Chapter : 3. Peasants and Farmers

The Conditions Of The Poor

When fences came up, the enclosed land became the exclusive property of one landowner. The poor could no longer collect their firewood from the forests, or graze their cattle on the commons. They could no longer collect apples and berries, or hunt small animals for meat. Nor could they gather the stalks that lay on the fields after the crops were cut. Everything belonged to the landlords, everything had a price which the poor could not afford to pay. In places where enclosures happened on an extensive scale – particularly the Midlands and the counties around – the poor were displaced from the land. They found their customary rights gradually disappearing. Deprived of their rights and driven off the land, they tramped in search of work. From the Midlands, they moved to the southern counties of England. This was a region that was most intensively cultivated, and there was a great demand for agricultural labourers. But nowhere could the poor find secure jobs. Earlier, it was common for labourers to live with landowners. They ate at the master’s table, and helped their master through the year, doing a variety of odd jobs. By 1800 this practice was disappearing. Labourers were being paid wages and employed only during harvest time. As landowners tried to increase their profits, they cut the amount they had to spend on their workmen. Work became insecure, employment uncertain, income unstable. For a very large part of the year the poor had no work.

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