- The English Rural Poor, 1850–1914
There is no shortage of documentary material dealing with rural labouring lives in Victorian and Edwardian England. Indeed Mark Freeman has written comprehensively about a strand of this literature in his recent monograph on social investigation in rural England.1 In the volumes under review he provides some [End Page 498] of these primary sources in a five volume facsimile collection, The English Rural Poor, 1850-1914. In some respects it is an unenviable task. Inevitably critics will question the time span (why not begin in 1780, 1800, or 1830?), the collection's inclusiveness (where are the oral histories, the autobiographies, emigrants' letters, the newspaper accounts, the diaries and memoirs, the medical and health reports, the court records, poor law documents, folk songs, art and photography, the literary representations!), and the absence of anticipated names (the Morning Chronicle, George Sturt, Christopher Holdenby, F.G. Heath, H. Rider Haggard, Charles Booth, Joseph Ashby and Bolton King, Joseph Arch, Alexander Somerville, Edwin Grey, Walter Rose, A.D. Hall). There may be observations that this collection dealing with the "rural poor" is actually about the agricultural labourer (the two overlap but are not synonymous).
To some extent, the publishers and editor have anticipated such criticisms. Experts will never agree on the starting and end points for a collection of this type; the coherence of the time period is a documentary focus on the "problem of the rural poor". The predictable classic texts are excluded precisely because of their predictability: they are available elsewhere. However, only some of the potential objections are countered and it remains true that the editor's selection is heavily influenced by both the agenda of his previous work (late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social investigation) and a preoccupation with organized labour. While he has cast his net wide in an attempt to deal with the north and women as well as the south and men, and includes the impressive sociological surveys of the early twentieth century as well as Royal Commission material from the 1860s and 1890s, there is a noticeable focus on the political tract and pamphlet, and the "Revolt of the Field" in the 1870s has a whole volume. We learn relatively little about non-union forms of protest, household strategies, the work of women and children, health, leisure, religion and folk beliefs, and, rather strangely, given the title of the collection, and apart from the important early twentieth-century surveys in Volume 5, poverty.
Yet it remains a meticulously edited and extremely useful series of texts. Volume 1: The Moral and Material Condition of the Mid-Victorian Rural Poor contains Freeman's wide ranging and authoritative introduction, as well as printed accounts from the 1850s through to the 1870s, including Tremenheere's survey of the agricultural gangs. Volume 2: The "Revolt of the Field" deals exclusively with the union unrest of the 1870s, and has the rules of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union, some interesting hymns, and a marvellously sarcastic catechism for non-unionised farm labourers—"I must dedicate myself, my wife, and my children to the service of the landowners and farmers; follow their will and pleasure in all things..." (Vol. 2, p. 408.) Volume 3: Life on the Land: the 1880s contains Thomas Hardy's essay on the Dorsetshire farm labourer as well as pieces by Augustus Jessop and Richard Jefferies, not, it has to be said, two of the most astute commentators on the rural poor. Volume 4: Life on the Land: the 1890s has interesting material on the agitation for labouring land in the 1890s, including a pamphlet on the Red Van campaign. It also reproduces extracts from the Royal Commission on Labour and Wilson Fox's report on the wages and earnings of agricultural labourers. Volume 5: The Edwardian Rural Poor contains some relatively neglected masterpieces: Mann's "Life in an Agricultural Village" (1905), Davies's Life in an English Village (1909), and Rowntree's The Labourer and the [End Page 499] Land (1914). These sociological classics are almost...