English Literature

The Toilers of The Field by Richard Jefferies

The Toilers of The Field by Richard Jefferies.jpg


The new towns, or suburbs which spring up every year in the neighbourhood of London, are all built upon much the same plan. Whole streets of houses present exact duplicates of each other, even to the number of steps up to the front door and the position of the scraper. In the country, where a new farmhouse is erected about once in twenty years, the styles of architecture are as varied and as irregular as in town they are prim and uniform. The great mass of farmhouses are old, and some are very picturesque. There was a farmhouse I knew which was almost entitled to be taken as the type of an English rural homestead. It was built at a spot where the open wild down suddenly fell away into rich meadow land. Here there was a narrow steep-sided valley, or “combe”—and at the mouth of this, well sheltered on three sides from the north, the east, and north-eastern winds, stood the homestead. A[Pg 4]spring arose some way behind, and close to the house widened into a pool which was still further enlarged by means of a dam, forming a small lake of the clearest water. This lake fed a mill-race lower down. The farmyard and rick-barton were a little way up the narrow valley, on one side of which there was a rookery. The house itself was built in the pure Elizabethan style; with mullioned windows, and innumerable gables roofed with tiles. Nor was it wanting in the traditions of the olden time. This fine old place was the homestead of a large farm comprising some of the best land of the district, both down and meadow. Another farmhouse, still used for that purpose, stands upon the wildest part of the down, and is built of flint and concrete. It was erected nearly three hundred years ago, and is of unusual size. The woodwork is all solid black oak, good enough for an earl’s mansion.

These are specimens of the highest class of farmhouse. Immediately beneath them come the houses built in the early part of the present century. They vary in almost every architectural detail, and the materials differ in each county; but the general[Pg 5] arrangement is the same. They consist as it were of two distinct houses under one roof. The front is the dwelling-house proper, usually containing a kitchen, sitting-room, and parlour. The back contains the wood-house (coal-house now), the brewhouse—where the beer was brewed, which frequently also had an oven—and, most important of all, the dairy. All this part of the place is paved with stone flags, and the dairy is usually furnished with lattice-work in front of the windows, so that they can be left open to admit the cool air and not thieves. Coolness is the great requisite in a dairy, and some gentlemen who make farming a science go to the length of having a fountain of water constantly playing in it. These houses, however, were built before scientific agriculture was thought of. The wood-house contained the wood used for cooking and domestic purposes; for at that date wood was universally used in the country, and coal rarely seen. The wood was of course grown on the farm, for which purpose those wide double mound hedges, now rapidly disappearing, were made. It was considered a good [Pg 6]arrangement to devote half-an-acre in some outlying portion of the farm entirely to wood, not only for the fire, but for poles, to make posts and rails, gates, ladders, &c. The coal could not in those days be conveyed so cheaply as it now is by railways. Such as was used had to be brought by the slow barges on the canals, or else was fetched by the farmers’ waggons direct from the pit-mouth. The teams were not unfrequently absent two days and a night on the journey. In the outlying districts this difficulty in obtaining coal practically restricted the available fuel to wood. Now the wood-house is used as much for coal as wood. Of course the great stacks of wood—the piles of faggots and logs—were kept outside, generally in the same enclosure as the ricks, only a sufficient number for immediate use being kept under cover. The brewhouse was an important feature when all farmers brewed their own beer and baked their own bread. At present the great majority purchase their beer from the brewers, although some still brew large quantities for the labourers’ drinking in harvest time. At a period when [Pg 7]comparatively little ready money passed between employer and employed, and the payment for work was made in kind, beer was a matter which required a great deal of the attention of the farmer, and absorbed no little of his time. At this day it is a disputed matter which is cheapest, to buy or to brew beer: at that time there was no question about it. It was indisputably economical to brew. The brewhouse was not necessarily confined to that use; when no brewing was in progress it was often made a kind of second dairy. Over these offices was the cheese-room. This was and still is a long, large, and lofty room in which the cheese after being made is taken to dry and harden. It is furnished with a number of shelves upon which the cheeses are arranged, and as no two can be placed one on the other in the early stage of their maturing, much space is required. It is the duty of the dairymaid and her assistant to turn these cheeses every morning—a work requiring some strength. In this part of the house are the servants’ rooms. In front of the dairy and brewhouse is a paved court enclosed with a wall, and in this court it[Pg 8] was not uncommon to find a well, or hog-tub, for the refuse of the dairy. Sometimes, but not often now, the pig-stye is just outside the wall which surrounds the court. In this court, too, the butter is generally churned, under a “skilling” which covers half of it. Here also the buckets are washed, and other similar duties performed. The labourers come here to receive their daily allowance of beer.

Most farmhouses in large arable farms were originally built so as to have a small dairy at the back; though there was a time when the arable farmer never thought of keeping a cow, and butter and cheese were unknown, except as luxuries, in his establishment. This was during the continuance of the Corn Laws, when everything was sacrificed to the one great object of growing wheat. It was not impossible in those days to find a whole parish (I know of one myself) in which there was not a single cow. Now the great object is meat, then it was corn. But at the time when most of the farmhouses were erected, the system of agriculture pursued was a judicious mixture of the dairy and the cornfield, so that very few old farmhouses[Pg 9] exist which have not some form of dairy attached. In the corn-growing times, most of the verdant meadows now employed to graze cattle, or for producing hay, were ploughed up. This may be seen by the regular furrows, unmistakable evidences of the plough. When corn declined in price through the influx of foreign produce, the land was again laid down in grass, and most of it continues so till this hour. It might be roughly estimated that England now contains a third more meadow land than in the early part of the present century, notwithstanding the attempt to plough up the downs.

We now come to the third class of farmsteads—low thatched buildings, little better than large cottages, and indeed frequently converted into dwellings for labourers. These are generally found on small farms, and in districts where there are a number of small landed proprietors. These freeholders built houses according to their means. In process of time they were bought up by the great landowners, and the farms thrown together, when the houses were used for other purposes. Some may still be found, especially in dairy districts. In these the principal[Pg 10] part of the house is usually the dairy, which absorbs at least half of the ground floor, and opens on the kitchen, in which the family sit, and in which their food is often cooked. The eaves of the house are low, and there are scarcely any appliances for comfort. The yeomen who originally lived in these places in all respects resembled the labourers with whom they ate and drank and held the most familiar intercourse. Their labourers even slept in the same bedrooms as the family. But these men, though they mingled so freely with the labourer, were his worst enemy. The little profit they made was entirely accumulated by careful economy. They were avaricious and penurious to the last degree, and grudged every halfpenny to the labouring man. They were, and the remnant of them still are, the determined opponent of all progress. The interior of some of these cottage-farmsteads, which still exist, is almost Dutch-like in simplicity and homeliness. The fireplace is of a vast size, fitted with antique iron dogs for burning wood, and on it swing the irons to sustain the great pot. On each side, right under the chimney, are seats, the ingle-nook of[Pg 11] olden times. The chimney itself is very large, being specially built for the purpose of curing sides of bacon by smoking. The chimneypiece is ornamented with a few odd figures in crockery-ware, half-a-dozen old brass candlesticks, and perhaps a snuff-box or tobacco dish. The floor is composed of stone flags—apt to get slimy and damp when the weather is about to change—and the wide chinks between them are filled with hardened dirt. In the centre there is a piece of carpet on which the table stands, but the rest of the room is bare of carpeting, except the hearth-rug. The low window has a seat let into the wall under it. The furniture of the apartment is utilitarian in the strictest sense. There is nothing there for ornament or luxury, or even for ease; only what is absolutely necessary. Generally there is a dresser, above which, on shelves, the dishes and plates are arranged. A tall upright eight-day clock, with a brazen face, and an inscription which tells that it was manufactured in a neighbouring village, stands in one corner, and solemnly ticks in its coffin-like panelled case. On each side of the fireplace there is an arm-chair, often cushioned[Pg 12] with a fox or badger skin, and a great brazen warming-pan hangs near the door. There is no ceiling properly so called. These old houses were always built with a huge beam, and you can see the boards of the floor above, which are merely whitewashed. A fowling-piece, once a flint-lock, now converted to the percussion cap system, hangs against the beam, and sometimes dried herbs may be seen there too. The use of herbs is, however, going out of date. In the evening when the great logs of wood smoulder upon the enormous hearth and cast flickering shadows on the walls, revealing the cat slumbering in the ingle-nook, and the dog blinking on the rug—when the farmer slowly smokes his long clay pipe with his jug of ale beside him, such an interior might furnish a good subject for a painter. Let the artist who wishes to secure such a scene from oblivion set to work speedily, for these things are fast fading away.

All these three classes of farmhouse are usually well supplied with vegetables from the garden attached. The garden in fact was, and still is, an object of considerable importance to the farmer, quite as much as[Pg 13] the allotment to the labourer. He reckons to receive from it his whole supply of potatoes, cabbages, beans, peas, and other varieties of table vegetables, and salads. These constitute an important item when there is a large family. I do not speak now of the great farmers, although even these set some store by such produce, but the middle class. It is usual in these gardens to grow immense quantities of cabbage of a coarse kind, and also of lettuce, onions, and radishes, all of which are freely given to the men and women working on the place during the harvest. They are, in fact, grown especially for them. At the dinner-hour one or more men of the number, deputed by the rest, come up to the house. One carries the wooden bottles, or small barrels of ale, which are handed out from the dairy. The other repairs to the garden, and pulls up a reasonable quantity of lettuce, onions, or radishes, as the case may be, from the patches indicated to him by the employer. These are then washed in the court by the dairy, where there is almost always a pump, and are then taken out to the men and shared amongst them. These salads make an [Pg 14]agreeable addition to the dry bread and cheese, or bacon. The custom is an old one, and much to be commended. It costs the employer next to nothing, and is an element in that goodwill which should exist between him and the labourer.

On some farms large quantities of fruit are grown—such as gooseberries, currants, plums, and damsons. Most have enough for their own use; some sell a considerable amount. Outside the garden is the orchard. Some of these orchards are very extensive, even in districts where cider is not the ordinary beverage, and in a good apple year the sale of the apples forms an important item in the peculiar emoluments of the farmer’s wife. There are, of course, many districts in which the soil is not adapted to the apple, but as a rule the orchard is an adjunct of the garden. Some of the real old English farmsteads possess the crowning delight of a filbert walk, but these are rare now. In fact the introduction of machinery and steam, and the general revolution which has been going on in agriculture, has gone far to sweep away these more pleasant and home-like features of the farm. It becomes daily more and[Pg 15] more like a mere official residence, so to speak. The peculiar home-like aspect of a farmhouse is gradually disappearing.

The daily life of the middle-class dairy farmer begins at five in the morning. Rising about that hour, his first duty is to see that the men have all appeared, and that they are engaged in milking the cows. He breakfasts at six, or half-past, and the whole family have finished breakfast before seven. By this time the day-labourers have come (the milkers are usually hired by the year), and the master has to go out and put them on to their jobs. Meantime the dairy is a scene of work and bustle; cheesemaking being in full swing. This is at least superintended, if not partly performed, by the mistress of the house. At larger farms it is the bailiff who rises early and sees that the labourers are properly employed; and the cheesemaking is entrusted to a dairymaid hired at high wages, who often combines with that duty the office of general housekeeper. It was once the practice to rise even earlier than five, but there are not many farmers who do so now. On the arable farm, which is generally much larger, the master has almost always got a[Pg 16]bailiff, or head-carter, whom he can trust to see the men set to work. The master is therefore not obliged to come down so soon, except at important seasons. But the ordinary dairy-farm is not large enough to support a bailiff, and the master has to rise himself. The fresh morning air and the exercise give the farmer a tremendous appetite for breakfast. The usual staple food consists of thick rashers of bacon only just “done,” so as to retain most of the fat, the surplus of which is carefully caught on slices of bread. The town rasher is crisp, curled, and brown, without a symptom of fat or grease. The farmer’s early rasher is to a town eye but half-done, bubbling with grease, and laid on thick slices of bread, also saturated with the gravy. Sometimes cold bacon is preferred, but it is almost always very fat. With this he drinks a pint or so of fairly strong beer, and afterwards has a hunch of bread and butter and a cup or two of tea. He is then well fortified for the labour of the morning. This is the common breakfast of the working-farmer, who is as much a labouring man as any cottager on his farm, and requires a quantity of solid food. Some,[Pg 17] however, who are pretty well off, and have a better idea of the luxuries of the table, regale themselves on collared head, or rolled beef, or ham at breakfast. These hams are usually preserved after a family receipt, and some of them are exquisite. After breakfast the farmer walks round the place, watches the men at work for a few minutes, and gives them instructions, and then settles himself down to some job that requires his immediate superintendence. If it is hay-time he takes a rake and works about the field, knowing full well all the difference that his presence makes.

The agricultural labourers, both men and women, are a slow set, never in a hurry; there is none of that bustle characteristic of the town people, even of the lowest class. They take every opportunity of leaning upon the prong-handle, or standing in the shade—they seem to have no idea of time. Women are a sore trial to the patience of the agriculturist in a busy time. If you want to understand why, go and ensconce yourself behind a hedge, out of sight but in view of a field in which ten or twelve women are hoeing. By and by a pedlar or a van comes slowly along[Pg 18] the turnpike road which runs past the field. At the first sound of footsteps or wheels all the bent backs are straight in an instant, and all the work is at a standstill. They stand staring at the van or tramp for five or six minutes, till the object of attention has passed out of sight. Then there is a little hoeing for three or four consecutive minutes. By that time one of them has remembered some little bit of gossip, and stops to tell her nearest fellow-workwoman, and the rest at once pause to listen. After a while they go on again. Now another vehicle passes along the road, and the same process of staring has to be gone through once more. If a lady or gentleman pass, the staring is something terrific, and it takes quite ten minutes to discuss all the probabilities as to who they were, and where they were going. This sort of thing goes on all day, so that, in point of fact, they only do half a day’s work. The men are not so bad as this; but they never let slip an opportunity for pausing in their work, and even when at work they do it in a slow, dawdling, lack-energy way that is positively irritating to watch. The agriculturist has in consequence plenty to do to[Pg 19] keep his eye on them, and in the course of the day he walks over his farm half-a-dozen times at least. Very few ordinary working farmers walk much less than ten miles a day on the average, backwards and forwards over the fields.

Half-past eleven used to be luncheon time, but now it is about twelve, except in harvest, when, as work begins earlier, it is at eleven. This luncheon hour is another source of constant irritation to the agriculturist. He does not wish to bind his men down to an exact minute, and if a man has some distance to walk to his cottage, will readily make all allowance. He does not stint the beer carried out either then or in the field. But do what he likes, be as considerate as he will, and let the season be never so pressing, it is impossible to get the labourers out to their work when the hour is up. Most of them go to sleep, and have to be waked up, after which they are as stupid as owls for a quarter of an hour. One or two, it will be found, have strolled down to the adjacent ale-house, and are missing. These will come on the field about an hour later. Then one man has a rake too heavy[Pg 20] for him, and another a prong too light. There is always some difficulty in starting to work; the agriculturist must therefore be himself present if he wishes to get the labourers out to the field in anything like a moderate time.

The nuisance of mowers must be gone through to be appreciated. They come and work very well for the first week. They slash down acre after acre, and stick to it almost day and night. In consequence the farmer puts on every man who applies for work, everything goes on first-rate, and there is a prospect of getting the crop in speedily. At the end of the week the mowers draw their money, quite a lump for them, and away they go to the ale-house. Saturday night sees them as drunk as men can be. They lie about the fields under the hedges all day Sunday, drinking when the public-house is open. Monday morning they go on to work for half-an-hour, but the fever engendered by so much liquor, and the disordered state of the stomach, cause a burning thirst. They fling the scythes down, and go off to the barrel. During all this week perhaps between them they manage to cut half[Pg 21] an acre. What is the result? The haymakers have made all the grass that was cut the first week into hay, and are standing about idle, unable to proceed, but still drawing their wages from the unfortunate agriculturist. The hot sun is burning on—better weather for haymaking could not be—but there is not a rood of grass cut for them to work on. After a while the mowers come back, thoroughly tired and exhausted with their debauch, and go on feebly to work. There is hope again. But our climate is notoriously changeable. A fortnight of warm, close heat is pretty sure to breed a thunderstorm. Accordingly, just as the scythes begin to lay the tall grass prostrate again, there is a growl in the sky, and down comes the rain. A thunderstorm unsettles the weather, and here is perhaps another week lost. The farmer dares not discharge his haymakers, because he does not know but that he may require them any day. They are put to turn dung-heaps, clean out the yards, pick up the weeds in the garden, and such like little jobs, over which they can dawdle as much as they like. All the while they are on full pay. Now, what manufacturer could endure such [Pg 22]conduct as this? Is it not enough to drive a saint out of his patience? Of course the larger farmers who can afford it have the resource of the mowing-machine, but there are hundreds and thousands of farms upon which its sharp rattle has not yet been heard. There is still a great divergence of opinion as to its merits, many maintaining that it does not cut so close to the ground, and therefore wastes a large percentage of the crop, and others that the action of the scissor-like knives bruises the grass, and prevents it growing up into a good after-math. Therefore many farmers who could afford it will not admit the mowing-machine into their fields, and the mowers may still be seen at work over miles and miles of meadow, and are still the plague of the agriculturist. The arable farmer has just the same difficulty to keep his labourers at their work, and unless he is constantly on the watch valuable time is lost daily. In the harvest, however, he has an advantage. The corn is reaped by piece-work, and the labourers therefore strain every nerve to do as much as they can. But then he must be on the lookout to see that they do not “scamp” it.

[Pg 23]

The traditional bacon and greens dinner is passing away, though still the usual fare in the small farmhouses. Most of the fairly well-to-do farmers have a joint twice or three times a week, well supported with every kind of vegetable. There is no attempt at refinement in cooking, but there is plenty of good substantial food.

The hill farmer, whose staple is sheep and wool, has generally a great deal of walking or riding to get over in the day. The down farms are sometimes very large, running perhaps in long narrow strips of land for two or three miles. Although he employs a head-shepherd, and even a bailiff, he finds it necessary, if he would succeed in making a profit, to be pretty well ubiquitous. They all want looking after sharply. Not that there is much actual dishonesty; but would any manufacturer endure to have his men sitting doing nothing on their benches for fifteen minutes out of every hour of the working day, just because his back was turned? The hill farmer has, perhaps, a preferable life in some respects to the agriculturist in the vale. He has not so much actual manual labour to get[Pg 24] through. On the other hand, he is at a great distance from any town, or even large village; he sees no one during the day, and he has to run great risks. Wool may fall, so may the price of mutton, either of which would derange his calculations; or the fly may destroy his turnips, or the season may be exceptionally dry and unfavourable. His house is lonely, perched on the side of a hill, and exposed to the bitter blasts of winter which sweep over the downs with resistless fury, and which no doors nor windows can exclude. If there should be snow, it is sure to fall in greater quantities on the hills, and, driving before the wind, fills up the hollows, till the roads are impassable for weeks.

Taking all the year round, the work of the agriculturist begins and ends with the rising and setting of the sun. There is an exception, because the cows must be milked and foddered nearly as early in the winter, when the sun rises very late, as at other seasons; but then, to make up for that, work ends earlier in the afternoon. In the spring, as the evenings draw out, there is almost always something to be done even[Pg 25] after the labourers have left. In harvest time, the superintendence of work continues till late, and in the autumn labour is not unfrequently prolonged into the moonlight, in order to carry the corn. It is a life, on the whole, of hard work.

In all this I speak of the ordinary middle-class farmer. The life of the higher class of agriculturists, who possess large capital, and employ bailiffs and all kinds of machinery, is of course not by any means so onerous. It is in general character pretty much that of an independent gentleman, with the addition of the sporting element, and a certain freedom from drawing-room trammels.

To get at the physique of the agriculturists, the best plan is to pay a visit to the market-town. Here almost every farmer in the neighbourhood, no matter of what class—highest, middle, or lowest—is nearly sure to be seen on market-days. The upper class come in in their smart waggonettes, or dog-carts, drawn by thoroughly good and stylish horses, which are little, if at all, inferior to those of the gentry. Some of these keep their groom and coachman, who[Pg 26] dress in livery of a quiet and subdued kind, but still unmistakably a livery. The middle-class come in in traps, or old-fashioned four-wheelers, generally bringing their wives and daughters, to do the shopping of the week. The market-day is, in fact, the event of the week, and the streets of the market-town are the Rotten Row of the neighbourhood. The wives and daughters come in their best dresses, and promenade up and down, and many a flirtation goes on with the young bucks of the district. The lower class of farmers jog in on their mares, rough as cart-horses, and the rider generally so manages to seat himself as to show three or four inches of stocking between his trousers and boots. After the market is over, and the dealing done, the farmers resort to the various inns, and dine at the market ordinary. A very good dinner is usually provided at a low charge on these days. Soup is not usual, the dinner generally beginning with fish, followed by joints, and fowl of various kinds. Wine “whips” are formed, and the sherry circulates freely. There is a regular chairman, always a man of property and influence, and an old frequenter[Pg 27] of the place. After dinner they sit an hour or two discussing, not only the price of sheep and wool or mutton, but the political and other events of the day. The Chambers of Agriculture are generally so arranged as to meet on market-days, about an hour after the ordinary finishes, and not unfrequently in the same room. The market-towns derive great benefit from this habit of congregating on the market-day. It is the day, too, for paying visits by the ladies. Gay costumes pass through the streets, and bright eyes look out of the windows of the hotels upon the crowd of farmers. The yards of the various hostelries are made almost impassable by the innumerable variety of vehicles. The young farmers take the opportunity of playing a game at billiards, which they rarely do on other days. The news of the whole countryside is exchanged, and spreads from mouth to mouth, and is carried home and sent farther on its way. One great characteristic is the general good-humour that prevails. The laugh and the joke are frequently heard—it is a kind of moderate gala-day. The fishmonger’s shop is emptied, and the contents carried home, this being[Pg 28] the only day in the week when fish is bought by the majority of agriculturists. Some towns have only what is called a “gin-and-water” market: that is, the “deal” is begun and concluded from small samples carried in the pocket and examined at an inn over a glass of spirits and water. But in the great market-towns there is now almost always a large room, or hall, set aside for this special purpose. The market begins and concludes at a fixed time, indicated by the ringing of a bell. In this hall the dealers have stands, furnished with desks, at which they may always be found, and here sacks of samples are pitched. There is a clerk of the market, and the current prices are posted up, and afterwards sent to all the local newspapers. The cattle-market used to be carried on entirely in the streets, each farmer selling his own beasts or sheep by private treaty with the dealers. The streets were then often filled with cattle from one end to the other, and were almost impassable for vehicles, and at times not a little dangerous for foot-passengers. Now the practice of selling by auction has become very general, and the cattle are either put into the [Pg 29]auctioneer’s private yard, or in an enclosure provided by the town authorities. The corn-dealers are a most energetic class of men, well educated, and often employing large capital in their business. They are perpetually travelling, and often attend two markets a day. Having struck a bargain, the farmer and the purchaser adjourn to the hotel, and have a glass of spirits, without which no transaction seems complete. The use of beer has very much declined among the fairly well-to-do agriculturists. They drink it at dinner and lunch, but whenever a glass is taken with a friend, or in calling at an inn, it is almost invariably spirits. Whisky has been most extensively drunk of late years.

No other class of men employing so much capital and so many labourers are so simple in their habits as the agriculturists. In dress they adhere to the plainest colours and shapes; there is no attempt to keep pace with the fashion. The materials of the coat and vest are good, and even expensive, but the cut is old and out of date, and the whole effect quite plain. There is no shirt front, no studs, no rings, no kid gloves. The boots[Pg 30] are strong and thick, substantial, but not ornamental. A man with his ten or fifteen thousand perhaps will walk down the street buttoned up in an ungainly greatcoat and an old hat, not half so smartly dressed as a well-paid mechanic, and far behind the drapers’ assistants in style. There is a species of contempt among them for the meretricious and showy; they believe in the solid. This very fact makes them good friends to shopkeepers, who have no better customers. They carry this leading idea too far, for they admire an article in precisely a corresponding ratio to the money it costs, totally oblivious of all considerations of art or ornament. The first question invariably is, if they are asked to admire anything, “What did it cost?” This results in a heavy and cumbrous style of furniture even in the best farmsteads. Everything must be massive, costly, and strong. Artistic tendencies they have none. They want something durable, and they get it. But on the whole they make marvellously little show for their money. Hundreds of the most substantial agriculturists, whose cheques would be honoured for thousands of pounds, seem absolutely to make no show[Pg 31] at all. At the same time it is quite true that some of the rising generation, who have very little to do it on, make a great display with hunters and plated harness, and so forth. But they are not the rule. The generality go just the other way, and live below their income, and take a lower station in society than they might reasonably claim.

Farmers are decidedly a marrying class of men. The farm is a business in which a wife is of material service, and can really be a helpmate. The lower class of farmers usually marry quite as much or more for that reason than any others. The higher classes of agriculturists feel that they have a right to marry because they too can show a home in which to keep a wife. Though they may not have any large amount of capital, still they possess a good house and sufficient provision. They are, therefore, a marrying class of men, but do not commonly contract matrimonial alliances very early in life. The great object of an agriculturist who has sons is to get them settled in farms, and it is astonishing to what an extent this is carried by men who do not seem to have much capital to start their children with. Instances are[Pg 32] common in which a man has three or four sons all in farms, and doing fairly well. One of the greatest difficulties he has to contend against is the necessity of providing education. Where is a farmer, living perhaps two or three miles, often enough four and six miles, from a town, to send his boys to school? The upper class of agriculturists can, of course, afford to have a proper governess at home till they are old enough, and then send them to one of the so-called middle-class schools. The lower class, on the other hand, who do not aspire very high, and whose ideas are little more ambitious than those of their labourers, are contented with the school in the neighbouring village. Till recently these village schools were very poor affairs, something a little better than the old dame school, but not much. But since the new Education Act the lower class of farmers are in a better position with respect to education than those who possess much higher claims to social distinction. Where there is not a school board, the clergyman and the landowners have combined, and built first-rate schools, up to all the requirements of the Act, and attended by properly[Pg 33]certified teachers. The lower class farmer, who is troubled with no scruples about the association of his boys with the labourers’ children, can send them to this school at a very low charge indeed, and they will there receive a good foundation. But the middle-class farmer—the man who is neither an independent gentleman, nor obliged to live on bacon and greens—is unprovided for, and yet this class is the most numerous. They have better views for their sons than to confine those early impressions upon which so much depends to the narrow and rude, if not coarse manners of the labourers’ children. They look higher than that, and they are fully justified in doing so. They do not, therefore, at all relish the idea of sending their boys to the national school of the parish, let it be never so well supplied with teachers. There is another objection to it. It has a faint suspicion of the pauper. Now if there is anything a downright English yeoman abominates more than all the rest it is any approach to the “parish.” This is a “parish” school. It is not a paupers’ school—that is admitted—but it is a “parish” school, to which the children of men who have often received[Pg 34] relief are sent. The yeoman’s instinct revolts at it. Attempts have been made to get over this niceness of feeling by erecting a special class-room for farmers’ sons, and patriotic baronets have even gone so far as to send their own boys so as to set the example. But it is in vain. The middle-class farmer is above all men exclusive in his ideas. He detests the slightest flavour of communism. He likes to be completely and fully independent. He will not patronise the “parish” school. What then is he to do? At this present moment most farmers’ sons are sent into the neighbouring towns to the middle-class schools which are to be found there. If the farmer is within two or three miles the boys walk or ride on ponies every morning. If it is farther than that they go as weekly boarders, and return home every Saturday. The fault in this system is simply and solely in the character of the school. Too often it is a school in name only, where the boys learn next to nothing at all, except mischief. Very few schools exist in these small country towns which afford a good education at a moderate price. It is almost impossible that they should exist without an endowment, as[Pg 35] the scholars can never be numerous enough to make the profits exceed the expenditure. The result is that the middle-class farmer cannot give his boys a good education unless he sends them to what is called a middle-class school in some town at a great distance, and this he cannot afford. The sum demanded by these so-called middle-class schools is beyond his reach. He may, perhaps, if he has only one son, indulge in the expensive luxury of a sound and thorough education for him. But if there are several the thing is out of the question. With the girls it is even worse—where can he send them? They cannot very well walk or ride to and fro like the boys to the school in the nearest town, and if they are boarded at such schools, the education given is paltry and meagre in the extreme. A good girls’ school is one of the rarest things in the country. The result is that a governess is kept while the girls are young. This governess is underpaid, and has consequently herself been only partially educated. Then as the girls grow older they are sent for a year or two, to “finish” them, to some young ladies’ academy, and the ultimate product is a [Pg 36]smattering of French and music, and crude ideas of fashion and refinement, which make them dissatisfied with their home and unfit for an agricultural life as the wife of a farmer.

The nonsense talked and published of farmers having pianos, and their daughters strumming all day long instead of attending to the dairy, is perfectly absurd. It is quite true that in hundreds of farmhouses, just at the time when the dairy is in full work in the morning, a piano may be heard going. This is the governess instructing the girls when the farmer is not sufficiently rich to send them to a school. But when once these girls are grown up, and have finished their education, poor as it is, and return home to take a part in the household duties, then the piano is never heard in the morning when work is about. The farmer’s wife sees to that sharp enough. In the evening it may be heard—and why not? If the agricultural labourer is to be polished up and refined, why on earth should not his employer take a step in advance? It must be remembered that there is very little society in the country; scarcely any one even passing along the road. There are none of those cheap sights and[Pg 37] amusements so readily accessible to the poorest in a great city. The wives and daughters of the mechanics and workmen in London can once a week at least afford to enjoy themselves at some theatre or place of amusement. They are far better off in this respect than the daughters of agriculturists who may be worth thousands. These have nothing whatever to amuse themselves with during the long evenings; they cannot even take a stroll out and look at the shop windows. They are surely entitled to the simple and inexpensive amusement of a piano. It is in fact their only resource. There was a statement in the newspapers of farmers taking their daughters to Paris. It is possible that some of the upper class of farmers, who are in fact independent gentlemen, may have done so; but as for the ordinary middle-class farmers, such a thing is utterly unheard of. It is very few of them who even take their wives to London or the seaside for a week. But even if they did, it is nothing more than they are entitled to do. Half the tradesmen who do such things do not possess anything like the income of the farmers. The fact is, that the agriculturists are a[Pg 38] singularly stay-at-home race of men. The great majority never leave their farms to go farther than the market-town from one year’s end to the other. Above all classes they are attached to their homes, and slow to go away even temporarily. To such a length is this feeling carried that men have been known to go partially insane for a while at the prospect of having to quit a farm through a landlord’s decease, even though no appreciable pecuniary loss was involved.

The agriculturists are a remarkably observant race, and as a rule peculiarly well-informed. This is contrary to the popular belief, which represents the farmer as rude and ignorant, a pot-bellied beer-drinker, and nothing more. But the popular belief is a delusion. I do not say that they are literary or scientific in their tastes and private pursuits. There are no great names among them in geology, or astronomy, or anthropology, or any other science. They are not artists in any sense. But they are singularly well-informed. They possess more general knowledge than any other class, and can converse on subjects with which townsmen seem unacquainted. Many of them have[Pg 39] very fair libraries, not extensive, but containing books of sterling excellence. Farming is necessarily an isolated business—there is little society. Except on market-days, there is scarcely any interchange of conversation. There is, too, at certain seasons of the year a good deal of leisure. What books they own, therefore, are well read, and the contents reflected upon. It is that habit of thinking over what is read that makes all the difference. It is impossible to avoid being struck with the immense amount of general information possessed by some agriculturists, and the wide field over which their knowledge ranges. Yet with all this knowledge and power of reflection they still remain attached to the old-world system of politics, religion, and social relations.

The habits of intemperance which were at one time a just and standing reproach against the agriculturist have almost entirely disappeared. A drunken farmer is now unknown. They are as fond as ever of offering hospitality to a friend, and as ready to take a social glass—no total abstainers amongst them; but the steady hard-drinking sot has passed away. The old dodge of filling the[Pg 40] bottle with gin instead of water, and so pouring out pure spirit, instead of spirit and water, when the guests were partially intoxicated, in order to complete the process, is no more known. They do not drink more than the inhabitants of towns.

It is a singular fact that with so many streams and ponds scattered about the country within easy reach, the farmers do not care for fishing. A farmer engaged in fishing is a rarity indeed. They are eagerly fond of fox-hunting, coursing, and shooting, but fishing is a dead letter. A party will sometimes go out and net a pond, but as for fishing proper, with rod and line, it is almost unknown. Every chance of shooting is eagerly snatched at. In May the young rooks are shot, after which the gun is put aside for a while. At the end of July some of the young rabbits are ready, and are occasionally knocked over. Very few tenant farmers shoot game even when they could do so, leaving that for some neighbouring gentleman with whom they are friendly, and this too without any remuneration, the fact being that winged game does little damage. But they wage unceasing war on the rabbits, with[Pg 41] dog and gun and ferret. All the winter long they are hunted in every possible way. This is, of course, on farms where the tenant has permission to kill the rabbits. Whist and post and pair are the staple indoor amusements.

Of all businesses that of agriculture is peculiarly adapted to descend from father to son. In point of fact, farms so frequently pass from the father to the son as to be looked upon almost as a certain inheritance. In agriculture, then, it must be expected that the effects of inherited instincts and ideas should be very plainly shown. From this cause arises the persistent and unreasoning Conservatism of the mass of agriculturists. Out of a list of one hundred farmers, I find that one resides upon a farm which has been in the occupation of members of the same family for three hundred years. He possessed a series of documents, receipts, special agreements, and so on, proving that descent beyond all cavil; but with the usual want of proper appreciation for antiquities, most of these papers have been committed to the flames; still there is no question of the fact, which can still be shown from the landlord’s[Pg 42]family archives. Nominally that farm has been in the occupation of one family for ten generations, reckoning by the ordinary calculation of thirty years to each. But this average is not fairly applicable to the agricultural life, which is generally long, and occasionally extends into extreme old age. There were probably about eight successors if the line was unbroken; if not, there may of course have been treble that number. A man may be excused some amount of pride when he thinks of such a continuance as this in one spot, for it means not only an exceptional vitality of race, but an exceptional perseverance in the paths of honesty and straightforwardness. But with this pride it also engenders a stubborn unchangeableness, a dislike and hatred of all things new and unfamiliar, a nervous dread of reform. Faithful to the logic of their class, such men as these may in resisting innovations go to lengths which may appear foolish and wrong to others who live in a widely different social atmosphere. To some extent the bitter opposition to change in the position of the labourer, which is thrown in the teeth of the tenant farmer, is the outcome of these very[Pg 43] centuries of steady adherence to all that they believed upright and manly.

Another name on my list has been known at one spot for fully two hundred years. These men attained a position beyond that of yeoman, but they never sank beneath it. The rise of many of the great county families really dates from the success of some ancestor, or the collective success of a series of ancestors, in agriculture. They perhaps claim some knight or nobleman as the founder of the race, although he may have really done nothing for the practical advantage of the family; the true founders being merely proprietors of land, dignified as J.P.’s, and sometimes sheriffs, throwing off branches into the clerical and legal professions. The real ancestor was the sturdy yeoman who accumulated the money to purchase the farm he tilled, and whose successors had the good sense to go on adding acre to acre till they finally expanded into the wide domains of the modern squire. Not the knight whose effigy in brass paves the aisle of the parish church laid the corner-stone of the wealth and power of to-day, but the shrewd and close-fisted producer and dealer in wool and[Pg 44] corn. Their true claim to aristocratic privileges and importance is the sense of centuries of independence. These others of whom we have spoken, the yeoman who never aspired beyond the yeoman’s position, are as ancient and as “worshipful”—to use an old and disused term—as they. I do not instance these descents of three and two hundred years as extraordinary, because I believe that they could be paralleled and even extended by inquiry, but because they came under my own observation. There are others on the list ranging from one hundred and sixty down to sixty and eighty years of continued occupation. But not to go into details, I reckon on an average that thirty names out of a hundred have been the occupiers for three generations; forty for two generations; twenty for one hundred and fifty years; and ten are new comers. But a still more curious and instructive fact is the permanence of certain names over a wide section of country; so much so that in places it is a common saying that one has only to be an A, or a B, or a T, to be certain of getting a farm. Whole parishes seem related, and not very distantly related[Pg 45] either; and yet there is not the remotest class-feeling or esprit de corps. The isolation and independence of a farm life are powerful agents in preventing anything like cohesion. Any one who will take the trouble to look down the parish register in a strictly agricultural district will be forcibly struck with the permanence of certain names. Page after page contains nothing but records of the marriages, intermarriages, burials, baptisms, and so on of two or three generic names. The population appears to have been stationary for scores upon scores of years. Say what you will, ridicule it as you like, there is a charm clinging round that which time has hallowed; and even the man of the hour, the successful speculator, yields to this. It is his most eager desire to become a landed proprietor, and if possible he buys a place where he can exercise manorial rights.

Taking these things into consideration, it is only reasonable to admit that agriculture is a profession in which a man may, above all others, be excused if he manifests a certain amount of irritability at the prospect of change. The slow round of uneventful years,[Pg 46] the long continuance of manual labour, the perpetual iteration of a few ideas, in time produce in the mind of the most powerfully intellectual men a species of unconscious creed; and this creed is religiously handed down from generation to generation. Setting aside those who have gone into agriculture as a science, and adapt everything to commercial principles—and they are as yet not very numerous—the great mass of farmers believe nearly the same now as they did two centuries ago. Looking through a farmer’s calendar published in the first few years of this century, and containing a complete résumé of the system of agriculture practised then, I was struck by the remarkable fact that in all main features it was the same as that in use now. We have heard so much of the rapid progress of agriculture, of the important changes introduced, and of the complete revolution which has taken place, that this statement may appear incredible. It is nevertheless the fact that that book might be put with advantage into the hands of any young man about to enter upon a farm. With the exception of those operations which are now performed by steam, and[Pg 47] making an allowance for the altered conditions introduced by the abolition of the Corn Laws, the instructions given there are useful down to this very day. Here is the knowledge of the peculiarities and requirements of stock slowly accumulated during ages of agriculture, and at last written down and printed for easy reference. However much the aspect of politics may change, or however much the means of locomotion and communication may be facilitated by the introduction of steam, Nature still remains unaltered. The cows and sheep retain their instincts and their internal economy; their modes of feeding, times of rest, and seasons of increase, never vary. The earth too has not changed. The corn is sown at the same time; Nature goes on her way as before, heedless of the railway rattle. So it is that the details of management in this book are as useful now as then, more than two generations since. It is the same with the unwritten faith of the men who labour and live among these things. Go out among them, and collect from the majority their views and sentiments, and in this age of progress they will be found to correspond almost exactly with those of their[Pg 48] forefathers, as recorded by history. They know that such is the fact themselves; they know too that it would subject them to sharp criticism and reproof if they published their real opinions. Therefore they remain silent, and it is only among themselves that these ideas are earnestly insisted on.

In the earliest days of agriculture, when Abraham drove his flocks and herds to and fro under the Syrian sun, the father of the family was at once the procreator, the law-giver, the judge, the leader in battle, the priest, and the king. He was absolute master under Heaven of all things visible around him. The Pope claims to be infallible now, and to be the vicegerent of Heaven, but the patriarch of old actually possessed those powers upon his own domain. His sons were under his complete control—he could sacrifice them alive to his God if he chose, or banish them from their native land. His daughters were still more completely in his hand, to be done with as he thought fit. His servants, his slaves, were as much his as the wooden pole of his tent, or the very sandals he walked in. They were as dust before[Pg 49] him. There was no coming of age in those days; no escape after the twenty-first year. The tie lasted till his death. At forty his sons and daughters were as much his own as they were at ten years old. They tell us that this system, to some extent, still survives in China. In all fundamental points such is the creed of the agricultural race of our own day. Circumstances have, no doubt, had something to do with the production and elaboration of such a faith. In no other profession do the sons and the daughters remain so long, and so naturally, under the parental roof. The growth of half-a-dozen strong sons was a matter of self-congratulation, for each as he came to man’s estate took the place of a labourer, and so reduced the money-expenditure. The daughters worked in the dairy, and did not hesitate to milk occasionally, or, at least, to labour in the hayfield. They spun, too, the home-made stuffs in which all the family were clothed. A man’s children were his servants. They could not stir a step without his permission. Obedience and reverence to the parent was the first and greatest of all virtues. Its influence was to extend through life, and[Pg 50]through the whole social system. They were to choose the wife or the husband approved of at home. At thirty, perhaps, the more fortunate of the sons were placed on farms of their own nominally, but still really under the father’s control. They dared not plough or sow except in the way that he approved. Their expenditure was strictly regulated by his orders. This lasted till his death, which might not take place for another twenty years. At the present moment I could point out ten or twelve such cases, where men of thirty or forty are in farms, and to all appearance perfectly free and independent, and yet as completely under the parental thumb as they were at ten years old. Why do they not throw off the burden? Because they have imbibed the same creed, and intend to carry it out in their own persons. These men, if they think thus of their own offspring, cannot be expected to be more tender towards the lower class around them. They did at one time, and some still wish to, extend the same system to the labouring population. As there was in those days little or no work for a man but upon a farm, and as the cottages were chiefly in the hands of[Pg 51] the farmers, there was plenty of opportunity for carrying out these ideas. The old method of poor relief gave another handle. They did not want only to indulge in tyranny; what they did was to rule the labouring poor in the same way as they did their own children—nothing more nor less. These labouring men, like his own children, must do as the farmer thought best. They must live here or there, marry so and so, or forfeit favour—in short, obey the parental head. Each farmer was king in his own domain; the united farmers of a parish were kings of the whole place. They did not use the power circumstances gave them harshly; but they paid very little regard to the liberty of the subject. To this very day something of the same sort goes on. It is wonderful with what eager zeal many of the old-style farmers enter into the details of a labourer’s life, and carefully ascertain his birth, his parentage, his marriage, his wife’s parentage, and the very minutest matters. These facts thus accumulated are talked over in the boardroom when an applicant comes to the union for relief. Very often such special knowledge possessed by a guardian of the [Pg 52]antecedents of the applicant is most useful and beneficial in enabling the Board to extend assistance to a deserving man. What I wish to show is the all-permeating influence of the parental system in the mind of the typical agriculturist.

In religion it is, or lately was, the same. It was not a matter with the farmer of the Athanasian creed, or the doctrine of salvation by faith, or any other theological dogma. To him the parish church was the centre of the social system of the parish. It was the keystone of that parental plan of government that he believed in. The very first doctrine preached from the pulpit was that of obedience. “Honour thy father and mother” was inculcated there every seventh day. His father went to church, he went to church himself, and everybody else ought to go. It was as much a social gathering as the dinner at the market ordinary, or the annual audit dinner of their common landlord. The dissenter, who declined to pay church-rates, was an unsocial person. He had left the circle. It was not the theology that they cared about, it was the social nonconformity. In a spiritual sense, too, the[Pg 53] clergyman was the father of the parish, the shepherd of the flock—it was a part of the great system. To go a step farther, in political affairs the one leading idea still threaded itself through all. The proper parliamentary representative—the natural law-giver—was the landlord of the district. He was born amongst them, walked about amongst them, had been in their houses many a time. He knew their wants, their ideas, their views. His own interest was identical with theirs. Therefore he was the man. The logic is indisputable. What is more, they acted up to it. In agricultural districts it is not uncommon even now to find men of diametrically opposite political views to the candidate at an election voting for and supporting him, simply and solely because he is the local man. It is natural and right that he should represent them. That one word “right” is the key to the whole ethical system of the agriculturists. They cherish and maintain their belief in right, and in their “rights”—by which they understand much the same thing—even when unaccompanied by any gain or advantage. In brief outline, such is the[Pg 54] creed of the agriculturists as a body. It is neither written nor spoken, but it is a living faith which influences every hour of their lives.

This faith must ever be borne in mind by those who wish to understand the movements of the agricultural world. Without making a proper allowance for it, the farmers will be easily misjudged.

The labouring class are imbued to a great extent with the very same ideas. They stick to their rights. They will not give up an old pathway that their fathers used, not if one twice as convenient be offered in lieu of it. They have a right to go that way, and go that way they will. They are brutally tyrannical over their children. I use those words deliberately. He who spares the rod spoils the child, is the practical rule of their conduct. They seem to look upon their offspring as merely slaves. They are fond of them in their way, no doubt, but the law of implicit obedience is maintained by dint of blows and stripes. The children are kicked, punched, and thrashed perpetually. A good ground-ash stick is the gospel of the labouring man. They carry the same plan into[Pg 55] their work. How many carters have been severely fined and imprisoned for whipping, and sometimes even maiming, the boys under their commands? And yet the old practice still continues, only a little checked by wholesome terror of the law.

Despite of all the teaching of the Radical papers, all the whispers of the Methodist itinerant preachers, despite the hatred which the Labourers’ Union agents endeavour to sow between the labourer and the farmer, still the great mass of labourers at the last election,[1] wherever they had a vote, supported the local candidate—the man who represented the soil—and declined to do more than listen to the brilliant promises held out by the party of change. So strong above all things is the force of tradition and custom.

The agriculturists are firmly and earnestly wedded to that unwritten creed which has grown up among them out of the past. Why, then, should they be so hardly dealt with, more than others, for adhering to this faith? Argue with them, educate them up to your standard if you like—but is it fair, is it just, is it in accordance with that spirit[Pg 56] of liberalism and tolerance which their opponents profess, to taunt, abuse, and bully to the full length that words will permit? They are not facile at expression, these same men of the soil. The flow of language seems denied to them. They are naturally a silent race—preferring deeds to speech. They live much with inarticulate nature. It may be, after all, they have learnt some useful and abiding lessons from that intercourse. The old shepherds on the plains of Chaldea, under the starry skies of the East, watched the motions of those shining bodies till they slowly built up a religion, which, mixed with much dross, nevertheless contained some truths which educated men profess to this hour. These English farmers also observe the changes of the seasons, and watch the face of heaven. Their deepest convictions are not to be lightly set aside. There are men amongst them of great powers of thought. I remember one at this moment whose grand old head would have been a study for an artist. A large head he had, well-balanced, broad and high at the forehead, deep-set eyes, straight nose, and firm chin—every outward sign of the giant brain[Pg 57] within. But the man was dumb. The thoughts that came to him he could communicate roughly to his friends, but the pen failed him. The horny hand which results from manual labour is too stiff to wield the swiftly-gliding quill. But there is another species of handwriting which is called Work—a handwriting which will endure when the scribblings of the hour are utterly forgotten. This writing he laboured at earnestly and eagerly, not for his own good either, for it absorbed his own fortune, no small one, in the attempt to realise his conception of machinery which would double the yield of food. It has been done since his time, other men stepping over the bridge of experience which he had built. Now this man, who, on the principles of the opponents of the agriculturists, was a benefactor to his species, and a pioneer of true progress, was, nevertheless, one of the firmest, staunchest, most uncompromising supporters of that creed which they are endeavouring to destroy, and which may be stated thus: “I believe in the Sovereign, the Church, and the Land: the Sovereign being the father of the people in a temporal sense; the Church in a spiritual[Pg 58] sense; and the Land being the only substantial and enduring means of subsistence. Cotton, coal, and iron cannot be eaten, but the land gives us corn and beef; therefore, the land stands first and foremost, and the agriculturist, as the tiller of land, possesses an inalienable right which it is his duty to maintain, and in so doing he is acting for the good of the community. I believe that the son and the daughter should obey their parents, and show regard to their wishes even when legally independent. Also that the servant should obey his employer. The connection between employer and employed does not cease with the payment of wages. It is the duty of the servant to show consideration for the advice of the master; and the master is not free from responsibility as to the education and the comfort of the man. The master is bound by all laws, human and divine, to pay a fair amount of wages for a day’s work. If he does not do so he robs the workman as much as if he stole the money from his pocket. The workman is equally bound to do his work properly, and in neglecting to do so he robs his employer. To demand more wages than has been earned[Pg 59] is an attempt at robbery. Both master and man should respect authority, and abide by its decisions.”

Such is a slight outline of the home-life and the faith of the farmer.


[1] Feb. 1874.


Categories: English Literature

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