Read THE LABOURER’S DAILY LIFE of The Toilers of the Field , free online book, by Richard Jefferies, on

Many labourers can trace their descent from farmers or well-to-do people, and it is not uncommon to find here and there a man who believes that he is entitled to a large property in Chancery, or elsewhere, as the heir.  They are very fond of talking of these things, and naturally take a pride in feeling themselves a little superior in point of ancestry to the mass of labourers.

How this descent from a farmer to a labourer is managed there are at this moment living examples going about the country.  I knew a man who for years made it the business of his life to go round from farm to farm soliciting charity, and telling a pitiful tale of how he had once been a farmer himself.  This tale was quite true, and as no class likes to see their order degraded, he got a great deal of relief from the agriculturists where he was known.  He was said to have been wild in his youth, and now in his old age was become a living representative of the farmer reduced to a labourer.

This reduction is, however, usually a slow process, and takes two generations to effect — not two generations of thirty years each, but at least two successors in a farm.

Perhaps the decline of a farming family began in an accession of unwonted prosperity.  The wheat or the wool went up to a high price, and the farmer happened to be fortunate and possessed a large quantity of those materials.  Or he had a legacy left him, or in some way or other made money by good fortune rather than hard work.  This elated his heart, and thinking to rise still higher in life, he took another, or perhaps two more large farms.  But to stock these required more money than he could produce, and he had to borrow a thousand or so.  Then the difficulty of attending to so large an acreage, much of it distant from his home, made it impossible to farm in the best and most profitable manner.  By degrees the interest on the loan ate up all the profit on the new farms.  Then he attempted to restore the balance by violent high farming.  He bought manures to an unprecedented extent, invested in costly machinery — anything to produce a double crop.  All this would have been very well if he had had time to wait till the grass grew; but meantime the steed starved.  He had to relinquish the additional farms, and confine himself to the original one with a considerable loss both of money and prestige.  He had no energy to rise again; he relapsed into slow, dawdling ways, perpetually regretting and dwelling on the past, yet making no effort to retrieve it.

This is a singular and strongly marked characteristic of the agricultural class, taken generally.  They work and live and have their being in grooves.  So long as they can continue in that groove, and go steadily forward, without much thought or trouble beyond that of patience and perseverance, all goes well; but if any sudden jolt should throw them out of this rut, they seem incapable of regaining it.  They say, “I have lost my way; I shall never get it again.”  They sit down and regret the past, granting all their errors with the greatest candour; but the efforts they make to regain their position are feeble in the extreme.

So our typical unfortunate farmer folds his hands, and in point of fact slumbers away the rest of his existence, content with the fireside and a roof over his head, and a jug of beer to drink.  He does not know French, he has never heard of Metternich, but he puts the famous maxim in practice, and, satisfied with to-day, says in his heart, Âpres nous lé Deluge.  No one disturbs him; his landlord has a certain respect and pity for him — respect, perhaps, for an old family that has tilled his land for a century, but which he now sees is slowly but irretrievably passing away.  So the decayed farmer dozes out his existence.

Meantime his sons are coming on, and it too often happens that the brief period of sunshine and prosperity has done its evil work with them too.  They have imbibed ideas of gentility and desire for excitement utterly foreign to the quiet, peaceful life of an agriculturist.  They have gambled on the turf and become involved.  Notwithstanding the fall of their father from his good position, they still retain the belief that in the end they shall find enough money to put all to rights; but when the end comes there is a deficiency.  Among them there is perhaps one more plodding than the rest.  He takes the farm, and keeps a house for the younger children.  In ten years he becomes a bankrupt, and the family are scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.  The plodding one becomes a bailiff, and lives respectably all his life; but his sons are never educated, and he saves no money; there is nothing for them but to go out to work as farm labourers.

Such is something like the usual way in which the decline and fall of a farming family takes place, though it may of course arise from unforeseen circumstances, quite out of the control of the agriculturist.  In any case the children graduate downwards till they become labourers.  Nowadays many of them emigrate, but in the long time that has gone before, when emigration was not so easy, many hundreds of families have thus become reduced to the level of the labourers they once employed.  So it is that many of the labourers of to-day bear names which less than two generations ago were well known and highly respected over a wide tract of country.  It is natural for them to look back with a certain degree of pleasure upon that past, and some may even have been incited to attempt a return to the old position.

But the great majority, the mass, of the agricultural labourers have been labourers time out of mind.  Their fathers were labourers, their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers have all worked upon the farms, and very often almost continuously during that long period of time upon the farms in one parish.  All their relations have been, and still are, labourers, varied by one here who has become a tinker, or one there who keeps a small roadside beerhouse.  When this is the case, when a man and all his ancestors for generations have been hewers of wood and drawers of water, it naturally follows that the present representative of the family holds strongly to the traditions, the instincts, acquired during the slow process of time.  What those instincts are will be better gathered from a faithful picture of his daily life.

Most of the agricultural labourers are born in a thatched cottage by the roadside, or in some narrow lane.  This cottage is usually an encroachment.  In the olden time, when land was cheap, and the competition for it dull, there were many strips and scraps which were never taken any notice of, and of which at this hour no record exists either in the parochial papers or the Imperial archives.  Probably this arose from the character of the country in the past, when the greater part was open, or, as it was called, champaign land, without hedge, or ditch, or landmark.  Near towns a certain portion was enclosed generally by the great landowners, or for the use of the tradesmen.  There was also a large enclosure called the common land, on which all burgesses or citizens had a right to feed so many cattle, sheep, or horses.  As a rule the common land was not enclosed by hedges in fields, though instances do occur in which it was.  There were very few towns in the reign of Charles II. that had not got their commons attached to them; but outside and beyond these patches of cultivation round the towns the country was open, unenclosed, and the boundaries ill-defined.  The king’s highway ran from one point to another, but its course was very wide.  Roads were not then macadamised and strictly confined to one line.  The want of metalling, and the consequent fearful ruts and sloughs, drove vehicles and travellers further and further from what was the original line, till they formed a track perhaps a score or two of yards wide.  When fields became more generally enclosed it was still only in patches, and these strips and spaces of green sward were left utterly uncared for and unnoticed.  These were encamped upon by the gipsies and travelling folk, and their unmolested occupation no doubt suggested to the agricultural labourer that he might raise a cottage upon such places, or cultivate it for his garden.

I know of one spot at this present moment which was enclosed by an agricultural labourer fully sixty years ago.  It is an oval piece of ground of considerable size, situated almost exactly in the centre of a very valuable estate.  He and his descendants continued to crop this garden of theirs entirely unmolested for the whole of that time, paying no rent whatever.  It soon, however, became necessary to enlarge the size of the fields, which were small, in order to meet the requirements of the modern style of agriculture.  This oval piece was surrounded by hedges of enormous growth, and the cultivator was requested to remove to another piece more out of the way.  He refused to do so, and when the proprietors of the surrounding estate came to inquire into the circumstances they found that they could do nothing.  He had enjoyed undisturbed possession for sixty years; he had paid no rent — no quit rent or manor dues of any kind.  But still further, when they came to examine the maps and old documents, no mention whatever appeared of this particular patch of ground.  It was utterly unnoticed; it was not recorded as any man’s property.  The labourer therefore retained possession.  This was an extraordinary case, because the encroachment took place in the middle of a cultivated estate, where one would have thought the tenants would have seen to it.

Commonly the squatters pitched on a piece of land — a long unused strip — running parallel to the highway or lane.  This was no one’s property; it was the property of the nation, which had no immediate representative to look after its interests.  The surrounding farmers did not care to interfere; it was no business of theirs.  The highway board, unless the instance was very glaring, and some actual obstruction of the road was caused, winked at the trespass.  Most of them were farmers, and did not wish to interfere with a poor man, who they knew had no other way of getting a house of his own.  By-and-by, when the cottage was built, the labourer was summoned to the court-leet of the manor, and was assessed in quit rent, a mere nominal sum, perhaps fourpence or a shilling a year.  He had no objection to this, because it gave him a title.  As long as the quit rent was duly paid, and he could produce the receipt, he was safe in the occupation of his cottage, and no one could turn him out.  To be assessed by the court-leet in fact established his title.  Some of these court-leets or manor courts are only held at intervals of three years, or even more, and are generally composed of farmers, presided over by the legal agent of the lord of the manor.  The tenants of the manor attend to pay their quit rent for the preceding years, and it often happens that if the cottager has been ill, or is weak and infirm, the farmers composing the court subscribe and pay the quit rent for him.

The first step when a labourer intends to become a squatter is to enclose the strip of land which he has chosen.  This he does by raising a low bank of earth round it, on which he plants elder bushes, as that shrub grows quickest, and in the course of two seasons will form a respectable fence.  Then he makes a small sparred gate which he can fasten with a padlock, and the garden is complete.  To build the cottage is quite another matter.  That is an affair of the greatest importance, requiring some months of thought and preparation.  The first thing is to get the materials.  If it is a clay country, of course bricks must be chosen; but in stone countries there are often quarries on the farm on which he works.  His employer will let him have a considerable quantity of stone for nothing, and the rest at a nominal charge, and will lend him a horse and cart at a leisure season; so that in a very short time he can transport enough stone for his purpose.  If he has no such friend, there is almost sure to be in every parish a labouring man who keeps a wretched horse or two, fed on the grass by the roadside, and gains his living by hauling.  Our architect engages this man at a low price to haul his materials for him.  The lime to make mortar he must buy.  In the parish there is nearly sure to be at least one native mason, who works for the farmers, putting up pig-styes, mending walls, and doing small jobs of that kind.  This is the builder who engages to come on Saturday afternoons or in the evenings, while the would-be householder himself is the hod-bearer and mixes the mortar.  Nine times out of ten the site for the cottage is chosen so as to have a ditch at the back.  This ditch acts at once as the cesspool and the sewer, and, unless it happens to have a good fall, speedily becomes a nuisance to the neighbourhood.  A certain quantity of wood is of course required in building even this humble edifice.  This is either given by the farmers or is purchased at a nominal rate.

The ground plan is extremely simple.  It consists of two rooms, oblong, and generally of the same size — one to live in, the other to sleep in — for the great majority of the squatters’ hovels have no upstair rooms.  At one end there is a small shed for odds and ends.  This shed used to be built with an oven, but now scarcely any labourers bake their own bread, but buy of the baker.  The walls of the cottage having been carried up some six feet, or six feet six — just a little higher than a man’s head — the next process is to construct the roof, which is a very simple process.  The roof is then thatched, sometimes with flags cut from the brooks, but more usually with straw, and practically the cottage is now built, for there are no indoor fittings to speak of.  The chimney is placed at the end of the room set apart for day use.  There is no ceiling, nothing between the floor and the thatch and rafters, except perhaps at one end, where there is a kind of loft.  The floor consists simply of the earth itself rammed down hard, or sometimes of rough pitching-stones, with large interstices between them.  The furniture of this room is of the simplest description.  A few chairs, a deal table, three or four shelves, and a cupboard, with a box or two in the corners, constitute the whole.  The domestic utensils are equally few, and strictly utilitarian.  A great pot, a kettle, a saucepan, a few plates, dishes and knives, half-a-dozen spoons, and that is about all.  But on the mantelpiece there is nearly sure to be a few ornaments in crockery, bought from some itinerant trader.  The walls are whitewashed.  The bedroom is plainly and rudely furnished.  Some cottages do not even attain to this degree of comfort.  They consist of four posts set in the ground which support the cross-beam and the roof, and the walls are made of wattle and daub, i.e., of small split willow sticks, put upright and daubed over with coarse plaster.  The roofs of these cottages are often half hidden with rank grass, moss, and sillgreen, a vegetation perhaps encouraged by the drippings from a tree overhanging the roof; and the situation of the cottage is itself in many cases low and damp.

But there is a class of squatters, who possess habitations more fit for human beings.  These were originally built by men who had saved a little money, had showed, perhaps, a certain talent for hedge carpentering or thatching, become tinkers, or even blacksmiths.  In such capacities a man may save a little money — not much, perhaps L30 or L40 at furthest.  With the aid of this he manages to build a very tidy cottage, in the face of the statement made by architects and builders that a good cottage cannot be erected under L120.  Their dwellings do not, indeed, compete with the neat, prim, and business-like work of the professional builder; but still they are roomy and substantial cottages.  The secret of cheapness lies in the fact that they work themselves at the erection, and do not entrust some one else with a contract.  Moreover, they make shifts and put up with drawbacks as no business-man could possibly do.  The materials they purchase are cheap and of second-class condition, but good enough to hold together and to last some time.  Their rude beams and rafters would not satisfy the eye of a landed proprietor, but they hold up the roof-tree equally well.  Every pound they spend goes its full length, and not a penny is wasted.  After a while a substantial-looking cottage rises up, whitewashed and thatched.  It has an upper storey with two rooms, and two, at least, downstairs, with the inevitable lean-to or shed, without which no labourer’s cottage is complete.  This is more like a house, the residence of a man, than that of the poorer squatter.  The floor is composed of flag-stones, in this case always carefully washed and holystoned.  There are the same chairs and deal table as in the poorer cottage, but there are many more domestic utensils, and the chimney-piece is ornamented with more crockery figures.  A few coarse prints hang against the walls.  Some of these old prints are great curiosities in their way — hardly valuable enough for a collection, but very amusing.  A favourite set of prints is the ride of Dick Turpin to York on Black Bess, representing every scene in that famous gallop.  The upstair rooms are better furnished, and the beds often really good.

Some of these cottages in summer-time really approach something of that Arcadian beauty which is supposed to prevail in the country.  Everything, of course, depends upon the character of the inmates.  The dull tint of the thatch is relieved here and there by great patches of sillgreen, which is religiously preserved as a good herb, though the exact ailments for which it is “good” are often forgotten.  One end of the cottage is often completely hidden with ivy, and woodbine grows in thickest profusion over the porch.  Near the door there are almost always a few cabbage-rose trees, and under the windows grow wall-flowers and hollyhocks, sweet peas, columbine, and sometimes the graceful lilies of the valley.  The garden stretches in a long strip from the door, one mass of green.  It is enclosed by thick hedges, over which the dog-rose grows, and the wild convolvulus will blossom in the autumn.  Trees fill up every available space and corner — apple trees, pear trees, damsons, plums, bullaces — all varieties.  The cottagers seem to like to have at least one tree of every sort.  These trees look very nice in the spring when the apple blossom is out, and again in the autumn when the fruit is ripe.  Under the trees are gooseberry bushes, raspberries, and numbers of currants.  The patches are divided into strips producing potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, onions, radishes, parsnips; in this kitchen produce, as with the fruit, they like to possess a few of all kinds.  There is generally a great bunch of rhubarb.  In odd corners there are sure to be a few specimens of southernwood, mugwort, and other herbs; not for use, but from adherence to the old customs.  The “old people” thought much of these “yherbs,” so they must have some too, as well as a little mint and similar potherbs.  In the windows you may see two or three geraniums, and over the porch a wicker cage, in which the “ousel cock, with orange-tawny bill,” pours out his rich melodious notes.  There is hardly a cottage without its captive bird, or tame rabbit, or mongrel cur, which seems as much attached to his master as more high-bred dogs to their owners.

These better cottages are extremely pleasing to look upon.  There is an old English, homely look about them.  I know a man now whose cottage is ornamented much in the way I have described, a man of sixty, who can neither read nor write, and is rude and uncouth in speech, yet everything about him seems pleasant and happy.  To my eye the thatch and gables, and picturesque irregularity of this class of cottages, are more pleasing than the modern glaring red brick and prim slate of dwellings built to order, where everything is cut with a precise uniformity.  If a man can be encouraged to build his own house, depend upon it it is better for him and his neighbours than that he should live in one which is not his own.  The sense of ownership engenders a pride in the place, and all his better feelings are called into play.  Some of these cottagers, living in such houses as these, are the very best labourers to be had.  They stay on one farm a lifetime, and never leave it — an invaluable aid to a farmer.  They frequently possess some little special knowledge of carpentering or blacksmith’s work, which renders them extremely useful, and at the same time increases their earnings.  These men are the real true peasantry, quiet and peaceful, yet strong and courageous.  These are the class that should be encouraged by every possible means; a man who keeps his little habitation in the state I have described, who ornaments it within, and fills his garden with fruit and flowers, though he may be totally unable to read or to speak correctly, is nevertheless a good and useful citizen, and an addition to the stability of the State.

Though these cottages are worth the smallest sums comparatively, it is interesting to note with what pride and satisfaction the possessors contemplate leaving them to their children.  Of course this very feeling, where there are quarrelsome relations, often leads to bickerings and strife.  It is astonishing with what tenacity a man who thinks he has a claim to a part of such a small estate will cling to his cause, and will not hesitate to spend to maintain his claim all his little earnings on the third-class lawyers whom the agricultural poor mostly patronise.  Even after every shadow of legal chance is gone, he still loudly declares his right; and there is more squabbling about the inheritance of these places than over the succession to great domains.

Another class of labourers’ cottages is found chiefly in the villages.  These were not originally erected for the purpose to which they are now applied; they were farmhouses in the days when small farms were the rule, or they were built for tradesmen who have long since departed.  These buildings are divided into two, three, or more habitations, each with its family; and many makeshifts have to be resorted to to render them decent and comfortable.  This class of cottage is to be avoided if possible, because the close and forced intercourse which must take place between the families generally leads to quarrels.  Perhaps there is one pump for the entire building, and one wants to use it just at the moment that another requires water; or there is only one gateway to the court, and the passage is obstructed by the wheelbarrow of the other party.  It is from these places that the greater part of the malcontents go up to the magistrates in petty sessions.  It is rare, indeed, that the cottager living more or less isolated by the side of the road appears in a court of law.  Of course, in these villages there are cottages which have been built expressly for the use of labouring men, and these, like those in the open country, may be divided into three classes — the hovel, the cottage proper, and the model modern cottage.

In the villages there is almost sure to be one or more cottages which carries one’s idea of Lilliputian dwellings to the extreme.  These are generally sheds or outhouses which have been converted into cottages.  I entered one not long since which consisted of two rooms, one above and one below, and each of these rooms could not have measured, at a guess, more than six feet six across.  I had heard of this place, and expected to find it a perfect den of misery and wretchedness.  No such thing.  To my surprise the woman who opened the door was neatly clad, clean, and bright.  The floor of the cottage was of ordinary flag-stones, but there was a ceiling whitewashed and clean.  A good fire was burning in the grate — it was the middle of winter — and the room felt warm and comfortable.  The walls were completely covered with engravings from the Illustrated London News.  The furniture was equal to the furniture of the best cottages, and everything was extremely clean.  The woman said they were quite comfortable; and although they could have had a larger cottage many times since, they never wished to change, as they had no children.  That of course made a great difference.  I never should have thought it possible for two human beings to have existed, much less been comfortable, in such a diminutive place.  Another cottage I know contains but one room altogether, which is about eight feet square; it is inhabited by a solitary old woman, and looks like a toy-house.  One or two such places as these may be found in most villages, but it does not by any means follow that because they are small the inhabitants are badly off.  The condition they are found in depends entirely upon the disposition of the inmates.  If they are slatternly and dirty, the largest cottages would not improve them.

In some rural villages a great many cottages may be observed sadly out of repair — the thatch coming off and in holes, the windows broken, and other signs of dilapidation.  This is usually set down to the landlord’s fault, but if the circumstances are inquired into, it will often be found that the fault lies with the inmates themselves.  These cottages are let to labourers at a merely nominal rent, and with them a large piece of allotment ground.  But although they thus get a house and garden almost free, they refuse to do the slightest or simplest repairs.  If the window gets broken — “Oh, let it stop; the landlord can do that.”  If a piece of thatch comes off — “Oh, ’tisn’t my house; let the landlord do it up.”  So it goes on till the cottage is ready to tumble to pieces.  What is the landlord to do?  In his heart he would like to raze the whole village to the ground and rebuild it afresh.  But there are not many who can afford such an expense.  Then, if it were done, the old women and old men, and infirm persons who find a home in these places, would be driven forth.  If the landlord puts up two hundred new cottages, he finds it absolutely necessary to get some kind of return for the capital invested.  He does not want more than two and a half per cent.; but to ask that means a rise of perhaps a shilling a week.  That is enough; the labourer seeks another tumbledown place where he can live for tenpence a week, and the poor and infirm have to go to the workhouse.  So, rather than be annoyed with the endless complaints and troubles, to say nothing of the inevitable loss of money, the landlord allows things to go on as they are.

Among our English cottages in out-of-the-way places may be found curious materials for the study of character in humble life.  In one cottage you may find an upright, stern-featured man, a great student of the Bible, and fond of using its language whenever opportunity offers, who is the representative of the old Puritan, though the denomination to which he may belong is technically known as the Methodist.  He is stern, hard, uncompromising — one who sets duty above affection.  His children are not spoiled because the rod is spared.  He stands aloof from his fellows, and is never seen at the cottage alehouse, or lingering in groups at the cross-roads.  He is certain to be at the “anniversary,” i.e., the commemoration of the foundation of the Methodist chapel of the parish.  The very next cottage may contain the antithesis of this man.  This is a genius in his way.  He has some idea of art, as you may gather from the fanciful patches into which his garden is divided.  He has a considerable talent for construction, and though he has never been an apprentice he can do something towards mending a cart or a door.  He makes stands with wires to put flowers in for the farmers’ parlours, and strings the dry oak-apples on wire, which he twists into baskets, to hold knicknackeries.  He is witty, and has his jest for everybody.  He can do something of everything — turn his hand any way — a perfect treasure on the farm.  In the old days there was another character in most villages; this was the rhymer.  He was commonly the fiddler too, and sang his own verses to tunes played by himself.  Since the printing-press has come in, and flooded the country with cheap literature, this character has disappeared, though many of the verses these men made still linger in the countryside.

The ordinary adult farm labourer commonly rises at from four to five o’clock; if he is a milker, and has to walk some little distance to his work, even as early as half-past three.  Four was the general rule, but of late years the hour has grown later.  He milks till five or half-past, carries the yokes to the dairy, and draws water for the dairymaid, or perhaps chops up some wood for her fire to scald the milk.  At six he goes to breakfast, which consists of a hunch of bread and cheese as the rule, with now and then a piece of bacon, and as a milker he receives his quart of beer.  At breakfast there is no hurry for half-an-hour or so; but some time before seven he is on at the ordinary work of the day.  If a milker and very early riser, he is not usually put at the heavy jobs, but allowances are made for the work he has already done.  The other men on the farm arrive at six.  At eleven, or half-past, comes luncheon, which lasts a full hour, often an hour and a quarter.  About three o’clock the task of milking again commences; the buckets are got out with a good deal of rattling and noise, the yokes fitted to the shoulders, and away he goes for an hour or hour and a half of milking.  That done, he has to clean up the court and help the dairymaid put the heavier articles in place; then another quart of beer, and away home.  The time of leaving off work varies from half-past five to half-past six.  At ordinary seasons the other men leave at six, but in haymaking or harvest time they are expected to remain till the job in hand that day is finished, often till eight or half-past.  This is compensated for by a hearty supper and almost unlimited beer.  The women employed in field labour generally leave at four, and hasten home to prepare the evening meal.  The evening meal is the great event of the day.  Like the independent gentleman in this one thing, the labourer dines late in the day.  His midday meal, which is the farmer’s dinner, is his luncheon.  The labourer’s dinner is taken at half-past six to seven in the evening, after he has got home, unlaced his heavy and cumbrous boots, combed his hair, and washed himself.  His table is always well supplied with vegetables, potatoes, and particularly greens, of which he is peculiarly fond.  The staple dish is, of course, a piece of bacon, and large quantities of bread are eaten.  It is a common thing now, once or twice in the week, for a labourer to have a small joint of mutton, not a prime joint, of course, but still good and wholesome meat.  Many of them live in a style, so far as eating and drinking is concerned, quite equal to the small farmers, and far superior to what these small farmers were used to.  Instead of beer, the agricultural labourer frequently drinks tea with his dinner — weak tea in large quantities.  After the more solid parts comes a salad of onions or lettuce.  These men eat quantities which would half kill many townspeople.  After dinner, if it is the season of the year, they go out to the allotment and do a little work for themselves, and then, unless the alehouse offers irresistible attractions, to bed.  The genuine agricultural labourer goes early to bed.  It is necessary for him, after the long toil of the day, on account of the hour at which he has to rise in the morning.

Men employed on arable farms, as carters, for instance, have to rise even earlier than dairymen.  They often begin to bait their horses at half-past three, or rather they used to.  This operation of baiting is a most serious and important one to the carter.  On it depends the appearance of his team — with him a matter of honest and laudable ambition.  If he wishes his horses to look fat and well, with smooth shiny coats, he must take the greatest care with their food, not to give them too much or too little, and to vary it properly.  He must begin feeding a long time before his horses start to plough.  It is, therefore, an object with him to get to rest early.  In the winter time especially the labouring poor go to bed very soon, to save the expense of candles.

By the bye, the cottagers have a curious habit, which deserves to be recorded even for its singularity.  When the good woman of the cottage goes out for half-an-hour to fetch a pail of water, or to gossip with a neighbour, she always leaves the door-key in the keyhole outside.  The house is, in fact, at the mercy of any one who chooses to turn the key and enter.  This practice of locking the door and leaving the key in it is very prevalent.  The presence of the key is to intimate that the inmate has gone out, but will shortly return; and it is so understood by the neighbours.  If a cottager goes out for the day, he or she locks the door, and takes the key with them; but if the key is left in the door, it is a sign that the cottager will be back in ten minutes or so.

The alehouse is the terrible bane of the labourer.  If he can keep clear of that, he is clean, tidy, and respectable; but if he once falls into drinking habits, good-bye to all hopes of his rising in his occupation.  Where he is born there will he remain, and his children after him.

Some of the cottagers who show a little talent for music combine under the leadership of the parish clerk and the patronage of the clergyman, and form a small brass band which parades the village at the head of the Oddfellows or other benefit club once a year.  In the early summer, before the earnest work of harvest begins, and while the evenings begin to grow long, it is not unusual to see a number of the younger men at play at cricket in the meadow with the more active of the farmers.  Most populous villages have their cricket club, which even the richest farmers do not disdain to join, and their sons stand at the wicket.

The summer is the labourer’s good season.  Then he can make money and enjoy himself.  In the summer three or four men will often join together and leave their native parish for a ramble.  They walk off perhaps some forty or fifty miles, take a job of mowing or harvesting, and after a change of scenery and associates, return in the later part of the autumn, full of the things they have seen, and eager to relate them to the groups at the cross-roads or the alehouse.  The winter is under the best circumstances a hard time for the labourer.  It is not altogether that coals are dear and firewood growing scarcer year by year, but every condition of his daily life has a harshness about it.  In the summer the warm sunshine cast a glamour over the rude walls, the decaying thatch, and the ivy-covered window.  The blue smoke rose up curling beside the tall elm-tree.  The hedge parting his garden from the road was green and thick, the garden itself full of trees, and flowers of more or less beauty.  Mud floors are not so bad in the summer; holes in the thatch do not matter so much; an ill-fitting window-sash gives no concern.  But with the cold blasts and ceaseless rain of winter all this is changed.  The hedge next the road is usually only elder, and this, once the leaves are off, is the thinnest, most miserable of shelters.  The rain comes through the hole in the thatch (we are speaking of the large class of poor cottages), the mud floor is damp, and perhaps sticky.  If the floor is of uneven stones, these grow damp and slimy.  The cold wind comes through the ill-fitting sash, and drives with terrible force under the door.  Very often the floor is one step lower than the ground outside, and consequently there is a constant tendency in rainy weather for the water to run or soak in.  The elm-tree overhead, that appeared so picturesque in summer, is now a curse, for the great drops fall perpetually from it upon the thatch and on the pathway in front of the door.  In great storms of wind it sways to and fro, causing no little alarm, and boughs are sometimes blown off it, and fall upon the roof-tree.  The thatch of the cottage is saturated; the plants and grasses that almost always grow on it, and the moss, are vividly, rankly green; till all dripping, soaked, overgrown with weeds, the wretched place looks not unlike a dunghill.  Inside, the draught is only one degree better than the smoke.  These low chimneys, overshadowed with trees, smoke incessantly, and fill the room with smother.  To avoid the draught, many of the cottages are fitted with wooden screens, which divide the room, small enough before, into two parts, the outer of which, towards the door, is a howling wilderness of draught and wet from under the door; and the inner part close, stuffy, and dim with smoke driven down the chimney by the shifting wind.  Here the family are all huddled up together close over the embers.  Here the cooking is done, such as it is.  Here they sit in the dark, or in such light as is supplied by the carefully hoarded stock of fuel, till it is time to go to bed, and that is generally early enough.  So rigid is the economy practised in many of these cottages that a candle is rarely if ever used.  The light of the fire suffices, and they find their beds in the dark.  Even when a labourer has risen in the scale, and has some small property, the enforced habits of early life cling to him; and I have frequently found men who were really worth some little money sitting at eight o’clock on a dark winter’s night without a candle or lamp, their feet close to a few dying embers.  The older people especially go to bed early.  Going to some cottages once for a parish paper that had been circulated for signature, I rapped at the closed door.  This was at half-past seven one evening in November.  Again and again I hammered at the door; at last an old woman put her head out of window, and the following colloquy ensued: —

“What do ’ee want?”

“The paper; have you signed it?”

“Lor, I doan’t know.  He’s on the table — a bin ther ever since a come.  Thee’s can lift th’ latch an’ take ’un. We bin gone to bed this two hours.”

They must have gone upstairs at half-past five.  To rise at five of a summer’s morning, and see the azure of the sky and the glorious sun, may be, perhaps, no great hardship, although there are few persons who could long remain poetical on bread and cheese.  But to rise at five on a dark winter’s morning is a very different affair.  To put on coarse nailed boots, weighing fully seven pounds, gaiters up above the knee, a short greatcoat of some heavy material, and to step out into the driving rain and trudge wearily over field after field of wet grass, with the furrows full of water; then to sit on a three-legged stool, with mud and manure half-way up the ankles, and milk cows with one’s head leaning against their damp, smoking hides for two hours, with the rain coming steadily drip, drip, drip — this is a very different affair.

The “fogger” on a snowy morning in the winter has to encounter about the most unpleasant circumstances imaginable.  Icicles hang from the eaves of the rick, and its thatch is covered with snow.  Up the slippery ladder in the dark morning, one knee out upon the snow-covered thatch, he plunges the broad hay-knife in and cuts away an enormous truss — then a great prong is stuck into this, a prong made on purpose, with extra thick and powerful handle, and the truss, well bound round with a horse-hair rope, is hoisted on the head and shoulders.  This heavy weight the fogger has to carry perhaps half-a-mile through the snow; the furrows in the field are frozen over, but his weight crashes through the ice, slush into the chilly water.  Rain, snow, or bitter frost, or still more bitter east winds — “harsh winds,” as he most truly calls them — the fogger must take no heed of either, for the cows must be fed.

A quart of threepenny ale for breakfast, with a hunch of bread and cheese, then out to work again in the weather, let it be what it may.  The cowyards have to be cleaned out — if not done before breakfast — the manure thrown up into heaps, and the heaps wheeled outside.  Or, perhaps, the master has given him a job of piece-work to fill up the middle of the day with — a hedge to cut and ditch.  This means more slush, wet, cold, and discomfort.  About six or half-past he reaches home, thoroughly saturated, worn-out, cross, and “dummel.”  I don’t know how to spell that word, nor what its etymology may be, but it well expresses the dumb, sullen churlishness which such a life as this engenders.  For all the conditions and circumstances of such a life tend to one end only — the blunting of all the finer feelings, the total erasure of sensitiveness.  The coarse, half-cooked cabbage, the small bit of fat and rafty bacon, the dry bread and pint of weak tea, makes no very hearty supper after such a day as this.  The man grows insensible to the weather, so cold and damp; his bodily frame becomes crusted over, case-hardened; and with this indifference there rises up at the same time a corresponding dulness as regards all moral and social matters.

Generally the best conditions of cottage life are to be found wherever there are, say, three or four great, tall, strong, unmarried sons lodging in the house with their aged parents.  Each of these pays a small sum weekly for his lodging, and often an additional sum for the bare necessaries of life.  In the aggregate this mounts up to a considerable sum, and whatever is bought is equally shared by the parents.  They live exceedingly well.  Such young men as these earn good wages, and now and then make extra time, and come home with a pocketful of money.  Even after the inevitable alehouse has claimed its share, there still remains enough to purchase fresh meat for supper; and it is not at all unusual in such cottages to find the whole family supping at seven (it is, in fact, dining) on a fairly good joint of mutton, with every species of common vegetables.  In one case that was brought under my notice three brothers lived with their aged mother.  They were all strong, hard-working men, and tolerably steady.  In that cottage there were no less than four separate barrels of beer, and all on tap.  Four barrels in one cottage seems an extraordinary thing, yet it resolved itself very simply.  The cottage was the mother’s; they gave her so much for lodging, and she had her own barrel of beer, so that there should be no dispute.  The three brothers were mowers — mowers drink enormous quantities of liquor — and with the same view to prevent dispute each had his own especial barrel.  Families like this live fairly well, and have many little comforts.  Still, at the best, in winter it is a rough and uncomfortable existence.

In the life of the English agricultural labourers there is absolutely no poetry, no colour.  Even their marriages — times when if ever in life poetry will manifest itself — are sober, dull, tame, clumsy, and colourless.  I say sober in the sense of tint, for to get drunk appears to be the one social pleasure of the marriage-day.  They, of course, walk to church; but then that walk usually leads across fields full of all the beauties of the spring or the summer.  There is nothing in the walk itself to flatten down the occasion.  But the procession is so dull — so utterly ungenial — a stranger might pass it without guessing that a wedding was toward.  Except a few rude jests; except that there is an attempt to walk arm-in-arm (it is only an attempt, for they forget to allow for each other’s motions); except the Sunday dresses, utterly devoid of taste, what is there to distinguish this day from the rest?  There is the drunken carousal, it is true, all the afternoon and evening.  There are no fête days in the foreign sense in the English labourer’s life.  There are the fairs and feasts, and a fair is the most melancholy of sights.  Showmen’s vans, with pictures outside of unknown monsters; merry-go-rounds, nut stalls, gingerbread stalls, cheap Jacks, and latterly photographic “studios”; behind all these the alehouse; the beating of drums and the squalling of pigs, the blowing of horns, and the neighing of horses trotted out for show, the roar of a rude crowd — these constitute a country fair.  There is no colour — nothing flowery or poetical about this festival of the labourer.

The village feasts are still less interesting.  Here and there the clergyman of the parish has succeeded in turning what was a rude saturnalia into a decorous “fête,” with tea in a tent.  But generally the feasts are falling into rapid disuse, and would perhaps have died away altogether had not the benefit societies often chosen that day for their annual club-dinner.  A village feast consists of two or three gipsies located on the greensward by the side of the road, and displaying ginger-beer, nuts, and toys for sale; an Aunt Sally; and, if the village is a large one, the day may be honoured by the presence of what is called a rifle-gallery; the “feast” really and truly does not exist.  Some two or three of the old-fashioned farmers have the traditional roast beef and plum-pudding on that day, and invite a few friends; but this custom is passing away.  In what the agricultural labourer’s feast nowadays consists no one can tell.  It is an excuse for an extra quart or two of beer, that is all.

This dulness is not, perhaps, the fault of the labourer.  It may be that it is the fault of the national character, shown more broadly in the lower class of the population.  Speaking nationally, we have no fête days — there is no colour in our mode of life.  These English agricultural labourers have no passion plays, no peasant plays, no rustic stage and drama, few songs, very little music.  The club dinner is the real fête of the labourer; he gets plenty to eat and drink for that day.  It is this lack of poetical feeling that makes the English peasantry so uninteresting a study.  They have no appreciation of beauty.  Many of them, it is true, grow quantities of flowers; but barely one in a thousand could arrange those flowers in a bouquet.

The alehouse forms no inconsiderable part of the labourer’s life.  It is at once his stock exchange, his reading-room, his club, and his assembly rooms.  It is here that his benefit society holds its annual dinner.  The club meetings take place weekly or monthly in the great room upstairs.  Here he learns the news of the day; the local papers are always to be found at the public-house, and if he cannot read himself he hears the news from those who can.  In the winter he finds heat and light, too often lacking at home; at all times he finds amusement; and who can blame him for seizing what little pleasure lies in his way?  As a rule the beerhouse is the only place of amusement to which he can resort:  it is his theatre, his music-hall, picture-gallery, and Crystal Palace.  The recent enactments bearing upon the licensed victuallers have been rather hard upon the agricultural labourer.  No doubt they are very excellent enactments, especially those relating to early closing; but in the villages and outlying rural districts, where life is reduced to its most rude and simple form, many of the restrictions are unjust, and deprive the labourer of what he feels to be his legitimate right.  Playing at nine-pins, for instance, is practically forbidden, so also dominoes.  Now, it was a great thing to put down skittle-sharping and cheating at gambling generally — a good thing to discourage gambling in every form — but in these thinly-populated outlying agricultural parishes, where money is scarce and wages low, there never existed any temptation to allure skittle-sharpers and similar cheaters to the spot.  The game at skittles was a legitimate game — a fair and honest struggle of skill and strength.  Nine times out of ten it was played only for a quart of ale, to be drunk by the loser as well as the winner in good fellowship.  Why deprive the man who labours all day in wet and storm of so simple a pleasure in the evening?  The conditions are very different to those existing in large manufacturing towns, and some modification of the law ought to be made.  The agricultural labourer has no cheap theatre at which he can spend an hour, no music-hall, no reading-room; his only resource is the public-house.  Now that he is practically deprived of his skittles and such games, he has no amusement left except to drink, or play at pitch and toss on the quiet, a far worse pastime than skittles.  Skittles, of course, are allowed provided the players play for love only; but what public-house keeper cares to put up the necessary arrangements on such terms?  The labourer will have his quart in the evening, and, despite of all “cry” to the contrary, I believe it to be his right to have that quart; and it is better, if he must have it, that his whole thoughts should not be concentrated on the liquor — that he should earn it by skill and strength.  There is an opprobrium about the public-house, and let us grant that it is at least partially deserved — but where else is the labourer to go?  He cannot for ever work all day and sit in his narrow cabin in the evening.  He cannot always read, and those of his class who do read do so imperfectly.  A reading-room has been tried, but as a rule it fails to attract the purely agricultural labourer.  The shoemaker, the tailor, the village post-master, grocer, and such people may use it; also a few of the better-educated of the young labourers, the rising generation; but not the full-grown labourer with a wife and family and cottage.  It does good undoubtedly; in the future, as education extends, it will become a place of resort.  But at present it fails to reach the adult genuine agricultural labourer.  For a short period in the dead of the winter the farmers and gentry get up penny readings in many places, but these are confined to at most one evening a week.  What, then, is the labourer to do?  Let any one put himself in his place, try to realise his feelings and circumstances.  At present, till education extends, he must go to the public-house.  Is he to be punished and deprived of his game of skill because in large towns it bears evil fruit?  Surely the law could be somewhat modified, and playing permitted under some restrictions.

The early closing has been an unalloyed good in these rural districts.  The labourer is a steady drinker.  He does not toss down glasses of stiff brandy and whisky.  His beer requires time to produce an effect.  The last hour does the mischief.  Since the earlier closing the village streets have been comparatively free from drunken men.  In any case, the agricultural labourer is the most lamb-like of drunkards.  He interferes with no one.  He unhinges no gates, smashes no windows, does no injury.  He either staggers home or quietly lies on the grass till the liquor passes off.  He is not a quarrelsome man.  He does not fight with knuckle-dusters or kick with his heavy boots.  His fights, when he does fight, are very harmless affairs.  No doubt his drunkenness is an offence; but it is comparatively innocuous to the general public.

Religious feeling does not run high among the labourers.  A large proportion of them are Nonconformists — principally Methodists.  But this is not out of any very decided notion as to the difference of ceremony or theological dogma; it arises out of a class feeling.  They say, or rather they feel, that this is their church.  The parish church is the church of the farmers and the gentry.  There is no hostility to the clergyman of the parish, no bitter warfare of sect against sect, or of Methodist against Churchman.  But you see very few of the farmers go to chapel.  The labourer goes there, and finds his own friends — his cousins and uncles — his wife’s relations.  He is among his own class.  There is no feeling of inferiority.  The religion taught, the service, the hymns, the preacher, all are his.  He has a sense of proprietorship in them.  He helps to pay for them.  The French peasant replied to the English tourist, who expressed surprise at the fanatic love of the populace for the first Napoleon — “he was as much a tyrant as King Louis was.”  “Ah, but Napoleon was our king.”  So the labourers feel that this is their religion.  Therefore it is that so many of them gather together (where there are no chapels) in the cottage of some man who takes the lead, and sit, with doors and windows shut, crammed together to pray and listen to others pray.  Any of them who wishes can, as it were, ascend the pulpit here.  This is why in so many parishes the pews of the parish church are comparatively empty so far as agricultural labourers are concerned.  The best of clergymen must fail to fill them under such disadvantages.

It is very difficult not only for the clergyman, but for others who wish to improve the condition of the labourer, to reach him.  Better cottages are, of course, a most effectual way, but it is not in the power of every one to confer so substantial a benefit.  Perhaps one of the best means devised has been that of cottage flower-shows.  These are, of course, not confined to flowers; in fact, the principal part of such shows consists of table vegetables and fruit.  By rigidly excluding all gardeners, and all persons not strictly cottage people, the very best results have often been arrived at in this way.  For if there is one thing in which the labourer takes an interest it is his garden and his allotment.  To offer him prizes for the finest productions of his garden touches the most sensitive part of his moral organisation.  It is wonderful what an amount of emulation these prizes excite — emulation not so much for the value of the prize as for the distinction.  These competitions tend besides to provide him with a better class of food, for he depends largely upon vegetables.

There is nothing connected with the condition of the agricultural poor that is better worth the attention of improvers than the style of cookery pursued in these cottages.  A more wretched cookery probably does not exist on the face of the earth.  The soddened cabbage is typical of the whole thing.  Since higher wages have come in it has become possible for the labourer in many cases to provide himself with better food, such as mutton — the cheap parts — more bacon, pork, and so on; but the women do not know how to make the most of it.  It is very difficult to lay down a way in which this defect may be remedied; for there is nothing a man, let him be never so poor, so deeply resents as an inspection of the contents of his pot.  He would sooner eat half-raw bacon than have the teaching forced on him — how to make savoury meals of the simple provisions within his reach; nor can he be blamed for this sturdy independent feeling.  Possibly the establishment of schools of cookery in villages might do much good.  They might be attached to the new schools now building throughout the country.  The labourer, from so long living upon coarse, ill-cooked food, acquires an artificial taste.  Some men eat their bacon raw; others will drink large quantities of vinegar, and well they may need it to correct by its acidity the effects of strong unwholesome cabbage.  The cottage cook has no idea of those nutritious and pleasant soups which can be made to form so important a feature in the economy of daily life.

The labourer is in a lower degree of the same class as the third-rate working farmer of the past.  He is the old small dairy farmer in a coarser shape.  With a little less education, ruder manners, with the instincts of eating, drinking, and avarice more prominently displayed, he presents in his actual condition at this day a striking analogy to the agriculturist of a bygone time.  In fact, those farmers of twenty or thirty acres, living in cottage-like homesteads, were barely distinguishable as far as personnel went from the labourers among whom they lived.  This being the case, it is not surprising to find that the labourer of this day presents in general characteristics a marked affinity in ideas and sentiments to those entertained by the old farmer.  He has the same paternal creed in a more primeval form.  He considers his children as his absolute property.  He rules them with a rod of iron, or rather of ground-ash.  In fact, the ground-ash stick is his social religion.  The agricultural labouring poor are very rough and even brutal towards their children.  Not that they are without affection towards them, but they are used to thrash them into obedience instead of leading them into it by the gentle means of moral persuasion.

Bystanders would call the agricultural labourer cruel.  Carters, for instance, had till lately a habit of knocking the boys under their control about in a brutal manner.  But I do not think that in the mass of cases it arose from deliberate cruelty, but from a species of stolid indifference or insensibility to suffering.  Somehow they do not seem to understand that others suffer, whether this arises from the rough life they lead, the endless battle with the weather, the hard fare — whether it has grown up out of the circumstances surrounding them.  The same unfeeling brutality often extends to the cattle under their care.  In this there has been a decided improvement of late years; but it is not yet extinct.

These are some of the lights and shades of the labourer’s daily life impartially presented.