Wednesday 25 April 2007

Essex Agricultural Labourers

When the National Agricultural Labourers Union was established in May 1872, one of the most prominent exponents in the County of Essex was Charles Jay of Codham Hall near Braintree,

It was Charles Jay who visited many villages throughout Essex in 1872,
on a number of occasions accompanied by Joseph Arch the NALU General Secretary

According to the Essex Standard July 1872 "Mr Jay..... had done much to promote trade unions"

The local the Essex Standard stated
The condition of the agricultural labourer is as bad as can be, he toils like a slave, lives like a pig and often dies like a dog, with no pleasure but an occasional debauch at the ale house, no prospect but that of the Workhouse for an old age of rheumatism and misery'

the opposition of the farmers, especially in East Essex was intense, especially after the formation of the East Essex Farmers Defence Association

In April 1872, it was reported that Essex refused to pay more than 2s a day for 12 hour day and that they had formed a Farmers Association, who actively encouraged farmers not to employ union agricultural labourers and to give one weeks notice of dismissal to those that had joined the union.

Numerous victimisation's and sackings of National Agricultural Labourers Union members and union officers took place around the village of Halstead near Braintree,

Mr J. Brewster of Ashford Lodge, Halstead even issued a leaflet to local labourers in which he stated that he would
"Allow his horses to stand idle, his land to run to grass before he will be dictated to by an irresponsible body like the Agricultural Labourers Union."

It was reported in the Buckinghamshire Advertiser for August 1873 that

The local branch secretary of the Saffron Walden National Agricultural Labourers Union and two others had been prosecuted for intimidation of non-union, non-resident agricultural labourers present in the Parish of Ashton (probably Ashdon) and that the Local Branch Secretary of the Union had promised to "return with 200 men".......................................He was subsequently imprisoned in the Parish Cage.......................The result was a general rising in the Parish and all labourers left work and threatened further violence if the prisoners were not liberated. Subsequently Rev J Waller (?) resident magistrate released them

In late August it was reported that three Union members (from Ashdon) were sent to prison for a fortnight including Mr Cracknell, Mr Abbs, Mr Newham, (Mr Bottisham on bail)

Again in February 1874, Labourers at Exning near Stowmarket demanded a rise of one shilling a week.

However, the tide had turned, that same month the Liberal Government was defeated and the Conservatives returned with their first significant majority since 1841.

The farmers buoyed by the general election result, had no further need to hesitate for fear of the political consequences and launched a full frontal attack on the union, the t
he farmers in the "Newmarket Farmers Defence Association' responding with a lockout which lasted until 27th July, when the men had little option but to return to work.

The high level of opposition in Essex forced many agricultural labourers, loyal to the union to migrate to the North of England (or Australia), where they also received better wages

In at least one case a labour agent from Yorkshire came to Saffron Walden to secure 40-50 men offering to pay them 18s per week

A.F.J Brown in his book " Meagre Harvest" published 1990.
This is an account of the establishment of the National Agricultural Labourers Union in north Essex during the last quarter of the 19th.century.

" The Rector of Foxearth was commended for letting the local branch of the labourers union hold a meeting in the school room".From the same source;" Foxearth farmers were commended for being less despotic than most".

The Borley blacksmith was also commended for making his smithy available for the local branch of the N.A.L.U.

Farmers attempts to decide on a local rate of wages, often failed when some of the farmers paid a better rate.Some farmers in a particular village lacked the desire to or spirit to enter into a prolonged contest with the local N.A.L.U.branch, Foxearth farmers seem to have fallen into this category".

While the NALU "The National" had died out in many areas by the late 1880's, Joseph Arch records that in 1890-1891 new branches and new membership flowed into the union from Essex and Norfolk

Around 1912 the newly established National Agricultural & Rural Workers Union based in Norfolk was making inroads into Essex.

By February 1914 the Essex Farmers had decided to revert to a the tactic of "locking out " and evicting agricultural labourers who had joined the union, no doubt to fight one of the lowest wages in the country at just 13 shillings per week. (only worse in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire)

The local leader of the union was Charles Smith of Helions Bumpstead (branch established October 1913)where the lock out had begun,

In May the lock out turned into an offensive as the Union wrote to all farmers in the area outlining their demand as 16 shillings per week and hours of work 6am to 5pm and half day Saturday

The 800 strikers were supported by the local organiser
C.H. Walker of Fakenham who held meetings Birdbrook and Ashdon, Alan Dobson President and Charles Jenkinson Secretary of North West Essex Federation of the union, Joseph Flitton, Cambridgeshire NA&RWU union organiser. But it was James Coe of Norfolk who was in charge of the dispute from the national union as national organiser of the National Agricultural & Rural Workers Union

The strike spread quickly to Birdbrook, Ridgwell, Steeple Bumpstead, Strumer, Ashdon (across the border into Whittlesford, Castle Camps, West Wickham, Weston Colville in Cambridgeshire) and even as far as Withersfields, Suffolk

Regular mass meetings were held in the villages, village to village procession with banners, flags (especially red ones) and songs, torchlight demonstration at night,

Speakers included George Lansbury MP , John Scurr (later MP for Mile End) and Rev Edward Maxted the "Socialist" vicar of Tiltly. But the largest meeting was to hear
Sylvia Pankhurst speak and it was her who led a procession through the village of Helions Bumpstead at which over 2,0000 were present on Sunday 26th July 1914

Arguable the "Militant" strike centre of the dispute was at Ashdon, Essex, Where over 70 police officers had to be stationed to keep order, being billeted in Rose & Crown

Picketing and attempts to dissuade "scabs" (which included attempts to secure 400 Irish labourers) led to eight men Ashdon Agricultural Labourers being sent to Prison for refusing to pay fines imposed by Saffron Walden County Sessions (Court) at which two received £2 fines and six received £1 fines plus costs.

They were

Walter Webb
Samuel Chapman
Thomas Symonds
Walter Symonds
Charles Smith
John Smith
James Marsh
Walter Marsh,

The convicted men of Ashdon, after an abortive march (with 200 supporters) to Saffron Walden to hand themselves, were finally arrested in the village taken to Cambridge jail. For many in the village of Ashdon they were looked upon as hero's for year to come.

other union members imprisoned included
John Barnes - Steeple Bumpstead (six months)
Arthur Bentley
- Steeple Bumpstead (two months)
Walter Clayden - Steeple Bumpstead (two months)
William Cressell - Helions Bumpstead (one month)

While the Agricultural Labourers went to jail for picketing, a farmer who drew his revolver and fired a shot at the strikers, had his case dismissed by the same court

The police were now patrolling the villages night and day, this not stop the attacks on imported "blacklegs", their lodging houses, unsympathetic shop owners premises and of course the local Conservative club or indeed the firing of hay stacks, which lite up the rural night sky, in what must have seemed a throw back to the "Swing" Riots of the 1830's

The strike was far from being settled, when the impending outbreak of World War One, forced the protagonists to resolve the situation.

Agreement was finally reached on 3rd August 1914, just one day before war was
declared and the men returned to work 5th August at a rate of 15 shillings a week and £8 for harvest, most men re-employed and the Union had secured a limited but significant victory.

As for the men of Ashdon imprisoned, they were given a choice between imprisonment or volunteering for the army", of the eight only one opted for the army, Walter Marsh who survived nineteen years in the army, eventually dying in 1971 aged 89

Roy Brazier - The Empty Fields 1989

Photo at Ashdon 1914