Wednesday, 18 May 2011

“Working women and children in 1840s Felsham”

You may remember an article I wrote for Village News recently entitled: “Down on the allotments 170 years ago”.  It focussed on the life of a farm labourer’s family and described the importance of their allotment in providing wheat and fresh vegetables for themselves and their pig.
We meet this family again in my forthcoming booklet - Felsham village life in 1840 no. 2: The farm labourer and his family - in a section where I explore the employment of local women and children in agriculture.  This is an extract:

The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up.
He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S, and he hath set the world upon them. (1 Samuel 2: 7, 8)

In 1840 William Osborn and his wife Susan were about 30 years of age and had three children: Nero, aged 10, Christiana aged 8 and Eliza aged 4.  By 1844, another daughter was to be born, called Susannah.  They lived in The Street, probably in a house that was demolished later to make room for the new school.  During the 1840s the family would have depended heavily on the money that the wife and growing children could contribute to the household income.

William probably earned about 9 shillings [45p] a week.  Most of that would have been spent on buying bread and potatoes. Rent and fuel [coal and wood] would have been about 2 shillings a week.  Other items of weekly expenditure would have included tea, sugar, soap, thread, candles, salt, butter and cheese.  These items would have cost about three shillings to purchase from the local grocer on Upper Green.  How they found money to pay for shoes and clothing is anybody’s guess!  Would they have been dependent on charity?  On the good offices of the clergyman’s wife?

As the paltry income of the main bread-winner would have been insufficient to make ends meet, the earnings of the wife and children would have been vital.  So, what employment opportunities were available for women and children in Felsham at this time? 

December and January were very difficult months in which to find casual labour but during the rest of the year there would have been a succession of possible jobs.  The most common jobs involved clearing land, planting crops, hay-making and harvesting.  After the harvest, gleaning was a job traditionally carried out by women and children.  Some of the gleanings may have been used to feed the family chickens as well as providing supplementary grain to be ground into bread-making flour.

Harvesting by hand [detail] by Myles Birket Foster

Susan, the wife, could have earned from 6d to 10d a day doing field work when it was available. During hay-making and harvest time her daily earnings could reach the princely sum of 1/6d.  Good money could also be made, if she was prepared to walk down the Rattlesden valley towards Stowmarket where she could find work in the thriving hop-growing industry.  This provided important employment for labourers and their families during both growing and harvesting but also in ancillary occupations such as sack manufacture.  With Bradfield Woods and Thorpe Woods in close proximity to Felsham, Susan may also have been able to find work in various woodland trades such as broom making and basket making. 

Susan would also have been on the look out for jobs that she could do if she was confined to the house with babies and infants.  Looking after other labourer’s children, laundry work, caring for the sick, providing mid-wife services and even laying out bodies would have been possibilities.  The relatively large allotment would also have been demanding on time and energy.  The daughters, Christiana, Eliza and Susannah would have played an important role in helping their mother with her jobs, and then, after the age of 9 or 10, gaining casual work on the local farms. 

Newspapers of the time frequently commented on the “loose morals” of young unmarried women doing field work.  There were hints of prostitution and it was said that working in the fields contributed to the bastardy lists.  An examination of the Baptisms Registers for Felsham between 1835 and 1842 provides some corroboration for this.  During this period twelve children were baptised with the mothers described as “spinsters”.  These 12 children, “born out of wedlock”, comprised 10% of the total number of births in the village.

Nero, Susan’s son, may well have earned up to 2 shilling a week swinging a rattle and scaring birds off the crops; a rather lonely job which would have taken him to some of the most distant fields in the parish.  Boys like Nero would have worked from 8 to 12 hours a day depending on the work and the season. 

Idealized and sentimentalized image of bird-scaring boy

If he received any sort of schooling, it would have been haphazard and intermittent.  There was a schoolmaster living in the village in 1841 but there is no indication of how many children attended his classes or whether Nero and his sisters were among them.  Certainly, once Nero had started earning, he would have been absent from school for long periods, particularly in the summer.  It is quite possible that none of the Osborn children attended school.  The cost of education, at this time, could well have been beyond the reach of many labouring families.

At the end of a hard working day, the Osborn family would have sat down to a well-earned, if frugal meal, at about 6 or 7 in the evening.  Bread would have been the most important part of the meal, closely followed by potatoes and onions.  Meat would have been a very occasional luxury.  Cheese, green vegetables, butter and flour dumplings would have appeared on a regular basis.  Drinks consisted of tea, milk and less frequently beer.  William in hungry times may have been tempted, like many of his contemporaries, to filch a turnip from the farmer’s field or seize a pheasant or rabbit from the woods belonging to a local landowner.  However, if his allotment was productive these sorts of temptations would have receded as the decade progressed.

All the time, the labouring families of Felsham would have been aware of their lowly status, and of the harsh penalties that faced them if the strict property rules were infringed.  They would also have been aware of the fate that awaited them if they failed to be frugal and balance their meagre weekly budget. The Stow Union Workhouse beckoned the improvident and those that had fallen on hard times!  At the end of the day though, the Osborn family may well have taken comfort from the biblical beatitudes about the poor being blessed, or from passages like that from Samuel that began this account.


Sources of information:
  • David Dymond: "Suffolk in the 1840s: The employment of women and children in agriculture", Old Series - Volume 3 Issue 2 (Suffolk Local History Council, 2003)
  • John Glyde: "Suffolk in the 19th century", SIMPKIN MARSHALL & CO, c1860
  • K Handford: "The agricultural labourer in 19th century England", Grosvenor House Publishing, 2011
  • D Pocock: "Some former hop-growing centres", The Agricultural History Review [pdf file at]
  • A.S.: " Felsham in 1851", Felsham History Club

Please note: the first booklet and CD in the series FELSHAM VILLAGE LIFE IN 1840, which includes some of the main documentary evidence for this time, will be on sale in the village shop during June.