North Walsham & District Community Archive

Chapter 6 - Poverty & Protest: The Agricultural La

Poverty & Protest: The Agricultural Labourers

In the early nineteenth century agriculture was by far the most important industry in the country. Wages for farm workers were very low and those with families generally lived in a miserable state in small, poorly built cottages. Arthur Young, writing at the beginning of the century after his tour of Norfolk, reported the appalling state of living conditions of the rural workers in the county. Moreover, no improvements took place during the first thirty years of the century and many families suffered severe hardship. A number of poor families in and around North Walsham had long relied on the "cottage industries', particularly spinning and weaving, as a source of income on a full or part-time basis. Now however, the Norfolk industry was facing growing competition from the North and a large number of local hand-loom weavers became unemployed or accepted greatly reduced wages. Many cottagers also lost the benefits from the commons in the area which were being enclosed in the early 19th century. The commons of North Walsham were enclosed following an act of 1810. This meant that those with common rights could no longer pasture their animals there or take fuel for the cottage fire. Where allotments were awarded these were frequently too small or too distant to be viable. Some of the poor of North Walsham did benefit from a Fuel Allotment set up at the Enclosure. This land was let and the income was used to buy a small quantity of fuel which was delivered to the most deserving.

The more compact farms formed by the enclosures were far more efficient and productive for the farmers and they did, in the first instance, give employment in the fencing of fields and in roadmaking. Nevertheless, Mr. Foster of Norwich, a Commissioner for twenty enclosures, lamented that he had been "accessory to the injuring of 2,000 poor people".

A growing population meant that more men were seeking employment and in winter there was an even greater scarcity of work on the land. In the past, threshing work carried out by hand in the winter, eased the situation to some extent but now farmers were introducing threshing machines thus labourers were concerned for their livelihood.  In North Walsham, as in many other areas, families sought the assistance of the Overseers of the Poor due to lack of work or to top-up wages that were too meagre to manage on.
In 1816 there were scattered protests against conditions in West Norfolk by agricultural labourers but it was in 1830 that more serious rioting took place in many agricultural districts. The trouble began in the summer of that year, first in Kent, Dorset and Wiltshire; in the late autumn it spread to many parts of Norfolk, including the North Walsham area. In addition to protest meetings there were outbreaks of violence, incendiarism and the destruction of threshing machines. Threatening letters to farmers and landowners, sometimes signed by a fictitious 'Captain Swing' led to these protests becoming known as the 'Swing Riots'.

On October 23rd a 'calamitous fire' broke out at the premises of Joseph Turner of Witton which destroyed a house, barn, stable and other outhouses as well as a stack of corn, a colt, 2 foals, 4 fat pigs, a quantity of fowls and a yard dog. The fire was believed to be an act of incendiarism but the culprit was not found.
Being fearful of more violence in the neighbourhood a meeting was held in North Walsham on the 20th November and is reported in the Town Minute Book. The Reverend T. W. Wilkinson took the chair and 43 people in and around the town attended. The meeting generally comprised members of the gentry, farmers and tradesmen. John Randell the ironmonger, Matthew Palmer, the publican, farmers John Sharpe, John Dade and John Wortley were amongst those present.

The minutes record:- "It is the opinion of this meeting that the labourers of this parish have long been in a very miserable and disturbed state which they have hitherto borne with exemplary patience and good conduct and that this meeting consider the wages of l/6d per day insufficient to maintain themselves and their families and are of the opinion that industrious men ought to receive such wages as will enable them to do so without subjecting themselves to the degradation of applying to the Parish Officers every week to have their wages made up out of Parish funds to furnish them the means of providing food for the existence of themselves and their children. It must be very galling to the feelings of an industrious man to become a pauper when, if a commensurate remuneration were paid him for his labour, it would be within his power to live without being bothersome to the parish. And this meeting considers that an advance of wages will not be very injurious to the occupiers as they are not obliged to pay in Poor Rates that which ought to be paid in wages. If this mode of payment were adopted it must be very pleasing and satisfactory to the farmer to see his labourers happy and comfortable and himself in no worse situation than he was before, as he will find very great diminution of the Poor Rates. And it is to be hoped that the Land Proprietors and the Tithe Assessors will, upon receiving a copy of these resolutions, come forward and co-operate in this laudable undertaking."

The Resolution recommended that farmers should increase wages from l/6d. to 2/- per day for able-bodied men and the rates of pay for piece work should also be raised; for threshing wheat from 1/- to l/8d per combe; barley from lOd to 1/- per combe and for threshing oats from 8d to lOd per combe. It was considered that these rates would be adequate and that no financial help should be given by the Parish Officers to employed men unless they had more than four children. Unemployed men and those unable to work, should be found work by the Parish Officer and paid at the rate of 1/- a day for single men, l/4d if married and l/6d if married with one child, an extra 2d a day to be given for each additional child unable to work.

It would seem from the above that those present on the 20th November were not unaware of the suffering of labourers in the neighbourhood but the recommendations they made were too late to avert the trouble that followed, nor could a detachment of the First Royals sent to North Walsham at the request of the magistrates the following Tuesday prevent the violence which broke out. The Norfolk Chronicle, issued on the 27th November, reported that there had been considerable disturbance for three consecutive nights in the area when labourers assembled to protest about their condition and to break threshing machines which they considered a threat to their livelihood. The 'North Walsham Mob', which included men from the town and its vicinity, on the nights of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of that week destroyed the machinery belonging to the following farmers.- John Sharpe, Mr. Lacey and a Mr. Smith all of North Walsham. Mr Shepheard Taylor of Dilham, Mr. Buffin, Mr. Youngman and Mr Cubitt of Honing; Mr. Shepheard, Mr. Cole and Mr. Vincent of Happisburgh; Mr. Siely of Walcott; Mr. Shepherd of Crostwick and Mr. Hunt of Scottow. Damage was also occasioned to property at various other places along the coast.
On hearing of more violence taking place the magistrates who were sitting on Thursday 2nd December at North Walsham, set out themselves, together with the yeomanry and dragoons and met the mob at Honing. Colonel Wodehouse read the Riot Act and addressed the rioters "in a most conciliatory manner". According to the Norfolk Chronicle the men retreated on the arrival of the force and thirteen of the most formidable, armed with axes and large hammers, were arrested and marched to North Walsham; three more were captured and all were later taken to Norwich Castle Prison under escort of the dragoons and a large number of yeomanry. Meanwhile, Archdeacon Glover and other gentry who had accompanied the magistrates to Honing went on to Southrepps with a detachment of dragoons to disperse a group of labourers who had assembled near the residence of the Archdeacon. One man, considered leader, was taken into custody and the others apparently departed without committing any acts of violence. Whilst Lord Suffield was addressing a large crowd of labourers at Gunton he was told of a group about to enter the Park to destroy the saw-mill. A military contingent was sent from North Walsham, a number of gentry and some of Lord Suffield's tenants also hurried to Gunton but the rumour proved untrue and no mob appeared. However the attacks continued in December, more property was damaged and more arrests were made.
In this period there was no regular police force to keep law and order thus on Friday the 3rd December Colonel Wodehouse, the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, and a committee of magistrates recommended that parishes should join together to form a mounted body of special constables so as not to rely on "extraneous support" from the yeomanry. The committee also advised a study of the state of the labouring classes stating that the best means of preventing tumultuous assemblages might be if men were to receive "equitable remuneration for their labours". It also recommendedthat threshing machines should be disused as a "friendly concession to public opinion". Colonel Wodehouse made it clear that the penalty for the destruction of machinery was death and that the committee could not hold out the hope of any extenuation of that punishment to persons who might be convicted of these crimes. The violence in the county ended as suddenly as it began; generally, all was quiet by late December.
Two hundred and ten cases were heard before the Quarter Sessions in 1831 as a result of the rioting and violent crimes which took place in many parts of the Norfolk countryside during the previous autumn. Seventy-seven cases were dismissed; nine were sent to a higher court and of the remainder, sentences ranged from transportation to imprisonment. Those arrested in the North Walsham area were amongst those who appeared before the Court. A James Copland was accused of breaking the threshing machine of John Sharpe of Heath Farm in North Walsham. Mr Sharpe stated before the Court that a large concourse of 500 to 600 men, women and children, together with 28 men, "all perfect strangers" came to his yard and broke his machines. He thought that the accused was the foremost but due to lack of evidence Mr. Evans for the prosecution, declined to go on with the case. Robert Cole, John Powley, John Fisher, William Wiseman, David Pye, George Smith and Richard Gilding were indicted for rioting at Honing and found not guilty but three others named Williamson, Armes and Brown on the same charge, were sentenced to three months imprisonment.

The judge, Mr. Sargeant Frere, before sentencing the men implied that the jury had failed to convict the others despite the case being proven, particularly against George Smith and David Pye.
At the following Sessions, in March, Richard Lockolds, aged 34 years, Josiah Davidson, aged 21 years old, David Davidson, 26 and Robert Hunt, 31 years of age, were arraigned on a charge of setting fire to sacks of cereals belonging to William Blake of Swanton Abbott in January. The jury found them not guilty. They were then charged with setting fire to a haystack, the property of Richard Ducker of Swanton Abbott. Hunt and David Davidson were acquitted; Lockolds and Josiah Davidson were found guilty, but Davidson was recommended to mercy. They were, however, both sentenced to death but Davidson was later reprieved. Lockolds, who was a weaver from Norwich, confessed to various other crimes including breaking into the houses of Mr. Wurr of Worstead and Mr. Main of Westwick and to attacking a Mr. Green with oil of vitriol. He claimed his career of crime had begun during a dispute between the manufacturers and the weavers and that "his mind had been poisoned by Carlisle and Cobbett". He was executed on Castle Hill, in Norwich, on the 9th April 1831. His body was returned to his home and was put on display at' a penny a look' which raised a considerable sum for his widow and family. He was buried at St. James churchyard attended by 12 bearers, his father, his wife and five small children along with a long train of "most respectably dressed" mourners.

Following the terrible events which took place in the autumn of 1830 many families left the Norfolk countryside. Between 1835 - 1837 over 3,000 people emigrated to America and Canada. The costs were mainly borne out of the
parish rates; it seems it was cheaper to pay for families to emigrate than to support them for any length of time. The Norwich Mercury advertised fares of £5 for adults and £2. 10s for children for sailings to America and there were special rates for groups. The "Penelope" which left Great Yarmouth in 1836 sailed with 196 emigrants on board, all of whom were reported to be "in good spirits". Other families left for industrial towns where work was easier to find and again many parishes paid their removal costs. A furnished house and a contract of work was also frequently guaranteed. Railway building also absorbed some surplus labour, although the railway was slow reaching across the county. No doubt families left the North Walsham area as many rural parishes in the vicinity began to decline in population.

In the early Victorian period it was believed that poverty could be avoided by self-help and sobriety and in North Walsham several Friendly Societies and 'thrift clubs' had been formed by the middle of the century. In January 1862 The Norfolk News carried an advertisement:-

Men & Youths, agricultural Labourers and the Working Class generally, within 7 miles of North Walsham, are invited to participate in the advantage of the above.
SENIOR MEMBERS 10/- per week sickness benefits for 12 months & medical benefits; JUNIOR MEMBERS 5/- per week etc., Senior members £10 at death, Junior Members £5 with advantages to widows and children   

No mention was made as to the amount of contributions to the scheme. Many families were, however, too poor to afford regular payments to such schemes, even if in work. George Edwards, born in Marsham in 1851, recounted his childhood poverty and how, with his family, he spent several months in the workhouse during a period when they were unable to provide for themselves.

It was not until the Acts of 1869 & 1871 that doubts as to the legality of Trade Unions were finally removed.  Following this, various groups of workers amalgamated; the expansion of the railway and the penny post assisted the formation and activity of the unions. The most successful Agricultural Workers' Union was that formed by the dissenting minister, Joseph Arch of Warwickshire, in 1872. Within six months 150,000 men had joined and a branch of the Union was formed in Norfolk. . Small local strikes were organised in the area during 1874 demanding higher wages and better working conditions.  The Norfolk Chronicle reported "we are sorry to have again to report serious strikes among the agricultural labourers. The Unions confess that they are not strong enough at present for a general strike, so order a few isolated 'turn-outs'. If employers can find hands enough to work their horse and tend their stock they could with the greatest of ease lock out the labourers for six weeks or two months". Farmers in the area formed the "Farmers Mutual Labour Association"(their motto 'Defence not Defiance') and retaliated by advocating the locking-out of all striking workers. However, not all farmers and landowners were unsympathetic and Lord Stradbrooke convened a county meeting for the purpose of establishing a labourers benefit society, stating that many old industrious labourers landed up in the workhouse. He stressed the importance of assisting the labouring classes "to
provide for themselves a comfortable maintenance in sickness and provision for old age".
A number of letters appeared in the local papers from members of the F.M.L.A., condemning the unions and, in particular, their leaders. On August 7th 1874, in reply to these letters, one from the North Walsham Branch of the Farm Labourers' Union was published:-

"Dear Sir,
I hope that none of our members will take notice of the foolish statements made by some farmers in reference to our Union, as they are false and now that the harvest has begun we hope that farmers will find something to engage their attention more profitable than wasting their time by running to their workmen to read, 2 or 3 times a day the scurrilous reports in reference to our Union    George Pilgrim, Secretary."

Assisted passages granted to Farm Labourers, Ploughmen, Shepherds, Gardeners, Mechanics etc., Free Passages to Female Domestic Servants for whom there is a great demand in the Colony. Land Orders for 40 acres given to those paying their own passage.Land can also be acquired at 5/-, 10/-, and 15/- per acre, payable in 10 annual instalments   
(Norfolk Chronicle, 1874)

A series of lock-outs organised by farmers in the area was successful and the Unions dropped their demands and instead diverted their funds to assist passages to Australia, Canada, and America. A letter to the local press in April 1874 attempted to dissuade labourers from leaving "their present masters" to go overseas saying there was no farmer in England" whom he would not elect to serve" in preference to Canadian farmers. Nevertheless, another wave of emigration took place in the period of agricultural depression which followed.
It was during the 1870's that other serious problems arose both for farmers and labourers which led to the depression. Severe droughts and cattle disease affected many areas and this was followed by imports of cheaply produced grain so that local farmers had to cut their price in order to compete. Moreover, grain imports increased during the next two decades and prices fell further. Being a cereal-growing county this hit Norfolk farmers badly. Wheat sold at market at an average price of 55s.9d per quarter in 1874. In 1880 it was fetching only 41s. 6d a qtr at North Walsham Corn Market; by 1888 the price had fallen to 29s. 8d. and by 1893 farmers selling their wheat at North Walsham were only able to get 25s. lid. per quarter - thus the price had fallen by more than half since 1874 and it was the same elsewhere in the county. Increasing imports of meat and dairy products also resulted in a fall in prices for these goods.

Many Norfolk farmers sought rent reductions and a number of farms became vacant; landlords were, therefore, also hit by the depression. Slowly adjustments in cropping were made, less corn was produced and in the vicinity of North Walsham fruit-growing developed. Cut-backs on labour were made and an exodus once again took place from many villages in Norfolk. Some men went overseas and some to industrial areas. Indeed, in the early part of this century there was, in some districts, a scarcity of labour as so many men had left the land.

In the last decade of the 19th century interest amongst the agricultural workers for unionism revived but problems of finance and opposition persisted. Enthusiasm in this area was largely due to the exertions of a group of men and, in particular, George Edwards, their leader. George Edwards, like Joseph Arch and a number of other active members, was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher. Some of these dedicated men were unable to read or write but preaching gave them confidence to address meetings. It was at a meeting, arranged by George Edwards and his associates, held at The Angel Inn, in North Walsham on July 6th 1906, that the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers' & Smallholders' Union was formed. This later became part of The National Union of Agricultural Workers.

Norfolk Chronicle 1832 -1836; 1874. Norwich Mercury 1836
The East Anglian 1831; Norfolk News 1862
White's 1845 Norfolk Directory, William White.
A General View of the Agriculture of Norfolk, A. Young, London 1804
From Crowscaring to Westminster, G. Edwards, 1922.
Captain Swing, E.J. Hobsbawn & G. Rude, 1969
Sharpen the Sickle! Reg Groves, London, 1948
The Royal Commission on Agriculture, Norfolk Report, 1895. N.L.S.L.
North Walsham Town Books, Parish Papers.