The Foxearth and District Local History Society
Memories of an Essex Farm Worker from the 1840s

By 'Joseph'

Few accounts exist from the early nineteenth century of the work of ordinary Essex people. One of the most interesting were the rememiscences of 'Joseph', first printed in the Essex Review :No. 36. of OCTOBER, 1900. (Vol. IX.). When an old man. Joseph reminisces about everyday life when he was a child. He seems to have lived in a village near Witham.

Cottage Near Witham

Cottage Near Witham: by Thomas Hearne 1793

Now, (1900 AD)  the busy binder cuts the corn close to the ground, ties it up, and as it travels round and round the field, shoots the sheaves off its platform at precisely the right distance for each trave to stand. Sixty years ago, (1840)  the wheat was reaped with sickles, eighteen inches or more from its roots. The sheaves were tied with twisted straw bands fastened cunningly by a quick turn of the wrist, and tossed aside in line for the two "setters up" to handle in their turn. These bands were sometimes made by women and children, who went into the field to help the reapers by twisting the straw bands with which the sheaves were fastened. After harvest, the fields were chopped over, and the haulm was carted home to make walls round the yards, or, may be, to be piled up on the flat roofs of sheds.

Those were the days of the smock frock—a worn and shabby one for every day, a better one, of a soft greenish hue, for Sundays. This, in its time, descended to the week-day wear, and very likely to another and a third generation. The smock was a comprehensive garment that reached below the knees, the farm labourer's lower extremities being cased on Sundays in short brown leather buskins, which met the hem of the smock. To work in, he wore cord or fustian breeches,! hitched up in the legs to the point of comfort, by a leather strap worn garter-wise just below the knee.

The wives of these sturdy men appeared on Sundays in large circular cloaks that enveloped their spare figures. At the time of which I am writing scarlet ones were getting few and far between, but the little bit of colour seen across the Common, under the ancient lime trees, was a most picturesque sight. The more fashionable dames appeared in green homespun, or camlet cloaks of the same pattern. But before very long the railways and other facilities for moving about the country brought the rural districts so much nearer the towns, that similarity in dress as in all other things was the inevitable result.

The Eastern Counties' Railway from London to Chelmsford was opened in 1840. In its construction, great difficulties had to be contended with, and large sums of money spent in engineering the soft springy soil of Brentwood Hill. About two years later, the line was continued to Colchester.

I remember travelling from Witham to Chelmsford in 1843, in an open railway carriage, that is, with no roof, sides, or windows, and with seats for the passengers resembling forms built on the floor of the truck. This line, now the Great Eastern Railway, was unique in running fifty miles from London without a tunnel. The branch line crossing it at Witham, and running from Braintree to Maldon, was opened in 1847, but it had very little patronage at first. Upon one occasion, I was the only passenger from Braintree to Witham.

Very few of the Essex parishes possessed any school, save a dame school. Our village owned one, built by the squire's daughter in 1836. It was a pretty little one-storied cottage, thatched with reeds which were especially brought from the Cambridgeshire fens. The School house adjoined the churchyard, and in out-of-school hours the children played merrily about the green graves, while the lesser ones clambered up and down the broad wooden steps which scaled the churchyard to leave their work whatever it might be, and go to hear the parson in the morning, returning after dinner to their several employments. Quite a number of them did so, causing the clergyman to remark that some who had helped to swell his large congregation on Good Friday, were never seen inside the church on any other occasion. They were conspicuous objects, of course, because they went in their working-clothes.

Implements were then very scarce upon the farms. Hardly any of the farmers had even drills of their own. To possess a drill, or more than one, and to take it round the neighbourhood, or let it out to the farmers, was a trade in itself. Horse-power chaff-cutters were just beginning to come into use, and soon there was one fixed in a " round-house," opening on to our road, opposite the big horse-pond, where we children loved to spend idle hours seated on the spindle bar, and revolving round and round after the horse. This was the only round-house in the neighbourhood for a long time, for labour was so superabundant and so cheap, that hand chaff-cutters continued to be employed. All the wheat was thrashed by a flail upon the barn-floors, and comfortable warm work it was during the long cold winter.

The flop-flop of the flails is still as fresh as possible in my memory. Also the bent figures of the two men, one on one side of the threshing-floor, and one on the other, alternately swinging the queer disjointed flails with a regular mechanical motion, the one up, and the other down. Stolid, taciturn, and slow of speech were the farm labourers of those days, whatever the spread of education has made them to-day.

Those who only have to pay a penny for their letters to any part of the United Kingdom, or the Colonies, would perhaps have grudged the five-pence necessary to frank a letter from Braintree to Chelmsford. Three times only in the week did letters find their way to our village, from which year after year a weather-beaten old dame travelled on foot to the town and back, laden with many things besides letters. Soon, however, the number of communications increased so fast, as the postage decreased, that she had to trudge there through all weathers, winter and summer, every day.

A sturdy old woman she was, with a great round basket on each arm (one of those that you had to stoop down to look inside, because the handle only allowed the lid to open a very little way), and nondescript articles of every size and shape hanging around her neck. Her arrival was as welcome as the things she brought, whether these were medicines for the sick, tea and groceries for the hearty, or news of the outer world for the curious.

Often we wondered how she managed to plod through the rain and the snow, or keep her footing on the slippery frosty roads ; particularly alter we heard one wintry morning of a poor woman being frozen to death in the deep snowdrifts of the Water Lane, only a stone's-throw from where dame Shelley had passed by.

No one came to claim or inquire after the poor waif, and no one ever discovered either the name or history of the occupant of the lonely grave dug in the unkempt grass of the unconsecrated corner of the village churchyard. This grave of hers was a never ceasing-puzzle to us children, for we could no-how under- stand why, because no one knew whether she had been baptised or not, she might not have been allowed to lie among the other inmates of the burial ground.

The parish constable had not been replaced by Sir Robert Peel's well-drilled men in blue, and there was much lawlessness abroad. Incendiary fires and robberies of lonely farm houses were common. To look out at night, and 11 see if there was a fire," was a customary thing before going upstairs to bed. There were many men out of work, especially through the long cold winters, the wages, when they had anything to do, were so cruelly low— eight or nine shillings a week—that it was no wonder some of the younger and less apathetic became desperate. They were prevented from going away from their own parish to seek for work, by the law whjch decreed that if they fell ill or needed help, they were to be sent back again for their own parish to support as paupers.

If this occurred a second time, a man could be imprisoned, solely for making his family chargeable to the parish. This did not apply to the short period of haying or harvest, when many of the men used to move about in the county as the corn ripened. Before the introduction of artificial and chemical foods for the soil, which has largely equalised the entire county, the north Essex men from the clay soils had plenty of time to go south to "the Hundreds," earn a harvest's wages there, and return in time for their own, which would not be till a full fortnight later. They were accommodated, for a sleeping place, in the barns or out- houses, no great penalty on a warm night in July, or August.

If there were many children in a family, the very little wheaten flour they could afford to buy, was made into bread for the bread- winner, whilst the mother and her children fed as they could on toppings, potatoes, and such other vegetables as their garden would produce. Butcher's meat was hardly ever seen in the cottages, perhaps only once a year, at Christmas time, when the farmers gave each man a piece of beef. The smoking joints of the harvest suppers of those days were therefore really appreciated.

Before sickle or scythe was put to the corn, there was the " letting supper," when all the men sat down in the chaise-house to boiled pork and broad beans. Then the wheat harvest began, and when that was over, there was another supper of baked plum pudding. When barley, and beans, and all other harvest work, was concluded, came the "settling supper " of boiled beef and boiled plum pudding.

Although, as we have seen, the poverty of the large families was very great,, the making of straw-plait for bonnets was a considerable help to them. The process of this now obsolete homely industry was an interesting one.

The straw of the reaped sheaves, having been prepared upon the great barn-floor, and the heads removed, it was purchased by the women, who carried the large unwieldy bundles home, tied round in their check aprons. When it was got home to the cottage, it was cut into lengths at each joint, and then split down with cunning little " engines," which divide the straws into three, four, or more strips, according to the fineness of the plait to be made. The strips were then steeped in water to make them less brittle, and more pliable. Wherever you Went into a cottage, you saw a bowl or pail of water standing, in which these little yellow strips were steeped, and the smell of the straw, to which a dash of brimstone also was added, pervaded all the humble dwelling.

As you walked about the lanes, you scarcely met a woman or child over five years old, whose fingers were not busily plaiting, the bristling roll of finished plait under one arm, the bunch of split straws under the other, and frequently a selection from these carried in the mouth, where most of them were moistened before they found their way into the piece.

Even the old men, too feeble to work in the field, or bent double, as many of them were, with continual thrashing with the flail, would sit and slowly turn out wheel after wheel of the coarser and cheaper kind of plait. But theirs had no fancy whip-cord edge such as the more nimble-fingered women could skilfully accomplish. The prices received for their handiwork varied from threepence to tenpence a score yards, and they could then dispose of almost any quantity, to be used for the very large straw hats and bonnets then in vogue. In many of the villages was to be found a rudimentary milliner, skilful enough to make up, and block and stiffen, new head-gear of a more useful than fashionable shape, and to clean and whiten innumerable times, such as had seen a summer's wear.

There was no putting out of washing in those days, but every farm-house had its grand washing days, when the women started work at four o'clock in the morning, indeed some of them came over-night. Strange as it may seem now, they would stand all day at the wash-tub or copper, rubbing and wringing (there were no wringing machines), and would go home at night well satisfied with receiving something under a shilling, and their meals.

Although, as I have said, farm wages were then extremely low, yet the men earned them in those days. There was no going home to breakfast and dinner, and spending an hour over it, as in these days of doubled wages. They, and their smock frocks, sat down under a hedge if far away from the house ; if near it, there was, amongst the outbuildings, a room called " the cottage," devoted to their use. As long as there was any small beer in the cask there, left after the brewing, they could help themselves to it. This cottage was a forbidden spot to us children when the men were taking their meals, and therefore it was invested with a special interest.

The brewing, which happened about once in every six weeks, was a vast delight to us. We would climb up the ladder to look into the mysterious decoction in the great vat, and I think we should have been entirely happy, if we had been allowed to sit up, only for one night, with the foreman to whom the business was intrusted. The red firelight from the great copper stoke-hole, which lit up the dim rafters of the brew-house, and cast strange shadows about its gabled roof, made it a most alluring place on winter evenings.

In harvest time, as soon as dressed, we scampered down before breakfast, to help fill the wooden beer bottles with their well-worn leather handles, which had been left overnight by the men outside the garden door. The struggles with some of the men's bottles when the vent-peg would not come out easily, or the bubbling frothy liquid would not run through the big funnel, were all amusement to us. Six pints a day were allowed for each man, and no money payment in lieu. How much better is the new way of paying harvest wages, when the men may spend the money on clothes, furniture, or improvements at home, instead of drinking so much of it up.

In those days, very few of the men could either read or write, but they were close observers of nature, and of animal life, and, notwithstanding their great disadvantages, were a good, honest, trustworthy race of men. In other things beside parish charge- ability, the laws were unjustly severe. Transportation for sheep- stealing, and many other crimes, was the rule. The father of a man now at work on our farm, was transported for stealing his master's land-ditching tools. The transported culprits were, in all probability, never heard of again, for they were unable to write letters, even if allowed to do so. Speaking of land-ditching reminds me of the winter work on the farm—land-draining with wood or straw, or sometimes only " scuds of straw " laid in the trench after it had been dug. The newly invented drain- pipes were introduced in Essex, by Mr. Mechi, in 1840. Then the spring ditches were dug, and the bottoms of them filled in with picked stones, to gather which off the wheat and barley etches used to be the occupation of a large proportion of the female part of the village population. Thus they added consider- ably to the family income, but it was at very great expenditure of shoe-leather and clothing generally, to say nothing of the neglect of home cleanliness and comfort ; while the exposure to weather and fatigue cannot have been without its effect upon the next generation. It is rarely now that women in the country villages engage in field labour of any sort, although we all know how eager they are to spend long days in the fields at gleaning time.

The digging.of great holes, or clay pits, was another lengthy and important operation, providing work for the men in the winter. The clay dug out was used to cover the fields instead of manure, for in those days there were no super-phosphates, or nitrates, to improve the next year's crop.

The game on our farm was carefully preserved by the land- lord, whose visits we children highly appreciated, for the sake of the brand new shillings or sixpences which the old banker brought in his pocket from Lombard Street. At the same" time, however, we were somewhat awed at the sight of the keen, satirical old face, and the sharp eyes that seemed to look through us. He was invariably dressed in a tight short jacket reaching only to the waist, and worn outside his coat. This garment was called a spencer, after Earl Spencer, who, as Lord Althorp, had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1830. He had set the fashion, and men, women and children immediately followed suit. But it was a fashion that did not last long, and it has never been revived.If the old landlord came in his whiskey ( a whiskey was a light two-wheeled conveyance for one horse, made for quick travelling, hence its name. It was sometimes called a tim-whiskey) we were more than delighted, especially if he drove in it the horse that had such an appropriate name. How this horse had been acquired, we often heard told. Brought to his stables one day, when he was in his most decisive mood, he had scarcely cast eyes upon it before rapping out in his abrupt way  "What's the price ?" "Fifty guineas," said the owner promptly. " I'll have it," came as quickly in reply, and the animal was forthwith named "Moment." His coachman at the same time was one Moses, and the old squire's order " Tell Moses to put Moment into the whiskey," which we children heard repeated, seemed to us of almost biblical importance

These are only a few rambling reminiscences of sixty years ago, but yet perhaps enough to show the rising generation in what a different age from that of our childhood, they have opened their eyes.