The Farthest Promised Land — English Villagers, New Zealand Immigrants of the 1870s
2 The Village World and the Labourers' Revolt
2 The Village World and the Labourers' Revolt
ENGLAND'S FARM LABOURERS had been coveted by New Zealand right from the founding of the colony, but repeated endeavours had failed to recruit them in anything like the numbers desired. Genuine agricultural labourers formed too small a proportion of the assisted emigrants which the New Zealand Company sent out in the 1840s as the pioneer settlers of its new colonies.1 When the New Zealand provincial governments from time to time entered the immigration field in the 1850s and 1860s, they found that agricultural labourers were the ‘most difficult to get and the most difficult to move when they are got at’.2 A strong flow of immigration was an essential element in Vogel's ambitious plans of 1870, and some members of parliament were hopeful of a large importation of the bone and sinew of rural England. Others were sceptical. One maintained that past history had disproved the assumption that with enough pain and care ‘labourers well accustomed to hard and agricultural labour’ could be recruited from the country parts of England.3 He reminded the House that the Government had sent home excellent agents in 1863, when a military settlement scheme was being launched, and these agents had taken great pains and care, yet they had failed to get the class of men desired.
We must now examine the village world of rural England over these earlier decades, in order to gain some understanding of these labourers who were in such demand in this new community on the far side of the world. We need also to understand why they were so undervalued in the land of their birth. Why, too, were New Zealand's raw colonials so convinced that the English rural labourer could better himself by forsaking ‘England's green and pleasant land’ for the lonely emptiness of their treeless plains and the blackened ugliness of their bush-burn forest clearings? And why was it that after decades of ill-rewarded wooing, New Zealand suddenly found herself to be the ‘promised land’ of many an English village, with farm labourers flocking to her shores in their thousands. A large part of the answer to these questions lies in the conditions which led to, and the consequences which flowed from, the great Revolt of the Field which broke upon English rural society in 1872 and stirred a score of counties to the core. The name of Joseph Arch, the Warwickshire hedgecutter who spearheaded the movement, was soon a household word in Britain, and New Zealand's fortunes were so closely linked with rural England that in a very short time it was scarcely less well known in that distant colony. By October 1873 her premier was writing of ‘the high character both for ability and for unflinching honesty of purpose which Mr. Joseph Arch enjoys, the reputation for which is widely current throughout the page 19 Colony’.4 Joseph Arch was 45 when he emerged from obscurity to lead the Revolt, and this was the very age which Featherston had set a month or two earlier as the upper limit for the recruitment of married men for assisted passages to New Zealand. We will therefore briefly outline Arch's earlier life against the broad context of English rural society, with special attention to the general fortunes of his class, and thereby give both some account of the origins of the Revolt, and a sketch of the making of the villagers who were to become New Zealand immigrants.
Joseph Arch was born in November 1826 in the South Warwickshire village of Barford, the son of an agricultural labourer.5 His parents were living with his maternal grandmother, in her freehold cottage, which she and her late husband had been able to buy over thirty years earlier, when he was working as a skilled hedger and ditcher on the Earl of Warwick's estate. This cottage and its large garden were priceless assets in the life of Joseph Arch, giving him advantages enjoyed by very few of his class. With a freehold home, his parents (particularly his mother), were able to develop an independent attitude, and speak their minds, while so many of their class were blackmailed into servility and silence by the fear of eviction. In due course, inherited by Joseph, the cottage was one of the assets which made it possible for him to take the lead in the Revolt.
The wages of Joseph's father, John Arch, never rose above ten shillings a week, and it was a saving of perhaps three pounds a year in rent, together with the produce of their large garden, which enabled the family to escape the humility of soup kitchen charity, and the degradation of poor law relief, to which many of their neighbours were reduced every winter. Nevertheless, Joseph's parents paid a price for the independent line which they followed and taught to their children. In his autobiography6 Joseph tells of a duel between his mother and a despotic parson's wife, following the latter's issuing of a decree that all girls at the village school were to have their hair cut round like a basin. For refusing to allow her two daughters' hair to be cut, Hannah Arch was subjected to petty persecution, and never forgiven. Joseph also records that in 1835 his father refused to sign a petition in favour of the Corn Laws, and for this was thrown out of work for four months. Hannah proceeded to support the family by working as a laundress.7 The significance of this determined independence of spirit will become more apparent if we examine the social and economic world of the farm labourer of the 1820s and 1830s.
Rural England in the nineteenth century presented to the world a unique social arrangement in the three-tiered system of landlord, farmer, and landless labourer. Throughout the rest of the world the bulk of the rural population owned or occupied the land they tilled — in other words, they were peasants. If many of them were peasant serfs, this merely meant that they were obliged to meet feudal obligations of work on their lord's property, as well as farming their own holdings. But in England most of the land was owned by the gentry, rented by the farmers, and worked by landless labourers. This pattern was the product of the centuries, but it had page 20 become more marked and widespread in recent times, partly through the continued decline of the yeoman, the owner-occupier of a small holding, who formed an intermediate class, and partly through the further extension of enclosures of open fields, commons and wastes, which removed the labourers' claims of property in the land. A combination of social and economic changes had, since the middle of the eighteenth century, turned the majority of village labourers into servile, demoralised men. The measured words of Professor Hobsbawm are not too strong to describe the tragedy of this transformation:
It is difficult to find words for the degradation which the coming of industrial society brought to the English country labourer; the men who had been ‘a bold peasantry, a country's pride’, the sturdy and energetic ‘peasantry’ whom 18th century writers had so readily contrasted with the starveling Frenchmen, were to be described by a visiting American in the 1840s as ‘servile, broken-spirited and severely straitened in their means of living’ … From that day to this those who observed him, or who studied his fate, have searched for words eloquent enough to do justice to his oppression.8
The causes of this degradation were complex, and included the effects of enclosures, the destruction of cottage industries by the Industrial Revolution, the effects on the village community of the counter-revolutionary stance of England's ruling class in the age of the French Revolution, and the economic and social consequences of the appearance of a surplus of rural labour. The enclosure movement of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which affected something like a quarter of the cultivated acreage of England, has been the subject of much debate. On the positive side, it undoubtedly led to widespread improvement in farming efficiency, a large increase in food production, and increased employment, both through the extension of the cultivated area, and of the acreage in labour-absorbing crops. Allegations that the legal processes of enclosure were commonly a mockery of justice are not supported by careful modern research.9 Nevertheless, it is clear that enclosure represented a destruction of much of the traditional culture of English peasant society. A community of cooperative self-help, governed in a paternalistic spirit, with avenues by which the lowest villager might rise in the social and economic scale, gave way to a rural society in which the rich grew richer while acknowledging only minimal obligations to their increasingly pauperised labourers. Before enclosure, a cottager with a pig or two, a cow and some poultry, on the common, and the right to gather firewood, could maintain a certain measure of economic independence. After enclosure he was purely a dependent wage labourer. The steady decay of cottage industries in the face of the Industrial Revolution accentuated this dependence. To these economic forces, was added the political ideology of the ruling class, fearful of the spread of ideas from France, to whom increased dependence was a means of social discipline. Once the growth of population led to a labour surplus, it was the labourer's last ‘inheritance’, the poor-rates, which completed his degradation. When, in 1795, the Berkshire magistrates page 21 meeting at Speenhamland decided to subsidise low wages from the rates, they unwittingly initiated a system which for forty years was to obliterate the distinction between worker and pauper, by relieving the farmers of the necessity of paying a living wage. Among its injustices were the subsidising of the large farmers' wage bill by the smallholder, and the reduction of all labourers to the same subsistence level, no matter how much or little work they performed. Tied to the parish of his birth by the Act of Settlement, ‘farmed’ as a pauper by the Speenhamland system, dependent for his cottage on the whim of its owner, it is not to be wondered at that many a rural labourer became a spectacle of abjection.
Yet not all submitted tamely to their fate. The most notable movement of protest was the ‘Swing’ riots, which swept over southern and eastern England in the autumn and winter of 1830–31, when Joseph Arch was a toddler of 4 years.10 The riots were aimed mainly at the destruction of threshing machines, which were depriving villagers of much of their winter labour, but there was also widespread arson of ricks and barns. Many employers received threatening anonymous letters demanding higher wages, usually crudely written, as few rural labourers were literate. Some were signed ‘Captain Swing’, and from these the riots have taken their name. The movement was unplanned, its spread across England was largely by word of mouth, and its organisation scarcely went beyond the gathering of local village mobs. Yet it aroused deep fears in the ruling class. The government sent troops to quell the disorders, and meted out brutal punishments. Nineteen rural workers were executed, nearly five hundred transported to Australia, and hundreds more imprisoned.
The Swing riots have their link with the founding of New Zealand, for among those who over these months nightly watched the ricks and barns of East Anglia going up in flames, was Edward Gibbon Wakefield. His pamphlet Swing Unmasked vividly depicts the suffering villagers:
What is that defective being, with calfless legs and stooping shoulders, weak in body and mind, inert, pusillanimous, and stupid, whose premature wrinkles and furtive glance tell of misery and degradation. That is an English peasant pauper; for the words are synonymous. His sire was a pauper, and his mothers milk wanted nourishment.11
Wakefield, and his fellow colonial reformers saw planned emigration as the logical solution to the problems and discontent of rural England. The Swing riots strengthened their case, and also, their resolve.
The riots also had their consequences for rural education, and thereby had some part in preparing the way for the very different rural revolt of the 1870s. Over the years following the ‘Swing’ riots the propertied class, disturbed by the increasing restlessness of the urban proletariat, and fearful that city and country side might one day rise in unison, turned to education as a means of social control. ‘On one point at least, Anglican, dissenter and secularist alike could agree,’ writes John Hurt. ‘The building of more schools would help to prevent the social unrest of the day from escalating into widespread revolution.’12 Mainly on the local initiative of the page 22 Anglican clergy, and with the guidance and support of the Anglican National Society, schools now multiplied rapidly throughout rural England. It was their sponsors' intention that they should teach subordination, but the literacy which they spread was in due course to prove an invaluable aid to Trade Union organisers, and emigration agents.
Joseph Arch was fortunate in that Barford had long had a school endowed to provide education for the children of the poor. For about three years, from the ago of 6, he attended school, and was taught by ‘as excellent a teacher as a poor boy could wish’ who saw that he learnt the rudiments of the three R's ‘so thoroughly that I never let them drop again.’13 But before he was nine he had to leave to start work bird-scaring at the wage of four-pence for a twelve-hour day.14 As Joseph grew to manhood, despite long working hours and frugal living conditions he continued a simple education at home, aided and encouraged by his mother. He spent much of his free time in reading, which included the Bible and Shakespeare. His social education was furthered by his membership of the village friendly society (which dated from 1832) and his association with Methodism, in which he followed his mother. Methodist preachers first appeared in Barford about 1840, holding meetings in a barn. Some years later Joseph became a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, a role in which he was able to develop the skills of public speaking, and also experience the working of a form of democratic organisation among the common people. By the time he emerged to lead the Union, he had been a Methodist preacher for twenty-five years, and claimed to have walked 7,000 miles to keep preaching appointments.15
In 1845 Joseph's mother died, and eighteen months later at the age of 20, he married Mary Ann Mills, the daughter of a carpenter in a nearby village. The young couple set up home in the Arch family cottage at Barford, caring for Joseph's father, and rearing six of the seven children who were born to them between 1847 and 1864. It was after the birth of their second child that Mary Ann was responsible for a decision which proved to be a major turning point of Joseph's life. As a labourer for the farmers of the neighbourhood he was earning only about eleven shillings a week, and Mary Ann told him she could not manage on this amount, averring that in the houses where she had previously worked as a domestic servant, ‘better food was given to the cats and dogs’, than she could afford for her family. Her suggestion that she should go out to work herself spurred Joseph to become a jobbing labourer, operating on contract.16 He had already proved that he could outwork the majority of his mates at such tasks as mowing and hedge-cutting, and he was to become a show champion in the latter craft. He soon demonstrated that he was a fast and proficient workman in a wide variety of rural skills, including ditching, fencing, ploughing, hurdle making and gate hanging.
From his piece-work contracts Joseph was able to bring home earnings which were often double his previous wage. To the freehold cottage was now added the second priceless asset of independent employment, for page 23 his reputation as a first-class contract worker meant that he could choose his jobs, rather than depend for his livelihood on a small group of local farmers. Joseph began to travel widely in search of good contracts, and came to know large areas of the Midland counties and parts of South Wales. These journeys broadened his understanding of rural England, and of the injustices inflicted on his own class. He travelled with many strange companions, often slept in barns and even under hedges to save money, yet employed gangs of up to twenty-five men on some of his contracts.17 From time to time on his travels he was invited to preach in the local chapels. In this and other ways he was becoming widely known and respected — another valuable asset when his days of leadership arrived.
We must now turn to consider how this rural world was faring in the 1850s and 1860s, while Joseph Arch was trudging along its lanes and working in its fields. These years have come to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ of English agriculture. The demand for food grew with the steady rise of population in the industrial cities, and England was still dependent on her own farmers for the bulk of her supplies. With heavy capital investment and increasingly skilled management, output rose almost as fast as the population, so that it is estimated that as late as 1868 no less than 80 per cent of the United Kingdom's food was home grown.18 Squires and farmers prospered as never before, but the labourers' share of the wealth they toiled to create increased very little. Socially, the country world remained a class-ridden hierarchy. ‘At the sight of the squire the people trembled’, Arch wrote. ‘He lorded it right feudally over his tenants, the farmers; the farmers in their turn tyrannised over the labourers; the labourers were no better than toads under a harrow.’19
We can deal briefly with the landed society of England, for the lives of aristocrats and gentry had little direct connection with those of the majority of the village labourers, important as they were in the general governance of the rural world. Their oligarchy was maintained by a firm grip on the leadership positions of county life, and a psychological dominance based on ritual and age-old custom.29 Thus the squire's attendance at church was part of his régime. In the ornate family pew surrounded by the memorials of his ancestors, he was a figure apart, of more than human dimensions in the eyes of more humble worshippers. To him they owed the obeisance of the curtsy and the touching of the forelock. He graced the more important of local occasions, and lent the prestige of his name to various local institutions, but in general he was too remote to be considered an important element of the villagers' common life. His influence reached them indirectly by way of his tenants, the farmers. And during the ‘Golden Age’ one aspect of this influence was an increased aping of the gentry life styles by the farmers.
Over these years the labourer was finding the farmer an increasingly remote and unsympathetic master. By the mid-century it had become the general rule that farmers took no part in the physical work of their farms,21 but their men, with long memories of the village past, resented this ‘kid page 24 glove’ approach to farming.22 Traditional perquisites of the farm labourer were withdrawn by masters who now cared more about their own money income and less about the welfare of the villagers.23 Old customs of social intercourse between masters and men were discontinued. Once the labourers had thought nothing of calling at the farmers' front doors, now they often found that they were unwelcome even at the back.24
We must examine the new life-style of the farmers a little more closely, to further our understanding of the deep pent-up bitterness it aroused in the labourers. Some farmers themselves gibed at the new way of life of their class. In discussing the social consequences of the enclosure in 1801 of the Berkshire parish of East Hendred, Lord Ernle quotes some lines from the manuscript farm-book of John Robey, a yeoman of East Hendred:
|Man, to the Plough||Man, Tally Ho!|
|Wife, to the Cow.||Miss, Piano|
|Girl, to the Yarn.||Wife, Silk and Satin.|
|Boy, to the Barn.||Boy, Greek and Latin.|
|And your rent will be netted.||And you'll all be Gazetted.30|
Joseph Arch records that his first employer, a fairly well-to-do farmer, was brought to grief through the extravagant manner of living that he was led into by the London lady that he married.31 But over the Golden Age many a farmer was able to ape the gentry without being ‘gazetted’. Meanwhile, their labourers began to wonder why such masters could not afford to pay a living wage. ‘We can look any day from our work and see them dash by with their carriage and pair and servants in livery’,32 wrote a Gravesend labourer, of the local farmers, when the question began to be openly posed, with the outbreak of the Revolt. Another Kentish labourer bluntly made the same point at a union meeting at Farningham early in the Revolt. ‘Most of the farmers and landowners,’ he remarked, ‘are now able to keep up great establishments, a pack of hounds, and a carriage and pair, while they pay their labourers barely sufficient to keep body and soul together.’33 These were grievances which Arch had heard muttered in fields and cottages through the years, and which in 1872 he and a host of others began to sound abroad in the land. What answer might be expected of these men? What were the farmers like at home and abroad?page 26
In the summer of 1876 Richard Grant White, a perceptive American observer, decided to pay his first visit to England, ‘where my forefathers had lived for about eleven hundred years.’34 He took particular interest in the everyday life of the English countryside, and by persistent endeavours was able to see a good deal of the inside both of cottages and farmhouses. He reported that he found the farmers ‘the most taciturn class in England’.35 They were, in fact, the only people he met who as a whole were silent and reserved. On reflection White decided that this silence might be due to the farmer's position. Knowing little more than the peasant, and able to talk but little better, he yet had a consciousness of his superiority which made him, in the presence of his betters, ashamed of his great mental inequality with them. White describes a typical farmhouse parlour, its only books a Bible and some kind of an almanac, its walls decorated with three or four ugly coloured prints of the cheapest kind, and remarks that the holder of a similar farm in New England or the Middle States would have received him more on a footing of equality, taken him into another sort of room, and had more to say in reply to his enquiries.36 White sums up the position of the farmers thus:
In truth, the English farmer is an aristocrat. He is willing to take his place in a system of caste, and to look up, if he may also look down. He will touch his hat to the squire, and think it quite right that people should be respectful to their superiors; and he is confirmed in this opinion, or rather this feeling, when Hodge touches his hat to him … I believe the farmers to be the most conservative body in the kingdom, the least disposed to change, and to be the main-stay of the tory party.37
White decided that, except in matters of horseflesh, the farmer did not seek to acquire the tastes or habits of a gentleman.38 He was content with his place in the social scale, he read little, and thought less. It was his wife and daughters who were often more ambitious. Richard Jefferies, himself a farmer's son of this period, has described how ‘Mademoiselle the Governess’ could transform the social outlook of the farmhouse, and effectively alienate the farmer from his own womenfolk.39 Thomas Hardy has described the same process at work in the relationship of Grace Melbury and her father, in The Woodlanders.
It would seem, then, that for all his prosperity, the farmer was in some ways a victim of the social changes that had come to the villages. Ill at ease in all but the more superficial relations with his social superiors, being led on something of a social dance by womenfolk who no longer shared his farming interests, he yet consoled himself in the companionship of his fellows, as he met with them in the institutions through which they together ruled their little world. Richard Jefferies has described how each of the country's agricultural districts functioned as ‘a little kingdom’, with its own capital city and well defined frontier line.40 In the market town ‘capital’ the informal ‘farmers' parliament’ met in their chosen inn to arrange concerted action in matters of common concern. Often such a district would have an Agricultural Association to sponsor an annual page 27 ploughing match and dinner, thus providing a day's holiday for the district's labourers, with an opportunity to exhibit their skills and receive rewards for long and faithful service, and a pleasant social evening for farmers and gentry. Through these institutions it was common for one or two leading farmers to establish the level of wages and working conditions for the district's labourers.41 Thus was the labourers' general welfare decided. At the level of individual needs and circumstances the farmers considered that the labourers' needs were met through their paternalistic consideration for their men, and the ‘good feeling’ which they maintained existed between master and man. The discovery that this ‘good feeling’ had so widely given place to bitterness and resentment came as a shock to the farmers when the Revolt broke upon them. The harshness of their reaction is the more understandable when we consider that as a class they already felt socially insecure before they learnt that they had lost the neighbourly respect which they expected as of right from their men.
Such then were Hodge's masters. We turn now to the fortunes of Hodge himself over these years in which Joseph Arch was being prepared in humble obscurity to become his champion. We note first that the ‘bold peasantry, their country's pride’, has descended in popular esteem to become the despised Hodge, the ignorant, spiritless clodhopper. This change for the worse in the tone and language of society's references to the village poor had already been noted earlier in the century by their champion, William Cobbett, who remarked on the increasing tendency for the labourers ‘to be spoken of by everyone possessing the power to oppress them in any degree in just the same manner in which we speak of the animals which compose the stock upon a farm. This is not the manner in which the forefathers of us the common people, were treated.’42 Even the urban trade unionist, infected by the condescension that the countryman has too often suffered from the town, came to think in similar times. The 1 January 1872 issue of the Beehive, a London trade union newspaper, printed an article on ‘The Agricultural Labourer’ which stated that ‘… In intellect he is a child, in position a helot, in condition a squalid outcast, he knows nothing of the past; his knowledge of the present is limited to the fields he works in.’43 In shrewdly-argued, well-disciplined protest, the rural labourers were almost immediately to give the lie to this caricature, but there was more truth in the writer's assertion that the farm labourer's ‘empty head and stomach, his smock frock and squalid cottage — all that is his — point reproachfully to those who own the broad acres of England or who preach in her churches.’
There is ample evidence that the villagers over large areas of England had frequent experience of an empty stomach. This was particularly the case in the ‘corn’ counties of the south and east of England. In this area the farms tended to be larger and the ratio of farm workers to farmers to be higher than in the ‘grazing’ counties of the north and west. It was the grain-growing south-east that had been swept by the Swing riots, and these counties also gave the strongest support to the Revolt of the Field. In the page 28 pastoral farming of the ‘grazing’ counties, the farmer hired many of his men by yearly agreement, so as to ensure constant care for his stock. To the advantage of secure regular income was added better social relations, for these men were looked upon as servants, not labourers, and for convenience in caring for livestock many of them were ‘indoor’ farm servants, that is, servants living in the farmer's home. But in the ‘corn’ counties the men had largely become day labourers, taken on as required, and turned off in large numbers in the slack times of the agricultural year, and when wet weather held up farm work. Income was therefore irregular, rising to its highest in the harvest season, together with further remuneration in kind, and falling lowest in winter, at which season villagers found it difficult to keep out of debt. Even at the best of times meat was a luxury, generally reserved for Sundays only. In hard times all that distinguished Sunday dinner was a little melted butter or grease on the potatoes. The monotony of a bread diet was relieved by soaking it in broth or spreading it with dripping. Toast water was the common substitute for tea.
Hunting and shooting were class sports which became more and more fashionable throughout the century. While the villagers craved for meat, they saw the wild creatures about them protected by the Game Laws to provide sport for their ‘betters’. Hunger and resentment drove many labourers to flout these class laws. The landowners built up an army of gamekeepers to protect their quarry, and rural J.P.s probably spent more time dealing with breaches of these laws, than with any other kind of offence. To Joseph Arch one of the greatest indignities imposed on the labourer was the Poaching Prevention Act of 1862, which gave rural police the right to search without warrant any person whom they suspected of poaching. In his autobiography Arch points out how vulnerable this Act made the labourer in the matter of customary perquisites. He himself when wood-felling and timber-cutting had always taken the customary perquisite of a basket of chips and dead wood. He now had to take the precaution of making this wood perquisite a matter of formal agreement between himself and his employer, so as to have a defence if he should be waylaid by a police officer in search of game. He records how two ‘respectable, honest, married women’ of his own village were accosted when returning from a day in the fields cleaning turnips. Following long-established custom, they were taking a few turnips home in their aprons, for their families. They were brought before the Magistrate at Warwick, and fined for stealing turnips.44 On the matter of poaching Arch gave his views to a Select Committee on the Game Laws, in 1873:
an honest labourer would think nothing of knocking over a rabbit in the day-time if he saw it and it came in his way; and neither should I. I don't see any harm in it because in my opinion ground game is wild. The plain truth is we labourers do not believe hares and rabbits belong to any individual, not any more than thrushes and blackbirds.45
But what the farm labourer thought on this or any other matter was of little concern to his rulers in the decades preceding the Revolt. Arthur Clayden, Arch's friend and supporter from Berkshire, was near enough to the truth when he described the farm labourer as ‘a social Pariah … the sport of circumstances and prey of parish-officers.’46 To complete our brief account of the life and circumstances of the village labourer, we will let Clayden give a glimpse of his declining years. To break the pernicious Speenhamland system, the 1834 amendment of the Poor Law grouped parishes into Unions which were to erect Union Workhouses, where able-bodied paupers would be sent for relief, rather than receiving it in their own homes. While this removed the worst evils arising from outdoor relief, it had bitter effects when the workhouse system was applied to the aged and others unable to work. On 18 January 1875, Arthur Clayden wrote to the Labourers' Union Chronicle giving an example of this:page 30
During the severe frost I was taking my constitutional along the highroad, when I met a white-headed old labourer slowly wending his way towards the town. Something in his pinched and withered look arrested my attention, and I stopped to speak to him. I found that he was on his way to the workhouse, leaving his venerable partner at home to keep the place against he came out by and bye. Nothing would the “guardians” allow him out, and so rather than starve he had bid his dear old partner “good-bye”, and was going into that poor man's purgatory — the workhouse. The owner of the land on which he had worked for more than half a century is worth over thirty thousand pounds a year, and farmer after farmer has he enriched by his toil. The clergyman of the little village where he lived gets eight hundred pounds a year, and preaches to a dozen people once a Sunday for it … put these facts together and you have the materials for a speech ten times more severe than has yet been uttered from a Union platform.47
Clearly, in his journeyings year by year through the countryside, Arch would have been presented with copious materials for a scorching indictment of the ordering of rural England. It was not for want of a case that the labourers stirred so little over these decades. We must now briefly survey the influences which had been at work among them to make possible their sudden and unexpected revolt. One was the slow but continuous spread of education and literacy. The quiet work of schools, chapels, reading rooms and circulating libraries had brought the day when newspaper reports and printed propaganda could be a potent force in arousing and organising the village labourer. The railways and the penny post had also helped to widen the horizon and raise the aspirations of the rural worker, as well as making it possible for active and determined leaders to create a ‘modern’ type of large-scale organisation embracing the common people of the broad countryside. The continued growth of village non-conformity, in itself an expression of protest against the existing social order, had been quietly finding and training the leaders for the Revolt, and giving the labourers experience in mutual action. By one means and another, also, the labourers were made aware that they had influential friends and advocates in other ranks of society. One such was Canon Girdlestone, who in 1862 moved from a high-wage parish in Lancashire to the low-wage parish of Halberton in North Devon. Shocked by the living conditions of men receiving only seven shillings to eight shillings a week, he tried to persuade the farmers to pay better wages, first by personal remonstrances, and then by a hard-hitting sermon preached during a cattle plague in 1866 on the text, ‘Behold the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle.’ The farmers' only response was anger and abuse, so Girdlestone turned to other methods. By publicising the labourers' conditions, first in a letter to The Times, he obtained the means to organise a regular system of migration from Devon to the high-wage districts of the north of England. A more wide-spread indication of public sympathy and support was provided for the labourers by the Royal Commission of 1867, on the employment of women and children in agriculture. Taking a wide view of its task, the Commission built up a comprehensive picture of rural labour conditions. page 31 In the course of its investigations, and from the resulting public discussions, the labourers discovered that they had many worthwhile friends.
The Revolt would appear to have been finally triggered by a setback to rising hopes among the labourers. Although, for propaganda purposes, their leaders maintained that the prosperity of the Golden Age had passed the rural workers by, research indicates that between 1851 and 1871 real wages had been rising, though by less than one per cent per year.48 The spread of chapels and branches of friendly societies are among signs of a general improvement in conditions, brought about by continued emigration from the countryside (both to the cities and overseas) leaving a considerably reduced labour force to handle more work. It seems that, at least at the busy seasons, the balance of advantage had shifted during the 1850s to favour the employee. Then, from the mid '60s on, returns from arable land fell, and wage rates, particularly in the ‘corn’ counties, came under strain. At this very time the labourer saw the economic advantages of a large family begin to disappear. In the ‘corn’ counties it was the farmers' practice to turn off single men first when winter came, to reduce the burden of poor relief. Early marriages and large families were therefore common. The children contributed to the family income from an early age. Children as young as 6 were put into public gangs, organised by gangmasters who contracted for certain kinds of farm work. Older children earned enough to provide the family with something of a security against starvation should the father fail to earn enough. But by the early 1870s the large family, especially of young children, was becoming a handicap. The Gangs Act of 1869 forbade the employment of children under eight in a gang, and in 1873 all employment of children under eight was forbidden. The 1870 Education Act created justified forebodings that children were to become an increasing liability, rather than an asset.49 This simultaneous trend to reduced wages, and loss of children's earnings gives added point to Joseph Arch's ironic grace, which had wide currency in the 1870s:
O Heavenly Father bless us,
And keep us all alive,
There are ten of us to dinner
And food for only five.
It was this dashing of recently raised hopes which caused the surge of anger that triggered the Revolt.
Over the hungry months of the winter of 1871–2 the discontent led to increased murmurings and talk of finding ways to assert their rights, among villagers in many parts of the country. In South Warwickshire, labourers in the village of Harbury, known locally as ‘Hungry Harbury’, made the first move, and held a public meeting to discuss asking for an advance in wages. Other villages began to stir, including Wellesbourne where, after a meeting or two, it was decided to call a larger meeting and get someone known and respected to come and speak and lead the movement. Three men were deputed to go to Barford to ask Joseph Arch to undertake the task. They went on Wednesday, 7 February 1872, a wet, miserable day, page 32 and found Arch at home making a box for his soldier son. Having heard their story, and satisfied himself that they were in earnest, Arch consented to speak at Wellesbourne that evening, and told them to book the club room at the Stag's Head Inn for the meeting.
Arch later confessed that he had many doubts and fears as he tramped the muddy road, between the dripping hedgerows, that evening. He was uncertain whether the scattered, depressed farm workers could be organised into an effective trade union, and he did not expect to find more than thirty or forty men gathered on that wet night at Wellesbourne. Instead he found the place ‘as lively as a swarm of bees in June’. By word of mouth news of the meeting had spread in a few hours to the neighbouring villages, and there were far too many people gathered for a meeting in the Stag Inn. It was held instead on the green outside, under the chestnut tree, with lanterns hung on bean poles for light. Arch spoke standing on an old pig-killing stool, and in his autobiography he describes the scene:
In the flickering light of the lanterns I saw the earnest upturned faces of these poor brothers of mine — faces gaunt with hunger and pinched with want — all looking towards me and ready to listen to the words that would fall from my lips. These white slaves of England with the darkness all about them, like the children of Israel waiting for some one to lead them out of the land of Egypt.50
The village labourers had found the prophet who could arouse and lead them, and take their case onto the national stage. Arch accepted their call as his destiny. ‘I felt,’ he wrote, ‘as if there was a living fire in me … There was a strength and a power in me which had been pent up and had been growing, and now it flowed forth.’51
He appeared to me then about forty years of age. He looked as if he had lived hard, and worked hard. He was of full middle height, with a strongly built frame, and a dark complexion: he was fluent in speech and strong in voice. When I first heard him speak — on the above Good Friday, at a public meeting at Leamington — I thought his speech the most heart-stirring and manly address I have ever heard delivered by a working-man.53
Carter had two interviews with Arch on emigration to New Zealand, on this occasion. However, Arch did not at this time favour emigration, as he felt it robbed the country of its most enterprising workers, and was sanguine that his movement could win its way by other means.
Meanwhile the Revolt had spread rapidly in the midland counties and southern England. In some places local stirrings had begun before Arch had come forward to lead the Warwickshire labourers, but many areas were first aroused by news of his vigorous initiative and brave words, spread abroad by the country's press. Appeals for a visit from Arch came from far and wide. The Warwickshire men decided that the time had come to form the rural labourers into a national trade union, and issued invitations to a conference which convened in Leamington on 29 May 1872. Representatives from twenty-six counties brought into being the National Agricultural Labourers Union. Joseph Arch was elected President at a salary of two pounds a week, Henry Taylor, a Leamington carpenter, was appointed paid secretary, and Matthew Vincent, proprietor of the Royal Leamington Chronicle, which had supported the labourers' cause from the start, became voluntary treasurer. An executive of twelve farmworkers was elected, and a consultative committee of gentlemen favourable to the principles of the union was also set up. Members were to pay an entrance fee of sixpence and a weekly contribution of twopence. page 34 The conference bore a strong resemblance to a religious revival, which is not surprising, since many of the delegates owed their presence at Leamington to their training as Methodist preachers. Speeches were punctuated with cries of ‘Amen’, ‘Praise Him’, and other devout utterances. One delegate said: ‘Sir, this be a blessed day: this 'ere Union be the Moses to lead us poor men up out o’ Egypt’ — and the imagery of the Exodus was to be drawn on again and again in the course of the Revolt.
Some district unions declined to send delegates to the conference, the most notable of these being the Kent (later Kent and Sussex) Labourers' Union and the Lincolnshire Labour League. The London Trades Council, which took a close interest in the Revolt, later endeavoured to bring the whole movement into unity, most notably at a conference at the Bell Inn, London, on 17 December 1872. These efforts failed, but in November 1873 most of the independent smaller groups combined loosely in a Federal Union. Unfortunately the Federal and the National acted more often as rivals than as partners in the cause of the rural labourers. At the height of the Revolt, the National claimed the allegiance of about two-thirds of the unionists. As an association, the Federal was never a great success, but one of its affiliates, the Kent and Sussex Labourers' Union, eventually proved to be the most successful and resilient element in the whole Revolt.
Given the predicament of the English farm labourer and the nature of his revolt, it is not surprising that the New Zealand authorities looked to the movement with such hope. Their new land was hungry for men accustomed to hard labour, and gifted in the rural skills. The best of England's farm labourers were demanding adequate food, decent homes, the chance to better themselves and secure a stake in the land, and the right to be treated with full respect as free men. All these the distant colony could offer to men of energy and determination. Almost simultaneously the New Zealand emigration drive and the union organisations of the Revolt began to reach out into the English rural world, to recruit the village labourer. It was inevitable that their fortunes should be intertwined.