Most of us assume that the rural poor in the 18th-century lived in cottages. But what is a cottage? Is it simply a small dwelling house, maybe with a single room? Is it a small house that stands by itself, rather than being attached to others in a row? How have the poor come to live in such buildings? It’s most unlikely that they owned them, so what form of legal agreement allowed them to live there?
From what I’ve been able to discover, most cottagers in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth held their cottages under the manorial form of leasing called copyhold. Essentially, this meant little more than an agreed tradition of occupation. You might call it ‘customary tenure’ — holding the cottage from the Lord of the Manor by right of inheritance. This manorial form of tenure was based on a “copy” of the proceedings of the manorial court which certified ownership. When ownership was to be confirmed, or transferred from father to son, a jury would hear evidence from those who had lived in the manor lands longest. The court’s agreement would be based on verbal proof that the cottage had been lived in by the same people for as long as anyone could remember.
The Decline of Manorial Courts and Holdings
During the eighteenth century, this essentially mediaeval form of leasing was falling out of use — a process accelerated by the enclosure of the common fields, which steadily undermined the importance and legitimacy of manorial courts. As the poor ceased to be subsistence farmers and were forced to earn their living as agricultural labourers, so the owners of the land and the buildings upon it sought to determine tenancies and rents by commercial principles. Lords of the Manor and copyholders were replaced by landlords and their tenants.
This led to a harsher and more antagonistic relationship between the building’s owner and the tenant. Landholdings were increasingly clustered together to form larger farms, forcing the landless poor into the villages. The larger farms demanded wealthier tenant farmers with the capital needed to support the new, more intensive agricultural methods. The professional land agents who increasingly ran the estates of the gentry for them saw their success measured by the level of rental income they could achieve.
The poor labourer’s cottage was of little use to farmer or land agent. Of course, landlords should have had an interest in maintaining the houses they owned in reasonable order, if only to support their capital value. Providing reasonable living accommodation for the most skilled and valued farmworkers was also an obvious need. Unfortunately, cottagers rarely included such skilled employees. They provided minimal rental income, they prevented farms being organised into larger units, which allowed rents to increase and the capital value of the land to rise, and they could not farm according to the new, ‘scientific’ methods being introduced on large landholdings. Most were unskilled, scraping a living as casual manual labour at peak times and living off parish relief for the rest.
‘Cottagers’ or ‘Paupers’?
It’s probably fair to say that the better-off Georgians had little interest in the domestic lives of the poor. Our chocolate-box image of a country cottage is an extremely modern affair. Cottagers and paupers were often linked together in the minds of writers of the time. Nathaniel Kent, writing in 1775, spoke of “The shattered hovels which half the poor of this kingdom are obliged to put up with, [are] truly affecting to a heart fraught with humanity. Those who condescend to visit these miserable tenements, can testify, that neither health nor decency can be preserved within them”.
Sentiment was one thing; action quite another. Distinguishing between ‘cottages’ and ‘hovels’ mirrored the contemporary distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The industrious poor struggled to maintain a sufficient income to live in a cottage built of brick or stone, though sometimes still of wooden beams with wattle and daub; a fairly sturdy, weatherproof building in any case. True paupers, those who lacked the industry to better themselves in any way (at least that is what the better-off assumed), lived in ramshackle huts or hovels: poorly-built, leaking, cold and miserable shelters lacking in almost all comfort and often built on waste ground.
In Norfolk, true cottages might be reasonably furnished, at least by the standards of the poor of the time. Some inventories remain, showing tables, chairs, cupboards, beds with blankets and curtains, proper sheets and tableware, as well as the tools necessary to the owner’s trade. These goods might be basic and of low quality, but they did provide some basis for a sensible form of living. For example, by the middle of the century most cottagers in Norfolk could afford to drink tea – even if they had to get it from the smugglers! Paupers had nothing.
The Decline of Rural Employment
It seems clear that the quality of dwellings for the poor was closely linked to local employment patterns. Landless casual labourers were the most likely to be true paupers, living like squatters wherever space might be found free from interference. Those with greater skills — and probably a greater ability to do something to maintain the fabric of their cottages on their own — would live in better homes and possess more household goods. The principal key was regular employment. The so-called agricultural revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth increased the productivity of the land, but at the cost of providing less chance of regular employment to unskilled labourers.
It’s not surprising that many of these rural paupers made their way into the new industrial towns seeking work in the factories. The dreadful industrial slums in which they were forced to live were probably no worse — though certainly no better – than the hovels in the rural areas they had come from. Meanwhile, skilled farmworkers, especially those living and working on grand estates in Norfolk, gradually experienced an improvement in their living conditions, stemming in part from a paternalistic concern amongst great landowners to be seen as good landlords. However, it generally took some shortage of local skilled labour to provoke these landowners into displaying their concern.