In the 19th century large quantities of alcohol were consumed. In 1876 beer consumption throughout the United Kingdom reached an all time high when 34.4 gallons per person were drunk.
This calculation includes everyone, regardless of age or sex. The previous year all records for spirits were broken with 1.30 gallons being drunk for every man, woman and child.
With four times more alcohol being consumed than nowadays, little wonder that the temperance movement caught on. The Temperance Movement in England was started initially by James Silk Buckingham, MP for Sheffield, who proposed a motion for a Select Committee inquiry into the causes and results of alcoholism in 1834.
In May 1836 the British and Foreign Temperance Society was founded in London. The first meeting held to form a Temperance organisation in Frome was held within weeks, on 1 July 1836. Members signed the Temperance Pledge:
“We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxication quality whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine.”
On 9 Nov 1837, the first anniversary of the public formation of the Total Abstinence Society was celebrated in Rook Lane Chapel and the following interesting facts are recorded as the work of the year:
“A flourishing branch has been planted at Nunney. Brothers Vickery and Hird amongst the Primatives cultivate it with great care.”
“Branches have been attempted at Road, Mells and Leigh on Mendip. Nunney and Leigh are the most promising.”
“Drunkards have been reformed, converted and led to join the Christian Church and are now the foremost to conduct our Temperance Prayer Meetings.”
The Nunney Temperance movement was very active. It even had its own brass band to accompany members on their processions to the Roman villa at Whatley and back, or as far afield as Cheddar. Meetings were usually held in the Primitive Methodist Chapel behind Horn Street, although the castle was also used on special occasions. A report in May 1859 said:
“A large temperance meeting has been held in the ruins of the stately castle and the temperance flag has been seen to float on the ancient turrets, while a right royal salute was fired by a party of the Yeomanry cavalry”.
A typical meeting in Nunney attracted up to 150 local members, who would march around the village in procession before being treated to tea (“the cup that cheers but not inebriates”) and cakes at some of the larger houses in Nunney. This would be followed by singing and prayers before impassioned speeches by Mr and Mrs Vickery – lifelong leaders of the Nunney temperance movement -, reformed alcoholics and others.
William Vickery ran the Post Office in Horn Street from 1851 until his death in 1861, when his widow Betsy took over at the age of 73. The couple were described in a profile of pioneers of the western temperance movement as:
“a pious old couple, full to the brim with teetotal zeal which no amount of discouragement could extinguish. These humble Primitive Methodists were, as speakers, in much request both at home and in the country round.”
“During the delivery of an address by the more garrulous wife, the husband kept up a running commentary on her oratory by exclaiming, ‘That’s true, Betsy! Well done, Betsy.’ These loving expressions of approval on the part of the husband were of course often ill-timed and out of place; but this the audience kindly excused.”
The temperance meetings at the Primitive Methodist Chapel did not always go to plan. According to one report in May 1856:
“The audience was disturbed a little by Mr. J.G., who ascended the platform and not very sober frequently interrupted the speakers by advocating three pints of beer per day; he has been brought before the magistrates.”
Nunney made headlines in 1851 when it became the first place in England to persuade employers to stop paying part of wages in cider – a major victory for the very active local Temperance movement and hailed as ‘a great reformation’ in the press.
Paying labourers part of their wages in beer or cider was standard practice since ancient times. Even workers on the pyramids in Egypt were paid in beer – 1 gallon (4 litres) a day.
Paying labourers in cider at least meant that they didn’t go home thirsty and ended up spending more than they could afford in the local pub. The typical diet of a labourer’s family in Somerset consisted mainly of dry bread, so cider was also used to dip the bread in.
Previously, labourers who didn’t drink alcohol (described as ‘vast numbers’ in Nunney by the – undoubtedly biased – Bristol Temperance Herald) simply lost part of their pay, since employers were unwilling to pay the equivalent value in cash. This was seen as a great injustice and a barrier to the spread of the Temperance principles.
Instead, now farmers and quarry owners agreed to even pay a premium to teetotallers; those who didn’t drink alcohol were more productive and motivated, and were encouraged to recruit likeminded labourers. According to a report in the Bristol Temperance Herald:
“This arrangement has proved very satisfactory all parties concerned, so much so that mowers are at a premium and drinkers at a discount. Farmers now prefer to let their grass to the man of abstinence, leaving him to choose compeers to assist in the work.”
“Now mark the result: firstly, the work is done well; secondly, with less bodily exhaustion; thirdly, the men not only get better remuneration, but have less temptation to spend their hard gains foolishly; fourthly, there is an absence of swearing, profanity other concomitants of drinking; and lastly, the families also of the men employed reap the benefit of the change.”
“We sincerely trust that the reformation so beneficially introduced into Nunney will spread throughout the country.”
The end result of this revolution was more stable families, while the extra cash potentially meant that women and very young children no longer had to work to scrape by. Children were seen as agents of the temperance cause, carrying its message into millions of households. If the parents could be persuaded to give up ‘demon drink’, the children would have a better life too – or “All gain when the parents abstain”, as the slogan went.
Although only 8th in size of the English counties, Somerset had more grassland than any other county except Yorkshire. It also had more breeding stock than any other county except Yorkshire and Lancashire. Dairy farms had far less need for child labour than farms with arable land, while much of the milking was done by men and by farm servants.
In West Somerset wages were far lower than in East Somerset. It was therefore necessary for women and children in West Somerset to make bit of money they could.
According to Mr Fussell, iron-master and churchwarden in Mells, “Farmers do not like women working, they are too independent, and will not submit to any control.” He reported that Mr Horner took great care that boys under 14 went to school regularly and did not go out to work too young.
Henry Blathwayt Festing, agent to the Duke of Somerset in Maiden Bradley, claimed:
“I consider the employment of females in agricultural work most detrimental to their morals; and it totally unfits them for their domestic duties, thus driving the husband nine times out of ten to the public house for necessary comforts, which he does not find at home when he returns tired from work.”
Girls were often sent to work at a later age than the boys, and in far fewer numbers. They were also expected to stay at home to nurse children while their mothers were out at work. This meant they didn’t go to school. If the women worked in the fields, it also meant that the men came home to an unkept, noisy house with no meals ready – and often disappeared to the pub rather than spend time with their offspring.
Girls, and very young boys, were mainly employed to pick stones from the land, set and pick potatoes, and pick apples. Girls were considered more reliable scarecrows, since boys were likely to get a regular job before long. Some farmers complained of boys being generally so lazy that they were of little use. In the words of one farmer, each boy required a man to look after him.
Until the collapse of the cloth trade, women and children supplemented the household earnings by preparing wool during the day for the husband to weave upon his return from the land or quarry. When industry in Frome thrived, work was outsourced to Nunney.
Quite a number of girls went into service too aged 12 or 14, often leaving to go and work in the towns, marrying in the towns and never returning except to visit relatives. Most went into service at local farmhouses though.
They would start by looking after a child, working for their keep at first and with wages gradually increasing. As they became older they would be given dairy work: milking cows, making cream and butter etc. They probably ended up marrying a farmhand.
The older children who continued working in the fields were far fewer, often disabled and unable to compete with other boys and girls for regular farm work.
Manor House Farm
Mr Croome rented Manor House Farm from Mr Theobald. He had 400 acres, of which only 80 were arable – mainly corn and potatoes. He employed only three women and two Cloford boys. All the boys had been to school, albeit only sometimes or occasionally night school. The youngest boy was 12.
He did employ more boys at certain times of year for short jobs, such as crow-keeping and potato setting. More commonly boys did the weeding, led the horses at the plough and picked stones from the field. The women did pretty much the same work and worked for him all year.
Nunney and Cloford also distributed 40l. a year between the girls married in the past year out of money left in trust by Thomas Harris. At Cloford they did not give it to those who had had a child before marriage; in Nunney they did.
“Cottages at Ridgeway very bad. Women not much employed in the fields, not enough for it to exercise a bad effect on the morals of the village; but the worst characters certainly do go out to agricultural labour.”
Marsh thought that weeding in wet weather was very bad for women, and brought rheumatism.
“They are not expected to work when it is wet, but many do so for the sake of the money they earn. They earn about half as much as a man.”
There were, however, concerns about the moral injury that could result from dull, monotonous work such as ‘tenting’. The scaring of birds would for the most part employ children from the age of 6 for a few weeks in spring or autumn, but other descriptions of ‘tenting’ often employed a boy almost all summer and in some areas all winter too.
This employment involved a long day’s work from sunrise to sunset. It was passive work, for a boy or girl tenting crows had little else to do but ‘to shout’.
“So little is there to occupy the mind in it that the chief complaint against it is that it encourages vacancy of mind and listless habits, and it is of no use in training up a child to work,” according to one report.
“The effects of employing the same boy every day in the week, perhaps for months together, upon his general character and tone of mind is one that only those who have had experience of it can adequately appreciate.”
“It is emphatically brutalising. The boy never cleans himself, never puts on his best clothes, loses all reverence for the Sabbath, severs a link that attached him to his teachers and school-fellows, and misses the change that the Sunday school would have given him of having a little intellectual movement imported at least once a week to the stagnant faculties of his mind.”
The report therefore recommended that where the same boy or girl was employed in scaring birds for weeks on end, the law should ensure that they were relieved by a family member every other Sunday to go to church and Sunday school.
Somerset in particular was mentioned as an example of a county where “Sunday is no exception” to the days in which children were employed at bird scaring, so that they had no holiday at all during the week.
Even more specific, it was seen as a huge problem in Nunney. On Tuesday 19 April 1836 Lord Roden presented a petition from Nunney in the House of Lords, praying for a better observance of the Sabbath. This was serious stuff. Education and religious instruction were not only seen as important for the soul of the individual, but in the interest of the nation too.
Interestingly, ancient superstitions still played an important part in and around the West Country too. The rector of Walton, near Street, wrote:
“The custom of roasting a cat alive, when one is supposed to be bewitched, has not gone out.”
In 1797 the Rev. Samuel Whitchurch, rector of Nunney, left in his will a piece of land and £100 for charitable uses. The rent of the land would pay for a sermon to be preached on Good Friday, or failing that for bread to be given away on Easter Sunday.
“The interest of the £100 to be divided, 25s.to the Boys’ Sunday School, 25s. to the Girls’, and a half crown piece to the boy and the same to the girl who, in the opinion of the minister, can best say his or her Catechism. Failing this, thou the interest to be divided between eight poor families of the parish.”
It would appear that religious instruction came before helping the poor.
In 1867 Parliament set up a Commission of Enquiry into children’s working conditions in agriculture. The Commissioners interviewed children and adults around the country, including Nunney.
According to the report published by Her Majesty’s Commissioners two years later:
“With the low wages she and her husband receive it is but natural that, as soon as ever a child is capable of frightening a bird, the mother should come to the farmer and ask for work for him. The work is always given, though many a farmer will tell you such a boy is no real good, but that it is customary to employ the son of one of his own labourers.”
“On the other hand, the mother will often say the farmer requires the boy, and they do not like to refuse him. When Lady-day comes the clergyman knows as well as possible that the school will be half deserted, and it becomes his object to induce as many parents of children as he has sufficient influence over to suffer their children to remain.”
Lady Day (Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March) was a traditional day on which year-long contracts between landowners and tenant farmers would begin and end in England and nearby lands (although there were regional variations). Farmers’ time of “entry” into new farms and onto new fields was often this day. As a result, farming families who were changing farms would travel from the old farm to the new one on Lady Day.
Clergymen were often told that they would have to pay the parents compensation for the earnings the child would have brought in as a bird scarer. In addition, there were school fees to be paid. A child would return to school in winter, having forgotten almost all they had learned months earlier. It was common for farm boys not to be able to read or write their own name.
Reports submitted to the Parliamentary Commissioners contain snippets of interviews with children, such as these from around Wells:
“Joseph Allen (19 next month), rather doubtful about his age. Has been to school, but forgot all he learnt; never went to school much, cannot recollect how many years ago he went last.”
“Thomas Penny (does not know his age, thinks about 12 or 13), has never been to school, but wants to go. Does the regular thing in work.”
“Alfred Foxwell (age 10), has been to school but forgotten. Mason’s boy.”
Specifically about Nunney, the report said:
“Under these circumstances the maintenance of a good school is very up-hill work, and great credit is due to those gentlemen, who in the face of such obstacles have succeeded; it is not to be done without immense effort, and when once done, great energy is necessary to keep up what has been done.”
In the final part of this series of articles we will take a closer look at the struggle to establish proper education and safeguard attendance in Nunney.
This is part 2 of 3 articles on child labour and education in 19th century Nunney. An exhibition on the same themes will take place in Nunney village hall on Sunday 29 June (Open Gardens Day) and in All Saints Church Nunney from Monday 30 June to Saturday 2 August (Nunney Street Market and Fayre).