Eric V. Snow



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Why Service Declined

So why did service decline? Contemporaries did repeatedly blame the rising social pretensions of farmers and their wives caused them to not want laborers living under the same roof with them. The aspirations of farmers to gentility, especially those with a large amount of land, was discussed above (pp. 207-8), emphasizing the female side, when dealing with the sexual division of labor. One farmer went bankrupt due to overspending by him and his wife, and inattention to his farm, whom Arch had worked for as a child. He used this case to condemn the general class of non-working farmers:

Why do not these farmers, with their wives and families, draw in, and turn to, and live according to their means, instead of being above their trade? Let the farmer give up his hunter, let his wife doff her silken gowns, her furbelows and fal-lals, let his daughters drop their tinkling accomplishments, and let them give their time, their attention, and their money to the farm, as it is their clear and bounden duty to do.


These pretensions not only manifested themselves by extravagant living and neglect of business, but also by casting out farm servants to live elsewhere. One conversation Somerville had with a Wiltshire laborer reveals well the laborers' resentment against the farmers on this score. After maintaining that while the lords, squires, parsons, and farmers were all bad, the latter were the worst, and that Somerville himself was one of them, he said:
You ha'a daughter, playing on the piano on a Saturday night to drown the noise of them brutes of labouring men what come to get their wages through a hole in the wall; what cannot be allowed to set foot within a farmer's house now-a-days; what must be paid through an opening in the partition, lest they defile the house of a master what gets rich as they get poor.496
Due to the high agricultural prices during the French Wars that increased farmers' incomes, and the effects of enclosure in reducing social mobility upwards from the cottagers' ranks and impoverishing many laborers, the differences between the haves and have-nots grew during this period. The perceptions of contemporaries about the "embourgoisement" of the larger farmers as a class had a basis in fact, and this had implications for the discontinuation of service.
Factors of an directly economic nature were prominent in the decline of service. Originally, farmers desired it because they wanted to have a fully secure "lock" on a certain number of laborers' services year around to ensure their ability to meet the peak seasonal demands of the agricultural year, even if it meant having to maintain the farm servants through the slack winter season in a semi-idle state in (especially) arable areas. But because of population increases in many rural districts starting from the 1740s, and correspondingly rising unemployment, farmers no longer needed a guaranteed minimal number of contract laborers. Furthermore, enclosure itself helped eliminate the need for farmers to tie up labor in long-term contracts because laborers were no longer apt to refuse short term offers of employment in order to attend to some aspect of scraping a living off the parish commons instead. The parish's "reserve army of unemployed" was so large farmers could hire them for the exact number of days or weeks needed, and dismiss them at will, on a daily basis. No threat existed of a real labor shortage year around, except (though not always even then) at harvest time, so farmers lost any incentive to "lock in" a minimal number of laborers. Another reason for farmers switching over to day laborers from farm servants were higher agricultural prices relative to the supply of money, such as during the French Wars. When food was cheap, but money relatively scarce, it was financially wise to board and feed farm servants on the farmers' own premises to minimize wage payments. But when the shoe was on the other foot, paying the laborers and making them shift for themselves in cottages of their own became the more profitable course of action. As Cobbett put it:
Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work-people, as they did formerly? Because they cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages. . . . [A] number of people, boarded in the same house, and at the same table, can, with as good food, be boarded much cheaper than those persons divided into twos, threes, or fours, can be boarded. . . . therefore, if the farmer now shuts his pantry against his labourers, and pays them wholly in money, is it not clear, that he does it because he thereby gives them a living cheaper to him; that is to say, a worse living than formerly?
As mentioned above (p. 282), service also declined because settlements were conferred upon farm servants hired for a year until 1834, when the New Poor Law abolished this. But the provision of parish relief discouraged hiring for even shorter terms of service because the rates were paid by all property holders or occupiers in a parish, which included those employing no workers at all. They could lay them off, even for a day because of rainy weather as Chadwick complained, and force others to subsidize the continued maintenance of their laborers at the semi-starvation levels of pre-1834 outdoor poor relief. In short, farmers found many solid financial reasons to end boarding their laborers over and above any social pretensions for doing so.497
How Poor Relief Itself Promoted Population Growth
The Poor Laws, at least under the Speenhamland system of family allowances before 1834, promoted a rising birthrate, constituting another factor that helped hold Hodge in poverty. The population growth of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not just an autonomous and exogenous phenomenon that helped to transform rural class relations. Parish relief encouraged early marriages, and discouraged accumulating savings, because married men and women with families received priority in getting work and aid through their parish, while single men and women were largely allowed to shift for themselves, or were given particularly unpleasant make-work jobs. Philip Hunt, a Bedfordshire magistrate, testified in 1824 that: "What is the course which a labourer takes to increase his income or wages, when he marries and has a family? He applies to the overseer of the parish for assistance; and that assistance in general is doled out in so limited a way, that very few labourers marry voluntarily." G.O. Fenwick, the Vicar of Kempston, Bedfordshire, complained in a questionnaire returned to the committee that drew up the 1834 Poor Law Report: "The poor laws, as at present administered, act as a bounty upon marriage." Clergyman Hugh Wade Gery, of Eaton Socon, Bedfordshire, while testifying in 1837, attributed the recent increase in population in parishes "in some measure upon the persons marrying earlier now, without having provided for a family, which they were in the habit of doing formerly, now depending upon parochial relief." The old delayed marriage pattern of patiently accumulating savings as farm servants boarding with farmers until they could marry (say) in their mid to late twenties increasingly disappeared along with service, itself undermined by rising unemployment. Parish relief's inducements to early marriage created a vicious circle that helped confine the laborers to poverty. The increasing population of rural England since the 1740s had already increasingly flooded many local parish labor markets with potential workers, and this just added to the problem. The decline of service and enclosure combined to increase the numbers of those dependent on parish relief, especially during the winter months in arable areas by driving up seasonal unemployment, helping to universalize its influences on the farmworkers as a class. Especially under the Speenhamland and roundsmen systems of having wages supplemented by the parish, allowing farmers to avoid directly paying living wages to their laborers, they received an incentive to marry early and have many children similar to American slaves: Just as slaves were guaranteed so much food by their masters and mistresses regardless of work effort and were (often) rewarded one way or another for having children, the local parishes guaranteed so much aid per family member regardless of how good a worker the farm laborer (male head of household) was. Under such conditions, the laborer and his family largely ceased needing to independently sustain themselves as an economic unit, and lost any incentives to save or limit family size, because parish officials increasingly became a "master" who automatically took care of them, albeit increasingly at semi-starvation levels. Firing laborers for bad work performance lost much of its sting as a labor discipline tool when so many received so much aid directly from the parish to begin with, and were totally dependent on the dole for much of the year anyway. With so much mass unemployment, so many used to being idle, and so much aid given by the parish, much of shame for being fired had disappeared--especially when the farmers and landowners were so often deeply resented to begin with--as did many of the economic consequences for being jobless, including when one had a large family increasing further in size. Hence, parish relief itself was a factor, combined with the decline of service and enclosure, in increasing population growth.498
Assorted Methods that Deterred Applicants for Relief
Rural elites increasingly saw how unsustainable the patch-work Speenhamland system was when facing an ever-growing army of applicants for relief and their falling levels of individual productivity. They started looking for more ways to deter applicants from applying. Imposing shame on recipients by some visible degradation, such as making them wear a badge with a "P" in blue on their shoulder on the right sleeve, was common in the northeast of England in the eighteenth century. Laborers also were publicly humiliated by such practices as harnessing paupers to carts with bells around their necks and holding auctions for their labor like those for slaves. Another approach was to create "make work" jobs as an alternative to pure relief spending. Since many of these jobs were not especially pleasant, and could serve as an outdoor test of destitution, many had one more reason to avoid applying for relief any earlier than they had to. Although working on the roads and breaking stones theoretically was hard, oppressive work, often as actually done by the pauperized laborers these jobs were covers for idleness. Other jobs, such as oakum-picking, had deterrent effects as well. After citing Assistant Commissioner Hawley's report that noted this job "had the effect of driving many from the workhouse and deterring others from approaching it," Walter asked him, "Are you not aware that oakum-picking is considered a disgraceful and degrading employment in consequence of that employment being given in prisons?" Although Hawley denied this, the implications of Walter's question were clear.499
Why "Make-Work" Jobs Failed to Deter Applicants and Undermined Work Discipline
Make-work jobs often backfired on those who offered them, if they wished to accomplish much useful by them. Similar to the reputation built up around those hired by the WPA under the New Deal to rake leaves, many laborers with these jobs performed little real work because the assigned tasks were perceived as unimportant whether performed or not, by the employers as well as the employed.500 As Thomas Batchelor noted, in the questionnaire he returned to the 1834 Poor Law Commissioners for the parish of Lidlington, Bedfordshire:

[The laborers' productivity was] diminishing very much, in consequence of the evil example of paying many persons on the roads for doing scarcely any thing; and the reason why they are permitted to have wages almost without work is, because the farmers have no interest in the permanent improvements of the roads, or even the lands, while the laws permit the public, or the landowners, to receive nearly all the profits of work, which they refuse to pay for, or encourage by allowances.501



The laborers on the roads and in the parish gravel pits were notorious slackers, which undermined efforts to impose work discipline on them. Paying them by the day without reference to how much work they had done did not help matters any. Though commenting obviously polemically, Assistant Commissioner Hawley wrote one "almost magical change" brought about by the New Poor Law was that "the lazy groups of paupers, who heretofore infested the highways or thronged the gravel pits, have totally disappeared."502 Guardian Ralph Carr of Gateshead, Durham, complained in 1847 about the transfer of applicants for parish relief to the "surveyor of highways; that he employed them at little more than half the wages of the county; that they dawdled away the time in a gang; that they mended the roads very badly, and displaced a great deal of valuable free labour, and were themselves very much demoralized." James Beard, the Rector of Canfield, Bedfordshire, after making an offer to send some families to places with work, and the men who responded asked about what kind of beer was made there, felt: "I desired them to return to their places of idleness, viz. the gravel pits."503 Make work-jobs simply were poor deterrents to relief applicants if in fact the jobs were not difficult.
The New Poor Law: Deterring Applicants for Relief by Using the Workhouse Test
The capstone of efforts to deter applicants and tighten work discipline was the New Poor Law, which abolished outdoor relief for the able-bodied (and often for the not-so-able-bodied) and imposed the workhouse test. The workhouse test was hardly original with the New Poor Law, because even in the 1750s the regulations for Corbridge and Berwick in northeastern England applied this in principle, the Berwick rule being nearly identical.504 The rural elites of England allowed the fear of the workhouse and its bad conditions to surge among their parishes' laborers in order to reduce the rates. Indeed, deterrence had to be the name of the game, because it could cost as much as three times more to keep one person in a workhouse rather than give them outdoor relief, a point dealt with above concerning Arch's dealings with the local board of guardians about giving his father a pension (pp. 117-18). They confined the inmates by prohibiting them from leaving the grounds of the building, which was like a contemporary minimum security prison.505 Somerville recorded how one old man by the name of Adam lamented the conditions he had to face: "Oh, master, what terrible things some of them as have been in and out again tell of that union house. They are put to their work and to their victuals like soldiers to drill." In this area, the guardians did not allow even elderly couples to live together, which particularly angered and saddened him: "To 'sunder we whom God did join together, that we may live apart and meet death in our old age each alone, to deter, for they say that is it, to deter other poor creatures from coming on the parish." In this case, the parish authorities began to exercise a power theoretically limited to slaveholders: They manipulated family relationships and the threat of their dissolution in order to compel desired behavior--here, not coming to the parish. The laborers faced the dilemma of actively preserving their marriages and families and suffering total destitution, even starvation, or going into the workhouse to stay alive, and suffering the break-up of their most treasured earthly relationships. Assistant Commissioner Hawley defended separating the sexes in the workhouses because of "the impossibility of conducting the government of the workhouses where the sexes were not separated."506 Sometimes children, perhaps a few out of a large family, would be separated from their parents when they applied for relief, as Arch remembered: "I know for a fact that, when some of the men had a large number of children and were unable to keep them, the parish authorities used to take several of them away and put them in the workhouse."507 Even when the elderly couples were not split up, many still were put away from their children by being committed to a union workhouse at some distance from their home parish.508 The laborers' fears about living in workhouses were also justified in other ways, since they were conducive to spreading disease and under its one roof mixed able-bodied men and women in one nearly indescribable menagerie.509 Making the workhouse diet less desirable was another tactic, although it was problematic when the diet of so many southern English agricultural workers was so minimal already.510 All in all, the name of the game was to deter applicants and thus save money by making conditions inside the workhouses as undesirable and miserable as possible so that only the most and truly desperate would apply, which served to create an enormous amount of resentment by the laborers as a class against the English rural elite.511
Falling Productivity: One More Consequence of the Old Poor Law
Besides trying to lower their taxes, landowners and farmers had another major reason to accept the workhouse test, which was to reimpose work discipline upon the laborers. Under the Speenhamland and roundsmen systems, because laborers and/or their families were granted so much aid regardless of work effort directly from the parish, and not in the form of wages, labor productivity began to decline. After all, if half of what a laborer earns is given to him by the parish automatically, the foundational labor discipline tool of a capitalist economy, getting sacked, loses its bite, especially when so many were fully dependent on parish relief in winter anyway. Compared to American slaves, whose food was mostly provided by some master while lacking any direct tie to work performed, the laborers under this system were halfway there in having their incentives as wage workers to work removed. As the Webbs once observed, when discussing the allowance system: "The labourers, secure of subsistence, progressively lowered the quantity and quality of their effort." Unfortunately for the rural elites, unlike slaveholders, they could not resort to corporal punishment to compel work from semi-idle adult laborers, which meant the latter's level of productivity had potentially an even lower floor than that of the slaves, to whom the lash could be applied. Under the roundsmen system, a man who found work for himself was just as well paid as a roundsman if he had a large family, because although he only received half the wages of the former, the parish made up the difference. As Churchwarden T.M. Overman noted in a questionnaire returned for Maulden, Bedfordshire to the 1834 Poor Law Commission: "The labourer, when he found that the parish was to make up his money, became indifferent about the quantity he did." He felt that overall labor productivity was falling, that twelve men now did what used to be the work of nine eighteen years earlier, and
as long as the magistrates keep up that system of ordering the overseers to make up men's money, the evil will keep increasing; it takes away that nice feeling that the family is maintained by himself, which must be restored, or property will be of little value soon.512
Young noted that it was demoralizing to be necessarily dependent on handouts from the parish to begin with, and when acquiring property such as a cottage [i.e. social mobility] was a near impossibility. The laborers' desires to work were deadened by knowing that many of the jobs they did receive under the roundsmen system were rather trivial and unnecessary, and the low pay they received was no help either. Clergyman Gery, a magistrate the poor would apply for relief through, knew the roundsmen system well, described its negative effects on productivity when testifying in 1817: "A very bad effect it has had upon them in very much diminishing their industry: those persons who are sent round go late and return early, and do not exert themselves in working." He regarded those required to go from farmer to farmer looking for work by the parish as "perhaps the worst workmen."513 Labor productivity also was lowered by the bad habits of non-industriousness gained from "make-work" programs, because "the indolence acquired by loitering on the roads, etc. makes a larger number now necessary" to do essential farmwork than used to be. Southern laborers had a poor reputation for working well compared to northern ones, according to complaints by northern manufacturers. One of them as well as Assistant Poor Law Commissioner E. Carleton Tufnell said pauperism and the bad effects of poor relief undermined their work ethic. In 1832-33, twelve English counties reported that 50 to 76 percent of their parishes had declining labor productivity, which, not coincidentally, were the ones which the Swing Riots afflicted generally or at least partially. Thus, between the pincers of falling labor productivity and rising rates, the landowners and farmers became increasingly unified about doing something to cut the rates, and reimpose labor discipline.514
The Workhouse Test as a Tool for Increasing Labor Productivity
By imposing the workhouse test and eliminating outdoor relief for the able-bodied, after having enclosed the commons and eliminated service, the rural elites found a way to reimpose labor discipline, following the laxness induced by the Speenhamland, roundsmen, and ticket systems as well as parish make-work jobs. By eliminating the latter systems and outdoor relief generally, suddenly when a laborer was fired, and no farmer or actively engaged landowner would hire him, he faced the basic alternatives of either going into the dreaded workhouse, migrating, or complete destitution and even starvation. The laborers greatly resented the landowners and farmers as a class for this imposition, as Snell notes, but it generally succeeded in its aims. Chadwick stated the theory thus:
As soon as the labourer is aware that the only form in which he can receive parochial relief is as an inmate of the workhouse, together with his family, subject to the restrictive discipline of that establishment, he will gradually, if not immediately, be supplied with motives of a totally opposite character, and forethought and increased industry will take the place of extravagance and indulgence.
John Napper, the chairman of the Petworth, Sussex board of guardians, confirmed the reality of this theory when asked whether the laborers were better workers for their employers and whether their personal habits and character had improved:
They are more attentive in their places, and they are anxious to get places. . . . They are more respectful to their employers. Before the union took place, they did not care whether they employed them or not, because, if they were not employed, they went to the parish and got work; now they have no chance; if a man leaves a farmer, the waywarden will not set him to work without an order from a certain number of farmers who recommend him, and they would not give that recommendation, if a man got out of work for his own fault.
Thomas Sockett, the Rector of Petworth, believed the single men were more provident and well-behaved as the result of the New Poor Law, despite being a sharp critic of some aspects of it. In Northamptonshire, even an unfinished workhouse was "already the terror of many" and made "the idlers . . . more obedient."515 The workhouse test clearly served as an excellent tool to reimpose labor discipline after the slackness of the Old Poor Law's outdoor systems of parish relief, although this change surely also reflects a thickening of the laborers' "mask" before their superiors, since the negative consequences of disobeying or annoying them had risen.
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