Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

The Condition of Essex

Photo of Braintree, Silk Mills 1902, ref. 48283
Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

Braintree Silk Mills, 1902.

A glimpse into the life and times of the straw plaiters, spinners, oyster fishermen and labouring men of Victorian Essex.

Below is an extract from an article which appeared in 'The Chronicle' newspaper published in 1850 and reprinted in the Northern Star. Tilted 'The Condition of England', from a phrase coined by Thomas Carlyle in 1840, the article was part of a series of articles which drew attention to the situation of the labouring poor throughout the country. Many of the Chronicle articles on London were written by Henry Mayhew, of whom Thakeray wrote, "like the writer of the Chronicle travels into the poor man's country for us, and comes back with his tale of terror and wonder" (1), while the country articles were written by other members of the Chronicle staff.

The edited article below describes the situation of the 'working people' in Essex and provides us with a glimpse into the life and times of the straw plaiters, spinners, oyster fishermen and the labouring man.

A complete version of the article, with some additional insights to their life, was later reprinted in the British Farmer's Magazine in 1851 and this can be accessed on Google Books - page 166.


The working people of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

In the district around Castle Hedingham, and including Halstead, Sudbury, Clare, and Haverhill (Essex), on the borders of Suffolk, an enormous amount of straw-plaiting is carried on. For the best kinds of work the makers get 3s. 6d a score, and one of the best hands can make a score and a half in the week. For the inferior kind of work the rate of pay varies from 3d to 10d. and 1s. per score. The earnings of children and girls may be taken to be from 3d. to 4d. per day. These, as well as boys, are principally employed upon the coarser kind. The straw is usually purchased of the farmers in the neighbourhood at 6d. a bundle, being, in quantity about as much as a person can conveniently carry.

The rate of wages paid to the agricultural labourer in this district is wretchedly low, not more than 6s. or 7s. per week, and were it not for the straw plait, the people would generally be in a far worse condition than they are at present. When the plaiting is depressed, a considerable quantity of work is done by the women for the cheap tailors of London, Colchester, and other places, who send the different articles to Castle Hedingham and other places in the neighbourhood to have them made up. ...

Essex, some years since, was famous for its silk and worsted manufactures; Colchester was known for its 'bays' and 'says' and 'Lindsey' for its 'Lindsey woolsey'. These manufactures have now almost entirely passed away There are, however, several mills at Braintree, Booking, Halstead, Coggeshall, and Colchester, for the manufacture of silk. The principal manufacturers are the Messrs. Courtauld, who have a mill at Braintree for throwing the silk, at which 180 hands are employed; one at Halstead, at which 800 or 900 are employed; and a third at Booking, employing not less than 500 persons.

The first person of this class that I discovered was one who was then engaged upon some work at his own house. ... His statement was as follows:- "I am at present, at work on the fancy silk, with a Jacquard loom. Trade has been wonderfully bad with us for the last two years, but I'm in hopes it's about to take a turn for the better now. The piece, that I've, got to weave will be about fifty-four yards long when wove, and I shall get £2 5s. for it. I expect to finish it in a month. Out of that I shall have to pay one shilling a week for winding, three pence a week for the hire of the loom, and if I didn't work at home I should have to pay 1s. a week for loom hire. Then the oil to burn at night will be 6d. a week, at least, for I know I must work fifteen hours a day to get it done in the month. The piece that I'm at work on is what some people call a 'shotted silk', it is a green cane and pink shoot; they pay extra for that in London, but they don't give us nothing extra here for it. Well, out of my £2 5s, I shall have to take off 4s for winding, 1s. for loom hire, and 2s. at least for oil - that makes 7s. 7s. from 45s. leaves 38s. - that's 9s. 6d, a week. I'm certain that what I've told you is quite correct, and; if you ask any other weaver, I'm sure he will tell you the same as I have done. I should think there are about 350 hand-loom weavers in Braintree and perhaps 150 in Halstead. When a man is at work on the richer kinds of satins, figured ones and that, he can earn more than at the plain ones. I dare say he could earn 12s, a week if he was to work hard and stick close to it. I pay 3s. a week rent, and have only five children." This account of the man's earnings was fairy corroborated by the statement of another person who was employed upon precisely the same kind of fabric.

As regards the factory-workers, a young woman employed in the mill at "picking" informed me that she got 5s. a week; the throwsters can earn from 4s. to 5s. per week; the drawers" from 3s. to 4s. No persons are allowed to work as drawers under fourteen years of age. The plug winders, whose duty it is to wind the silk on the "plugs," are the best paid, and get from 6s to 7s. a week; some of the best hands get even as much as 8s., but there are not many of them. One of the weavers employed at the Halstead mill said that she could earn in weaving-crape from 4s. to 6s. per week - 5s. was about the average. At Coggeshall and at Colchester the rate of wages was: similar to those above mentioned. ...

Some portions of the population of Essex derive employment from oyster-dredging - the principal places where this occupation is carried on being, Donald, Rowbridge, Brightlingsea, Wivenhoe, and Colchester. About 160 boats are engaged in the oyster-trade, and about 500 men. The persons so employed are mostly freemen of the river Colne, and they are allowed to dredge in the river for a certain quantity every morning - a portion of the proceeds being handed over to the widows of the freemen of Colchester and the other places where the trade is carried on. Another portion of the produce is set apart for the boat, and the remainder is divided among the men.

In the oyster season, which lasts from August to April, their earnings will average about 12s. per week. At the close of the season the men usually start off with their boats to Guernsey, Jersey, and the Channel Islands, to dredge for "spat" (which is the young oysters). When a sufficient quantity is obtained it is brought home and deposited in beds in the river, where it remains for three or four years before the oysters are allowed to be dredged up, as it takes that period to allow the oyster, to arrive at a proper size for the market. The small oyster known as the "native" is the sort indigenous to the river, being, as their name implies, natives of the river Colne...

Agricultural labour, however, forms by far the most important portion of the labour of Essex. The wages vary considerably in different parts of the county. In the neighbourhood of the metropolis and among the principal farmers who grow for the London markets, the rate is about 10s. per week. In the parish of Writtle, which is nearly the largest agricultural parish in the county, wages vary from 8s. to 9s. per week. At Roxwell, and in the immediate neighbourhood of the property of Mr. Bramston, M.P., they are about 8s. per week. In the Tendring hundred they average about 8s. per week for married men, 6s. for unmarried. Ahout Great Baddow the highest wages are at present about 9s. formerly some were paid as high as 12s. per week. The harvest work is usually done either by the month, or at a certain price per acre - the amount varying from 9s. to 11s. per acre.

It is, however, in the northern and western portions of the county that the lowest rate of wages is found to prevail. Throughout the whole of this district the wages are invariably 2s. or 3s. per week lower than other portions of the county. It is in this district, bordering upon parts of Suffolk, Cambridge, and Hertfordshire, and including Saffron Walden, Clavering, and other, places where the wages are equally low, that the greatest amount of distress and discontent is to be found, and that incendiary fires are of the most frequent occurrence.

With respect to the quality of the farming in this district. Mr. Robert Baker, in his prize essay on the agriculture of Essex, says - "Throughout this district, the farm premises are ill-arranged - large barns, sheds, and waggon-lodges, being placed inconveniently and detached from each other, the cumulation of water from their thatched roofs falling into yards having large hollows and excavations made by constant scooping out the clay from time to time, as the manure is carted out, so that a person unacquainted with their inequalities is liable to be engulfed in them, as the surface, being covered with the accumulated barley-straw, exhibits all smooth to the eye and it is only by the rising of the water and sinking of the straw that he is awakened to the situation he is placed in.

This, however, has been, remedied by the more spirited occupiers, but still prevails to an extent deserving their attention, as, upon a moderate estimate, one-fourth of the most valuable properties of the manure is thus annually lost." When speaking to several of the farmers on this subject, I have always been told that the condition of the labourer is not so bad as would at first sight appear. ...

A large farmer in Clavering informed me that "a man with a family of five children will be nearly able with 6s. a week to buy bread enough, if he buys the coarsest flour; his rent he generally pays out of his harvest money; his clothes he gets by some means or other people sometimes give them to him - and then, when he is unemployed, why we keep him in the workhouse. So you see; sir. he is amply provided for, even with wages at 6s. per week." How far the word "amply" applies to such a state of existence is a matter upon which, probably, there may be more than one opinion.

The statement given above is one that I have heard from the farmers, not once, but many times, and it affords a key to the whole system of paying the agricultural labourer. Calculations are made with the greatest possible nicety, not so much to ascertain how much he can live upon, as how much he can live without. A scale just immediately above starvation point is fixed upon for his subsistence and when he is unable to work, they are content to provide him an asylum at the expanse of the rate payers. The labourer is of course, unable to lay by a shilling for old ago or other casualties, and he invariably ends his days a pauper.

A more striking instance of the ill effects of such a system is perhaps, nowhere to be found than in the different workhouses of the county. One of the most affecting sights in an agricultural county is the "old men's wards" of the different unions. In the case of the Chelmsford union, situated in a district where the wages are somewhat higher than in the neighbourhood of Saffron Walden, there were in the "old men's" ward, nineteen paupers, whose united ages were 1,577 years, the average age being rather more than 83. I put a number of questions to each of them with a view of ascertaining their previous employment, and the rates of wages which they had received. Several from their extreme imbecility and old age, were unable to give anything like a coherent answer to any question put to them. From some, however, I was able to obtain answers; and as it will show, perhaps, more forcibly than anything else, the condition of the agricultural labourers, I will give the information which I was enabled to elicit.

One old man - a picture of weakness and exhaustion - answered my inquiries as follows :- "I reckon I'm 89, or thereabouts. My father lived near Braintree; he was taken for a soldier for the American war. I was a parish boy. I began to work when I was seven years old. I run away from the parish then to help my mother. I used to live with her. I used to get sometimes eighteen pence a day - sometimes fourteen pence. For a particular job at mowing or reaping I used to get more - sometimes two shillings. I always worked on the farm. I was married once and had five children. Some of them didn't turn out well; some of them did. I think there's only two of 'em living now, but I don't know where they are; in London, I think. I kept on working till about two years ago, when I come in here, because I couldn't work any longer. I never had any relief from the parish after I left the workhouse, when I was a parish-boy." According to this old man's statement, he had worked as a farm labourer for eighty years.

Another old man, who was in the adjoining bed, was, if possible, more feeble than the one already mentioned. With a great deal of difficulty I succeeded in obtaining some intelligible answers to my questions:- "I think I'm 88, I don't' know exactly I may be more than that. I began to work when I was 14, and was pretty lucky for I always got work. Sometimes I used to get eighteen pence a day, sometimes less; two shillings once. I've brought up ever so many children. I got a prize once for it," said the old man with a laugh, the exertion of which appeared to produce considerable pain in his chest. "I think there was nine of 'em. The last work I got was at a gentleman's house, but I couldn't do much, so they turned me off, and I came here. I've been here - I don't know how long." The master informed me that he had been in the house about four months.

The number of years he had worked as a farm labourer was about sixty-two. For two years he had been at the gentleman's house that he spoke of. The third man I spoke to said, "I was a farm labourer all my life. My father had a farm of his own. He was a wonderful man to spend money on the poor. That's a long while ago. I don't know how long since lie gave up the farm. I used to get when I worked sometimes 2s. a day, sometimes less. I had to work for myself when I was ten years old; and I've been at work ever since, till a little while ago, and never had no parish relief. I reckon I'm about 85.

Another labourer, who was also confined to his bed, said, with considerable excitement, "I'm 85 years old. I've been 'a farm labourer all my life, - ever since I was a boy, and this is what it's all come to. The last job I did was for Master - I went, hoeing a few turnips, and they told me I was to get four shillings a week. When I was there one week they took off a shilling. I told 'em that they said they'd give me four, and they said if I didn't like to have that, I might have none at all, for I hadn't worked enough to a earn more. I grumbled, but it was no use, and I went to work the next week, and then they served me worse again, for they only gave me half-a-crown, took off eighteen pence; and I said, d-d if I'd stand it any longer, and if they took it off any more I'd go to the workhouse. Well, then I come in here and I've been here since. I know I'm very old and weak, and can't do much and p'raps didn't earn more than half-a-crown; they said they'd give me four shillings, and I wouldn't put up with it, to have it took off .when they come to pay me." The old man continued for some time to denounce the acts of his employer in a state of the greatest excitement, which he displayed by gnashing his gums - for there were no teeth in his head - clenching his fist, and shaking his head as he muttered indistinctly his imprecations on the person whom he considered had wronged him. ...

House accommodation is almost universally bad in these counties - I mean as regards the homes of the labourers. In one place many of the so-called houses were falling down from sheer neglect; one or two of them, which were uninhabited, were ,used by the neighbouring houses as a place of common convenience, besides being a receptacle for the ashes and the refuse of the other houses in cases where the people choose to take the trouble of carrying it beyond the front of their own dwellings.

In one of these cottages lived a man and his wife and five children. An old stool was the only article of what might be called furniture in the house; a few bricks, collected from some of the ruins about it, piled above one another in four or five different heaps, showed where the inmates were in the habit of seating themselves. There was not a single piece of bedding or bed-clothes in the upper room, not an article of furniture of any kind, while the floor of the room and the walls were dripping with the wet and rain that came through the roof. ...

Along the whole line of country from Castle Hedingham to Clavering, there is almost a continuous succession of bad cottages. Among the worst of these might be mentioned those in the neighbourhood of Sible Hedingham, Weathersfleld, Bardfield, Wicken, and Clavering. Significant numbers of these cottages are situated in low and damp situations, and their heavy and grass-covered thatches appear as if they had almost crushed the buildings down into the earth. Little or no light can ever find its way into the wretched little windows, many of which are more than half stopped up with rags and pieces of paper. In point of fact, there are many of them which, but for the possession of a chimney, would not be superior to many of the most wretched cabins which I have witnessed in Tipperary and many other parts of Ireland.

The character of the farmers may be understood from the following fact. It appears these worthies begrudge the poor pauper children the little education afforded them in the union workhouses. It is not at all an common complaint to hear among the farmers that the pauper children are receiving too much education. A few days since I met with one who said that he was opposed to all the new fangled education- that they were giving to the paupers. "I am," said he, "one of the guardians of our union, and I just happened to go into the school-room and there if the master wasn't telling the boys to point out with a stick, on some big maps that were hanging up, where South Amerikey was, and France, and a lot of other places, and they did it, too. Well, when I went home, I told my son of it, and asked him if he could tell me where them places was; and he couldn't. Now, is it right that these here pauper children should know more than the person who will have to employ them?"

It is one of the anomalies of the poor-law, that the pauper is better fed, better clothed and better lodged than the labourer; and the same person who would find fault with the pauper receiving a better education than the child of the labourer, must also in justice, complain that he is better fed, clothed, and lodged, and that he is so there can be no doubt. Let those who are able adjust the inequality. In the case of the labourer, as of the farmer, the real cause of complaint is, not that the child of the pauper is educated well, but that his own is not. The community, which provides education for the pauper only fulfils but a portion of its obligations; and to it is applicable, in its strongest sense, the rebuke "This ought ye to have done, but not to have left the other undone."

(1) William Makepece Thakeray, March 1850, Punch
The Chronicle
Northern Star, and National Trades' Journal 08 June 1850

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