15.3. Poverty in the Countryside

We also have reports about the poor and the very poor agricultural labourers in this period. They speak of continuous hunger. The reports come primarily from a book “The Hungry Forties: Life under the Bread Tax” of 1904, which is a collection of about 60 memories by very old people (the oldest is 100), referring to country life from 1820 to 1850. It should be noted that the expression “Hungry Forties” was not used in the nineteenth century, but rather the term came into use due to this book. The collection was organized by Mrs. Cobden Unwin, daughter of the Corn Laws reformer Richard Cobden, and herself a political activist. She put a letter in a number of newspapers, asking for information about the lives of the people, “how it really was”, and also had some personal interviews with old people. The procedure is obviously an invitation to the people to “tell the worst”. But this worst information is really very bad, as we shall see in the next paragraphs. There is however no reason to doubt that the individual data are untrue or exaggerated (two of the informants were parish priests). 

“My father’s wages were 15s. per week, which was 4s. per week above that of the average working man. Bread was 10 ½ d. per 4-lb. loaf; very common sugar, 6 ½ d., which was adulterated with sand; and I may say all goods were largely adulterated. Clothing was dear, and the working man had to dress in the coarsest of clothing. I can well remember having to turn into the fields at the break of day gleaning, and my father, after a hard day’s work, perhaps walking two miles to help carry home our burden of corn, which was often sprouted at the end of the harvest. This was sent to the mill and ground into flour. The bread which was made from the flour was nearly black, and I quite sure the working nan of to-day would not eat it.” (pp. 69-70)

“My recollection takes me back into the fifties when, if bread was but slightly taxed, many other things were heavily burdened. Physically and intellectually we dwelt next door to destitution. The principal course at the morning meal would be a small basin of bread soaked in water, and seasoned with salt, occasionally a little skimmed milk added, and a small piece of bread tinged with lard in winter ….. Many families would have to go into debt, trusting to extra pay in harvest and the gleanings of the family to enable to pay them to pay the shoemaker, &c.” 

(“A. J. M.”, Northampton, pp. 69-77)

“ ….. Joseph Pugh had 10 /- a week. He had a large family, and they were unhealthy. I believe buttermilk was given to them, and my grandmother, who could not bear to see the children die one after another, relieved them from time to time with clothing. Joseph Pugh’s wife and daughter used to go early into the meadows and eat snails ….Joseph Pugh was at work before 5 a.m., and left at 6 p.m. … Very few children of the peasantry in Worcestershire had shoes, and those that had were in holes.” (Italics in the original)

(Mrs. Margaret Evans, from a moneyed family with servants, Worcestershire, pp. 83-84) 

“The weekly wages paid to agricultural labourers in that day (circa 1840) were about eight shillings in ordinary times, with something extra for the hay and harvest. The question which determined the rate of wages was not what the work done was worth, but what amount a man and his family could subsist on; not what a man earned, but how many he had to keep. Often the wage received was not enough to buy bread for the family, and so he had to resort to the purchase of coarser stuff was necessitated to obtain more bulk to meet the wants and stay the cravings of hard-working, hungry men and growing children, such as barley meal, toppings, grey peas, potatoes, and swede turnips …

A really good piece of bread, such as we now always get in abundance, was then a luxury and a treat to the poor – greater than roast beef is to-day. As for meat, there were thousands of cottages into which a piece of fresh meat never entered during the year, and only occasionally, in small quantities, a bit of bacon or salt pork. 

A woman told me that her husband had gone many times to threshing without a bit of bread, and was obliged to relieve the gnawings of hunger by eating some of the pig pease and horse beans he was threshing. If these failed, he was wont to buckle the strap he wore around his loins a hole tighter.”

(Rev. A. Barnard, Congregational Minister, East Anglia, pp. 91-101)

“In the month of February, 1841. I left my village home to be apprenticed to a firm of grocers in a large way of business in Wiltshire, and I now began to understand the privations of the poor. The wages were even a little below Hampshire, and the limited purchases of the country people astonished me, and their abject complaining was distressing to a degree. Women employed in rough field work, such as pulling up turnips, earned 6p. per diem. At piece work the men did a little better. (pp. 140-144)

All the people whose letters were included in the book, were poorer than any person in England in 1790. In general they say that their experiences were not just from their own lives, but representative of the people around them. The reason that their lives were worse than of people in 1790, is that in the earlier period, the authorities did look after the poor.  

One difference against the reports of family budgets by Mr. Purdy, is that the 4-lb. loaf cost the labourers much more than the normal “town prices”. The figures in the book go from 11d. to 1s. 3d., in a period when the normal prices were 7d. and 8d. It was generally supposed that the farmers held the wheat back until they could get a high price. “I remember well enough hearing it said that certain farmers, wheat-growers, were keeping their wheat ricks standing in the farmyard, waiting and hoping that the long prices then prevailing would become still longer; and one notable instance engraved itself on my memory. This was a case in which a farmer had kept a rick standing so long as to require re-thatching, and when the men got up to the rick they suddenly disappeared, in consequence of the interior of the rick having been eaten away by rats and mice. In this way the avarice of the rick owner was righteously, as I think, requited.”
(Thomas Barker, born 1834, Sussex, pp. 148-149)

Here we have a problem of two different images of country life in this period. The figures in the family budgets according to Mr. Purdy (Poor Law central administration) are not consistent with people being hungry. But the people recounting their experiences were not lying; the local administrators of the Poor Law Unions were not falsifying the reports that they sent to Mr. Purdy.

On reading the accounts of the book in detail, we can find some differences and some segmentations. First, the prices for a quartern loaf that was paid by the people in the book were higher than those in the official reports, because the local farmers and landlords were selling at artificially high prices. Secondly, the families of the people reporting did not have 3 or 5 children, but 7 to 10 children; it is not too bad if these children are of “working age”, that is, 7 years old or more, but if they are too small to work, they are just mouths to be fed. Then a number of the people in the book belong to families where the father did not have a job as a field labourer, but had some other occupation, which paid even less. The large problem was for those men who were not employed all the weeks of the year, as the theoretical weekly income did not leave any possibility of saving for the weeks without income. 

Basically, the difference is that the official figures refer to a “normal” or “majority” situation, and the personal testimonies refer to “problem” situations.

This appreciation is shared by Dr. Wilhelm Hasbach, a German economics professor, who wrote in 1894 (English translation 1908), “The History of the English Labourer”. “Accordingly Dr. Smith comes to the following conclusions. The English agricultural labourers, as distinct from their families, were as a class not badly fed; and life in the farmhouse was particularly favourable to good nutrition. But the position of the labourer varied greatly; a fact which is to be attributed to the variety of classes into which they were divided. Things were worst with them in winter, as then their expenses rose (they had to provide more fuel) whereas their income fell considerably. In no county was the standard of feeding so low as in the industrial districts to which the inquiry extended, although in some the nitrogenous foods [proteins] fell below the subsistence minimum. The labourers were in a very unfavourable position in cases where they had several children under ten years old, where the wife could find no by-employment, the house rent was high, vegetables could not be produced for sale as well as consumption, or where no fairly large town was nearby to allow of the other necessary purchases being made there.” (p. 403)

Dr. Smith was the rapporteur of the “Report on the Food of the Poorer Labouring Classes”, which was Appendix 6 to the “Sixth Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council” of 1864 (there is no particular reason to suppose that the economic conditions in the countryside were worse than in the period 1840-1860). He had previously made calculations of the food requirements for minimum subsistence of adult men in manual work, and had estimated the minimum amounts to be 4 pounds of carbohydrate foods and 3 ounces of proteins per week. His investigations for the Report gave average real amounts consumed by agricultural labourers in the different counties, of which the following are examples:

 Carbohydrates (lb.)Proteins (oz.)

In Berkshire, Rutland, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Staffordshire, Somersetshire, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Cheshire and Essex, the protein consumption was less than the subsistence level. (Hasbach, op. cit., pp. 401-403)

But these numbers are the averages of all the agricultural labourers per county. It is probable that, for example, the workers with a steady job ate at a level 10 % above this average, but the workers without continuous employment ate at a level 20 to 30 % below the average. The Report further states that: “And the men were better fed than the women and children, especially when they boarded with their employers either as servants or as day-labourers. In that case an unreasonable proportion of the family income went to maintain the man, and an insufficient share remained for his wife and children.”

One grave problem was the New Poor Law of 1834, which cancelled the money payments to men and families without work, and only permitted help to these people (plus the ill and the very old) on the condition that they entered the workhouse. The effect was that those families who had received payments for each child, if the father was without work or with very low earnings, suddenly did not receive any money, and the father had to find the money with which to pay for the food for the wife and children. The father who was not in a steady job with a farmer, was not in a good position to negotiate wages for non-continuous work or less important tasks. 

“Even granted that the labourer himself now needed no allowance, what had he in place of the allowance for his family and the out-of-work relief? Something in place these he must have, for even labourers’ families must live, and he got nothing now from the poor-rates, while the farmer neither could nor would give higher wages, and paid only for work done. What was the way out? The labourer must sell more labour-power; and since his own was already sold, he must put that of his family on the market. This was how the problem of the wage of the married man was solved.” (Hasbach, op. cit. p. 224)

“When Dr. Kay [proponent of the New Poor Law] was examined before the Lords’ Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act, he described the astonishment of travellers at the number of women and children working in the fields, and traced their increased employment to the Poor Law.” (Hasbach, op. cit., p. 225)            

The intention of these pages has been to show that the optimistic statements of Mr. Purdy, with an increase in earnings of 10.7 % from 1824 to 1837, of 12.1 % from 1837 to 1860, and of 24.1 % from 1824 to 1860, are incomplete. A more correct expression would be that the earnings did increase by these percentages in these periods, but only for labourers who had a steady job with a given employer; there were cases where the man could not find work at the normal rated, and the wife and children had to work in the fields (which was a horrible change for the children, who previously could work a little in the house, or attend school).

Dr. Smith’s research actually referred to the universe of the “poorer labouring classes”, and included reports on occupations which were well known to be poor in income, in food consumption, and in working conditions. These occupations were: silk-weavers and throwsters, needlewomen, kid-glove makers, stocking and glove weavers, and shoemakers. These people were the poorest wage-earners in the country.

Table 2 Weekly food consumption of adult indoor workers

 Silk-weavers and throwstersNeedle-womenKid glovesStocking and glove weaversShoemakers
Bread (lb.)9.57.758.7511.911.24
Potatoes (lb.)22.55.2543.5
Sugars (oz.)
Fats (oz.)4.54.573.55.75
Meat (oz.)per family3216.2518.251215.75
Milk1.1 pints7 oz. 18.25 oz.1.25 pints18
Tea (oz.)per family221.7523.5
Cheese (oz.)per family191214

Smith, “Report on the Food of the Poorer Labouring Classes in England”, pp. 219-233; Quoted in Rioux, 2012, p. 83

We see that these people eat from 9 to 12 lbs. of bread (per adult), 2 to 5 pounds of potatoes, and close to one pound of meat, per week. Really these are not starvation levels; they are a little less than the amounts for agricultural labourers. The problem is that these people, in order to have enough income per week (usually on a basis of production volume) to cover their food costs, have to work 12, 14, or 16 hours a day, and in very bad physical conditions in their work-place. This explains why all these workers were clearly hungry and thin.


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