In the first half of the 19th century, England was in an agricultural depression, with rural labourers facing low wages, short-term work or even unemployment, sometimes unable to feed their families.
Technology was changing the way in which work was carried out, reducing the number of people required to work on farms and in industry. Across the Irish Sea, things were worse: Ireland was plunging into the depths of the Great Famine, with around a million people dying of starvation between 1845 and 1852.
Closer to home, Lechlade labourer William Cole was setting out the difficulties facing Cotswold agricultural workers at a public meeting in Highworth, Wiltshire.
The meeting had been called to discuss the “distress of the working classes”, and at 2pm on 16 October 1844, despite the rainy weather, some 700 men – members of the Anti-Corn Law League, tenants of landowner Lord Radnor, townspeople and agricultural labourers – turned out to discuss the agricultural depression, the threats of continued mechanisation on men’s livelihoods, and the despised Corn Laws.
Cole, as a labourer, would have had a rudimentary education and been unused to public speaking. But the economic distress facing him and his friends made him eloquent, and confident despite being in front of such a large gathering. He addressed his audience from the top of a wagon, situated in a field near the town known as Bear Barn Close, saying:
“We poor men are put upon very much indeed. The farmers make poor souls work many hours more than they ought, and give them nothing for it. They put taxes on poor souls, instead of which they ought to take them off. If they took a little of the duty off malt, it would be good for poor souls. It would be a good thing for the poor man to get his acre or two acres of land.
The farmer says he would not work if he got it. That is not true. What the working-man wants is a little more wages, and then he would be able to pay his rent and taxes. The Lord will be with the poor, and God knows what will become of the gentlemen when they died. I’m sure I don’t know.
I hope the gentlemen will let the poor have a little land. Let them have land for one year for nothing, and then let it to them afterwards for a penny a lug more than the others have it for.”
William Cole then recommended that tax should be taken off tea and sugar – the staples of the labourer’s diet – and put onto the hated threshing machines instead. At this point, he was told off for having spoken too long. Turning to Lord Radnor and the other “gentlemen” who had attended the meeting, he said:
“Gentlemen, I have said all I can to do good. I hope it will be pleasing to you.”
Cole was asking for the Earl of Radnor to rent out allotments to the poor at rates they could afford, so that they could try to grow their own produce and eke out a living – growing things both for labouring families to eat, and to sell.
Despite many local working men calling on the lord to let them have such plots of land at a fair rent, the suggestion was deemed to have “no immediate connection with the object of the meeting” and was ignored.
This was despite Lord Radnor giving a speech after Cole’s, where he recognised that “the agricultural labourer suffered considerable privation” due to a lack of demand for labourers and inadequate wages.
Lord Radnor’s argument was that it was “unjust” to blame landowners for paying labourers badly, because “no man was bound to give for anything more than he could get it for”.
Likewise, the earl said that he didn’t have to reduce rents for his allotments:
“Why should land be let to one man for less when another was ready to give more? It would be to deprive the landowner of his right to his property.”
In fact, Lord Radnor argued that the allotment system shouldn’t exist at all – because people in Ireland had allotments and look how poverty-stricken they were, allotments obviously hadn’t helped to alleviate their condition!
The different tones of the speeches of landowner and labourer at this public meeting shows the huge chasm that existed between the classes and their attitudes to work and money.
William Coles talked a good talk about what labourers wanted and needed, but he must have soon realised that landowners put their own profits above the needs of the families struggling around them.
Taken from The Times of 18 October 1844