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The Wiltshire Labourer Post by :Labbe Category :Essays Author :Richard Jefferies Date :September 2011 Read :2783

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The Wiltshire Labourer

Ten years have passed away,(1) and the Wiltshire labourers have only moved in two things--education and discontent. I had the pleasure then of pointing out in 'Fraser' that there were causes at work promising a considerable advance in the labourers' condition. I regret to say now that the advance, which in a measure did take place, has been checkmated by other circumstances, and there they remain much as I left them, except in book-learning and mental restlessness. They possess certain permanent improvements--unexhausted improvements in agricultural language--but these, in some way or other, do not seem now so valuable as they looked. Ten years since important steps were being taken for the material benefit of the labouring class. Landowners had awakened to the advantage of attaching the peasantry to the soil, and were spending large sums of money building cottages. Everywhere cottages were put up on sanitary principles, so that to-day few farms on great estates are without homes for the men. This substantial improvement remains, and cannot fade away. Much building, too, was progressing about the farmsteads; the cattle-sheds were undergoing renovation, and this to some degree concerned the labourer, who now began to do more of his work under cover. The efforts of every writer and speaker in the country had not been without effect, and allotments, or large gardens, were added to most cottage homes. The movement, however, was slow, and promised more than it performed, so that there are still cottages which have not shared in it. But, on the whole, an advance in this respect did occur, and the aggregate acreage of gardens and allotments must be very considerably larger now than formerly. These are solid considerations to quote on the favourable side. I have been thinking to see if I could find anything else. I cannot call to mind anything tangible, but there is certainly more liberty, an air of freedom and independence--something more of the 'do as I please' feeling exhibited. Then the sum ends. At that time experiments were being tried on an extended scale in the field: such as draining, the enlargement of fields by removing hedges, the formation of private roads, the buildings already mentioned, and new systems of agriculture, so that there was a general stir and bustle which meant not only better wages but wages for more persons. The latter is of the utmost importance to the tenant-labourer, by which I mean a man who is settled, because it keeps his sons at home. Common experience all over the world has always shown that three or four or more people can mess together, as in camps, at a cheaper rate than they can live separately. If the father of the family can find work for his boys within a reasonable distance of home, with their united contributions they can furnish a very comfortable table, one to which no one could object to sit down, and then still have a sum over and above with which to purchase clothes, and even to indulge personal fancies. Such a pleasant state of things requires that work should be plentiful in the neighbourhood. Work at that time was plentiful, and contented and even prosperous homes of this kind could be found. Here is just where the difficulty arises. From a variety of causes the work has subsided. The father of the family--the settled man, the tenant-labourer--keeps on as of yore, but the boys cannot get employment near home. They have to seek it afar, one here, one yonder--all apart, and the wages each separately receives do but just keep them in food among strangers. It is this scarcity of work which in part seems to have counterbalanced the improvements which promised so well. Instead of the progress naturally to be expected you find the same insolvency, the same wearisome monotony of existence in debt, the same hopeless countenances and conversation.

(1) Written in 1887.

There has been a contraction of enterprise everywhere, and a consequent diminution of employment. When a factory shuts its doors, the fact is patent to all who pass. The hum of machinery is stopped, and smoke no longer floats from the chimney; the building itself, large and regular--a sort of emphasized plainness of architecture--cannot be overlooked. It is evident to everyone that work has ceased, and the least reflection shows that hundreds of men, perhaps hundreds of families, are reduced from former comparative prosperity. But when ten thousand acres of land fall out of cultivation, the fact is scarcely noticed. There the land is just the same, and perhaps some effort is still made to keep it from becoming altogether foul, so that a glance detects no difference. The village feels it, but the world does not see it. The farmer has left, and the money he paid over as wages once a week is no longer forthcoming. Each man's separate portion of that sum was not much in comparison with the earnings of fortunate artisans, but it was money. Ten, twelve, or as much as fifteen shillings a week made a home; but just sufficient to purchase food and meet other requirements, such as clothes; yet still a home. On the cessation of the twelve shillings where is the labourer to find a substitute for it? Our country is limited in extent, and it has long been settled to its utmost capacity. Under present circumstances there is no room anywhere for more than the existing labouring population. It is questionable if a district could be found where, under these present circumstances, room could be found for ten more farmers' men. Only so many men can live as can be employed; in each district there are only so many farmers; they cannot enlarge their territories; and thus it is that every agricultural parish is full to its utmost. Some places among meadows appear almost empty. No one is at work in the fields as you pass; there are cattle swishing their tails in the shadow of the elms, but not a single visible person; acres upon acres of grass, and no human being. Towards the latter part of the afternoon, if the visitor has patience to wait, there will be a sound of shouting, which the cattle understand, and begin in their slow way to obey by moving in its direction. Milking time has come, and one or two men come out to fetch in the cows. That over, for the rest of the evening and till milking time in the morning the meadows will be vacant. Naturally it would be supposed that there is room here for a great number of people. Whole crowds might migrate into these grassy fields, put up shanties, and set to work. But set to work at what? That is just the difficulty. Whole crowds could come here and find plenty of room to walk about--and starve! Cattle require but few to look after them. Milch cattle need most, but grazing beasts practically no one, for one can look after so many. Upon inquiry it would be found that this empty parish is really quite full. Very likely there are empty cottages, and yet it is quite full. A cottage is of no use unless the occupier can obtain regular weekly wages. The farmers are already paying as many as they can find work for, and not one extra hand is wanted; except, of course, in the press of hay-harvest, but no one can settle on one month's work out of twelve. When ten or fifteen thousand acres of land fall out of cultivation, and farmers leave, what is to become of the labouring families they kept? What has become of them?

It is useless blinking the fact that what a man wants in our time is good wages, constant wages, and a chance of increasing wages. Labouring men more and more think simply of work and wages. They do not want kindness--they want coin. In this they are not altogether influenced by self-interest; they are driven rather than go of their own movement. The world pushes hard on their heels, and they must go on like the rest. A man cannot drift up into a corner of some green lane, and stay in his cottage out of the tide of life, as was once the case. The tide comes to him. He must find money somehow; the parish will not keep him on out-relief if he has no work; the rate-collector calls at his door; his children must go to school decently clad with pennies in each little hand. He must have wages. You may give him a better cottage, you may give him a large allotment, you may treat him as an equal, and all is of no avail. Circumstance--the push of the world--forces him to ask you for wages. The farmer replies that he has only work for just so many and no more. The land is full of people. Men reply in effect, 'We cannot stay if a chance offers us to receive wages from any railway, factory, or enterprise; if wages are offered to us in the United States, there we must go.' If they heard that in a town fifty miles distant twenty shillings could be had for labour, how many of the hale men do you suppose would stay in the village? Off they would rush to receive the twenty shillings per week, and the farmers might have the land to themselves if they liked. Eighteen shillings to a pound a week would draw off every man from agriculture, and leave every village empty. If a vast industrial combination announced regular wages of that amount for all who came, there would not be a man left in the fields out of the two millions or more who now till them.

A plan to get more wages out of the land would indeed be a wonderful success. As previously explained, it is not so much the amount paid to one individual as the paying of many individuals that is so much to be desired. Depression in agriculture has not materially diminished the sum given to a particular labourer, but it has most materially diminished the sum distributed among the numbers. One of the remarkable features of agricultural difficulties is, indeed, that the quotation of wages is nominally the same as in the past years of plenty. But then not nearly so many receive them. The father of the family gets his weekly money the same now as ten years since. At that date his sons found work at home. At the present date they have to move on. Some farmer is likely to exclaim, 'How can this be, when I cannot get enough men when I want them?' Exactly so, but the question is not when you want them, but when they want you. You cannot employ them, as of old, all the year round, therefore they migrate, or move to and fro, and at harvest time may be the other side of the county.

The general aspect of country life was changing fast enough before the depression came. Since then it has continued to alter at an increasing rate--a rate accelerated by education; for I think education increases the struggle for more wages. As a man grows in social stature so he feels the want of little things which it is impossible to enumerate, but which in the aggregate represent a considerable sum. Knowledge adds to a man's social stature, and he immediately becomes desirous of innumerable trifles which, in ancient days, would have been deemed luxuries, but which now seem very commonplace. He wants somewhat more fashionable clothes, and I use the word fashion in association with the ploughman purposely, for he and his children do follow the fashion now in as far as they can, once a week at least. He wants a newspaper--only a penny a week, but a penny is a penny. He thinks of an excursion like the artisan in towns. He wants his boots to shine as workmen's boots shine in towns, and must buy blacking. Very likely you laugh at the fancy of shoe-blacking having anything to do with the farm labourer and agriculture. But I can assure you it means a good deal. He is no longer satisfied with the grease his forefathers applied to their boots; he wants them to shine and reflect. For that he must, too, have lighter boots, not the heavy, old, clod-hopping watertights made in the village. If he retains these for week-days, he likes a shiny pair for Sundays. Here is the cost, then, of an additional pair of shoes; this is one of the many trifles the want of which accompanies civilization. Once now and then he writes a letter, and must have pen, ink, and paper; only a pennyworth, but then a penny is a coin when the income is twelve or fourteen shillings a week. He likes a change of hats--a felt at least for Sunday. He is not happy till he has a watch. Many more such little wants will occur to anyone who will think about them, and they are the necessary attendants upon an increase of social stature. To obtain them the young man must have money--coins, shillings, and pence. His thoughts, therefore, are bent on wages; he must get wages somewhere, not merely to live, for bread, but for these social necessaries. That he can live at home with his family, that in time he may get a cottage of his own, that cottages are better now, large gardens given, that the labourer is more independent--all these and twenty other considerations--all these are nothing to him, because they are not to be depended on. Wages paid weekly are his aim, and thus it is that education increases the value of a weekly stipend, and increases the struggle for it by sending so many more into the ranks of competitors. I cannot see myself why, in the course of a little time, we may not see the sons of ploughmen competing for clerkships, situations in offices of various kinds, the numerous employments not of a manual character. So good is the education they receive, that, if only their personal manners happen to be pleasant, they have as fair a chance of getting such work as others.

Ceaseless effort to obtain wages causes a drifting about of the agricultural population. The hamlets and villages, though they seem so thinly inhabited, are really full, and every extra man and youth, finding himself unable to get the weekly stipend at home, travels away. Some go but a little distance, some across the width of the country, a few emigrate, though not so many as would be expected. Some float up and down continually, coming home to their native parish for a few weeks, and then leaving it again. A restlessness permeates the ranks; few but those with families will hire for the year. They would rather do anything than that. Family men must do so because they require cottages, and four out of six cottages belong to the landowners and are part and parcel of the farms. The activity in cottage building, to which reference has been made, as prevailing ten or twelve years since, was solely on the part of the landowners. There were no independent builders; I mean the cottages were not built by the labouring class. They are let by farmers to those labourers who engage for the year, and if they quit this employment they quit their houses. Hence it is that even the labourers who have families are not settled men in the full sense, but are liable to be ordered on if they do not give satisfaction, or if cause of quarrel arises. The only settled men--the only fixed population in villages and hamlets at the present day--are that small proportion who possess cottages of their own. This proportion varies, of course, but it is always small. Of old times, when it was the custom for men to stay all their lives in one district, and to work for one farmer quite as much for payment in kind as for the actual wages, this made little difference. Very few men once settled in regular employment moved again; they and their families remained for many years as stationary as if the cottage was their property, and frequently their sons succeeded to the place and work. Now in these days the custom of long service has rapidly disappeared. There are many reasons, the most potent, perhaps, the altered tone of the entire country. It boots little to inquire into the causes. The fact is, then, that no men, not even with families, will endure what once they did. If the conditions are arbitrary, or they consider they are not well used, or they hear of better terms elsewhere, they will risk it and go. So, too, farmers are more given to changing their men than was once the case, and no longer retain the hereditary faces about them. The result is that the fixed population may be said to decline every year. The total population is probably the same, but half of it is nomad. It is nomad for two reasons--because it has no home, and because it must find wages.

Farmers can only pay so much in wages and no more; they are at the present moment really giving higher wages than previously, though nominally the same in amount. The wages are higher judged in relation to the price of wheat; that is, to their profits. If coal falls in price, the wages of coal-miners are reduced. Now, wheat has fallen heavily in price, but the wages of the labourer remain the same, so that he is, individually, when he has employment, receiving a larger sum. Probably, if farming accounts were strictly balanced, and farming like any other business, that sum would be found to be more than the business would bear. No trace of oppression in wages can be found. The farmer gets allowances from his landlord, and he allows something to his labourers, and so the whole system is kept up by mutual understanding. Except under a very important rise in wheat, or a favourable change in the condition of agriculture altogether, it is not possible for the farmers to add another sixpence either to the sum paid to the individual or to the sum paid in the aggregate to the village.

Therefore, as education increases--and it increases rapidly--as the push of the world reaches the hamlet; as the labouring class increase in social stature, and twenty new wants are found; as they come to look forth upon matters in a very different manner to their stolid forefathers; it is evident that some important problems will arise in the country. The question will have to be asked: Is it better for this population to be practically nomad or settled? How is livelihood--i.e., wages--to be found for it? Can anything be substituted for wages? Or must we devise a gigantic system of emigration, and in a twelvemonth (if the people took it up) have every farmer crying out that he was ruined, he could never get his harvest in. I do not think myself that the people could be induced to go under any temptation. They like England in despite of their troubles. If the farmer could by any happy means find out some new plant to cultivate, and so obtain a better profit and be able to give wages to more hands, the nomad population would settle itself somehow, if in mud huts. No chance of that is in sight at present, so we are forced round to the consideration of a substitute for wages.

Now, ten or twelve years since, when much activity prevailed in all things agricultural, it was proposed to fix the labouring population to the soil by building better cottages, giving them large gardens and allotments, and various other privileges. This was done; and in 'Fraser' I did not forget to credit the good intent of those who did it. Yet now we see, ten years afterwards, that instead of fixing the population, the population becomes more wandering. Why is this? Why have not these cottages and allotments produced their expected effect? There seems but one answer--that it is the lack of fixity of tenure. All these cottages and allotments have only been held on sufferance, on good behaviour, and hence they have failed. For even for material profit in the independent nineteenth century men do not care to be held on their good behaviour. A contract must be free and equal on both sides to be respected. To illustrate the case, suppose that some large banking institution in London gave out as a law that all the employes must live in villas belonging to the bank, say at Norwood. There they could have very good villas, and gardens attached, and on payment even paddocks, and there they could dwell so long as they remained in the office. But the instant any cause of disagreement arose they must quit not only the office but their homes. What an outcry would be raised against bank managers' tyranny were such a custom to be introduced! The extreme hardship of having to leave the house on which so much trouble had been expended, the garden carefully kept up and planted, the paddock; to leave the neighbourhood where friends had been found, and which suited the constitution, and where the family were healthy. Fancy the stir there would be, and the public meetings to denounce the harsh interference with liberty! Yet, with the exception that the clerk might have L300 a year, and the labourer 12s. or 14s. a week, the cases would be exactly parallel. The labourer has no fixity of tenure. He does not particularly care to lay himself out to do his best in the field or for his master, because he is aware that service is no inheritance, and at any moment circumstances may arise which may lead to his eviction. For it is really eviction, though unaccompanied by the suffering associated with the word--I was going to write 'abroad' for in Ireland. So that all the sanitary cottages erected at such expense, and all the large gardens and the allotments offered, have failed to produce a contented and settled working population. Most people are familiar by this time with the demand of the tenant farmers for some exalted kind of compensation, which in effect is equivalent to tenant-right, i.e., to fixity of tenure. Without this, we have all been pretty well informed by now, it is impossible for farmers to flourish, since they cannot expend capital unless they feel certain of getting it back again. This is precisely the case with the labourer. His labour is his capital, and he cannot expend it in one district unless he is assured of his cottage and garden--that is, of his homestead and farm. You cannot have a fixed population unless it has a home, and the labouring population is practically homeless. There appears no possibility of any real amelioration of their condition until they possess settled places of abode. Till then they must move to and fro, and increase in restlessness and discontent. Till then they must live in debt, from hand to mouth, and without hope of growth in material comfort. A race for ever trembling on the verge of the workhouse cannot progress and lay up for itself any saving against old age. Such a race is feeble and lacks cohesion, and does not afford that backbone an agricultural population should afford to the country at large. At the last, it is to the countryman, to the ploughman, and 'the farmer's boy,' that a land in difficulty looks for help. They are the last line of defence--the reserve, the rampart of the nation. Our last line at present is all unsettled and broken up, and has lost its firm and solid front. Without homes, how can its ranks ever become firm and solid again?

An agricultural labourer entering on a cottage and garden with his family, we will suppose, is informed that so long as he pays his rent he will not be disturbed. He then sets to work in his off hours to cultivate his garden and his allotment; he plants fruit-trees; he trains a creeper over his porch. His boys and girls have a home whenever out of service, and when they are at home they can assist in cultivating their father's little property. The family has a home and a centre, and there it will remain for generations. Such is certainly the case wherever a labourer has a cottage of his own. The family inherit it for generations; it would not be difficult to find cases in which occupation has endured for a hundred years. There is no danger now of the younger members of the family staying too much at home. The pressure of circumstances is too strong, as already explained; all the tendencies of the time are such as would force them from home in search of wages. There is no going back, they must push forwards.

The cottage-tenure, like the farm-tenure, must come from the landlord, of course. All movements must fall on the landlord unless they are made imperial questions. It is always the landowner who has to bear the burden in the end. As the cottages belong to the landowners, fixity or certainty of tenure is like taking their rights from them. But not more so than in the case of the exalted compensation called tenant-right. Indeed, I think I shall show that the change would be quite trifling beside measures which deal with whole properties at once, of five, ten, or twenty thousand acres, as the case may be. For, in the first place, let note be taken of a most important circumstance, which is that at the present time these cottages let on sufferance do not bring in one shilling to the landlord. They are not the least profit to him. He does not receive the nominal rent, and if he did, of what value would be so insignificant a sum, the whole of which for a year would not pay a tenth part of the losses sustained by the failure of one tenant farmer. As a fact, then, the cottages are of no money value to the landowner. A change, therefore, in the mode of tenure could not affect the owner like a change in the tenure of a great farm, say at a rental of L1,500. Not having received any profit from the previous tenure of cottages, he suffers no loss if the tenure be varied. The advantage the landowner is supposed to enjoy from the possession of cottages scattered about his farms is that the tenants thereby secure men to do their work. This advantage would be much better secured by a resident and settled population. Take away the conventional veil with which the truth is usually flimsily hidden, and the fact is that the only objection to a certain degree of fixity in cottage tenure is that it would remove from the farmer the arbitrary power he now possesses of eviction. What loss there would be in this way it is not easy to see, since, as explained, the men must have wages, and can only get them from farmers, to whom therefore they must resort. But then the man knows the power to give such notice is there, and it does not agree with the feelings of the nineteenth century. No loss whatever would accrue either to landowner or tenant from a fixed population. A farmer may say, 'But suppose the man who has my cottage will not work for me?' To this I reply, that if the district is so short of cottages that it is possible for a farmer to be short of hands, the sooner pressure is applied in some way, and others built, the better for landowner, tenant, and labourer. If there is sufficient habitation for the number of men necessary for cultivating the land, there will be no difficulty, because one particular labourer will not work for one particular farmer. That labourer must then do one of two things, he must starve or work for some other farmer, where his services would dispossess another labourer, who would immediately take the vacant place. The system of employing men on sufferance, and keeping them, however mildly, under the thumb, is a system totally at variance with the tenets of our time. It is a most expensive system, and ruinous to true self-respect, insomuch as it tends to teach the labourer's children that the only way they can show the independence of their thought is by impertinent language. How much better for a labourer to be perfectly free--how much better for an employer to have a man to work for him quite outside any suspicion of sufferance, or of being under his thumb! I should not like men under my thumb; I should like to pay them for their work, and there let the contract end, as it ends in all other businesses. As more wages cannot be paid, the next best thing, perhaps the absolutely necessary thing, is a fixed home.

I think it would pay any landowner to let all the cottages upon his property to the labourers themselves direct, exactly as farms are let, giving them security of tenure, so long as rent was forthcoming, with each cottage to add a large garden, or allotment, up to, say, two acres, at an agricultural, and not an accommodation, rent. Most gardens and allotments are let as a favour at a rent about three times, and in some cases even six times, the agricultural rent of the same soil in the adjoining fields. Cottagers do not look upon such tenancies--held, too, on sufferance--as a favour or kindness, and feel no gratitude nor any attachment to those who permit them to dig and delve at thrice the charge the farmer pays. Add to these cottages gardens, not necessarily adjoining them, but as near as circumstances allow, up to two acres at a purely agricultural rental. If, in addition, facilities were to be given for the gradual purchase of the freehold by the labourer on the same terms as are now frequently held out by building societies, it would be still better. I think it would turn out for the advantage of landowner, tenant, and the country at large to have a settled agricultural population.

The limit of two acres I mention, not that there is any especial virtue in that extent of land, but because I do not think the labourer would profit by having more, since he must then spend his whole time cultivating his plot. Experience has proved over and over again that for a man in England to live by spade-husbandry on four or five acres of land is the most miserable existence possible. He can but just scrape a living, he is always failing, his children are in rags, and debt ultimately consumes him. He is of no good either to himself or to others or to the country. For in our country agriculture, whether by plough or spade, is confined to three things, to grass, corn, or cattle, and there is no plant like the vine by which a small proprietor may prosper. Wet seasons come, and see--even the broad acres cultivated at such an expense of money produce nothing, and the farmer comes to the verge of ruin. But this verge of ruin to the small proprietor who sees his four acres of crops destroyed means simple extinction. So that the amount of land to be of advantage is that amount which the cottager can cultivate without giving his entire time to it; so that, in fact, he may also earn wages.

To landowner and farmer the value of a fixed population like this, fixed and independent, and looking only for payment for what was actually done, and not for eleemosynary earnings, would be, I think, very great. There would be a constant supply of first-class labour available all the year round. A supply of labour on an estate is like water-power in America--indispensable. But if you have no resident supply you face two evils--you must pay extra to keep men there when you have no real work for them to do, or you must offer fancy wages in harvest. Now, I think a resident population would do the same work if not at less wages at the time of the work, yet for less money, taking the year through.

I should be in hopes that such a plan would soon breed a race of men of the sturdiest order, the true and natural countrymen; men standing upright in the face of all, without one particle of servility; paying their rates, and paying their rents; absolutely civil and pleasant-mannered, because, being really independent, they would need no impudence of tongue to assert what they did not feel; men giving a full day's work for a full day's wages (which is now seldom seen); men demanding to be paid in full for full work, but refusing favours and petty assistance to be recouped hereafter; able to give their children a fixed home to come back to; able even to push them in life if they wish to leave employment on the land; men with the franchise, voting under the protection of the ballot, and voting first and foremost for the demolition of the infernal poor-law and workhouse system.

The men are there. This is no imaginary class to be created, they are there, and they only require homes to become the finest body in the world, a rampart to the nation, a support not only to agriculture but to every industry that needs the help of labour. For physique they have ever been noted, and if it is not valued at home it is estimated at its true value in the colonies. From Australia, America, all countries desiring sinews and strength, come earnest persuasions to these men to emigrate. They are desired above all others as the very foundation of stability. It is only at home that the agricultural labourer is despised. If ever there were grounds for that contempt in his illiterate condition they have disappeared. I have always maintained that intelligence exists outside education, that men who can neither read nor write often possess good natural parts. The labourer at large possesses such parts, but until quite lately he has had no opportunity of displaying them. Of recent years he or his children have had an opportunity of displaying their natural ability, since education was brought within reach of them all. Their natural power has at once shown itself, and all the young men and young women are now solidly educated. The reproach of being illiterate can no longer be hurled at them. They never were illiterate mentally; they are now no more illiterate in the partial sense of book-knowledge. A young agricultural labourer to-day can speak almost as well as the son of a gentleman. There is, of course, a little of the country accent remaining, and some few technical words are in use. Why should they not be? Do not gentlemen on the Exchange use technical terms? I cannot see myself that 'contango' is any better English, or 'backwardation' more indicative of intelligence, than the terms used in the field. The labourer of to-day reads, and thinks about what he reads. The young, being educated, have brought education to their parents, the old have caught the new tone from the young. It is acknowledged that the farm labourer is the most peaceful of all men, the least given to agitation for agitation's sake. Permit him to live and he is satisfied. He has no class ill-feeling, either against farmer or landowner, and he resists all attempts to introduce ill-feeling. He maintains a steady and manly attitude, calm, and considering, without a trace of hasty revolutionary sentiments. I say that such a race of men are not to be despised; I say that they are the very foundation of a nation's stability. I say that in common justice they deserve settled homes; and further, that as a matter of sound policy they should be provided with them.


(The end)
Richard Jefferies's essay: Wiltshire Labourer

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