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Village Life in the 1830s and 1840s

In this extract, Joseph Arch describes what life was like in his village during the Anti-Corn-Law campaign in the period between 1838 and 1846. His account was written after the occurrence of the Swing riots of 1830

Because my father had refused to sign for "a small loaf and a dear one", he could not get any work whatever for eighteen weeks. He tried hard to get a job, but it was useless; he was a marked man, and we should have starved if my mother had not kept us all by her laundry work.

It was a terrible winter... There was corn enough for everybody - that was the hard, cruel part of it - but those who owned it would not sell it when it was so sorely needed. They kept it back, they locked it up; and all the time the folk were crying out in their extremity for bread, - crying out to men who hardened their hearts and turned deaf ears to the hungry cries of their starving fellow creatures. To make as much money as they could by letting corn rise to famine prices, was all the owners of it cared about. "Make money at any price" was their motto. They belonged to the class of men who always try to turn to their own profit the miseries, the misfortunes, and the helplessness of their poorer neighbours. They grew fat at the expense of their fellows. Those who ruled in high places, and had the makings of the laws in their hands, were chiefly rich landowners and successful traders, and instead of trying to raise the people, create a higher standard of comfort and well-being, and better their general condition they did their best - or worst - to keep them in a state of poverty and serfdom, of dependence and wretchedness. Those who owned and held the land believed, and acted up to their belief as far as they were able, that the land belonged to the rich man only, that the poor man had no part or lot in it, and had no sort of claim on society. If the poor man dared to marry and have children they thought he had no right to claim the necessary food wherewith to keep himself and his family alive. They thought, too, every mother's son of them, that, when a labourer could no longer work, he had lost the right to live. Work was all they wanted from him; he was to work and hold his tongue, year in and year out, early and late, and if he could not work, why, what was the use of him? It was what he was made for, to labour and toil for his betters, without complaint on a starvation wage. When no more work could be squeezed out of him, he was no better than a cumberer of other folks' ground, and the proper place for such as he was the churchyard, where he would be sure to lie quiet under a few feet of earth, and want neither food nor wages any more. A quick death and a cheap burying - that was the motto of those extortioners for the poor man past work..

Numbers of people used to go to the rectory for soup, but not a drop of it did we touch. I have stood at our door with my mother, and I have seen her face look sad as she watched the little children toddle past, carrying the tin cans, and their toes coming out of their boots. "Ah, my boy," she once said, "you shall never, never do that. I will work these fingers to the bone before you have to do it!" She was as good as her word - I never went to the rectory for soup ...

My mother, as might be expected, was not in favour at the rectory from the first. She did not order herself lowly and reverently towards her betters according to the Church Catechism. She would not duck to the rector's wife just because she happened to be the rector's wife, and she was not properly and humbly thankful for coals and soup ...

I remember a thing which made my mother very angry. The parson's wife issued a decree, that the labourers should sit on one side of the church and their wives on the other. When my mother heard of it she said, "No, 'those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder', and certainly no woman shall!"

I can also remember the time when the parson's wife used to sit in state in her pew in the chancel, and the poor women used to walk up the church and make a curtsey to her before taking the seats set apart for them. They were taught in this way that they had to pay homage and respect to those 'put in authority over them', and made to understand that they must 'honour the powers that be', as represented in the rector's wife. You may be pretty certain that many of these women did not relish the curtsey-scraping and other humiliations they had to put up with, but they were afraid to speak out. They had their families to think of, children to feed and clothe somehow; and when so many could not earn a living wage, but only a half-starving one, when very often a labouring man was out of work for weeks at a stretch, - why, the wives and mothers learned to take thankfully whatever was doled out to them at the parsonage or elsewhere, and drop the curtsey expected of them, without making a wry face. A smooth face and a smooth tongue was what their benefactors required of them, and they got both.

My proud little spirit smarted and burned when I saw what happened at the Communion service. First, up walked the squire to the communion rails; the farmers went up next; then up went the tradesmen, the shopkeepers, the wheelwright, and the blacksmith; and then, the very last of all, went the poor agricultural labourers in their smock frocks. They walked up by themselves; nobody else knelt with them; it was as if they were unclean - and at that sight the iron entered straight into my poor little heart and remained fast embedded there. I said to myself, "If that's what goes on - never for me!" I ran home and told my mother what I had seen, and I wanted to know why my father was not as good in the eyes of God as the squire, and why the poor should be forced to come up last of all to the Table of the Lord. My mother gloried in my spirit...

There was no chapel in our village, but when I was about fourteen years of age some dissenters began to come over from Wellesbourne. They used to hold meetings in a back lane. When the parson got wind of it, he and his supporters, the farmers, dared the labourers to go near these unorthodox Christians. If we did, then goodbye to all the charities; no more soup and coals should we have. And it was no idle threat. If that was not religious persecution I should like to know what was! They knew they had the labourers under their thumbs, and so they put the screw on when it pleased them...

The teaching in most of the village schools, then, was bad almost beyond belief. "Much knowledge of the right sort is a dangerous thing for the poor", might have been the motto put up over the door of the village school in my day. The less book-learning the labourer's lad got stuffed into him, the better for him, and the safer for those above him, was what those in authority believed and acted up to... These gentry did not want him to know; they did not want him to think; they only wanted him to work. To toil with the hand was what he was born into the world for, and they took precious good care to see that he did it from his youth upwards. Of course he might learn his catechism; that, and things similar to it, was the right, proper, and suitable knowledge for such as he; he would be the more likely to stay contentedly in his place to the end of his working days...

When they [the agricultural labourers] did start a sick benefit fund ... the parson, the farmers, and the leading men of the parish did their very best to put it down, to stamp it out with their despotic heels. The parson refused point blank to preach a sermon in aid of funds for it... That a labourer, who had fallen out of work through illness, should be supported, even for a time, from a common fund over which the rectory had no direct control, was gall and wormwood to the parson. Worse still, the labourer's wife would not be so ready to come to the rectory back-door, humbly begging for help. Worse and worse still, she and the children might slip out of the yoke of Church attendance altogether, if rectory charity were no longer a necessity. No; this sick club was the thin end of a bad wedge, and it must be pulled out and broken up without delay.

We labourers had no lack of lords and masters. There were the parson and his wife at the rectory. There was the squire, with his hand of iron overshadowing us all. There was no velvet glove on that hard hand, as many a poor man found to his hurt. He brought it down on my father because he would not sign for a small loaf and a dear one; and if it had not been for my mother that hand would have crushed him to the earth, maybe crushed the life right out of him. At the sight of the squire the people trembled. He lorded it right feudally over his tenants, the farmers; the farmers in their turn tyrannised over the labourers; the labourers were no better than toads under a harrow. Most of the farmers were oppressors of the poor; they put on the iron wage-screws and screwed the labourers' wages down, down below living point; they stretched him on the rack of life-long abject poverty.

The Life of Joseph Arch by Himself , pp.10-35, 1898 edition.

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