“What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor”
With this cry William Ferguson, Congregationalist minister of Bicester from 1839 to 1860, opened his impassioned pamphlet The Impending Dangers of our Country; or, Hidden Things Brought to Light, published in the revolutionary year of 1848. Ferguson was a highly vocal critic of the treatment of the rural poor. Through the “hungry forties” — a desperate time not only in Ireland but also for much of the British labouring populations — he kept up a running commentary in newspapers such as the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette on such issues as the starvation caused by the Corn Laws, the abuse of tithes, the horror inspired by the Work House, and the dismal failures of both landowners and the established Church to address the material, educational and spiritual needs of agricultural labourers.
In Impending Dangers Ferguson urged the Whig government to embrace radical reform of the franchise as one answer to the impoverished and degraded nature of the English peasantry (as he termed the rural labouring population). Although he did not mention it by name, the pamphlet was supportive of the Chartist movement which demanded universal manhood suffrage. Both Ferguson and the Chartists warned that failure to heed this call might result in revolution. Indeed “physical force” Chartists were arming and training in June 1848 when this publication first reached the public. In an accompanying letter to the then Prime Minister Lord John Russell, Ferguson urged and an end to policies that “promote war and bloodshed to the ends of the earth” (ii), but rather that the upper and middle classes should “do justice to those who husband the soil, feed the cattle, and keep the sheep”. (vi)
For the historian the great value of this pamphlet is its eyewitness testimony concerning the living conditions of the rural poor in the 1840s. Ferguson reiterated that he spoke from knowledge, not hearsay: “Let us visit their cottages, look into their circumstances, ascertain the causes of their ruin, and speak of things just as we may happen to find them” (p. 17). For example Ferguson, who was very active in promoting schooling in Bicester and Launton, reports numerous instances of belief in magic and supernatural remedies as evidence of the failure of the Church of England to educate its parishioners. (Our colleague Thomas Waters used Ferguson’s evidence in his fascinating thesis on witchcraft in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.) But he also included numerous examples of household budgets to prove that it was impossible for families of agricultural labourers to subsist on their wages, and for paupers to subsist on the relief was granted to them by the Poor Law Commissioners. Ferguson would have no truck with the rural idyll, which was so often used to promote the lace industry: “The cottage and its garden – the peasant and his family – the village church and its clergyman – have all been portrayed as the quintessence of loveliness, and the perfection of earthly bliss!” But the reality he found in his preaching tours of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire was houses without windows, sometimes without roofs, rooms with no bedding but the bare earth, families with nothing to light the fire and no food to cook on it if they had.
One critique that might be made of these household budgets is that Ferguson only considered the income of the male breadwinner. He did not include earnings from other members of the family in his calculations. However, he certainly knew that women were also involved in productive labour and included a short section on the plight of lacemakers in the “hungry forties”. As a luxury trade, lace was particularly badly affected by the general economic depression, and the picture Ferguson painted was grim; but some of issues he raised, such as the truck system in which lacemakers were obliged to take goods rather than money in exchange for their product, were longstanding complaints.
There is another class of great sufferers in the rural districts – we mean the poor lace-makers, who sit at the pillow for ten, twelve, or even fourteen hours a day, and yet cannot earn more than from 1s.3d. to 2s.3d. a week. She is a good lace-maker indeed who can clear 2s.6d. a week. When the piece is finished, the poor woman has to go from house to house and from shop to shop in search of a customer. Lace-buyers will hardly take the lace at any price. This once flourishing trade has gone to ruin, but not till it has ruined the bulk of the female population in those districts in which it is made.
The lace-buyer is generally a shopkeeper, and consequently those whose lace he takes are compelled to take goods for it, instead of money. But as the goods which they are thus forced to take – such as tea – are luxuries which they cannot afford to keep for their own use, they are under the necessity of wandering from house to house to sell the tea! The lace-buyer, of whom the lace-makers must buy the thread, charges them 2s.6d. for as much thread as they could buy at any of the regular shops for 3d. Alas for the wretched and degraded women who are dependent on the lace-pillow for their bread. Their trade is their utter ruin. They are no fit for service. They are ignorant of the duties of their station. Many of them have no knowledge of house-hold occupations, and consequently they are strangers to the art of housekeeping. Numbers of these famished lace-makers die of consumption, brought on by hunger, and also by their constantly stooping over the pillow. (pp.36-7).