Peldon and the National Agricultural Labourers' Union

Fraternise, centralise! With brotherly feeling with a united front, with every district welded into a great whole, with a common fund to which all shall pay, and on which all shall have right to draw, the time will not be distant when every agricultural labourer shall have, what few as yet have enjoyed, a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Nine and a half hours exclusive of meal times, as a day's work, and 16s as a week's pay are not extravagant demands...Brothers be united and you will be strong; be temperate and you will be respected

This is part of the manifesto written by Chairman Joseph Arch in the rule book from the newly formed National Agricultural Labourers' Union (NALU). Along with a Union card, this rule book was distributed to each member who joined from the Union's inception in 1872. It was, however, not the first time that low-paid agricultural workers had attempted to unionise.

At the end of the 1830's 'Swing Riots', the farm labourers' uprisings, had been swiftly dealt with, a few men were executed, hundreds transported and their aspirations to better their living standards and form a Union squashed. Peldon's 'Swing riot' on 10th December 1830 had involved almost all of the village's labourers. It culminated in three of the ringleaders being committed to hard labour at Chelmsford jail.

Following the 1830s there continued to be sporadic cases of setting hayricks alight and damaging machinery in Essex and, locally, there was a major fire at the old Pete Hall, Peldon, where all the outbuildings were destroyed in 1844. Although none of the workers' complaints and requests for better wages had been addressed, it was to be another thirty years before unionisation was attempted again. Their discontent often manifested itself in arson in the meantime.

During the Swing riots, Essex and Kent had been at the forefront of the direct action taken by labourers and in the 1860s unionisation had started to creep through a few counties Some, like Kent and Lincolnshire, had already started their own Unions and in 1872 Joseph Arch's national union was launched, the National Agricultural Labourers' Union. Formed in the Midlands near Leamington, the union eventually spread across all but six counties in England, and Essex was quick to form local branches. Locally we were to have branches at West Mersea, Peldon, Fingringhoe, Wigborough, Layer Breton, Birch, Tolleshunt D'Arcy, Tollesbury, Layer de la Haye, and Layer Marney, all part of the North East Essex Branch.

Early on in the Union's history, The Essex Standard newspaper of 26.7.1872 reported unrest amongst agricultural workers in Essex and the setting up of a new branch in Coggeshall.

The great agitation among agricultural labourers seems to be spreading in several parts of Essex. In Ockendon it has made itself prominent; and after radiating from Braintree to the Hedingham district, it has taken up further ground at Coggeshall.

Locally, those villages involved in the protests in the 1830s were ready for another attempt at unionisation. As Arthur Brown was to write in Meagre Harvest

The Swing events affected villages, of which some welcomed the National Agricultural Labourers' Union - Peldon did so

The Union headquarters produced leaflets which were served on local landowners, the following, with its reasonable and respectful request. was served upon a farmer in Hedingham in November 1872

Dear Sir,

The agricultural labourers of this branch of the National Agricultural Union in your employ beg respectfully to inform you that on and after Friday they will require a rise in their wages from 20d - 26d per day and a general conformity to their rules, a copy of which we enclose.

Being desirous of retaining good relations between employer and employed and to assure you that no unbecoming feelings prompt us to such a course we invite you (if our terms are not in accordance with your views) to appoint an early time to meet us, so that we may fairly consider the matter and arrange our affairs amicably

Your Obedient Servants

The Committee
North East Branch

Essex Standard 6.11.1872

The contact address given was that of Union Official, Charles Jay, an Essex farmer of Codham Hall near Wethersfield.

During 1872 he visited numerous Essex villages, and to audiences of agricultural workers, often numbering 300 or more, he spoke of the advantages they would obtain from united action John Copeland Essex Countryside May 1961

The Union's recommendations were not for strikes but for Migration and Emigration and many labourers were encouraged to move to where the work was, to towns, often up North, and not necessarily for work in agriculture. The Peldon branch was visited by a Union spokesman advocating emigration to New Zealand. Emigration to Australia also was urged, especially to Queensland for whom Charles Jay became an emigration agent. He was offering free passage, free kit for the journey and small monetary grants to each man, woman and child. The union was besieged with applications.

In April 1874 a ship, the ST JAMES, left the docks at London for New South Wales. Chartered by the NALU it took 300 Suffolk and Essex people the pick of young labourers.

The farmers, determined to destroy the union, had in 1872 started to organise themselves into defence associations in Essex and Suffolk, agreeing a common policy not to pay more than 2s a day, not to recognise the union and to give workers a week's notice if they were members. The East Essex Farmers' Defence Association was formed for the protection of the farmer against the labourers' union.

In East Anglia, in the spring of 1873 workers near Stowmarket were locked out of their jobs and this spread over into Essex, especially the Halstead area. Men were also evicted from tied cottages (on the grounds that accommodation only went with work).

By the end of 1873 the north-east Essex branch of the Union had 2,777 members and a balance in hand amounting to £65/1/6½.

By 1874, after two years of requesting a modest pay rise, labourers eventually announced they would go on strike. This happened across Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire.

One farmer referred to the propagandists of the union travelling like itinerant preachers to villages where they addressed people on the village green or in a hired room. Interestingly, many of the Union leaders were Non-Conformist and those such as Joseph Arch, a Primitive Methodist preacher, were charismatic and compelling speakers. Sometimes the meetings would be held in Methodist Churches, in barns, pubs and on one occasion at an Essex village blacksmith's. In Colchester, the Theatre Royal was used for an address from visiting union officials, including Joseph Arch and on another occasion his Vice Chair, George Ball.

when the Rector of Peldon refused the branch the use of the Church schoolroom, he was forgiven because although not unfavourable to the Union, he relied on farmers to help meet the expenses of the school Arthur Brown Meagre Harvest

For Peldon's Reverend Carter Hall, the timing of this request to use the schoolroom by the local union was a particularly awkward one. Building work to provide a schoolhouse and expand the schoolroom had been agreed in 1873. According to the Vestry minutes, the Rector asked local landowners and farmers to make annual subscriptions towards the school; he clearly didn't want to upset them by accommodating the union! This was the case in many villages where the rector, being so dependent on contributions from the farmers was reluctant to offer space for union meetings. Vice Chairman of the union, George Ball, Suffolk's representative of the union, (he was later to move to Witham to organise the union's North East branch) clearly visited this area, and wrote of Peldon

This is a fearful, low place; low wages have reduced the people to a low condition, they are low in intelligence, low in spirits and low in Union English Labourer 25th December 1875

Wages in this area were among the lowest nationally. In 1872 the Essex Standard wrote of the labourer's lot

The Conditions of the agricultural labourer is as bad as it can be. He toils like a slave, lives like a pig and too often dies like a dog, with no pleasure but an occasional debauch at the alehouse, no prospect but that of the workhouse for an old age of rheumatism and misery.

Simply, most labourers lived in poverty. Workers were expected to work every daylight hour and few had any opportunity, or ground, to grow their own food. A major issue was workers being laid off over the winter months and during bad weather with no work and no pay. Wages were regularly cut in bad years and there was limited work of any kind available for the labourers' wives. No wonder labouring families jumped at the chance during harvest to set the whole family to work in the fields. The school logbooks for Peldon reveal the school holidays were organised around the peak times of harvest, whether peas, beans or wheat, and children regularly had time off for seasonal work.

The desire to unionise was strong. In many of our local villages labourers would walk miles to hear the union speakers where there could be crowds of hundreds. Many, however, were too afraid of upsetting their employers and losing their jobs to join up.

Inevitably, things turned nasty on occasions and locally there are a few newspaper reports of court cases where union and non-union men were accused of brawling and harassment.

In April 1874 an assault in the Plough Inn, Peldon, is reported in the Essex Standard newspaper arising from the Labour Dispute. William King was summoned for assaulting George Pender [more likely Ponder, a long-established local family] another labourer of the same parish on Good Friday. The Ponders began chaffing the defendant because he did not belong to the Labourers' Union ... calling him a sneak and telling him he was afraid of his master and afraid to join the Union. The Chairman said the present was the first in which the Bench had had to deal in connexion with the strike and lockout. Essex Standard 17.4. 1874

Another confrontation, close by in Salcot, reported on July 7th 1876 in the Essex Standard, indicates the sort of harassment non-union men were subjected to in some cases, which clearly continued after the lockout was over.

PERSECUTION OF NON-UNION MEN - William Youngs and Fred Sorrell, labourers of Salcot were summoned for assaulting John Fokes and James Cole, fellow labourers of the same parish on the 22nd June ... the complainants subjected to a systematic course of persecution of a very gross kind ... tools hidden, pieces of iron placed in the fields where they were mowing and their scythes seriously damaged, while they have been pointed and jeered as '____ sneaks' besides being threatened with annihilation ... On the day in question ... they threatened to knock their heads off, and used very bad language and challenged them to fight.

The case was dismissed and the men urged to try to live peaceably together.

The Essex Standard printed verbatim an anonymous letter received by a Copford farmer threatening to poison his and a neighbour's horses if they didn't reinstate their own men and dismiss those who had taken their jobs.

For those who were locked out, there were plenty of non-union or itinerant workers who would take their places. Hitherto farmers had relied on plentiful cheap labour but with the lock out they also began to turn to using machinery.

By July 1874 the lock out was at its height. Membership of the Union peaked this year at 86,214.

The biggest dispute in Essex happened in March 1874, when farmworkers in Birch who joined the NALU came into confrontation with landowner James Round of Birch Hall, the squire and local MP. When they demanded higher wages there was a lockout and the school allowed boys over 10 to be employed on farms temporarily. An entry from 1874 in Birch School logbook reads

Owing to a strike among the Agricultural Labourers in this parish the farmers have asked and obtained permission of the School authorities to employ boys over 10 - several such have been withdrawn in consequence for a few weeks.

The farmers' local Defence Union locked out the men and refused any negotiation. Soon 400 men were involved from the villages of Birch, Layer Breton, Wigborough, Layer de La Haye, Messing and Stanway. Charles Jay set up a local union headquarters at the Bull in Colchester. He organised a demonstration in Colchester and a rally at the theatre and gave lock-out pay to seventy men.

The union had undertaken to pay strike pay to its members but not having sufficient funds to continue long-term, on 27th July 1874, it was recommended members either take the Union's help to migrate or emigrate or return to work to help bring the harvest home.

Many moved up North in search of jobs, a few emigrated to New Zealand, all arranged by the union.

The Union's final report was that 198 had received lockout pay, about 200 had left for the Midlands and north and others had obtained work on farms outside the area.

Despite two months of privation the union members continued with large and enthusiastic meetings still wearing their membership cards inside their hatbands and singing the Union's hymn, Stand Like the Brave. Meagre Harvest Arthur Brown

The workers denied they had been defeated and new union branches opened at West Mersea and Layer Marney but the farmers didn't give in either.

In the Union's own publication, the Labourers Union Chronicle, it was estimated, overall, out of 3,116 men who were locked out, 694 had migrated, 429 had emigrated, 415 were still unemployed, 402 had left the Union and 1,176 had returned to work.

The Union did continue its work for the next 20 years championing the workers' cause. Direct action against the farmers continued as well. In Birch, where labourers had been locked out, several cases of arson were reported later that year. In the Essex Standard of 3.11.1874 a fire was reported at White House Farm, Birch, which destroyed corn stacks and farm buildings completely. It also mentions this was the fourth large fire in Birch during the previous few weeks.

The farmers claimed victory but the union maintained that its presence in a village did ensure wages weren't cut any further.

Farming was to be plunged into a recession, starting with a string of bad harvests between 1875 and 1900. Waves of Scottish farmers were to migrate to Essex and Suffolk during the later nineteenth century to take over land that had ceased to be ploughed and at best turned to pasture, at worst abandoned and overgrown. With the Scottish farmers prepared to put their whole family to work - and therefore employing less labour - they were able to make a success of farming, where those before had begun to fail.

In Peter Wormell's book The Countryside's Golden Age he judged the time was not yet right for unionisation of agricultural workers; that was still to come.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

Sources:
Foxearth and District Local History Society www.foxearth.org.uk
"Meagre Harvest" by Arthur Brown
"The Agricultural Lockout of 1874" by Frederick Clifford 1875
Essex Standard newspapers between 1872 and 1876
Peldon Vestry minutes
British History Online www.british-history.ac.uk
"The Countryside's Golden Age" by Peter Wormell
"Sharpen the Sickle" by Reg Groves
"When Essex farm workers demanded 15/- a week" by John Copeland - Essex Countryside P. 284 May 1961
Labourers Union Chronicle 1876 - 1891 E R O microfiche T/A G43

Read More:
Captain Swing Peldon Wages Riot
"A History of Pete Hall"

Author: Elaine Barker
ID: PH01_AGU
Source: Mersea Museum