Farming and Labouring
(With regard to ploughing) The style of driving an ox team, here is observable; indeed, cannot pass unnoticed by a stranger. The language, though to a certain degree peculiar in the country, does not arrest the attention; but the tone, or rather tune, in which it is delivered. It resembles, with great exactness the chantings, or recitative of the Cathedral service. The plow boy chants the counter tenor, with unabated ardour through the day; the plow man throwing in, at intervals, his hoarser notes. It is understood that this chanting march, which sometimes be heard to a considerable distance, encourages and animates the team, as the music of a marching army, or the song of rowers.....I have never seen so much cheerfulness attending the operation of ploughing, anywhere as in Devonshire. (From Marshall's Rural Economy of the West of England, 1796).
Marshall further states:
Farmers of every class (some few excepted) carry their corn perhaps a quarter of a mile to the summit of some airy swell, where it is winnowed by women! the mistress of the farm, perhaps, being exposed in the severest weather to the cutting winds of winter, in this slavish and truly barbarous employment. The machine fan, however, is at length making its way to the western extremity.
Mr. G.A. Cooke in "The County of Devon" (written about 1816-1820) narrates on
"Society and Manners":
....as they relate to rustic affairs, are particularly distinguishable during the wheat harvest, when the wheat being ready to cut down, notice is given in the neighbourhood, that a reaping is to be performed on a particular day; as a farmer may be more or less liked in the village on the morning of the day appointed a gang, consisting of an indefinite number of men and women, assemble on the field, and the reaping commences after breakfast, which is seldom over till between 8 and 9 o'clock. This company is open for additional hands to drop in at any time before the twelfth hour, to partake of the frolic of the day. The dinner, consisting of the best meat and vegetables is carried into the field between 12 and 1, and distributed with copious draughts of ale and cider. At 2, cutting and binding is resumed, and at 5, what is called the drinkings are taken into the field, accompanied with buns, cakes etc. When all is over, about the close of the evening, a small sheaf is bound up and set upon the top of one of the ridges, when the reapers, retiring to a certain distance, each throws his reaping-hook at the sheaf, until one of them strikes it down. This achievement is accompanied with the utmost stretch and power of the voices of the company, uttering the words, we ha in! The company afterwards retire to the farmhouse to sup, after which, they make merry with ale and cider, to a late hour. At the same house, or that of a neighbouring farmer, a similar course is probably renewed between 8 and 9 o'clock on the following morning. The labourers, thus employed, it must be observed, receive no wages, but instead of this, receive an invitation to the farmer's house at Christmas, when open house is kept 3 or 4 days at least; and if the rudeness of the bear garden is sometimes exhibited, the opulent, who can command their hours and means of gratification at pleasure, should not envy those of the rustic.
"Let not ambition mark their useful toil,
Their humble joys and destiny obscure,
Nor grandeur hear with disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor."
Further, under "Labour and Labourers", Cooke states:
The wages of the out-door labourer is generally 7/= per week, winter and summer, and from a quart to 3 pints of drink daily. Even in hay-time and harvest these wages are not increased, though additional exertions at those seasons are amply compensated by board, and treatings with ale and cider. During the war (NOTE: the Napoleonic Wars), the addition to these wages was the standing supply of wheat at 6/= and barley at 3/=, per bushel. A portion of land is also assigned by the farmer to each peasant family for growing potatoes, which enables some of these to keep a pig. Among the small farmers, the men are often content to receive 3/6 per week and their board. It is also no unusual practice in the northern and western part of the county for a man to work at harvesting for 1 day, only for his drink and board, upon condition that he shall be invited to the harvest frolic at the farmer's house, which continues for some days together. Near large trading towns the price of labour has occasionally risen with the demand. But the hours of work and stinted labour have long been customary here; the former are from 7 to 12, and from 1 to between 5 and 6. Even in Summer, when at day-work, the labourer may be seen on his way home with his tools at his back; this however, is not the result of idleness but of custom; as having performed his stint, the labourer is no longer detained.
Any notions that the rustic life had its attractions were to be removed by the changing conditions and great poverty in England. In "Towards Quebec", Ann Giffard details some conditions and reasons for emigration from the West Country:
William Cobbett described his John Plodpole with 'his handful of fire and his farthing or half-farthing rushlight'. Parson Hawker, living in Morwenstow in North Cornwall from 1834 onwards, wrote: "they are crushed down, my poor people, ground down with poverty, with a wretched wage". As the century wore on the descriptions became more specific. In the 1860s the village of Halberton, near Tiverton (Devon), was decribed thus:
"The general sanitary condition of the village was very bad. Picturesque as they were externally, many of the peasant's cottages were unfit for the housing of pigs. Pools of stagnant water stood in many parts of the parish....The whole village was badly drained, open sewers ran through it frequently trickling down upon the cottages into the village brook, from which cattle slaked their thirst and the villagers and their children often drank."
At the turn of the (nineteenth) century, Arthur Young wrote one of the reasons for this rural poverty:
"by nineteen out of twenty Enclosure Acts the poor are injured, in some grossly injured...The poor in these parishes may say, and with truth, 'Parliament may be tender of property; all I know is, I had a cow, and an Act of Parliament has taken it from me".
Not only their cows, but they also lost their gleaning rights, the possibility of growing a few vegetables, of collecting firewood. Cobbett, in 1824, wrote of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of cottage industries:
"The profit of a small farm received a great addition from the fruit of the labours of knitting, spinning and the like; but when these were taken away by the lords of the loom....the little farm itself did not offer a sufficiency of means to maintain a considerable family."
Times were bad from the end of the Napoleonic Wars and through the 1830s, with spasmodic riots and rick-burning across the country (one such case was reported in the 'London Gazette' in October, 1815, on the property of Mr. JOHN HOLE, Saunton Court, Braunton). In 1815 there were riots to prevent the exportation of grain from Bideford. The North Devon Journal carried numerous advertisements for emigrant vessels, some of which listed agents in towns as far as Okehampton and Tavistock. It reported in 1831:
"such is the prevailing rage for emigration, that a female who had given birth to a child but three days before, would not be persuaded by the most urgent entreaties....to remain behind for another season.
A letter written by a young man living in a North Devon village in 1845 to his uncle who had settled in Prince Edward Island, Canada, says it all in a nutshell:
"I am thinking of trying America as there is nothing here to look to for a living for the inhabitants is so thick and Labour is so dead there is nothing going on.....an if ever I come to America I think it will be next Summer for I am thinking then to take a wife an after people get settled it is a great Difficulty of removing again.....the young woman I intend to make my wife has got a brother on the Island and he is Doing very well......."
In 1862, the following was reported:
"Never yet in my incumbancy of 27 years did the prospects of farmers and labourers and poor assume so dark a hue. They come to me for advice. If they have a few pounds out of the wreck my advice always is, 'Emigrate!' And accordingly nearly a hundred in the current year go across the sea. Our population in 1851 was 1074, and in 1861 it was 868, a decrease of 206......." ("Family Servants and Visitors", Mary Bouquet, 1985).
The populations of villages had, by this time, passed their sustainable peak. In 1987, Wendy Hawkins published her thesis entitled "By The Sweat of the Labour" (Loughborough University), from which the following are extracts:
An 1864 North Devon Labourer's Fare:
Breakfast Tea kettle broth (hot water poured on bread and flavoured with onions). Dinner Bread (1861 4lb loaf 7½d) and hard cheese at 2d a pound with cider (sour). Supper Potatoes or cabbage greased with a tiny bit of fat bacon. He seldom sees or smells butcher's meat. (My own Lerwill family were somewhat more fortunate and were able to rent some land on which to grow vegetables, but even so their usual fare was said to be "skimmed milk and potatoes". Potatoes were said to have been introduced into Devon by an Irishman called Moore, in the 18th c.).
Lacking fuel to make fire....Devon far from coal supplies....Wood scarce and firing not allowed except in the form of permission to grub up the roots of old hedges. Therefore, little heating and cooking. ......Part of Braunton village lay on low marshy ground that was prone to flooding. This was noted in the Medical Officer's report 1842, which also identified manure pits "which give off a foul miasma as they were filled with very putrid water and filth". At the age of 45 or 50, the peasant was usually found to be crippled up by rheumatism.....Carpenters were traditionally also undertakers.......Midwives had a very low status, and were commonly held to have been "dirty old hags" who more often than not hindered rather than helped. The midwives used much folklore and herbal remedies.
However, farmers often gave their labourer the runt of the litter which was called locally the nistledraft. The animals became tame through hand-feeding and were treated almost as pets, thus, when the time for slaughter came round, the butcher had to be called to do the job. Pigs were best killed at the 'growing of the moon', since it was considered that the meat did not shrink so much with boiling as when the moon was 'going back'. By keeping a pig, a farm supplied its own lard and bacon, and the meat and inwards were also used to make ''ogs pudd'ns', of fascinating (and lengthy) manufacture.