|How the Artist's Eye Can Be Self-Deceiving When Evaluating Cottages' Quality
The physical appearance of farmworkers' cottages can be deceiving, as Rule noted, because what may appear picturesque to the eye, especially an urban dweller's, could still be unhealthy or unpleasant to live in. Arch once said that laborers' cottages with "their outside trimmings of ivy and climbing roses, were garnished without, but they were undrained and unclean within." After stopping to sketch a farmhouse he encountered near Chester, Olmsted thought the cottages nearby were "very pretty to look at." All the houses in the hamlet he was visiting were like the house he chose to draw: timber, whitewashed walls, and thatch roofs. (I do not recall him saying he had sketched any slave dwelling!) The farmer living in this house described the cottages nearby
as exceedingly uncomfortable and unhealthy--the floors, which were of clay, being generally lower than the road and the surrounding land, and often wet, and always damp, while the roofs and walls were old and leaky, and full of vermin.
The walls were made of layers of twigs and mud. Thatched roofs had the advantage of being cheaper and more picturesque than slate or tiles, and of giving more protection against the heat and cold. Their disadvantages included breeding vermin and being more apt to catch fire (it was feared). Olmsted maintained laborers' cottages usually had walls made of stone, brick and timber, or of clay mixed with straw, the last being very common. This method could make for walls of high quality, since even villas and parsonages used it.102 But since the homes of laborers often were ill-maintained, they became much worse than the local elite's, even had the same quality of construction had been put into their walls and roofs, which hardly seems likely.
Again, Hodge in southern England was significantly worse off than his northern counterpart, excepting evidently Northumberland. Arch described the former's cottages above. The commissioners on conditions in agriculture in 1867-8 noted that cottages in Yorkshire were in much better shape than those in the southern counties. They were more comfortable, often had gardens attached to them or allotments, and even "cow gates" for pasturing the family's female bovine. Still, bad housing conditions still appeared in the north. After saying Dorset had the worst houses and the poorest laborers, Somerville corrected himself some--in Northumberland "the houses were worse than ever they have been in Dorsetshire"--which means they had to be truly awful! In well-off Northumberland, Caird found that some laborers still lived with their cows and other animals. Both even went out the same door! The cowhouse was "divided only by a slight partition wall from the single apartment which serves for kitchen, living and sleeping room, for all the inmates." Admittedly, he also discovered a newly-built village where all cottages were of two or four rooms each, having attached gardens and access to a cowhouse and pasture.103 So even in an area well-known for its laborers enjoying good material conditions, the cottages were the most neglected aspect of their material well-being.
How Rentals and the Poor and Settlements Laws Made for Poor Quality Housing
Necessarily "freeborn Englishmen" got housing differently than American slaves. Slaveholders automatically provided it to their bondsmen, although they likely built under their owners' direction what they lived in. Except for unmarried men and women living as farm servants in housing their master (the farmer) provided them, the laborers had to rent it. (Few could hope to aspire to home ownership, Arch's family being a rare exception). As service declined, especially in the southern arable districts as the eighteenth century waned and the nineteenth opened, more and more farmworkers had to find and pay for their own housing. Helping matters none, rents rose in the period from about c. 1790 to 1837, at least in the memory of one farmer/relief officer in Sussex. Although they had a freedom slaves almost totally missed, to choose where they lived, practical factors besides financial ones constrained the laborers' free choice in housing. Because a closed parish's larger farmers and gentry had a vested self-interest in reducing how many could claim poor relief, they intentionally neglected or even tore down laborers' cottages not absolutely necessary for their operations. One witness told he Parliamentary Commissioners for the 1867-68 Report: "He [the landlord] does not care if they all tumble down." The inability of laborers to pay the rents to begin with also promoted intentional neglect, since this made renting cottages simply unprofitable. One owner of several cottages informed the Rector of Petworth, who told the Parliamentary Committee the economic dynamics involved: "If cottages brought no rent, the owners of them would not repair them, and they would by degrees take them away." Despite their likely meager carpentry skills and inferior materials, the tenants discovered they had to repair "their" dwelling, not their landlord. Other legal hurdles impeded attempts to improve laborers' cottages. In comments recorded by Somerville, Charles Baring Wall, M.P. for Guildford, Hampshire, found out that landowners really had no power over cottages held on life-holds. He had to wait until they fell in to give him the "opportunity of 'doing what he like with his own,' . . . to improve the cottages upon them."104 The poor laws encouraged ratepayers to minimize the amount of poor relief paid, while the settlement laws encouraged them to drive the poor out of "their" parish so that the legal claims the poor's settlements created would burden financially some other parish. As a result, the "freeborn Englishman" often lacked the liberty to choose which parish he would settle in, because the rich of many parishes would declare him potentially (or, after 1795, when actually) chargeable to the parish, and so have him and his family removed to their parish of origin. Surprisingly, both American slaves and English agricultural workers endured restrictions on freedom of movement, for although they were far more stringent on the former, the latter also suffered more from them than is commonly realized. Clearly, the laws of England, because of those on the poor, settlements, and tenure, cost the laborers much of their freedom and created major incentives for the owners of laborers' cottages to neglect them.
The Problem of Cottages Being Distant from Work
Many agricultural workers endured one problem most slaves did not: long walks to work. Because of the landlords and large tenant farmers's desires to lower their taxes, many were driven out of closed parishes into open parishes, making many rent homes located uncomfortably far from the farms they worked at. The Duke of Grafton in Suffolk owned one farm where two regularly employed laborers walked four and a half miles one way from Thetford, making for, as Caird calculated, nine miles a day, fifty-four a week. In Lincolnshire, he found some farmers lent their men donkeys to ride on since walking six or seven miles one way was too exhausting! The commissioners of the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture found cottages were often built too far from where the laborers worked, even in Yorkshire where better conditions normally prevailed. These long distances laid the foundations for the infamous gang system, which mainly operated in the swampy clay soil fens districts of the Eastern Midlands and East Anglia. Under this system, a gang master gathered together groups of workers, especially children, to work on some farm a considerable distance from where they lived. If these laborers had been farm servants, living with their masters (the farmers) or in cottages on or near the farms where they worked, such measures never would have been necessary. Living so far from work was largely the fault of the poor and settlement laws creating the open and closed parish system, which heavily burdened the laborers. As Caird observed:
It is the commonest thing possible to find agricultural labourers lodged at such a distance from their regular place of employment that they have to walk an hour out in the morning, and an hour home in the evening,--from forty to fifty miles a week. . . . Two hours a day is a sixth part of a man's daily labour, and this enormous tax he is compelled to pay in labour, which is his only capital.105
So as the slaves had to endure long walks to visit family members, including husbands and wives "living 'broad," the English agricultural workers had to withstand lengthy walks to arrive at work. The subordinate class in both cases had to go a distance to do something their betters usually had close at hand.
The Aristocracy's Paternalism in Providing Housing, and Its Limits
As the nineteenth century passed its midpoint, a noticeable number of large landowners began to improve cottages on their lands, even though bad conditions still generally prevailed elsewhere. For some English aristocrats, paternalism actually took on some practical reality in this area. Surely knowing a good return on investment through the rent the laborers paid was a pipe dream, they still built new cottages anyway. If the laborers' wages were nine shillings or fourteen per week, they had serious trouble in being able to pay more than one shilling six pence to two shillings a week in rent. Indeed, the parish of Petworth in Sussex routinely paid at least some of its paupers' rent until the New Poor Law was passed. A semi-reasonable maximum rent was two shillings six pence to two shillings nine pence a week, although in Surrey it ranged upwards of three shillings and three shillings six pence. Laborers often struggled mightily to pay even (say) one-seventh of their income in rent. If they paid two shillings a week, their annual rent would be five pounds four shillings. If a cottage cost roughly £100 to £140 to build, depending on local building materials and supplies, the return on investment (ROI) would hover around 4.5 percent annually when ignoring all repair costs. Some let them at 2.5 percent a year, but this involves self-sacrifice. So long as farmworkers' wages were low, and what rent they could pay was equally depressed, strict profitability considerations discouraged building further cottages, over and above the poor law's own negative incentives on the construction and maintenance of cottages.106
Despite the incentives against building cottages, a number of aristocrats led the way in improving rural housing conditions. Many small tradesmen, artisans, and speculators acted differently. They built cottages in open parishes and charged excessively high rents because closed parishes denied sufficient housing for all the laborers they employed year around. As farmworkers were driven into these tradesmen's areas, they drove up the demand for (and costs of) housing. In contrast, the self-sacrificing aristocrats in this regard included the Duke of Wellington in Berkshire, who rebuilt or improved his laborers' cottages, giving each one about a quarter acre for a garden. He charged a mere one shilling a week rent for both cottage and garden. Caird regarded the Duke of Bedford's cottages as "very handsome," which had many conveniences as well as gardens attached, and let out at fairly low rents. (Some complained, however, about their rooms' small size). In 1830, according to the Steward at Woburn, the laborers on the Duke of Bedford's estates there paid just one shilling a week rent, while elsewhere others charged at least two shillings a week for two rooms, "miserable places, [with] no gardens." Lord Beverley rented one and a half acres of excellent pasture land, one and a half acres of "mowing-ground for winter food," and a house for just seven pounds per year to his laborers in high-wage Yorkshire. The Duke of Northumberland spent freely to make improvements that would help all the laborers on his huge estates. The 1867-68 Report said the Earl of Northumberland had improved or built 931 cottages for his laborers. Similarly, the village of Ford, built by the Marquis of Waterford, included houses with two or four rooms, gardens, close-by outhouses, water pipes, and use of a common cowhouse and pasture, let at just three or four pounds a year, depending on size. The Duke of Devonshire in Derbyshire built for his laborers the village of Edensor, whose cottages had pasture access and rather elaborate architecture. George Culley discovered that the landlords owned the best housing in Bedfordshire. In all but three cases, it was near or at their seats of residence. Somerville found Lord Spencer in Northampton was building impressive new dwellings for his laborers, although "the old ones . . . were equal and rather superior to the ordinary class of labourers' houses." Some cottages stood in groups of three, with the smaller one having just two or three "apartments" being placed between the larger ones. Some even had two rooms upstairs and two below. Potato gardens were placed in back, flower gardens in front. Here even fancy Gothic architecture greeted the passerby's eyes. A bakehouse and washing-house was provided for each four houses. They also could rent allotments at low rates.107 By building better and/or providing cheaper housing, the upper class showed their rhetoric about noblesse oblige was not entirely empty.
Despite the altruistic picture reported above, Lord Egremont of Sussex revealed some of the aristocracy's other motives behind renting their cottages so cheaply yet semi-contentedly. He told the rector of Petworth, Thomas Sockett, that he got no rent for his cottages, and, to begin with, did not rent any above three pounds per year even with a good garden. He said this matter-of-factly, without grievance. He, like other landlords, did not mind getting little or nothing in rent because, under the New Poor Law, "They save it in diminution of the rate. . . . He stated, that the fact was that the poor men could not now pay the rent." So what the aristocracy may have lost from low (or zero!) rents, lower taxes more than made up for, or they considered it a downwards adjustment for the low wages their laborers earned. Furthermore, the aristocracy tended to build improved cottages only near their seats, so as (perhaps) to avoid literally looking at poverty in the face. These houses might have pretty, overly ornate facades, but have little additional comfort inside. Although exaggerating some, Somerville said, after having traveled extensively in England, that such high quality houses "are found only in some pet village near a nobleman's park, or in the park itself, and only there because they are ornamental to the rich man's residence." Although the English rural elite undeniably exploited the laborers, as the enclosure movement and the low wages the laborers received demonstrate, still at least some aristocrats sincerely made efforts at providing housing paternalistically. But their efforts must be seen in the context of the low wages and/or reduced poor rates paid after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which often meant they were handing back a slice of the loaf that they had previously grabbed from the laborers. These exertions by aristocrats at improving cottages failed to touch the lives of most farmworkers since, "the majority of [England's] rural inhabitants [still] liv[ed] in damp and squalor," as Rule correctly observes.108
Little Difference for Slaves and Farmworkers in the Quality of Their Housing
Probably the overall quality of housing for the average slave or farmworker was about the same. Although in both cases, large landowners may have been somewhat altruistic, since they built nice houses or cottages on some large plantations or estates, only a minority of the slaves or laborers benefited from these efforts. Dirt floors and non-glazed or broken glass windows were standard for both groups. Walls often had holes or were otherwise decripit in both cases. Both slaves and farmworkers usually would have lacked a ceiling overhead; a gaze upwards would bring into view the rafters and beams holding up the roof. The bondsmen more likely lived in a home made nearly exclusively of wood, with (perhaps) some mud daubed in to fill the nooks and crannies or to help fireproof the chimney, compared to their contemporaneous rural field laborers in England. In England, walls made of mud/clay mixed with sticks or straw were common, thus nearly inverting the ratio of the two materials compared to America, clearly corresponding to their differing relative scarcity between the two countries. Probably a thatched roof, being cooler in summer, warmer in winter, and protecting better against the elements, was superior to what the slaves (or many poor whites) normally had in America, where stories of being able to see through the roof (or walls, for that matter) appear. In both cases, since the slaves and the laborers (normally) did not own the place they lived, they suffered from what others were willing to give them. Although the farmworkers supposedly had to pay rent, and had the freedom to move, because of the effects of the settlement laws and closed parishes, not to mention low wages and the enclosure acts helping to breed wage dependence, they often had to accept what was located near their jobs. Competition in the housing market in England was rendered even more imperfect because the governmental restrictions on labor mobility (already an instrinsically less mobile commodity than others) made workers even less able to move. Clearly, the bulk of both the bondsmen and laborers lived in rundown, decrepit housing of low quality and few amenities, even if a few fortunate souls benefited from paternalistic planters and aristocrats.
Sanitation for the England's housing during the industrial revolution was notoriously bad. How could a reader forget Engels' portrait of Manchester's odious slums and filthy, meandering streets in The Condition of the Working Class in England? In Victorian England, the appalling death rates produced by poor sanitation practices spawned a thriving public health movement among the middle class which aimed at cleaning up the hazards resulting from the then brave new world of modern urban industrial life. It must be realized, even about such pits of despair as Liverpool's cellar dwellings, that this problem was ultimately rooted in the concentration of houses packed together in rapidly growing large cities without any changes from practices that fit much better small villages or sparsely populated rural areas. As Rule noted, the houses of the cities and towns were built of better materials, such as brick or stone, but, "It was not so much their individual deficiencies, but the collective environmental horror which they presented which shocked contemporaries." In previous centuries, the death rates of medieval cities and towns in Europe were so high they gradually devoured their inhabitants, which made their population's natural rate of increase actually negative. If people then build still larger agglomerations of buildings, but fail to change the sewage and garbage disposal systems, only public health disaster can possibly result. Although rural areas' inhabitants enjoyed better health than city dwellers, that outcome did not come from the former having superior sanitation practices. Rather, because the population density was lower, the old, traditional methods took a notably lower toll in the countryside than within England's industrial cities. Even the contrast between villages and outlying scattered houses was jarring, as Jeffries saw:
The cottages in the open fields are comparatively pleasant to visit, the sweet fresh air carries away effluvia. Those that are so curiously crowded together in the village are sinks of foul smell, and may be of worse--places where, if fever comes, it takes hold and quits not.
As Engels observed, relatively little damage might come from making a dung heap in the country, since it is more exposed to the open air. But when a similar pile builds up in a city's alley or dead end, the very same practice is much more dangerous to human health.109 So although the countryside was healthier than the early industrial cities, the difference came from the concentration of large amounts of housing with barely changed medieval sanitation measures in the latter, such as open sewers along the sides of the streets, not superior practices that systematically ensured cleanliness in the former.
Unlike the towns by the 1870s and later, many villages in England had little or no sanitary arrangements. As Joseph Arch put it: "I must not name villages [with bad sanitary arrangements]; any one who travels must observe the bad sanitary condition of the rural districts." Although in an area of England where the laborers were relatively well-paid and fed, Caird found miserable arrangements for sanitation in the village of Wark, Northumberland:
Wretched houses piled here and there without order--filth of every kind scattered about or heaped up against the walls--horses, cows, and pigs lodged under the same roof with their owners, and entering by the same door--in many cases a pig-sty beneath the only window of the dwelling.110
Unlike Olmsted's aforementioned experience (p. 68), the laborers' cottages might not be even picturesque, let alone provide sanitary conditions for their occupants.
The housekeeping of Hodge's wife may have been perfectly fine, but the area around her cottage could still stink badly. (Unlike for the slaves, a strong sexual division of labor generally prevailed among the farmworkers, except during harvest and in the north, as explained below--pp. 200-210). Jeffries explains why, by contrasting the stench emanating from the laborers' cottages to the scent of the surrounding fields:
The odour which arises from the cottages is peculiarly offensive. It is not that they are dirty inside . . . it is from outside that all the noisome exhalations taint the breeze. . . . The cleanest woman indoors thinks nothing disgusting out of doors, and hardly goes a step from her threshold to cast away indescribable filth.111
This mentality may explain why Caird found the inhabitants of Wark tolerating the conditions that he saw. The cleanliness of the farmworkers' cottages usually beat that of the slaves' shanties, because the laborers' wives, being at home most of the day, could sink much more their labor into housekeeping or other, associated tasks, such going to market. Unlike the slave woman out in the fields all day, Mrs. Hodge rarely could blame a time shortage for making the inside of her house dirty.
Slaves--Furniture and Personal Effects
What housing a subordinate class' members have obviously differs from what items they can put in it. Although good housing and owning numerous personal possessions normally positively correlate with one another, this is not guaranteed. Although comparing the household items of American slaves and English farmworkers is inevitably difficult because broad-based statistical data are mostly unavailable, it is still worthwhile to examine generally what the poorest classes of their respective societies owned as household items. Unlike food, household items form part of their owners' enduring surroundings. (Clothing has been separately considered above). Their sentimental value can disproportionately outweigh their cash value, especially when parents or other ancestors had passed them down to the current owners. They also can contribute mightily to personal comfort, such as how a chair allows someone to avoid having to sit or stand on a (sometimes wet) dirt floor.
The slaves normally could only count on having in their shacks some kind of bed. These often were made with stuffings or coverings of moss, hay, and/or corn shucks on top of a wooden frame. As a child, Frederick Douglass did not even have this. He used a stolen bag that had contained corn to help keep himself warm. Turning to a more normal case, freedwoman Millie Evans of North Carolina recalled that her family's smaller beds in daytime could be easily slid underneath the largest bed. "Our beds was stuffed with hay and straw and shucks, and, believe me, child, they sure slept good." Ex-slave Marion Johnson, once a slave in Louisiana, also thought well of the basic bedding he enjoyed: "Mammy's beds was ticks stuffed with dried grass and put on bunks built on the wall, but they did sleep so good. I can 'most smell that clean dry grass now." Solomon Northrup, less nostalgically and less comfortably, described the "bed" that his master gave him: