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The Destruction of the Rural Economy

William Cobbett hated the poverty experienced by the agricultural labourers. In this extract, he describes the changes in the rural economy and their effects on the labourers.

Reigate, Thursday evening, 20 October 1825.

Having done my business at Hartswood today about eleven o'clock, I went to a sale at a farm, which the farmer is quitting. Here I had a view of what has long been going on all over the country...

Everything about this farm-house was formerly the scene of plain manners and plentiful living. Oak clothes-chests, oak bed-steads, oak chests of drawers, and oak tables to eat on, long, strong, and well supplied with joint stools. Some of the things were many hundreds of years old. But all appeared to be in a state of decay and nearly of disuse. There appeared to have been hardly any family in that house, where formerly there were, in all probability, from ten to fifteen men, boys , and maids; and, which was the worst of all, there was a parlour! Aye, and a carpet and bell-pull too! One end of the front of this once plain and substantial house had been moulded into a 'parlour'; and there was the mahogany table, and the fine chairs, and the fine glass, and all as bare-faced upstart as any stock-jobber in the kingdom can boast of. And there were the decanters, the glasses, the 'dinner-set' of crockery ware, and all just in the true stock-jobber style. And I dare say it has been 'Squire Charington and the Miss Charingtons; and not plain Master Charington and his son Hodge and his daughter Betty Charington, all of whom this accursed system has, in all likelihood, transmuted into a species of mock gentlefolks, while it has ground the labourers down into real slaves. Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work-people, as they did formerly? Because they cannot keep them upon so little as they give them in wages. This is the real cause of the change. There needs no more to prove that the lot of the working classes has become worse than it formerly was. This fact alone is quite sufficient to settle this point. All the world knows, that a number of people, boarded in the same house, and at the same table, can, with good food, be boarded much cheaper than those persons divided into twos, threes, or fours, can be boarded. This is a well-known truth: therefore, if the farmer now shuts his pantry against his labourers, and pays them wholly in money, is it not clear, that he does it because he thereby gives them a living cheaper to him; that is to say, a worse living than formerly? Mind he has a house for them; a kitchen for them to sit in, bed rooms for them to sleep in, tables, and stools, and benches, of everlasting duration. All these he has; all these cost him nothing; and yet so much does he gain by pinching them in wages that he lets all these things remain as on no use, rather than feed labourers in the house. Judge, then, of the change that has taken place in the condition of these labourers! And, be astonished, if you can, at the pauperism and the crimes that now disgrace this once happy and moral England.

The land produces, on an average, what it always produced; but, there is a new distribution of the produce. This 'Squire Charington's father used, I dare say, to sit at the head of the oak-table along with his men, say grace to them, and cut up the meat and the pudding. He might take a cup of strong beer to himself, when they had none; but, that was pretty nearly all the difference in their manner of living. So that all lived well. But the 'Squire had many wine-decanters and wine-glasses and 'a dinner-set' and a 'breakfast-set' and 'desert-knives'; and these evidently imply carryings on and a consumption that must of necessity have greatly robbed the long oak table if it had remained fully tenanted. That long table could not share in the work of the decanters and the dinner set. Therefore, it became almost untenanted; the labourers retreated to hovels, called cottages; and instead of board and lodging, they got money; so little of it as to enable the employer to drink wine; but the, that he might not reduce them to quiet starvation they were enabled to come to him, in the king's name and demand food as paupers ...

This is not only the natural progress, but it has been the progress in England. The blame is not justly imputed to 'SQUIRE CHARINGTON and his like; the blame belongs to the internal stock-jobbing system. There was no reason to expect, that farmers would not endeavour to keep pace, in point of show and luxury, with fund-holders, and with all the tribes that war and taxes created. Farmers were not the authors of the mischief; and now they are compelled to shut the labourers out of their houses, and to pinch them in their wages, in order to be able to pay their own taxes; and, besides this, the manners and the principles of the working class are so changed, that a sort of self-preservation bids the farmer (especially in some counties) to keep them from beneath his roof.

I could not quit this farm-house without reflecting on the thousands of scores of bacon and thousands of bushels of bread that had been eaten from the long oak-table which, I said to myself, is now perhaps, going, at last, to the bottom of a bridge that some stock-jobber will stick up over an artificial river in his cockney-garden. "By --- it shant", said I almost in a real passion, and so I requested a friend to buy it for me ....

William Cobbett: Rural Rides (1969 edition), pp. 226-229

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