Rural Discontent in Nineteenth Century Britain

Rural Discontent in Nineteenth Century Britain

Rural Discontent in Nineteenth Century Britain

Rural Discontent in Nineteenth Century Britain

Excerpt

This book is about rural unrest. But we must not assume that open unrest or discontent was the sole, or even the normal, condition of the late Victorian countryside. A decade after the turn of the century the wheel-wright and novelist George Sturt wrote of his neighbours,

They have no sense of oppression to poison their lives. The truth which economists begin to recognize, that where there are wealthy and idle classes there must as an inevitable result be classes who are impoverished and overworked, has not found its way into the villager's head.

So supported by an instinctive fatalism, the people have taken their plight for granted, without harbouring resentment against the more fortunate. It may be added that most of them are convinced believers in those fallacies which cluster around the phrase 'making work'. It were strange if they were not. The labourer lives by being employed at work; and, knowing his employer personally … he sees the work he lives by actually being 'made'. Only very rarely does it occur to him that when he goes to the shop he, too, makes work. The idea is too abstract to be followed to its logical conclusion. The people do not see the multitudes at work for them in other counties, making their boots and ready-made clothes, getting their coal, importing their cheap provisions; but they do see, and know by name, the well‐ to-do of the neighbourhood, who have new houses built and new gardens laid out; and they naturally enough infer that labour would perish if there were no well-to-do people to be supplied.

Against the rich man, therefore, the labourers have no sort of animosity. If he will spend money freely, the richer he is the better. Throughout the south of England this is the common attitude … the labouring folk … [are] not exacting as to the sort of person—lunatics, fox-hunters, Bishops—anybody would be welcome who could spend riches in a way to 'make work'. And so here. This village looks up to those who control wealth as if they were the sources of it; and if there is a little dislike of some of them personally, there has so far appeared but little bitterness of feeling against them as a class.

Sturt's Surrey 'village' was a straggling settlement with no 'great house' or resident squire. Flora Thompson's Lark Rise (in . . .

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