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Village Life

Poverty

The wages of farm workers were growing by one-third less than the average for those of other British workers. Of those who could still find work, most only did so at times of sowing, weeding or harvesting, and were unlikely to earn enough to support a family unless they had other trades or crafts, such as bakers, blacksmiths or foresters. The 1851 census lists 225 agricultural labourers and 44 paupers in the village, most of the paupers giving their trade as former agricultural workers or related to one.

Paupers in East Meon village listed in the 1851 census

Inevitably, rents on most village houses were unaffordable and many were subdivided to accommodate families which huddled together in ever smaller dwellings.

Farm Cottages

There was a discrepancy between the rent which labourers could afford and the cost of building a habitable dwelling which could be let to farm workers. The state of rural accommodation had been observed in 1781 by the architect of Bath Crescent and Assembly Rooms, John Wood, when on his travels he observed:’ Shattered, dirty, inconvenient, miserable hovels, scarcely affording a shelter for beasts of the forest; much less the proper habitations for the human species; nay, it is impossible to describe the miserable conditions of the poor cottager, of which I was too often the melancholy spectator.’ This was still the situation fifty years later when William Cobbett wrote: ‘look at these hovels, made of mud and straw, bits of glass or of old cast-off windows, without frames or hinges frequently … Enter them and look at the bits of chairs and stools, the wretched boards tacked together to form a table.’ Poverty in the countryside was every bit as dreadful as in the city slums. Efforts were made during the 19th century to square the circle of affordability and habitable cottages: the gothic revival architect George Gilbert Scott reckoned that builders on a tight budget and access to bricks and tiles transported by railway could, at best, produce a ‘utilitarian box’. Some wealthy landowners charitably spent more on constructing them than they could ever realise in rent.

 

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