Picture of William Cobbett

William Cobbett

places mentioned

June 19th to 24th, 1822: Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire

Next Selection Previous Selection


June 19, 1822.

FROM Kensington to this place, through Edgware, Stanmore, and Watford, the crop is almost entirely hay, from fields of permanent grass, manured by dung and other matter brought from the wen . Near the wen, where they have had the first haul of the Irish and other perambulating labourers, the hay is all in rick. Some miles farther down it is nearly all in. Towards Stanmore and Watford, a third, perhaps, of the grass remains to be cut. It is curious to see how the thing regulates itself. We saw, all the way down, squads of labourers, of different departments, migrating from tract to tract; leaving the cleared fields behind them and proceeding on towards the work to be yet performed; and then, as to the classes of labourers, the mowers , with their scythes on their shoulders, were in front, going on towards the standing crops, while the hay-makers were coming on behind towards the grass already cut or cutting. The weather is fair and warm; so that the public-houses on the road are pouring out their beer pretty fast, and are getting a good share of the wages of these thirsty souls. It is an exchange of beer for sweat; but the tax-eaters get, after all, the far greater part of the sweat; for, if it were not for the tax, the beer would sell for three-halfpence a pot, instead of fivepence. Of this threepence-halfpenny the Jews and jobbers get about twopence-halfpenny. It is curious to observe how the different labours are divided as to the nations . The mowers are all English; the haymakers all Irish . Scotchmen toil hard enough in Scotland; but when they go from home it is not to work , if you please. They are found in gardens, and especially in gentlemen's gardens. Tying up flowers, picking dead leaves off exotics, peeping into melon-frames, publishing the banns of marriage between the "male " and "female " blossoms, tap-tap-tapping against a wall with a hammer that weighs half an ounce. They have backs as straight and shoulders as square as heroes of Waterloo; and who can blame them? The digging, the mowing, the carrying of loads; all the break-back and sweat-extracting work they leave to be performed by those who have less prudence than they have. The great purpose of human art, the great end of human study, is to obtain ease , to throw the burden of labour from our own shoulders, and fix it on those of others. The crop of hay is very large, and that part which is in, is in very good order. We shall have hardly any hay that is not fine and sweet ; and we shall have it, carried to London, at less, I dare say, than ?3 a load, that is 18 cwt. So that here the evil of "over-production " will be great indeed! Whether we shall have any projects for taking hay into pawn is more than any of us can say; for, after what we have seen, need we be surprised, if we were to hear it proposed to take butter and even milk into pawn? In after times, the mad projects of these days will become proverbial. The oracle and the over-production men will totally supplant the March-hare . This is, all along here, and especially as far as Stanmore, a very dull and ugly country: flat, and all grass-fields and elms. Few birds of any kind, and few constant labourers being wanted; scarcely any cottages and gardens, which form one to the great beauties of a country. Stanmore is on a hill; but it looks over a country of little variety, though rich. What a difference between the view here and those which carry the eye over the coppices, the corn-fields, the hop-gardens, and the orchards of Kent! It is miserable land from Stanmore to Watford, where we get into Hertfordshire. Hence to Saint Albans there is generally chalk at bottom with a red tenacious loam at top, with flints, grey on the outside and dark blue within. Wherever this is the soil, the wheat grows well. The crops, and especially that of the barley, are very fine and very forward. The wheat, in general, does not appear to be a heavy crop; but the ears seem as if they would be full from bottom to top; and we have had so much heat, that the grain is pretty sure to be plump, let the weather, for the rest of the summer, be what it may. The produce depends more on the weather previous to the coming out of the ear, than on the subsequent weather. In the northern parts of America, where they have, some years, not heat enough to bring the Indian corn to perfection, I have observed, that, if they have about fifteen days with the thermometer at ninety before the ear makes its appearance, the crop never fails, though the weather may be ever so unfavourable afterwards. This tallies with the old remark of the country people in England, that "May makes or mars the wheat;" for it is in May that the ear and the grains are formed ."

June 24, 1822.

Set out at four this morning for Redbourn, and then turned off to the westward to go to High Wycombe, through Hempstead and Chesham. The wheat is good all the way. The barley and oats good enough till I came to Hempstead. But the land along here is very fine: a red tenacious flinty loam upon a bed of chalk at a yard or two beneath, which, in my opinion, is the very best corn land that we have in England. The fields here, like those in the rich parts of Devonshire, will bear perpetual grass. Any of them will become upland meadows. The land is, in short, excellent, and it is a real corn-country. The trees from Redbourn to Hempstead are very fine; oaks, ashes, and beeches. Some of the finest of each sort, and the very finest ashes I ever saw in my life. They are in great numbers, and make the fields look most beautiful. No villainous things of the fir-tribe offend the eye here. The custom is in this part of Hertfordshire (and I am told it continues into Bedfordshire) to leave a border round the ploughed part of the fields to bear grass and to make hay from, so that, the grass being now made into hay, every corn-field has a closely mowed grass walk about ten feet wide all round it, between the corn and the hedge. This is most beautiful! The hedges are now full of the shepherd's rose, honeysuckles, and all sorts of wild flowers; so that you are upon a grass walk, with this most beautiful of all flower gardens and shrubberies on your one hand, and with the corn on the other. And as thus you go from field to field (on foot or on horseback), the sort of corn, the sort of underwood and timber, the shape and size of the fields, the height of the hedge-rows, the height of the trees, all continually varying. Talk of pleasure-ground indeed! What that man ever invented, under the name of pleasure-grounds, can equal these fields in Hertfordshire? This is a profitable system, too; for the ground under hedges bears little corn, and it bears very good grass. Something, however, depends on the nature of the soil: for it is not all land that will bear grass, fit for hay, perpetually; and, when the land will not do that, these headlands would only be a harbour for weeds and couch-grass, the seeds of which would fill the fields with their mischievous race. Mr. Tull has observed upon the great use of headlands. It is curious enough, that these headlands cease soon after you get into Buckinghamshire. At first you see now and then a field without a grass headland; then it comes to now and then a field with one; and, at the end of five or six miles, they wholly cease. Hempstead is a very pretty town, with beautiful environs, and there is a canal that comes near it, and that goes on to London. It lies at the foot of a hill. It is clean, substantially built, and a very pretty place altogether. Between Hempstead and Chesham the land is not so good. I came into Buckinghamshire before I got into the latter place. Passed over two commons. But still the land is not bad. It is drier; nearer the chalk, and not so red. The wheat continues good, though not heavy; but the barley, on the land that is not very good, is light, begins to look blue , and the backward oats are very short. On the still thinner lands the barley and oats must be a very short crop. People do not sow turnips , the ground is so dry, and I should think that the swede crop will be very short; for swedes ought to be up at least, by this time. If I had swedes to sow, I would sow them now, and upon ground very deeply and finely broken. I would sow directly after the plough, not being half an hour behind it, and would roll the ground as hard as possible. I am sure the plants would come up, even without rain. And the moment the rain came, they would grow famously. Chesham is a nice little town, lying in a deep and narrow valley, with a stream of water running through it. All along the country that I have come, the labourers' dwellings are good. They are made of what they call brick-nog ; that is to say, a frame of wood, and a single brick thick, filling up the vacancies between the timber. They are generally covered with tile. Not pretty by any means; but they are good; and you see here, as in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire, and, indeed, in almost every part of England, that most interesting of all objects, that which is such an honour to England, and that which distinguishes it from all the rest of the world, namely, those neatly kept and productive little gardens round the labourers' houses , which are seldom unornamented with more or less of flowers. We have only to look at these to know what sort of people English labourers are: these gardens are the answer to the Malthuses and the Scarletts . Shut your mouths, you Scorch Economists; cease bawling, Mr. Brougham, and you Edinburgh Reviewers, till you can show us something, not like, but approaching towards a likeness of this ! The orchards all along this country are by no means bad. Not like those of Herefordshire and the north of Kent; but a great deal better than in many other parts of the kingdom. The cherry-trees are pretty abundant and particularly good. There are not many of the merries , as they call them in Kent and Hampshire; that is to say, the little black cherry, the name of which is a corruption from the French merise , in the singular, and merises in the plural. I saw the little boys, in many places, set to keep the birds of the cherries, which reminded me of the time when I followed the same occupation, and also of the toll that I used to take in payment. The children are all along here, I mean the little children, locked out of the doors, while the fathers and mothers are at work in the fields. I saw many little groups of this sort; and this is one advantage of having plenty of room on the outside of a house. I never saw the country children better clad, or look cleaner and fatter than they look here, and I have the very great pleasure to add, that I do not think I saw three acres of potatoes in this whole tract of fine country, from St. Albans to Redbourn, from Redbourn to Hempstead, and from Hempstead to Chesham. In all the houses where I have been, they use the roasted rye instead of coffee or tea, and I saw one gentleman who had sown a piece of rye (a grain not common in this part of the country) for the express purpose. It costs about three farthings a pound, roasted and ground into powder.--The pay of the labourers varies from eight to twelve shillings a week. Grass mowers get two shillings a day, two quarts of what they call strong beer, and as much small beer as they can drink. After quitting Chesham, I passed through a wood, resembling, as nearly as possible, the woods in the more cultivated parts of Long Island, with these exceptions, that there the woods consist of a great variety of trees, and of more beautiful foliage. Here there are only two sorts of trees, beech and oak: but the wood at bottom was precisely like an American wood: none of that stuff which we generally call underwood: the trees standing very thick in some places: the shade so complete as never to permit herbage below: no bushes of any sort; and nothing to impede your steps but little spindling trees here and there grown up from the seed. The trees here are as lofty, too, as they generally are in the Long Island woods, and as straight, except in cases where you find clumps of the tulip-tree, which sometimes go much above a hundred feet high as straight as a line. The oaks seem here to vie with the beeches in size as well as in loftiness and straightness. I saw several oaks which I think were more than eighty feet high, and several with a clear stem of more than forty feet, being pretty nearly as far through at that distance from the ground as at bottom; and I think I saw more than one, with a clear stem of fifty feet, a foot and a half through at that distance from the ground. This is by far the finest plank oak that I ever saw in England. When I got to High Wycombe, I found everything a week earlier than in the rich part of Hertfordshire. High Wycombe, as if the name was ironical, lies along the bottom of a narrow and deep valley, the hills on each side being very steep indeed. The valley runs somewhere about from east to west, and the wheat on the hill facing the south will, if this weather continue, be fit to reap in ten days. I saw one field of oats that a bold farmer would cut next Monday. Wycombe is a very fine and very clean market town; the people all looking extremely well; the girls somewhat larger featured and larger boned than those in Sussex, and nor so fresh-coloured and bright-eyed. More like the girls of America, and that is saying quite as much as any reasonable woman can expect or wish for. The hills on the south side of Wycombe form a park and estate now the property of Smith, who was a banker or stocking-maker at Nottingham, who was made a lord in the time of Pitt, and who purchased this estate of the late Marquis of Lansdowne, one of whose titles is Baron Wycombe. Wycombe is one of those famous things called boroughs, and thirty-four votes in this borough send Sir John Dashwood and Sir Thomas Baring to the "collective wisdom." The landlord where I put up "remembered" the name of Dashwood, but had "forgotten " who the "other " was! There would be no forgettings of this sort, if these thirty-four, together with their representatives, were called upon to pay the share of the national debt due from High Wycombe. Between High Wycombe and Beaconsfield, where the soil is much about that last described, the wheat continued to be equally early with that about Wycombe. As I approached Uxbridge I got off the chalk upon a gravelly bottom, and then from Uxbridge to Shepherd's Bush on a bottom of clay. Grass-fields and elm-trees, with here and there a wheat or a bean-field, form the features of this most ugly country, which would have been perfectly unbearable after quitting the neighbourhoods of Hempstead, Chesham and High Wycombe, had it not been for the diversion I derived from meeting, in all the various modes of conveyance, the cockneys going to Ealing Fair , which is one of those things which nature herself would almost seem to have provided for drawing of the matter and giving occasional relief to the overcharged Wen . I have traversed to-day what I think may be called an average of England as to corn crops. Some of the best, certainly; and pretty neatly some of the worst. My observation as to the wheat is, that it will be a fair and average crop, and extremely early; because, though it is not a heavy crop, though the ears are not long they will be full; and the earliness seems to preclude the possibility of blight, and to ensure plump grain. The barley and oats must, upon an average, be a light crop. The peas a light crop; and as to beans, unless there have been rains where beans are mostly grown, they cannot be half a crop; for they will not endure heat. I tried masagan beans in Long Island, and could not get them to bear more than a pod or two upon a stem. Beans love cold land and shade. The earliness of the harvest (for early it must be) is always a clear advantage. This fine summer, though it may not lead to a good crop of turnips, has already put safe into store such a crop of hay as I believe England never saw before. Looking out of the window, I see the harness of the Wiltshire wagon-horses (at this moment going by) covered with the chalk-dust of that county; so that the fine weather continues in the west. The saintfoin hay has all been got in, in the chalk countries, without a drop of wet; and when that is the case, the farmers stand in no need of oats. The grass crops have been large everywhere, as well as got in in good order. The fallows must be in excellent order. It must be a sloven indeed that will sow his wheat in foul ground next autumn; and the sun, where the fallows have been well stirred, will have done more to enrich the land than all the dung-carts and all the other means employed by the hand of man. Such a summer is a great blessing; and the only drawback is, the dismal apprehension of not seeing such another for many years to come. It is favourable for poultry, for colts, for calves. for lambs, for young animals of all descriptions, not excepting the game. The partridges will be very early. They are now getting into the roads with their young ones, to roll in the dust. The first broods of partridges in England are very frequently killed by the wet and cold; and this is one reason why the game is not so plentiful here as it is in countries more blest with sun. This will not be the case this year; and, in short, this is one of the finest years that I ever knew.

William Cobbett, Rural Rides (Letchworth: Temple Press, 1932)

Next Selection Previous Selection