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.
The larger inns and hotels in the mid 1800's did not rely on daily deliveries from food wholesalers and depended instead on their small-holdings to meet their daily requirements of vegetables and meat - and also for hay and straw. The landlords of both the Talbot and the King's Head had to be very versatile as publicans, farmers as well as caterers.
I occupy 120 acres of land in the parish of Cuckfield, and am landlord of the King's Head Inn. I have been in the parish 12 years.
The greater number of boys employed in agriculture are taken by the farmers by the week, and some are paid by the year and taken into the farmhouse: they are also hired by the day. From 10 years old a boy may be employed to drive horse at plough and go with the team, generally accompanied by a man. 6d a-day is the common pay. For harrowing he ought to be rather her older, as he goes alone.
A boy is usually eight hours in the field, and generally spends four more hours in waiting on the horses. The hours for meals are not strictly settled, but they take the time out of the 12 hours. It is not the common plan here for boys to thresh, although the fathers thresh by the piece, until they are 14 or 15 years old. Boys are very little employed at bird-searing; seven or eight years old is sufficient age for this. There is very little couching here either in spring or Michaelmas; children and women do it when necessary. A child would be paid 4d, and a woman l0d.
At about 10 or 12 years old, a boy will often accompany his father at hedging and ditching, which is generally done by the rod, and wood cutting, which is undertaken by the hundred of faggots cut. The man may earn 1s 8d or 2s.
Boys are not commonly permitted to weed corn, but only clover and grassfields. Women usually weed the corn by pulling and spudding, at 10t7. a-day. In the hayfield boys are seldom hired; occasionally they are taken at 12 or 13, and have 8d. a day. Women earn 10d or 1s at the same work.
In corn harvest, boys are taken to assist their father at reaping at about 10 or 12 years old. The father is paid about 10s. an acre. The work begins at four, and ends at eight; the cutting begins as early as four. It is all reaped, except the corn, which is cut with a scythe, as barley and oats. Boys rake the corn together, or drive the team, or are employed on the stack, at the same age. A hired boy would have a trifle more than the 6d a-day which the farmboy has.
Women are never hired to reap, but sometimes assist their husbands. They also rake the corn, and occasionally bind the wheat. The women earn about 1s and a little food. A woman’s working day begins later than the man’s; a boy’s day is 12 hours, like that of the man.
Women and boys are both employed in picking up potatoes; boys more frequently than women. A boy of eight years old can do this; he would have about 4d.
There are very few turnips in this country, and therefore they furnish very little work. Women and boys both pick up stones from the grass land. The woman is paid as usual; the boy has 4d or 6d, according to his age. This lasts a very short time.
Girls under 15 are sometimes employed in stone-picking, potato-planting, and occasionally in bean-dropping and hay-making. They begin as early as nine years old and from that time to 14 they are paid from 4d to 6d a day. The New Poor Law has not had the effect of sending children out to work more than formerly. Married women are more frequently employed than single. There are but few allotments in this neighbourhood: they are not much approved by the poor, as they have in many instances given their allotments up.
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: Wikimedia Commons, Worship Street, Whistling Stop, Shoreditch.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.