Saturday, 4 December 2010

“Down on the allotments 170 years ago”

The 1841 Census Return for Felsham mentions a farm labourer called William Osborn. We know he worked an allotment because there is a document that shows he rented a plot of land between October 1839 and October 1840.

My name is William Osborne and I live on The Street in Felsham. I am thirty years old and I have lived in Suffolk all my life. My wife is called Susan and she’s thirty too. We have three children. Nero, my son, is ten this year; Christiana, my eldest daughter is eight; while my youngest Eliza is only four.

I’ve had an allotment for a few years now. It’s a fair size being about a quarter of an acre and I try to get down there most evenings when it is fine. I grow mostly potatoes and wheat. Sometimes I grow barley instead of wheat. Peas, beans and cabbages also do really well. My wife and the children help out with the weeding and harvesting. I mostly do the planting and digging. I am not allowed to borrow a team of horses and a plough, I have to cultivate only using my spade. The trustees say that it keeps us agricultural labourers “gainfully employed” and out of mischief for longer.

The landowners and the rector get really worried if we start grumbling and that’s why they have given over some of their land to us ordinary poor folk as allotments. Ten years ago, during the Swing riots, there were a lot of incendiaries going out and about in Suffolk. Hungry farm labourers crept out at night setting fire to barns and hayricks. They desperately needed higher wages to feed themselves and their families. I sympathised with them but I had only just got married and we were busy setting up a home, so I stayed in at nights.

Nowadays, we are asked to spy on each other. We have to report any suspicious activity to the farmers. They are still very worried about their property getting destroyed. There is no doubt that a box of the new fangled “safety matches” makes starting fires much easier.

The farmers in Felsham didn’t like it when the Feoffees of the charity land gave us agricultural labourers our vegetable patches. They thought we should be working for them every blooming hour of daylight. Bloodsuckers! If it wasn’t for our benevolent Rector who insisted on going ahead with the allotment plan, my family would be on short rations. Without potatoes we would be very hungry indeed! Certainly, we would not be able to feed the pig which we keep in our back yard and which we slaughter just before Christmas.

Our pig is called Caesar. (Nero, my son, called him that after learning about the Roman Empire in the dame school). The children love to scratch his back and feed him with old cabbage leaves and potato peelings. The children help to clean his sty and carry the manure over to the allotment in my old wheelbarrow.

On the allotments everyone helps each other. The other day, my neighbour gave me a bucket of lime to sprinkle on my cabbage patch. I’ll probably give him some of the muck from Caesar’s sty later in the year. Everyone is really friendly. It can get quite lively on Guy Fawkes Night when we have a bonfire and burn up all those old pea sticks and bean poles. The children love eating the roast chestnuts and chase about having a riotous time. Afterwards, the men usually head for the Six Bells for a pint or two. The Rector doesn’t like us going in the public house or loitering on the street, but he always praises us if he sees us going home with a full basket of fresh vegetables! Of course, it is in the interests of the Rector and the other trustees to keep us busy and well-fed. The Poor rates would go up if we had “to go on the Parish!”

If anyone misbehaves on the allotment, like steals someone’s potatoes or tools, they will be in big trouble. The least that can happen is that they will be thrown off the allotment and not even allowed back to harvest their crops. The Rector sermons us every Sunday about behaving properly and living according to the Ten Commandments. He says things like: “Every labourer must endeavour through God’s help, to live in all things as becometh a Christian,” and so on and so forth. Me and the family have to go to the Church every Sunday – it is one of the conditions of renting the allotment. Talk about keeping us poor on the “straight and narrow”. We are not even allowed to work our allotment on a Sunday – it’s not “becometh of a Christian” you see!

It will soon be Old Michaelmas Day – the 11th October – then we will have to pay our annual allotment rent. Ten shillings! That’s a week’s wages! We try to save a bit each month to pay this, but on top of the rent for our small cottage it doesn’t leave us much to spend on “extras”. Even so, we get by. I wouldn’t give up my allotment for anything.”

For details of the documentary evidence for this imaginary description of a Felsham allotment holder in the first part of the 19th century, go to my blog at: