Farm labouring in 1840

When reading census records for  East Essex by far the most common occupation listed was that of agricultural labourer especially in the rural areas. This trade was passed on from generation to generation often for the same landowner.

In 1900 the Essex Review carried an account of life as a Essex farm labourer in 1840 which may help us to understand what the life of our ancestors was like.

Those were the days of the smock frock- a worn and shabby one for everyday, a better one, of a soft greenish hue, for Sundays. This in turn descended to the weekday wear and very likely to another and third generation. The smock was a comprehensive garment that reached below the knees. the farm labourer's lower extremities being cased on Sundays in short brown leather buskins, which met the hem of the smock. The wives of the farm men appeared on Sundays in large circular cloaks that enveloped their spare figures. At the time of which I am writing, scarlet ones were getting few and far between, but the little bit of colour seen across the common under the ancient lime trees was a most picturesque sight.

Implements were then very scarce upon the farms. hardly any of the farmers had even drills of their own. To possess a drill, or more than one, and take it round the neighbourhood, or let it out to farmers, was a trade in itself.

All the wheat was threshed by a flail upon the barn floors, and comfortable warm work it was during the long, cold winter. The flip-flop of the flails is still as fresh as possible in my memory.

machinery was being introduced but most farms used real horsepower

Those who only have to pay a penny for their letters to any part of the United Kingdom or the Colonies , would have perhaps begrudged the five pence necessary to frank a letter. Three times only each week did letters find their way from our village, from which year after year a weather beaten old dame traveled on foot to the town and back, laden with many things besides letters. One winter morning she was found frozen to death in the watery lane.

There was no putting the washing out in those days, but every farmhouse had its grand washing days, when the women started work at 4 o clock in the morning , in fact some of them came over night. Strange as it may seem now they would stand all day at the wash tub or copper, rubbing and wringing ( there were no wringing machines) and would go home at night well satisfied with receiving something under a shilling and their meals.

The game on our farms was carefully preserved by the landlord, whose visits we children highly appreciated, for the sake of brand new shillings or sixpences, which the old banker brought in his pocket from Lombard Street. He was invariably dressed in  light short jacket reaching only to his waist, and worn outside his coat. This garment was called a Spencer after Lord Spencer, who as Lord Althorp, had been chancellor of the Exchequer in 1830. If the old landlord came in his whiskey ( a light two wheeled conveyance for one horse) we were more than delighted especially if he drove it in the horse that had such an appropriate name. Brought to the stables one day when he was in his , most decisive mood he had scarcely set eyes upon it before rapping out in his abrupt way ' what's the price?' 'Fifty guineas' said the owner promptly. ' I'll have it' came quickly in reply and the animal was forthwith named Moment.  His coachman at the same time was one Moses and the old Squires order: ' Tell Moses to put Moment in the whiskey', which we children heard repeated , seemed to use almost of biblical importance.

These are only a few rambling reminiscences of sixty years ago but yet enough to show the rising generation in what a different age from that of our childhood they have opened their eyes.

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