Agricultural Labourers

IN traditional English agriculture, much of the land and labour was shared, and the poet John Clare claimed there was no poverty – all were cared for. But populations were low and a lot of land was wasted. With the much condemned enclosures acts, more land became productive, but the money went to those who owned the land. So poverty in rural areas  was endemic throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, with some areas supplementing their rural work with industry such as weaving. This is from Small talk at Wreyland, a letter from 1849:

“Such was the distress among farmers then that labourers were put up to auction by the parish authorities, and hired for 6d to 9d per day. Under the Speenhamland plan 6d a day (3s a week) was the minimum for a married man without a family. No doubt the 6d or 9d was quite as much as farmers could afford to pay when prices were so low; but men with families could not subsist on that. In their case (to use the modern terms) the economic wage was less than a subsistence wage; and the parish authorities paid them a subsistence wage and took the economic wage, the balance coming from the rates.

In agricultural districts the ratepayer were chiefly landowners, parsons with glebe and tite, farmers, millers, and blacksmiths and others who made things for the farms; and thus the contribution from the rates came indirectly out of agriculture. It was, in fact, a general charge upon industry, based on the employing classes’ means, but applied according to the labouring classes’ needs, so that no labourer was worse off for having a big family. No doubt it also was a subsidy to agriculture from ratepayers who were wholly unconnected with the land; but few such people could be found in country places. At the census of 1801 the parish of Lustleigh had a population of 246, and 236 of them were classed as agricultural.

Subsidies to any industry are open to abuse; but in a choice of evils this may be the lesser of the two. At present, if an economic wage is less than a subsistence wage, the industry slows down or stops, production is decreased or ceases, and hands are unemployed; and then these hands receive subsistence wages out of rates and taxes. But in a subsidy the public would only pay the difference between the economic and subsistence wages, all hands would be employed and production would go steadily on.

Since the passing of the Truck Act in 1831 payments in money have replaced the old payments in kind. The old system was open to abuses; but I doubt if agricultural labourers have benefitted by the change, as there are now middlemen’s profits to be paid. Under the old system… farm hands could buy their bread-corn from the farmer at fixed rates… and now they say the baker charges too  much for their bread, whilst the farmers say the miller pays too little for the wheat. So also with drink, the labourer did better with the cider he had helped to make, than with a small increase of wages for buying something else. He now buys tea or beer at prices that allow for profits and taxation, whereas his cider was taken at cost-price. No doubt, political economists would like to see all wages paid in cash, to save them the trouble with statistics, but ‘real’ wage might be higher, if partly paid in produce from the farm.

A little while before he War I listened to a long dispute between 2 brothers, one a railway man at 30s a week and the other a farm hand at 15s. the railway man maintained that he was worse off than his brother; he was paying 7s a week for cramped accommodation in a town, whereas his brother had a cottage, free, and ground enough fro growing vegetables and keeping poultry and a pig. and he went on comparing town and country prices, and town and country needs; and, on the whole, I think he proved his case. But there is an outcry against free cottages now, as a farm hand must vacate his cottage when he ceases working on the farm, the cottage being wanted for the man who takes his place.”


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