Village Life

Village Life in the Early 19th Century

The war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France went on for over twenty years. Its effect on the nation’s economy was little understood at the time. Because more money was in circulation in 1815 than in 1793 there were many people who believed that, as a result of the war, the wealth of the country had increased. Hard experience gave the ordinary farm worker a truer understanding of the situation; his wages went up, but prices went up even more, so that he was poorer in 1815 than in 1793, not wealthier. In this chapter we shall see something of the events that rural poverty led to in Kent.

The rapid growth in the population which began about the middle of the 18th century continued throughout the 19th. It was caused not so much by an increase in the birth-rate as by a reduction in the death-rate, for reasons which are not yet fully understood, but probably included a better diet for most people and some improvement in medical practices. In 1801, for the first time an official census was held and it has since been taken every 10 years (except in 1941). The earlier census figures are not altogether trustworthy and, moreover, the statistics for a parish may be distorted by the presence, for example, of a work-house, a lunatic asylum, or a barracks, or a large number of labourers building a railway line in the neighbourhood. The figures must therefore be used with caution, but they are, of course, much more reliable than such unofficial estimates of the population as were made in earlier centuries.

In almost all the villages in Kent the population continued to increase steadily and sometimes rapidly up to the middle of the century. Thereafter, the increase continued in those villages which became industrialised (e.g. Horton Kirby, Cliffe, Higham, Hailing, Snodland, Aylesford and Burham) or which were so near a town as to come under its influence (e.g. Charlton-next-Dover, Hoo St Werburgh, Bearsted and Hackington). Elsewhere the tendency was for village populations to begin to diminish after the 1850s and 1860s, often falling by the end of the century to a lower figure than that returned in the first census. The following figures are typical of villages which were not affected by industrial development or close urban contact:

1801 1821 1841 1861 1881 1901 1921
Waltham 383 582 544 608 506 360 313
Stodmarsh 110 122 145 145 134 75 109
Boughton Maiherbe 327 475 512 408 445 380 366
Frinsted 153 152 202 219 208 126 150
Hollingbourne 730 1,000 1,300 1,190 1,151 945 754
Hunton 583 683 740 935 870 821 780
Mereworth 597 711 862 835 843 717 684
Luddesdown 172 235 275 279 268 240 212
Biddenden 1,151 1,544 1,486 1,412 1,352 1,058 1,120
High Halden 519 724 683 653 637 507 632
Smarden 831 1,038 1,141 1,130 1,139 994 992
Newnham 262 356 455 409 312 301 299
Godmersham 337 414 450 388 358 336 233
Benenden 1,300 1,746 1,594 1,662 1,598 1,336 1,308
Ridley 47 74 95 101 65 64 73

The trend shown by these figures, that is a rapid increase to a peak about the middle of the century and then a fall continuing into the 20th century, is especially noticeable of the villages in East Kent; it is generally less true of those in the western part of the Weald; and in West and North Kent, the area of industrial and urban development, the population increased steadily throughout the century.

Map showing the population of Kent in the second half of the 19th century
Map showing the population of Kent in the second half of the 19th century
Map showing the population of Kent in the first half of the 20th century
Map showing the population of Kent in the first half of the 20th century

A few villages had a local industry, such as stone or chalk quarrying or brick-making, but the staple industry which sustained village life was agriculture. Banister, Boys and Cobbett, from their different points of view, have a good deal to say about the conditions of the agricultural worker in Kent during the 40 years from the 1780s to the 1820s. Banister turned a farmer’s jaundiced eye upon farm workers who ‘(being of a race the most low bred and illiterate) do often turn out the most unprincipled and profligate; and though perhaps they may not have attempted the commission of the most atrocious offences, yet in the low arts of deception, the country ploughman is inferior to few’. Boys deals with the subject of farm labour more coolly, although he urges that piece-work rather than day-work rates should be adopted wherever possible, adding ‘When a number of labourers work together by the day, much time is lost by idle conversation’. He also says that farm labourers were more difficult to get along the coast (other occupations being open to them) than in the interior of the county. In other counties, such as Lancashire and Yorkshire, the development of industry opened up other fields of employment, men left the land to work in the towns, and the shortage of labour caused agricultural wages to rise. This was not generally true of Kent where there was very little industrial development until the latter part of the 19th century. Such shortage of labour as existed here was due to the Army’s demand for men during the French war. Between 1770 and 1798 farm wages in Kent nearly doubled, fell sharply after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, began to rise again when the war was resumed in 1803 and by 1815 were at least double the wages of 1793. However, during that same period prices of food had trebled.

A social change was also taking place in the relationship of the farmer to his servants. Up to the last quarter of the 18th century the unmarried farm servants, men and women, actually lived under the farmer’s roof (or the roof of one of his outhouses) and had their meals, cooked by the farmer’s wife, in her kitchen. On the larger farms there would probably be as many as 10 or 12 servants living in and, however uncomfortable such an arrangement may have been to both sides, it certainly meant that the farmer and his wife were in close contact with their labourers. But farmers were going up in the world, farmers’ wives wanted their kitchens to themselves, and by the end of the 18th century the custom of living-in was going out of favour all over Kent. Of course it did not disappear suddenly, and even in 1850, when there were over 4,600 farms in the county, the number of men living in still averaged slightly over one per farm.

In East Kent around the year 1800, a waggoner or ploughman could expect to earn £12-15 a year and his board. A plough-boy or a dairy-maid would receive about £447 a year with board, and a cook £448. A married day-labourer, living in a cottage for which he paid £2 or £3 a year, would earn 2s. to 2s. 6d. for a 10-hour day, and a shepherd about the same. Married labourers could usually buy pork and wheat from the farmer at reduced prices. The price of bread varied a good deal according to the harvest: a quartern loaf might be anything from 5d. to 8d. Potatoes cost about lOs. for a 200-lb sack, and meat 8d. to lOd. a lb. Certain jobs, such as threshing, were done as piece-work and gave the farm-worker the chance of earning a much-needed few extra shillings. Hop-picking gave work for all his family, and, if he was lucky enough to be employed on hop-drying (an operation requiring great skill and allowing little chance for sleep), he might get 15s. to 25s. a week, with unlimited strong beer and spirits. The wages of a pole-puller would be about lOs. 6d. to 15s. a week which, in spite of the fact that his only allowance was of small beer, Banister regarded as ‘a very good salary’.

In one respect the agricultural labourers of East Kent were worse off than those employed in other parts of the county: the Weald and West Kent are in general, well-wooded, and the countryman could get his fuel cheaply by gath­ering it for himself out of the woods. East Kent, by contrast, is thinly wooded, so the farm worker had less chance of getting free fuel. Coal from Newcastle was imported at all the coastal and river towns, but it cost 40s. to 50s. a chaldron and was beyond the reach of the poor.

Apart from piece-work, hirings of labour were commonly by the year from September to September. Once a man had been engaged it was illegal for him to leave his employment or for anyone else to employ him during the year. Advertisements like this (from the Kentish Gazette for 26 January 1796], are quite frequent in the local papers of the period:


From his Master’s service on Monday last, Philip Bartlett, waggoner’s mate; about five feet two inches in height, dark brown hair, freckled face, and walks lame with his left leg. Had on when he went away a swanskin waistcoat and plain long trowsers.

Whoever will bring him to Mr. Daniell Bushell of Ickham shall receive Half-a-guinea reward, and all reasonable expences. Should any person employ him, they will be prosecuted as the law directs. If he will return to his Master’s service immediately, he will be again received without any notice taken of this first offence.

The economic depression that followed the Napoleonic war was sharply felt in rural Kent. Cobbett, whose account of his tour through Kent in September 1823 is perhaps more lively than reliable, refers to the poverty in the eastern part of the county: ‘The labourers’ houses all along through this island [i.e. Thanet], beggarly in the extreme. The people dirty, poor-looking; ragged, but particularly dirty.’ Their poverty he ascribed to the fact that so much work on the farm was now done by horses and by machines. Boys, as we have already seen, had invented a threshing machine on his farm at Betteshanger and the invention spread rapidly. Large numbers of men were without work and looked to the parish for relief. Some were employed on the roads, but they worked unwillingly and supervision was lax.

This depression and poverty formed the background to the Last Labourers’ Revolt (as it has been called by the Hammonds) which broke out at Hardres on the last Sunday in August 1830, when some four hundred labourers destroyed a number of threshing machines. Throughout the month of September risings continued around Canterbury and more threshing machines were destroyed. By October the trouble had spread to the Dover district. The ricks of unpopular farmers were burnt, and others received threatening letters signed ‘Swing’. In spite of their lawless behaviour, the rioters attracted a good deal of sympathy, even amongst the county gentry and landowners. Their grinding poverty was undeniable, and it was not only the farm-workers who looked with disfavour upon new-fangled contraptions, like threshing machines, which took away men’s work. Seven trouble-makers who were tried at the East Kent Quarter Sessions in October were let off with a nominal sentence of three days’ imprisonment. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the leniency shown by Quarter Sessions, riots broke out in other parts of the county, especially around Maidstone and Sittingboume, the men demanding regular work and wages of half-a-crown a day (the comparative wealth of Kent is shown by the fact that when the rising later spread to Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire the demand was only for two shillings a day, and in some parishes the labourers asked for no more than 8s. or 9s. a week).

An efficient police force would have had no difficulty in coping with the riots. But whilst London acquired an organised police force for the first time in 1829, it was to be nearly another thirty years before such a force existed in Kent (the County Constabulary was formed in 1857), and meanwhile the magistrates had either to rely on the parish constables, who were unpaid and generally incompetent, or to call in the military. That is what the Maidstone magistrates did on 30 October when they went out with a troop of soldiers to meet a mob of 400 people just outside the town. The ringleaders were arrested without difficulty, but Peel, the Home Secretary, fearing further trouble ordered two pieces of artillery to be sent to Maidstone. They were not needed; in Kent the rioters did not carry things to extremes, and generally their demand for half-a-crown a day was felt to be reasonable. When, in November and December, the disorder spread to Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Dorset, the riots in those counties were more violent and the punishments inflicted in the subsequent trials correspondingly more severe than in Kent.

For thirty years or so before the rising broke out the inadequacy of farm-workers’ wages had, in fact, been publicly and officially admitted by the practice of making up a man’s wages out of the parish poor-rate to an amount considered sufficient to keep body and soul together. In Kent the wages of a married man with three children would usually be made up to 12s. a week, with an extra ls. 6d. a week for every child beyond the third. Thus farmers paid low wages knowing that they would be supplemented from the poor rate. The cost of supplementing inadequate wages with the cost of maintaining the increasing number of men who could not get work, resulted in rates which were so high that in 1833 a Royal Commission was set up to enquire into the administration of the Poor Law. The Report gives a good deal of evidence about conditions in Kent, as well as in the remainder of the country, carefully selected, no doubt, to support the Commissioners’ recommendations for the reform of the Poor Law.

Lenham was one of the parishes which the Commissioners used to illustrate their findings. Its population had gone up from 1,434 in 1801 to 2,197 in 1831, and the amount expended on the poor from £1,468 in 1806 to £4,299 in 1832. No fewer than 1,200 of the 2,200 inhabitants were receiving some form of parish relief in 1833. The rates were so high that two tenant-farmers, unable to pay their way, had given up their farms, which the landlords could not re-let. Wages in the summer were 2s. 3d. a day, wet days excepted and rather less in winter. From November round to May the number of unemployed was 60-70: ‘the population of this parish’, reported Mr. Majendie, ‘is beyond the demand for labour’. Emigration to the colonies had been encouraged, the cost of the emigrants’ passage being met by the parish, but the 50 parishioners of Lenham who had gone to Quebec found that work there was as hard to get as at home, and the letters which had been received from Canada were so unfavourable that it seemed unlikely that any more Lenham men would go to seek their fortune in North America.

By 1833 it had become uncommon in Lenham for labourers to live under their employers’ roofs. They were generally considered to be less industrious than formerly (has there ever been a generation when this was not the commonly held view?) and they did not attempt to lay by anything against a rainy day. That they did not save is scarcely surprising; an industrious labourer might get £35-40 a year and ‘his wife and four children, aged 14, 11, 8 and 5 years’ might expect to earn a further £3-5 a year. On this income it was thought that a family could just about subsist, eating bread, cheese, suet-puddings, potatoes and occasionally salt pork, with tea to drink. Presumably some vegetables would be available from the cottage-garden, but subsistence for the ordinary farm labourer was at no more than peasant level. The conditions that are described in the report on Lenham were, broadly, typical of those which prevailed over the county as a whole.

In consequence of the Commissioners’ Report, the Poor Law was reformed and its administration made more efficient. But its efficiency was of a mechanistic kind, and its inhuman administration was one of the causes that led to the extraordinary Courtenay rising in 1838, said to be the last occasion on which a soldier was killed in battle on English soil. The self-styled Sir William Courtenay, Knight of Malta, was an impostor, a Cornishman named Thom, who deluded his followers, and probably himself, into believing that he was the Messiah. He appeared at Canterbury in September 1832, exotically garbed and claiming that he had just come from the Middle East. He stood as a candidate at the Parliamentary election in December. His appearance on the hustings, dressed in what he took to be the costume appropriate to a Knight of Malta, created a sensation, and although he was not returned to Parliament he suc­ceeded in getting some 500 votes in a total poll of about 2,000. A few months later, as a witness in a lawsuit, he gave evidence which quite obviously was just story-spinning. It was not a case in which he was personally involved and he stood to gain nothing by his action. He was afterwards charged with perjury, convicted and ordered to be transported, but the sentence was respited. He served a short term of imprisonment and then was moved to what was clearly the proper place for him, the lunatic asylum at Barming.

Whilst he was in the asylum Courtenay was allowed to issue manifestos to his followers in the Canterbury district, signing them as ‘King of Jerusalem’. Towards the end of 1837 be was released into the keeping of a friend who lived at Boughton-under-Blean, and there he stayed until January 1838. Meanwhile, his eccentricity increased, he took to carrying a brace of pistols and a sword, and he soon had a following of some hundreds of men and women whom he could work up into a frenzy of hysteria. Some followed him because they believed in his religious rantings, some because they were dissatisfied with their lot in life, with their low wages, and with the harshly efficient new Poor Law.

Courtenay remained in the neighbourhood of Boughton and Dunkirk during the early months of 1838, stirring up more and more trouble, until on 30 May a warrant was issued for his arrest. The brother of the constable who went to arrest him was shot by Courtenay who then withdrew with his followers into Bossenden Wood on the north side of the London Road, about a mile on the Canterbury side of Dunkirk. The magistrates sent to Canterbury for the military. When the soldiers arrived they entered the wood and, after marching for a mile and a half, came up with Courtenay. He was called upon to surrender; his answer was to shoot the lieutenant and a civilian who was standing nearby. Then the magistrates ordered the soldiers to fire, and Courtenay and half-a ­dozen of his followers lay dead.

So ended the life of this unfortunate, deluded man. In itself it was an affair of little importance, but it served to draw attention to the conditions under which a great part of the rural population lived, and especially their backwardness and ignorance. It so happened that Dunkirk lay outside any parish, and there­fore had no church and no parson. To this fact was ascribed the backwardness of the people, and funds were collected for building a church and appointing a vicar. The church was built in 1840 and a few years later a school was opened. Thus, indirectly, did Courtenay benefit Dunkirk, but in a manner unforeseen and unintended.

The building of public elementary schools which went on throughout the century was a reflection of the interest now being taken by the middle and Courtenay Rising, 1838 in more than a score of villages and between 1840 and 1850 nearly forty more were erected. In each of the two following decades some fifty new schools were opened, so by the date that the Elementary Education Act of 1870 became law, schools existed in more than 170 rural parishes. Most of them were Church schools, owing their origin to the enthusiasm and energy of the local rector or vicar, and sometimes also to the generosity of local landowners. A small number of schools were built by non-conformist churches and chapels, but on the whole they were more active in the towns than in the country. Attendance was not made compulsory until 1876 and as many of the earlier schools could not hold by any means all the children in the parish they had to be enlarged during the later years of the century.

The Act of 1870 enabled School Boards to be set up for parishes where the schools were insufficient, the Boards’ duty being to build new schools to make good the deficiency. The immediate effect of the Act was to put the Churches on their mettle and a large number of Church schools were built in the early 1870s. The total number of Church and Board schools built in rural Kent between 1870 and 1880 was more than seventy. Indeed, by 1880, almost every village had a school of one kind or another; this is shown by the fact that between 1880 and 1900 only 17 villages acquired their first school, although in some, where the population was still growing, it was necessary to build a second, or even a third, school.

The building of this large number of elementary schools throughout rural Kent between 1840 and 1880 reflects not only the increased concern which was now being shown for the well-being of the poorer classes; it is also an indication of the growing prosperity of the country districts, culminating in the period of ‘high farming’ in the 1850s and 1860s. Although agricultural wages did not rise much, prices fell and the farm-workers were better off than ever before. Some people emigrated from their own villages, going off to the large towns, especially London, or venturing overseas, but it was found that the intensive farming which was being practised in the middle of the century gave employment to considerably more men than the Poor Law Commissioners had ever thought possible. Moreover, the railways and the improved roads meant that villages were less isolated, and they opened up some chance of employment in nearby towns, although for many purposes the village remained a self-sufficient com­munity. If ever there was a ‘golden age’ of village life, perhaps it was about 1860 or 1870.