LETTERS TO THE EDITOR.
THE FARM LABOURERS OF DORSET.—II.
[TO TES EDITOR OF TER SPEOTATOR.1
concluded my last week's letter with a specimen of the yearly agreement between farmer and labourer in Dorsetshire. In the particular instance there quoted the house was in an utterly disreputable condition, and the garden was almost valueless, as there was not even a pretence at fencing it off from the large field in one corner of which it was situated. It is difficult, there- fore, to put any money value upon it, but I should say that the average value of a labourer's house and garden, where it forma part of the yearly bargain supplied by the farmer, is about is. 3d. or is. 6d. per week. The "20 lug of potatoe-ground " specified in the contract is, of course, variously estimated according to the quality of the ground, &c. In this instance the labourer did not consider it worth more than 5s. per annum, and after see- ing it I was quite inclined to agree with him. In some cases it may be worth double that amount. The granting of potato-ground as part of the wages is very general in many parts of the country, especially in the central districts, though it varies much in amount. Out of twelve yearly agreements now before me the amount specified is in one ease 30 lug, in four 20, in four 15, and in three 10. The "lug," I should say, is equiva- lent to the perch. With respect to fuel, I have not met with another agreement which specifies anything like "a ton of coal." I have seen many wherein five cwt. has been mentioned, and a few with 10 cwt., but as a rule coal does not form a part of any of the contracts. Wood faggots, furze faggots, and turf are frequently specified. The farmer usually does the carting, but the labourer pays for the cutting. Furze faggots fetch about five shillings per hundred, and large wood faggots about eighteen shillings. The coal supplied in all cases into which I have examined is slack of the very smallest description. Judging from the large number of contracts that I have in my possession, as well as from numerous extracts taken from others, I think that the average amount of fuel provided may be fairly taken at "100 furze faggots and 5 cwt. of coal," a speci- fied amount which occurs very frequently. In some districts, however, fuel never forms any part of the bargain. The " grist " corn forms an important feature of the perquisites of the Dorset labourer. This is corn supplied by the farmer at a fixed rate per bushel, —generally 5s. Two bushels a month seems to be about the usual amount. Where the corn supplied is thoroughly good and sound, the labourer may make a profit of some two shillings on each bushel, but it would be well within the mark to say that this does not happen in one case out of twenty. The gristing is, as a rule, the very inferior corn, frequently of such a description, as I have myself seen, as to be injurious to health, and the profit made out of the transaction is often reduced to a nullity, or worse. It is a most difficult matter to form an estimate of the value of the perquisites, as no two farmers give
exactly the same, and in no case have I found all of them given to. any one man ; moreover, it should also be remembered that they are only given to married men. I think, however, I am quite on the safe side in putting them down as under 2s. per week, even where the letter and spirit of the contract are fully carried out by the employer, and I should be concealing the truth if I were not to add that universal complaints are made in all directions about the laxity with which this payment in kind is treated. It is all very well to say that where the labourer has the contract with his. master down in black and white, he should summon him for any
of its fulfilment ; but it has also to be borne in mind that as in nine cases out of ten he holds his cottage at a monthly or more often weekly tenancy, directly from his master, he is left completely at the mercy of his employer, and dares not to offer- the slightest remonstrance.
But before I write on the subject of the sub-letting of the cot- tages to farmers, I would mention an incident that has recently occurred in connection with the value of perquisites. A farmer in the neighbourhood of Whitchurch, disturbed at the statements. made by the agents of the Union as to the rate of wages, wrote to. a local paper stating that he gave his own hands a weekly wage that was equivalent to 16s. per week, and that the men preferred the perquisites. The farmer seems to have forgotten the way in which papers now circulate even in cottages, for his men heard of this statement of their master and were utterly astonished. They went to him in a body, reminded him of his letter to the paper, and said that they considered even 12s. a week such a considerable- rise on the wages they were receiving by their yearly contracts, that they were willing to cancel their agreements and serve the rest of their time on 12s. a week to be paid in cash, 4s. less than he had asserted they were receiving. But the farmer positively refused this offer, and thus stood self-convicted. I may also add, that I have not met with a single labourer who did not unhesitat- ingly assert that he would far rather be paid a definite sum in cash,- than be dependent on perquisites, and this is a question that 1 have made a point of asking of all with whom I have come in contact.. Their replies were singularly hearty and unanimous.
I need scarcely say that the labourers themselves are equally unanimous and hearty in their dislike to holding cottages under the farmers, instead of directly from the squires or landlords. I have been into village after village where the highest-rented cottages were those few which happened not to be in the control of the employer. Wretched as his wages are, the Dorset labourer will willingly give 6d. or is. per week more rent in order to avoid. being "under the farmer," and great is the competition to secure a landlord's cottage (often a solitary one in a whole district> whenever it happens to fall vacant. One of the chief reasons of this- inveterate dislike arises from the knowledge that the ownership of the cottage is frequently used by the employer in order to extort- additional work not bargained for in the contract, or to insist upon the children coming out to work at an earlier age than even the parents approve. I also found that in a very large majority of cases the whitewashed, comfortless, and tumble-down cottages-. were those that passed through the hands of a middle- man. It is useless, then, for the tenant to make any complaints about repairs. The farmer refers you to the squire,. and the squire says that the cottages form part of the farmers. leaseand that he has nothing to do with them. Further, I know that they are often made the means of extorting not only more labour, but even money, in the shape of increased rents. I believe that the amount of rent to be paid by the labourer to his master- frequently forms part of the lease or arrangement under which the farmer holds the cottages from the landowner, and yet this rent is often capriciously raised. Thus, during the past summer months, the wages (owing to the Union) were raised, in some instances 2s., in others 3s. higher than they had ever been before ; but the farmer, when settling time came, took his men utterly aback by demanding double the amount of rent that he had previously obtained. I could give you many illustrations of this which I have thoroughly investigated. As an example, I may mention the case of a farmer near Stickland, who raised the rent of' the cottages he held from is. to 2s. during the time that he was. paying the advanced wages. Another farmer, of Spetiabury, on the other hand, took back much of the money which he had promised when the settling day after the harvest arrived by charging his labourers "6d. per goad" for potato-ground, a privi- lege that had always been granted to them without any chargeduring the twelve years that several of them had been in his service. I may also mention that in one case I communicated to a large landed proprietor the fact that his farmers were now charging in- creased rents, a fact which he would at first hardly credit, bat
which he speedily put down when he found it to be true ; therefore, think that I am entitled in this instance to conclude that the farmers were acting in opposition to the agreement that had been come to, between themselves and the landowners, with respect to the holding of the cottages. I have noticed, also, in passing through the country, a considerable number of cottage gardens and plots absolutely uncultivated. The reason for this neglect I have found to be the uncertainty of tenure on which they were held. Occupant after occupant has assured me that it was not worth while to put a spade in the ground or to spend a penny in stocking it, when they were liable to be turned out at a week's notice, and evictions are now of daily occurrence.
As this subject of the sub-letting of cottages has occupied so much attention lately in the columns of the Spectator, and as I do not wish to be thought guilty of any exaggeration in the estimate I have formed of its results and consequences in Dorsetshire, I will -conclude this letter with quoting from the report of one of the Assistant-Commissioners of the Agricultural Commission, the Hon. E. Stanhope, who visited the counties of Dorset, Kent, -Chester, Salop, Stafford, and Rutland in 1868-9 :—
" The opinion offarmers is nearly unanimous in favour of their holding the cottages. The feeling among the labouring class is even more -certain. In all my inquiries upon this point I never yet met a man who preferred to 'live under a farmer,' as they call it. The apparent advan- tage in point of income enjoyed by a man in Dorset, who is a yearly servant, and lives in a house attached to the farm, is great, and yet even there the labourers had the strongest objection to the system. With great reluctance I have been forced to the conclusion that there is no system more fatal to the independence and comfort of the labourer than that of letting cottages with the farms. The objections to the system are overwhelming. The cottage is in some cases, no doubt, made a means of extortion, and when given (as in Dorset) as a part of the wages, it is often only on condition of an unknown, unlimited, and unremunerated amount of additional labour. But the chief objection appeared to me to be the state of neglect into which they are allowed to fall, and the over- crowding which is constantly permitted."
This opinion is amply confirmed by the evidence of clergymen, landowners, and others, as given in the appendix to the Report. Even Lord Portman, who is himself a very large landowner in Dorsetahire, admits that there are three decided objections to the system which he has found out from experience on his own estates ; the first one is that the farmers sometimes harbour in his cottages immoral persons of whom he wishes to get rid; secondly, that they sometimes use the cottages as a means to oppress the labourer by making a profit on the rent ; and thirdly, that they " constantly " neglect to whitewash the cottages or attend to the simple and necessary cleaning.—I am, Sir, &c., N. S.