The Great Migration

There is a lot of talk on levels of immigration to Britain, but this is a country that has lost a lot of people over the centuries: The Irish Potato Famine, The Highland Clearances of Scotland and a lot of the Welsh left in the 19th century. But less known are the periodic outpourings of the people of England, largely due to massive changes in ownership of land and management. It is also worth noting that most of these men were what family historians call ‘agricultural labourers’ or ag labs, always overworked and underpaid, abut they had to be skilled in a lot of trades in order to survive, as the harvest was only part of the year. They had to know about soil and crops, animal management and be prepared to work till they dropped when necessary. As such, they may well have been the most skilled people ever.  With new technology, this hasn’t really changed. This is from Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield:

“From this [agricultural] trade-unionism which was more active in Norfolk and Suffolk than anywhere else in Britain, came years of farmers versus farm-workers skirmishing which embittered the countryside. The social and economic divisions widened to an extent unknown before and the position was worsened by the ruthlessness with which the farmers, deprived of cheap labour during hard times, ignored the Education Act of 1870 by taking boys away from school at 11 and12. The older farmers, too, are still emotionally caught up in what they called at the time the ‘coming down process’ and have vivid memories of being young in a twitch-ridden landscape, with water spread in think lakes on top of the undrained clay and buildings sliding down into nettles. Both groups belong to ‘those who stayed at home’ during he great abandonment of the villages which began in 1881, when 700,000 British agricultural workers and their families, helped by Union funds, emigrated to the colonies. ‘It was not the idlest and wastrels who sailed,’ wrote Herbert Paul, ‘but the strongest, the healthiest, and the most industrious men in the prime of life…’ Two and a half million acres of arable became grass between 1872-1900 and the cornlands which remained needed far were workers because of the invention of the binder and other machines. Ironically for the Suffolk farm-worker the best of the machines were pouring out of factories ‘just over the way’ – from Richard Garret’s great ironworks at Liston and Ransome’s of Ipswich. Thee cents and their consequences have touched all but the post-war generation. It is clear that much of he self-confidence of may of the middle aged men has been either shaken or destroyed, resulting in protective good manners. They are grave, almost remote. “

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