DEVON FARMERS & LABOURERS in 1808 by Brenda Powell
In the early 1800s, owing to the on-going Napoleonic Wars and an increasing population, food shortages led the Government of the day to commission an agricultural survey of each county of England, in order to find out just how efficient farming practices were. In those days Jane Austen and her friends may have been parading in their finery in the Assembly rooms of Bath, Lyme and Sidmouth, but how were our poorer ancestors in rural Devon faring, such as my great-great-grandparents John Joslin, labourer of Ashreighney, and wife Dorothy with their five children (with four more to come), and John Gloyn, labourer, and Grace of Thornbury with seven children?
Most family historians ‘get back’ to this era without too much difficulty, discovering the names of forebears about five or six generations back. If they are Devonian then the chances are that many of them will have worked on the land as labourers, yeomen or tenant farmers. We have parish registers, and rarely, wills, to give us names, but nothing much to tell us about these rural ancestors. There are no photographs or portraits as the rich had. What were their lives really like: what were their homes like, what kind of work did they do and what did they eat? Could they have aspired to anything better? I have always wanted to know more.
It was with great interest therefore that I found in an antique shop a copy of the report on this agricultural survey carried out in Devon in 1808 by one Charles Vancouver. This reprint by David & Charles (no doubt familiar to many social historians but new to me and perhaps many other family historians), is a treasure trove of domestic and farming historical detail. Mr. Vancouver traversed the County as a Surveyor on behalf of the Board of Agriculture recording the state of Devon’s rural life as he found it. It must be said, however, that his ‘employer class’ status shines through in his decidedly biased opinions!
HOUSING If we imagine that three-times great-grandfather who laboured on the land brought his family up in a pretty thatched cottage then we are probably wrong! Charles Vancouver was rather disdainful of cob. There was he said, ‘sufficient stone in the county to have caused a discontinuation of the use of mud walls’, but garden walls and cottages were still built of this ‘deforming material’. If not rough-scat, it was impossible he said, ‘to distinguish between a village and a beat (sic) field’, both being the same shade, and therefore ‘a stranger may perceive smoke to be rising out of the ground’. This conjures up a different scene to that we probably imagine.
Vancouver did admit, however, that a cob cottage could be ‘rendered very clean and comfortable and decently furnished for about sixty shillings’. The accommodation provided for the labouring families seems to have varied between none at all and quite model housing. In Chilworthy the Surveyor found three mud walls and a hedgebank forming a ‘habitation for peasantry’. In many parts of the County there was a scarcity of housing forcing families to leave their villages, which led to a shortage of labour. This was in part due to the ‘perversement of farmers’ who allowed cottages to go to ruin, and thus with fewer poor people around they had less poor rate to pay. Land agents, too, suggested to the owners of country residences that too many buildings spoilt the view! However, in an area east of Dartmoor, between Chagford and Bovey more than one in ten houses were found to be vacant or in a state of ruin, which Vancouver declared was utterly out of his power to explain.
Where some farms had been consolidated, the farmhouses were used to accommodate three or four labourer families. But cottages intended for workers were rarely attached to farms and where this happened Vancouver considered it beneficial as it would surely have been to the farmer, having his workforce close at hand. A piece of ground could be provided for growing potatoes and other vegetables and for ‘the run of a pig’. The rent for such a cottage was about 30 shillings a year.
In the South Hams labourers seldom lived on farms but were ‘crowded together in villages’ where some considered that ‘morals were more liable to be corrupted’. For the same reason in the east of the county Lord Rolle encouraged the building of cottages on the borders of Woodbury Common as a means of improving the comfort and the morals of his workers. By ‘withdrawing the labourer from his former haunts in the village’, he would spend more time employed to the benefit of his family instead of ‘in the ale-house or in frivolous conversation with his neighbour’. This would, the Surveyor declared, lead to ‘the improvement of the national stock’! (Did he mean animals or the population?) An acre of land was allowed for the plot, with more available later, enabling the cottager the ‘privilege of enclosing more of the waste’ when ‘his strength and ability enables him to render it equal justice’. What an ideal arrangement for the landowner, to get more of the waste common land under cultivation with free labour!
There were, however, some well-meaning gentlemen who sought to fill the need of housing for working families. Lord Clifford had built (?Chudleigh) some very neat cottages for his workers. The ground floor is not described but two upper rooms shared a window to admit light. Each family had a piece of ground to grow potatoes and a small orchard ‘sufficient to produce 1 or 2 hogsheads of cider and a good sufficiency of winter storing apples’. This was in lieu of grazing land for a cow as formerly allowed. Vancouver comments that ‘the cow being subject to accident, places this munificence on a more permanent footing’. It seems unlikely that cider and apples rather than milk would have benefited the children!
The Reverend Mr. Luxmore was another altruistic gentleman, and obviously proud to write to the Surveyor to describe the cottages he had built for his workers in Bridestowe. Two old ruinous cottages were demolished and replaced with a row of ‘twelve, neat, comfortable cottages’. The walls were stone up to 8 feet, and then cob with a slate roof, and cost about 40 shillings each to build. A detailed description is given with an etching showing the row of houses with happy mothers and children peering over the stable-type doors. The cottages still stand, opposite the village church.
Each cottage had a ground floor room 16 feet square with a door and window in front. A fireplace with oven was provided, and a backdoor leading to a shed for tools, fuel or shelter for a pig, and thence leading to a backyard. Under the stairs was a pantry with shelves. The bedroom above was the same size as below. Because the labouring poor normally apprenticed their children out at 8 or 9 years of age the good Reverend had considered that one bedroom for parents and little ones would do. He had later realised that some tenants, who by their ‘exceptional industry’ had not had to apprentice their children out so young, needed a second bedroom, so in later cottages he rectified this plan.
Each cottage was let for 1 shilling a week, and the Rector supplied wood for fuel at a reduced price. As long as the tenants frequented church and ‘behaved themselves soberly and carefully’ and were good neighbours to each other he would not remove anyone from his dwelling.
The point of the Surveyors’ reports was to inform the Board of Agriculture on the state and efficiency of farming in each county. In those days of the Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution, farmers were making good profits. Imports of food were disrupted, the population was growing at an unprecedented rate and with the movement of people to the ever-expanding cities fewer people were involved in food production than ever before. It was important therefore for land to be used efficiently.
Charles Vancouver found that the Parish Apprenticeship System, started in the days of Queen Elizabeth, was still in operation in Devon more than in most other counties. The farmer received 10 shillings a year to take a child apprentice. His comments on the scheme were that he found no fault with the treatment of young boys, whose ‘instruction is better understood and whose morals are better preserved than if they stayed at home’. On the girls’ lot, however, he was condemning of the ‘severity of their servitude’. Scraping roads and lanes, turning over and mixing and filling dung-pots was a waste of time; what, he asked, can a girl of ten or twelve do with a mattock or shovel? Driving horses was by no means a proper employment for girls, being incompatible with the domestic duties they should be learning. The result was that girls had no liking or desire for their work and were likely to ‘form premature connections’, leaving for early marriages before they have acquired useful domestic skills.
Vancouver divided the County into districts for the purposes of his report. The types of work the adult labourers were required to do varied: jobs he mentions are thrashing of course, of wheat, oats and barley, and making bundles of reed. There was cutting and making of faggots in woodland, ‘brushing and trimming’ of hedgerows, and cutting and tying of furze. On the fields the men might be ‘spreading beat-ashes’, lime-mould mixing and dung-spreading.
Typically, the day labourer worked from 7.0 am until noon, and from 1.0 pm until 5 or 6 o’clock. The labourer, Vancouver wrote, ‘is frequently seen on his way home this early, with his tools upon his back’. This was not from idleness but the custom in the County, because ‘these are the hours required to produce what is considered a day’s work’, for example the time taken to tie 100 faggots or make 12 bundles of straw at 35 lbs each.
In the large section of his report which Vancouver gives to farm animals, he extols the virtues of the cattle of North Devon which were much valued as working oxen as well as for grazing for meat rather than for milk. They would work at the plough or harrow for eight hours a day, the ‘ploughboy cheering them on with a song or chant’.
WAGES Vancouver remarked that the wages had not kept pace with the depreciation of money. The outdoor labourer earned about 7shillings a week plus a quart or 3 pints of drink daily (probably cider), and a casual labourer received 1s.4d a day with drink. The peasant worker was allowed to buy wheat at 6 shillings or barley at 3 shillings a bundle for his family, and use ‘dunged’ land at 6 or 8 pence a perch to grow potatoes. This meant he could keep a pig, which when slain at the end of the winter and cured provided, as Vancouver put it, ‘a rare but comfortable indulgence’. To put the wages more in context, if the family had to buy their pork or ‘green bacon’ it was 5d a pound. And potatoes were 8d to 1s a bushel.
There was one season in the farming year when perhaps the labourer was rather better rewarded. The goings-on at harvest time met with Mr Vancouver’s stern disapproval! When 10 or 20 acres of corn were ready, an indefinite number of men, women and children gathered at the field, according to how well the farmer was liked! By noon more hands had joined them, and the ale and cider ‘had warmed and elevated their spirits’ so much that the ribaldry could be heard some distance away. Dinner of best meat and vegetables was served in the field. Cutting and binding continued until about five o’clock when work stopped for buns, cakes and more drink. When the last sheaf was tied reaping hooks were thrown at it with much shouting of ‘we ha in’, after which the workers retired to the farmhouse for more drinking and carousing until the early hours of the morning! The whole ‘event’ was likely to be repeated the next day at another farm!
In order that the crop was not spoiled the farmers were of course dependent on as many hands as could be found turning up to bring the harvest in. Some showed a little more gratitude than others: in the northern and western parts it was still the ‘proviso’ that the harvest worker be invited for a ‘frolic at the farmer’s house at the Christmas following’
FUEL The cottagers were able to gather copse and hedgerow wood for their fires, and turf and peat in some areas. For faggots a charge of 13s. 6d per 100 was made, a rise of 50% in the last 12 or 14 years, caused by the ‘peculiar circumstances of the times’. For those who could afford it there was Welsh, Newcastle or Somerset coal. The poor at Northam Burrows gathered cow and horse dung which they dried and laid by for the winter – ‘they call this shensen’.
DIET & HEALTH. It may be supposed that the farm labourer’s diet was very plain but Vancouver recorded how the food varied across the county and interestingly, linked it to health differences.
In North Devon, ‘scorbutic’ complaints (scurvy, lack of vitamin C) were less common than in other parts, and asthma and consumption (Tb) were rare. There were ‘rheumatisms’ but most lived to old age. The basic diet was wheat or barley bread and potatoes, with cider or a light malt beverage, 1 – 3 pints a day. (I believe cider has some vitamin C) Across mid-Devon, the longevity and good health were ascribed to ‘simple aliment’ plus regularity and exercise.
In the area of west Devon adjoining Cornwall, the parish of Lydford, scrofula and sore legs were common in old age and ‘on the heads and other parts of young people before puberty’. (These were quite possibly TB abscesses). Their food was ‘mostly barley bread and potatoes, wheat broth seasoned with a piece of meat and pot-herbs’. Pies were made of bacon and potatoes. (I know from my mother’s family, that folk in west Devon, like Cornwall are known for their love of putting anything – such as ‘chipples’, parsley, turnips, apples - between layers of pastry!)
The South Hams folk had an ample supply of fish to add to the basic fare and this was thought to contribute to their ‘firmness and vigour’ into old age. On Dartmoor, Vancouver found many houses vacant and in ruins, but he remarked on the hardihood of the villagers, and how they excelled in ‘all manner of athletic exercises’. He examined the Parish registers and commented on the great ages at which people died. In Moretonhampstead in 1807, of 15 funerals, 7 were of folk aged 80 – 92 years. The diet of barley bread and ‘abundance of potatoes’ was supplemented with pickled pork, bacon or mutton fat, with a ‘profusion’ of leeks and onions.
East of Exeter, and around the Culm and Clyst rivers, the climate was kinder but people did not live to such a great age, ‘consumption and gravelly cases (kidney stones) being more common’. There was little fish in the diet here except around Exeter, but further east in the county plenty of fish was eaten, especially in the pilchard season.
Mr Vancouver made a particular comment on the culinary gardens of Devon which he suggested were amongst the best in England. Behind cob walls were ‘highly flavoured wall-fruit’ and farmers and peasants alike grew excellent vegetables especially large quantities of leeks.
There was some who showed concern about the depravation of labouring families in Devon. The Reverend Coham of Black Torrington wrote a long letter to the Surveyor expounding his theories.
Firstly, he suggested, better wages would improve conditions of the poor and result in fewer of them needing poor relief. He reminded the Surveyor that whereas wages were fixed some fourteen years ago prices of commodities had doubled and pointed out that not many years earlier a labourer’s wife and family were able to earn as much from spinning wool as the husband earned at his labouring. The demise of the woollen manufacture as a cottage industry as it moved to the north of England to factories had, of course, taken away this work. Vancouver confirmed that a woman who might have been paid 3s. 6d per week spinning now through lack of work ‘spent her time rummaging around for sticks’. Things were not so bad in the east of the county where some women worked at bone-lace making.
The Reverend Coham’s strongest recommendation was that ‘gentlemen of fortune and influence’, should set up Agricultural Societies such as had proved their worth in other areas. The improvement of farming practices, equipment and the skills of the workers together with the encouragement of honesty and industry would lead to making a district ‘more virtuous, prosperous and more happy’. The good parson also emphasised the importance of ‘fidelity in farm servants, frugality and general exemplary conduct in labourers towards their families’.
Education What were the chances of our peasant ancestors improving their lot? Education might have been the answer but while some villages had dame schools at this time, many folk were unable to write as we know from the ‘x’ signatures in the marriage registers.
Mr. Vancouver expressed his opinion, probably shared by many of his peers, on educating the poor. From the ‘dawning’ of the establishment of Sunday Schools ‘promoted by their present Majesties’ (George III and Queen Charlotte), Mr. Vancouver pronounced that he ‘looked forward with dread to the consequences of such a measure’. After all, if education would result in the labourer being more moral and more desirous of excelling in his work then it might be of public benefit. But he was certain the opposite effect was likely as, for example in Ireland, where teaching people to read had led to a ‘desire to ramble’ and thus to emigration. It gave peasants ambitions that were entirely unsuitable for ‘those whose path in life is distinctly marked out’. He believed the keenness of the Scottish folk to migrate stemmed from the education they received when young; any measure that makes people restless must prove harmful to the community.
It was therefore the Surveyor’s opinion that every means be made available to make labourers want to excel, whether at breaking stones for lime kilns or repairing highways. As a further warning on the dangers of allowing literacy to spread among the workers he begged the question, ‘how can mutinies and uprisings be avoided if the multitude can correspond with one another’?
Education, if it had been available, would surely have been the way for our forebears to improve their lives. With the ruling classes having attitudes like Mr Vancouver it is not surprising it was to be over 60 years before free schooling was provided for all. With life-styles such as Devon labourers had, in rough cob hovels, working almost as slaves on a poor & monotonous diet, was it any wonder some had a ‘desire to ramble’? During the next half-century thousands of Devonians would set off for a new life across the sea, especially to Canada, as one son and three grandchildren of John & Dorothy Joslin did in the 1850s.
In his book ‘Old Devon’, W.G.Hoskins’ wrote a chapter on the lot of the Devon farm labourer, in which he quotes from ‘The State of the Poor’ in 1797 by Sir Frederick Morton Eden, and also from reports from the Poor Law Commissioners in 1843. The chapter contains much detail about wages & food, and the latter report is based on accounts by individuals about their experiences as child apprentices on farms, which would have been at the time of Vancouver’s report, and therefore makes further interesting reading.
SOURCES: GENERAL VIEW of the AGRICULTURE of the COUNTY of DEVON
By Charles Vancouver. 1808 David & Charles Reprint 1
OLD DEVON by W.G.Hoskins David & Charles 1966
By Brenda Powell. © I want to thank Brenda for her kindness in allowing me to use her article.