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  • Online publication date: December 2014

1 - Women in the Field


In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), Friedrich Engels offered a powerful account of current agricultural conditions, noting in particular how competition and large-scale farming operations now obliged the field-workers ‘to hire themselves as labourers to the large farmers or the landlords’. The ending of the Napoleonic Wars led to a lowering of wages and consequent agricultural distress which was scarcely mitigated by the new Corn Laws. The symbiotic and patriarchal relation between master and man (and woman) disappeared, with the result that, as Engels writes, ‘farmhands have become day-labourers’, being employed ‘only when needed’ and thus often remaining unemployed ‘for weeks together, especially in winter’. The inception of the harsh New Poor Law, together with ‘the constant extension of farming on a large scale’ in the wake of enclosure, the introduction of threshing and other machines, and the employment of women and children, would lead to a widespread ‘disorganization of the social fabric’. Engels's diagnosis inevitably focused upon the 1830s, the period of the incendiary ‘Swing’ riots and anti-Corn Law agitation; whilst there was an economic recovery in the countryside after this critical juncture, the 1870s saw the onset of the Great Depression which would stretch into Edwardian times. A succession of wet summers in the 1870s and early 1880s affected harvest yields and promoted pneumonia in cattle and foot rot in sheep, whilst refrigerated shipping began to bring imports of wheat and mutton, cheese and bacon, which affected the domestic market.