Wandering through the quiet fields yesterday with just the cries of curlews, I thought of the line from Gray’s Elegy, which gave Thomas Hardy the title for his novel. I happen to be re-reading Far From the Madding Crowd at the moment (I recommend the Oxford University Press edition which has restored many passages missing from earlier editions). I hadn’t read any Hardy for some years, except the poems which I adore.
Far From the Madding Crowd – it conjures up a lot of images, particularly when you live in remote countryside such as ours. Yesterday, we saw one walker and a farmer, one or two more folk as we walked through a large hamlet. Apart from that, wandering through the landscape, we saw only a herd of cows and ewes with their lambs. A brief glimpse of a hare. Curlews and a peewit.
But Hardy’s Dorset – and his book is set probably in the 1860s – was anything but Far From the Madding Crowd. Just read the book – see the portrayal of the farming system Hardy describes. His heroine Bathsheba Everdene’s farm has a considerable number of employees. In the period Hardy is describing agriculture was labour intensive.
At the same time the northern fields we rambled through yesterday would have been worked by real people – machines were only starting to arrive not that long before in historical terms. Our walk 150 years ago would still have been crowded with labourers working very long hours.
How long – read the essay “The Reaper” in Richard Jefferies’ book The Open Air. Fourteen hour days with only beer to get you through. The Dorset Labourers of the 19th century were some of the poorest people in England.
And despite the fact that, in the novel, Bathsheba Everdene and Mr Boldwood are considered gentry, and employ lots of workers, they don’t actually own their farms. They are the tenants of some great, probably ennobled landowner.
Pretty much as it is today. I believe the farms we walked through are owned by farmers, but there are still a great many farms in Britain where those who work the land are at the mercy of some greater landowner.
I have an interest in 19th century agriculture and can relate to the folk who lived off the land in those days.
One of my ancestors was a man called Isaac Bentley. Isaac was born in Warwickshire in the first quarter of the 1800s. He began life as an agricultural labourer, but managed to buy his own farm in the Forest of Arden, that area of the county immortalised by Shakespeare.
How Isaac managed to become a landowner I don’t know. From my own research, I believe it was only possible because he farmed in Arden, a landscape of small farms. Had he been an agricultural labourer in the south of the county, a place of great estates owned by a handful of wealthy landowners, he might not have managed it. His farm workers were mostly his own family. But he would have recognised the world of Hardy’s novels which are much more realistic than pastoral.
So as we walked through this remote corner of Cumbria I considered what was missing from the landscape that would have been there a couple of centuries ago.
The labourers. The men, women and children on poor pay who worked long hours tending the sheep and cattle and getting the harvest in. Those whose homes, probably little better than hovels in their time, now go for sums of money they wouldn’t have been able to imagine. It’s doubtful if those old labourers even owned their homes. They came with their jobs. If the work went then so did the roofs over their heads – every labourer was only a brief distance from having to sleep under a hedge or facing the misery of the workhouse.
Country folk who would have walked the footpaths that we all walk today, perhaps created some of these old ways.
Machinery took away their jobs, though the field boundaries and the distant views remain much the same.
The Madding Crowd was as much in the countryside as in the towns. The poverty they endured was much the same as the new generations of urban dwellers. In fact, agricultural labourers were some of the poorest people in Victorian England.
My ancestor Isaac somehow managed to make the land his own. He was one of the few fortunate ones.
(c) Text and pictures John Bainbridge 2020.