A comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875




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breadwinners; and this is all they want."36


The Southern English Agricultural Workers' Diet Was Poor, Often Meatless


William Cobbett, the great Tory-turned-radical journalist and gadfly, saw up close the poor, largely meatless diet of southern farm laborers. While travelling in Hampshire, he noted the "poor creatures" who "are doomed to lead a life of constant labour and of half-starvation." After mentioning the snack of a pound of bread and a quarter pound of cheese he and his young son ate came to five pence, or almost three shillings, if they had it daily, he wondered:


How, then, Gracious God! is a labouring man, his wife, and, perhaps, four or five small children, to exist upon 8s. or 9s. a week! Aye, and to find house-rent, clothing, bedding and fuel out of it? Richard and I ate here, at this snap, more, and much more, than the average of labourers, their wives and children, have to eat in a whole day, and that the labourer has to work on too!


When facing such tight budgets, laborers spent little on meat, but concentrated on cereal foodstuffs or (perhaps) potatoes, which Cobbett hated to see. Later in the same county, he indignantly observed:

These poor creatures, that I behold, here pass their lives amidst flocks of sheep; but, never does a morsel of mutton enter their lips. A labouring man told me, at Binley, that he had not tasted meat since harvest; [this was written Nov. 7th] and his looks vouched for the statement.37


Cobbett's polemics constitute only a small part of the evidence describing how poor the laborers' diet was in southern England. Caleb Bawcombe, a shepherd, recalled for Hudson how the sight of deer tempted his father Isaac into poaching while living in Wiltshire (c. 1820):


For many many days he had eaten his barley bread, and on some days barley-flour dumplings, and had been content with this poor fare; but now the sight of these animals [deer] made him crave for meat with an intolerable craving, and he determined to do something to satisfy it.


Somerville encountered one man, who was better fed in prison (he had participated in the Swing Riots of 1830) than when freed to live in Hampshire. In prison he ate four times a week 14 ounces of meat. "No working man like me as can get it [good meat]. I wish I had as much meat now as I had in the hulk; and I wishes the same to every poor hard-working man in Hampshire." While visiting England, Olmsted learned of this pathetic vignette from a farmer. Illustrating how scarce fresh meat was in the laborers' diets, they gorged themselves the few times they could afford it:


They [the laborers] will hardly taste it [fresh meat] all their lives, except, it may be, once a year, at a fair, when they'll go to the cook-shops and stuff themselves with all they'll hold of it; and if you could see them, you'd say they did not know what it was or what was to be done with it--cutting it into great mouthfuls and gobbling it down without any chewing, like as a fowl does barleycorns, till it chokes him.


Edward Butt, a Sussex relieving officer and farmer, recalled for the Committee on the New Poor Law that when he was younger (before 1794) the laborers had some meat everyday with their bread when they came to eat in his father's farmhouse. But by 1837, they mainly ate bread and vegetables, especially potatoes. Unable to get milk in his area, the farmworkers also ate little meat. Somerville found one Wiltshire laborer, although saddened by his young son's death, not fully regretting it either: "We ben't sorry he be gone. I hopes he be happy in heaven. He ate a smart deal; and many a time, like all on us, went with a hungry belly." Ironically, while serving a sentence in Bermuda for poaching: "We had terrible good living . . . by as I ever had for working in England. Fresh beef three times a-week, pork and peas four times a-week." When imprisoned laborers ate better free ones, Wiltshire's dire conditions can only be imagined. Similarly, one laborer in Hampshire told Somerville: "They say meat be wonderful cheap in Reading, but what of it being cheap to we who can't buy it at no price?" Speaking more generally, Deane and Cole note an increase in England's grain growing acreage took place "at the expense of the nation's meat supply" during the French Wars. As shown by meat having disappeared from their dinner tables, many agricultural workers in southern England were beaten down to the edge of subsistence.38


Grains, especially Wheat, Dominate the Agricultural Workers' Diet


Perhaps best illustrating the importance of grain in Hodge's diet, consider the case of one Hampshire laborer and his family. They normally only ate bread, with some vegetables. Somerville learned the father had for breakfast just dry bread, if anything at all, before mid-day. Especially in hard times, the laborers's budgets might be 80 percent or more committed to buying bread and/or flour. Looming large in the diet of southern English agricultural workers, wheat was the dominant grain, at least in good times. Barley, rye, or oats also put their appearances, with the last being the north's dominant grain. These grains had the advantage of avoiding some of the nutritional pitfalls of corn (maize). For all his travails, Hodge in southern England did not suffer from pellagra, as many black slaves in the American South likely did for some part of the year. Since reliance on grains other than wheat in southern England was deemed a sign of poverty, laborers often resented eating bread made out of anything else. Showing barley did not always make for palatable fare, and pointing to exceptional poverty for the southern English, consider this story Hudson learned about conditions in Wiltshire (c. 1830) for those on the parish make-work detail during the winter months. Some of his most elderly informants told of how the laborers played with their food in the fields:


The men would take their dinners with them, consisting of a few barley balls or cakes, in their coat pockets, and at noon they would gather at one spot to enjoy their meal, and seat themselves on the ground in a very wide circle, the men about ten yards apart, then each one would produce his bannocks, and start throwing, aiming at some other man's face; there were hits and misses and great excitement and hilarity for twenty or thirty minutes, after which the earth and gravel adhering to the balls would be wiped off, and they would set themselves to the hard task of masticating and swallowing the heavy stuff.


Admittedly, food fights during lunch with barley balls were exceptional. For the southern English, wheat was their mainstay, with 94 percent of the population in southern and eastern England subsisting on wheat in 1801. In contrast, the northern English, despite higher incomes, had less of a taste for wheat. According to Thomas, just some 25 percent of them lived upon it, while 50 percent consumed oats, 18 percent barley, and 6 percent rye. During the 1760s, Charles Smith judged, assuming a population of around six million in England and Wales, that 3,750,000 ate wheat, 888,000 rye, 623,000 oats, and 739,000 barley. Evidently, wheat bread grew in market share until the 1790s, when over two-thirds of the population relied upon wheat. The southern English desire to cling to the wheaten loaf and to resist shifting to potatoes or other grains despite their low wages and the effects of enclosure combined, Thomas infers, to cause them possibly to eat less wheat than formerly and perhaps even less food overall. The northern English preference for oats (similar to the Scots') was made largely possible by the availability of inexpensive milk to the poor. Due to enclosures taking away most of their cows, laborers in the south could not easily do likewise, as the Hammonds saw.39 By opposing having coarser grains the mainstay of their diet, the southern English may well kept the finer "luxury grain" (wheat) in their diet only by eating less of it.


The Role of Potatoes in the Laborers' Diet, Despite Prejudices Against Them


Potatoes played an important role in the laborers' diet, especially as the nineteenth century drew on, and desperation broke down resistance against substituting them for grain. Exemplifying this contempt for potatoes, Cobbett saw them as a sign of the English sliding down to the Irish level:


I see [in Sussex] very few of "Ireland's lazy root;" and never, in this country, will the people be base enough to lie down and expire from starvation under the operation of the extreme unction! Nothing but a potatoe-eater will ever do that.


Further, rather than see the English working people reduced into living on potatoes,


he would see them all hanged, and be hanged with them, and would be satisfied to have written upon his grave, 'Here lie the remains of William Cobbett, who was hanged because he would not hold his tongue without complaining while his labouring countrymen were reduced to live upon potatoes.'40


Despite Cobbett's opposition, a man full of the prejudices of the southern farmworker which in spirit he remained, potatoes became important in Hodge's diet. Demonstrating the decay of farm laborers' anti-potato sentiments, one Dorsetshire landowner in Dorset successfully got laborers to reclaim wasteland for him in return for planting potatoes, despite they knew next year the process would be repeated with another piece of land. In Somerset in 1845 during the Irish potato famine the blight wiped out all the potatoes. Due to the laborers' extreme dependence on them, this was a disaster because their wages averaged a mere seven shillings and six pence a week year around: "For years past their daily diet is potatoes for breakfast, dinner, and supper, and potatoes only. This year they are not living on potatoes, because they have none." In Sussex, Somerville found a laborer's wife complaining about "how it hurts the constitution of a man to work hard on potatoes, and nothing else but a bit of dry bread." This family ate four days a week normally only potatoes and dry bread. Somerville even exaggerated how important potatoes were in the diet of English laborers. When commenting on how the potato blight had wiped out the crop in the south and west of England, he said this event had gotten far less attention than the Irish disaster: "Surely the English potatoes are not to be overlooked, nor the English labourers, whose chief article of diet potatoes are. . . . How much greater must be the suffering be when to dearness of bread there is the companionship of scarcity of potatoes!" Now although potatoes loomed increasingly large in the laborers' diet, and 1845-46 was a bad year for both England and Ireland, grains still remained their staff of life generally, unlike for the Irish. Still, Cobbett's anti-potato campaign must be ranked an ultimate failure: Near the town of Farnham where Cobbett was born and buried, Somerville found "the finest specimens of this year's crop which I have seen in any part of England," having seen some excellent patches of potatoes between that place and the location of Cobbett's farm at Normandy.41


Did Farmworkers Prefer Coarse or Fine Food?


Against the view that the farmworkers (or slaves, by implication) prefer finer and less coarse foods, Jeffries once commented on Hodge's desires and the problems with changing what Mrs. Hodge winds up cooking:


The difficulty arises from the rough, coarse tastes of the labourer, and the fact, which it is useless to ignore, that he must have something solid, and indeed, bulky. . . . Give him the finest soup; give him pates, or even more meaty entrees, and his remark will be that it is very nice, but he wants 'summat to eat'. His teeth are large, his jaws strong, his digestive powers such as would astonish a city man; he likes solid food, bacon, butcher's meat, cheese, or something that gives him a sense of fullness, like a mass of vegetables. This is the natural result of his training to work in the fields. . . . Let anyone go and labour daily in the field, and they will come quickly to the same opinion.


Although his rather condescending views were on target concerning food preparation, they ignore the farmworkers' desires for a less coarse grain since it may compose 80 percent or more of their diets. Certainly, some class bias is definitely coloring Jeffries' views of Hodge's real desires. Consider the implications of bread remaining the staff of life for the laborers and making up most of their daily calories. To switch from wheat to barley, or to oatmeal without milk, would tax anyone's digestive system used to the first grain when it is
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