Friday, 3 August 2018

The other side of the divide ...... rural poverty

It is easy when reflecting on the story of British Home Children to assume that the poverty, and awful housing conditions which formed the backdrop of so many stories was exclusively played out in an urban setting.

Sutton's Cottage, 1894 which dated from the late 18th century
The writings of Dr Kay, Frederick Engels, Leon Faucher, and a host of other social observers along with newspaper accounts and official reports all draw you into the mean alleys, narrow streets and closed courts of our towns and cities where “poverty busied itself”.

And it was once fashionable to compare these grim landscapes with a rural idyll.

Of course the reality was very different.  Agricultural wages were much lower, work was seasonal and the homes of farm labourers could be as bad as any industrial slum.

Most were wattle and daub cottages made by filling in the space between a wooden frame with walls made of woven branches covered with a mix of mud, and straw.

Such houses were easy to build and equally easy to maintain, but there could be disadvantages to living in them.  The porous nature of walls meant they were damp and crumbling clay meant endless repairs.

According to a later Parliamentary report “Many of them have not been lined with lath and plaster inside and so are fearfully cold in winter.  

The walls may not be an inch in thickness and where the lathes are decayed the fingers may be easily pushed through.  

Interior of a cottage, 1930s
The roof is of thatch, which if kept in good repair forms a good covering, warm in winter and cool in summer, though doubtless in many instances served as harbour for vermin, for dirt, for the condensed exhalations from the bodies of the occupants of the bedrooms....”  *

Floors made of brick or stone were laid directly on the ground and were almost invariably damp, and in the worst cases reeked with moisture.  Once the brick was broken, the floor became uneven and the bare earth exposed.  

This might be compounded where the cottage floor was below the ground outside or the floor level was uneven which caused problems of drainage.   Even the proudest wife and mother must have been reconciled to damp and dirt which were the result of such floors.

Upstairs of a one up one down cottage, 1930s
The only heating would come from the open fire or stove which might have been combined with a cooking range.

On damp days when the coal or wood was wet the smell would permeate every room in the house.

During the winter months the unheated bedrooms were particularly unpleasant places.  On the coldest nights ice would form on the inside of windows.

Cottages of this design were often limited to four rooms, and some may have had only two, with the family living downstairs and sleeping on the upper floor.  In some cases access to the bedroom was by ladder rather than stairs and in many cases bedrooms were left open.  One surviving cottage in Chorlton from the eighteenth century did have a staircase which opened out to a big bedroom giving little in the way of privacy.

As for sanitation this would have been equally primitive.  Nationally the rural picture was grim with privies often draining into open channels which themselves got blocked with refuse and so flowed too slowly to allow the waste to disperse.

19th century cottages
At Stourpain, a village near Blandford in Dorset several labourers’ cottages fronted an open gutter which was fed from channels running down the side of the houses which served the privies and pigsties which were positioned above the cottages.

A state of affairs which meant that the “cottages are nearly surrounded by streams of filth” ** and while this may have been an extreme case the same report observed that in most of the cottages “the dirt of the family is thrown down before or behind the cottage; [and]  if there is any natural inclination in the ground from the cottage, it escapes, if not it remains till evaporated.” ***

Now while this may have been during the middle decades of the 19th century conditions in some rural areas were still slow to improve.

Pictures; Sutton’s Cottage circa 1892, photograph from the Wesleyan Souvenir Handbook of 1895 in the collection of Philip Lloyd, and interior of a farm cottage, 1930s, 19th century cottage, Bari Sparshot

*British Parliamentary Papers 1893-4 XXXV V,1, page 103 quoted from Gauldie Enid Country Homes p532  The Victorian Countryside edited by Mingay C. E Vol 1 Routedge & Kegan Paul 1981 ISBN 0-7100 1009734 5

**Report of  Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, HMSO, London 1843,  page 21, Google edition page 40

***Mr Austen Poor Law Page 21

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