Joseph Arch and the revolt of the fields

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Agricultural labourers in the 1870s (TUC Library Collections)

In the 1870s agricultural workers across Britain began a whirlwind campaign to organise trade unions. Martin Empson looks at the involvement of the now little known leader of the movement, Joseph Arch, who died a century ago this month and whose contribution shouldn’t be forgotten.

Joseph Arch, agricultural labourer, trade unionist and Liberal MP, died in February 1919 at the age of 92. Today he is almost forgotten, yet in his lifetime tens of thousands of agricultural workers looked to him as a leader. In the 1870s, in response to poverty and unemployment in agricultural communities, he was at the heart of an explosion of trade unionism that terrified landowners and farmers.

It is remarkable that the rural trade unionism that he is most associated with did not begin until the 1870s, when Arch was almost 50. In his autobiography Arch describes these workers, when they began to finally move to form unions, “The trodden worms, which had so long writhed under the iron heel of the oppressor, were turning at last. The smouldering fire of discontent was shooting out tongues of flame here and there. The sore stricken who had brooded in sullen anger over their wrongs were rising to strike in their turn.”

Arch’s parents and grandparents were farm labourers and domestic servants in the village of Barford, Warwickshire. Unusually, and importantly for Arch’s future trade unionism, his grandparents had managed to save £30, with which they had purchased their own cottage. Joseph Arch was born there on 10 November 1826.

He began work at the age of nine as a crow-scarer. He recollected the 12-hour days, for which he earned four pence, as times of immense boredom. After a year he became a ploughboy for an extra two pence a day. Arch remembered the violence of some of the farmers who “liked to make us dance a quickstep to the tune of the stick and the whip”.

It was through the treatment of his parents that Arch began to understand wider social relations in the country. His father refused to sign a petition got up by the landowners in support of the Corn Laws, and as a result was unemployed for 18 weeks. Arch recollects his mother challenging the wife of the village parson who insisted that girls attending school had to cut their hair short. His mother refused and the parson’s wife backed down, but the Arch family never again received charity — the irregular doling out of coal, food or clothing — from the church.

Arch’s father and other agricultural workers received communion after the wealthier adults, and it is likely this and countless other slurs against the poor that drove Arch and his family away from the established church and towards Primitive Methodism. This was a break with more established Methodism, claiming to return to simpler, more democratic forms.

In high demand

It was popular among the poor, contrasting with the Church of England, beloved of the ruling class, and middle class Wesleyan Methodism. Primitive Methodists, including women, were encouraged to preach and to travel to other churches. Arch learnt his oratory doing this, and became well known travelling the region preaching on Sundays. Arch became a skilled hedge cutter and his skills were in high demand around the country. He claimed his travels opened his eyes to the need for collective organisation.

The middle of the 19th century was a period of great change in the English countryside. 1851 was the last time that the population of the countryside was greater than the towns. But by 1871, on the eve of the explosion of agricultural trade unionism, there remained more than 900,000 agricultural labourers, shepherds and farm servants. Agriculture was dominated by low pay, casual work, the gang system, migration and appalling conditions.

In the late 1860s Reverend James Fraser, reporting on rural housing, wrote that, “The majority of the cottages that exist in rural parishes are deficient in almost every requisite that should constitute a home for a Christian family… Physically a ruinous, ill-drained cottage generates any amount of disease…as well as intensifies to the utmost that tendency to scrofula and phthisis which from their frequent intermarriages and their low diet, abounds so largely among the poor.”

So it was no surprise to Arch when, in February 1872, three labourers knocked on the door of his cottage and asked him to come to nearby Wellsbourne to help them set up a trade union. Arch expected to speak with a few men in a corner of the pub, but found himself addressing a mass outdoor meeting and recalled that, “We passed a resolution to form a Union then and there, and the names of the men could not be taken down fast enough; we enrolled between two and three hundred members that night… I knew now that a fire had been kindled which would catch on, and spread.”

Arch’s autobiography sometimes gives the impression that he was the only driving force behind rural unionism. But conditions in the countryside led to the beginnings of unionism in a number of places simultaneously. Nonetheless Arch becomes a significant figure in this “Revolt of the Fields”. He felt “a living fire in me. It seemed to me that I was fulfilling a mission”.

The growth of agricultural trade unionism took place in the context of wider developments for workers’ organisation. The TUC was founded in 1868 and in 1871 the Trade Union Act legalised unions. The Reform Act of 1867 had extended the vote to male householders and to men who paid rent of over £10, though agricultural labourers were excluded.

Over the coming weeks and months Arch spoke at hundreds of meetings, often facing abuse and threats of violence and being pelted with vegetables. But there was a mood for trade unionism that couldn’t be stopped — within three weeks the Warwickshire union had 5,000 members in 60 villages. Arch himself was protected from victimisation because he could not be evicted, and his skills meant he could find work.

Trade union formation was quickly followed in some places by strike action, including around Wellsbourne. This could be very successful. In Blandford Forum in Dorset one old trade unionist recollected in the 1940s, “Wages were nine shillings a week when Arch came, and hundreds joined his union…the farmers turned up in force and pelted him with rotten eggs, but he was soon in a position to deal with them all right and wages went up from nine to 12 shillings a week and there they stood until 1916.”

By March 1872 the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers Union was formed and by the end of the year this had merged into a National Agricultural Labourers Union. It’s worth noting the aims of the Warwickshire union in its rulebook from 1872: “To elevate the social position of the farm labourers…to increase their wags; to lessen the number of ordinary working hours; to improve their habitations; to provide them with gardens or allotments; and to assist deserving and suitable labourers to migrate and emigrate.”

Rural poverty

This emphasis on migration and emigration seems unusual, but at the time it was considered a solution to rural poverty. One union in Herefordshire in 1871 had the slogan “Emigration, migration, but not strikes”. Arch wasn’t initially in favour of emigration. He thought that workers leaving Britain for other countries would drain England of its strength, but after visiting Canada in 1873, he became more open to it, particularly if workers went “where the English flag waves”.

By May 1874 the national union had grown to 1,480 branches and 86,214 members. With the other independent unions, some 150,000 workers were now organised. Wages had risen by two shillings a week in many places and by three or four in some areas. The employers could not let this stand and they began to fight back, forming associations of farmers and landowners and then, in the summer of 1874, launching a lockout in the eastern counties of England. Thousands of workers were forced out of work and a major solidarity movement began.

Despite big protests and enormous solidarity from urban trade unions, including a 200,000 strong demonstration in Manchester, it proved impossible to support the locked out workers and in July 1874 the union, including Arch, withdrew support, recommending strikers migrate. The result was a catastrophe for the workers and led to a massive decline in union membership. By 1881 the union only had 15,000 members.

The national union never recovered. Infighting grew, as did criticism of Arch’s personal role — including his use of union funds to visit Canada. In addition, cheap grain from the US and Russia and a series of bad harvests undermined the rural economy. Arch began to look towards parliament. In 1885, the first election in which agricultural workers had the vote, Arch became the first agricultural worker elected as an MP.

An oddity

Arch was an oddity in parliament — a Punch cartoon depicts him in the “rough brown tweed suit and billy-cock hat” that he insisted on wearing. And life was not easy — he had to borrow money from his daughter for housekeeping because MPs were unpaid. Eventually wealthier Liberal supporters set up a fund to give Arch a salary. Despite an impressive maiden speech on rural poverty, Arch made little impact in the House. He was, however, a principled MP. He voted with Gladstone for Irish Home Rule in 1886, a division that led to the collapse of that Liberal government. Arch also opposed British intervention in Afghanistan and the war on the Zulu people.

In the House of Commons Arch was cut off from the movement that gave him strength. During his time as an MP, Sidney and Beatrice Webb poisonously described him as a “glorified farm labourer, shrewd, suspicious, narrow with oratorical gift, courage, persistency. Now overcome with honour of acquaintance with Prince of Wales whom he mentions at every turn.” Re-elected in 1892 he remained in parliament till 1900, though after May 1894, he never again made a speech.

Agricultural trade unionism revived in the 1890s and 1900s though Arch played no role. In 1909 he was interviewed for a new union newspaper. The interview is sad, because Arch is embittered, he feels abandoned by the labourers and upset that they “broke up their Union and left me without a penny,” but he retains some of the wit that must have made him such a compelling orator. When asked if he supported strikes he replied “Certainly. What else can you do to get wages up?”

For the trade union movement Arch today is a bit of an oddity — a lifelong Liberal, he hated socialism. But until the end of his life he retained a belief in the power of ordinary workers. The agricultural unions that he did so much to build proved that casual, low paid workers in isolated villages could organise. It is a lesson that remains crucially important a hundred years after Arch’s death.

Martin Empson’s book, ‘Kill All the Gentlemen’: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside is published by Bookmarks