Thomas Hardy and Agricultural Life

Matthew Penchuk Class of 1997
Michael Cronin Class of 1997
Meghan Fuller Class of 1997
Franklin & Marshall College

When Thomas Hardy was born in 1840, agriculture was the most important industry in England, employing roughly 20% of the labor force. By 1900, however, agricultural workers comprised less than 10% of the total work force. Clearly, England experienced a great shift away from the agrarian society which had existed relatively unchanged for roughly four hundred years to one of increasing industrialization and urbanization in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This change occurred for numerous rea sons; access to railroads offered the farm laborers a chance to leave the farm in favor of the city where they could find better paying employment and a higher standard of living, and increased education made them dissatisfied with their current conditions on the farm.

Industrialized cities offered laborers better wages and an increased standard of living. According to one historian, the conditions of the laborer in 1840 left much to be desired. "He was given starvation wages, overlong hours of work, disgraceful hou sing, little or no education, and was generally treated as a lowly estate . . . " (Williams 7).

Hardy witnessed much of this hardship as a child growing up in Dorset--which would later become his model for Wessex. In a letter to a friend, dated 1900, he remembered these conditions:

As to my opinion on the past of the agricultural laborer in this country, I think, indeed know, that down to 1850 or 1855, his condition was in general one of great hardship . . . As a child I knew by sight a sheep-keeping boy who, to my horror, died sho rtly afterwards of want, the contents of his stomach at the autopsy being raw turnip only. His father's wages were 6s a week (Williams 108).

Hardy's Dorset was, in fact, the poorest and least industrialized county in Britain, and the farm laborers led difficult, often unrewarding lives. Laborers toiled from six o'clock in the morning until six o'clock at night in the summer and from the firs t light until dusk in the winter. It was not uncommon to find women and children in the fields; their labor was frequently used as cheap substitute for men's. Their diet was monotonous and meager--bread, bacon and cheese, and only occasionally milk. Th ey drank beer and tea, and those who could not afford tea would soak burnt toast in water. In addition, the living conditions of many of these laborers were horrendous. Many lived in squalor and did not have the money to improve their condition. In 1851 , there were half a million such laborers in England.

In 1873, public outcry led to the Agricultural Children's Act which did away with child labor. However, the laborers were still not satisfied with the conditions under which they had to work, and they pushed for additional reforms. Joseph Arch's Natio nal Union was organized in 1872 to combat low wages and poor living conditions, as well as the oppressive rule of the land owners. Arch later wrote about the necessity for the union, recalling the tyranny of the land owners and the farmers:

At the sight of the squire, the people trembled. He lorded it right feudally over his tenants, the farmers; the farmers in their turn tyrannized the labourers; the labourers were no better than toads under a harrow. Most of the farmers were oppressors o f the poor; they put on the iron wage screw, and screwed the labourers wages down, down below living point; they stretched him on the rack of life-long abject poverty (The Victorian Countryside 457-8).

Within a few months, Arch's union had grown to 50,000 disgruntled laborers. It is important to note, however, that Arch's union was unique in that its organizers stressed the importance of legal and non-violent revolt, with an emphasis on education and t emperance, self-respect and self-government.

The union was successful in increasing the average wage by about twenty to thirty percent. In addition, the union men helped families move to towns where they could find better work. For many, this was the first time they left the confines of their vil lage. According to Arch, "The laborer, through the union, was now able to break the chain of poverty, fear and debt, which had tied him by the leg to one place" (Williams 11). This migration proved to be the central achievement of the union, for it coll apsed in 1884 due to internal quarreling.

Despite the collapse of the union, the depopulation of the English countryside continued. Those who left tend to be young, especially girls. Between 1851-1861, Dorset experienced "a migration proportion of about 76 % of the natural increase" (Williams 111). A huge portion of the population left Dorset for a better life in the city.

After 1900, the English countryside looked different. People often migrated to towns for increased wages; those who remained on the farm chose to do so, and their standard of living was higher than ever. Farmers were now aware of a world outside of the ir farming communities--they could read, write, and, after 1883, the men were allowed to vote.

Though Thomas Hardy's country novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, takes place before much of the shift toward industrialization and urbanization, Hardy included a few, subtle references to his displeasure with the changing Dorset landscape and his admirat ion for the laborers and their country.

"One could say about the barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two, typical remnants o Medievalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time" (chapter 22).

Hardy clearly admires this unchanging agrarian way of life; this barn is practical, durable, and necessary to human life--just as agriculture was to England.

Indeed, Hardy seems to equate the city with a lack of tradition, a lack of historical importance. "In comparison with the cities, Weatherbury was immutable. The citizen's THEN is the rustic's NOW. In London, twenty or thirty years ago are old times . . . in Weatherbury, three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone" (chapter 8). People like Gabriel Oak, the shepherd and Bathsheba Everdene continue the rich history of the countryside. They struggle to protect the land and the people who work the land; they alone revitalize Weatherbury and restore peace after the chaos of Fanny's death and Troy's death and Boldwood's trial. There is something simple and timeless about the agrarian way of life that makes it unique and worth protecting--this is clearly Hardy's opinion, perhaps most notably expressed by the following excerpt from Far From the Madding Crowd: "God was palpably present in the country, and the devil had gone with the world to town" (chapter 8).


Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd. Ed. Robert C. Schweik. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986.

Mingay, G.E. Rural Life in Victorian England. London: Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd., 1976.

---, ed. The Victorian Countryside. 2 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Payne, Christiana. Toil and Plenty: Images of the Agricultural Landscape in England, 1780-1890. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Thompson, F.M.L., ed. The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 2 vols.

Williams, Merryn. Thomas Hardy and Rural England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.