The 1834 Poor Law Act resulted in the setting up of an enquiry into the conditions of employment of women and children in agriculture. Witnesses from 12 counties gave evidence probably in 1841/2.
Several worthy members of society in Cuckfield were called to testify under oath in 1843 on matters concerning the health, well-being, lifestyle and financial circumstances of the local community. Today this gives us a valuable insight into living in Cuckfield at the time of when Charles Dickens was annually churning out works such as the ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’.
The report from the Commissioners included an insight into life in Cuckfield from the village doctor, the vicar, a farmer, a publican and an apprentice and also gave a detailed account of how women and children were employed to do in agriculture.
Most significantly, nationally the new law resulted in further workhouses to be built. And while the story is more complex, the new wave of social reform was the first step towards a more considerate caring society and the first steps towards the modern day NHS.
It's good to know that they didn't just listen to the bosses as they also took the testimony of a young apprentice James Jennings. Seven years after this he was living in Broad Street and employed as a brickmaker. Then at the age of 48, still living in BroadStreet with his wife, he was a coachman and grocer.
I am nearly 20 years of age, and am the son of a small farmer in the town of Cuckfield; I was apprenticed to a hoop-shaver [Ed: he made wooden hoops for barrels] when I was 17 years of age, which is later in life than usual for youths who take to that trade.
I paid a premium of £1 to John Dansey, my uncle, who engaged to teach me and let me have my earnings; £2 2s is the sum more commonly paid as premium; the work usually begins a month after Michaelmas [Ed: End of September], and goes on to the beginning of June.
At the spring of the year (when the days are long) I could earn 8s in the week in the first year of my employment; I can now earn 12s; I staid with John Dansey two winters, and he paid me for my work at the same rate at which he was paid by his employer.
Two years ago I was working on a piece of 16 or 18 acres, on which six men were employed cutting the underwood and making it into faggots, two men and three boys besides myself shaving hoops, and one boy who came occasionally to shave poles; the work engaged this number of workmen for five or six months; the eldest boy was 16, and the youngest four or five years younger; they were working with their father. The young make short hoops, and the old hands make long ones.
In the long days I think a good hoop-shaver might earn 3s a day; my uncle and myself used to work about 12 hours; the other man worked more, so did his sons.
Notes: 1 shilling = £11, one pence = 4 pence today
Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law. Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture by Great Britain. Poor Law Commissioners, 1843
Photograph: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images: email@example.com http://wellcomeimages.org Young man in a wooden barrel, with his arms hanging over the edge. Photograph. By: George Edward
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.