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The Corn Laws
This extract from the North Devon Journal dated 2 Apr 1840 shows just how bad life was at the time.
This was kindly lent to me by Brenda Powel. Thank you Brenda. James Vicary being her ancestor.

“The Corn Laws- Our readers are probably aware that the Anti-corn-law delegates have lately had up agricultural labourers from the country to London, for examination. The following statement, as it comes from a labourer of the neighbourhood [ North Devon ] will be interesting to our readers. It is copied from the “Morning Chronicle” of Monday:-James Vicary, of Great Torrington, was then examined: I am a farm labourer. I arrived in London last evening. I have been employed by Mr. Braginton, for a year and a half. I get 9s a week. I have six children. The eldest is twenty-two years of age; the second, 20; the third, 18; the fourth, 16; the fifth,11; and the youngest about three years old. Four are living with me. The third earned 1s or 1s. 6d a week, on an average; the fourth, who is about sixteen years of age, is deficient in his mind, and gets nothing; the fifth goes to school, and the youngest remains at home. My wife earns 6d a week. My master gives his men 9s a week, but the regular wages of all the other farmers is only 7s a week, and one quart of cider a day. The latter is worth 2d a quart, which is equal to 8s a week. He is paid 7s in money. The reason I get higher wages is that my master is a little better off than other farmers, and he ( witness) did a little odd work. I get 11s a week altogether; of that I lay out on bread 3s 6d. The farmer give us a crop of potatoes if we manure the land. I feed a pig in the course of a year. I buy corn for it and save the waste. The pig eats 7 or 8 bushels of barley at 5s or 5s 6d a bushel. We drink herb tea, or perhaps a little peppermint. My wife occasionally gets half an ounce of tea. She has no sugar. We have three-quarters of a pound of candles a week. We eat no shambles meat[ meat from the slaughter house] but have a rasher of bacon and a bit of bread. We have no cheese. We may taste it once in a while. The family generally have fried potatoes and a bit of bacon. We purchase coal at 1s a hundred [weight, about 25kgs, 56 lbs]. We use on hundred and a half per week. Our yearly rent is £3.14s. I pay poor rates and highway rates- on an average 3s to 3s 6d a year. There are no church rates. We have but little clothing. I have had this jacket for five or six years or more. I only were it on Sundays. I bought the rest eight or nine years ago. The trousers were at first only second hand. My every-day clothes are very mean. I could show you a pair of trousers that made [sic] them myself. They are patched six or seven times over. They are nigh forty pounds weight, ... loud laughter.... I have had them since within a few days of my marriage. That was about 30 years ago. During that time I have had none else except a pair of sail canvass trousers and the pair I have on. I had the canvass trousers about three years. My wife buys the linen from a pack-man. She also buys clothing for herself and the children that way. I have two shirts. My wife has one gown in the course of a year. For one pair of shoes I pay 8s 6d. I wear the best only on Sundays. Married men have no better wages than single. For seven years, till my wages were raised, I had only 1 1\2 lb bacon a week for myself, wife and three children. In 1835 O got 7s wages. Corn was then 2s 6d or 3s a bushel. Now it is 5s or 6s a bushel. I was better off then than now. I had more of a bellyful. My wife now has less money to spend. The bread used is barley bread.
The Chairman: Do you save any money? – Witness (with surprise): God bless you sir, no savings. I don’t know what will become of me when I am old. In illness I get 6s from a club. I pay the club 3d a week. I owe three quarters of a year’s rent. I know not how I shall pay it. I was never in debt so much before. The labourers on Lord Rolle’s estate get 7s a week. There are no railways near us. The people generally are in a state of starvation.
By Mr. Sturge: These labourers who have 7s a week have no meat. Thirty years ago I got 7s or 8s a week wages. I used then to be up on job-work. In war time we lived better then. We could get a little wheat and labourers were generally better off. Some of my neighbours keep a pig, as I do. I never get parish relief. My daughter earns 1s 6d a week. She works from six o’clock in the morning till nine o’clock at night. I have not always had a bellyful of food. It is the same frequently with my family. Barley bread is used about me. If barley was cheaper, we could buy more clothing. We have heard something about corn laws lately. We first heard about half a year ago. The labourers wish that a change would take place, but some persuaded them against it. They told the labourers that it would be worse for them, but we say that it never can be worse,....hear hear, and laughter.”
From the North Devon Journal 24 Jun 1858
“Accidental Death- James Vicary, an old man above 80 years of age, went to his work on Monday morning, in good health, and was returning home in the evening, and on his road he came to Coverdale-well, on the Commons, and passing on in the path which is about 15 feet above the well he fell over. It is supposed that he was attacked with a fit or lightness in the head, as it was seen that he must have fallen first on the side of the precipice, as the marks there evidently showed, in his attempt to rise, he fell over and his head came into contact with a stone in the stream. His head here bled profusely and he vomited. His mouth and nose were in the stream when found; so that he would have been smothered, if nothing else had caused his death. Deceased was a harmless, hard working old man, and has brought up a large family.”
The inquest into his death was also reported in the NDJ of 1 Jul 1855. A witness saw him with a shovel and pick on his shoulder, but these tools were not recovered. The verdict was accordingly concussion to the brain. His trip to London was noted.
1851 census
Head: VICARY, James
Name Relationship Mar Age Sex Occupation Birthplace
James VICARY Head M 65 M Ag Lab Gt Torrington-Dev
Betsy VICARY Wife M 48 F Glover Gt Torrington-Dev
Mary VICARY Daur U 17 F Glover Gt Torrington-Dev
James VICARY Son - 10 M Scholar Gt Torrington-Dev
William VICARY Son - 8 M Scholar Gt Torrington-Dev
Address: Mill Street, Torrington
Census Place: Great Torrington Torrington, Devonshire
PRO Reference: HO/107/1894 Folio: 537 Page: 60 FHL Film: 0221045

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Replies to This Discussion

Was life basically the same for most "ag labs' during this period?
As things are today, you get good and bad employers, some estates farms had good housing, others had to live in damp hovels, single men would have slept in the hay barn.

When the harvest failed the whole community would suffer. Check the links given on the home page for this group, this may lead you to more information.

Best wishes, Chris
Thank you, I do have a few ancestors that for a time were listed as Ag labs in Gurney Slade Somerset around the 1841-61 eras, but sometimes they were listed as stone quarymenn or Highway labs too. I am finding the things posted gere are making for very interesting reading. Thank you for posting these things.
I read an interesting bit of information recently about the England Census. The 1841 Census took place on June 7th, but they feared they had missed a lot of Ag Labs who, by that time of year, would be sleeping rough in the countryside. Apparently for that reason the subsequent Censuses (1851, 1861 etc. ) took place 2 months earlier at the beginning of April.
A very interesting note, thanks Sean.

Another example of farming affecting life in general is that village school attendance went right down during the summer months due to the harvest of hay and corn. This was the origin of the long summer holiday the schools have in the UK.

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