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.
Stephen Wood was clearly selected as one of the town's largest tenant farmers in the area. He was born in Lindfield in 1784 and, at the time of his presentation, was 58,and lived in the Hanlye area and employed 11 labourers.
I hold about 480 acres of land in the parishes of Cuckfield and Lindfield. I commonly take three or four boys into my service for continual work, and have been in the habit of engaging them as early as 10 years old. They do not live in my house, but in their father’s cottage.
Formerly boys were taken by farmers into their houses to a greater extent than they are now. It was not uncommon for the parish to make an agreement with the farmer, under which he engaged to receive and board a boy for the benefit which he might derive from his services, and for a slight weekly payment, which he received in proportion to the age of the boy and his capability of work: the agreement lasted for a single year.
The practice has been dropped for some time, as it was frequently found that the farmers preferred taking small boys with the trilling sum of money, to engaging older boys without any benefit but their services. Since the discontinuance of this custom, farmers have found it less expensive to hire boys for 6d per day, than to keep them in their houses and feed them.
The farmer certainly has more control over the boy whom he employs when he keeps him in his house; but which of the two customs is, upon the whole, better for the boy I will not undertake to say; it depends upon circumstances. I do not think that, if a boy be not overworked, he can begin labour too early.
It is very difficult to find good female servants for farm houses; and this is a difficulty which I believe to have increased during latter years. My own opinion is, though 1 do not wish to say anything which may seem to discountenance education, that in the National schools they become habituated to needlework, which is labour of a much finer kind than they must perform in farm houses, and which gives them a distaste for it.
I do not say that this would make them worse servants for a gentleman’s family. When girls go out at the early age of 12 or 13 into service, it is usually as nursemaids that they go, and they often receive some trifle weekly in addition to their board.
It is not common for farmers to sell wheat or flour to their labourers, but some years ago, when the price of corn was high, instead of raising their wages, I offered to furnish them with flour at a lower sum than they could obtain it in the market. When the price was about 1s 5d or 1s 6d per gallon in the market, I undertook to provide it at a sum not exceeding 1s 3d. Since the price has fallen the agreement has not been continued.
I think the practice a good one, and favourable to the labourer. The boys who work with me are all the sons of some of my labourers. I pay the fathers, not the children. The eldest boy in my service is 14 years of age, and receives 3s a week.
It is not uncommon for children as early as 8 or 9 years to assist their fathers at threshing. This work is paid for by the quarter. Wheat is threshed at from 3s 4d. to 4s the quarter.
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
Photo: A young girl, during holiday work in 1914, milking a cow in the farm yard. Imperial War Museum: IWM Non Commercial Licence.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.