there was a general sense from the higher classes that too much education was a bad thing as it led to labourers leaving the countryside. But class position was firmly part of the curriculum.

a log book entry at Holbeton, Devon, for 1867 reads: 'Spoke to the children about making obeisance to their Superiors.' Soon even the dullest or most defiant youngsters realised where their duty lay and outwardly conformed o the standard expected of them. But inwardly they may have shared the doubts of Arthur Tweedy of Kirby Fleetham in Yorkshire, who remembered asking his father why he should say 'Sir' to the squire or 'anyone else who thought himself a step above' the farm labourers. His father's reply was: '"Sir", my boy, is only the nickname for a fool.'

The Victorian era was one where the final transformation of the English countryside in the interest of capitalism took place. As Horn concludes:
The very structure of rural society was itself changing, with the decline in the numbers of rural craftsmen and the massive outflow of labourers from the land during the second half on the nineteenth century. By 1900 country dwellers were a minority of England an Wales... In the new century these trends were to be intensified, especially as the ravages of World War I undermined still further the traditional values of the old deferential rural society.
A decent chapter summarising the growth and decline of the agricultural trade union movement provides a good overview of the struggles of the rural working class. Horn concludes, probably correctly, that while the movement did win wage rises, the gains on the political front - such as the establishment of parish councils, and independent political organisation were limited. It was "the village tradesmen, farmers and smallholders who, like Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, felt able to take advantage of the new opportunities to exercise democratic rights, rather than the agricultural workers".

Horn focuses mostly on the lives of ordinary people and how these changed. There are plenty of anecdotes and first hand accounts, of everything from the nature of work to the fairs, education, health and crime. I don't think the book gives as much of a sense of the great transformative processes taking place as G.E.Mingay's book Rural Life in Victorian England. But together these are good summaries of the lives of rural communities as England entered the 20th century.

Related Reviews

Horn - Joseph Arch
Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850
Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England
Ashby - Joseph Ashby of Tysoe: 1859-1919
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

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