Victorian lives in North Mymms
by Peter Kingsford
Agricultural labourer is the official description of the men in North Mymms who earned a humble living from the land. A great number of facts about them over a period of thirty years are available in the census enumerators’ returns. The facts for 1851, 1861, 1371 and 1881 are: their names, relation i.e. head of household, son etc, condition (married or not etc), sex, age, trade, and place of birth. This chapter is an attempt to extract some meaning from all this information.
Most of these men lived in the four hamlets of the parish. Welham Green, Water End, Bell Bar and Roestock. How did their lives change in the generation between the farming prosperity of the I 850s and the depression of the 1 88Os? As you would expect they shrank considerably in number. This was not only because of farmers coming on hard times. In fact North Mymms, where the hay harvest was more important than the corn harvest, was probably not as much affected as wholly arable districts in North Hertfordshire and East Anglia which suffered from foreign imports. The nearness of the London market for beef as well as for hay was an advantage. All the same two Scottish farmers, Crawford and Sinclair, came in the 1870s to take over from local men who had given up. But in addition to depression, the coming of mechanisation also reduced the number of agricultural labourers needed. Steam threshing machines were available in the l850s. In effect the labourers fell from 119 to 80, by 32%. All four hamlets lost labourers. Welham Green which embraced Balloon Corner, Pooley’s Lane and Pancake Hall, was worst affected; Bell Bar the least, probably because many there worked for the great Brookmans estate and farm and were sheltered by it.
Not surprisingly, it was the younger men who left the land. The number of workers under thirty fell from 58 to 18. The average age rose from 25 to 38. It became mainly a middle aged and old man’s occupation. That familiar figure of the 1 850s, the farm boy, under fourteen years old had almost disappeared thirty years later. Only three remained - Vincent Berry, son of a railway platelayer at Balloon Corner, Joseph Longstaff, son of the under-gardener at Bell Bar and Walter Perry, son of an agricultural labourer at Roestock. The school leavers had given it up.
What then had happened? One fact gives a partial answer; many more men were, by the 1 880s, working as gardeners. Some, like William Longstaff of Bell Bar, had graduated from young agricultural labourer to middle aged under- gardener in the interval. They had adapted to the change in the market for their labour and now tended the gardens of the well to do instead of producing food whether for men or horses. There were head gardeners as well as under gardeners. Gardening had come into its own and for every stately or lesser home a well tended and decorative large garden had become a status symbol.
Whatever the economic effect the social result for the agricultural labourer was beneficial. Gardeners were slightly higher in social standing and were paid a little more. Their school fees, along with those of gamekeepers and artisans were threepence a week compared with the labourers’ twopence. Moreover, they were more secure, at least those who were "gentleman’s gardener’ and regarded as domestic servants, distinct from the ‘working gardener’. The landowner, great or small, did not feel the same need to put off his gardeners as did the farmer in hard times with his labourers.
A few labourers went up in the world, with great effort and good luck. Charles Honour who, in his own words later on, ‘had been climbing up ever since the Russian war ,became a farmer at Colney Heath with 76 aces. By the beginning of the next century he had Moffats Farm of 350 acres. A farm servant Thomas Nash rose to be farm foreman. Two labourers, Benjamin Longstaff and Henry Bodger, responding to change and specialising, turned themselves into ‘hay binders for the market’ working with the hay carters. There was no lack of horses in spite of or because of the railways.
The way of living and the level of wellbeing, and how they changed in a generation depended first on the basic wage but there were many other conditions. They were the earnings, if any, of his wife and children, the condition of his cottage and the rent he paid for it, security of employment and of housing, the size of the family, the school fees to be paid, the welfare available in the parish, whether charitable or self financing, whether he had a settlement which entitled him to relief under the poor law. All these influences on his life combined to affect his standard of living.
Earlier in the century, in 187, churchwarden Joseph Sabine told a Parliamentary Committee that the basic wage of labourers in the parish was 12 shillings per week. Labourers could, at least according to him, earn up to 15 or 18 shillings by piece work on hedging and ditching in a twelve hour day and at harvest time in an even longer day. If this was true they were better off than most labourers in the county for by 1850 when wages were at much the same level the average basic wage for Hertfordshire was only 9 shillings a week. Perhaps their advantage was due to the nearness to London and the mixed farming in the parish compared with the arable cultivation in other parts of the county. The county average basic wage rose after the 1850s to l2s 6d by the 189s and no doubt wages in North Mymms followed suit.
One cause of this increase was probably the formation of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union. There was no trace of a branch in North Mymms; the vicar warned men against joining the union:
"It is very important that the consequences of joining an Union of this kind should he properly understood. Those who give their names as members would have to pay 6d. entrance fee, and to contribute at once two pence per week to the funds of the Union. This does not sound much; but in the event of a strike taking place, we will say in Bedfordshire, the men there would be induced to strike by the promise that while off work they would he supported out of the funds of the union; and the agricultural labourers in work in others parts of the country would be almost immediately called on for an increased weekly contribution, possibly of two or three shillings a week, to meet this drain upon the funds of the union. Nor is this all. In the event of the masters whose men were on ‘strike’ obtaining labourers, we will say from North Mimms, to fill up the places of those on strike, messengers would soon come from the central authorities of the union, calling all the labourers here to join the strike, and leave their work, and if this order were not obeyed, if we may judge by the way in which men belonging to these unions have hitherto invariably acted, threats and actual violence would soon be resorted to, in order to compel those labourers who belonged to the union to leave their work and join the strike. So that or readers will see it is a very serious matter for any labouring man to belong to one of these ‘unions"; that by so doing he really looses his liberty; he is no longer a free man; he puts himself in the power of some unknown master, who may be only a political agitator, living by his wits on the wages of the hard working labourer, or, even if an honest man, may be of very defective judgement; while at the same time the labourer who joins this union, has at once to contribute from his hard-earned wages, and may have positively to reduce himself and family to absolute poverty and destitution, or run the risk of personal violence and ill-treatment."
Differences of opinion will from time to time arise as regards the price that should be paid for the various kinds of labour which the requirements of man call for, and the only sensible way of settling these differences is by friendly conference between the employers and the employed. In some trades at this moment there are standing committees composed of equal numbers of the employers and the employed, who determine all questions of wages, etc., that arise, and whose decision is binding on both parties. Sometimes an umpire is chosen by both to decide, when unanimity cannot be otherwise arrived at. But that which is to be avoided on every account is a strike. It injures all. The masters a little, the men still more. A Strike increases the price of everything, and they who have the least money to spend will feel the effects of a strike the more severely. A strike in the agricultural districts would be followed by a rise in rent, the price of bread, butter, cheese, and almost all other shop goods. This would press more severely on the poor than on any one else. In this parish the most kindly feeling has hitherto subsisted between the employers and the employed; anything which would tend to introduce discord, heart-burning and ill blood, is most earnestly to be avoided and deprecated. Let us try to carry out the good old-fashioned maxim of the blessed book - "Masters give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye have also a Master in heaven’; and ‘Servants obey in all things your Master in heaven’; and ‘Servants obey in all things your Masters according to the flesh, not with eye service as men pleasers, but in singleness of heart fearing God, and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord and not unto men."
The influence of the Union was clearly felt for in 1873 there were branches within a few miles, at Colney Heath, Wheathampstead, Sandridge and Hatfield. In the previous June South Beds and Herts Division had held a meeting on No Mans Land, three miles from St Albans. About five hundred men were present. The wages in Hertford, it was said, were ten to twelve shillings. Joseph Allen told the meeting that he received eleven to twelve shillings a week out of which he spent four shillings in rent, firing and candles. He had left twopence halfpenny per day for each member of his family. Only the extra wages at harvest time allowed him to get clothing for his children. At the end of the meeting a resolution to join the union was carried with enthusiasm and deafening cheers.
In North Mymms wages were not likely to be far off Joseph Allen’s (his parish is not known). On the other hand the North Myrnrns men seem to have been paying less rent. The average rent paid by thirteen labourers to one landowner, R A Gaussen of Brookmans, was one shilling and sixpence in the 1860s. The landowner may well have been lenient; rents due to him were ‘forgiven in case of need. The same men had the advantage over Joseph Allen in children’s clothing since they had the parish clothing club. The vicar’s clothing club of 1865 was formed out of the then existing boys’ and girls’ clothing clubs. One hundred and eighty members paid in about six shillings a year and continued to do so until well into the twentieth century. Members could get clothing of any kind twice a year at Midsummer and Christmas This was possible because of the subsidies from the gentry by, in the vicar’s words, ‘their most kind and liberal contributions’. The item of ‘firing’ borne by Joseph Allen was covered in the parish by the coal club also organised by the vicar. And while there was no provision for his ‘candles’, North Mymms had other clubs, for shoes, for rent, for blankets over many years, all similarly subsidised. Appreciation of this welfare was shown by the large numbers of labourers who subscribed to the vicar’s parting present.
Perhaps in support of the vicar’s warning against the trade union, next month two new prizes for long service were announced at the Cottage Garden Show. These rewards of twenty shillings and ten shillings were for "the agricultural labourers in the parish who had been longest with one Master and brought his good character with him from his employer". The prizes were duly awarded in August 1873. The first prize went to William Gower aged eighty two who had fifty years in the employ of "Messrs Giddins". Thirty years earlier Gower, a shepherd, lived with his wife and a son and three daughters in Roestock. His family changed, the children left home, his wife died and by the time of his reward he was living alone, having moved to Water End. Six years after his prize his life in the parish came to a not uncommon end. He was admitted to Hatfield workhouse and he died there at the age of ninety-one. The second prize winner in 1873 was Thomas Peck. He had served R W Gaussen of Brookmans for twenty nine of his fifty eight years. Being a single man, he lodged with James Tapster, agricultural labour of Welham Green, a young family man whose wife’s earning from straw plaiting and payments from their two lodgers made them better off than most of his kind.
The vicar also dispensed the parish charities to deserving labourers. Under Mrs Coningsby’s Gift ten "Labourers in Husbandry" received l0s 6d. each. Shove Tuesday provided that they had had no poor relief, Sabine’s Gift provided for one such labourer to receive £1, and by the Bread Charities bread to the value £18 a year was handed out to "all Labourers of good character who attend Church". The men continued to receive this largesse throughout the century.
A different kind of charitable help for the labourers was "that admirable institution" the soup kitchen. This was a product of a change in the terms of hiring labour. The days were long past when labourers were farm servants who lived in, were part of the farmer’s family and were hired by the year. There were , however, still a few left in the 1850s. An official observer reported in 1847 that: "A practice has grown up lately of engaging a labourer for a whole year … a renewal of the old system that we have not had for years together." In North Mymms the remaining farm servants lived on the farms where they worked: Isaac Taylor at Red Hall, George Littlechild at Parsonage, John Littlechild at Skimpans. Henry Franklin at Tollgate and James Constable at Travellers farm. Along with them were thirty men described as farm labourers probably attached more permanently to a farm, and who may have enjoyed the long hiring of the farm servants. Some of these lived at their farms at Potterells, Boltons and Hawkshead and were more likely to have had the same advantage. But they were a small minority. All the rest, hired by the week or the day or the hour, could be laid off at any time and were so treated in hard winters. For them at such times there were the soup kitchens, as in 1864, 1866, 1879 and later on in the 1890s. For example in the winter of 1895 at the soup kitchen in Roestock 1270 quarts of soup and 635 half quarter loaves were dispensed to the families there and from Welham Green and Water End at one penny a time. Donations from the gentry amounted to £18 4s. 0d. including £2 from the banker at Potterells, Cotton Curtis. The soup and bread furnished the main meal of the day. The vicar appealed for funds for the poor who had got into debt.
In the last resort there was the poor law, but parish relief debarred a man from the parish charities. Several labourers fell on the parish in the 1850s. Relief at home, whether as a medical ticket or cash allowance, depended basically on whether the man had a settlement in the parish. He could possess this valued qualification by birth in the parish or by inheritance or by residence for five years. William Goodall of Foxes Lane, a widower of 65 living alone and John Webb married with two children in Powder Beech Lane, aged only forty, must have been relieved under the last two conditions, unless the Guardians broke the rules. Without a settlement a person receiving relief was likely to be sent away to wherever he had one. Two other men received medical tickets as "permanently sick and disabled" — William Marlborough aged 39 and Benjamin Covington of Water End, agricultural veteran of 81 years, living with his son in law and two grandchildren.
The wellbeing of the agricultural labourer depended as much as, and perhaps more than, anything else on the number of mouths he had to feed, bodies to clothe and beds to fit into his cottage. His life began and ended in a family poverty cycle in which the lowest ebb was usually when he was in his mid thirties with several children too young to work. The first step had been for him and his betrothed who was quite often already pregnant, to save enough to set up house. Savings of £40 from farm and domestic service was customary earlier in the century, the woman providing the bedlinen, and perhaps the bed and household utensils. He was then relatively comfortable until the children came, especially if his wife continued earning. By the time the children had left home or were no longer dependent he had a return of relative wellbeing until a poverty-stricken and parish aided old age. In between, his working sons, often starting at the age of twelve, brought some relief, but the old saying "With every mouth God sends a pair of hands" had only a limited meaning.
The labourer whose household had more than one source of income was fortunate. In the 1850s only twenty-one of the men’s wives were earning and anothereleven had children who were working. Their earnings were an incentive to keep them at home. Thirty years later there were only three such wives and two such children, indicating a considerable loss of income, partly offset perhaps by the rise in men’s wages. The wives’ main employment earlier, straw plaiting, had disappeared. Legislation had hampered the hiring of children.
The easiest situation was to have more than one income and no or few children. Richard and Ann Chuck of Pooley’s Lane, she a strawplaiter with one little boy, and Job and Mary Kemp of Balloon Corner, she also a strawplaitcr but without children, were in that position. A strawplaiter could sometimes earn as much as a labourer. With three dependent children life became harder even when the wife found time to do strawplaiting. This was the case of David Pollard at Pooley’s Lane, Joseph Covington at Roestock and George Kemp at Balloon Corner. Another labourer with three children at school requiring sixpence a week in fees while his wife worked as washerwoman, was Isaac Webb. Yet another, John Mansfield in Roestock did not have an earning wife but the wages of his thirteen-year-old agricultural labourer son helped to keep his other three younger children.
A few households were better off with more than two incomes. Hannah Chuck, wife of John, was a dairywoman while her two teenage sons were employed as garden labourer and farmer’s boy. There were six in their cottage in Pooley’s Lane for which they paid the considerable rent of thirty shillings a quarter, much more than the average. Joseph Child’s household also had three additional incomes: William his labourer son and two plaiting daughters. One of these was a pauper; perhaps her allowance had something to do with the third daughter who was the wife of the workhouse master. Seven in that cottage included a grandson. Children being brought up by their grandparents were not uncommon. It was a relief from overcrowding and in such situations children sometimes slept with neighbours and relatives.
The worst situation for men and their wives was if they had many children but apparently no additional earnings from wife or children. At Water End there was John Joice with four children (sixpence a week in school fees) and Andrew Vines with six. At Roestock George Joy had another brood of six. Such were the different condir~ of wellbeing in the 1850s.
How much had they changed thirty years later? It is not possible to give a full answer but something is known about the men and their households just mentioned. All twelve had stayed in the parish and only one had changed his occupation. Richard Chuck had moved to Pancake Hall; his wife Anne no longer plaited but two sons born in the interval earned something as farm boys, one only twelve years old. His eldest son Richard, now thirty one, had risen in the world for he had set up as a baker in Pooley’s Lane with a family of four of his own. Job Kemp had stayed put in all except age. The fortunes of Pollard, Covington and George Kemp had varied. Pollard had become a widower; the young children of the 1850s had departed but there were three more sons at home and two of them were agricultural labourers. His household had more incomes and fewer dependants than before. Joseph and Rebecca Covington were now by themselves, the children having left, and his income consisted solely of his wages. George Kemp and Isaac Webb were in the same situation. Two of the men had fallen on hard times in their old age. John Mansfield aged 79 and John Chuck 82 and their wives Ann aged 70 and Hannah 74 had become paupers and were dependent on the goodwill of the relieving officer and the guardians for their allowances. John Chuck’s sons were not in a position to help their parents. John junior who had been a farmer’s boy was now a general labourer with a wife and four children to support, albeit one teenage son was also a labourer. The other son James was little better off. He had followed his father as agricultural labourers. Some extra income came from his laundress wife, from one teenage son as a carter and from another who, aged thirteen, was a farmer’s boy as his uncle had been, but there were school fees to pay for three other children and a baby to feed. The Mansfields had a grandson living with them, a fourteen-year-old gardener. Both those aged men had moved to Water End.
Joseph Childs had died but his son William became a roadman, perhaps working for the parish surveyor, a widower with his sister and little daughter dependent on him. The situation of Joice and Vines, still at Water End, had perhaps improved somewhat. Joice had only himself and his wife to keep on his wages. All Vines’s children had also flown and his Amelia was earning as one of the growing number of laundresses. George Joy had lost his wife and now lived alone in Welham Green.
Along with that dozen survivors into the l880s there were eight others - John Burgess, Samuel Burr, Richard Day, James Gray, Benjamin and William Longstaff, Henry Pollard and William Webb, already an agricultural labourer at the age of eleven in 1851. Their lives had been on a similar pattern. For example John Burgess remained in Bell Bar as R W Gaussen’s farm carter at Brookmans while Ann his wife who had brought up five children changed from charwomen to dairywomen. The children had all gone leaving the old couple with two grandsons and a lodger, the gamekeeper. They had gone through the family cycle and perhaps had reached the penultimate phase of greater comfort. Such was the outcome after a generation of these men and their families. There had been little overall change in their circumstances.
All the time, however, their hamlets had undergone change of a different kind. In each decade from 1851 onward most of the men had moved their homes from one hamlet to another. All the hamlets were, of course, within walking distance of each other, though from Roestock to Water End was a good two and a half miles. There was clearly much movement between them. The hamlets could hardly have had much permanent neighbourliness or have been self-contained communities. The community was the parish in which the church and its numerous welfare organisations hound the hamlets together.
Peter Kingsford, 1989
Chapter 3 - The Spanish Guerilla
Index - Victorian lives in North Mymms
Preface - Why Peter Kingsford wrote the book
Sources - Where Peter Kingsford researched the material for this book.
Photographs - The photographs reproduced by Peter Kingsford in his book