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Book Title:

The Good Old Days: Then and Now


The Good Old Days: Then and Now by S. Box

Published by: S. Box, The Firs, Marden, Hereford

Printed by: Reliance Printing Works, Halesowen, Worcs.

Chapter 14.

PRIOR TO 1912.


It would be wise, in order to understand the position of Agricultural workers: In the past he was a man with a certain amount of intelligence, which was developed and applied to the work on the land, as a farm worker was always a skilled workman, though rarely admitted as such by his industrial brothers, or even by the farmers, until after they had organised and aserted their right as skilled.


They also had a wealth of wit unknown to many, who often attempted to show their superiority by trying to expose and humble them in the presence of others. As for example: A farmer at Fromes Hill had three men cutting corn; he was taking some gentlemen round his farm, and to show them he was the master, said to the man doing the best work: " Now, Jim, keep that hook close to the ground." Jim stood up and offered the hook to the farmer, saying: " Here, Gaffer —show me how." The farmer annoyed, said: " You are very impudent. Do you know the first name they could think of for a sheep's head was Jimmy? " " Yes," the man retorted, " and they named the Pigs as Jack! " (Jack was the farmer's name). The visitors roared with laughter; you had best not try your wit on that man. Needless to say he was sacked.


I was present with several others having dinner, when the farmer came in and attempted to sneer one of the men to torment him. The man turned at last and said, timidly: " Say, Gaffer, got yud ache un chilblains same time; got summat to suffer, an't yuh? " The farmer was noted for his big head and big feet. This humorous rebuke cured the farmer of sneering his men for the future.


Edwin Markham

Charles Edwin Markham (1852 - 1940) was an American poet.

In Mr. F. E. Green's book: "The Tyranny of the Countryside," it is stated there is little likelihood of a strike among the labourers; but the Herefordshire men struck in  1914.


Prior to that the burning words of Edwin Markham were absolutely true:—


" Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes at the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face
And on his back, the burden of the world."


He afterwards stated: Yet it is possible that the labourer may strike. " The Tyranny of the Countryside " was published in 1913, the strike being in 1914. So it was possible.


As far back as 1795 the wives of agricultural workers, unable to get food for their children, broke into open revolt in  Nottingham and Gloucester. The wives commandeered millers' carts and butchers' shops, and even held up a ship about to sail from Bristol, filled with grain from the fields they had themselves gleaned. In 1830 a revolt spread through the Southern and Midland counties. It was not only the economic situation that the workers had to struggle against. There was very little freedom for the men and women of the working people.   They were expected to humble themselves and bow before the parson, squire, their wives, haughty daughters and sons.   What nonsense for an intelligent man to bow and scrape to a young boy or girl because they were more fortuately placed than he was. At that time the worker was expected to vote at Elections the same way as his master. In later years some men of independent spirit occasionally defied their masters.

At Castle Frome a large farmer always took  his men to the Polling Booth in a waggon; before starting he gave them a glass of whisky and told them all to vote Conservative. The farmer's daughter then pinned a blue rosette on each man's coat.  

At one election, a sturdy old man—a Radical—drank his whisky, allowed the daughter to pin the rosette on his coat, then he quietly unpinned it, threw it on the ground and put his foot on it, saying: " This is what I think of all this." To give the farmer credit he shook the old man's hand, saying: " George, you are the only honest man on the farm. The others will vote Liberal, like you, but will wear false colours, George, your job is safe with me as long as you live."  But George was one in a thousand. Men had cause to fear making known their views and aspirations. I witnessed much of this fifty years ago, but I did not live in a tied cottage, and so feared no man.  

I tramped many miles for the Liberals as polling agent for them at the 1906 and 1910 elections in North and South Herefordshire. No doubt my independent spirit was created largely as the result of working and living in towns as previously stated, delivering milk in Worcester, West Kirby, on Shrub Hill Station at Worcester, and as a miner in South Wales, where no questions were asked by the employers as to the employee's mode of life, religion or political views. All that was required was to do your job efficiently—after working hours one was free.  

An eviction

An eviction

Not so the country workers—they were subjected to tyranny. If they and their children did not attend the Parish Church and Sunday School, or support the Conservative candidate, some paltry excuse would be made to dismiss the workman and demand his cottage.   They would take some toady workmen to throw his furniture out of the house however many children there were.  On behalf of the Union I dealt with several of these cases.  The landlords made laws in these cases entirely favourable to themselves. Even in case of debts, the rent and wages is the first charge on the assets of the tenant, so that tradesmen and other claims do not get common justice.  

Reverting to the facts of tyranny even twenty years ago a thinking man can well understand why the revolt of the country worker in 1912 was thrust upon them, and being partially successful, awoke the conscience of the people and was definitely the cause of the best men in the House of Commons taking up the welfare of the agricultural workers.  It even woke up the farmers to a realisation of the need for a sound organisation of farmers and workers  to  bring  pressure upon any Government in the interests of agriculture.


Many readers will know the political fights in those days were between the Conservatives and Liberals, but neither of these parties did much for the industry. Farmers were victimised by some landlords if it was known they supported Liberals, and their Tory neighbours would do all they could to annoy or injure them. There is one case I remember: At a Liberal meeting at Bosbury when Sir Harry Webb was the Liberal candidate, a local farmer was the speaker; the Conservative rabble cut his horses' harness to pieces and threw it in the brook; such was the bitter feeling in those days.


At that time there were many Liberal farmers, chiefly among tenants; due to Mr. Duckham, M.P., successfully carrying through Parliament a Ground Game Act, giving tenants the right of ground game, which prior to the Act the landlords claimed, and woe to the farmer if he claimed any prior to the passing of the Act. But nothing was done from an economic standpoint for the labourer. It is true an Education Act for free elementary education was passed by the House of Commons, but was bitterly opposed by the House of Lords—even the Bishops being against it. This gave the Liberals the famous war cry: " End 'em or mend 'em." Still the Education Act was a beginning and materially assisted the workers by enabling them to read and think for them­selves. To give you an example of what used to happen at Election times—I was at a meeting held in Bromyard at the beginning of this century, and where a very large farmer was present. This farmer repeatedly interrupted the speaker, and my brother, a workman, who was sitting behind him, politely urged him to give the speaker fair play. The farmer turned around angrily, and seeing that it was only a workman, shouted with an oath: " Who the ------ Hell are you? " The workman said " If you don't stop interrupting, I'll make tha." The farmer, who was wearing a box hat, one that was small in the middle, started shouting again, when the workman struck the hat on the top, driving it down over the ears of the farmer, who heaved and cursed, but could not get the hat off. This of course quite amused the audience, who roared with laughter. When the farmer did pull his hat off he sat quiet for the rest of the meeting. Unfortunately this incident did not end there; some roughs from Bromyard laid in wait for the farmer and pulled him out of his trap on the way home, kicked him so that he had three broken ribs, and lost an eye. They left him on the road unconscious, the pony trotting home alone. His family were alarmed and went back along the road to find him.


A Liberal meeting was held at the schoolroom, Bosbury. A number of prominent farmers were arranging to upset the meeting a night prior to the meeting. While so engaged at the Crown Hotel a workman sitting quietly in the corner of the room enjoying his pint of ale, muttered to himself, Oh, that's yer game, is it?   On the following morning he telegraphed to a noted Liberal hotel keeper, informing him of the farmers' intentions, and urging him to bring some men from Ledbury to frustrate their manoeuvres. That evening the farmers were seated up the centre of the room and the workers each side, out of sight as far as possible. A Colwall gentleman was in the Chair, a Hereford gentleman the supporting speaker, and Sir Harry Webb, the Liberal Candidate. All went well until the candidate and his wife appeared, someone leading the candidate by the arm to the platform, and a noted Ledbury boxer leading Mrs. Webb. They were followed by about thirty men from Ledbury. A farmer struck at Mrs. Webb as she was passing, when the boxer hit out and the farmer bit the dust. This was the signal for a general melee; the farmers picked up the chairs and used them as weapons, but the Ledbury men were too strong for them and order was restored when a large Bosbury farmer rushed to the platform, flapping his arms like a sea lion, shouting: " Gentlemen, I appeal to you to keep your seats, they are too strong for us." Mr. Webb then had a respectful hearing and a rousing send-off.

A large hop grower at Bishop Frome was an ardent Liberal, and at one Election offered a golden sovereign to any man who would carry around Bromyard streets on polling day a large loaf fourteen pounds in weight, representing " Free Trade," and a small loaf representing " Tariff Reform." These loaves were to be fixed upon a board, with their labels attached. It was very difficult to get anyone to do this as the men were so afraid of their jobs; my brother, who feared no-one, volunteered and carried the emblems around Bromyard all polling day, being loudly cheered by groups of workmen, and respected by many others, for being so courageous; a quality of character always respected by friend and foe. The sovereign was paid at the end of the day and the two loaves given to the volunteer. Inside the big loaf was an apple cob. Both the money and bread was very welcome in that home as they were equal to pay for nine days' work.

Some amusing incidents occurred in the 1906 General Election. I was polling agent for the Liberal party at Bishops Frome; living at Fromes Hill were 29 electors, all Liberals but one. This one exception was taken to the polling station by a Conservative farmer, and was always boasting he was a Conservative, his object being to curry favour with all the large farmers, as he was a rabbit catcher. On returning home the farmer said to him: " Bosley, I don't believe thee didst vote after all." " Oh, yes, I did," said the man, " this is the receipt," and showed the farmer the ballot paper.  He had put a cross on the Conservative's card and put that in the ballot box.

The farmer went back to the polling station and explained the position to me, but my duty was to prevent anyone putting more than one paper into the box, so I made my protest to the presiding officer, who agreed.

William Gladstone

William Gladstone (1809–1898) was a Liberal Party statesman and 4 times Prime Minister.

At the same election a workman was on the Bromyard register, but had removed to Fromes Hill, seven miles away; the Conservatives sent a carriage from Bromyard to bring him to vote; the workman was found at the local pub with several others. The coachman paid for a quart of beer for them and then took the man off to vote.  On their return they all went into the pub again and exchanged election experiences.   The workman taken for a ride spoke up and said: " I never tells anyone who I votes for, but I duyn't vote for Sir Jeames." There were roars of laughter and the coachman went away in disgust, cursing him.

There is no doubt that the reason why so many men at Fromes Hill were Liberal was because they attended the little chapel, and it was well known that the Nonconformists were politically progressive. Again, several large fanners in the district were attached to and worked for the Liberal party, consequently the workers had confidence in them; but it is true to say that the majority of the workers in the country knew little or nothing about politics. They loved and respected William Gladstone, and it is true that the Liberal farmers of that day were more kind and generous.



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