The Agricultural ‘Revelation’ and the New Poor Law

The Agricultural ‘Revelation’ and the New Poor Law

Sellar and Yeatman in that memorable history of England 1066 and All That observe that simultaneously with the Industrial Revolution ‘there was an Agricultural Revelation which was caused by the invention of turnips’. This may have been a fair summary for the eastern counties of England, but in Wiltshire introduction of turnips actually helped to destroy the subtle balance of sheep, corn and water-meadows on the thinner (i.e. most of the chalk) soils of the county. As in Ireland the poor were only saved by the ‘invention’ of the potato.

Throughout the 19th century Wiltshire was one of the poorest counties in England and sometimes the worst-off. In 1846-7 for instance one sixth of the total population was given poor relief. In spite of the need of the growing population for food and demands created by the French wars, life for the smaller tenant farmers and farm-labourers was hard and particularly so on the chalkiands which occupy so much of the county.

Nevertheless high prices for farm products, which were sustained for the first decade of the century, inspired many landowners to farm improvement. The Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire at Charlton in northwest Wiltshire introduced and subsidised Scottish farmers to work on his somewhat backward estate. Farming societies became popular throughout the county once the success of the oldest, the Bath and West Agricultural Society, founded in 1774, was recognised. In 1813 the South West Wiltshire Farming Society and the Wiltshire Society for the Improvement of Agriculture were founded. Following these many groups were formed, usually for testing new machinery, but some with a more philosophical bent like the South Wiltshire and Warminster Farmers’ Club, which was debating in 1843 whether it was proper to employ women treading soil to reduce wire-worm.

Life for the larger Wiltshire farmers, as opposed to their labourers, was not always so gloomy. Inclosure by Act of Parliament, designed to increase production, continued well into the 19th century. The greatest number of such schemes were approved in the first two decades of the century and further acts were passed, though in declining numbers, down to 1869. But in spite of these inclosures Salisbury Plain was still largely unsheltered and unfenced in the mid-century. Sheep increased in number throughout the county, by about six per cent in the first three decades and another ten per cent in the following two and a half. Six hundred thousand were supported by the Plain alone. Most of them were kept primarily for their manure value because the sale of the wool from the Wiltshire Horned sheep had now become negligible, while the breed itself had been slowly displaced by sheep of the South Down type, which were not immediately adaptable to the difficult farming conditions of the area or to the prevalent demands of the market. Nevertheless the increased numbers of sheep did for some time support the increased arable acreage provided by the ploughing of downiand on the valley fringes, and Wiltshire grain growers, like farmers throughout most of the country, profited when the Crimean War cut off Russian grain imports.

Not all improvement was successful and at the beginning of the century Thomas Davis warned against haste in attempting improvements. He was particularly anxious about the ploughing of the down-lands. The Ailesbury estate at Tottenham in Savernake found itself in considerable difficulties from its own extravagance. The family not only rebuilt its late- I 8th-century home in a grander manner in the 1820s, but expended large sums in bribes to electors to maintain their control of the.adjoining parliamentary boroughs and at the same time indulged in ill-considered farm-building improvements which impressed their visitors but did little to raise the efficiency of their farms. The Pembroke estate, however, which was the largest in Wiltshire, was consistent, progressive and successful in balancing the improvement of buildings and farming methods, and with their profits were able to build a model farm at Quidhampton with Italianate cloisters (supposed to resemble a Russian dacha). More cautious investment was made by the Marquis of Bath in his larger estate based on Longleat (much of which lay in Somerset and elsewhere), particularly under the management of his best known stewards, Thomas Davis, father and son.

The Corn Laws, first introduced in 1815 and intended to restore farmers’ prosperity after the fall of prices as the Napoleonic wars ended by a mixture of subsidies and import duties, divided opinion in the county. After massive demonstrations in the industrial areas they were repealed in 1846. Neither the laws nor the repeal had the full effect that interested parties claimed. The acts had given some security to the larger farmers but had done little for the smaller ones and nothing for the farm labourers. Nor was there the expected slump in corn production in Wiltshire following the repeal of the laws and the import of cheaper grain from Russia and Egypt, then from Australia and lastly from new lands in America. Grain prices were kept high by the demands of the rapidly growing population elsewhere in the country, but this led to an over-extension of grain output in the county which proved unremunerative as well as exhausting the chalk soils. In 1800 arable land occupied about one fifth of the county’s land. In 1870 one third was under corn alone.

The expansion of arable farming was followed by an intense agricultural depression beginning in 1879-80, which the corn-growers blamed on foreign imports. The effects of the depression were exacerbated locally by failure of the new breeds of sheep to provide the expected return from wool. The Pembroke estates, which had continued their policy of improvement and been the first to introduce shelter belts on the down-land, came off comparatively lightly from this depression, but elsewhere there were lasting effects on the chalkiand farms from which they hardly recovered until after the Second World War. There was a rapid change in land use: between 1870 and 1910 the area of arable land in the county fell by 30 per cent, and nearly all of this reverted by neglect to permanent pasture. The eminent agronomist Sir Daniel Hall talked then of the ‘quiet prosperity among the farmers’ on the Wiltshire downs, but his was a view which would have been shared by few working in the area. Soon some would be making more money from rabbits than crops. The water meadows which had been the mainstay of the downiand system decayed because their labour-intensive upkeep had become too costly and artificial fertilisers and new grasses provided alternatives. Traces of the meadows can be found in the valleys of the Wylye and Avon, south of Salisbury. Attempts have been made to revive the system in the latter part of this century.


In these ups and downs, the Wiltshire farm labourer stayed down. In 1794 his weekly wage averaged 7s.; in 1805 it was 8s.; for a short time in 1814 it reached 12s. But 7s. in 1794 bought 14 loaves, the main item of peasant diet, while in 1814 12s. only bought nine. The poor state of the labourers was the subject of acid comment from William Cobbett when he rode from Salisbury to Warminster in 1826 and contrasted the beautiful state of farms and countryside with the lot of the labourers, saying it was ‘not very easy for the eyes of man to discover a labouring people more miserable’.

There were food riots in 1795 and 1796, in 1800 and 1801 and again in 1810, 1811, 1812 and 1813, but these were more often in the towns than countryside, and were associated with protest against new machinery in the textile industries. The countryside did not become inflamed to the same degree until the introduction of threshing machines. For most farm workers winter was a time of unemployment when one of the few guaranteed jobs was the hand-threshing of corn, which could takeup to three months, from September to December. Harvests in 1828, 1829 and 1830 were poor and the new threshing machines, while modest horse-operated equipment, not the giant, steam-driven threshers of the end of the century, appeared a symbol of unemployment and even starvation. Riots in country areas swept the south-east of England and were known collectively as the ‘Swing Riots’ after a fictitious ‘Captain Swing’ whose letters to land-owners threatened with destruction those introducing the new machines.

Riots started in Kent in August 1830. They swept north as far as Norfolk and west through Hampshire and Wiltshire and then into Dorset, Gloucestershire and Berkshire during the autumn and early winter. The first incidents in Wiltshire were in mid-November. There was arson at Amesbury, Everleigh and Wintersiow by the 21st of the month. By the 23rd it is said that all the threshing machines in the Salisbury area had been smashed. Salisbury itself was attacked by a mob on the same day and and textile machinery at Wilton was destroyed. Rioting reached its climax in the Tisbury area on the 29th in spite of appeals for calm in the local paper: ‘The times are bad but burning corn will not give you bread’, and rewards offered for the apprehension of incendiaries. Here a mob, after smashing machinery at Hindon market, made for Pythouse, the home of John Benett, one of the county M.P.s, who ‘had the misfortune to be extremely unpopular both with the farmers and the labourers’. The local militia was called from Salisbury and with drawn swords they rode down the protesters, many of whom were now drunk, and caused considerable injuries. One protester was shot through the head. The remainder were herded or, if wounded, carted to the gaol at Salisbury. At proceedings at Salisbury in the following January, John Benett was foreman of the Grand Jury. Three hundred and thirty-nine prisoners were tried; two were sentenced to death but later reprieved; 150 were sentenced to transportation.

Wiltshire lost more threshing machines than other counties but the damage to local farming was not severe. Threshing machines were not popular with small farmers, who were trying to keep up with the large by introducing them, while the the riot at Pythouse was unique in occurring in an area of exceptional poverty and at the expense of an unpopular landlord. Three-quarters of the labourers in this area were on poor-relief. The reintroduction of threshing machines was deferred for some years but otherwise the riots, which were essentially ‘conservative’, did the labourers little good. The average farm-labourer’s weekly wage now fell below 8s. a week, and with those of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset and Dorset became the lowest in the country by 1850.

The New Poor Law

Wiltshire Workhouses & Poor-Law Unions

Hardship among the country workers had been sharpened by a well-intentioned but ill-considered bureaucratic intervention known as the ‘Speenhamland system’ following a meeting of Berkshire magistrates at Speenhamland near Newbury in 1795. There the magistrates had decided to top up labourers’ wages from the local poor rates whenever they fell below a certain level. The poor rates had been intended for the preceding three centuries solely to assist the ‘impotent’ poor, but the system devised by the Berkshire magistrates was taken up in adjoining counties and soon resulted in a reduction in average wages and increases in local rates to make up the difference.

Apart from the inevitable distortion of the labour market the increased rate burden hit the small farmers, who employed few, if any, labourers, harder than it hit the large farmers. There were increasing demands for the cessation of this ‘scandalous expenditure’, which certainly rose sharply after the Napoleonic wars. In addition a drop in the morale of the labourers was noted by Thomas Davis and by Cobbett. Davis said ‘indolence seems instinctive in the whole district’ (of Southern Wiltshire) though he admitted it might be due, as it no doubt was, to malnutrition.

With the rising burden of the Old Poor Law rates and following the Swing riots of 1830, public opinion turned sharply against the poor. Ways of making the poor law more cost-effective were sought and following other government intervention in social reform, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (usually known as the ‘New Poor Law’) was devised and passed with speed and little opposition. Its chief authors were a Manchester economist, Edwin Chadwick, and Nassau Senior, son of the vicar of Durnford, Wiltshire. Both were Benthamites and could be described as liberal do-gooders.

Under the scheme devised in the new act no ‘outdoor’ relief was to be given to the able-bodied poor. If they needed relief they had to seek it in a workhouse. Relief there would have to be earned and would never exceed the wages of the independent labourer. To make the system uniform, which was a Benthamite principle, unions of parishes were to be set up and managed by boards of guardians consisting of the local Justices of the Peace with one elected representative of each of the union’s parishes. Detailed guidance would be given by three commissioners in London, soon to be known as ‘the three kings of Somerset House’. A central workhouse was to be provided for each union (hence the name ‘Union’ applied to the house itself) and its regime was to be harsh enough to deter all but the desperate from claiming relief. The arbitrary powers of the ‘three kings’ were taken over later by boards responsible directly to parliament and then by the Ministry of Health, but most of the system survived almost unchanged until 1930 and parts until 1948.

The new system had its teething troubles. At the Caine workhouse paupers tried to break into the strong-room, refusing to take bread in lieu of money, and they were still being given the five meat meals a week ofthe previous regime, which was much more than an independent labourer could expect. This was soon to be altered. By March 1835 the new Bradford on Avon and Caine unions had been formed. By November, 15 more were established. For most the energetic Assistant Commissioner Charles a Court ofHeytesbury was responsible, and the size of individual unions varied according to the potential chairman thought suitable by A Court. The banker, Ravenhill, was found for the Warminster Union and the land-owner Ludlow Bruges for Melksham, but there were difficulties at Marlborough and at Highworth because of jealousy of Swindon, and at Tisbury due to the awkwardness of John Benett of Pythouse.

The system was not welcome to some other interests. Trowbridge shopkeepers, for instance, complained of the loss of trade because paupers were no longer given cash. But eventually 328 parishes were formed into 26 unions, though three Wiltshire parishes were joined to unions centred outside the county, as Ludgershall was for many years to the infamous union of Andover (Hants.). Salisbury was left to itself, but only until 1869. By 1839, 13 new workhouses had been built, two others were under construction, and 10 older houses had been enlarged.

Together they constituted as frightening an addition to the landscape of Wiltshire as did the castles of the Normans.

In the terms of the act’s devisers all this was temporarily successful. The average poor-rate per head in the county fell from 14s. 6d. in 1833 to 8s. 9d. in 1837. The Bradford union workhouse, which had been upgraded to take 400 paupers, had only 95 and expenditure there had fallen from £200 to £61 a year. Charles a Court, writing to the ‘three kings’ in March 1836, was obviously delighted. Unemployment had been solved, he said, the character of the agricultural labourer stiffened, the number of improvident marriages reduced (in fact the number of all marriages had fallen) and cultivation ‘was improved out of recognition’.

The poor were humiliated and abused in these workhouses by enforced and mindless activities and pointless regulations. John Parker in the Warminster house in 1837, for example, was sentenced to solitary confinement for having a pack of cards. Worst of all was the paucity and poor quality of the food. There was no Christmas pudding to make jokes about till late in the 19th century, and food was often inedible. This was due not so much to central regulations as to the meanness of the elected guardians and the brutality of many workhouse masters. No Wiltshire inmates, however, were cheated to the degree shown by the master of Andover workhouse, which led to a public scandal in 1842, though the ‘best bones’, which the inmates were chewing to stave off starvation when they were supposed to be grinding them to bone-meal, were supplied from Salisbury.

Most unions encouraged emigration of poor families overseas. Two hundred left Downton for Canada in 1836 and over 500 emigrated from other Wiltshire villages by 1842, but the use of Poor Law funds to assist emigration was forbidden in 1853 though emigration was still encouraged. The large landowners themselves encouraged and often assisted emigration of poor families: it often relieved their rates. Sidney Herbert of Wilton set up a Female Emigration Fund for this purpose, and this was a model for his brother-in-law, Lord Ailesbury, when in 1849 he founded the Wiltshire Emigration Association. This association arranged for 258 Wiltshire people to settle in South Australia and Victoria (away from the penal settlements) before it closed in 1852.

The unions were abolished in 1930 and the Poor Law was ‘buried’ (to quote Aneurin Bevan) in 1948, but some Wiltshire workhouses survive in whole or part. Those for Devizes, Melksham, Pewsey and Warminster are hospitals. That for Bradford on Avon, which is much older than the New Poor Law, has been converted into holiday flats.