Edward Carpenter's Autobiography
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 16 - RURAL CONDITIONS | Comment and Feedback

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IN contrast with the Artisans and Town-workers whom I had got to know so well, the farm-populations and rustics among whom I found myself embedded when I settled at Millthorpe were decidedly interesting. In the working masses of the towns at any rate of the Northern towns what attracted one was the ferment of the New Life coming on: the social dreams of a better future; the efforts to realize such dreams, even in a small way; the push towards independence; the greater alertness and education; the busy hum and activity of Trades Unions and all manner of Labour Associations. What interested me in the country was something quite different. It was in fact the Old Life - the old immemorial rustic existence still going on, still there though giving signs of passing of course. As it happened, I could hardly have found a more old-world, purely agricultural parish, if I had searched for it - certainly not in the North of England - than Holmesfield when I first came there. (Now - oh, irony! - it is already beginning to be civilized!) It was all in the old rural style - the leisurely long day with its varied occupations and interests, the life of the open air and the fields, the cattle and the crops, the barn and the public-house; the absolute acceptance of things as they are, complete non-interest in reform, positive indifference to anything not patently visible to the eye, or to abstractions of any kind. The good folk would talk about a particular field and really with amazing detail about its history, its climate, its soil, its suitability for such and such crops, and so forth; but if you broached any phase of the Land Question (however really important to them) - their eyes would soon glaze and their conversation revert to their pigs or potatoes.

A few years after my arrival at Millthorpe, having found out some facts about the Commons Enclosures in the neighborhood, I wrote a four-page tract entitled Our Parish and our Duke - giving some account of the circumstances under which our common lands were eaten up by our local landlords early last century and circulated it around. It was printed in the London Star (July 8, 1889) and quoted and commented on in other papers; and it sold and circulated in leaflet form some twenty thousand or more copies; but in the Parish itself it elicited no response! One old farmer whom I knew pretty well said "It's very well put together, Mister, and it's just exactly true" - and that was all the backing I got. Probably if there were others that approved they did not dare to say so. The fact that it challenged a Duke gave them pause! The tract, somewhat enlarged and altered and under the title The Village and the Landlord, is now published by the Fabian Society (Tract No. 136, Id.). [Footnote 1]

Thus, as I think I have said before, on first coming to Millthorpe I experienced a certain sense of isolation among the people there. Whereas in Sheffield and even at little Bradway I was received as a friend and commonly called by my Christian name, at Millthorpe I was a stranger and like all strangers an object of suspicion and was addressed as "Mister." It was a curious situation, and I found myself leading a double and divided life. How I came in the end to bridge the gulf and (so far) to overpass it I hardly know; but Time does wonders, and by slow degrees the rustics have accepted me almost as one of themselves and given me, some of them, their warm friendship. I am indeed bound to say that despite the great differences between them and the town-workers, and the greater general intelligence and alertness of the latter, I admire the character of the country-folk most - their extraordinary serenity and good humour, their tenacity, sincerity, and real affectionateness. Even their silent ways though irritating at times are a relief from the eternal gabble of the cities. Said a farmer youth to me one day - after we had been listening for some time to the rather cheap talk of an elderly and radical "citizen" - "They do talk, those townsfolk," he said; and then after a pause - "them as talks so much they must tell a lot o' lies." And I entirely agreed with him.

Talking about the gulf fixed between the Old and the New, and especially between the mentality of the downright manual worker and that of the artist - at one time we had an artist friend staying with us who was rather down on his luck and making only a poor living. He was working on a landscape picture, and every morning used to sit in one of my fields and close to the wall which divided it from the high-road. An old road-mender (the same who had told me years before how he remembered the Commons "going in" i.e. being enclosed) - a good old man but bowed with age and labour - used to come that way every morning to his work; and every morning, as sure as Fate, made some patronizing remark to the painter, which at last enraged the latter beyond endurance. "That's a nice pastime for you, young man." And then the next morning, "I see you're amusin' yoursen again, young man"; and so on. ("Pastime, indeed! amusing myself! I wish the old fool had to do it instead of me. But I'll be even with him yet!") So the next morning the artist inveigled the old man into conversation, and after submitting meekly to more patronage, said: "Well you see I have to do this for my living."

"Do it for your livin', do ye?"


"Do you sell them paintin's, then? "

"Of course I do."

Old Man (a little taken aback): "And how much might you get for a thing like that?"

Artist(stretching a point): "Well I might get ten pounds."

Old Man(astonished): "Ten pun ! well I never!"

Artist(following up): "Or I might get more of course."

Old Man(thoughtfully and with deep respect): "Ten pun! Well, I never - and sittin' down to it too!"

But Hodge is passing away. The old agricultural population (farmer and labourer) is changing under the pressure of modern life; and soon - for good or evil - will be a thing of the past. The motor-car and the cycle, the telephone and the daily paper, are ploughing up the country districts, torrents of townsfolk pour over the land on holidays, and the seeds of new ideas are being sown. Already I can see, even in this little corner of the land, a new type of native arising.

The great drawback of the country folk in England (worse here no doubt than in Ireland) is their want of initiative. Centuries of smothered life under the incubus of the Landlord and the Parson have had their inevitable effect. They never will speak their minds, or commit themselves to any action which is not entirely customary and approved by the powers that be. It may be different in other parts of the country, but here the one answer to any question of importance (especially if put by a stranger) is "I don't know - I don't know." So fearful have they been for generations lest their words should be by chance reported in ruling quarters that the habit of concealment has at last got into their blood. One sees from this how paralysing our land system is towards all manhood and resourceful initiative in the country.

Nor is the matter much different in many other lands. When in Sicily (in 1909) we found that among the peasants the children were systematically taught to lie, and punished by their parents for truth-speaking. And for a very simple reason. For if a stranger came along and asked questions of a child "How much land has your father?" - "How many goats does he keep?" - ten to one that stranger was an emissary of the Church (the chief landlord of the old days), or a taxgatherer, and so an emissary of the State; and the truth would mean more rent or more taxes. Thus deceit was the only salvation, and lying the chief foundation of "Morality." Here in England the parson and the landlord have a similar paralysing influence: and whether they actively and consciously are conspiring against the people, or whether their questionings (as sometimes may happen) are inspired by pure kindness, the result is the same namely the corruption of the people; and perhaps a worse corruption in the second case than in the first.

Still the new life must come, and has to come, and is coming. Small Holdings - either freehold or with a secure tenancy under a public body - give perhaps the best chance of breeding a spirit of independence in the people. Co-operation trains them in adaptability and resource.

At one time seeing the waste of energy resulting from the twenty or so small farmers in our valley each making their separate few pats of butter weekly (and bad butter at that!) I got a dozen or more of them together and put the case for co-operative milk-selling before them. They all agreed that it was the right thing to do, that milk-selling paid much better than butter-making and that the cost of transit to town (by motor-car or country cart) could be recouped with profit. We went into the figures and were satisfied. But when it came to actual operations the paralysis of lack of initiative was on them, and no one would stir a finger! If I had arranged a whole scheme and set it in operation I have no doubt they would have fallen in with it. But, as I said, I had my own work to do, and had no intention of giving up a large part of the day to their affairs. The only one who volunteered to do anything practically - and this illustrates the difference between the agricultural and the other workers - was curiously enough a navvy. He had only a very small farm which he carried on side by side with his navvy work, but he immediately took practical steps and would I believe have carried a scheme through but for an illness which just then overtook him.

A supply of Small Holdings (holdings say up to thirty acres in size [Footnote 2]) on a really secure basis would do an immense work in liberating the social life of the rural workers. For the first time in his history one of the most important types of man in the country would be able to hold up his head, face his 'superiors' and give some kind of utter ance and expression to his own ideals. At present agricultural life is hugely dull from its mere uniformity and want of variety under the all- pervading foot-rule of the landowner and his faithful servant the parson. A greater supply of small holdings would also, I need hardly say, be valuable from the economic point of view, and the greater variety it would encourage in the culture of the soil.

Of course what we now especially want, and what happily people are beginning to feel the want of, is the establishment of large co-operative farms over the face of the land somewhat on the model of the Danish farms. When it is remembered what the Danes have done, with an originally quite poor soil, by their organized co-operative methods - how they have renewed the prosperity of their own country and created a new invasion of Britain by their agricultural products it seems astonishing that we over here still remain in the muddy ruts of our old ways. Supposing for example that by co-operative or governmental purchase, or even (if it can be imagined) by gift from a large landowner, an extensive farm of some two thousand acres were acquired; supposing that suitable portions of the farm were broken up into twenty small holdings of ten or twenty acres each; and that the remaining body of the land were farmed in thorough style under a skilled manager - the workers on the central farm being the small holders themselves, who would thus work partly for themselves on an individualistic basis and partly collectively for wages; supposing that the manager was given by the co-operators a certain amount of authority for the purposes of work and organization, and that on the other hand he was there to advise the small holders to a certain extent as to their work and crops; supposing that he organized co-operative arrangements for the members of the society, both for the purchase of necessary materials and the sale of their products; suppose that a joint council arranged the matters of wages and dividends, and the establishment of creameries, cheese and butter-making apparatus, egg-collecting systems, and so forth; surely it is not very difficult to see that in some such roughly indicated way a great new departure might be made in the agricultural development of the United Kingdom. If a thousandth, if a twenty thousandth part of what is spent in the mad destruction of a great war were spent on some such constructive work, ten times the number of people now employed in agriculture might be placed productively on the land, and the output of wealth and home-grown food (so important to our island) might be enormously increased.

About nine years ago in 1906 I began to pull the farm lads and men together to form a little Club at Millthorpe. For some years we had a difficulty in finding a place for it, and had to be content with a very small room in a cottage. But here came in the advantage of the small holder. A silversmith who lives in the locality - the only man beside myself who has two or three acres of freehold and who is not tied to a landlord - having joined the Club, and seeing our difficulty, offered a fine and large barn belonging to him for our use. If it had not been for him we should have had to go, cap in hand, to some local owner or cleric and could never have developed freely. As it is, the place has been a great success. Managed in an easy-going sort of way by the men themselves (and I am happy to say that my share now of the management is very small) the Club has taken its own lines quite naturally. In order to avoid ill-feeling and competition with the public-house which is close at hand we have no drink, except tea and coffee. Whist, lectures, readings, whist drives, dances, socials, billiards, are the chief amusements, and the place serves occasionally for discussion of local affairs. Theatricals, in a small way, now and then. And the balance of our weekly subscriptions goes in winter to a Christmas supper, and in summer to an excursion by rail or brake.

With small people secure in their tenure, such Clubs would grow up pretty abundantly and would become the start-points of co-operative movements, creameries, agricultural Banks, and so forth. The great thing is that they should not be managed by benevolent superiors, for the management of their own concerns is after all the chief and most important item of a people's education. There is however a place in our countrysides and a need for people of a rather wider knowledge and outlook than the general rustics to come and live among them simply as friends (and not as benefactors). People of this kind can certainly contribute some-thing even though their 'wider knowledge' be as a rule rather vague and bookish. They have information about what is going on elsewhere, and they often are good at organizing. A new kind of parson, democratic-minded and really in touch with the people, and not attached to any 'church' and a man with a little leisure at his command, might be greatly helpful. Why do not the thousands of young men (or women) who are thus qualified rush in to fill this void?

At one time, as I think I have already mentioned, I was a member of the Parish Council, but the hopelessness of getting any result therefrom, combined with the waste of time connected with it, caused me after a few years to abandon the position. The four or five farmers, all in terror of their landlords, and the parson (bound by golden chains to the Lord of the Manor) formed a solid phalanx against any progressive proposal. Perhaps I ought to have fought things out a little more, but wrangling is an occupation which I detest, and to fight questions to a practical finish always means the expenditure of much time - time which I with my agricultural, literary and other labours could ill afford. The one prevailing idea with the Council was not to spend any money if possible; and even the few shillings necessary for the repair of a small length of public footpath would be debated over with a tenacity and miserliness of outlook which made one despair; while the Vicar (not ill-pleased to see the hours passing by) would resign himself to slumber in the Chair!

About the only thing of use I was able to do was to save from loss or destruction the Award Book - that is the book which records the enclosure, early last century, of the Common Lands of Holmesfield Parish, and specifies the details of their assignment to the various proprietors then holding land in the parish. And this I only did with difficulty and after the labours of many months. When the Award was completed (in 1820) the said Award Book naturally and rightly was handed over, not to the Church or the Squire, but to one of the Trustees who represented the Parish generally - a farmer, who of course kept the book at his farm under lock and key, but with permission to the parishioners to inspect it at convenient seasons. In course of time the farmer died, and his son following in the same farm, became custodian of the book. Later on and after many years, the son died, and the son's widow became custodian. By that time most people in the parish had forgotten, or were utterly ignorant of the existence of such a book. It might easily have happened that the widow or her son, migrating to another part of the country, should have taken the book with them among their household goods - in which case it might have been lost for ever to our Parish. Such or something similar has happened frequently of course. It happened to the Minute Book of the Courts Baron of Holmesfield - a manuscript record of the meetings of the said Court all the way from 1588 to 1800, and a most valuable and interesting document. In some unknown way the book disappeared; but by a piece of good luck, it has now come into the possession of the Free Library at Sheffield, where it can easily be inspected, and where it is safer perhaps than it would have been in the village to which it refers.

To return to our Award Book, the Parish Councils Acts very wisely gave all such documents into the custody of the Parish Council to be kept in a Parish room or Chest. But the difficulty was to make our Council take any active interest in the fate of the book. Moreover it possessed no Parish Room or Parish chest, and when the question came before it of having a chest made, even that appeared to some of the members a serious and unnecessary expense. Questions of the dimensions of the chest, the material of which it should be constructed, the number of locks it should carry, the selection of the joiner who should be entrusted with the precious work and so forth, were endlessly debated; the Council meetings took place only at long intervals and it seemed at last as if the chest never would get made. I mention these details merely to show the kind of thing that happens in country villages. Meanwhile the Vicar went to the said widow and (not without remonstrance from her) succeeded in obtaining the Award Book; and placed it in the Vestry. A faction then arose in the Council who maintained that the book was quite secure in the Vestry safe; and that no Parish Chest was needed! It had then to be pointed out that the Act did not allow such books to be kept in the Vestry, and that the Council would be responsible if it did not keep the thing in its own custody. And so the game went on. Ultimately after a full year of similar imbecility, the chest really got itself made; the Award Book and some other documents were placed within, and now repose there in waiting for the Day of Judgment. Exhausted by the labours connected with the affair, and hopeless of ever getting any useful activity out of the P.C., I shortly afterwards retired from it.

Of course these conditions are not the same in all parishes. Where there are mining or artisan populations there is often a good deal of briskness and movement; but in the agricultural regions and the South of England affairs are somewhat as I have described. The District Councils are a shade better than the Parish Councils; but the membership of them falls largely into the hands of small shopkeepers and a middling class of folk who are very philistine and wanting in aesthetic perception, and as a rule rather ignorant except in matters of business. They make hard and fast rules and regulations - often suggested by the conditions existing in the jerry-built slum-areas of the smaller towns and by enforcing these regulations in country districts where they are not needed do seriously hamper the expansion of rural life. Such are some of the regulations about the height and cubic space of rooms, which desirable though they be in slum- tenements are quite out of place and the cause of needlessly high rents in country cottages; such also the barring of wooden dwellings, on account of fire, in many rural and even isolated regions where there is no public danger from this cause; and again the vexatious restrictions set upon the use of vans and tents. In these respects the work of the District Councils is really helping towards the increase of an existing evil, the depopulation of the countrysides.

On the other hand the composition of these Councils makes them absurdly deferent to big commercial and aristocratic interests, and the money of the ratepayers gets poured out like water on schemes in which under cover of public works private interests are largely concerned. As I have had occasion to explain in the Fabian Tract above-mentioned - The Village and the Landlord - our local District Council, having decided that a reservoir was needed, applied to the then Duke of Rutland for the purchase of a suitable area on the moors above us. The land in question had before 1820 been part of the Common Lands of the parish, and was now, as the ducal private property, paying rates on an estimated rental of less than 2s. 6d. per acre. It could not therefore be supposed to be worth much more than 3 per acre, capital value; and it might almost have been expected that in consideration of the history of the Enclosure transactions, and of the additional fact that the land was wanted for an important public purpose (water supply), the area necessary for the reservoir would have been granted free. Far from that happening, as a matter of fact the amount actually charged was at a rate of about 150 per acre! The sad thing about such a levy on the public purse is not only that the ducal people should have charged it, but that the District Council should have paid it! If the latter had had the gumption to offer a bold resistance, to decide for themselves what was a reasonable payment, and to bring the whole matter before the public, the case for the former would probably have collapsed. But there's the rub - the want of spirit and pluck in these public bodies; and considering these and similar things one seems to see very plainly that what really matters in the life of a nation is not so much the exact form of its institutions as the general level of education, alertness, and oublic spirit among its people. With these latter advantages defective institutions may still be made to serve; without them the best will soon become corrupt. It may however be said that some institutions are naturally more favorable than others to the growth of public spirit, and that is a consideration wcrth remembering.

One of the few native institutions of long standing in this locality is the Well-dressing - which takes place in some of the neighboring villages once a year, during the feast-week of the village, and is accompanied with dancing and other festivities. The village fountain or spring is decorated with flowers - some- times in quite elaborate and ornamental designs - and the festival evidently dates from very early or pre-Christian times when the divinities of the streams and water-sources were recognized and worshipped. When I first came, in 1883, into these parts, there were along all the lane sides numbers of tie most charming stone cisterns and water-troughs bubbling with clean water and overhung with maiden-hair ferns; and it was part of the habits of the countryfolk to keep these places in order - a joy to human beings and to animals. Now we have a reservoir as above-mentioned. The Well-dressings truly remain as a yearly function; but the divinities whom they used to celebrate have fled. The cisterns and troughs all over the country are neglected. They are cracked and dried up and full of potsherds and salmon-tins; wayfaring men and animals go thirsty; and the public spirit and service of the water-gods has vanished. We are told that water conducted through miles of iron tubes and lengths of lead piping is much more 'sanitary' than the water from field springs and wells. It may be. But I prefer the latter. At one time there were so many cases of lead-poisoning in the Sheffield district, traceable to lead connections, that the matter excited serious attention. It was decided that the trouble was due to a certain acid in the moor water, which dissolved the lead, and consequently large filter-beds charged with chalk and lime were made in connection with the reservoirs, which neutralized the acid. The water was freed from this danger, but it became saturated with lime; and the people died from stone in the bladder instead of lead-poisoning! Personally I would prefer to take my risk of a microbe in a flowing cistern. And with an alert country-population, assisted by an occasional inspector, such a risk would certainly be small.

But we are told that public spirit ought to make us join these reservoir schemes; and pressure is put on us by the 'authorities' to do so. I do not by any means agree. Though no doubt there are cases in which local storage is advisable or necessary, the unbridled transfer of water over immense distances is attended by serious evils. The beautiful Thirlmere is turned into a mere water-tank in order to supply Manchester; the lovely dales of Derbyshire are disfigured beyond recognition so that they may quench the thirst of Birmingham. In other words, in order to encourage the growth of a hideous and dirty city with an unclean and poverty-stricken population a tract of clean and gracious land a hundred miles off is cleared of its population and also rendered hideous! And all this at a huge and incalculable expense. We do not want these great congested and unhealthy centres, and we do want our streams and springs and the gods who dwell among them. Let the people come out for the water if they want it; but let them come with forethought and reverence.

Another native institution managed, like the well-dressing, by the people themselves is the Ploughing Match. There is a Farmers' Association which of course ought to be a kind of Trade-union for the promotion and protection of farming interests. Perhaps once it was alive; but now and ever since I have known anything about the matter it has become hopelessly futile and decadent. It has a dinner at some public-house once a year and gets thoroughly drunk and that is about all it does!

But the Ploughing-Match Association, which was originally I suppose an offshoot of the Farmers' Association, is alive possibly because it has nothing whatever to do with politics. The farmers and their sons and the small holders (such as there are) join in and organize the affair; and it is a pretty sight to see in two adjacent fields perhaps twenty teams of men or boys with their shining ploughs and their beribboned horses going to and fro each on their appointed strip of land; the turning of the animals at the extremities; the clicks and calls; the marvellous accuracy of the furrows; the groups of critics and the judges. Going among them all one perceives what splendid material there is here among the English country-sides; and also one grieves to think how it is paralysed from development and expansion by our absurd land-system and generally apathetic way of conducting ourselves towards the most important of all industries. We have at Holmesfield the champion ploughman of the neighborhood, who takes the prizes at the village matches for many miles round. He is a great friend of mine. And I am also proud to say that at our Association Committee meetings my professional opinion is sometimes consulted, and I may occasionally be seen amid the fumes of smoke and beer occupying the Chair and keeping a dozen or twenty farmers in order, or bringing them back to the practical point of discussion when (as they generally do) they wander afar from it - a sufficiently humorous situation for a so-called "poet and prophet"!

But the most important village institution after all - and more important perhaps than the Church - is the Public-house. Here is the natural centre of the Village life, and here the village Opinion - if there is any - is collected and consolidated. It is a great pleasure to me to sit occasionally in our "Royal Oak" among the rustics whom I know so well. Their quaint humour, their shrewd judgments, their shy silences, their naughty stories, are a continual recreation. Unfortunately, like so much else in rural life, the Pub. has in general been allowed to go to decay; and instead of being the village meeting- place and centre of sociability it has too often become a mere resort of drink and imbecility. "Tied" to a Brewery, and at an exorbitant rent, the Publican has no alternative but to sell as much as he can of the vile decoction supplied to him. He encourages booze but does not encourage sociable converse. The Brewer rises to wealth and obtains a seat in the House of Lords; the villager sinks slowly but surely poisoned in body and atrophied in mind, and dies in a ditch.

One of the very first things to be done for the restoration of the rural life is the reorganization of the Public-house or rather its liberation. The clutch of the Brewers upon the drink trade should be cut off decisively and finally. The manufacture of beer ought either to be a State monopoly or it ought to be absolutely free, without licence, and subject only to a severe inspection. There has been a great deal of talk lately about the intemperance of the workers, and the abolition or serious restriction of the drink traffic; but the real root of the evil (certainly as regards beer) is the badness and poisonous character of the liquor supplied. See to it that that is clean and wholesome - that the lager- beers, small beers, teas and temperance drinks are not sophisticated with harmful chemicals and for the rest leave the houses free. Leave the publican to use his good sense and authority, and make him responsible for not keeping order. If that policy is carried out there will not be much to complain of. The sale of actual spirits in drinking shops is another question, and that might well be restricted or abolished.

The village pub. ought to be a place where pleasant and decent refreshment of various kinds is provided especially of drink which is a first necessity for tired workers. It ought to be clean and fairly comfortable and provided with games, papers, and similar means of recreation. On the other hand it should have no suspicion of genteel or missionary purpose about it. If the manual worker cannot talk freely and feel himself at home in the place he decidedly will not come to it; and it is certainly better that he should be a bit rough and rowdy than that he should feel that he is being 'improved.' What the rural worker wants above all and what it is very necessary that he should have is a place where he can be at ease, converse freely, exchange ideas, and develop out of his own roots. The town worker has now, in his trade unions, his various clubs and societies, got something of the kind. The rural worker is a poor lost thing; he has no centre of growth. The Church is absolutely of no use to him in that respect; for the Parson practically paralyses his flock. The Chapel is better, for there the Chapel-folk organize themselves and carry out in an authentic way many a little scheme for their own satisfaction or entertainment. The Village Club and the Village Co-operative society are just beginning in many places to show an independent and progressive life; but after all the Village Pub. strikes its roots deepest and widest, and if on a healthy basis is the natural meeting-place where all these other movements germinate and from whence they spring.


  1. There is also a little book called Some Forgotten Facts in the History of Sheffield (Independent Press, Sheffield, 2s. 6d.) which gives valuable information about the enclosures in that district. {Return to main text}
  2. The Small Holdings Act of 1907 defines anything up to fifty acres as a small holding.{Return to main text}

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