The Agricultural Labourer

Joseph Hyder: The Case for Land Nationalisation

Chapter XI: The Agricultural Labourer

Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn.
 Deuteronomy xxv 4.

The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits. 2 Timothy ii. 6.

In time it is likely the world will be better divided, and he that has the toil of ploughing will have the first cut at the reaping.
Froude, Life of Carlyle. vol.ii. p. 16.

Theirs is a life of incessant toil, for wages too scanty to give them a sufficient supply of the first necessities of life. No hope cheers their monotonous career: a life of constant labour brings them no other prospect than that, when their strength is exhausted, they must crave as suppliant mendicants, a pittance from parish relief.
Professor Fawcett.

Many sweating, ploughing, threshing, and then the chaff for 
payment receiving,
A few idly owning, and they the wheat continually claiming.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, in Leaves of Grass, p. 68.

Bowed by the weight of centuries, he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground.
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burdens of the world.
Edwin Makkham, in The Man with the Hoe.

Abundant is the earth – the Sire of all
Saw and pronounced that it was very good.
look round: the vernal fields smile with new flowers.
The budding orchard perfumes the sweet bronze,
And the green corn waves to the passing gale.
There is enough for all, but your proud Baron
Stands up and, arrogant of strength, exclaims:
“I am a Lord – by nature I am noble;
These fields are mine, for I was born to them,
I was born to the castle – yon poor wretches,
Whelped in the cottage, are by birth my slaves.”
Almighty God, such blasphemies are uttered;
Almighty God, such blasphemies believed.
Robert Southey, Speech of John Ball,
in Wat Tyler, Act II., Scene I.

Landless, joyless, restless, hopeless.
Gasping still for bread and breath,
To their graves by trouble hunted,
Albion’s Helots toil till death.
Ebenezer Elliott, in Corn Law Rhymes.

If you want to raise the general condition of the whole people, you must begin with the lowest stratum; and at the present time I do not hesitate to say that the toil, which is least remunerative is that of the agricultural labourer. I am convinced that you can look for no great improvement in the general condition of the working classes until the just claims of the labourers have been satisfied, and the steady depopulation of the country has been completely stayed.
Why, England is no longer “Merrie England” since the labourer was divorced from the soil he tills. How to restore him to the land is the land question with which the great mass of the English people are chiefly concerned.
Joseph Chamberlain, speech at Bradford, October 1, 1885.

This Convention believes that the land is the inalienable inheritance of all mankind; and that therefore its present monopoly is repugnant to the laws of God and nature. The nationalisation of the land is the only true basis of national prosperity.
Declaration by the Chartist Convention in 1848,

OF all the social problems, which confront British statesmen, and cry aloud for solution, there is not one of greater importance and urgency than that which is connected with the condition of the agricultural labourer. Engaged as he is in the production of the very first necessaries of life, his labour is so ill requited that he remains in a state of chronic poverty. His wages are only enough to provide the very barest and poorest food, clothing, and shelter for himself and family. Only by the exercise of the greatest possible thrift is he able to live at all.

Scattered in thousands of hamlets and villages, he has never been able to secure the advantages of collective bargaining by means of which the miner, the engineer, the carpenter, the compositor, the mason, the bricklayer, the iron-worker, and the cotton operative have been able to obtain at least some part of the benefit which the progress of industry as a whole has made possible. Yet his labour is as valuable to the country as theirs is, and he also is as much a skilled workman as they are. 

Every census records a reduction in his numbers, a reduction that is only partially explained by the increased use of agricultural machinery, or the attractions of town life, or the lure of other lands. A hundred years ago, three out of every four of the population lived in the country. At the present time three out of every four live in the towns. 

The towns have been fed with a constant stream of men who find no scope for their activities in the fields, and the villages have been, and are being, steadily depeopled. Cottages have been pulled down and few fresh ones erected. The land has gone out of cultivation, and that which is cultivated is labour-starved. 

The Rural Exodus
Allowing for the differences of classification in recent censuses, and for the reduction in the numbers of women engaged in agriculture, and for the good laws that send children to the school instead of to the field, the reduction in the numbers of farm workers presents a very serious problem.

Whereas in 1861 there were 1,284,000 men and 373,000 boys under twenty, at work on the farms of Great Britain, in 1901 there were only 988,000 men, and 238,000 boys under twenty, so employed. And the latest census will certainly show that a further reduction has taken place. 

In all other industries the number of workers has gone up steadily in proportion to the population and to the increased wealth of the country. In agriculture alone, not only have the numbers of workers failed to increase, but they have actually declined. And of those that remain, the proportion between those who are engaged in tilling the land and those who are merely engaged in tending the animals that graze on it, is very different from what it was fifty years ago. There are fewer ploughmen, but there are more shepherds. And it is little comfort to find that while there are fewer food-growers there are more gamekeepers. 

Effect On Towns
The effect that the rural exodus has upon the conditions of life and labour in towns is to be seen in the forcing up of town rents, and it undoubtedly operates to keep town wages from rising to the level they might otherwise reach. And the problem of unemployment in towns is certainly intensified by it. For although the incoming countryman is not usually himself unemployed, he forces other men, less reliable and less strong, into that condition. Thus out of 141 unemployed dealt with in one year by the Abbey Mills experiment of the Mansion House Committee, 94 were Londoners, 17 were men from other towns, and only 30 were countrymen. In the struggle for work the weaker goes to the wall, and the countryman gets employment by crowding out his fellows who have been deteriorated in physique and habits by the influences of town life.

Starvation Wages
Even if we take the Board of Trade Returns we find that the wages of farm labourers are much below what is necessary for the proper sustenance of a man, his wife, and his children. But there is abundant evidence to show that those figures, which were mainly supplied by landlords and farmers, do not represent the true facts of the case. Dr. H. H. Mann made a very thorough investigation for the Sociological Society into the wages paid in a typical Bedfordshire village, Ridgmount. He proceeded on the same strictly scientific lines that were followed in Mr. Charles Booth’s historic inquiry into life and labour in London, and Mr. Seebohm Rowntree’s valuable inquiry into the condition of the people of York. He did not gather and average a few facts from men who are interested in presenting them in the most favourable light, but he collected all the facts available for one area.

He excluded all old labourers and youths who were not earning a full man’s wage. And he arrived at the figure of 14s. 4d, or, excluding foremen, 13s. 7½ d. per head per week for the sixty-five agricultural labourers whose earnings he investigated, as against the official Bedfordshire average of 16s. 2d. per week. 

“The labourer,” says Mr. Charles Roden Buxton, in the Contemporary Review, August 1912, “first rises above the poverty line when he begins, or a sufficient number of his brothers begin, to earn wages. He can secure sufficient food, clothing, and shelter until he is a married man and has two children. Then he again sinks below the line, and does not rise above it a second time till most of his children have left school and begun to earn wages. Ere long the young wage-earners begin to leave home; old age draws on; the second period of prosperity is over, and he crosses the poverty line once more, never to emerge again above it.” 

Mr. Buxton found that the wages in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire were generally l0s., 11s., and 12s. per week, and the men have to lose time in wet weather. Hundreds of them go home at the weekend with only 8s. for the week. Allowing for all extras, their average weekly wage is only 12s. per week.” Take a man,” he says, “with a wife and three children, and deduct the following items of expenditure from his wages, which must be deducted before the question of food can be dealt with. I find the rents of cottages average 2s. 6d. per week; a hundredweight of coal is necessary, and that is 1s. 4d.; the man’s club is 6d., and clothing, etc., 9d. That means 5s. 1d. to be deducted from his wages, and that will leave 6s. 11d. for food for the family. With a family of five, they will require 105 meals in the week; ¾d. per meal would amount to 6s. 6¾d., so there is a balance of 4½d. left out of the 12s.” 

The marvel is, not that so many labourers have left the villages, as that there are so many still remaining there. It is a standing miracle how they live at all. For life is one long self-denying ordinance for them. It is a continual problem of learning how to do without things. 

But it was not always so, as the marvellously thorough researches of Professor Thorold Rogers show in the clearest possible manner. At one time every labourer had “his pig in the stye, and his fowl in the pot.” For he had not then been divorced from the soil. Whereas the duty of Government is now recognised to be the enabling of the labourer to get better pay, the efforts of Governments for centuries were always directed to preventing him from doing so; which proves that, but for those sinful interferences, he was able to safeguard his own interests by reason of the economic freedom which access to land gave to him. 

The Statutes of Labourers
With his common rights intact, and helped by the scarcity of labour which resulted from the devastations of war and plague, he was able to command a wage which, compared with the wages of today, gave him a rude plenty of the necessaries of life. Left to the ordinary processes of free bargaining he could always have won for himself a good living. But it was not to be. “Man’s inhumanity to man” stepped in to prevent it, and the sinister Statutes of Labourers robbed him of his right to sell his labour in the best market. Instead of Government fixing a minimum wage below which he must not fall, it fixed a maximum wage above which he must not rise. His wages were settled, not by the natural law of supply and demand, but by the unholy and unnatural law of restrictions imposed by Justices of the Peace, who, as landlords and employers of labour, were interested in making labour as cheap as possible. He was bound to work for those who would offer the statutory wages (23 Edward III.). He must work in summer where he dwelt in winter (25 Edward III.). If he fled into another county he became an outlaw (34 Edward III.). If he escaped to the towns he was treated as a fugitive slave, and had to be given up. Children serving in husbandry till the age of twelve years must remain in husbandry till the end of their lives (12 Richard II.). By the same Act, artificers and apprentices were compelled to work in the fields in the harvest.

Labourers could not be engaged for the week, only for the year (4 Henry IV.). They must be sworn in the Court Leet to serve, or be set in the stocks (7 Henry IV.). Heavy fines were imposed for breaches of the law, but they fell on the labourers only (4 Henry V.). Not till the reign of Henry VIII. were the fines imposed on the givers of “excessive” wages. They must engage themselves in a public place. For refusing to work in harvest they were put in the stocks, and women also were obliged to serve in the fields (5 Elizabeth). By an Act of George II. (20 George II. c. 19, s. 2) Justices were empowered to punish servants on the complaint of their masters, and, eleven years later, this power was extended to the cases of all who were employed in husbandry. 

But the wicked Wages Acts, above referred to, were not the only agencies by which the landlords of England kept the labourers in poverty. In another direction their action was just as disastrous. As lords of the soil they alone had the right to determine the use to which it should be put. It is the very essence of private property in land, and it remains to this day practically unimpaired. 

Sheep versus Men
In the fifteenth century British wool began to be in demand by the craftsmen of the Continent, and, in increasing quantities in the next century, it was exported. The landlords discovered that it paid them better to grow grass for sheep rather than food for men. Common lands were enclosed, smallholdings were destroyed, arable land was converted into pasture, rents rose, and the landlords said that all was well. For grass grows by itself when it is once started, there is no expense of production after the first cost of laying it down, and a few men can tend great flocks of sheep. So the rents rose as the wages bills fell.

But how fared it with the people?
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Their homes were pulled down, and they wandered over their native country as vagrants. As they could not live by their work, they could only live by begging or by theft. And, as they stole, they must be hanged. For property must be preserved, and law and order must be maintained. 

The peasants revolted again and again, and every revolt was suppressed with every conceivable barbarity. In the reign of Henry VIII. it is said that no less than 72,000 of these poor disinherited men were hanged. 

Noble-hearted men like Sir Thomas More, than whom there is none that should be held in greater honour, saw the cause of the evil, but their warnings and appeals fell on deaf ears. 

“Wherever it is found,” said More in his Utopia, “that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and a richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots, not contented with the old rents which the farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. 

” They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches and enclosed grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the kind, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes; for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousands of acres of ground, the owners, as well as the tenants, are turned out of their possessions, by tricks or by main force, or, being wearied with ill-usage, they are forced to sell them. 

“By which means, these miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are ail forced to change their seats, not knowing whither they go; and they must sell almost for nothing their household stuff, which could not bring them much money, even though they could stay for a buyer. 

“When that little money is at an end, for it will soon be spent, what is left for them to do, but either to steal and so to be hanged (God knows how justly), or to go about and beg? And if they do this they are put in prison as idle vagabonds; while they would willingly work, but can find none that will hire them; for there is no more occasion for country labour, to which they have been bred, when there is no arable ground left. One shepherd can look after a flock, which will stock an extent of ground that would require many hands if it were to be ploughed and reaped.” 

Bishop Latimer, in his sermon before Edward VI. on March 8, 1549, complained bitterly of the depopulation which the landlord’s greed for rent had brought about. All kinds of meat were dear because they were in a few hands, and were held back for a high price. “Furthermore,” he said, “if the King’s honour, as some say, standeth in the great multitude of people, then these graziers, inclosers, and rent rearers are hinderers of the King’s honour. For where there have been a great many householders and inhabitants, there is now but a shepherd and his dogs: so they hinder the King’s honour most of all.” To such a pass had the unholy quest for high rents, regardless of the consequences, brought the country that a special prayer was ordered to be read in the churches in 1552: 

“We heartily pray Thee to send Thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds and pastures of the earth, that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack or stretch out the rents of their houses or lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines or moneys, after the manner of covetous worldlings, but so let them out that the inhabitants thereof may be able to pay the rents, and to live and assist their families, and remember the poor. Give them grace also to consider that they are but strangers and pilgrims in this world, having here no dwelling-place, but seeking one to come; that they, remembering the short continuance of this life, may be content with that which is sufficient, and not to join house to house and land to land to the impoverishment of others, but so behave themselves in letting their tenements, lands, and pastures that after this life they may be received into everlasting habitations.” 

Whether or not the landlords joined in this prayer, or what were their thoughts if they did, history does not record, but certainly, although they had it in their power to answer the prayer themselves, it made no difference to their conduct. Not till over three hundred years had elapsed was a better way discovered, when Fair Rent Courts were established in Ireland, and the best of all ways, the abolition of private property in land, has yet to be tried. 

The preamble to the Act of 25 Henry VIIl. c. 13, which was intended to put an end to the continued depopulation of the country, is as follows: “Forasmuch as divers and sundry persons of the King’s subjects of this realm, to whom God of His goodness hath disposed great plenty and abundance of movable substance, now of late within few years, have daily studied, practised, and invented ways and means how they might accumulate and gather together into few hands, as well as great multitude of farms as great plenty of cattle, and in especial sheep, putting such lands as they can get, to pasture and not to tillage, whereby they have not only pulled down churches and towns, and enhanced the old rates of the rents of the possessions of this realm, or else brought it to such excessive fines that no poor man is able to meddle with it, but also have raised and enhanced the prices of all manner of corn, cattle, wool, pigs, geese, hens, chickens, eggs, and such other, almost double above the prices which have been accustomed; by reason whereof a marvellous multitude and number of the people of this realm be not able to provide meat, drink, and clothes, necessary for themselves, their wives, and children, but be so discouraged with misery and poverty that they fall daily to theft, robbery, and other inconveniences, or pitifully die for hunger and cold; and as it is thought by the King’s most humble and loving subjects that one of the greatest occasions that moveth and provoketh those greedy and covetous people so to accumulate and keep in their hands such great portions and parts of the grounds and lands of this realm from the occupying of the poor husbandmen, and so to use it in pasture and not in tillage, is only the great profit that cometh of sheep, which now become to a few persons, hands of this realm, in respect of the whole number of the King’s subjects, that some have four-and-twenty thousand, some twenty thousand, some ten thousand, some six thousand, some five thousand, and some more and some less by the which a good sheep for victual that was accustomed to be sold for two shillings fourpence, or three shillings at the most, is now sold for six shillings, or five shillings, or four shillings at the least; and a stone of clothing wool, that in some shires in this realm was accustomed to be sold for eighteen pence or twentypence, is now sold for four shillings or three shillings fourpence at the least; and in some counties where it hath been sold for two shillings fourpence or two shillings eightpence, or three shillings at the most, is now sold for five shillings or four shillings eightpence at least, and so raised in every part of this realm; which things, thus used be principally to the high displeasure of Almighty God, to the decay of the hospitality of this realm, to the diminishing of the King’s people, and to the let of the cloth making, whereby many poor people have been accustomed to be set on work; and in conclusion, if remedy be not found, it may turn to the utter destruction and desolation of this realm, which God defend.” 

But, in the face of the fact that sheep paid the landlords better than men, all the efforts of the State to induce them to put the good of the country as a whole before their own, failed, and were bound to fail. Even the excellent provision of an Act of Queen Elizabeth in 1588, that every labourer’s cottage was to be provided with four acres of land, became a dead letter. The labourer was a landless outcast, and he remains so to this day. 

The Robbery of Commons
But, for a long time, the labourers who remained in the villages, although they had not an inch of freehold, had certain rights over the common fields and the wastes of the manors, and those rights were invaluable to them. And so vast was the acreage over which their rights at one time extended, that, in spite of the continual process of encroachment upon them, legal and illegal, it still represented about a fifth of the total area of England and Wales at the end of the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century, from 1709 to 1800, 1,176 separate Inclosure Acts were passed; between 1800 and 1845 there were 1,997; and between 1845 and 1869 there were 946 separate commons enclosed under the general Inclosure Act of the former year. In a large proportion of cases the Acts did not state the acreage, and so it is impossible to tell what was the total area of common land taken into private ownership by those Acts, but the lowest computation puts it at nearly 5,000,000 acres, and some authorities put it much higher. 

Now it cannot be denied that the principles under which the use of the commons was regulated did not promote the best possible production, but at any rate they afforded advantages to the labourers, which were not compensated for when they were enclosed. And it would have been quite easy for them to have been fenced in, and yet for them to have remained common property. 

“The rural labourers,” said John Stuart Mill, at the inauguration of the Land Tenure Reform Association, in 1871, “had once (it was a long time ago) a very substantial benefit from the waste lands. Most of them occupied cottages on or near some common or green, and could feed a cow or a few geese upon it. The cottager had then something, though it was but little, that he could call his own; he did not absolutely depend for daily food on daily wages or parish assistance; when the common was taken away he had to sell his cow or his geese, and sink into the dependent, degraded condition of an English agricultural labourer. He often got no compensation; when he did, if it was even a little bit of land, he was soon cheated out of it or persuaded to sell it, the money was quickly spent, and his children were no better for it. They would have been much better for the cow and the geese.” 

Referring to the destruction of the rights of the poor in the old common lands of England, Alfred Russel Wallace thus writes in his Autobiography: 

“To those that had much, much was to be given, while from the poor their rights were taken away; for though nominally those that owned a little land had some compensation, it was so small as to be of no use to them in comparison with the grazing rights they before possessed. In the case of all cottagers who were tenants or leaseholders it was simple robbery, as they had no compensation whatever, and they were left wholly dependent on farmers for employment.” 

“We put in gaol the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But let the greater felon loose,
Who steals the common from the goose.”

Even when the labourers and small holders had the commons, they were often grossly interfered with, and prevented from enjoying their rights to the full. Giving evidence before the Select Committee in 1844, the Rev. Richard Jones, one of the Tithes Commissioners, said: “There is nothing more unjust than the way in which the common rights arc exercised. … Mr. So-and-So, living near a common, keeps it to himself, and the people at a distance get nothing by it; in some cases, as I have said, one party hires individuals to keep others off.” He spoke of “the scenes of violence and of quiet injustice which seem to be going on everywhere.” The weak went to the wall. 

The same witness said, “There are various Acts which say that a certain quantity of land may be set out for the poor in compensation, but I know of none except private Acts where it is said it must be set out.” 

In the course of the next twenty-five years there were 600,000 acres of common land enclosed, but only 2,000 acres were allotted to the poor. 

Benefit of Allotments
Yet a Select Committee had reported in 1843 that the allotment system was of the greatest possible benefit to the labourers, as the following extract will show:

“The evidence which your Committee have received upon the benefits of allotments has been of uniform tenor, and has led them to conclude that the tenancy of land under the garden allotment system is a powerful means of bettering the condition of those classes who depend for livelihood upon their manual labour, whether in manufacturing or agricultural employment. … The practice of parcelling out fields in small allotments may be traced back to the end of the last century, and was advocated in the publications of Sir Thomas Bernard; but it was not till 1830, when discontent had been so painfully exhibited among the peasantry of the southern counties, that this method of alleviating their situation was much resorted to. It was then adopted by many benevolent landowners, and the Labourers’ Friend Society was formed for disseminating information respecting it.

“The desire of obtaining the tenancy of land appears to be universal among the mechanics and artisans of manufacturing towns and villages, as well as among the inhabitants of rural districts; but, in both cases, the difficulty of procuring land has opposed a continuous obstacle to the gratification of this desire.” 

The Committee referred to the hand-loom weavers of the Midlands who banded themselves and paid a penny a week towards a general fund, “without any definite prospect of meeting with a landlord willing and able to accommodate them. Your Committee were sorry to learn that in many places these hopes have been ultimately disappointed.” 

But even this Committee, which was entirely sympathetic with the labourers’ modest aspirations, could not bring itself to recommend that compulsion should be applied to unwilling landlords. Nearly fifty years were to elapse before that principle was embodied in the Allotments Act of 1887. 

The evidence showed that the usefulness of the existing allotments was much reduced by the fact, that they were often far from the homes of the men, and that extortionate rents were often charged for them. So they recommended that allotment land should be near the cottages, and they went on to say: “Though the land will yield larger profits under this mode of cultivation than under the usual method of tillage, the proprietor who wishes to benefit the poor man should not exact more rent than he could expect to receive if he let it out to be farmed in the ordinary way.” But this was, of course, as ineffectual as the Fair Rent prayer in the Primer of Edward VI. 

And mark what the Committee said about the advantage of giving the labourer access even to a small pitch of ground, which was all he dared to ask for, and that with “bated breath and whispering humbleness.” 

“The system of garden allotments has proved an unmixed good. It has increased the produce. It has enabled the labouring man to turn his leisure moment to profitable account in raising wholesome food for his family, a rood of ground frequently producing vegetables enough for six months’ consumption. 

“Many striking instances have been stated to your Committee where the possession of an allotment has been the means of reclaiming the criminal, reforming the dissolute, and of changing the whole moral character and conduct. It partly supplies that deficiency of innocent amusement and rational recreation, which weighs so peculiarly upon the lower classes of this country, and which must be counted among the causes that lead to the prevalence of crime. 

“The field garden has attractions for the working man strong enough to relieve the monotony of a life of hired toil, and to dispel the listlessness and discontent which are often its accompaniments. It withdraws him from a dependence for amusement on the society of the alehouse.” 

One witness, a farmer at Hadlow, said that of 3,000 heads of families holding allotments in Kent, not one was committed for any offence during the years 1841 and 1842. In the parish of Hadlow there were thirty-five commitments to gaol in 1835. The allotment system was introduced in 1836, and in 1837 the commitments were reduced to one. “Since then,” he said, “we have had among the tenants of the Labourers’ Friend Society about fifteen of those who were in prison in 1835, and there has been no cause of complaint against them since we have had them.” 

The riots and rick-burnings of 1830 and subsequent years were the only way the disinherited farm labourers had of calling attention to their sufferings. Kept in ignorance, for even if they had but a little knowledge it would be a dangerous thing to those who fattened on their poverty, and denied a voice in the making of the laws, which they were called upon to obey, what wonder that they rose in revolt! And it never seemed to occur to the landlords, who had then the monopoly of lawmaking, and for long afterwards the predominant voice in it, that all the trouble might be remedied by the application of a simple principle of ordinary justice, by granting them access to the land on their own account. Instead of that, the governing powers, acting with far greater ignorance than the unlettered labourers did, could only think of forcible repression, transportation, and imprisonment. The poor wage of the labourer was supplemented with rates-in-aid, and the burden of taxation was increased to breaking-point. 

In 1889 the present writer wrote to the rector of Cholesbury, in Buckinghamshire, for confirmation of certain published facts about the good results, which were stated to have followed upon the granting of allotments to the labourers there nearly sixty years before. The following interesting reply was received, and is valuable as the evidence of an actual eye-witness of what took place: 

“Cholesbury Rectory, Tring,” January 30, 1889.
“Dear Sir,

“In reply to your letter of the 28th inst., addressed to ‘The Rector of Cholesbury,’ inquiring if I can render any information ‘respecting the Allotment System, established in this parish during the lifetime of the Rev. H. P. Jeston some fifty or sixty years ago,’ it will, I think, surprise you and furnish you in part with the information you solicit, if I give you a short extract from the sermon I preached to my people last Sunday, on reaching my ninety-third birthday. My text was ‘We bring our years to an end like a tale that is told’; and, after a few common-place remarks upon the rapid flight of time, I observed, ‘Fifty-eight of these fast revolving years have passed since I became the duly appointed minister of this little parish. Sad and distressing indeed were the tales the first three or four years of my ministry had to tell of the people committed to my charge. From circumstances over which they had little or no control, they had fallen into the lowest depths of poverty and want. With very few exceptions they had become a community of paupers. Out of a population of little over a hundred, no less than sixty-four were in receipt of parish relief. 

“The following painful incident is recorded, as showing the mental agony which the want of bread for a wife and child can inflict on an honest and industrious man. I was on a visit to a sick parishioner when my notice was attracted to a person leaning over a gate, and sobbing like a child. It was John Norris, one of the most industrious labourers in the parish. ‘John!’ I exclaimed, ‘what is the matter?’ 

“Raising himself slowly up from the gate, and turning to me a face so utterly full of despair that I have never forgotten it, he replied, ‘Oh, sir, it is a fearful temptation to a man who has been out all day seeking work and cannot get any, to come home in the evening and find a wife and child crying for bread.’ Of course I tried to comfort him, telling him better days must soon come. Little did I know how soon my words would be verified. A society, recently established for bettering the condition of the agricultural labourer, hearing of the great distress in Cholesbury, and that its poor were maintained by rates-in-aid, came and purchased over thirty acres of land, and allotted it to the able-bodied men, from one to four acres each; furnished them with seed, etc., and, moreover, paid them weekly wages for working on their allotments, till the exhausted land could make them a return. Thus, at once, their condition was changed from poverty to a state of comfort, surpassing that of labourers in the adjoining parishes. And it is worth recording, that, of all the allotment men, John Norris was the first to become the proud possessor of a cow. 

“From that time to this, God’s blessing seems to have rested on the parish. There is now not one pauper in it. All are supporting themselves by their industry, free from the humiliating thought of being a burden on the parish. … 

“Yours faithfully,
“H. P. Jeston.”

But a philanthropic society was necessarily limited in its operations, and the landlords and farmers continued to stand in the way, for they saw clearly enough that, if labourers had access to land, they would inevitably become less dependent on hired service, and would therefore be in a position to demand higher wages. Unfortunately, their antagonism has not been worn down by the lapse of time. The private owner, and the farmer, who hires the monopoly of land from him for the time being, are still reluctant to surrender their privileges, and still oppose the establishment of a free peasantry upon the soil. 

But to all rules there are exceptions; one of the most striking being the generous policy adopted by Lord Tollemache on his Cheshire and Sullolk estates. In Cheshire he allotted three acres of grassland to each labourer, and these were the original “Three acres and a cow” allotments. In Suffolk he built 300 cottages with three bedrooms each, and allotted half an acre of garden to each of them. 

A Free (1) Contract
Other landlords who granted ground for peasant cultivation sometimes imposed restrictions which are very eloquent of the power of landlordism, as in the following “Rules and Regulations for letting and managing land belonging to the Right Hon. the Earl of Normanton, in Crowland,” published in 1902:

“(10) No occupier shall work on his own land after six o’clock in the morning, or before six o’clock in the evening, without the written consent of his master, when in employment, nor when out of employment if he has refused or neglected to obtain work, or begun to work and then left it. 

“(11) Each occupier shall, with his family, attend some place of worship once, at least, every Sunday, and shall enforce the attendance at Sunday school of all his children of a proper age. … 

“(19) Occupiers keeping their families regularly at home when capable of servitude ineligible.” 

Difficulties of Getting Land
A Parliamentary Paper (Cd. 3468) was published in 1907, giving extracts from the evidence which had been put before various Committees of Inquiry in proof of the difficulties with which all attempts to place men on the land are confronted.

Mr. C. A. Fyffe, Estates Bursar of University College, Oxford, said that it was “extraordinarily difficult to get land from farmers for small holdings and allotments.” He referred to an owner of 15,000 acres in Sussex, “who will not part with any land at all, or allow any houses to be erected on it. That land might as well be in Central Africa for any connection it has with England. That means absolute stagnation over an area of twenty square miles.” 

Mr. Sampson Morgan, secretary of the National Fruit Growers’ League, said, “We had fifty young men with capital who wanted small holdings. They had from £50 to £250 each. The first case I tried was at Canterbury. The stipulations were fatal to fruit-growing. The landlord would not grant a lease, only an agreement for three years; further, he would not consent to have his grass broken up to be worked with the spade; he would sooner keep it unlet. It is unlet still. The second case was at Staplehurst. The grass must not be broken up, and the landlord would only grant a yearly tenancy. The third case was near Sevenoaks. I offered to take ten acres at 10 s. an acre more than the owner wanted for the whole fifty-five acres. The offer was refused. He would only let it as a whole, and would only give a lease of three years.” And Mr. Morgan added, “We have not been able to place one of these fifty young men on the land, and have had to enter into negotiations with a view to them emigrating to the colonies.” Mr. R. T. Reid, Q.C., M.P. (afterwards Lord Chancellor Loreburn), said that powers of compulsory purchase were absolutely necessary in order to establish men on the land. “Everyone knows that there are some parts of the country in which, from territorial reasons, or from other reasons, I know not what, landlords will not part with their land. I know a case myself in which a whole valley is in that position.

A witness from Lincolnshire said that owing to the difficulty of getting land in small holdings, a higher rent was obtained than it was really worth. He had fifty applications for a farm of thirty-two acres from a single advertisement. 

A witness from Herefordshire had eighty applications for a small farm of forty acres, and over fifty for one of twenty acres. He added, “We have many large estates of 7,000 to 10,000 acres, but the owners are large game-preservers and prefer to have large farms rather than small holdings.” 

Everywhere it is the same, and the whole difficulty is seen to be due entirely to the system of private property in land. The marvel is that the nation has so long tolerated a handful of men being empowered to stand in the way of the uplifting of the labourers and the proper utilisation of the natural resources of the country. 

Mr. Richard Winfrey, who has taken a very important part in the allotments and small holdings movement, investigated the condition of nineteen parishes round Spalding from 1885 to 1887. There were only 160 acres of allotments over the whole area of 143,576 acres. But the labourer, enfranchised in 1884, had become a force to be reckoned with, and the Spalding by-election was fought and won on the question of allotments in 1887. The Allotments Act of that year established for the first time the principle of compulsion in regard to labourers’ garden allotments, and within eight months 1,600 applications were registered. In ten years the number of allotment-holders advanced from 200 to 2,000, although the rents were usually 50 per cent. higher than farmers’ rents. 

Food Allotments for Slaves
In contrast with the way in which landlords and farmers have steadfastly prevented the English labourer from having access to land, even in small quantities, the Act for the Abolition of Slavery, passed in 1833, may be cited. The whole of the southern counties of England were then in revolt, but no remedial measures were thought of for Albion’s helots. Yet, when the chattel slaves were liberated. Parliament recognised the value of land to them, and enacted that they should have the right to allotments of land that they might produce food for themselves in their spare time. And, that they should not be overworked, it was provided that their maximum working week should be forty-five hours. Fifty-four years were to pass before anything was done for the so-called “free” English labourers in the legislative provision of allotments, a minimum wage or a maximum working week is still in the air, and even the advantage of a Saturday half-holiday has yet to be won.

All over the country there is the same steady drift from the village to the town. As Colonel D. C. Redder, a remarkably clear-sighted and sympathetic writer on rural questions, said, in the Contemporary Review for June 1902, “Every labourer who has any self-respect left, brings up his boys from early childhood to look forward to the time when they will be able to get employment ‘on the works’ or on the railway, or even as errand boys – anything but the land. The future of the country labourer is in the hands of men who have no thought beyond their own immediate profit and enjoyment, and the consequent degradation of the labourer is horrible to contemplate. 

“There is land enough for the happiness of all, town folk as well as country folk, in the measure of their requirements, and, as population increases, the land is progressively shut up. It is nothing less than national madness.” 

Sir H. Rider Haggard, a leading advocate of small ownerships, has given many cases in proof of the widespread character of the decay of the villages. On one estate in Herefordshire he found only 162 cottages on the whole of the 10,000 acres. This means that only one man is employed, taking all kinds of occupations, for every 62 acres. Out of an average attendance of 100 lads, the schoolmaster said that not more than 12 stayed in the parish, and that these were for the most part “dullards.” In the parish of Hope, with its population of 510 (say 100 houses), there were no fewer than 37 houses, which had in them no child of an age to attend school. In the richest part of Herefordshire there was a farm of 180 acres. It used to pay £300 in rent, but is now “worked” by the farmer assisted by one boy. 

The Cottage Famine
And then, in regard to the housing conditions of the villages, take the village of Great Witchingham, cited by Dr. Gilbert Slater in the Contemporary Review for September 1902. The Sanitary Committee of the Rural District Council reported:

“That of the seventy cottages in the village, six had three bedrooms, fifty only two, and fourteen only one. In four cases out of the six provided with three bedrooms, the third bedroom was only a small dark space partitioned off from another room; 

“That there were only two cottages suitable for a mixed family of boys and girls;
“That there were eight serious cases of overcrowding;
“That eighteen of the cottages ought to be condemned as unfit for human habitation;
“That the entire water supply came from shallow wells in soil saturated with sewage;
“That sanitary arrangements were either bad or nonexistent.”

Miss Constance Cochrane investigated the condition of two typical villages near St. Neots. In one of them the population was 430.

“Thirty cottages had only one bedroom each.
“In one of these cottages a man, wife, and eight children slept in the one room.
“(On one occasion four children with measles sleeping in one bed.)
“One living-room downstairs. No pantry or scullery.
“Cottage never visited or inspected by Medical Officer or Inspector of Nuisances.
“In another cottage – man, wife, and six growing-up children. Room full of beds; obliged to dress one at a time; no standing room.
“In same village, deep open sewer ditch (serving as drain for half the village) close behind a dozen or more cottages. Most offensive in hot weather.
“Front of cottages on high (by) road. Complaints made for fifteen years; nothing done; cottages all occupied; no others to be had. In three of these twelve cottages seven cases of scarlatina at the present moment; no other cases in the village. There are no isolation hospitals in the neighbourhood.”

Take, again, the case of Potterne, in Wilts, where a Local Government Board Inquiry was held on May 23, 1912, and which is referred to at length by Mr. V. E. Green in his Tyranny of the Countryside. Husband and wife and five children, whose ages range from 9 to 28 years, living in a house with two bedrooms only. 

Husband and wife and four children, all over 14 years – two bedrooms.
Husband, wife, and five children, 21 to 38 years (four sons and one daughter) – two bedrooms.
Husband and wife and seven children, 7 to 12, and grandmother – two bedrooms.
Husband, wife, and four children, 1½ to 13 – one bedroom.
Husband, wife, and three children, 7 to 19 – one bedroom.
Husband, wife, and three children, 2 to 7 – one bedroom.
Widower, two sons, 17 and 20, three daughters, 9, 11, and 13 – two bedrooms.
Husband, wife, and five children, from 10 downwards – two bedrooms.
Two families (two husbands and wives) and a lodger – two bedrooms.
Husband, wife, and seven children, 2 to 14 – two bedrooms.
Husband, wife, and eight children, 2 to 18 – two bedrooms.

And so the black record runs on, revealing a ghastly state of overcrowding in a rural village, where health and common decency are made difficult, if not impossible. To such a pass has landlordism brought this once “Merrie England” of ours. 

At the little village of Lindsell in Essex the people met in November 1908 to demand a house-to-house inspection, and the adoption by the Rural District Council of the Housing of the Working Classes Act. The parish has an area of 1,939 acres, so there is plenty of land. In 1901 the population was 187. In 1908 it was 150. There had been only one wedding, but there had been many funerals. One of the farmers said he had eight single labourers working for him, and they all wanted to get married, but there was no cottage for them to go to, so, unless something is done for them they will all, in time, drift away from their native parish. 

No clearer proof of the fact that private landlords will never, of their own free will, satisfy the land hunger of the people, can be found than the results achieved by the Small Holdings Act of 1907. The permissive Act of 1892 was practically a dead letter. Nothing but compulsion was of any use. The “may” was changed to “shall” and “must.” Now there are 18,000 small holders installed on the land, and nearly 200,000 acres have been made accessible to the people who would never have got the land at all so long as they had to depend on the goodwill of landlords and farmers. That Act points to the way by which the land of our country may be forced out of the grip of its present monopolists, and be made available to all men who desire to win their food from it, or to establish their homes on it. For it embodies the sound principle that the supreme interest in land is the public interest. It denies the right of landlords to treat the land as their own property. It brings land under the control of its rightful owner, and makes possible the revival of country life. And it must be extended until the private landowner is a thing of the past. 

Serious evils call for drastic remedies; and what evil is more serious than the present condition of the country labourer? 

Reviewing the long record of his oppression, it is impossible to escape from the fact that it has always been solely due to the denial of his birthright in the land. Our Saxon forefathers had a saying that “A landless man is an unfree man.” It is as true to-day is it was then. The horrors of Putumayo, the atrocities of the Congo, were all traceable to the same simple cause. They were not due to the power of capitalism, but to the power of landlordism. With access to land a man is a free man. Without it he is a slave, for a landless man is a helpless man. 

And just as the mastership of the rubber forests of South America and West Africa gave some men mastership of the poor natives, so the mastership of the broad acres of our own land has given to certain other men the mastership of their fellow-countrymen who depend upon it for their very lives. This is the great iniquity that must be ended, that the farm labourers may be installed as joint and equal part-proprietors of their native country, and be given the chance to rise to a state of comfort, happiness, and freedom.