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The Secret of Rural Depopulation.
A paper read to the Fabian Society on February 26th, 1904.
The question "Why do I stay where I am ?" is one that interests all of us. Its answers range between that of Sterne's starling with the simple "I can't get out" and that of the happy few who can say “ It is well for us to be here." But most people who are what in the country we call “fixters ” have to confess that they are the prisoners of habit. The more regular our life the harder it is to break away from its rule.
Now of all occupations that of the tiller of the soil is perhaps the most regular. He is hitched on to the zodiac. Every action of his working life is as recurrent as the seasons themselves. Ploughing is a step towards ploughing, sowing is a step towards sowing again. And so it goes round. The son of a field laborer, in the ordinary course of things, goes to field work as soon as the school will let him. By the time he is getting "man's money" he has little volition left. Habit has taken its place. The odds would seem to be long in favor of his remaining a field laborer for the term of his natural life.
But there is something more than habit to fasten him to the land. By the time he is sixteen he is specialized for field work. That is the only skilled labor for which he will ever be fit. Off the land he is only so much horse-power. He can dig-under direction -in a drain, or he can carry bales at the docks. He is past learning another craft. He is moored head and stern to the land by two hawsers, habit and hopelessness.
And yet his breaking away from the land is becoming so common as to constitute a national danger. Why is this? We must go back, I think, to a period before rustic unrest began distinctly to take the form of escape.
The Fauna of the Country. Up to some thirty odd years ago agricultural laborers were regarded as a quite permanent factor in the sum of English life. They were part of the fauna of the country-like pheasants and partridges ; only there is no getting a good head of game without preserving, and there was no need to preserve country laborers. Sergeant Kite was almost the only poacher to be feared, and the toll he took was trifling. Now and then typhus or an emigration agent would descend upon a village, and a cottage would be empty for a month or so. But that was only a momentary inconvenience to an individual employer. The real difficulty was not how to breed laborers, like pheasants, but how to keep down their numbers, like rabbits. No more cottages were allowed upon an estate than would just supply roofage to the laborers it employed. Increase was not allowed for. Infant mortality was high. Overcrowding and sanitary neglect did their work. Semi-starvation helped. Still, however, the supply of labor exceeded the demand. Those were the days in which a great farmer is said to have offered a friend a guinea if he could find a weed in his wheat-field. With men's wages at six or seven shillings a week, women glad to take what they could get for field work, and corn at 50s. a quarter, the land could be well “done,” as they say. The employer could be well " done,” too. A great agriculturist's recollections of about this period were published a few years ago. They were a record of good living, menus of dinners, reminiscences of hunting breakfasts, conversations with admiring noblemen. “Hey, the green holly. This life is most jolly," ought to have been the motto of the book. The world went very well then —with squires and farmers.
I do not think the idea of what we call a “rural exodus" occurred seriously to anyone before the early seventies. There was the land, and that there should be men to till it seemed a law of nature.
That the men might possibly one day turn their backs on the land in sufficiently large numbers to seriously inconvenience squires and farmers generally—this idea never entered the head of the average employer. Where were they to go ? The land of Egypt, the house of bondage, was pretty secure in the deserts and seas that surrounded it. The prison was hard to break.
Looking at the wages and the housing of the laborer in those days, it really seems as though physical laws were all that prevented the process of degradation and deprivation of which he was the victim from being continued indefinitely. Men cannot work unless they eat-something. The proverbial straw a day had very nearly been reached. Out of English countrymen, the descendants of the men who rose in arms with Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, had been evolved by the sheer greed and selfishness of squires and farmers, a race so reduced by long continued starvation and oppression that they seemed, generally, as incapable of resistance as their tyrants were, generally, incapable of ruth. "Hunger will tame a lion," says Robinson Crusoe. The British farmer put the maxim to proof.
Froissart called the English common people of his day_the haughtiest and most overweening that the world could show. That was in the fourteenth century. This is what Joseph Arch said at the end of the nineteenth : "I had seen my brother laborers stand and tremble like an aspen leaf at the dark look of the employer simply because they had not the pluck of men." You may see the same thing to-day. Nothing is sadder than the abjectness of the laborer before the scowl of his master.
The laborer who was to be hanged the other day and who said “Thank ye, sir," to Jack Ketch on his adjusting the rope is a fair instance of the attitude of his class to any Jack-in-office or authority. They are descended from generations of half-starved parents, and they show “the mettle of their pasture."
The farmer seemed to have done his work thoroughly. He had produced what he wanted, a submissive drudge who cost little, did his work and gave no trouble whatever. The laborer's hand had not yet lost its cunning
In the Days of the Corn Laws. The work was done and done well. The farmers ate, drank a enjoyed themselves. That the laboring population had any "rights as against the “masters" was a notion dismissed with contempt ? part of the professional agitator's stock-in-trade. “The county meant the landlord and the farmer. When we think of Athens the days of Pericles, we hardly give a thought to the slave pop-* tion. They are below the notice of history. And so it practica was with our rural laborers until the days of the Agricultzz Laborers' Union. The Church knew them as "the poor." To :3 employers they were “the men." Charles Kingsley, in Alton Lut gives a vivid description of an agricultural riot, its aimless despa its impotent violence. I have here a reprinted report of a me peaceful demonstration in 1846. It is sad reading. But there is nothing in it to frighten anybody. The word "rising" cannot applied to these pitiful wrigglings of the great invertebrate easy worm upon which the classes then recognized as England were light-heartedly treading. Its head was never reared to strike. 1 demonstrations demonstrated nothing but its own feebleness
. T? repeal of the Corn Laws left the laborer morally much where was. Bread was cheaper, but the hand of the employer
was pertz heavier than before. From 1855 to the days of Joseph Arch 57 perhaps as black a time as any the laborers had to pass
. The pas of wheat was high, the squires raised their rents, the farmers to couped themselves by cutting down wages. The prosperity squires and farmers was thus squeezed out of the already abjes poverty of the poor. Any appearance of discontent was stern repressed. To quote the words of a great agricultural authorits “It was a state of things disgraceful to all concerned." Except! laborers, I think. But it created no commotion. The Church represented in every country parish, raised no protest. The parse. had long ceased to be the "persona'' of his flock. He thought me? of the hurdles than of the sheep, as they say. The souls of squires 353 farmers rotted in the cradle of an easy conscience. They were gor Churchmen to a man. Then, all at once, a bult from the blue, came
The Agricultural Laborers' Union.
. Opposed though it was by the landed interest in every fierz denounced by too many of the country clergy and unhelped by the res it went on triumphantly until it had raised agricultural wages alm. throughout the whole of England to a point at which the existenc of the laborer was no longer intolerable. That much obtained, collapsed. It is a remarkable instance of a great rising against hver endured oppression which contented itself with a bare rectification the immediate wrong complained of. There was no violence, 3 resentment. This was undoubtedly due in great measure to the personal character and influence of the leader of the moveme:Joseph Arch, a man of whom it is impossible to think with a gratitude and respect. But it is no less true that the moderation shown by the men, both in their struggle and their success, argue ** rtain want of resilience which testifies to the extent to which the e and vigor of the race had been sapped by long-continued semiarvation and enforced submission to petty tyranny. The Agriculral Union did not, I think, appreciably raise the laborer; it only ised his wages. Instead of calling up a spirit of independence like at which animated the leader (a man, we must remember, born and ed in a cottage the property of his father, not of his employer), it ft them generally, although materially better off, individually as bmissive and as incapable of assertion of their personal rights as ley had been through long generations of practical serfdom.
But the apathy of their hopelessness had been disturbed. The nployers' difficulty had been the emigration agents' opportunity, id the plethora of labor had been relieved by the departure of a rge percentage of the agricultural population. When the smoke the struggle cleared off it was quite obvious that horizons had idened. Young men who dared not defy the arrogance of their nployers found courage enough to escape from it to the railways or je towns. In this way the best young blood kept gradually draining way. The process has been steadily going on since.
The best men go. Laboring parents plot escape for their boys om the land as if they were prisoners in an enemy's country. lobody stays of choice. You may hear former farm laborers speak f their late employers as a seventeenth century mariner might have poken of the Moors of Tangiers, among whom he had been a captive.
Is the Laborer in Fault ? It has been said by a vigorous clerical writer that the laborer's iscontent is merely a survival from the “bad, old, black past," when e really had something to complain of. All that has long gone by. : is the laborer's “evil temper” that still “provokes masters to harsh veasures, harsh words, driving, and all such seemingly needless reguitions as the command to keep no fowls or pigs, the tied cottages, nd the domineering tone." All this is the laborer's fault, says the riter. Things are not now as they were in the times when “laborers ere scornfully trampled on-and when the Church, cowed and faith:ss, was as little inclined as the State to help their condition." All that gone by. Farmers and parsons have undergone a wonderful change. ike the Homeric hero they “ boast that they are a great deal better aan their fathers." But the laborer is bad indeed. The charactertics of the laborer are “shirking, dishonesty and negligence. Tom, Dick and Sam abuse their employer, sit under the hedge when e is out of sight, steal his corn and meal, leave his horses harnessed nd go off drinking, teach him that they have no love or gratitude, ut only fear.” The coloring suggests the moral complexion of a hain-gang. He might have adopted the words which Mr. Sam Veller in Pickwick puts into the mouth of a "wirtuous clergyman." He's a malicious, bad-disposed, worldly-minded, spiteful, windictive reetur, with a hard heart as there ain't no soft'nin."
Dur“ wirtuous clergyman" in this case pronounces the rural, illages to be in a state of utter decay, and exhorts us to build our opes for the future entirely upon the progress of our urban populaion. Villages and villagers are played out.
Well, I dissent entirely. I am no believer in sudden and unit telligible changes. Farmers are much what they were sixty year ago. Clergymen are not so very different. The cut of their coats altered, that is about all. Their intentions are as good as ever 2 the influence they exert exactly as bad, as far as the independers and manliness of their poor parishioners is concerned. And of laborer is what these have made him. He is still, as he has so los been, like an eel on an eel spear. He can wriggle, but that is abou all. Until he is set free we can't expect anything very great of Es in the way of moral improvement. But his good qualities are on dormant, held in abeyance till the winter of his discontent is made glorious summer by the sun of—Land Reform. At any rate, whe ever he is, it is the social and economical system of England that is made him so. He has been crushed under an intolerable presset and until that is removed we must expect his faults to be of the grovelling sort. Give him opportunity and he will be erect, and faults will probably be what they were in Froissart's time.
How the Laborer Lives. Let us give one comprehensive glance to the conditions under which the laborer mostly lives, and under which some people exper him to cultivate all the Christian graces. A miserable cottage whid as a tenant-at-will he can only repair or improve at the risk of bi outlay in labor or in money being appropriated by his employer.. life of constant hardship, wages even now barely sufficient for ford fire and clothing, the proud man's contumely, the want of hope that long vista of thankless drudgery through which the eye looks on to rest finally upon the workhouse, the absence of anything li social enjoyment, the tyranny of drink, the capricious restrictice upon personal liberty of action which his employer may at pleasure impose, and to which he must submit or go. It is a gloomy picture
The strange thing is that up to so comparatively recent a time Englishmen should have accepted a life like this, a life still wors than this, as their natural doom, exactly as an Esquimaux may subci ụnrepiningly to the rigors of an Arctic climate. An Esquimar wants more seals; ice and snow and darkness are matters of course So Joseph Arch's men wanted more wages, they had no dislikes their occupation or the hardships inseparable from it. The best o them had doubtless the same pride and pleasure in their work whic every skilled craftsman finds in the exercise of his skill. A grea change has passed over the laborer in this respect. Tillage in al: branches appears to most of them sheer drudgery, absolutely ct interesting if not positively hateful. No mere rise of wages alter this.
Skilled Labor and Farm Wages. I do not think I can put this more forcibly before you than condersing here a conversation I had a month or two ago with a me of the highest farming class, engaged in the management of one those immense farms which seem to me to be the ruin of England
It was a very favorable specimen. The management was evidenti liberal, the owner, I believe, personally kindly. But the system 1