I have an allotment! When I am not wading through both my and other people’s ancestors, you can often find me wading through raspberry canes, potato beds and courgette plants – and like family history, the results of my labour are not always predictable.
This year I grew two varieties of fancy bean, which turned out to be the most expensive beans I’ve ever grown! Poor decisions on variety and bad weather meant that my crops failed disastrously and a lot of work and investment went down the drain irrigation channel.
This got me thinking just how precarious agricultural life can be. For me to lose a crop was irritating and disappointing. For our ancestors this might literally be a matter of life and death. Before the cushioning of a welfare state, it was often a very fine line between subsistence and destitution and so when we start to research our Ag Lab ancestors, we could do worse than look for them among the poor law records.
Our attitude to workhouses and the poor law is very much coloured by the portrayal of the workhouse system by Dickens and true, the Victorian workhouse was not somewhere where anyone would have wanted to linger (see Peter Higginbotham’s excellent workshouses website). Conditions were harsh, food was adequate but strictly no frills, and the enforced work and stigmatising uniforms were designed to ensure that the workhouse was the last resort for the destitute, not a rest cure.
But did this mean that people didn’t care? Should we tar all the Victorian authorities with the same Dickensian, brush? Well, I don’t think we can.
My colleague recently made me a aware of a very moving letter she found in amongst the poor law records for the parish of Shere. The letter dates from 1821 (SHC Reference SHER/28/2/1) and was found among the overseers’ correspondence. It reads:
“It is unpleasant to me to be so frequently troubling you respecting John Bristow & family – but their situation is truly distressing – the man unable to work at all nor can the woman nor any of the children get any employ[ment] at present – & in consequence of their misfortunes of late are in arrear with their rent 4 gns to Xmas. I don’t know what you are to do with them. They say they are half starved with the allowance of 5/- only & that something must be done further for them – as soon as the boy, girl & the woman can get employ their situation would not be so bad – there is now 5 of them in family”.
Annexed is a surgeon’s statement about the condition of John Bristow which says he is:
“…..suffering under the severe effects of Rheumatism & inflammation of the lump and is so far reduced and enfeebled as to be incapable of pursuing any kind of labour”.
The poor law system often appears harsh and rigid, but the characters involved here seem to have a genuine desire to help and do what they can to alleviate a very sad situation.
The 19th century, particularly the latter half, was a period of great agricultural depression. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about the Application and Report books which detail food and money doled out to those in need. Certainly the work I have done for the parish of Headley in Hampshire shows a huge rise in applications in the last quarter of the century, but again, we can find evidence that many were sympathetic to their plight. In 1896 the vicar of Headley, the Rev. W Laverty, wrote a ‘round robin’ begging letter to the great and the good in the parish stating:
“Edward HILL, late of Bayfield’s Farm, desires the kind help of neighbours and friends in providing him with a horse in place of the one which has just died. He is one of the many sufferers from the depression, and until better times must support himself by hire-carting, etc. Contributions may be given to the bearer or may be sent to me …”.
Faced with ever worsening prospects for agricultural workers, it’s not surprising to find that they moved to towns, changed their occupations or even (like my great-great uncle Albert) sought a better life by emigrating.
A small crop failure for me – a life changing disaster for my ancestors. It rather puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? Has anyone else found evidence of their Ag Labs changing profession or moving away from their home? If so, it would be great to share!
PS: Find My Past have just added Hampshire parish register transcripts and both transcripts and images for Portsmouth parish registers. Don’t forget all your naval ancestors may well have been in Portsmouth for a baptism or two so, if you have a sailor in the family, it might be worth having a rummage around in this collection! And remember, you can access Find My Past free of charge at Surrey History Centre