Is this how social war begins?


It is difficult to know precisely, or even to imagine with any accuracy, the day to day lives of my farming ancestors in 18th and 19th century England. I have already posted (How a revolution leads to social war)about who they were, where they lived, their probable work, and the political, economic and technological issues of the times, and it is now in this second post that I forward a harsh description of those times from Friedrich Engels (1820-1875) the Marxist philosopher and social scientist.

In his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels paints a picture of rural England quite different from that of William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, a picture which is oppressive, squalid, impoverished and downtrodden rather than one of community, hard working, patriotic. It’s possible that BOTH are correct of course with differences in views arising from the backgrounds and perspectives of each author. Here is a typical paragraph from Engels:

“An English agricultural labourer and an English pauper, these words are synonymous. His father was a pauper and his mother’s milk contained no nourishment. From his earliest childhood he had bad food, and only half enough to still his hunger, and even yet he undergoes the pangs of unsatisfied hunger almost all the time that he is not asleep. He is half clad, and has not more fire than barely suffices to cook his scanty meal. And so cold and damp are always at home with him, and leave him only in fine weather. He is married, but he knows nothing of the joys of the husband and father. His wife and children, hungry, rarely warm, often ill and helpless, always careworn and hopeless like himself, are naturally grasping, selfish, and troublesome, and so, to use his own expression, he hates the sight of them, and enters his cot only because it offers him a trifle more shelter from rain and wind than a hedge. He must support his family, though he cannot do so, whence come beggary, deceit of all sorts, ending in fully developed craftiness.”

Interestingly Engels then continues to “imagine” what the lives of these people must be like in the same way I have written previous posts categorised as Imaginative Ancestry. I can do no better than reproduce his words here:

“What sort of life these people lead may be imagined; their food scanty and bad, their clothing ragged, their dwellings cramped and desolate, small, wretched huts, with no comforts whatsoever; and, for young people, lodging-houses, where men and women are scarcely separated, and illegitimate intercourse thus provoked. One or two days without work in the course of a month must inevitably plunge such people into the direst want. Moreover, they cannot combine to raise wages, because they are scattered, and if one alone refuses to work for low wages, there are dozens out of work, or supported by the rates, who are thankful for the most trifling offer, while to him who declines work, every other form of relief than the hated workhouse is refused by the Poor Law guardians as to a lazy vagabond; for the guardians are the very farmers from whom or from whose neighbours and acquaintances alone he can get work.”

Having read these two extracts is it any wonder that a social war was absolutely inevitable? In summary these agricultural labourers were trapped in poverty …… enslaved by landowners, wages suppressed, laws inflating staple food prices, and finally cheap imports leading to job losses. I am sure that the three generations of my ancestors in Kent suffered greatly, but what I don’t know is the extent to which they took part in the ensuing social warfare which during the 1830s spread across England.

The main weapon used was incendiarism as these poor agricultural labourers fought back in burning hayricks, corn stacks, barns and stables! Almost every night the fires blazed and spread terror amongst landowners and tenant farmers across the counties of Sussex, Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Lancashire. Also large farmhouses were burned down in Bedfordshire, Hertford and Cambridge. The culprits were frequently caught with official figures showing 19 being hanged, 505 transported to the penal colony of Australia and 644 being imprisoned. As often happens in such “wars” where social justice is the motivating force, a mythical hero arose who was unseen and uncatchable …….. Captain Swing, who signed a number of threatening letters to landowners and politicians alike. Nobody ever discovered the true identity of Swing though many believe it was the wonderful William Cobbett who stood up for the working man all his life.

And so now I have a clearer picture and greater understanding of the lives of my Kentish agricultural ancestors, whether they were involved in the incendiarism or not. They must have been quite fearful times, different from the “fear” of my Cornish mining ancestors or that of my military parents during WW2, but nevertheless they were social conditions so far removed from the comforts of today to be quite unbelievable.

6 thoughts on “Is this how social war begins?

    1. You’re absolutely right, but many people have nothing to forget because they never knew about these things in the first place! I do wonder what is covered in school sometimes.

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