When William Cobbett made his historic ‘Rural Rides’ in the early 19th century around southern England it was the time of the infamous Corn Laws. The age of the Enclosures and the Tolpuddle martyrs was still a fresh memory. Farming life was hard for rural folk then.
For a day or two, a few men and their expensive machines are busy (above) with today’s wheat harvest. For the farm workers of Cobbett’s day it was a different matter. In many places the rural idyll was in fact ‘a life of pain’. There would be gnarled, bruised hands, aching arms, tired backs, sweating bodies with choking dust and irritating bits of straw in one’s hair and clothes. At the end of it all a very small pay packet. I well remember my own pre-university year working outside in the fields on a large market garden in Surrey in all weathers starting from 7 am, including Saturday mornings, for £6 a week!
Cobbett took up the cause of the rural farm worker in his famous book ‘Rural Rides’. Riding horse-back through the counties of Southern England he records the poverty and hardship of most workers on the land. He also sought to speak up for them in Parliament, but was strongly opposed by the wealthy landowners with their vested interests in the countryside.
“Indeed the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord…You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury;”
James 5 verses 4-5
The ‘stockbroker belt’ of the time surrounding ‘The Wen’ (his name for London) specially angered Cobbett. He called one place “a spot all made into ‘grounds’ and ‘gardens’ by ‘tax eaters’. The inhabitants of it had beggared 20 agricultural villages and hamlets.” In Kent he notes the irony of a sign reading “Paradise Place – spring guns and steel traps are set here” to ward off poachers!
“The man of wealth and pridefrom Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Deserted Village’
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds:
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth.”
Years later little seems to have changed as Richard Jefferies, another champion of poor country folk, records:
” The granaries were full, in sight of the poor who could only see through the doors the golden grain in the barns. The sparrows helped themselves, but men dared not!”
From ‘The Countryside : Sussex’ in ‘Field and Hedgerow’
Cobbett would have been a difficult travel companion! But one can’t help come to like him, especially for his genuine heart and hard work campaning for the rural poor.
‘Unlike Gilbert White, he was no naturalist. But he did have a softer side when his anger and outspokenness against agricultural labour’s hardship and political injustice had subsided. He appreciated beautiful scenery and specially loved the downs and woods of his native county Hampshire. As he travels he refers to linnets singing in an overhead oak and to hearing over the hedge a plough-boy whistling, the traces jingling and the horses snorting as they plough the neighbouring field.
In their novels, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens also brought home these difficult times for so many working folk in the country and the crowded cities. In more modern times, the poet R. S. Thomas wrote of the rugged farm labourers of his local Welsh hills, describing their hard life as being ’mortgaged to the grasping earth’.
Our modern age has seen huge changes to the landscape of England with sprawling towns and cities; vast suburban housing estates; golf clubs; out of town superstores; and roads and motorways carving up the countryside. Cobbett hated the turnpike roads of his day and always sought to avoid them. He preferred travelling slowly, frequently stopping to talk to local country people. He would have been horrified by the rush and roar of our modern motorways.
Were he to look over the farm hedge today, Cobbett would be amazed to see the modern farm worker sitting in his heated tractor cab. But he would also meet the smaller farmers and hear about their worries about post-Brexit subsidies and farms running at a loss. I wonder what he would have to say about all this!
Top featured photo- by James Towill – geograph
Join me for the next post – ‘September‘