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Trevelyan: English Social History: Extract

In this extract Trevelyan describes how agricultural labourers had to leave the country villages of their birth and head for the new industrial cities.

Immigrants to the mining and industrial districts were leaving an old rural world essentially conservative in its social structure and moral atmosphere, and were dumped down in neglected heaps that soon fermented as neglected heaps will do, becoming highly combustible matter. Very often their food, clothing and wages were less bad than they had been in the farms and country cottages they had left. And they had more independence than the agricultural labourer whose wages were eked out by poor relief. But migration to the factories had meant loss as well as gain. The beauty of field and wood and hedge, the immemorial customs of rural life – the village green and its games, the harvest-home, the tithe feast, the May Day rites, the field sports – had supplied a humane background and an age-long tradition to temper poverty. They were not reproduced in mine or factory, or in the rows of mass-produced brick dwellings erected to house the hands. The old rural cottages whence they came had indeed often been worse places to live in materially – picturesque but ruinous and insalubrious. Yet it was not impossible to have some feeling for a rickety window embowered in honeysuckle, or a leaking roof that harboured moss and doves! Wordsworth’s ‘Poor Susan’, the exile in the great city, remembered the country cottage where she was born,

‘The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.’

Such affection could not be transferred to town slums. It cannot even to-day be felt for the model workman’s flat. G.M. Trevelyan English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria (London: Book Club Associates for Longman, 1973; first published 1944) pp.475-6

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