Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside by Pamela Horn
Alan Sutton Publishing Limited.
First Published 1976 - reprint 1995 292pp
This is a thorough and very readable account of rural life in the 19th Century that will be of immense interest to those of us with those infamous 'Ag Lab' ancestors - which is most of us!
Opening with a background survey of the Rural Community, Horn draws on a number of reports and accounts on rural life compiled during the period in question, and includes sizeable quotes from the sources to provide a real flavour of the conditions and impressions of just what life was like in the rural areas. Informative chapters on Home Life and School follow, conjuring up images far removed from the cosy idylls of popular imagination, but not totally lacking in support and community. What comes across very clearly however is just how the sensibilities of the times differ so radically from our own, and how the routine of daily life was peppered with small rewards and entertainments - but always with the danger of near disaster just around the corner.
Other chapters include sections on working the land, cottage crafts and industries, and agricultural politics and the early unions - again giving very useful insights into the mind set of the rural population, the dangers and conditions they faced, and how they set about trying to improve their lot. Similarly, the issue of religion is discussed, and the differences in approach from both the Church of England and the dissenting groups in how they sought to keep their flocks from straying into each others hands - on the one hand trying to provide assurances through the traditional messages that faith would see people through the hard times, and on the other encouragement to better oneself through learning and organisation.
Holidays, sickness, poverty, old age and death take up the next few chapters, and give a good idea of how changing national political situations and initiatives actually played out in the front line of rural villages, with such schemes as the Poor Law Amendments of the 1830s provoking considerable outrage in many areas, and some of the last rural riots in history! Seeing how national campaigns and legislation actually impacted on the lives of real people is quite an enlightening process, and gives the reader a far greater appreciation of the changes that our ancestors lived through.
Finally, before a short summary, Horn details Crime and Punishment - oddly one of the most readable - for me - chapters in any social history! Much of this section details the slow growth of the new-fangled Police forces within rural areas, and how pretty darn easy it was for crims to get away with most things - especially as the chances of the death sentence receded quite sharply during the period in question. Poaching and punching seem to have been the pasttimes that brought legal action most often, although there seems to have remained quite a few of the opportunities for pilfering, adultering goods, and general trouble that the big towns are perhaps more generally associated with.
To summarise then, this is a very well researched book that details the development of rural England over 100 fairly turbulent years, and which sees a radical change in the role of the rural labourer and of villages in general. A decline of self-responsibility both as a community and as individuals towards a more outward looking mindset, with growing horizons, but also growing reliance on outsiders for everyday needs such as employment, goods, and institutional support.
There is a tendency for the examples and sources to focus on certain areas, such as Norfolk, Dorset and the Midlands and, from a genealogical perspective, a few more names included could have provided some real nuggets for a lucky few. That aside, however, this is a richly rewarding read, and with the copious notes, references and bibliography there are lots of signposts for the reseracher who wants to follow up on the many leads that this book will provoke.
A very highly recommended book.