Farming in 1901

Rider Haggard’s book “Rural England”, was written in 1901. He travelled all over the country to collect his information. The book starts with a long and detailed discussion about farming in England generally. Then he deals with each county individually, including Essex. I have included below, the part which talks about Witham, and particularly about the Strutts and the Lapwoods, very different families. Although Lord Rayleigh and the Strutts were based in Terling, four miles away, they owned a lot of land in Witham, including Blunts Hall, and held office in many organisations which included Witham.

Hon. Charlie Strutt
[pp.456-457. He lived at Blunts Hall, in Witham, and farmed there.]
“A very typical Central Essex farm of the better sort was that of our host in that district, the Hon. C. H. Strutt, the well-known and able member of Parliament for the Maldon Division. Mr. Strutt held some 320 acres, whereof a fair proportion was grass, at Blunts Hall, the property of his brother, Lord Rayleigh, and kept a herd of cows, the milk of which he sent to London.

In addition to the ordinary Eastern Counties crops, such as wheat, barley, and clover-ley’, he grew eating-peas for market, and, as is not unusual in these parts, various sorts of seeds. Thus in 1901 he had a field of radish seed, which was drilled in April and cultivated in the same fashion as mangolds – by cutting out, singling, hand and horse hoeing. Twenty bushels per acre, which should realise from £16 to £20, is a good return from this crop. The greatest enemies to the successful growth of radish seed are the small birds, especially those of the linnet tribe, which, notwithstanding any amount of scaring, will sometimes consume as much as half the yield.

Another piece was planted with swedes for seed. These swedes are sown in August in beds and dibbled out about November. Twenty-four bushels of the seed, worth from 13s. to 16s. a bushel, is a good crop per acre. This seed is collected just before corn harvest, and its foe is canker at the root, which causes the affected plants to fall over. Some growers say that this crop will do as well if it is drilled and cut out in the usual fashion, which saves the labour of dibbling-in the plants from the seed-bed. Part of Mr. Strutt’s field had been treated thus, but certainly this drilled portion did not look so well as the rest. It may be, however, that the difference was caused by that section of the land being higher and more droughty than the lower stretch, which overlies a damp bottom – at least so he seemed to think. At any rate the experiment was by no means conclusive.

A third field was given up to eating-peas of an early, dwarf variety, which grows without support. Of these peas, whereof many truck-loads are sent away daily during the season from Witham Station, a hundred bags, or 300 bushels, are considered a good crop per acre, but the earliest varieties seldom produce more than fifty bags. Their value varies very much: it may begin at 15s. a bag, or even more, and afterwards fall so low that the price realised will scarcely suffice to pay brokerage and railway charges.

Like most of the surrounding land, Mr. Strutt’s farm was suffering severely from drought at the time of my inspection; indeed, he stated that he never remembered to have seen it look worse, not even in the black year of 1893. This, however, was not his fault, but that of the season, and of the lack of rainfall, which for some years past had afflicted Essex so severely that, as I noticed in many places, the trees were dying in great numbers. Night after night and week after week the clouds gathered – ‘Essex shows’ is the local name for them – only to belie their promise and carry the moisture with which they were charged to some more favoured spot. ‘It never do rain in Essex now,’ said one despairing farmer to me, ‘and I begin to think it never will.’ So far as the cultivation and management of Mr. Strutt’s land were concerned, I do not see how they could be improved upon, and I am glad to be able to add that the financial results had on the whole, proved as good as could be expected in these times.”

John and Ann Lapwood
[pp. 458-459]
“Not far from Blunts Hall I saw an old labourer named John Lapwood, whose life experience, which I verified by inquiry, is worth preserving. For half a century or more he worked on the Post Hall [Powers Hall] and Oliver Farms in Witham, and now, by the help of some kind friends, was spending his last days in a little cottage, where he lived with his old wife. We found him – an aged and withered but still an applecheeked individual – seated upon a bank, ‘enjoying of the sweet air, although it be a bit draughty.’

He told me that in his young days wages for horsemen used to be down to 9s, a week, and for daymen to 8s., when the weather allowed them to be earned. During the Crimean War bread cost him a shilling a loaf, and other food a proportionate price. He stated that for months at a time he had existed upon nothing but a diet of bread and onions, washed down, when he was lucky, with a little small – beer. These onions he ate until they took the skin off the roof of his mouth, blistering it to whiteness, after which he was obliged to soak them in salt to draw the ‘virtue’ out of them. They had no tea, but his wife imitated the appearance of that beverage by soaking a burnt crust of bread in boiling water.

On this diet he became so feeble that the reek of the muck which it was his duty to turn, made him sick and faint; and often, he said, he would walk home at night from the patch of ground where he grew the onions and some other vegetables, with swimming head and uncertain feet.

I asked if his children, of whom there were eight, lived on onions also. He answered no; they had generally a little cheese and butter in the house, but he could not put it into his own stomach when they were hungry and cried for food. ‘Things is better now,’ he added.

Well, things are better now; indeed, it is scarcely too much to say that in many cases to-day, the labourer has more than his share of the rather plumless agricultural cake. But with such a record behind him, knowing what his fathers suffered, is it wonderful that he should strive to drive home the nail of opportunity, and sometimes to take advantage of the farmers who in the past too often were so merciless ?

Let us try to understand his case and be just. Think, for instance, of this poor man Lapwood, whose condition was but that of ten thousand others, day by day forcing his hated food into a blistered mouth, starving that his children might be full. Think of him with his 9s. a week, and ten souls to feed, house, and clothe, while bread stood at a shilling a loaf. Remember, too, that from this lot there was no escape; that labour was in overflowing supply; and that to lift his voice against an employer, however tyrannous, meant instant dismissal and the hell of the poor-house – it was little better in those days – or the roadside ditch to lie in.

Is it strange that, remembering these things, he – or rather his sons – should wax fat and kick, that they should be haunted also by the fear that the evil might return upon them, and bear in their hearts resentment, cloaked but very real, against those classes at whose hands they received that evil of which no subsequent kindness can obliterate the memory ? With the agricultural labourer, as I believe, this resentment against past suffering, at any rate as yet, is deeper than gratitude for present benefits. Indeed, gratitude is scarcely his strong point. Thus, to take the example of the family of this very man, I was informed that those children for whom he starved, did not do all they might to make his last days easy.


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