Monday, 26 November 2007

The late Victorian countryside

The census of 1871 showed that out of a population of 31 million nearly two thirds of the inhabitants of Great Britain still lived in rural areas or in towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants - and many of the small towns were still more loosely tied to an agricultural rather than a manufacturing economy. Apart from London only five cities housed more than a quarter of a million people. Heavy urbanization was physically confined to certain localities: London and Middlesex, Lancashire and Durham, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, west-central Scotland and parts of south Wales. Suburbia was still limited and unknown as a word. Most people still lived near their place of work. Farm labouring was the largest male occupation. Even in industrial areas many urban-dwellers lived in walking distance of green fields.

But this Census was the last decennial survey for which this was true. The picture was irrevocably shattered by three factors
1. the agricultural depression
2. the gravitational pull of urban employment
3. the development of a cheap, suburban transport system.
Between 1871 and 1881 the urban population increased by over 25%. Buckinghamshire, Huntindonshire and Oxfordshire lost a quarter of their population. Much of Middlesex and Surrey was transformed by the extension of the underground railway. The prolonged building boom of the 1870s and 1880s encircled the towns with what Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘a base and brickish skirt’. By 1911 out of a population of 45 million, 40% lived in towns of over 100,000 (in England and Wales more than 50%). Greater London had 7 million inhabitants and 14 provincial cities had over a quarter of a million. By 1914 only 8 % of the British population were employed in agriculture, compared with 27% in Germany and 38% in France. Daily commuting, not just from the suburbs but from the shires and the south coast had become common and rural England was beginning to aquire its role as a place for living and leisure rather than work. Of children born between 1901 and 1911, 80% were born in towns and cities, and probably grew up with an almost wholly urban outlook.

The Agricultural Depression
A whole combination of adverse circumstances combined to make the period 1877-1895 a dark time for British farmers, especially grain producers.
1. A series of wet summers, culminating in the wettest season in living memory in 1879 meant an alarmingly low yield in successive harvests.
2. Farmers could not raise prices because they could not compete against the produce of the American prairies where the McCormick reaper was cutting labour costs. By the 1870s American technology had advanced to the use of self-binders, while the new railroads and steamships were cutting transport costs.
3. The government refused to reintroduce agricultural protection - this was one of the reasons why Disraeli lost the election of 1880.
4. There was an outbreak of animal diseases: 1879 liver rot, 1888 foot and mouth.
The Assault on ‘Landlordism’
The political consequence was to strain relations between landowners and tenants, which led to widespread criticism of the whole landed order’ This was especially intense in Ireland and Scotland. In 1879 the Irish Land League was founded, its President Michael Davitt, its Secretary Charles Stewart Parnell (of whom much more later).

The winter of 1881-2 was particularly severe, and many Highland crofters were so destitute that they could no longer pay their rents. When the factors of the great estates tried to evict them, they retaliated by taking back grazing rights of which they had been deprived and by rent strikes. This escalated into violence at the ‘Battle of the Braes’ on Skye in 1882 when Glasgow policemen clashed with crofters. For the rest of the decade their were disturbances throughout the Highlands and gunboats and marines were sent in to quell them. The Crofters’ War ‘was the most severe crisis in the Highlands since the heyday of Jacobitism’. The crofters were supported by the Irish Land League and by a great deal of public opinion in Scotland.
There were similar disturbances in Wales.

In retrospect it can be seen that some of the attacks on landlordism were unfair. In the Celtic fringes, the problem was poor soil and an adverse climate, which left the landowners often powerless to effect improvements. Aristocrats such as the Dukes of Bedford and Argyll went into print to defend themselves. But perhaps the unfairness is beside the real point, which was a shift in political power. The widening of the franchise and the agricultural depression struck fatal blows at the aristocracy.

In England there was little rural violence, but the Liberal politician, Joseph Chamberlain delivered celebrated attacks on the aristocracy. On 30 March 1883:
Lord Salisbury constitutes himself the spokesman of a class - of the class to which he himself belongs, who toil not neither do they spin; whose fortunes - as in his case - have originated by grants made in times gone by for services which courtiers rendered kings, have since grown and increased, while they have slept, by levying an increased share on all that other men have done by toil and labour to add to the general wealth and prosperity of the country.
The Agricultural Worker
Agricultural workers were obvious sufferers from the depression and this lay behind much migration to the towns. However, as a group they were becoming more assertive.
In the 1870s they became unionized. At a meeting of Warwickshire labourers, a Primitive Methodist preacher, Joseph Arch, a labourer at Barford, made a revivalist speech calling for a farm workers’ strike, which raised him to the leadership of a movement. The strikers were given considerable publicity in the press, especially the Liberal Daily News, and on 29 March 1872 they founded at Leamington the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union. It spread rapidly and soon became a national union with a membership of nearly 100,000 at the end of 1872. But after a defeat over a Suffolk and Norfolk strike in 1874 membership fell rapidly, and with the decline in agriculture the union lost power.

In 1883 Chamberlain and his Liberal colleague John Morley led a fierce popular agitation in the country, coining the phrases ‘the Peers against the People’ and ‘Mend them or end them’. In 1884, partly as a result of this agitation, the Third Reform Act broadly aligned county and borough franchises, adding three million new voters. Combined with the secret ballot, already in existence, this freed small tenants from the political dominance of their landlords. This gave the Liberals a short-term advantage allowing them to gain a majority of English county seats in the general election of 1885; only in 1906 were they ever to do so again. But the Liberals could be certain of the rural vote only in East Anglia.

In 1888 the County Councils Act replaced the automatic dominance of the aristocrats and gentry with elected councils.

The Village
The village was changing rapidly, and in spite of the agricultural depression and depopulation, showed many signs of life.

The country parish of 1860 was very traditional: ‘the squire in his pew, his friend the parson in his stall, respectable farmers in pews, and on benches the labourers in smock frocks ... their wives often in scarlet flannel shawls’. But already in 1860 a maker of smock-patterns complained about the decline in trade, and in the 1870s only a few older men wore smocks. Instead the labourer’s Sunday best was the cheap town suit. This brought about a psychological change. ‘The labourer in his smock expected to go to church. The labourer in his black suit did not.’ Contemporaries had little doubt that the village church was in decline. Partly it was because the village itself was in decline, partly it was because the labourer himself was changing.

Every institution in the village declined as the young moved into the towns. The church was a particular sufferer. Rural clergy complained of empty pulpits. By the 1890s the value of tithes had declined by 25%. Between 1885 and 1905 the Easter offering used as a gift to the parson, spread rapidly through the country churches; after the turn of the century the Inland Revenue began to tax them!

The village was changing. The village school flourished as never before, staffed by better educated teachers, though one consequence was the Sunday schools declined in importance.
A new institution in the village was the Mothers’ Union, whose membership was a quarter of a million by 1912, the majority working class.

Another sign of strength was the building of village halls as meeting places for various social events. Partly this came from pressure from women who were not content with the public house. 48% of the total were built between 1880 and 1890. A high proportion of village halls were built on the initiative of the squire or parson, though Nonconformists gave generously and also spent freely at bazaars. The hall was usually regarded as a church hall, used, for example for Sunday schools and confirmation classes, but it was also used for secular functions. On the right is the village hall of Barnaby-in-the Willows, Nottinghamshire.

An Act 1894 provided for an elected council in villages of over 300 people. The churchwardens ceased to be overseers, the parson was no longer chairman and not even a member unless elected. The removal of secular business left the old vestry without a life, even though its legal existence was unaffected.