Eric V. Snow



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Somerville encountered one man, who was better fed in prison (he had participated in the Swing Riots of 1830) than when freed to live in Hampshire. In prison he ate four times a week 14 ounces of meat. "No working man like me as can get it [good meat]. I wish I had as much meat now as I had in the hulk; and I wishes the same to every poor hard-working man in Hampshire." While visiting England, Olmsted learned of this pathetic vignette from a farmer. Illustrating how scarce fresh meat was in the laborers' diets, they gorged themselves the few times they could afford it:
They [the laborers] will hardly taste it [fresh meat] all their lives, except, it may be, once a year, at a fair, when they'll go to the cook-shops and stuff themselves with all they'll hold of it; and if you could see them, you'd say they did not know what it was or what was to be done with it--cutting it into great mouthfuls and gobbling it down without any chewing, like as a fowl does barleycorns, till it chokes him.
Edward Butt, a Sussex relieving officer and farmer, recalled for the Committee on the New Poor Law that when he was younger (before 1794) the laborers had some meat everyday with their bread when they came to eat in his father's farmhouse. But by 1837, they mainly ate bread and vegetables, especially potatoes. Unable to get milk in his area, the farmworkers also ate little meat. Somerville found one Wiltshire laborer, although saddened by his young son's death, not fully regretting it either: "We ben't sorry he be gone. I hopes he be happy in heaven. He ate a smart deal; and many a time, like all on us, went with a hungry belly." Ironically, while serving a sentence in Bermuda for poaching: "We had terrible good living . . . by as I ever had for working in England. Fresh beef three times a-week, pork and peas four times a-week." When imprisoned laborers ate better free ones, Wiltshire's dire conditions can only be imagined. Similarly, one laborer in Hampshire told Somerville: "They say meat be wonderful cheap in Reading, but what of it being cheap to we who can't buy it at no price?" Speaking more generally, Deane and Cole note an increase in England's grain growing acreage took place "at the expense of the nation's meat supply" during the French Wars. As shown by meat having disappeared from their dinner tables, many agricultural workers in southern England were beaten down to the edge of subsistence.38
Grains, especially Wheat, Dominate the Agricultural Workers' Diet
Perhaps best illustrating the importance of grain in Hodge's diet, consider the case of one Hampshire laborer and his family. They normally only ate bread, with some vegetables. Somerville learned the father had for breakfast just dry bread, if anything at all, before mid-day. Especially in hard times, the laborers's budgets might be 80 percent or more committed to buying bread and/or flour. Looming large in the diet of southern English agricultural workers, wheat was the dominant grain, at least in good times. Barley, rye, or oats also put their appearances, with the last being the north's dominant grain. These grains had the advantage of avoiding some of the nutritional pitfalls of corn (maize). For all his travails, Hodge in southern England did not suffer from pellagra, as many black slaves in the American South likely did for some part of the year. Since reliance on grains other than wheat in southern England was deemed a sign of poverty, laborers often resented eating bread made out of anything else. Showing barley did not always make for palatable fare, and pointing to exceptional poverty for the southern English, consider this story Hudson learned about conditions in Wiltshire (c. 1830) for those on the parish make-work detail during the winter months. Some of his most elderly informants told of how the laborers played with their food in the fields:
The men would take their dinners with them, consisting of a few barley balls or cakes, in their coat pockets, and at noon they would gather at one spot to enjoy their meal, and seat themselves on the ground in a very wide circle, the men about ten yards apart, then each one would produce his bannocks, and start throwing, aiming at some other man's face; there were hits and misses and great excitement and hilarity for twenty or thirty minutes, after which the earth and gravel adhering to the balls would be wiped off, and they would set themselves to the hard task of masticating and swallowing the heavy stuff.
Admittedly, food fights during lunch with barley balls were exceptional. For the southern English, wheat was their mainstay, with 94 percent of the population in southern and eastern England subsisting on wheat in 1801. In contrast, the northern English, despite higher incomes, had less of a taste for wheat. According to Thomas, just some 25 percent of them lived upon it, while 50 percent consumed oats, 18 percent barley, and 6 percent rye. During the 1760s, Charles Smith judged, assuming a population of around six million in England and Wales, that 3,750,000 ate wheat, 888,000 rye, 623,000 oats, and 739,000 barley. Evidently, wheat bread grew in market share until the 1790s, when over two-thirds of the population relied upon wheat. The southern English desire to cling to the wheaten loaf and to resist shifting to potatoes or other grains despite their low wages and the effects of enclosure combined, Thomas infers, to cause them possibly to eat less wheat than formerly and perhaps even less food overall. The northern English preference for oats (similar to the Scots') was made largely possible by the availability of inexpensive milk to the poor. Due to enclosures taking away most of their cows, laborers in the south could not easily do likewise, as the Hammonds saw.39 By opposing having coarser grains the mainstay of their diet, the southern English may well kept the finer "luxury grain" (wheat) in their diet only by eating less of it.
The Role of Potatoes in the Laborers' Diet, Despite Prejudices Against Them
Potatoes played an important role in the laborers' diet, especially as the nineteenth century drew on, and desperation broke down resistance against substituting them for grain. Exemplifying this contempt for potatoes, Cobbett saw them as a sign of the English sliding down to the Irish level:
I see [in Sussex] very few of "Ireland's lazy root;" and never, in this country, will the people be base enough to lie down and expire from starvation under the operation of the extreme unction! Nothing but a potatoe-eater will ever do that.
Further, rather than see the English working people reduced into living on potatoes,
he would see them all hanged, and be hanged with them, and would be satisfied to have written upon his grave, 'Here lie the remains of William Cobbett, who was hanged because he would not hold his tongue without complaining while his labouring countrymen were reduced to live upon potatoes.'40
Despite Cobbett's opposition, a man full of the prejudices of the southern farmworker which in spirit he remained, potatoes became important in Hodge's diet. Demonstrating the decay of farm laborers' anti-potato sentiments, one Dorsetshire landowner in Dorset successfully got laborers to reclaim wasteland for him in return for planting potatoes, despite they knew next year the process would be repeated with another piece of land. In Somerset in 1845 during the Irish potato famine the blight wiped out all the potatoes. Due to the laborers' extreme dependence on them, this was a disaster because their wages averaged a mere seven shillings and six pence a week year around: "For years past their daily diet is potatoes for breakfast, dinner, and supper, and potatoes only. This year they are not living on potatoes, because they have none." In Sussex, Somerville found a laborer's wife complaining about "how it hurts the constitution of a man to work hard on potatoes, and nothing else but a bit of dry bread." This family ate four days a week normally only potatoes and dry bread. Somerville even exaggerated how important potatoes were in the diet of English laborers. When commenting on how the potato blight had wiped out the crop in the south and west of England, he said this event had gotten far less attention than the Irish disaster: "Surely the English potatoes are not to be overlooked, nor the English labourers, whose chief article of diet potatoes are. . . . How much greater must be the suffering be when to dearness of bread there is the companionship of scarcity of potatoes!" Now although potatoes loomed increasingly large in the laborers' diet, and 1845-46 was a bad year for both England and Ireland, grains still remained their staff of life generally, unlike for the Irish. Still, Cobbett's anti-potato campaign must be ranked an ultimate failure: Near the town of Farnham where Cobbett was born and buried, Somerville found "the finest specimens of this year's crop which I have seen in any part of England," having seen some excellent patches of potatoes between that place and the location of Cobbett's farm at Normandy.41
Did Farmworkers Prefer Coarse or Fine Food?
Against the view that the farmworkers (or slaves, by implication) prefer finer and less coarse foods, Jeffries once commented on Hodge's desires and the problems with changing what Mrs. Hodge winds up cooking:
The difficulty arises from the rough, coarse tastes of the labourer, and the fact, which it is useless to ignore, that he must have something solid, and indeed, bulky. . . . Give him the finest soup; give him pates, or even more meaty entrees, and his remark will be that it is very nice, but he wants 'summat to eat'. His teeth are large, his jaws strong, his digestive powers such as would astonish a city man; he likes solid food, bacon, butcher's meat, cheese, or something that gives him a sense of fullness, like a mass of vegetables. This is the natural result of his training to work in the fields. . . . Let anyone go and labour daily in the field, and they will come quickly to the same opinion.
Although his rather condescending views were on target concerning food preparation, they ignore the farmworkers' desires for a less coarse grain since it may compose 80 percent or more of their diets. Certainly, some class bias is definitely coloring Jeffries' views of Hodge's real desires. Consider the implications of bread remaining the staff of life for the laborers and making up most of their daily calories. To switch from wheat to barley, or to oatmeal without milk, would tax anyone's digestive system used to the first grain when it is most of what he or she eats, not just an incidental as (wheat) bread is in many contemporary Americans' diets. Anyway, Jeffries was not discussing grain substitution at all. Unlike most aristocrats, the laborers engaged in heavy physical work needed serious bulk in their diet in order to have sufficient calories to sustain their efforts, but their food need not be unusually hard to digest or unpalatably coarse after its preparation to fulfill their needs. Indeed, according to Young, food that was too bulky might slow down the laborers eating it. As E.P. Thompson confirms: "There is a suggestion that labourers accustomed to wheaten bread actually could not work--suffered from weakness, indigestion, or nausea--if forced to change to rougher mixtures."42 Although these complaints were likely partially psychosomatic, they still show the laborers preferred less-coarse grain in their diet.
Admittedly, the southern farmworkers' partiality for the white wheaten loaf was rather unwise from a modern dietician's viewpoint, as Olmsted observed: "No doubt a coarser bread would be more wholesome, but it is one of the strongest prejudices of the English peasant, that brown bread is not fit for human beings." This comment raises the issue of taking into account the laborers' definitions of "good conditions" before judging these by purely modern criteria. Snell discusses this issue at length. If Hodge placed a strong priority on eating fine white wheat bread, outsiders are presumptuous to rearrange his life for him, saying he should like what they judge to be "good for him," even though objective reasons justify the would-be imposition, i.e., the health advantages of increasing the amount of bran in the daily diet. The threat to the status of English laborers posed by coarser or non-wheaten bread in times of dearth was rather irrational, but it still was probably more sensible than a contemporary preference among the young for designer brand jeans or sneakers over store brands of similar quality. The "Brown Bread Act's" attempts to force laborers to consume bread made of wholemeal flour provoked riots even during the terrible 1800-1801 agricultural year. In Surrey and Sussex in southern England, the resistance to this law was especially strong; unsurpisingly, it lasted less than two months.43
The Monotony of the Farmworkers' Diet in the South of England
The southern English agricultural workers' diet was monotonous, like the slaves'. In the Salisbury area (1850) Caird found it largely consisted of water, bread, some potatoes, flour with a little butter, and possibly a little bacon. He reports what sounds like a prisoner's meal: "The supper very commonly consists of bread and water." In 1840s Wiltshire, Somerville found two laborers who could not afford bacon and vegetables with every dinner on eight shillings a week. Following a recent wage reduction, "they did not know how they would with seven [shillings]." In Wooburn parish, even in an apple orchard area most laborers did not earn enough to make apple pies! Years later (c. 1875), in this same general area, Jefferies still commented while noting improvement: "A basketful of apples even from the farmer's orchard [as a gift] is a treat to the children, for, though better fed than formerly, their diet is necessarily monotonous, and such fruit as may be grown in the cottage garden is, of course, sold." Near Monmouth, Olmsted ran into a laborer who, although he also had a pig and a small potato patch, "oft-times . . . could get nothing more than dry bread for his family to eat."44 Thomas Smart, a Bedfordshire laborer, and his family subsisted upon garden-grown potatoes, bread, and cheese, with a little bacon occasionally, supplemented by tea and a little sugar. At times he went without meat for a month. Milk was difficult to buy from the local farmers.45 The hot dinner laborers had around noon on Sunday Jeffries described as their "the great event" for the day. Of course, beer certainly emerged in Hodge's diet around harvest time, and often not just then. The alcoholic part of the laborers' diets provoked the rural middle and upper classes into nearly endless moralizing, at least about its abuses that caused the father's wages to be wasted in beerhouses and a lack of labor discipline. Due to the near absence of meat, this diet was arguably less satisfying than slaves', except that its bread often was purchased baker's bread. This bread, or even what the laborer's wife made at home, was a much more carefully prepared and refined product than the cornmeal the slaves often had to pound into a crude hoecake or johnnycake (cornbread). As Olmsted (c. 1851) observed while in southern England:
The main stay of the laborer's stomach is fine, white wheaten bread, of the best possible quality, such as it would be a luxury to get any where else in the world, and such as many a New England farmer never tasted, and, even if his wife were able to make it, would think an extravagance to be ordinarily upon his table.46
Admittedly, white wheat bread likely was the only luxury Hodge and his family in the south of England enjoyed. Despite this particular boon, a lack of meat still characterized the southern English agricultural laborer's diet, although not the northerner's. All in all, the slaves' "standard rations" arguably, minus the problems of eating crude corn bread and the risk of pellagra without further supplements, likely surpassed in overall satisfaction what the majority of the free agricultural laborers of England depended on because meat (and milk) fell out of their diet as enclosure advanced, making it difficult or impossible for them to keep their own cows or pigs (see pp. 40-41 below), and they often did not consume enough even of starches (potatoes and bread) in hard times.
The Superior Conditions of the Northern English Farmworkers

The northern English agricultural laborer clearly enjoyed superior conditions to his southern brother (or sister) during the general period of industrialization. Joseph Arch recalled why the union failed in organizing the northern farmworkers:
We could not do much in the north; about Newcastle and those northern districts the men were much better paid, and they said, 'The Union is a good thing, but we are well off and can get along without it.' The Union was strongest, and kept so, in the Midland, Eastern, and Western counties.
In northern England near Scotland, in Northumberland and Durham, the 1867-68 Commissioners found the wages were high and that the labor market favored the laborers. The institution of service still persisted in northern Northumberland in the mid to late 1860s. They were often paid in kind and received fifteen to eighteen shillings a week. Day laborers--those not under a contract for their service--received two and a half to three shillings a day. Since the laborers' cottages were dispersed, they avoided the pitfalls of the gang system since they lived on or near their employer's premises, thus eliminating long walks to work. Wages were high enough so their children rarely went to work before age fourteen except during summers, when eleven-twelve year olds took to the fields during agriculture's seasonal peak in labor requirements. In southern Northumberland, none under ten worked. Higher wages allowed northern laborers' children to receive more education than their southern counterparts, where the much smaller margin above subsistence correspondingly increased the need for them to earn their keep as soon as possible. As another sign of the North's tight labor market, routinely single women living in their parents' home often were in farm service--"bound" in "bondage"--and did all types of heavy farm work.47 Excepting perhaps for housing (see p. 69), this area's agricultural workers were about as well-off as non-skilled manual laborers then could expect.
Away from these areas near Scotland, wages gradually decline until the Lincoln\Leicester area is reached, where a rather abrupt transition to southern English conditions occurs. Lincoln and Nottingham had wages of fifteen to seventeen shillings a week, but Leicester just eleven. Their diets reflected these wage differences, since in Lincoln laborers' families had meat two or three times a day, while in Leicester only the father had it, and then just once a day. Similarly, for Oxfordshire and nearby, Somerville described many laborers as "always under-fed, even if always employed." By contrast, Yorkshire's higher wages of fourteen shillings per week encouraged parents to keep their children in school longer. There farm service still remained, with foremen receiving thirty pounds a year and board, a wagoner, sixteen to twenty pounds, and plowboys, ten to fourteen. Tom Mullins of Stafford remembered at age seventeen (c. 1880) he earned sixteen pounds per year and his keep. In Stafford, where during his life he moved from the southern to the northern part. (Incidently, Caird's wage line falls at this county's southern border). Oatmeal, frequently turned into thin sour cakes shaped like disks, along with dairy products, formed the mainstay of the diet before c. 1890. "Though wages were low people managed on them and also saved a bit. Ten shillings went a lot further then than now. Bread was 3d. the quartern loaf, milk 3d. a quart, tobacco 3d. an ounce . . . beer was 2d., the best was 3d." Since service persisted in his area, an annual hiring fair took place about October tenth each year. "But I never need to hire myself out, as I always had more jobs offered than I could undertake. Pity I couldn't have spread myself a bit!"48 As these descriptions illustrate, the diet of the farm laborers north of Caird's line was quite good, showing unquestionably that they were better off on average than most slaves in the United States even before considering any quality of life factors.49
Meat as a Luxury For Many Farmworkers
Unlike most slaves, the meat English farm laborers ate often came from what animals they personally owned and slaughtered themselves, assuming they were not sold to meet rent, clothing, or other expenses. In Wiltshire, near Cranbourne, Somerville found "all of them [the laborers] kept a pig or two; but they had to sell them to pay their rents." A Sussex farmer/relieving officer told Parliamentary Commissioners that "every labourer at that time [pre-1794] had a pig." Farmworkers in that area then got pork from feeding their own animal, not directly from the farmers they worked for. Showing a serious decline in living standards had set in, Somerville found in 1840s Dorset that often laborers were not allowed to keep a pig: "The dictum of the father of Sir John Tyrrell, in Essex, is understood and acted on in Dorset--'No labourer can be honest and feed a pig!'" Betraying a materialistic bent, Cobbett summarized well how important owning pigs was to the laborers: "The working people [near Worcester] all seem to have good large gardens, and pigs in their styes; and this last, say the feelosofers what they will about her 'antallectal enjoyments,' is the only security for happiness in a labourer's family." Of course, as part of their duties for their masters, slaves raised pigs and other animals for slaughter. But they did not own them personally, except where their masters and mistresses allowed them to, such as the task-system-dominated area of lowland Georgia and South Carolina. In England, butcher's meat (i.e., the meat of animals killed and already cut up for the buyer) was regarded as a luxury. Consequently, classes above the laborers were its main consumers.50 Jefferies heaped scorn on maidservants, born of fathers still at the plow, who when at "home ha[d] been glad of bread and bacon," but after having worked for wealthy tenant farmers, "now cannot possibly survive without hot butcher's meat every day, and game and fish in their seasons."51 The meat laborers ate was often what they had raised themselves, whether it was on the commons before enclosure, on allotments, or in their own gardens. Depending on the commercial market for meat was not a way to economize. Scarce until after around 1830, allotments helped laborers raise their own pigs (when so allowed). Indeed, in some areas with allotments many or most did keep pigs, in part because these produced some of the needed manure to keep their (say) fourth or half acre fertile.52 But as the enclosure movement gained strength after 1760, stripping farmworkers of grazing land, they largely lost their ability to raise their own animals until allotments slowly, partially, and haphazardly restored this ability after c. 1830.
The Effects of Enclosure and Allotments on Hodge's Diet
Although a more general discussion enclosure and alllotments' social effects appears below (pp. 279-282, 296-299), the effects of both on the diet of the farmworkers are considered here. Enclosure affected cottagers and others who mixed wage earning and subsistence agriculture using the commons by cutting out the latter, throwing them fully upon what their wages could purchase. As E.P. Thompson observes: "In village after village, enclosure destroyed the scratch-as-scratch-can subsistence economy of the poor--the cow or geese--fuel from the common, gleanings, and all the rest." Ironically, as the Parliamentary Commissioners observed in 1867-68, allotments undid this consequence of enclosure, although they came later and affected significantly fewer laborers, especially before the late nineteenth century. They allowed the laborers to grow vegetables, especially potatoes, on a quarter or half acre of land specially rented out to them. Despite his notoriety as an advocate of enclosure, agricultural improvement writer Arthur Young learned that enclosure usually oppressed the poor:
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