Friday, January 23, 2009

Great telly, but rather them than me

I don't know if you've been watching the excellent "Victorian Farm" on BBC2 over the last few weeks, but it's become one of the few highlights on TV for me since it started. The programme follows a group of people living and working a farm as they would have done in Victorian times - using traditional methods combined with the "new technology" that was transforming farming in the late 19th century.

The programme makes frequent references to how the new technology of the time was replacing the intensive labour that had been needed before - although makes little judgement on why this was happening. I believe that the general opinion is that the advent of new machinery forced many people out of the country and into the cities, towns and factories - but I would argue that it was possibly the other way around.

People started flocking to the industrial centres from the country because the factories offered higher wages - and businessmen don't pay higher wages unless they have to! If it really had been a case that the new farming technology was putting farm workers out of work then the wages offered by the industrialist would have been lower - not higher. Add on the fact that working in factories offered predictable hours (though long) and less backbreaking (though still very hard) work and you can see why people moved to the cities and why farming had to change.

Despite all the advances in technology, farming actually remained quite labour intensive long after the Victorian era. One of my favourite books about the local area is called "The Spacious Days" by Michael Twist recounting his early life living and working on a farm not far from Slough in the 1930's. It's a charming and witty read, but it also reveals that farming was still a very labour intensive occupation even up to just before the start of WW2.

Watching Victorian Farm reveals just how hard life was back then - even if the participants in the programme seem to be enjoying themselves. I actually think they are enjoying the simplicity and honesty of that way of life more than anything - the work itself, particularly during the harsh winter months, was arduous although ultimately rewarding - and they know that they'll be back in the modern world soon enough. You also have to admire the sheer creativity and skill of the craftsmen back then.

Contrary to what many might think - although I believe we could do far worse than reacquaint ourselves with some of the Victorian morality, can do attitude and work ethic - I don't dream of us going back to those sort of times. What we forget, though, is that without the power provided by fuel such as coal and the freedom provided by the internal combustion engine we wouldn't be that much different today. For me, there is a certain irony that so-called "progressive" policy towards "man-made" global warming is likely to force a return to a Victorian style existence far more than any conservative policy would.


bernard said...

Stanley -

Yes it is good. What I found particularly poignant was the thought that most of these late 19th century countrymen, who worked on the land like this, would have ventured no further than the next village or town....until the outbreak of the 20th century Great War, twenty years later.
Then, in their thousands they enlisted, wide-eyed and innocent of the outside world, to France and beyond. Never to return.
It was this, more than anything, that depleted that ancient way of life, rather than the industrial revolution.

William Gruff said...

I don't have a television but I do watch things on BBC iPlayer. I couldn't watch The Victorian Farm because within two minutes it was all too clear that the participants were the sort of naive, completely detached academics who demonstrated to my satisfaction that archaeology too often attracts the gullible and frivolous, which is why I gave it up early.

Stan said...

I think you ought to give it another try WG - you're right about the participants, but to their credit they do improve. I think the realities - such as four days to do the laundry starting at 5 am on a dark winters morning -wakes them up a little.

Better still are the incidental characters that come along like the shepeherd, basket maker and woodsman. Watching the basket maker at work left me awestruck by his skill with wood using such simple tools and techniques. It really is worth watching.

Anonymous said...

For more on old farming techniques and the life they led, two absolutely marvellous books are "Farmers Glory" by AG Street, and "The Worm Forgives the Plough" by John Stewart Collis.

The latter is certainly still in print and available from Amazon, not sure about the former.

Fabulous glimpses of a world gone for ever, both of them. And in the case of "The worm..." some still-relevant and very deep observations on the business of managing people and getting on with teams. Not put in modern management jargon, of course, but very wise insights nonetheless.

Can't recommend these highly enough.

bernard said...


Read the latter a few weeks ago!
Wonderful account; during WW2.
Did you know Collis failed at the Priesthood?