The English county of Kent has been known as The Garden of England for over 400 years and dates back to a dish of Kentish cherries which particularly satisfied King Henry VIII. And, despite a survey in 2006 declaring North Yorkshire to have taken the title, as Charles Dickens proclaimed, “Kent, sir, everyone knows Kent. Apples, cherries, hops and women.”
So let’s start with some of my female ancestors, undoubtedly hardy souls, three generations covering the years 1775 to 1871 and all living in Kent. They were all “agricultural women” living on farms, married to agricultural labourers and experiencing the Agricultural Revolution taking place alongside the Industrial Revolution. This was the context of their lives that needs to be understood.
1. Three Women and Their Families
• Ann Sharrard: Ann is my 4x Great Grandmother, born in 1775 and married in 1796 to John Sharrard. They lived in Penshurst, Kent, a farming community and had 5 children. Elizabeth was the eldest of 3 daughters. I have very little else on them at present.
• Elizabeth Gower: Elizabeth is my 3x Great Grandmother, daughter of Ann, born in 1796, married to William in 1812 at the age of 16. They also lived in Penshurst, Kent, occupying Redleaf House. She had 8 children that I know of and Fanny (Frances) their fourth daughter was born in 1818. Elizabeth died in 1871.
• Fanny Card: Fanny is my 2x Great Grandmother, daughter of Elizabeth, born in 1818, and like her parents and grandparents, she lived initially in Penshurst then on Hawden Farm at Hildenborough also in Kent. She married Edward in 1838 and they had 5 children, Ann being their youngest born in 1850 who became my Great Grandmother who became The Navvies Wife previously written about.
2. Their Work
Census records show that the husbands in each of these families were noted as Agricultural Labourers and in most cases their sons followed the same occupation from roughly the age of 13. One of them, Edward Card the husband of Fanny, seemed to rise above this “lowly status” and become a “Carter or Waggoner” joined by his son Henry aged 13 as a Waggoner’s Mate. This was a higher status occupation involving anything concerning horses on the farm, not only tending to them but also driving them for ploughing, reaping, harrowing, or carting. It’s difficult to be precise about the work of all of the other males in these three families because there were many titles of labourer on farms across this time. However, the general title of Agricultural Labourer included the work of hoeing, haying, threshing, hedging and ditching. Also many references and records from the period show women working in the fields too, especially in hoeing, weeding and crop picking. This was often an economic necessity for a family to survive where the wife didn’t have to care for young children, but as I will show in the next section this was a vicious circle as it served to drive down the wages paid to their husbands! In general it is fair to assume that each of these three families were “cottagers” or bonded farm labourers as their home addresses were farm cottages or houses that seemed to be owned by or part of the farm where they worked.
3. Politics, Economics, Technology.
The “Political Forces” acting directly on my agricultural ancestors flow from the 1793 Royal Charter granted to the Board of Agriculture to promote the best and most modern farming methods, the 1815 Corn Law introduced fixing the minimum price below which grain could NOT be imported which was a tariff protecting British agriculture, the subsequent repeal of the Corn Law in 1846, and the ongoing implementation of the Enclosure Acts which legalised the combining and “Enclosure” of strips of land into larger commercial farms and thereby removing the rights of villagers to grow their own crops for food in these strips.
The “Technological Forces” from this era include some from the wider Industrial Revolution such as the use of steam as a power source, plus a number of developments emanating from the 1793 Royal Charter mentioned above. The specific agricultural developments include the improved seed drill of Jethro Tull (not the rock band!), a new 4-crop rotation system planting wheat, barley, turnips and clover in sequence so that no field was ever left fallow or over cropped, and finally the geographical specialisation of crops and the selective breeding of animals for meat or wool.
The “Economic Forces” partially flow from the politics above such as the high price of corn/bread before the repeal of the Corn Law, followed by a severe reduction in farm wages when cheap corn imports led to cheaper bread but also to English landowners having reduced profits from the lower price at which they could sell their corn! In fact the latter part of the 19th Century and into the 20th saw a near catastrophic impact on English agriculture with massive imports of cheap grain from America and cheap meat from Argentina. No matter how cheap the price of food, an unemployed Agricultural Labourer had no money with which to buy it!
4. The Social Impact
The creation of what has become known as “capitalist agriculture” in England appears to have created four levels of “farmer”; the aristocratic large landowners who through generations held large areas of the English countryside now organised for the commercial production of food; the yeoman farmers who owned smaller parcels of land and who often held other roles such as constable or councillor of a district; the tenant farmer who leased land from an owner and then farmed the land with his family, possibly employing others, and paying the owner either in cash or product; and finally the agricultural labourers who worked the land for payment, some of whom lived on the farm itself and were fed by and ate with the owners family, some living in tied cottages, and some living in other “hovels” in the village and fending for themselves.
My family research suggests that my ancestors were in the latter category of agricultural labourer and living in farm buildings or cottages. Their whole lives will have revolved around the seasons and working outdoors …. sowing, planting, weeding, harvesting in Summer and Autumn, then ditch digging, land clearance, fence mending in Winter and Spring. It can sound idyllic…… the whole family working together, father and sons on the land, mother and daughters as homemakers or lighter jobs such as hoeing and weeding or feeding livestock. But the reality is much harsher for many. There was an ebb and flow of employment and wage levels as caused by the Corn Laws and the import of grain and meats from abroad affecting the market. This often left families in poverty or completely destitute and only kept alive by the implementation of payment from The Poor Law system, which in turn often motivated owners to keep wages low. There was also the cruelty of Laws viciously outlawing “poaching” and preventing the poor from catching rabbits or hares in the hedges and woods. Many poachers were caught using the infamous Man Traps, prosecuted and sentenced to 7 years “transportation” to a British colony, often Australia! Is it any wonder that this state of affairs surrounding my Kentish ancestors resulted in the next generation of them being employed in a gunpowder factory, as a platelayer on railroads, as a navvie building docks, railroads and canals, and even emigrating to America at the age of 17 on his own! It led to what Friedrich Engels described as “Social War” …….. My next post!