Rural blight in Victorian farm village

23 April 1999

Book Review

Rural blight in Victorian farm village

BACK in 1891, the Daily News, Britains third most popular newspaper and a supporter of liberalism, commissioned George Millin to study the state of farming and its effect on life in rural villages*.

His travels through Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Oxon, Berks and Bucks, generated a series of articles, editorials and spirited correspondence from August to October of that year.

This was a period of acute farming depression aggravated by a run of poor harvests and increasing import competition, a dramatic change from a period of prosperous high farming in the 1860s. Millin unearthed a seething mass of discontent caused by low wages, aggravated by long winter lay-offs, coupled with the patronising and intrusive attitudes of local squires, parsons and their wives, who ruled the villages like feudal fiefdom. Those who objected ran the likely risk of ejection from poorly maintained tied cottages, devoid of decent water supply or rudimentary sanitation.

Millins reports and the correspondence they triggered, deplored rural decay and deprivation which encouraged the younger generation to flee to the towns and London in particular.

Remedies were debated in depth starting with higher wages, the value of allotments so workers could feed themselves, the desirability of smaller farms and co-operation compared with large estates owned by absentee landlords, right up to land nationalisation.

Ways to improve village social life included the provision of reading and tea rooms, the closure of public houses and even the introduction of country dancing classes. A sequel in some ways to Cobbetts earlier Rural Rides, the whole exercise was taken very seriously at a time when Britain was shedding its rural past and becoming an increasingly urban and city-based society.

Millins reports and the ensuing correspondence have been given a modern lease of life in these two volumes. Its a pity that both are totally lacking in illustration. HPH

* Life in the Victorian Village; the Daily News Survey of 1891, Volume I – £35: Volume II – £40, from Caliban Books, 30 Ingram Road, East Finchley, London N29QA.

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