Country Life : how the rural poor lived in the 1800s

Stapleford History Society 9th January 2024

Tales of village life in Stapleford and Shelford, a talk by Helen Harwood

The rural poor were extremely poor and living at a time when the Poor Law of 1601, with its use of workhouses, was still in operation and there was no system for pensions or Welfare State provisions that we take for granted today. People were not paid enough and by 1855 a hundred and twenty people had set off from Shelford and Stapleford searching for a better life somewhere in the new world.

Because there had been a significant increase in the labouring classes in the eighteenth century, there was a general housing shortage in the nineteenth. While there were some houses occupied by the ‘gently affluent’, most village people lived in subdivided cottages. Such overcrowding inevitably resulted in poor sanitation, and diseases like TB, typhus and scarlet fever were common, as were lice, bedbugs and mould from the generally damp conditions.

Even though people were usually under-nourished, both men and women had physically demanding work to do. The women’s laundry work, for example , with its use of a copper/ dolly tub with a fire underneath, washboard and mangle demanded strength over a period of hours, while men had to work up to ten hours a day in the fields. Young boys like Josiah Dunn could be employed as bird scarers from the age of seven. The Vicar of Stapleford objected to this and complained about the boys sometimes being given guns. At harvest time, everyone took to the fields to collect what grain was left after the main crop had been gathered in and this was an important way of supplementing their diet.

Inevitably some people were less accepting of their way of life and, before the coming of the railways (1846 – Shelford Station), had no means of leaving the area. If people became socially disruptive and/or did things that went against the social norms, pots and pans were banged to show general disapproval. This ‘rough music’ was used in 1855 when Philip Rawlinson jilted the Cambridge girl he had been engaged to. In 1890, Susan Robinson left her husband, then evicted a labourer from one of her cottages so she could move in. Rough music was heard again as her neighbours showed their disapproval.

The most famous miscreant was John Stallan who became known as ‘The Shelford Arsonist’. He supplemented his meagre income by being a member of the paid group who manned the contraption used to pump water onto the flames of any fire in the area. Realising that he would get paid more if there were more fires, he began, in 1829, to set haystacks alight which he would then have to put out. Two and a half years later he set another fire and by 1833 there had been six fires with crops going up. Arson was a capital offence so, when caught, he was sentenced to be hanged. He died on 13 December 1833.

[report by Jane Steadman]