I think I might start this episode with a thrilling expose of Household structure and stuff like that. Well, drop the expose possibly. Now, microhistories make no pretence that the history of a particular village or parish, Swyncombe in this idiom, is typical of the whole country and can be simply extrapolated. Which is a good thing, otherwise the Ruck Keene’s would be you know, superman. But there are sometimes characteristics which are of course entirely typical, and one of these is our old friend the North Western Marriage Model. This is the practice whereby once you get married in England, a couple sets up a new household and moves out. Until everything went potty population wise in the 18th century, this had a built-in mechanism to keep population in check – when times were hard, there were too many people to find jobs easily, or famine stalked the land, well, couples just waited til they were older to set up a new household and start multiplying, so had fewer children in their lifetimes and population duly adjusted. Or else a bunch of rats arrived and set off a plague that killed 40% of the entire population in a screaming buboe-ridden agony of black pus. That of course was also an option.
Part of that model was the primacy of the nuclear family; Parents and their children essentially is what the Nuclear family rather than anything to do with the production of enriched plutonium as a rural craft industry.
It has long been a given that the idea of an extended kinship network was not a facet of English society; either at the ‘pop granny in the corner and keep her away from the mangle you know what happened last time’ level, to an extensive household with nephews and nieces. A similar story emerges as regards a wider concept of kinship; in his study of kinship relationships in Terling, Keith Wrightson related the English experience to examples in France. He found kinship links in England rather weak by comparison, and confirmed the accepted wisdom that extended kinship groups were of little importance in English society. In the parish of Terling in Essex, only 33% of families were related to other members of the parish beyond the nuclear family; whereas families in the French villages studied ranged from ranged from being related to 57% to 82%  of other families in the village. So kinship networks there appeared to have a much greater role. There is a related story to this, which has it, that what mattered to ordinary English people in their working lives and when they needed support, was not extended kinship, but close nuclear family and then community. So by this latter, community, I might use the example of the Poor Law; since Elizabethan times, the parish community had accepted the responsibility to support those that fell on hard times. So it was to the Overseer of the Poor to whom the pauper would go, not touring round their cousins, if they existed locally, touching them for a few quid to help them make it to the end of the week.
Barry Reay in Kent found a slightly different story. There up to 60% of households had some kind of extended kin in the parish, not as extensive as France, but more significant, and which kind of demonstrates the value of microhistory; it makes you realise that general rules and trends hide that the situation on the ground could vary wildly depending on the vagaries of where you are; that the national story may well not reflect everyone’s experiences.
So what about Swyncombe then? There are tables on the website the history of England by the way should you want to dig around in the data – there’s a link from the web page from this episode post. There were 100 households in Swyncombe in the 1851 census; Ihave put these into social groups – some of them are difficult to categorise so 10 of them are in the famous Other category which comprises clergy, school master and so on. Outliers.
The first conclusion is that yes, indeed, the nuclear family was the thing in Swyncombe; only 15% of households contain a wider kins, and also where they do exit, we’ve no idea how long they’d tolerate granny in the corner with her G&T so where it does occur, it may be short term, difficult to tell from a census. Well – not G&T maybe. Where they do exist it’s two types really – young people who’ve come to stay from outside the parish, niece, granddaughter sort of thing – maybe to look for work, or orphaned. Or, again, Mum or Dad in their old age, caught by the fall of the poverty life cycle, and fallen on hard times.
There is enough of it though, to make the point that while community & state support is what drove financial and physical support, those extended households are not nothing. The family and wider kin was there if you really needed help in Swyncombe.
The average size of household by the way isn’t that large; the average was 4 people to a household on average, 2+2, two up two down, Parents and 2 kids. The English average was about 4.75, so smallish. But it’s a rubbish figure the mean average actually in this case, we use it ‘cos it’s easy, but it’s a rubbish measure really. Because look it entirely depended on your stage in life. James and Ann Gillat for example, were agricultural labourers, with 6 sons, the poor devils, so a household of 8, and a household of that size is not untypical or uncommon. Their eldest child was 18 and starting work on the land – the next eldest was 12, and he was already working as a Shepherd Boy. In the 1901 Census, Henry and Alice Vernon have a young family of 8 and a quarter of households had 6 people or above in them in 1901. And then on the other hand the mean average is pulled down, because of the was newly married couples leave quickly to set up a separate household, leaving their parents; so over the age of 60 the vast majority of couples lived in solitary households, all on their own or with their spouse, their children having flown the nest. That’s all parents are good for once we’ve sucked them dry, he he.
The main thing though that hits you between the eyes you when looking at households by social group is just how strongly dominated Swyncombe was by the landless, wage-earning labourer; 60% of them were devoted to agricultural labour or domestic service – and actually only 4 heads of household were in domestic service so it’s basically agricultural labourers. The people of Swyncombe worked on the land for wages, although in 1851 there’s also a significant support and supplementary income from a craft industry – about 20% of the population worked in rural craft industry or retail like selling beer from the front room. These latter 20% are our first smidge of open parish-ness. Interestingly the crafts almost exclusively exist in the farthest-flung corners of the parish, as far away as possible from Swyncombe manor in the centre – they are based in Park Corner and Russell’s Water. I mean they are hardly Timbuctoo, Tiperary or Archangel, but at least out from under the Master’s eye in Cookley Green.
It’s a feature of Swyncombe then; 60% of the population worked as labourers on farms, and the percentage would rise over time – by 1901, the figure is 68%. It’s not a gimme that this is the way a rural community will look; I have a comparison with a study in Trenant in Cornwall;. The difference with Trenant was that, although it is also very rural, and definitely not a town, there’s Tin mining nearby. So there, only 26% are agricultural wage labourers; there are a lot more small farmers, so 28% are farmers, as opposed to Swyncombe’s 8%, and in Trenant 33% work in mining and rural industry. I don’t mean you to remember these figures, though they are on the website should you be interested, the point is that a place like Trenant offered a very different, much more differentiated society than did Swyncombe; no resident gentry, a range of farmers large and small, opportunity for wage based employment in crafts and mining – if you didn’t mind dying young from Copper poisoning, incidentally. Trenant was a much more open parish, with a greater freedom to switch how you might make a living. I had a look briefly at the small coastal village of Burnham Overy too – there you have a real mix, but then it’s much more like a town.
The other thing to note about Trenant’s variety and Swyncombe’s lack of it – was that wages in Swyncombe were much, much lower. Because in Trenant, if you didn’t like the wages on offer at the farm – well you could go and check out the going rates at the mine. By the time of Victoria, the majority of household income came from the bloke – 2/3rds of it on average. So much so, by the way, that there are studies that show the man got the best of the household food in poor households – pass the pie along to your dad and get on with your turnip Mum. So wages matter – though we can talk about other sources of income too, from women and children, which tend to be harder to wrinkle out, but are significant.
Where you lived mattered in terms of how much money you get; and in this century, it is the north of England that is doing better than the south. In the north, there is enormous urbanisation and industrialisation, competition for labour is strong. I’m going to use pay rates in 1913 because I can compare it with a national study, but this all holds good for the rest of the century. In Cumberland, the weekly wage for agricultural labourers was around 19s, so just under 2 quid, in Lancashire 16s, in the West Riding 17 1/2s and so on. The baseline by the way is the research by the Rowntree foundation at York, which estimated 20s 6d as a minimum for a family of five to survive; so if you are earning a male wage of 17s, and topping up with a further third from women and children, you are at least in credit, though you can probably cancel that summer holiday.
We don’t have specific rates for Swyncombe – that kind of information is very rare, but across Oxfordshire it’s 12s, so much much less than those northern counties ; even if the rest of the household pull their weight, you are still going to be below the Rowntree Foundation’s breadline. 60% of Swyncombe lived from agricultural labour; many of them lived daily with poverty. And that’s in the good times.
It’s not as though the Farmers of Swyncombe were unaware of this. John Orr again in 1916 obviously spoke to farmers and labourers in the area, and records the wise and solemn pronouncements of the local farmers; and was not fooled. He realised that farmers would not pay more than they absolutely needed to, and lamented that the only mechanism labourers had at their disposal to increase their wages was some sort of pressure or force, protest, strikes that kind of thing. And in the Chilterns, he doesn’t give much for their chances. So one route might have been the increasing popularity of agricultural unions; but I can find literally no trace of any membership or meetings in Swyncombe, and I suspect if they had turned up the first thing they’d have seen was the wrong end of Charles Ruck Keene’s gamekeepers shot gun; and by the 1870s, the agricultural union movement was largely collapsing anyway.
Another would be the ability to move to rural crafts and push income up that way, and here we come up against the great mystery of Swyncombe; the relative lack of rural crafts. It’s OK in 1851 – 18% of households, though about 10 of those are paupers on poor relief, so it’s clearly not working for them. But it’s rural crafts are reducing actually and by 1901 it’s down to 7% of households earning their living that way. And yet, Swyncombe should be good for rural crafts; there’s clay on the Common at Russell’s Water, and you can still see the pock marks from the old clay pits for the brick making works up there. But yet there was only one employer, James Lovegrove, who sets up in the 1870s and keeps going for 30 years or so; but it never flowers into a wider industry as happens at Nettlebed common just a few mils away. There is wood and Charcoal burning has been a part of the landscape since medieval times; one of the hills near Swyncombe Manor is called Colliers Hill, the buttocks of which sit above a valley and trackway called Colliers Bottom – Colliers being charcoal burners of course. And yet there’s no trace of a single charcoal burner in the 19th century censuses, not even an ancient maiden aunt who said they might have seen a collier one day. Not a trace, rien, nowt. Possibly a reason for this is that the woodland was generally snapped up and owned by the large Landowners – such as the ancient Priors Wood for example, which Ruck Keene adds to his empire late in the reign.
John Orr remarks on the situation in local parishes right next door:
Round Checkenden men combine work on their small holdings with making parts of chairs to be sent to High Wycombe. Farther North, about Christmas Common, where the woods encroach very much on the farms, and on to Stokenchurch, the wood industry is supreme. But here is no large absorption of labour and farm wages are no higher, nor do labourers and their families add to their earnings by home manufacture of chair legs and spars as this requires more skill and a more permanent status that they possess.
I used to live near Checkenden, in Stoke Row where the word bodger appears in placenames quite a bit, which is what the business of making chair parts was called, bodging. Quite how that became a word for messing things up I don’t know. But Orr’s comment is curious, because Rural industry, despite the aforementioned industrial revolution and arrival of factories and mechanisation remains strong quite late into the 19th century. Things do happen; spinning at home remains very resilient all over the country until the arrival of steam power in factories from the 1830s and then it dies, it really dies. But Straw Plaiting and Lacemaking survive later until the 1890s. Pottery as mentioned and Brickmaking are very strong at Nettlebed where the commons are heavy clay; there was even a dedicated railway and numerous kilns, and the industry doesn’t finally close down in Nettlebed until 1923. But in Swyncombe there’s almost no sign; the few lacemakers are generally old, single, female and paupers; there’s a carpenter at Cookley Green, and the Wixens are Blacksmiths at Park Corner. Two households work as bodgers – and unsurprisingly they are two of the few households who have women as their heads, Suzanna Clifton and Charlotte Morris. By 1901 we are down to the entrepreneurial Wixen family at Park Corner and a shoemaker who appears at Russell’s Water for a while.
Being part of a closed parish therefore did not help rural poverty; but there were compensations. Orr remarks that Farmers generally agree that housing quality was universally poor in Oxfordshire; such was probably not the case in Swyncombe, where by comparison investment had been made and continued to be made in brick and flint cottages, with associated gardens, and as discussed probably relatively low rent. So you gained there. John Orr makes a further comment about why there’s little pressure to force Farmers to up their wages, which seems entirely sensible for the time. Here it is, and I suspect I will hear your heads nodding in agreement despite the fact that you might be ironing somewhere distant.
A general opinion seems to be that labour lacks the mobility necessary to carry it to centres which are comparatively distant and that this prevents labour from bringing pressure to bear on farmers by thus reducing the supply of labour
Well, maybe that was the perception, which is of itself interesting, and of course there is truth in it – Labourers don’t have wheels, or horseshoes. But there are two bits of evidence that suggest wages in Swyncombe may have been more healthy than we think, and less in line with Oxfordshire. The 1851 census allows us to look at the demand for employment on farms, and match it against the resident population; and it is clear that Swyncombe has a serious under supply of labour; there are too few people even at the height of population which hits about 450 in 1861; there are in fact about 100 fewer labourers than Swyncombe’s farms need. Supply and demand should dictate some attempt to pull people in with attractive conditions. The problem was exacerbated by the high demand for the labour-intensive cereal crops, and by outward emigration – people leaving Swyncombe. Now As previously mentioned, flight from rural to urban areas was a national issue; since Oxfordshire was a lightly industrialised county, the problem was particularly acute, and outward emigration to all regions of England and Wales from Oxfordshire was higher than immigration, from ratios of 0.8 to 4.5. Emigration from Swyncombe itself grew strongly by the end of the century, but even in 1851 at a time of high organic population growth was a significant drain at 18% – by 1901 it was over 30%. So lack of labour mobility? Not so sure that’s right. Plus, the imperative to bring labour into the parish was therefore pressing.
So the other stunning piece of information which really did amaze me, the one bit of boddice ripping you are going to get in this entire series, killer fact fab fact and all that, is if you build it, people come, and they did come from far and wide. Well – they come from the local counties anyway.
Just to build this up a bit more before I rip away the boddice hiding my fab fact, I had an image in my mind, again, of the Tudor parish, which tried to adhere to the idea that you were born, lived and died in your parish. That vagrancy was deviancy, and made you liable to a whipping; an image of families living on the land for generations. Well not in Swyncombe and not in Victorian Swyncombe; not to put too fine a point on it, beat around the bushes or gloss the matter, Swyncombe is a community of migrants. In 1851, the heads of 60% of Swyncombe households came from outside the parish, and 41% of individuals – accounting for the fact that some later children of immigrants were of course born locally. The figure is slightly lower for Heads of Labouring households at 50%, but this is a growing trend, and how it grows. By 1901 the figure is as high as 80% for the labouring classes also. 80% of the population come from outside Swyncombe. By ‘eck, fancy, I mean this is grape squashing time, in my shock I could most definitely have torn my way out of the brown paper bag of intellectual self realisation. Whatever that actually means.
In the words of Balloo, there’s more Baggy, much more. Because for many labouring families this was not a one-off process, but one of multiple and continual stages; in 1851, the birth places of Agricultural labourer Arthur West’s family of 7 shows Arthur to be a native of South Stoke, in Oxfordshire who had moved 6 miles to Stadhampton by the age of 36, thence to Watlington to arrive in Swyncombe at the age 59. Mary his wife came from 25 miles away in Bladon, north Oxfordshire.
This has interesting implications for social cohesion in the parish, but also speaks to a much more widely connected labouring class than we might imagine; the labouring poor clearly had connections or experience outside the parish and to come from quite long distances; labourer John Nottage was born in Cambridgeshire, for example. It suggests that the experience of the highly mobility farming classes would not be so alien to their employees s we might think, and as written communication channels and levels of literacy improved through the century, it is possible those connections became more active. This is speculative since we do not have a record of letters or communications left by the labouring people of Swyncombe, and leisure time was limited and only just beginning to take off later in the century; but the pattern of marriage supports the general model of connections with the world outside the parish. Because it was also standard to marry someone from outside the parish, rather than the exception, and again it was becoming more common not less; 72% of marriages had at least one partner born outside Swyncombe in 1851, and fully 96% by 1901.
You have to wonder then why they came, given that life was probably hard if wages were low in Swyncombe and Oxfordshire. The biggest reason is probably limited choice – the vast majority come from South East England where wages are also low due to relatively late industrialisation. It also seems that agricultural labourers had other worries too; job security was a real concern for them. The problem might not be unemployment if you were recruited at a hiring fair; but under employment might be a concern, because Arable farming was very seasonal, and so at certain times of year you might be dumped for a few months. The pattern of marriage is rather interesting; during this period of high farming, mid 19th century, Swyncombe shows the classic pattern of marriage for an arable area – over 50% of marriages happen in the autumn, after the harvest has come and gone. The bias disappears a bit it must be said later in the century – but that’s because there is a crisis coming up – there you go, another attempt to introduce a bit of Stranger Things peril into this podcast. Obviously, 12A BBFC levels of mild peril, but there’s a flood coming.
So, back to that under employment and security point; John Orr again notes that employment in agriculture in the Chilterns was irregular; that labourers might be laid off at the end of the year until the agricultural year began to start again in March, giving households a difficult 3 months. They had a tough decision to make – did they move to look for other work, or hold on and try to make ends meet for 3 months? It made budgeting important, and it made finding other sources of income essential for survival – or you risked the union workhouse down in Henley. There might be some casual labour available, because employing casual labour was common generally until the coming flood; but that in itself cut both ways, because you might find yourself turfed out of a more permanent job by casuals from outside too. Some developed skills in jobs done on the out season – digging ditches and laying hedges were two obvious winter tasks. Another was the gathering of flints – as I have mentioned they are all over the place here, if flints were horses, beggars would ride to re-purpose an aphorism, and in winter families would work their way over the fields, gather the flints and sell them to construction firms to make a few bob.
The missing part of this jigsaw, though, is the earning capacity of women and of children, and we should explore that a little, because there’s more than one thing going on here. I would invite you to think about such work in two ways – paid and unpaid or in house or out of house. Both of course make a contribution to the household welfare; most cottages for example still had a garden, where unpaid, in house labour would include growing veggies and maybe keeping the odd pig or chicken. They didn’t contribute more than a 12th of the family food needs, but it was something.
As far as formal or casual paid employment went, the opportunities for women were shrinking fast, for cultural reasons about the work that it was felt appropriate for women to do which was getting smaller by the day. Working in the fields, for example, was increasingly not thought to be suitable for a women. It could be quite specific; so in Blean Kent for example, Barry Reay’s microhistory showed that hop picking was seen as Ok. But less and less of arable work was open to women employment. There were technical reasons too – there is a general adoption for example of heavy scythes which it was felt men could cope with better, rather than the traditional much smaller hand sickles. Meanwhile the decline of live in service also affected women disproportionately, for that had been for centuries the destination for the first job leaving home for girls and young women.
In Swyncombe, David Crowther’s microhistory gives some doubts to lack of formal paid labour for women’s work; obviously the opportunities were not as significant for women as they were for men, and in addition to which women were paid a lot less than men. But opportunity there was; and oddly, it gets better. In 1851 and 1901 there are around 50 paid roles carried out by women, and given the falling population that means the proportion of women with a stated paid job rose from 22% of women to 32%. Which is not nothing – an additional income. The main reason for the growth is probably peculiar to Swyncombe and the arrival of the Reiss family to lease the manor, since they have a massive household of 33 staff, so there’s more domestic service jobs available. But still, there’s some possibility; Frances Sarney distributes the post from Cookley Green, Alice Hayes does some bodging; there are some others that find the extra income. There is also the possibility, which we can’t really see, that women were able to walk to places like Nettlebed or Watlington for casual or paid work. Trouble is, there’s really no record, and by and large such activity was limited by stage of life. A bit like factory work; the growth of factories has traditionally been seen as having a negative impact on women’s opportunities, and for most that’s true – it’s pretty impossible in Victorian England to take your child to work, there is limited creche provision. But it gave excellent opportunity for higher wages and opportunity for single women actually.
The other source of income was children. This is an odd subject. The direction I have always come at it, from schooldays learning about the 19th century, is sort of one of outrage. Children/ Working? Barbarism! Those people in the past, unforgivable! And nowadays there is a strong vein of outrage in some historians – about all the indignities of the industrial revolution foisted on a down trodden and exploited urban poor. And of course there was the contemporary panic too, the stories of children in the dangerous nay deadly atmosphere of heavy machinery, with no health and safety legislation in sight, the work of Edwin Chadwick and reformers. I’ve come to think a little bit differently though; I mean I don’t believe child labour is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but a couple of things. Firstly we had an opportunity to read quite a few of the working class diaries written by children, which formed the basis of a terribly, terribly outraged Dickensian type TV programme. The stories written by those children in that particular case were laughable. So clearly a complete fabrication, that my gob was smacked anyone would take them seriously.
But the other reflection that gave me pause to the standard outrage I had imbibed with Loughborough Grammar school’s milk about the iniquity of the ancients came with an excellent book I heartily recommend to you, by a Prof at Reading called Emma Griffin, and it’s called Liberty’s Dawn. It’s not that directly relevant to our microhistory in the sense it’s based on working class written diaries from all over the place – 300 or so of them. These diaries again fly a bit in the face of the standard outrage of the industrial revolution, because it makes it clear that for many, however chaotic and bad and smelly and harsh and exploitative the factory might have been – compared to a small rural parish like Swyncombe; poor, hard, where you did what the Squire told you to do or else you’d find out what job insecurity meant first hand – well, then, the shock city spelled freedom, opportunity, and they couldn’t wait to get there. Hence the continual background of emigration, which by 1901 had risen to 36% of people leaving the parish.
But the other insight that struck me from Prof Griffin’s book was that society started from a different place than we do. Children had always worked. They worked in the field doing casual work around the family, they moved on to looking after animals in manageable situations, buzzing around on the outskirts of the harvest, doing work in the garden. It was the natural order of things. The fact that factories were entirely unsuitable, and the growing conviction that education was essential, the desire for a better life etc etc – all these things were a matter for cultural adjustment, which as we know takes a while.
And also, for the labouring poor – necessity drives. So there are a couple of sources from Swyncombe where we see that children’s work remains a part of the household income of labouring families to the end of the century. For the first, we need to go to the school and its Log Book; we’ll talk of the school at some point, but just for the moment accept there is one in the Parish, and that it has teachers within it, and it keeps a daily log book, through which I have leafed, ladies and gentlemen, a sacrifice I have made just so that I can personally bring you the resulting flashes of insight and illumination.
Actually, on a personal note, sitting in the Oxfordshire History Centre is an utter joy, hand on history, there’s nothing like an archive. I did it way back on the first year of the same history course, before I got ill, for the civil war period. It was also lovely; but made me realise how hard primary research is. I got all this stuff to look at – all completely useless, because I couldn’t read the handwriting. Almost a complete waste of time. I take my hat off to every researcher and historian on whose shoulders I have stood in every bit of history I have ever written, especially those before the days we sorted out our handwriting and spelling. Wow. My hat is officially, off.
Anyway, there are recurring themes in said log book. Obviously there’s the weather – I mean what else would you expect in an English school log book? There’s rain, sleet, snow, mud, heat – we have it all, and the children of the labouring families have to wade through it all. Or, as happens distressingly frequently, they do not bother. Attendance goes up and down like a yoyo. There’s curriculum stuff – anodyne everything was fine today, the children were a little distracted today, call down the judgement and lightening from the lord on these children they are making my head explode sort of stuff – well not the last one really. But there’s also attendance. Children frequently leave the school – because their parents move on, supporting the story we have about the importance to working people of moving for work, often out of the parish. Or because the children they get a job; in March 1867, Ellen Appleby for example, of one of the enormous numbers of Appleby families in Swyncombe, left the school, and I quote ‘for service’ – she’d landed a job.
The second though more frequent type and of relevance to this bit, are temporary attendance issues at particular times of year. In April, the school Mistress Catherine Williams, who moved to Swyncombe all the way from Newfoundland Canada by the way, complains that many of the boys didn’t attend because they were ‘wooding’ – presumably this is a good time of year to collect underwood, and the same activity turns up in February a lot too, houses are cold no doubt. In May and June it tends to be boys away again – working in the garden, maybe at home, or maybe other people’s homes for casual paid labour it’s not clear. Then of course comes May and June, and more attendance problems – Haymaking. The end of the summer term and start of the Autumn term are always disrupted, all the children, because of the harvest field – though in 1877 the school mistress is thoroughly peeved and lets it show; she clearly thinks they are bunking
‘attendance is falling off as it usually does for the last few weeks of the year. There is no valid reason for this …as the children are not actually required in the harvest field’
Ah – rumbled, they were really at an illegal rave. Finally at the end of September, scandalously families desert the school and village en mass on the last weekend all head down to Henley on Thames and the annual fair.
Child labour as an additional income source for labouring families was a constant. There is a bias towards boys who seem to leave school more often, but girls too get hoicked out to help at critical times of year, harvest mainly.
For another bit of evidence that children’s work was important and ubiquitous, we go to Parliamentary Royal Commission for Children and Women, and the pronouncements of the squire, Charles Ruck Keene in his interview there
Swyncombe boys are employed from 10 years throughout the year, some even younger…Girls of all ages are employed in harvest, and also in stone picking, with their mothers. 22 women are employed generally on the different farms in this parish.
So making a living was hard I think we have concluded; households had to use all their resources and wit to make ends meet, the evidence is pretty clear. And sometimes they didn’t make it, and the Poor Law was there to provide support for the desperate. Swyncombe had traditionally been a relatively high spender of the Elizabethan poor law; in 1834, that ornament of English civilisation was closed down for something entirely harsher. Support for the poor becomes centralised into areas, in Swyncombe’s case they join the Henley Poor law Union; there was already a Workhouse at Henley as it happens, so the change over happened quite quickly. Bits of the building are still there today.
There’s no getting away from it, the new law was changed for unattractive reasons; the mania for reformation of supposed poor behaviour, to punish malingering, and to keep the costs down, it’s difficult to be positive about the Victorian Poor Laws, conclusive proof that the whig idea of constant progress is utter bunkum. Out Relief as it was known, money given within the parishes as had happened under the Elizabethan system rather than from the Union Workhouse itself, was supposed to be a no no but it continued, impossible for it not to be. But the focus changed; what had been a very flexible system with money or support given according to need by people within the community who knew the situation of individuals and their needs, became much more formulaic and hard. The focus became overwhelming the support of the unemployed man; because it was the man who was supposed to support the family, and support directly for women dried up. Unfortunately, the Master’s Notebooks don’t survive at Henley beyond 1836 with references to Swyncombe, so there’s little information but some comes across. There are 16 Paupers noted in the 1851 census, when it was still a category, which is pretty standard for Oxfordshire. And up to 1905, there are 17 people who end up at the workhouse in Henley and die there. The vast majority are over 66; poverty became unmanageable in old age for some whose families had moved away while their ability to earn was over. Some are infants.
While the general impression is of a hard life, there are a couple more things we should mention. I have talked about the labour shortage, and speculated as to whether that would have helped wages within Swyncombe itself in a way that is hidden to the historical record. But it is also clear that there is a hierarchy within the labouring families too, which could affect their earning potential, relating to the skills they held. In particular, working with animals conferred extra pay and status, and we begin to see more nuance of what jobs people did in the 1901 census. John Orr noted that the farmers he spoke to ‘complain about the problem of finding good cowmen and shepherds’ and presumably must have been willing to pay to get the right people. Shepherds were at the top of the hierarchy often. This wasn’t just about their skills, but also because they might enjoy considerable freedom organising their time; sometimes they were given duties looking after woodland too, so they were less constantly supervised as were the labourers in the fields.
I was introduced to the term Nagsmen, a job title that apparently lacked the negative connotation of Nag and was recognition of a skilled role. Ploughmen were highly valued too not just for the horse management, but for a highly skilled and critical task. After that came Carters, which it becomes clear are a really significantly large group in the 1901 census with 20 individuals named as such. Only then do you get the mass of Agricultural Labourers, and there are other opportunities for them – there are quite a few people who made a living Gardening, for example. These distinctions could have been important socially as well as in generating a slightly more comfortable life.
I tried to do a spot of Total Family Reconstruction just to give you some examples of some people and families and how their lives worked out. The first lesson I learned was just how thoroughly complicated it is, and I am afraid the Appleby families defeated me, and I just didn’t have the time to do it. All I can say is that there were a lot of Appleby’s living in Swyncombe in 1851, about 7 families of them, and more arrived and left over the decades that appear in the registers of births, deaths and marriages. There’s no guarantee that all these Applebys are related; but the very strong impression is of an extensive kinship network. But there is only one Appleby Household left in 1901; George Appleby and Jane Wardcombe are married in May 1882, and had their first child, Jane, the following February and have a young family of 7 by the time 1901 rolls around. George was the son of a labourer, James Appleby, and he and jane are actually slightly unusual for people married in the 1880s, for a few reasons.
The first is that although a couple of intervals suggests that Jane may have suffered a miscarriage, they have no infant deaths at all which is most unusual. Also actually both Jane and George are born and bred in Swyncombe, now that’s very unusual. Also though they marry relatively young – they are both 22 years old. The story of the rising population in England up to 1800 had been about a steadily falling age of first marriage, and therefore steadily rising number of children for each family, a trend which I think I’ve already mentions changed by Victoria’s reign. Swyncombe follows the national trend in this; women marry later; 22 would have been average in 1840, but by the end of the century the average had risen to 24. There is a compensation in terms of birth in that people live longer and may have children later therefore, but there’s also some evidence, though a bit contentious, that people start exercising birth control later in life to avoid having large families; Jane was 39 when she had her last child. Anyway, if you survived the first 5 years, in the 1840s the average life expectancy in Swyncombe was 45; by the end of the century it has risen, and risen a lot, to 59. That’s a major change in peoples’ lives.
The other unusual thing is that neither Jane nor George were able to sign the marriage register – they could only make a mark. The 19th century was the time when literacy is cracked at least for the vast majority. If George and Jane had been getting married in 1845, they would have been quite normal in being illiterate for labourers; actually, everyone else could sign, people working in rural crafts or trade as well as farmers, but only 40% of agricultural labourers could write. By the time George and Jane Appleby were married in the 1880s, 80% of labourers could sign, and by the end of the century pretty much everyone. It’s a significant change especially when coupled with the growing channels of communication, and the growing network of communication.
What is sadly typical about Jane and George is that they are a labouring family, born into a labouring family. We’ve tried to uncover some of the concerns of the people living in Swyncombe – the households and networks they were part of, the struggle to make a living, their need to move for opportunities and jobs; their concerns for job security and the need to budget for the changes in seasonal work, the influence over them of Farmers and the Squire, and how that might have benefits in living conditions, but left them little liberty or choice. One thing is pretty clear though in Swyncombe – social mobility is zero. I mean if we are looking for a score, the bar is set to professional limboing level. The social structure is very simple – Gentry; a tiny professional group of Clergy and School teachers; farmers; wage labourers, and wage labourers within quite a restricted range of roles. Even within Farmers the progression seems limited; almost all the farmers are recruited from outside, rather than children taking over the farm; later in the century as we will hear, more and more land is managed in hand by bailiffs from outside. This closed rural parish is a very stable, structured, hierarchical society. You might like it if stability and the reassuring and unchanging turn of the seasons is your thing, but there’d be many frustrations. It’s unsurprising that families left en masse, and there was a constant need to recruit workers to come and live here.
Now I am sorry if you heard children, dogs and birds in this edition, but it’s a warm day here and what the heck, the shed is part of a loving breathing community, and since we are talking about Swyncombe parish, it seemed appropriate. Actually I’m never sure what does or does not get recorded – can you hear the rats in the roof space in Winter for example? We have come though to a convenient break in the life of Swyncombe parish, You’ll be horrified to hear that we have more to go about Swyncombe – religion is up next and that’s always a hoot. But I think you all deserve a breather, so it’s off to Italy and Hohn Jawkwood we must go – though I haven’t written it yet – but I will do, I will do, promise. Anyway that’s all folks; I hope you lives are happy and gay, that life’s rich tapestry is woven with the brightest and most glorious of silks, thank you mightily for paying the bills and thus keeping me from gathering flints in the fields, I am eternally grateful. Good luck, and have a great sen’night.
 Wrightson, K, ‘Poverty and Piety in an English Village’, p86